Write up a one to two page reflection paper on it.
Briefly summarize the article, noting major themes
Consider the style of the writing. Was it more scientific? Narrative-based? Did they place themselves in
How did the author support their arguments? Was this compelling?MATT TOMLINSON
University of Oslo
How to speak like a spirit medium:
Voice and evidence in Australian Spiritualism
A B S T R A C T
In the movement known as Spiritualism, successful
performances of “mental mediumship” are rarely smooth.
At services held by the Canberra Spiritualist Association,
mediums attempt to provide evidence of life after death by
describing a deceased person’s character in ways
recognizable to audience members. A medium’s verbal
performance de-emphasizes heteroglossia while developing
vivid spirit characters. Audience members sometimes do
not understand or accept what the medium says, but small
“failures” in performance help build a larger sense that
mediums and audiences are working to gather evidence. As
they work, mediums foreground and background their
agency at the same time, displaying their fluency in spirit
communication while identifying spirits as ultimately
responsible for being present, and offering messages to the
living. [ritual, dialogue, Spiritualism, mediumship, voice,
hen humans speak with gods, ghosts, demons, and
other spirit beings, their talk often has the “coefficient of weirdness” that Bronislaw Malinowski
(1966, 218) attributed to magical speech (see also
Mauss 1972, 57–58). As they communicate with figures who generally cannot be seen and may be considered unpredictable, many people speak in ways that signal that something
unusual is happening, their words prone to more than the usual slippages of interaction (Keane 1997a, 1997b, 2007, 2008). There are significant counterexamples of this tendency, however, in which people
speak with and for extrahuman beings in relatively plain, everyday
ways. In doing so, speakers reveal particular understandings of life
and death as well as their commitments to specific kinds of relationship with their existential Others.
When a speaker mediates between spirit figures and human
audiences, several voices come into play, namely those of spirits,
mediums, petitioners, other audience members, and so forth. As
Mikhail Bakhtin and his interlocutors point out, any single “voice”
is already the product of multiple relationships between different
people responding to and anticipating others’ expressions (Bakhtin
1981, 1984; Bauman 2004; Hill 1995; Holquist 1990; Keane 1999).
The speech of a spirit medium might be shaped by past speech
from mentors, expected responses from audience members, and
styles associated with individual spirits. Yet distinct voices are not
always foregrounded in mediumship, even when participants evoke
the presence of distinct spirits. Indeed, as I will show from my research with the Canberra Spiritualist Association in Australia, mediums’ performance styles can de-emphasize heteroglossia. In doing
so, they help shape understandings of the ritual event as an occasion for establishing proof for a specific claim: evidence of life after death. Australian Spiritualists reveal the limits of heteroglossia in
understanding human interaction, demonstrating how people may
seek ritual efficacy in the flattening of dialogism.
Failure is a key feature of many Spiritualist mediums’ readings:
mediums get a lot wrong, and this is treated as a necessary part of
AMERICAN ETHNOLOGIST, Vol. 46, No. 4, pp. 482–494, ISSN 0094-0496, online
C 2019 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved.
How to speak like a spirit medium
gathering and presenting evidence. As in other ritual practices of articulating meaning, failure is an essential part
of the process (Engelke and Tomlinson 2006).1 “Failure,”
I must emphasize, is a metapragmatic evaluation. Not all
participants in ritual action will agree on what counts as
failure (or success), and analysts must be cautious about
applying the term in cases in which it might not be relevant (Schieffelin 2007). Spiritualists do not explicitly refer
to negative responses during a medium’s performance as
“failures,” as I am doing here. But Spiritualist mediums do
convey signs from the spirit world that are not recognized,
or are even rejected, by audience members, and in some
cases no audience member recognizes the spirit being described. Much more common, however, are ostensibly successful readings that include misfires, hesitations, doubt,
and denial as features of the dialogue.
Spiritualist mediums animate words authored by people in the spirit world (Goffman 1981). They communicate
in a kind of hinged dialogue, “speaking” mentally with spirits in one direction and verbally with living humans in the
other. As Richard Bauman (2004, 130) says of “spoken mediation” in general, two dialogues are brought together in
a “synthetic conjunction . . . in such a way that the routine cannot be dissolved into two independent dyads.” In
other words, two dialogues take place as one conversation.
The mediator’s job is to make sure the “source dialogue”
and “target dialogue” articulate with each other, because
the true target of the spirit’s message is the audience member, not the medium. This kind of routinized communication across an existential gap is similar in some ways to
shamanic and other mediumistic performances in which
audience members can miss or reject what the mediator is
saying on behalf of the spirits (Schieffelin 1996; Wolf 1990).
Spiritualist mediums also share qualities with evangelical
Christians who train themselves to communicate in a casual, conversational style as they pray to God and expect God
to reply (Bialecki 2017; Luhrmann 2012).
The interplay between a casual, conversational speech
style and the active possibility and frequent occurrence of
failure in performance makes mediumship compelling for
Spiritualist audiences. By “compelling,” I mean that mediums foreground their own agency—they are responsible
for their performances, “owning” their words and succeeding (or not) in front of an audience. At the same time,
they background their agency by positioning both spirit figures and audience members as independent and responsible speakers. Responsibility is distributed, as mediums
speak for others in ways that are not entirely under their
control. In delivering compelling performances, Spiritualist
mediums both step forward to assume the role of medium
before an audience and metaphorically step backward,
making themselves tools for spirit communicators and interlocutors with audience members who might be resistant, confused, forgetful, or hard of hearing. In doing so,
mediums speak plainly, fail often, and—most of the time—
leave audience members happy and impressed that they
have received evidence of life after death.
From knocking to speaking
The movement known as modern Spiritualism originated
in 1848 when two young sisters, Catherine (Kate) and Margaretta (Maggie) Fox, began working with mysterious percussive sounds at their home in Hydesville, New York. A previous tenant had occasionally heard “loud knockings and
other noises, for which he could find no apparent cause”
(Podmore 1902a, 179), but when the Fox family moved in,
the common haunted house became something more dynamic and extravagant. On the night of March 31, the girls
and their mother began challenging the invisible source
to respond to their commands and questions by, for example, knocking as many times as Kate snapped her fingers and rapping out their correct ages. Mrs. Fox called her
neighbors, among them William Duesler, who reported that
when he got to the Fox house, “there were some twelve or
fourteen persons there . . . . Some were so frightened that
they did not want to go into the room” (Podmore 1902a,
180). Duesler entered, heard Mrs. Fox pose questions, heard
knocks, and felt the bed shake from their force. He posed a
series of questions designed to elicit a character and story
from whatever was making the sounds, with yes indicated
by knocks and no by silence. Was it “an injured spirit”? (Yes.)
