I read “Of Sorcery and Dreams” [September 1997], about Michael Brennan’s encounter with Carlos Castaneda, with great interest and excitement. I discovered Castaneda’s books when I was fifteen, and soon became obsessed with his work. Sitting in my Manhattan bedroom overlooking the West Side Highway, I longed to immerse myself in nature and otherworldliness.
When I was sixteen I took LSD for the first time. My mother, afraid I would get my hands on some “street-rate acid,” gave me a hit from her pharmaceutical-quality supply. During my trip I discovered a new way of seeing that has remained with me to this day. Don Juan’s teachings about seeing were a reassuring affirmation for my insecure teenage self.
For three years I was consumed with Castaneda’s books. Then I went off to college and read several articles claiming that don Juan was a fictional character. Concerned I was losing my sense of “reality,” I stopped having anything to do with sorcery, spirituality, and alternative ways of seeing.
Now I live less than an hour from the Mexican border, in the Sonoran Desert, where Castaneda claims he met don Juan. Until I read Brennan’s article it had not occurred to me that perhaps I was drawn here by the deep longings of my past. And I wonder: Are Castaneda’s stories true? How is it that Brennan’s silent wish to meet him was granted? Can I meet him, too?
I am dismayed by the negative reactions in your September 1997 Correspondence to both Derrick Jensen’s interview with Cleve Backster [“The Plants Respond,” July 1997] and Blaize Clement’s fantastic essay [“Which Way to Siloam?” July 1997]. Reading those two pieces, I was overjoyed to find the veils of reality fluttering for a moment, allowing me to glimpse the mysteries that lie behind them. This world is so complex, so mysterious, and so completely beyond my comprehension that I cannot pretend to fully understand how it works. Ideas like Backster’s and writing like Clement’s serve to remind me that the boundaries I see are only as solid as I make them.
I’m sorry that some other readers felt threatened by these articles. It never ceases to amaze me how millions can believe in a being called God, a place called heaven, the value of the dollar, and the power of the President, and yet find the possibility of magical healing and plant communication totally unfeasible.
By the way, congratulations on the rest of the September issue — possibly the most depressing yet!
I am distressed to find myself “growing apart” from The Sun, which seems to be losing its grip on reality. I have always valued your magazine’s gritty realism, but lately that quality is being pushed aside by a gullible new-age sensibility: first plant perception and psychic surgeons, and now Carlos Castaneda!
Joyce Carol Oates had Castaneda pegged as a fraud twenty-three years ago, in the September 1974 issue of Psychology Today. An experienced novelist herself, she recognized at once the fictional quality of Castaneda’s work, and was amazed that anybody took him seriously as an anthropologist. Alas, she overestimated the sophistication of the American reading public, not to mention Castaneda’s dissertation committee at UCLA.
The Sun, however, still has some sophisticated readers, probably attracted by your former emphasis on real life. Some of them recognized Cleve Backster’s claims about plant perception as quack science. Their letters were far more compelling than Backster’s reply.
And psychic surgeons, for what it’s worth, were thoroughly debunked years ago by the Amazing Randi, a professional skeptic who found they used pieces of chicken liver hidden in false thumb caps to produce the illusion of extracting bloody flesh from a person’s abdominal folds. Readers who wrote in to protest the presence of psychic surgeons in The Sun were met by a response of “It worked for me” from Clement. It’s good when things “work,” but that kind of justification throws open the doors to just about any fantasy.
You are likely to lose a few subscribers as you veer into new-age naiveté, but you will probably gain far more. Such material is all too popular. How about a good story about UFO kidnappings? Or satanic ritual abuse? Prior lives revealed by hypnosis? Channeling ancient spirits? It’s tough to draw the line, I know, but I think you’re drawing it a little closer to fantasy and a little farther away from real life, where your light previously shone.
I would like to put in my two cents on the Cleve Backster and Blaize Clement controversy. My parents came to this country from Ireland during the Depression, when communication was much slower and more costly. Whenever anyone in my mom’s family died or became grievously ill, however, my mother knew instantly. She got the news in the form of signs and premonitions. Although she never knew the exact problem, she always knew there was one.
