June 2, 2010

The Psychic Mafia by Lamar Keene: An examination of the book and the Man

Hi and welcome to the true midweek. Normally I have a topic worthy of discussion, and I was going to talk about how the someone's experience of pain could be 'wrong', but instead I just finished reading the Psychic Mafia which recounts the life of Lamar "Prince of the Spiritualists" Keene and I feel more impassioned to write about that, especially given the subject matter of my last blog. He is pictured above in his trademark white suit. I will link this video as a preview of the book and if your interested the book can be found here, it is a very quick and interesting read, but as always I will do my best to summarize the information and then describe what I think the implications of that information is.

Lamar is important because he really shows the idea of what a true believer is in many instances within his brief book and is responsible for coining that term, which Kierkegaard really described in great detail. That is the greatest strength of this book. The stories of the faithful, the sex and extravagance are interesting, and so is the ending, but the heart of the book is really the belief people have; the belief that exists even when the medium messes up.

I'll start by just giving a brief outline of his life, and then talk about true belief applying the idea to Lamar Keene himself, who I think is as guilty as any in his book of true belief. Lamar grew up with no paranormal influences in his life or spirits to guide him. It was in his late teenage years that he attended a few spiritual church services done by Mildred and Martin Baxter that really introduced him to his future calling. He and a friend were interested enough to take some classes offered by Mildred to teach them how to be spiritualists. They took these classes, but didn't learn spiritualism and Mildred actually suggested boning up on medicine, law, nutrition, and comparative religion. These subjects had nothing to do with spiritualism, but it would help the both of them learn how to answer the questions that people would ask them as spiritualists.

He and his friend felt that learned enough and decided it was time to go out on their own. They started as open-minded and semi-honest mediums, but they soon became complete frauds. This part of the book is an interesting tale of the life of a medium, and an explanation of how deceits were performed, but it isn't relevant to where I want to go with the story. I want to get to the description of true belief, and in a deconstructionist sort of way apply it to Lamar Keene himself.

True belief comes up in many areas of the book, often providing humor to the vast areas of sadness. Various times the mediums experienced an error and because of that, they were caught in a situation where they should have obviously been caught as frauds. The most interesting of which is when Lamar and his partner in crime referred to as 'Raoul' were performing a seance in a person's house. In this performance, they had a room in complete darkness and they would make it seem like a 'floating' trumpet would be the origin point for various spirits to talk through. They accomplished this by having a second hidden trumpet, painted completely black, which the mediums would talk into.

Anyway, during this process, both of Lamar and 'Raoul' would get up and pretend to be spirits, while talking into the trumpet to be the spirit's voice. At one point in the performance a woman got up because she had to go to the washroom, only it was so dark that neither Raoul or Lamar noticed. When she got to the wall she turned on the lights to see where she was going. Lamar was able to sit down before anyone noticed him, but Raoul was standing beside him holding the black trumpet in his hands. Immediately Lamar pulled Raoul down, and the trumpet is dropped. The woman that turned on the light turned back and saw the scene of Lamar and Raoul and said: "It was the strangest thing, I thought I just saw a trumpet in the air." That was the end of the speculation and the seance continued afterward without a hitch.

Throughout the book, there are other instances of mistakes like that happening to different mediums, but they are usually explained away by the medium and the true believer goes on with the same beliefs as before. The cataclysmic event for this book is when Lamar can no longer live as a fraud and wants out. The problem is that he owns a new age church with Raoul. Lamar and Raoul end up having an argument and admit in front of the members of the church council that they have been defrauding them of money for years, and the affect this has on the members astounds Lamar.

In Lamar's words, "I was crushed. I knew how easy it was to make people believe a lie, but I didn't expect the same people, confronted with the lie, would choose it over the truth." This is what happened and the specific case of George Mathern is mentioned. George who moved to join the church, and had given generously in cash and property asked Raoul, "Do you mean to say that you duped me?" and the reply was "That's right George." and even after all he experienced he stayed in this seat beside Raoul and remains active in spiritualism today.

Yet I posit that true belief still applies as much to George Mathern as it does to Lamar Keen because of how the book ends. The book ends with three questions.  (I will ignore the first question pertaining to God's existence)

Question 1: Life After Death?
Lamar believes in it. Even though he had to fraudulently create spirits and knows that all the mediums he knew had to do that same thing, he can still believe in the spirit. My response to this is 'fine', just as long as he accepts that there is no evidence that spirits are real or have any effect on people.

Question 2: Extrasensory Perception and Psychic Phenomena?
"I believe that the individual can have his or her own private psychic experiences--that there is such a thing as ESP. But when it comes to paying a medium to do it for you--beware!" - Lamar Keene

This answer, after everything he has been through and all the frauds he has seen, is unbelievably unsatisfactory. Beware?!?!? What the hell was the point of coming out and saying the entire profession are fakers, thieves, and people with no moral conscious, and then saying if you want to talk to spirits it's possible, but beware of paying someone. This book was like eating a meal. You eat your Caesar salad and it wets your appetite for more, so you get a big main course. They bring out the prime rib and mashed potatoes and it is delicious, it leaves you satisfied, but there is still dessert to come. You wait for the waiter to return and, when you ask about dessert the waiter turns to you and spits in your face. That's what the ending of this book did. Lamar proves that he has learned nothing, despite preaching for two chapters the opposite. Lamar is still the true believer, and can't even progress to being doubtful of the existence of Esp. Lamar lacks the ability to see what his book has shown. Lamar is the waiter that spits in your face.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic


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