Had Duesler or his father, who had lived in the house previously, hurt this person? (No.) Had Mr. Bell, who had also
lived there, hurt them? (Yes.) Was this person “murdered for
money”? (Yes.) Duesler wanted to know how much money
the murderer had taken: was it $100, $200, $300? “And when
I came to five hundred the rapping was heard” (Podmore
1902a, 180–81).2 Details piled up: the murdered man was
a peddler whose throat had been slit and whose body was
buried 10 feet deep in the cellar (Weisberg 2004, 20).
What began as a simple haunted-house story quickly
became a sensational event: direct communication with the
dead, a dialogue in code, a way for people to generate new
knowledge while enjoying thrilling parlor entertainment.
Since its beginning, Spiritualism has had a complicated
relationship to Christianity; some individuals and groups
have tried to tie the two together, while others insist on
their separation. As it developed, Spiritualism drew ideas
from other movements, including mesmerism, Swedenborgianism, and transcendentalism (Jenkins, n.d.; Owen
1989; Podmore 1902a, 1902b; Weisberg 2004). Spiritualism’s
popular growth was tied to progressive social movements,
including women’s rights advocacy; to technological developments in telegraphy and photography, which created
excitement about the possibilities of long-distance communication and new forms of visual revelation; and to mass
mourning for wartime deaths.3
Volume 46 Number 4 November 2019
Today, organizations such as the Spiritualists’ National
Union in the United Kingdom, the National Spiritualist
Association of Churches in the United States, and Victorian Spiritualists’ Union (VSU) in Australia continue to
organize and promote the practice of mediumship. Styles
of Spiritualist mediumship vary within and among these
different associations, but they are historically related and
their principles and practices overlap. Although Spiritualist
organizations do not attract the large number of followers
they once did, the practice of mediumship has become
a popular form of therapeutic entertainment, and many
mediums perform in public venues (including social clubs,
psychic fairs, and the like) unaffiliated with any particular
Spiritualist group. The Canberra Spiritualist Association
(CSA), with which I did my research, is an affiliate of the
VSU. CSA leaders emphatically do not align Spiritualism
with Christianity, although members disagree on whether
Spiritualism is a “religion.”
One major change in Spiritualist practice from its early
days to the present has been the declining prominence
of physical mediumship. In physical mediumship, mediums produced tangible things—such as the Fox sisters’ invisible knocks, or, more ambitiously, things like ectoplasm
and “apports” (objects believed to have been transported
by spiritual force). Most ambitiously, some mediums were
believed to take the physical form of spirit beings in “‘full
materialization’ . . . who walked about the room, socialized and sometimes even flirted with the members of the
séance” (Connor 1999, 203). Psychical investigator Frank
Podmore seems to suggest this practice began in the United
States in October 1860, and historian Molly McGarry identifies the summer of 1874 as the moment when there began
an American “craze of materialization séances” (McGarry
2008, 101; Podmore 1902b, 95). Physical mediumship still
takes place in the 21st century, but it does not have the outsized presence it did in the 19th century, and it is not practiced during the CSA’s services.4
Another practice is trance mediumship, in which the
medium channels a spirit and in doing so might alter her
voice qualities.5 E. B. Tylor, vexed by Alfred Russel Wallace’s
claim that Spiritualism is scientific, went to London in 1872
to observe private séances. He noted mediums speaking in
the voices of various spirit characters—for example, “The
medium was next possessed by ‘Irish Ann’ and talked rubbish about Fenians in brogue” (Stocking 1971, 93–94). A related practice was trance lecturing, in which spirits gave lectures on topics often chosen by the audience (Moore 1977,
107–29; Podmore 1902b, 126–39). Trance lectures were a test
of a medium’s authenticity: Could she speak knowledgeably
on a subject of which she had no knowledge?6
In contrast to physical and trance mediumship, mediums who give public readings at CSA services today largely
practice mental mediumship. In mental mediumship, the
medium can see visions, hear words and sounds (like
music), feel physical sensations (often in relation to the
cause of a person’s death), experience smells and tastes,
and receive unexpected mental impulses. (Spiritualists distinguish between the work of mediumship and psychic
communication. Mediums receive impulses from the spirit
world, while people who use their psychic abilities receive
impulses from living humans.) Mental mediumship, according to the CSA’s mediumship course book, “is done
in a light, barely noticeable, trance condition” (Ivory and
Ivory 2017, 15). This very light trance might not look like
a “trance” at all. The medium’s task is to tell the audience
what she or he is sensing. In dialogue with audience members, mediums and “recipients” usually arrive at an understanding of who is sending these signals to the medium.
It is nearly always the recipient’s deceased friend or family
I have attended meetings of the CSA since mid-2015,
and I formally began a research project on Australian Spiritualism in March 2017. I have made comparative observations at Spiritualist events in the United Kingdom (at the
Arthur Findlay College) and the United States (at Lily Dale
in New York and Camp Chesterfield in Indiana, sites of longstanding Spiritualist “summer camps” open to the public).
All the data in this article come from the Australian fieldwork. The dominant question of my research has been how
Spiritualists generate dialogues between spirits (“people in
Spirit”) and living humans. Focusing on mediums’ performances, I have learned that to be a successful medium, one
does not use weird words. One speaks, instead, like any effective public speaker in mainstream Australia or the United
States: directly but tactfully, clearly and confidently. Like a
shaman, a Spiritualist medium develops dialogues between
dead and living. Like an evangelical prayer giver, a medium
works hard to make the conversation casual. Unlike either, a
medium typically “brings through” a parade of entirely new
spiritual characters, yet without altering her voice qualities.
Making contact with the spirit world: “I’m going
to a party”
To learn how Spiritualist mediums gain expertise, I have observed their performances during the CSA Sunday meetings. I have also taken mediumship-training classes.8 The
British medium Lynn Probert offered two workshops on the
weekend of March 18–19, 2017, when she came to Canberra on a brief Australian tour.9 At both workshops, attendance was in the low 20s. All participants were women
except for myself and Norman Ivory, the president of the
CSA. (The Saturday class was held over eight hours, with a
lunch break; the Sunday session was held over four hours
and was followed by a service.) Then, from April 6 to August
24, 2017, the leaders of the CSA—Lynette Ivory, the association’s treasurer, and her husband, Norman—ran a mediumship course from 7:30 to 9:30 on Thursday nights. There
How to speak like a spirit medium
were three students, all of them women, in addition to myself. I was not an especially diligent student—of the 20 sessions, I attended 15. But Probert and the Ivorys were effective teachers, and their advice harmonized and resonated
with the ways mediums practice during CSA services.
