Headliners and Honchos
The expression "New Age" swept into vogue in the 1970s and 1980s, helped along by circulation of the New Age Journal and a book by Mark Satin called New Age Politics. Marilyn Ferguson's best-selling Aquarian Conspiracy, a compendium of the New Age social agenda and philosophical vision, attained status as the unofficial scripture of the movement.
But if Ferguson wrote the New Age bible, Shirley MacLaine became its high priestess.
"I'm just a human being trying to find some answers about what we're doing here, where we came from and where we're going," the bubbly actress demurred in an interview with TIME magazine. Nonetheless, the newsweekly called her "the New Age's reigning whirling dervish."1
In her earlier professional incarnations as a Broadway singer and dancer and a Hollywood actress, she is perhaps best known for her roles in Sweet Charity and The Apartment, as well as her Oscar-winning performance in Terms of Endearment. Yet the copper-haired MacLaine was obviously having the time of her lives, as People's Weekly put it, starring as the celebrity evangelist of New Age metaphysics.2
In Out on a Limb, she chronicles her reluctant conversion to New Age belief. Her travels and studies — which included science fiction-like dimensions of out-of-body travel, contact
with extraterrestrial beings, and "trance channeling" (seances) — provide a "guided tour" of the unseen world.
"Perhaps," she writes, "as philosophers and even some scientists have claimed, reality is only what one perceives it to be."3
Science writer Martin Gardner, however, called MacLaine's writing "kindergarten metaphysics" in his column in the Skeptical Inquirer, a quarterly devoted to debunking fringe science.4
MacLaine's second book about her spiritual saga, Dancing in the Light, is a farther reach into the realms of yoga, reincarnation, crystal power, Hindu mantras, and past-life recall experiences mediated through acupuncture. Her spirit guides inform her that each individual is God, and she passes along the wisdom to a friend: "You are unlimited. You just don't realize it."5
In the five-hour ABC-TV movie, "Out on a Limb," aired in January 1987, a radiant MacLaine dramatically played herself to the hilt and affirmed her belief that "her pals in the spirit world" had selected her to "channel" the word of the new-old enlightenment to a skeptical age.6
Primed by voluminous reading and much conversation with mystics, MacLaine's moment of naked truth" comes in a hot sulfur pool in the Andes where she feels her conscious self drift from her body and soar high into the Peruvian sky. In her luminous description, her "spirit, or mind, or soul, whatever it was" flowed out of her body — though the two were connected by a "thin silver cord." She rose so high, she said, she could see the Earth's curvature.
"I was just flowing, somehow flowing. I didn't want to return, which made me question whether I'd gone too far, and that was enough to take me back . . . Then, well, I just became 130 pounds again."7
This bizarre miniseries was greeted with gasps and guffaws. "Shirley You Jest," headlined the Rivendell Times, a Colorado newsletter that critiques social trends.8 "The Far Side" cartoon portrayed a desert scene and two large Gila monsters, with one saying to the other: "There it is again . . . a feeling that in a past life I was someone named Shirley MacLaine."9 Martin Gardner called the film "pervasive, paranormal poppycock . . . its dialogue unbearably banal."10
It's All in the Playing, MacLaine's third metaphysical book, records the ghostly events surrounding the making of the TV miniseries. This includes beyond-the-grave assistance from the late Alfred Hitchcock and changing the weather via visualization techniques. The book was ridiculed in the New Age Journal as "a plodding affair, rife with cliche-ridden characterizations, Day-Glo landscapes, and fortune-cookie wisdom." Ripped reviewer Dennis Livingstone: "What MacLaine needs is less from spirit guides, and more from a ghost writer."11
Still, MacLaine's unabashed New Age advocacy — including two-day, one-woman "Connecting With the Higher Self" seminars held across the country in 1987 — struck a responsive chord in millions of Americans.
MacLaine "made it semi-chic to talk about our mystical encounters," declared Terry Clifford in American Health magazine.12
"You and I might laugh at this person," ex-White House counsel Charles Colson agreed as we conversed over the roar of jets at Los Angeles International Airport. "But the world takes her very seriously. People think, if someone as famous as she believes it, there there must be something to it."13
Once a "confirmed atheist," MacLaine in childhood attended a Baptist Sunday school in Virginia with her brother, actor Warren Beatty. She now believes the Bible is "extremely metaphysical." It's full of descriptions of UFOs, angels emerging from spaceships, channeling, and spirit voices, she said on the "Phil Donahue Show." And, she added, she was doing "mind traveling" into the future, assisted by entities and "helpers" from the other side.14
One channeler Shirley relied on to put her in touch is Kevin Ryerson, a former sign painter turned medium who played a prominent role in Out on a Limb. She has called the highly acclaimed, highly articulate, and highly priced Ryerson "one of the telephones in my life."15
MacLaine has also flipped to the channel of Ramtha, the alleged 35,000-year-old ascended master from the lost continent of Atlantis. "The Ram" speaks through former housewife J.Z. Knight of Yelm, Washington.
