An Interview with Barbara Weisberg

Merlian News: When did you first become interested in the esoteric?

Barbara: When I was in college, I had an English roommate who used to regale me with tales of the poltergeist who lived in her childhood home and with stories of the werewolf she’d once met. She was such a vibrant, intelligent person that I inhaled everything she told me and read everything she recommended. I became fascinated with subjects that weren’t on the school’s curriculum. I even wrote a paper on the evil eye for one of my history classes! As I grew older, however, I found that I didn’t want to focus on what’s been called “the dark side.” There was too much to study of a more positive spiritual nature.

Although my fascination with the Fox sisters initially was spurred by the supernatural aspects of their story, much to my own surprise my interest quickly shifted from the paranormal to the normal—or at least to the social and cultural dimension—of life in the 19th century. I grew increasingly curious about who the girls were and what kind of world they grew up in.

Merlian News: How did you first become interested in writing about the 19th century mediums Kate and Maggie Fox, often considered the founders of American Spiritualism?

Barbara: When I first heard about their story, I was absolutely fascinated by it. I instantly wanted to know more about them, and there were no biographies of the Fox sisters in print. So I decided I had to write one! I didn’t want these extraordinary women to be forgotten.

***image1***After all, they were only teenagers when they sparked the rise of Spiritualism, an international movement that has had an enormous influence on how all of us, Spiritualists and non-Spiritualists alike, envision immortality. Their true story also seemed to me to have all the elements of fiction: beautiful young girls, family conflict, passion, betrayal, thrilling adventures, and mysterious apparitions. And the Fox sisters’ saga is a particularly American rags to riches (and back again) tale, one that speaks to the powerful allure of celebrity in a democratic culture.

Merlian News: Spiritualism was an enormously popular movement in mid-19th century America. According to some estimates, possibly up to eleven million people believed in spirit communication. Why were so many people suddenly open to this idea?

Barbara: Most of us have experienced the sense of urgently missing friends or family members we’ve lost. In the 19th century, this very human yearning for connection was amplified by the times. Not only were mortality rates high, since there were few cures for diseases and other infections, but the culture was in a period of significant transition. With the opening of the Erie Canal and the rise of railroads, individuals suddenly were on the move, coping with grief far away from their extended families and separated from old established networks of kinship, community and church. Lacking mortal connections as they trekked westward across the continent, they increasingly turned to immortal ones for solace.

Another factor was the fascination with the scientific discoveries and technological inventions of the time. The planet Neptune had just been discovered in 1846. The railroads were new, photography was new, the telegraph was new. There was a sense that anything was possible, and the optimism that pervaded the culture at the start of the Fox sisters’ careers gave Kate and Maggie–as well as the spirits–greater legitimacy.

Merlian News: What is the significance of the Fox sisters and Spiritualism for us today?

***image2***Barbara: According to some recent polls, as many as 40 percent of Americans believe that it might be possible to contact the dead. The current interest in talking with spirits seems to me to have been shaped largely by the influence of 19th century Spiritualism, as transmitted through its 20th century offshoot, the spiritual movement that began in the 1960s and that we call the New Age. There is this difference, however. The New Age typically promised an anything-is-possible universe. In its ebullient acceptance of alternate realities, it reflected only one aspect of 19th century Spiritualism. But there are always other potential themes inherent in the subject of spirits. Loss, a wish for comfort, and a desire to reconnect with those we love are topics that are very much on everyone’s mind during these early years of the 21st century.

Merlian News: Was there a special teacher who influenced you?

Barbara: I was blessed to have an opportunity to study poetry for two years with Allen Ginsberg. He was a remarkable man: kind, spiritual, generous with his time and comments, and of course a very gifted poet. He opened every class with a meditation and also used meditation as a way of tapping into the unconscious for the purpose of writing poetry.

The day Ginsberg died, I was in England and I had wandered quite by accident into the church where Blake’s baptismal font is located. Blake was one of the great influences on Ginsberg, and I couldn’t help feeling that some special force had led me there to say farewell.

Merlian News: If you weren’t a writer, what other type of career would you have chosen?

Barbara: I actually had another earlier career as a television producer—I loved it and worked on projects that ranged from situation comedies to children’s shows to documentaries. However, production was a job that took up twenty-four hours of my day and psyche and eventually I became filled with longing to have a different life. I decided to return to school to get my MFA in poetry, and that’s when I met Allen Ginsberg. I love having the time and the opportunity to write now and can’t imagine wanting to do anything else. On a volunteer basis, though, I tutor reading in a New York public school. I guess if I were to change careers one more time, I’d definitely want to teach. It’s difficult but rewarding work, and one truly has an opportunity to make a difference in another person’s life.

Merlian News: What books have been special to you?

***image3***Barbara: Since we’ve been talking in part about the Fox sisters, I’ll mention my experience with Jane Eyre. When I was a young girl and first read Charlotte Bronte’s famous novel, I was riveted by the scene in which Jane sees, or imagines, the ghost of her kindly uncle. Now at the time Jane has been imprisoned in a locked room by her nasty aunt, yet the child is so petrified by this vision of her uncle—the only person who was ever nice to her!—that she screams and falls into a fit. My own grandfather, whom I adored, had recently died. I loved him dearly and, after reading Jane Eyre, I was suddenly transfixed by the thought: if the ghost of my warm-hearted grandfather visited me, would I be terrified and faint dead away like Jane or would I be thrilled to see him? I’ve never had an opportunity to find out, but the question still intrigues me.

Merlain News: What’s your next project?

Barbara: I’m working on another true story that’s set in the 1840s, the period in which the Fox sisters skyrocketed to fame, but right this moment my main focus is on moving from my apartment in the city to a home in the country. Everything is in chaos, and I’m afraid that my mind is a little bit chaotic too at the moment. Still, moving definitely represents a chance to start fresh, to discard old habits along with yellowed files and useless nick knacks. So I’m excited about all the new possibilities that are entering my life

by Merryn Jose
Barbara Weisberg is the author of Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism, a nonfiction account of the lives and times of the two charismatic young sisters generally considered the founders of modern Spiritualism in the 19th century. A published poet and also the author of several children’s books, Weisberg first wrote about the Fox sisters for American Heritage magazine. Before turning to writing full time, she was a television producer whose eclectic credits included creating the situation comedy series “Charles in Charge” and producing “To Care,” a documentary on home care for the terminally ill that was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Weisberg and her family currently live in New York City.