To contact the spirit world, one begins by doing what
some Spiritualists call an “attunement,” which means, in
part, sitting quietly, closing one’s eyes, quieting one’s conscious thoughts, and mentally declaring one’s intention to
be in touch with the spirit world. One’s own power and energy, Probert said, is subtle; when one “blends” with the
spirit world, making contact, one will have a baseline understanding of one’s own energetic nature. In other words,
when one recognizes how one’s own spiritual vibrations
feel, one will have a basis for comparison and know that
when one feels a new sensation, it is coming from outside oneself. Similarly, during the second week of Lynette
Ivory’s mediumship course, she told us, “Reduce the noise
of the mind, and be open to receiving telepathic” signs
through various senses. Once one is ready, signs will present
themselves: One might see, hear, taste, smell, feel, or intuit
impressions which are taken to be signals from the spirit
Probert gave students in her Saturday workshop a series of exercises. In the first one, members of the audience
paired off with each other and were given no instructions
other than to just try mediumship. (Everyone else paired off
voluntarily, but Probert paired me up with an 82-year-old
woman who was a beginner like me.) In the second exercise, we were to request whom we wanted to hear from in
the spirit world—in other words, to seek contact with a specific deceased person, not whichever spirit showed up. My
new partner said she wanted to hear from her “nana,” or
grandmother. After lunch, we had a third exercise, in which
we were supposed to begin not by identifying the spirit’s basic traits (e.g., whether it was a man, woman, boy, or girl),
but by trying to feel and describe their character. Probert
said this might make a stronger overall impression: It would
be a comfortable approach, more freeing for the medium,
with a “softer feeling.” (My field notes here bluntly record
the fact that the sensations I received did not make sense to
my new practice partner: “My mention to [her] of cats, gardening, trees, and then the woman associated with them,
was a complete strikeout.”) The fourth and final exercise
came with a twist: we were to get in touch with a spirit and
compare their philosophy of life when they were alive (e.g.,
if they were an optimist or pessimist) with how they see life
Probert’s varied exercises were challenging, and my
notes record scattered impressions—the ones I could remember after the fact, that is, because the effort involved
in not thinking was intense, and I found it difficult to recall
specifics later on. In the Ivorys’ weekly classes, in comparison, the training was straightforward. As part of each class,
a student (usually two per week) would stand in front of
the class, attempt to make contact with a spirit, and then
give a reading. In earlier sessions of the course, Norman or
Lynette would ask questions to coach the trainee through
the performance: What were the spirit’s physical traits? How
were they related to the living recipient? How old were they?
Where were they from? How had they died? Lynette would
write the trainee medium’s answers on the room’s whiteboard. The last question was usually about what message
the person in Spirit wanted to convey to the living recipient.
There are two rules of Spiritualist mediumship that
are slightly at odds with each other. The first is that when
a medium receives an impression from the spirit world—
whether vision, sound, or something else—she should express it directly to the audience. A medium should not
doubt what she senses. “Don’t question yourself,” Lynette
Ivory said in the first week of her course. “Just give what you
get. It doesn’t matter how stupid it seems.” She told how
she was once giving a reading and a male spirit was coming through, but the recipient had trouble identifying him.
Lynette mentally saw a yellow daffodil, mentioned this, and
immediately the recipient knew who the spirit was. The second rule, however, is that spirits communicate with mediums in ways that resonate with the mediums’ experiences.
Thus not all mediums will receive the same kinds of signals, and they might develop a personal interpretive code
through trial and error. For example, when I interviewed a
leading Canberra medium, Sarah Jeffery, in December 2018,
she explained that she had learned through practice that
when she saw a silver bracelet, it signified an inherited object that was personally meaningful for the recipient, but
not necessarily an actual bracelet.
Because I was a novice, my attempts at mediumship
usually felt like I was receiving random mental images—or
not so random, when I suspected my mind was calling up
something I had recently seen so that I could describe it to a
waiting audience. Experienced mediums, however, practice
mental techniques to obtain information from the spirit
world. During her Sunday workshop, Probert asked each
audience member to identify something we wished we
could develop in our mediumship, then recommended an
approach we could take. To a woman who said she wanted
to work on knowing the relationship between the spirit
and the living recipient, Probert recommended mentally
picturing a family tree. To a woman who wanted to work
on knowing the time a person had died, she mentioned
visualizing a watch. To a woman who wanted to work on
identifying places, she recommended picturing a map.
Similarly, in the Ivorys’ course, we learned we could imagine a filmstrip marked off as decades representing a period
associated with the spirit, visualize a body to see which part
failed at death (the relevant area of the body might light
up), or visualize a whiteboard, chalkboard, or television
where the information we wanted to receive would appear.
Volume 46 Number 4 November 2019
Novice mediums begin with a simple monologue of
mental impression. For example, one sees in the mind’s
eye a man with a mustache, so one announces, “I’m with a
man who has a mustache.” Skilled mediums shift from this
monologue to a complex mental dialogue in which questions can be posed to spirit figures and answers received,
sometimes directly and sometimes symbolically. The tricky
part is that this spiritual-mental dialogue must be translated into a dialogue with living human recipients, as I describe in the next section. Here, I will mention two final
lessons Probert offered on communicating with people in
the spirit world.
The first was that people in the spirit world are just
like living people. Indeed, they are essentially still alive, just
located on a different plane of existence from ours. Interactions with them should be enjoyable. Probert began her
public “demonstration” (that is, her mediumship readings,
also called being “on platform”) by thanking the audience
for coming, asking who had not been to a demonstration
before, and explaining how she would work:
So, people think that mediums see the spirit world in
full form and hear every word they say. And that’s what
we want. But that’s not the fact of how it happens. Very
much we move our mind—which is the hardest thing to
do—out of the way, and try not to be too nosy, and they
will provide us with information, and the way that we
get that is in different ways. So it may come as a feeling, it may come as an emotion, it may come with an
image, a symbol, a picture, a memory. And we as mediums then have to try and interpret it, and hopefully put
it across in a way that you will understand.
So, it very much is a thing where we work together,
so I will need you to respond to me . . . .
And you know, people think they’ve got to be so
serious when you come to things like this. Just ’cause
someone’s died in a physical sense, they haven’t lost
their humor and their ability to have fun with you. And
to me, that’s what it’s all about. And when I go to do
a demonstration, I look at it that I’m going to a party;
I just don’t know who I’m going to meet. ’Cause when
we go to a party, we chat to someone for 10 minutes, we
get to know a bit about them, we talk, and then we go,
“Lovely to talk to you,” and we go off and talk to someone else. So, that’s what we do as mediums when we
demonstrate. We get to know people.