Knight, who has been dubbed the Tammy Faye Bakker of the New Age movement, has profited considerably by having
a direct channel to the stars. Besides MacLaine, her clientele reportedly has included Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, Richard Chamberlain, the late Joan Hackett, Shelley Fabares, and Mike Farrell of the television series M*A*S*H.16 And she counts actress Linda Evans, who bought a home near Knight's in order to be in touch with Ramtha, among her good friends.17
Hundreds of Knight's followers have packed up and moved to the rural Northwest to survive the destruction that Ramtha has predicted will precede the millennium. Meanwhile, J.Z. waits it out in luxury. Supporters' bucks have helped build her a lavish mansion and outfitted her Messiah Arabian Stud, Inc. Stables with chandeliers and wall-to-wall carpeting.
"How strange," remarked an interviewer on a Los Angeles talk show, "that Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old warrior, is telling people to buy your Arabian horses."
Rousing to the joust, the white tunic-wearing Knight rejoined: "You know . . . we have a wonderful energy working around some of the horses that people are involved in. We're involved more than anyone; we've put everything we have into it."18
The honey-blonde Knight, who relaxes after a channeling session by smoking a cigarette and downing a Cherry Coke, adds that The Ram first appeared to her in 1977 when she was experimenting with paper pyramids in her kitchen. But she can't channel the warrior just any old time: "He doesn't have a contract with me."19
The ancient entity, however, has issued his own book of stylized, channelized prophecies. I am Ramtha is illustrated by photographs of Knight going into a trance on the "Merv Griffin Show." The phenomenon caused New Age critic Robert Burrows to gibe that this was "proof that even if you perish, you can still publish."20
Taking responsibility for your own life is the heart of Ramtha's message. "Every destiny changes every moment; we can change our mind and thus our future every moment . . . Collective will manifests the shadows of tomorrow . . . God is within."
J.Z. Knight grew up as Judy Hampton in Artesia, New Mexico. Her alcoholic father deserted the family, and she was raised by her fundamentalist Christian mother. Popular as a
teenager, J.Z. was voted the prettiest girl in her high school class. A devout believer in God, J.Z. once suddenly began speaking in a strange male voice during a prayer meeting, according to one of Knight's former high school classmates, Sandy Fallis. The voice identified himself as a demon named Demias, said Fallis on a segment of ABC's 20/20.
"She was holding her neck and saying, 'I can't breathe!' At that point the male voice broke out again and said, 'You want this body and you can't have it!' "21 (Knight says the incident never happened.)
Whether or not another personality comes out that she cannot entirely control, Knight seems to have her destiny well in command; she and her staff continue to channel Ramtha's energies into seminars, books, tapes, and an adept form of psychological and spiritual counseling. Although not a few New Age followers have grown disillusioned with J.Z.'s Ramtha seminars, others still consider them helpful enough to shell out $400 per lecture.
In a different way, Marilyn Ferguson has spread the New Age word on a global basis. One of the movement's intelligentsia, Ferguson kindled fire in kindred hearts when she wrote about "an evolution of consciousness," a transformation "anticipated by older prophecies in all the traditions of direct knowing — the death of one world and the birth of a new, an apocalypse . . . the awakening of increasing numbers of human beings to their godlike potential."22
Within weeks of publication of Ferguson's The Aquarian Conspiracy, in 1980, leaders of the Solidarity movement in Poland had ordered ten copies. The book became a text in college courses, and was published in eight countries and translated into ten languages. By early 1988 it had sold more than 500,000 copies in North America alone. Discussion groups sprang up in prisons, churches, government agencies, and even in a South African village.
Ferguson, who finished only two years of college, soon found herself speaking to such diverse groups as the U.S. Army War College, health educators, nuclear physicists, Canadian farm wives, members of Congress, data processing managers, hotel executives, state administrators, medical librarians, college presidents, and international gatherings of youth and business leaders.
[spoiler: the writer, a journalist ends w an apologetic chapter for sane christianity, but the rest of the book is non-apologetic]Cautions are in order, however, just as they are for trance channeling, where there is always the danger of getting so caught up in mediumship that one begins to adopt the understanding of God, humanity, and reality that one's "entity" teaches.
Artist Joe Szimhart of Santa Fe, New Mexico, tells of "deprogramming" six followers of Ramtha who lost their ability to question because of just such a channeling lifestyle. They shifted their worldview to themselves, Szimhart said, attached to their past instead of present lives, and let go of committed relationships when they hit hard times.17
Outspoken as always, Carl Raschke calls channeling "a form of pseudo-religion that performs the same function as drugs.
"What we're seeing," he says, "is an attempt to harness a segment of society that's never had much religion to create an alternate religious worldview. In my view, it is a kind of
pathology, and the more fascinated a person gets with it, the more likely it is that they can become mentally imbalanced by the process itself. Autohypnosis is a powerful tool not totally understood. It can lead to manipulation."18