An American Prophet

James van Praagh, John Edward and Sylvia Browne are only the most well-known of the large current crop of on-air psychics and mediums. They deliver their flapdoodle on TV with seeming sincerity and often claim to speak with the dead.

One of the dead they may now more easily commune with is their spiritual ancestor, Edgar Cayce, the subject of a huge new biography, Edgar Cayce: An American Prophet, by Sidney K. Kirkpatrick (Riverhead Books).

Cayce is considered by many to be the forerunner of the New Age movement for his alleged medical clairvoyance, scientific insights, and much else. If one 100th of the claims implicit in his biography were warranted, this book review would not be appearing here, but rather would be trumpeted on all the network news shows and emblazoned on the front page of every newspaper in the country. Still, he was an interesting character.

Nail in Head, Stick in Testicle

Born on a Kentucky farm in 1877, Edgar Cayce was very religious, sensitive, and given to frolicking with imaginary playmates and angels.

Thought to be rather peculiar even at a young age, Cayce suffered a number of strange childhood mishaps — a nail penetrating his head, a baseball thrown into his spine, and a stick piercing his testicle.

Despite these unusual misfortunes, the outline of his early life is simple. He grows up, becomes a photographer, marries his hometown sweetheart, moves from one small Southern city to another, starts a family, and struggles financially. Gradually, however, he becomes convinced of his mystical gifts and medical intuitions.

The author was given unlimited access to Cayce's files and the results are unfortunate. Perhaps to generate credibility, the book relentlessly recites detail after superficial detail: apartments lived in, houses bought and sold, jobs taken, businesses invested in, financial arrangements and partners, city streets and scenes.

There are descriptions of acquaintances of all sorts — including quite tenuous connections to Edison, Woodrow Wilson, Tesla, Lindbergh, Houdini, Hemingway, Earhart — and, most of all, readings of medical cases.

Into a Trance

The readings were analyses of people who went to Cayce (or whose stories were told to him) for medical advice. He would famously drop into a trance with the help of various facilitators and while in this state would channel whatever the "Source" said about the person's medical condition, usually concluding with a prescription for therapy, often unconventional. Many of the readings sound very much like the nebulous prescriptions of present-day mediums.

The book's completely uncritical reporting is disappointing and most exasperating. Kirkpatrick seems to reject nothing, never demurs at anything, establishes no critical distance, and provides little feel for what made Cayce tick. The good news is that eventually this approach becomes amusing, and the reader eagerly anticipates the next outlandish achievement and its straight rendering.

Kirkpatrick's idea of proof is to cite scads of testimonials, including many from doctors and celebrities. Testimonials, however, are notoriously unreliable, and there are no discussions of statistics or methodological issues.

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