So, I’m going to have a party with your relatives and
friends, and thank you for that.10
Probert is telling her audience that spirit talk is like
party chatter: friendly, low-key, enjoyable. Although even
party chatter can involve complex expectations, Probert is
letting listeners know to expect speech that is not stylistically weird, because the spirits of loved ones have not
fundamentally changed their characters after their physical
Her second lesson was that it is simple to disengage
from performance of mediumship. At the Saturday workshop, one student asked her how she transitions out of
mediumship at the end of a session. It is like turning a
switch, Probert replied, or, after driving, locking your car
and walking away. Finishing was not a complicated matter
but simply one of deciding to stop.
The methods of training for communicative fluency
in mediumship recall the practices of evangelical Christians as they learn to speak with God in prayer (Bialecki
2017; Luhrmann 2012). Like Spiritualist mediums, members of the Vineyard movement train themselves to hear
voices, sometimes audibly but often mentally. They treat
experience and emotions as evidence. In addition, both
groups practice a casual speaking style: American evangelical women who speak of having a “date night” with God
are not far from Probert when she says that mediumship is
like going to a party (Luhrmann 2012, 80; Vineyard members also practice glossolalia, a classic example of “weird
T. M. Luhrmann (2012, 201) argues that the specific
“capacity of mind” cultivated by people who practice
speaking with God is “absorption,” “the mental capacity
common to trance, hypnosis, dissociation, and to most
imaginative experiences in which the individual becomes
caught up in ideas or images or fascinations.” In her earlier
work on British pagans, Luhrmann analyzes the psychological techniques in ritual practice that keep open a “sense of
the possibility of falsification” (Luhrmann 1989, 123). Just
as British pagans learn to verify (to their own satisfaction, if
not to that of laboratory scientists) that magic really works,
so do evangelical Christians learn to hear God, know God’s
truth, and act accordingly. And so too do Spiritualists learn
to receive impressions from the spirit world and learn what
counts as evidence. Yet to understand Spiritualism, one
should not be distracted by questions about the techniques
used to contact the spirit world; more important are the
conversational dynamics between mediums and their
audiences. Spirits speak to mediums, but mediums speak
onward, as it were, interacting with audience members
to construct recognizable spirit characters. This is a “conventionalized performance . . . programmed to include
mediational routines” (Bauman 2004, 130–31), routines
that require audience members to both respond to and
validate the medium’s spoken words.
Speaking with the living: “Who am I with?”
A medium contacts the spirit world for two main reasons.11
The first is to provide evidence for life after death. Spiritualists call this “proof of survival,” and it is perhaps the
most pressing job a medium has in Australian Spiritualism.
What constitutes proof is the revelation of character: the
medium describes a deceased person, providing details that
How to speak like a spirit medium
she could not have guessed, including what their personalities were like and, sometimes, how they died. (In some
cases, mediums “bring through” spirits of people they knew
in life or spirits of people they have brought through before. The gold standard of mediumship, however, is bringing through a spirit one does not know for a person one
does not know.) Providing evidence is the thrilling part of
a good demonstration of mediumship. A skilled medium
produces a frisson of excitement when she gets a string of
yeses from an audience member, popping firecrackers of affirmation. When a person in the spirit world has been identified through dialogue between medium and recipient, the
medium’s second task is to relay a message from this “person in Spirit” to the person in the audience. Messages can
have emotional gravity for recipients, but as speech they
tend to be formulaic and stereotyped (the spirits are always
sending love and encouragement, never criticism or dire
warnings), and they are not open to failure as is the provision of evidence.
Probert and the Ivorys gave students the same advice:
Mediums need to speak with confidence, and when the details of a spirit’s death are distressing, speak with discretion. Confidence was so important to the Ivorys that part
of each mediumship class was devoted to practicing public speaking. A student would be told to stand in front of the
room and speak on a topic of their choice, then critiqued on
their delivery. In her Saturday workshop, Probert told students that after describing the characteristics of a person
in Spirit, the medium should not ask the audience “Who
understands?” but, rather, “Who am I with?” This is more
definite, she explained, and does not imply that one needs
to keep adding verifying material. In her Sunday workshop,
she repeated this advice and added that a medium should
not say, “Let me get you a little bit more information.” Don’t
explain how you are working, Probert said. Be in control.
Norman Ivory elaborated this theme in the first session of
the CSA course, saying that when you are confident, you
will not imagine things. You will get real messages from the
spirit world. Lynette Ivory reinforced this lesson, instructing
us, “Don’t allow a no to put you off.” She meant that if an audience member does not recognize the spirit communicator’s identity, the medium should not worry. It will make her
work harder, and a consistent message from Probert, Ivory,
and others is that mediums need to keep practicing their
The rule to speak with discretion moderates the rule to
speak directly. At the Saturday workshop, I asked Probert if
she ever had a message from a person in Spirit she felt she
should not pass on. She said no, but that sometimes mediums receive information that is meant only to give contextual understanding. She said that if, for example, a medium
were in front of a large audience communicating with
parents whose three-year-old daughter had been raped
and murdered, the medium’s realization of this would be
information from Spirit telling the medium what a horrific
thing the parents had been through, and to proceed with
sensitivity. The medium should not say that the daughter
had been murdered. Rather, she should say she knew the
daughter’s life had been taken from her by another’s hands.
The daughter’s spirit would not want her parents to be reminded of the brutal facts, Probert explained; the parents
would not want to be reminded of the details in front of an
audience, either, and the audience did not need to know.
Providing evidence does not mean purveying scandal. In
a lighter vein, in the third CSA mediumship class, Lynette
Ivory advised us not to use the words “husband” or “wife”
when communicating a spiritual message, but rather to say
“partner,” because the person in Spirit communicating with
their loved one might not have been their spouse.
Mediums sometimes instruct audience members how
to respond. The evening before Lynn Probert’s workshops,
she gave a public demonstration in which she told the audience, “I will need you to talk back to me, and not just nod
your head or shake your head. Because there’s something
in your voice that is like a recognition to the spirit world,
and that helps me perceive information easier, and hopefully stronger, and more, and to provide as much as I can
for you.” Similarly, a leading Canberra medium, Jane Hall,
announced as she began her demonstration at the CSA service of May 21, 2017, “So if I come to you today, nice loud
yes, nice loud no. I’m OK with noes, because that will also
help the energy within the room. It will help the people at
the front not have to turn around, ’cause they’re super curious about what’s going on if I come to the people in the
back. But it also helps the spirit world as well.” When audience members speak up clearly, everyone can hear how well
or poorly the medium is doing, and it boosts the energy in
the room. Many audience members do not follow this instruction, however, and remain shyly quiet, nodding when
Other lessons that some audience members ignore are
not to give mediums information and not to ask questions
during a performance. Lynette Ivory explained that if audience members ask questions, they engage the medium’s
intellectual mind and break the link with Spirit. The textbook for the CSA mediumship course is explicit: “Don’t allow the recipient to feed you any information, stop them
immediately if they start to tell you who they think it is, what
they are like etc. This does not allow validation of the information you have given them” (Ivory and Ivory 2017, 21).
