One of America’s oldest Spiritualist nodes is located only a 20-minute drive from my house in Troy. Camp Etna, just outside Etna village, has been there since the mid-1870s, when Daniel Buswell donated part of his farmland to start a gathering center for mediums, psychics and spiritual healing. It has run through the highs and lows of American Spiritualism, at times attracting thousands of visitors to its summer programs. Despite my lifelong personal (and eventually, professional) interest in mysticism, I never knew this. I owe the mini-revelation to Mira Ptacin’s book “The In-Betweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums, and Legends of Camp Etna.”
Ptacin, a Peaks Island resident transplanted there some years ago from points away, spent a large chunk of 2017 driving to Etna, interviewing camp residents and denizens, attending table-tipping and healing sessions, and researching the history of not only the camp, but Spiritualism itself. What became a loosely organized religion originated in upstate New York in 1848, when two sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, discovered they could elicit responses from some presumably supernatural agency in the house they lived in with their parents. They refined their psychic abilities and eventually were persuaded to take the show on the road. By later in the 19th century, they had en enormous following, and had given rise to a sort of religion-philosophy based on the idea (and their evidence) that human personalities live on after death and the living can communicate with them. It was in this milieu that Camp Etna was founded and became a magnet point for mediums and their messages.
It was, of course, controversial. Activist disbelievers in the afterlife have existed at least since Socrates’ time, and the Fox sisters by the 1880s had psychologically succumbed to the enormous public pressures of their fame. The movement continued, though, and survived Harry Houdini’s efforts to debunk it in the 1920s.
Many, many people, in all times and cultures, sense presences, even when they can’t quite get them into focus. So Camp Etna persisted, though its popularity waned and waxed through the decades. Ptacin arrived on its rustic scene following a renascence period that began in the late 2000s, and involved a mix of older, traditionally trained mediums and younger, New Age-linked, marketing-conscious psychic workers. The mix has not been smooth. Ptacin calls the spiritual practitioners of a certain age who bridge traditional ways with later New Age ways the “in-betweens.”
Her book is partly the story of Spiritualism in Etna, with special emphasis on the religion’s and organization’s feminist predispositions, and partly the story of Ptacin’s own ambivalence about it. In between illuminating portraits of some of the camp elders, movers and shakers, she dips into her own feelings, which are a mix of journalistic skepticism and desire for inner revelation. On the one hand, a cornerstone event of her own life was the sudden death of her younger brother; her return in several passages to details and probings of this lifelong grief suggests that part of her motivation to write the book was to find out if maybe, just possibly, her relentless psychological sense of her brother’s presence might be verifiable as his actual presence. I don’t remember her saying this outright. I do remember several points, on the other hand, where her own postmodern skepticism pops through.
While she’s trying to learn dowsing, for example, her normally well-contained sense of detached superiority is shattered by nervous self-consciousness: “My sticks are broken. My sticks are on strike. They don’t want to work with me because they can see how awful I really am. They know I’m a journalist. Which stick is the boy, and which one is the girl? … What’s wrong with me? Will there be a snack break?” She kind of takes it all seriously, and kind of doesn’t, until toward the end of her research mission. The final event of the book is in some ways what we, the readers, maybe, and she, the writer, maybe, have been hoping for all along: a full-on, well-detailed incident involving Mira’s apparent spirit guide. Whether we are to believe the mediums’ literal interpretation of the incident remains ambiguous, but the author herself finds a concluding psychological comfort.
The nearest thing I know of to this subject matter in Maine literature is UMaine professor Kyriacos Markides’s “Magus of Strovolos” series about psychic healers in Cyprus who engage in much the same activity as the mediums of Camp Etna. Markides approaches the material first as a participating sociology researcher and then in later books such as “Fire in the Heart” and “The Mountain of Silence” as a philosopher of the religious-spiritual complex that underlies the psychics’ world. Ptacin, the journalist, appropriately summarizes this material and describes its effects on her personal world, rather than turns to philosophy.
There are big differences between ghosts, spirit guides and angels, between psychics, mediums, clairvoyants and spiritualists, and between old-time mediums and New Age dancers. There are also differences between mysticism, the occult and the contemplative tradition, which is my little scholarly niche, explored for millennia by religious adepts from Christianity to Buddhism, Sufism, Taoism, shamanism. But they are all related along a sort of metaphysical continuum of inner experience of the divine and its neighborhoods. “The In-Betweens” takes you through the basics of how one American religious sensibility answers perennial questions about life and death. Right in Etna, Maine.
Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected]