The title of Christine Wicker’s “Not in Kansas Anymore” alludes, of course, to Dorothy’s comment to Toto upon arriving in the Land of Oz. Wicker’s inquiry into “how magic is transforming America” does, in fact, make her much like L. Frank Baum’s corn-fed Kansas farm girl “off to see the Wizard” with some extremely odd companions.
As she travels the length of the Yellow Brick Road she remains true to her quest: to look past appearances and ask serious questions about what magical people do and why; to understand why so many people today are drawn to magic; and to experience it directly, if possible. She succeeds admirably well, not so much at experiencing magic, but at examining why it is thriving in modern America and what it has to offer beyond our amusement at some of its practitioners.
Early in the book Wicker, a former religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News, reminds us that the occult has always been part of American cultural history, from Cotton Mather’s belief in “little sorceries,” to Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, to Baseball Hall of Famer Wade Boggs’ belief that he should eat only chicken on game day.
Magical thinking is more a part of our everyday lives than we may at first realize. “Half or more of Americans believe in psychic or spiritual healing and extrasensory perception,” she says. “One-third believe in haunted houses, possession by the devil, ghosts, telepathy, extraterrestrial beings who’ve visited the earth, and clairvoyance.” In addition, half of Americans believe “that churches and synagogues have lost the real spiritual part of religion.”
Beneath their bizarre exterior, Wicker claims, magical people are individuals who are reconnecting with a world view that we all once shared. “Reaching back to ancient lore, these otherwise average folk summon wonder and mystery and meaning into their lives. They believe humans can change events with their thoughts…. They believe all of life is intricately connected…. They believe in magic.”
But what does it mean to believe in magic? “At its most basic level,” Wicker explains, “it means that there is a stream of power, life, energy, intelligence, spirit, call it what you will, that courses through the universe.” Magical practice is what anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann calls “‘a technology of the sacred,’” an attempt “to understand, to channel, and to control” that power or energy.
Although she often questions the validity of her investigation, Wicker, an ex-Baptist, maintains an open mind even in the oddest circumstances: attending the Vampire and Victims Ball, visiting the grave of Zora Neale Hurston with a hoodoo worker, participating in a Wiccan coming of age ceremony, conversing with a middle-aged couple who believe they are elves.
Many of the people Wicker encounters during her investigation into the magical are bona fide weirdos, people who believe they are vampires, witches or werewolves, and dress and act accordingly. Some, Wicker finds, are not only strange but also repulsive. Dealing with them is initially difficult for her.
Her attempts at experiencing magic are in some ways the least interesting parts of the book, precisely because the individuals with whom she must interact are so freakish. A Satanist named Siva, the Satanic Outreach Director for the Church of Euthanasia, who believes in suicide, cannibalism and bestiality, but also claims to have much in common with Jesus Christ, is a bit hard to take.
Wicker initially wants to back away, but she doesn’t. Instead she continues to question Siva and discovers that he isn’t being flippant. Like Jesus, Siva “opposes societal repression, rouses people up, and rescues important parts of human experience by mentioning things and performing actions that society considers abhorrent.” Jesus violated many important taboos of the society of his time. Siva does likewise today.
Wicker says that “one of the hardest turns to make in understanding magical people … is coming to grips with the difference between lies, fantasy, and mythical or greater truths.” But, she adds, “the same might be said of the major religious traditions, and has been said, much to the fury of the more fundamentalist faithful.”
She reminds us that “we are not always good at finding the truth, but we are good at making meaning. We create reality, through what we notice and how we talk about it. Society programs us to see and speak a certain way,” but she asks, “aren’t there many ways?”
She believes that we are not born into the world “only for confusion and disillusionment.” We are here also “to savor the numinous, to wander through the shifting corridors of meaning, and to follow them wherever they take us.” She cautions, “What we must not do is allow ourselves to be cut off from our own experience of life as it presents itself to us. If we do, we will have lost the very ground beneath our feet.”
The book contains numerous interesting details about magical practices, from Wicca to Santeria. And it presents a host of oddball characters, some amusing and some inspiring. But if you’re looking for what Wicker calls the “ookie-wookie-spookie,” you won’t find it here. She experiences no dramatic magical moments. She sees her investigation as “funny, messy, mysterious, absurd, and wonderful, like a great postmodern myth, a little microcosm of life.”
The Wizard turns out to be sham and flash, but that doesn’t mean that there is no magic. Dorothy learns that if she closes her eyes and taps the ruby slippers together she can get what she wanted all along by using the power of her own mind and heart. Wicker learns something similar. We don’t have to sport fangs or drink blood to work a little magic.