Whereas the emphasis on providing evidence in demonstrations can make mediums seem like scientists, mediums’
instructions to audience members can make them seem
more like lawyers: just yes or no, please.
A medium feels spiritual vibrations, receives impressions she recognizes as coming from the spirit world, and
communicates these impressions to an audience. The audience responds, validating, correcting, or rejecting the
Volume 46 Number 4 November 2019
information. This is the kind of mediumship that dominates
at CSA services. In services, the style of mediums’ speech,
the participant structure, and Spiritualist philosophy work
together to create the sense that this is an event organized
to establish proof and express love.
Voice and evidence: “You’ve got it twisted, but
. . . you’re absolutely right”
The CSA holds its services on the first, third, and fifth
Sunday of each month, with a summer break from midDecember to mid-January. The meeting site is a community hall in the suburb of Pearce. Sometimes the medium
is a member of the CSA, but not always. Of the 10 mediums I have seen perform, nine have been women. The average attendance, including the medium, is between 17 and
18 people, and the ratio of women to men in the room is
about two to one. (Figures come from my notes on 45 services from January 17, 2016, to December 2, 2018; counting
proportions of women to men at 30 of them.) Most attendees believe spirit communication is possible, and I have
never heard any audience member challenge a medium’s
authenticity. In other words, audience members are predisposed to work with the medium. The question many audience members implicitly face at the beginning of a service,
then, is not whether there is life after death, but whether any
of their people will come through that day.
Services are chaired by a member of the CSA. I have
chaired six services. More often, I have run the laptopdriven audiovisual system. The chair announces each part
of the service, introduces the medium, and often delivers
a short talk on one of Spiritualism’s Seven Principles, a list
of precepts credited to the 19th-century medium Emma
Hardinge Britten, who is said to have received them from
the spirit of utopian social activist Robert Owen. (Whereas
Australian and UK Spiritualists affirm the Seven Principles,
the US-based National Spiritualist Association of Churches
offers nine, although the substance of both overlaps.) Services include a short meditative healing, a speech from the
medium, and a sing-along with four recorded songs, since
singing is thought to raise spiritual energy. The highlight is
the demonstration, in which the medium offers “proof of
survival,” or evidence of life after death. In a typical demonstration at CSA services, a medium offers several readings.
The fewest I have seen was three (and that was a notably
short service, because it was the day of the annual general
meeting), and one medium, whom I saw only once, was
known for giving everyone in the audience a quick reading
when she worked. I estimate five or six is typical.
In mental mediumship, Spiritualists do not change
their tone of voice to mimic the voice of a spirit; for example, they do not sound “creaky” to represent grandparents. They occasionally quote spirit figures and speak in the
first person from the spirit’s perspective, but their voice and
vocabulary generally remain the same.12 They are quoting,
not surrendering their voice box. Mediums do sometimes
sound like they are lost in thought as they gather evidence,
pausing as they receive impressions unavailable to the audience. Overall, their speaking style contrasts with the varieties of physical and trance mediumship popular in early
Spiritualism and other types of spiritual mediation, such
as varieties of shamanism that feature repertoires of spirit
characters with distinct vocal qualities (e.g., Atkinson 1989;
Schieffelin 1985; Howell 1994; Wolf 1990). It also contrasts
with forms of divination in which the intention and responsibility of the ritual speaker are treated as irrelevant (Du Bois
1992). Spiritualist mediums establish a connection with the
spirit world partly by mentally declaring their intention to
do so, and although they are not personally responsible for
the messages spirit figures send through them, they are obligated to practice enough so they can perform well.
But Spiritualist mediums do speak in a distinct voice.
Here, “voice” should be understood in Bakhtinian terms
as “the linguistic construction of social personae” (Keane
1999, 271). The voice in which they speak is not the voice
of the dead, but rather what I can only call “the voice of
the medium”: conversational in tone, generally referring to
the deceased person with third-person singular pronouns,
and describing what he or she was like, followed by questions (do you recognize him or her?), and including a few insider terms such as “person in Spirit” (rather than “ghost”).
The voice of a Spiritualist mental medium deemphasizes heteroglossia. This demands explanation because, following Bakhtin, anthropologists have come to see
all language as inherently multivoiced, and analyses of artful performance attend closely to the precise techniques by
which a single speaker can represent multiple characters,
their emotions, and their moral values (e.g., Hill 1995). But
the art of speaking as an effective mental medium does not
require the construction of many voices. To be clear, I am
not arguing that Spiritualist mediums speak monologically.
Their voices weave past and future in the vocabulary and
accents of their teachers and audiences, in fine Bakhtinian
dialogic style. But in public demonstrations at the CSA, a
medium speaks in a notably plain and conversational way
that does not vary much during the performance. Her style
of expression does not change from one spirit figure to the
next. The unremarkable tone of the medium’s voice reflects
the understanding that this is an unremarkable event, in its
own way. It is a demonstration—a revelation of fact, not an
affirmation of faith. It is a conversation with living people
who happen to be on the astral plane, as well as with living people sitting here in the community center in Pearce.
In short, a medium’s voice is defined by its conversational
tone, extraordinary content, and generation of new characters within a stable speech style. It has a family resemblance
to classic shamanism, evangelical Christian prayer, and
some forms of divination, yet it is its own distinct practice.
How to speak like a spirit medium
A good example of mental mediumship comes from
the CSA service of November 5, 2017. Seventeen people
attended, including seven men. It was the second time during the service that the medium, Jane Hall, developed a dialogue with Patty, a stalwart elderly member of the CSA. (The
first reading brought through the spirit of Patty’s cat. Not
all Spiritualist mediums channel animals, but Hall does.)
I have chosen this reading partly because it is unremarkable. Its features were typical of many demonstrations: the
medium spent time identifying the proper recipient; asked
questions to which the answer was no, and others to which
the answer was yes; stated her understanding of the deceased person’s identity; and conveyed a message from the
deceased to the living recipient. Jane said,
OK, I have a gentleman that’s drawing close to me now.