One day, my four-year-old cousin Frank spent the afternoon on our couch, recuperating from a broken leg. When it was time for him to go home, my father picked him up to carry him to the door. Just as my father, with Frank in his arms, turned his back to the couch, a large mirror jumped off the wall and landed in the exact spot where my cousin had been lying. The nail was still in the wall, and the wire had not broken. My mother knew it was a sign, and no one could convince her otherwise. In time, we found out that her father had been killed at that exact moment, six time zones to the east, in the old country.
Later in life, when I talked about my mother’s sensitivity outside the family, I found that not everyone thought such a thing was possible. So I decided that, if it ever happened to me, I would try to be somewhat scientific about it.
In my early twenties, I was awakened one night by someone calling my name, but there was no one there. I looked at the clock: 3:23 A.M. I woke my roommate and told him that either his sister, whom I was dating at the time, or my sister had called to me. With him as a witness, I went back to sleep. Later, I learned that my sister had had a miscarriage that night at around that time.
All of this has taught me that we know very little about reality. Yes, there are plenty of hucksters out there looking to prey on the gullible. But there are also those who see more clearly than their contemporaries, and are often ridiculed by those too afraid to open their eyes to the wonders that surround us.
I commend The Sun for being willing to go out on a limb and take the hits. Sometimes you try to light the way with luminaries, and sometimes with lunatics, but only this way do we all get to see a little farther.
Some readers went a little ballistic in response to the essay by Blaize Clement and the interview with Cleve Backster. But this was also the response when Copernicus suggested that Earth wasn’t the center of the Universe. The “laws” of science evolve as our understanding expands, in spite of those who would freeze knowledge at whatever level currently exists.
Just as these articles were published, Swiss researchers proved that two “entangled” atomic particles (those that share common origins and properties) can communicate with each other at speeds faster than light — a supposed impossibility — no matter how far apart they were (New York Times, July 22, 1997). This “real” science makes Backster’s claims more than plausible.
As Shakespeare, whose truths seem to last longer than those of many scientists, once wrote: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
I’m new to this magazine and rather astonished at the amount of hostility expressed by your readers in the Correspondence section. To those who champion the “scientific” method: The world of physics now understands that there really is no objectivity. Once you observe something, you have entered into the equation and tampered with the natural state of what you are observing. On top of this, your eyes observe with certain chemicals that are at least slightly different from everyone else’s. We think of Western medicine, for example, as concrete, but many women who get mammograms still come up with undetected breast cancer because the mammograms are read incorrectly by the radiologist: the cancer was there; it just wasn’t perceived by the doctor.
Thank you for helping me to remember to stay with gray — it is so much softer than black and white.
I read Sy Safransky’s incredible essay “Safety” [August 1997] the day after my husband and I brought our daughter to college. It moved me to tears.
Simply put, there is no publication like The Sun. For more than twelve years my husband and I have devoured, discussed, loved, and disagreed with it. He reads more political material, and I read more spiritual. Somehow, yours is the only magazine that speaks to us both.
The August 1997 issue of The Sun was my first, and I was immediately drawn to “Crossing Borders,” Scott London’s interview with Richard Rodriguez. I’m a teacher’s aide here in Los Angeles, and want someday to teach English to Spanish-speaking children, so Rodriguez’s description of his childhood education hooked me right from the start.
Shortly after I moved to LA from Canada two years ago, I had to go to East LA to visit the school board. Not wanting to be late for my appointment, I thought I’d go early and take my laptop so I could write in a cafe for a while. I imagined sitting outside under an umbrella with banana leaves hanging overhead.
When I got to East LA, I saw nothing but old, broken-down, boarded-up, graffiti-covered restaurants with signs in Spanish. There were no palm trees, no parks, no stylish cafes. It occurred to me that, for many people, this dusty, concrete world was home. It looked like Tijuana to me. But I told myself if I kept driving, I would eventually find something clean and familiar, something American. My hope became desperation as I realized I’d been driving half an hour and was still lost.
Turning back, I was ecstatic finally to see a Sizzler. Although I’d never been to one, I embraced the restaurant as though it were a long-lost friend. That day, I realized just how limited my view of LA was.
I applaud Rodriguez for his fearless honesty, for having the courage to show the reality, not the illusion, of racial diversity, an issue most of us are too scared to talk about for fear of being called racist. Like him, I, too, want to live my life in LA, the center of the world.