An American Prophet

ByJohn Allen Paulos

May 1, 2001 -- 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.

Apparently, no statistics on the percentage of cases cured exist, and the reader must decide whether the "cures" recorded were due to Cayce's miraculous psychic insight or to a combination of the placebo effect, natural recoveries, patient selection, good common sense, dumb luck, cold reading techniques, and vague changes counted as successes.

Not surprisingly, excuses for the failure of readings abound in the book. Indeed, Cayce couldn't save his own son or various other members of his family.

Stock Market, Oil Wells

As he grew older, Cayce did not limit himself to medical readings. He consulted the Source extensively on behalf of credulous business partners interested in Texas oil wells, the stock market, horse races, and even Hollywood screenplays. All of his get-rich-quick schemes failed, and he retreated once again to medical readings and less falsifiable prophecies.

Still, he never met a pseudoscience he didn't like and was an ardent believer in astrology, reincarnation, perpetual motion machines, the fabled city of Atlantis, and prophetic dreams. Moreover, his beliefs, visions, and readings were bizarrely interconnected.

The reason, for example, for the technological advances of the present age is that many people living today are reincarnations of the technologically savvy denizens of Atlantis.

Kirkpatrick tells us that Cayce had the astonishing ability to lay his head on a book and thereby absorb its contents without formally reading it. As I slogged through this ungainly, preposterous, and absurdly detailed book, I found myself longing for the same facility.

The book does have one use, however. You can throw it at your TV when psychics start relaying silly messages from viewers' dead relatives.

Professor of mathematics at Temple University, John Allen Paulos is the author of several best-selling books, including Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. His Who’s Counting? column on appears on the first day of every month.

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