And I have to say, I feel with this gentleman there must
have been a time where—OK, he has very good attention to detail, with this gentleman, but I also know his
attention . . . towards the end of his life wasn’t as detailed as it was. So I know he had great attention for
detail in his life, but I know when he starts to come to
the end of his life, things aren’t as clear in his mind.
His thoughts aren’t clear with him. And I need to say,
I feel this man, though, I got to a great age. Because I
can feel on my face, I can feel . . . that I’m aged. And I
also know there must have been, there’ll be a memory
of him when older people miss little bits in their beard.
Like, he’s clean shaven, but he’s missed little bits on his
. . . neck or face. I know that that is something that he
wouldn’t have done in his younger years, but it’s almost
like he was persisting. And I also have to say I feel like
he’s living by himself, as well. Is this starting to ring a
bell with anyone? A . . . gentleman, he has great attention to detail, and I have to say he would have liked his
shed. He would have liked his shed. Which man doesn’t
like his shed? [Jane laughs.] Is any of this fitting . . . with
Having completed her initial description, Jane checks
with the audience to see if anyone will take up these details and link them to a person they knew. A woman in
the audience answers, “Possibly,” and Jane says, “OK.” She
J ANE. And I do feel like, possibly could be military connections, too. Am I not here with this lady? Am I not
with you? [She indicates a woman sitting in the second
row, not the woman who said “possibly.”] Do you understand a gentleman in the spirit world to be of, in
their day, a great attention to detail, but then as they
age, they start to get a little bit forgetful? You can say
no, because I might be [inaudible]. That doesn’t make
sense to you? [The woman’s response is inaudible, but is
evidently negative.] OK. All right. So, I’ll want to know
we’re in the area around here, then. [She indicates the
audience members sitting near the woman.] So, you’ll
just keep listening. So, I know, do you remember this
gentleman . . . with the b—missing bits of what he’s
cleared? Like, being clean shaved, but just missing a little bit? And I know the gray hair, I know it’s gray hair on
his, on his face.
W OMAN. I can picture that, him doing that. I can’t remember [inaudible]—
J ANE. OK, but I have . . . and you would have to know
that he was great, there was great attention to detail.
Like, so he could do very fine work. Very fine work. So
he’d put, like, things that are very small together. And
it’s almost like I’m putting—I want to say clocks. But I’m
putting small, like engineering-type things together.
I’m working in small detail. [Five-second pause.] No.
W OMAN. Not to my knowledge.
Jane, like all confident mediums, knows what she sees.
She sees an old man who probably spent time in the military
and paid attention to details, although in his later years he
had trouble shaving his face evenly. Two women who had
seemed like possible respondents have not recognized the
description, so Jane presses on. Eventually, one audience
member, Patty, answers positively.
J ANE. Let me see where he’s going. OK, let me just
get more information from him. I know I have great
detail—and I also have to say he would, there would
have been a period of his time where he would have
been in the country. So this gentleman hasn’t been always in the city, but I know he has time in the city. I’m
coming back here, am I?
PATTY. Um, I think you are, but I wasn’t picking up on it
J ANE. That, that’s OK. So you would understand that he
would have had great attention to detail? And . . . you
would understand, towards the end of his life he starts
to . . . forget a few things?
J ANE. Yes. OK . . . . I feel like there was a period of time
he was by himself, that he was by himself, that he was
living by himself, or he was in a home by, or, like, he was
by himself. There was a period of time.
PATTY. I have trouble with that.
J ANE. OK. So, if I say to you—in which case I feel like
he, with his shaving, he was doing it himself. That he
wasn’t getting help. I know that he’s not getting help.
PATTY. I wasn’t there. That’s possibly true, and for the
circumstances, I believe that.
Volume 46 Number 4 November 2019
J ANE. That’s—right, OK. And would you understand
that this is not brother, this is Dad? Your dad in spirit
J ANE. And is it, do you, is this, does this fit for your father? [Jane repeats her question because Patty is hard of
hearing.] Does this fit for your father?
PATTY. The person you’re describing is my father.
J ANE. Right, OK. That’s what I felt. I was, felt like I was
with Dad. I wanted to say Dad. OK.
In this remarkable stretch of dialogue, Patty moves
from suspecting the reading might be for her—“I think you
are, but I wasn’t picking up on it before”—to positively identifying the person in Spirit who is communicating through
Jane: “The person you’re describing is my father.” (It is possible that Patty had sensed her father’s presence; I did not
ask her about this.) Note that on her way to this affirmation,
Patty does not quite agree with two details: she has “trouble
with” the statement that her father lived alone, and cannot
verify if he had help shaving.
Jane asks if Patty wants her to use a microphone, and
Patty says no. Jane says she will stay close to Patty. She now
works to confirm the identification of the person in Spirit:
J ANE. So, you would understand father to be in the
spirit world, and father to—
J ANE. OK. And you understand that he was great with
attention to detail and fine work, like putting things together.
J ANE. OK. ’Cause I just know he can put, like, little bits
and pieces and put, build things—
PATTY. Right, I, I understand.
Having confirmed that Jane is in touch with Patty’s father, Jane and Patty then discuss details of his character
and experiences. A portrait emerges. Patty’s father lived a
long life but has now passed away. He paid attention to
fine details in his work. He served in the Air Force, and was
awarded a service medal. Jane checks with Patty that her father spent some time in the countryside (“Yes, deployment
during the war.”) At one point, the conversation takes an
amusing detour. Jane mentions boys and girls, and Patty responds that in her family there are only girls “that we know
of.” Like many talented mediums, Hall is an adept spontaneous performer, and here she and Patty both show comic
flair as they discuss the possibility that Patty’s father had
children with a girlfriend. Jane says, “I didn’t want to say
that,” and Patty responds with a statement of pure Spiritualist evidence-based affirmation: “We’re being accurate.” Jane
credits the spirit world with providing this unexpected bit of
evidence: “It’s funny what they can come through” with.
Jane goes on to say that Patty’s father has “a certain
amount of . . . apology coming through,” presumably in
reference to the extramarital affair. She poses a new question to Patty, asking if he was a pilot in the Air Force. Patty
says no. Jane, as a confident medium, insists on details she
feels are correct even though the recipient is not verifying
them: “I have to say there must have been times when he
did fly, though”; “I just know that I have to talk about aircraft”; “I keep seeing birds everywhere”; “I just know I have
to talk about birds, and I have to talk about aircraft.”
In the final part of their exchange, Jane and Patty discuss Patty’s family relations, and Jane delivers two messages
from the spirit world.
J ANE. There must be one of your sisters that you’re quite
J ANE. OK. But one sister . . . in the spirit world?
PATTY. No, one . . . sister is, is, a—away sideways . . . .
J ANE. Right. OK. ’Cause I just felt like . . . one’s, like,
here, and then you’re close with one here. OK. So . . .
out of the two of you that are . . . close, you are probably more . . . close with the one that’s distant than your
sister. It’s like one of you’s written off, and I feel like
PATTY. You’ve got it twisted, but yeah, I’ve got the whole
idea. You’re absolutely right.
J ANE. OK. You understand . . . . I just knew I had to talk
about the three of you and one being—it felt like in
Spirit to me, like she was that sort of far away. Now, you
would also know mum to be in Spirit?
J ANE. OK. ’Cause I just feel like mum’s also just here as
well. But I’m just gonna wrap up . . . . She doesn’t want
to miss out. She just wants to come through and say
hello as well. We’ve got the cat, we’ve got the whole
family here today! [Jane laughs.] So, just know that
mum’s wanting to . . . say hello, and . . . to be remembered. Now, you must—I just have to say, is there a connection with your mum and the full moon?
How to speak like a spirit medium
PATTY. No [inaudible].
Jane. OK. OK. Because I just want you to, I, I just feel like
on the next full moon, be aware, ’cause your mum will
PATTY. Thank you very much.
Jane returns to the topic of Patty’s sisters and learns
they are both alive, but one of them is estranged. She mentions Patty’s mother, who has passed away, and delivers the
first message: Her mother wants to say hello and be remembered. All the family in the spirit world are gathered
around, even the cat whose spirit Jane brought through earlier in the service. The second message is a personal symbol for Patty: the full moon will represent her mother’s presence. Patty then takes the initiative of closing the exchange
by saying thank you, and slightly more than 12 minutes after it began, the reading is over. Jane moves on to her next
spiritual engagement, a young man who was killed in an
The most intriguing moment of this final section is
not the messages but Patty’s response to Jane’s description of the sisters’ relationship: “You’ve got it twisted, but
yeah, I’ve got the whole idea. You’re absolutely right.” Even
though she is talking about living people, Patty’s words are
an evocative response to Spiritualist mediums’ speech practices in general. Mediums’ speech is conversational, but
speaking with the dead is never entirely straightforward
because of their existential otherness. Patty characterizes
Jane’s description of her sisters as both “twisted” and “absolutely right”—like seeing the situation through a refracted
lens, not quite in balance with normal human understanding and yet somehow ultimately correct.
The reading is a success, then, but one reason it is
successful is that Jane’s conversational questions, Patty’s
responsiveness, and her noes have helped generate a sense
that what is finally being provided is evidence. Patty’s father
might not have lived alone or had trouble shaving, but
he did pay attention to details and win a military service
medal. Patty’s sister might not have passed away, but
she is not really with us, either—she is estranged, “away
sideways.” As Bauman (2004, 152) argues for performances
of spoken mediation, “Not only does the mediator bear
responsibility for replicating the author’s text [in this case,
signs from the spirit world] correctly, but performance also
renders him accountable for reproducing it well.” Reproducing it well means passing on one’s impressions and
receiving verification or rejection from the audience in a
conjunction of dialogues (in Bauman’s terms) until a recognizable character is developed and message conveyed. The
medium’s plainness of speech reflects the demonstration’s
purpose of providing “proof of survival” and contributes to
the medium’s authoritative position as a speaker who has
developed the necessary skills for providing evidence of life
In writing of negative responses in terms of failure, I
am using my own category. Spiritualists, however, do recognize that some mediums work more effectively than others. (Hall has a very good reputation.) And the awkwardness
in a room is palpable when there are many noes and long
silences, something both mediums and audiences sense
keenly. Yet speaking too much of failure would be frowned
on because of the principle that mediums need to be confident even when things are not going well. (In the 15th week
of the Ivorys’ mediumship course, I made self-deprecating
comments about how I had done in the public-speaking exercise that night. Lynette instructed me, “You must never
put yourself down.”) Hall’s demonstration was a success by
Spiritualist criteria. She received impressions and recognizably described a deceased person to a responsive recipient,
then passed on messages. This success, however, was not
automatic. Generating what counted as evidence included
negative responses ultimately leading to an interactive, general agreement.13
Let the dead speak
When humans speak with existential Others, communication always crosses a gap of some sort. In attempting
to cross this gap, many ritual practitioners have developed speaking styles in which they, the spirits, or both
parties speak in markedly abnormal ways. But some do
the opposite. Mental mediums in Spiritualism are a group
whose stylistic distinction is to be undistinctive. To be sure,
they use some insider terms, and their demonstrations
follow patterns. First a spirit’s presence is sensed. Next
an audience member is identified. Questions are asked
and evidence is presented, verified, or dismissed. Finally,
the medium passes along a message. But the tone of the
medium’s voice does not vary with the introduction of
each new person from the spirit world, and philosophically
remarkable claims are made in a moderate, conversational
Spiritualist mediums’ speech highlights the limits of
a focus on heteroglossia in understanding human interaction. Although all discourse is dialogic, speakers work to
de-emphasize dialogism for many reasons: for example, to
make claims of universal truth and incontestable authority (Tomlinson and Millie 2017). In Australian Spiritualism,
mental mediums represent multiple distinct characters in a
single voice, framing the ritual event as a conversation (albeit one taking place across planes of existence). The content of this conversation is meant to be evidential. Mediums
recognize, however, that audience members, like all conversation partners, might be confused, distracted, or shy,
and mediums learn that speaking confidently means that
the signs they describe are more likely to be taken up by
Volume 46 Number 4 November 2019
the audience as evidence. Key lessons mediums provide anthropologists, then, are that mediation should not be conflated with heteroglossia, and that heteroglossia should not
be conflated with aesthetically and practically powerful performance. One can speak in an everyday way to deliver a
ritually effective, emotionally engrossing, and aesthetically
The ordinariness of mediums’ speech reflects Spiritualist philosophy. Life in the spirit world is not so different from life here, and you can talk with your late loved
ones in the relaxed way you did when they were physically
alive. The point of a medium’s demonstration is ultimately
to provide proof of life after death by communicating details of a deceased person’s life that could only come from
that person. Mediums, recipients, and spirit figures participate in a conjoined dialogue in which failure is not just an
ever-present possibility but an ingredient in success. Mediums’ speech is casual, then, but successful performances
are rarely smooth.
Spiritualist mediums’ performances are compelling because they command attention, and they can do notably
well or poorly, even though Spiritualist philosophy holds
that it is ultimately up to the people in Spirit to decide to
show up and communicate. Most often, the medium receives both negative and positive responses from audience
members, and persists with questions until a recognizable
character is generated interactively. The understanding that
undergirds the medium’s demonstration is that people in
the spirit world want to communicate, so the medium’s
agency is backgrounded to the extent that people in the
spirit world need to give her signs that she can relay to audience members: a yellow daffodil, a military medal, a badly
shaved beard. Audience members pick up these signs—
usually—and, working with the medium, turn them into
recognizable characters. Successful readings contribute to
mediums’ reputations and, in words spoken simply, foster
the sense that life goes on forever.
Acknowledgments. My thanks to the committee and members
of the Canberra Spiritualist Association, and especially Lynette and
Norman Ivory, for allowing me to conduct research among them
and offering generous guidance and insights. Work in Canberra is
part of the Discovery Grant project “Social Engagement in Spiritualism” (DP170100563), funded by the Australian Research Council and co-conducted with Andrew Singleton. I am grateful to Andrew and Timothy Jenkins, Marianne Lien, Francesca Merlan, Niko
Besnier, Michael W. Scott, and Henrik Sinding-Larsen for feedback
on drafts of the article, as well as Pablo Morales and the reviewers
for American Ethnologist. All errors are my own.
1. Anthropological insights are sparked from moments in ritual
performance when things do not go smoothly; indeed, “the very
potential for failure is one measure of the consequentiality of a social action” (Keane 2018, 70). Classic examples of ritual failure include E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1976, 103) on a Zande healer who cannot produce evidence of healing (because Evans-Pritchard stole the
“object of witchcraft”), and Clifford Geertz (1957) on an officiant
who refuses to officiate at a Javanese funeral.
2. The idea that knocks signify yes or no responses from spirits
was not first developed in Hydesville. Andrew Lang (1901, 165), describing this practice in Britain’s “Cock Lane” ghost investigation of
the early 1760s, refers to two previous examples, apparently European, in the first half of the 16th century.
3. On these issues, see the work of Laurence Moore (1977, chap.
4), Ann Braude (1989), Alex Owen (1989), John Durham Peters
(1999, esp. chap. 2), and Drew Gilpin Faust (2008). Jeffrey Sconce
(2000, 47) connects two of these strands in his description of 19thcentury Spiritualism, which he says linked “electromagnetism and
femininity in a divine alliance.”
4. I have not witnessed but have heard of a flickering, onthe-edge kind of materialization that takes place when mediums
begin to adopt mannerisms of the person in the spirit world
with whom they are communicating. For example, when I interviewed the medium Sarah Jeffery in December 2018, she mentioned “bringing through an older gentleman, and feeling . . . the
whole body sort of slumping forward, and the eyes not being quite
open. And then realizing that the recipient is looking at me going, ‘Oh my God, I can see my dad,’ or . . . ‘You’ve just done that
5. From this point on, I write about mediums with feminine pronouns because women dominate Spiritualist practice, and I want
to avoid awkward “she or he” phrasings.
6. Only once have I heard a medium during a CSA service speak
in a different tone of voice indicating that she was speaking as a
spirit. My notes from that service, which took place in February
2017, are brief: “The day’s medium . . . spoke in the voice of Spirit
during her opening speech, which was a kind of prayer. When Spirit
spoke, it was in a slightly higher, more nasal voice than her own.
The message was a generic one about unity and love.” (“Spirit” is
the Spiritualist divine principle, a holistic and all-encompassing
energy rather than an individual. It can also be shorthand for the
spiritual world, as when deceased people are described as being “in
Spirit.”) Another kind of speech is called direct voice mediumship,
in which “a voice . . . speaks independently of the medium’s vocal
organs” (Connor 1999, 212–13), sometimes amplified by a trumpetshaped megaphone. I have not seen direct voice practiced at the
7. Many mediums say they work with guides, or spirit figures
who help and protect them. During demonstrations at CSA services, however, mediums do not usually refer explicitly to their
guides. In Australian Spiritualism, guides do not have the outsized
public presence of New Age figures like Ramtha, a spirit famously
channeled by the American author J. Z. Knight (Brown 1997; see
also Manning 2018).
8. The scholarship on Spiritualist history is immense, but the
ethnography is not as well developed. Two scholars who have conducted participant observation are Vieda Skultans (1974), who focuses on illness and healing among South Wales (UK) Spiritualists,
and David Gordon Wilson (2013), a practicing medium and religious studies scholar who worked with Spiritualists in Edinburgh
and argues that Spiritualist mediumship is a variety of shamanism,
both practices being forms of spiritual apprenticeship.
9. I identify mediums by their real names. “Patty,” the audience member in Jane Hall’s demonstration, has been given a
10. In this transcription and those that follow, I aim for simplicity
of presentation. Ellipses indicate brief snippets of deleted speech.
I have deleted most placeholders like “um” and “ah” and some
minor repetitions. Some unintelligible speech is marked by “[inaudible],” although I have not indicated all instances. Recording
conditions are not optimal in the Pearce community center.
How to speak like a spirit medium
11. “To make money,” some readers might respond. Here, I do
not address the economic dimensions of Spiritualist mediumship,
but can mention that even top mediums in Canberra have day jobs,
so I suspect they do not earn enough from private mediumship for
a full-time living wage. Sunday services of the CSA are free and open
to the public. Small donations are accepted but not required, and
mediums are usually not paid for public demonstrations.
12. A minor exception is when a medium feels she has received
a specific word that will remind the living of someone deceased.
For example, in a service in March 2018, the medium Jane Hall explained that she sensed the word “fiddlesticks” in connection with
a woman in the spirit world: “I know with this lady. It’s a really funny
thing to say, but I have to say, ‘Fiddlesticks.’ So, I don’t know if
this lady used the word [she laughs] ‘fiddlesticks’ . . . it’s a funny
thing to do. It’s almost like I have to say, ‘My body deteriorates,
13. What Jon Bialecki (2017, 171) points out for members of the
Vineyard movement is also apt for Spiritualists: There is a “purposeful culturing of doubt that creates an effect much like the crumple zone of a car,” letting smaller failures preserve larger truths—
a point made in a slightly different way by Evans-Pritchard (1976,
107) when he notes that “skepticism explains failures of [Zande]
witch-doctors, and being directed toward particular witch-doctors
even tends to support faith in others” (see also Hüsken 2007, 350;
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———. 1984. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Edited and translated by Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
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Department of Social Anthropology
University of Oslo
Eiler Sundts Hus, Moltke Moes vei 31
0851, Oslo, Norway
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