Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars
This 1987 American Book Award Winner by Dorothy A. Bryant masterfully blends the narrator’s spiritual journey through the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, WWI in Europe, the Great Depression as a laborer and union organizer, and WWII from a pacifist’s perspective, until she finally discovers spiritual peace in a psychiatric hospital.
Story: This ambitious and enchanting novel is both modern-day epic and a work of great emotional and spiritual death. Bold in its historical scope, rich in colorful settings, and eminently readable, Confessions of Madame Psyche also reaches inward, toward quieter truths.
The novel is narrated by Mei-li Murrow, born in San Francisco in 1895, the illegitimate daughter of a charismatic confidence man and the Chinese prostitute he has “rescued” from the streets. After her mother’s early death, Mei-li is left in the care of her mercenary half-sister Erika. When the young Mei-li, by pure coincidence, predicts the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, Erika constructs her identity as “Madame Psyche”–exploiting Mei-li’s exoticism and her clients’ yearnings for contact with the dead in a series of ingeniously orchestrated seances that win her renown as a medium in California and then in the death-soaked Europe of the First World War.
Ironically, it is when she manages to finally reject the popular “spirituality” that has made her famous that Mei-li experiences a truer spiritual vision: One day, while walking on the beach, she has a revelation of her connection to all of life – “an experience of hidden reality which I have never doubted…and which left me permanently changed by what I then knew and know still and will always know.”
Mei-li’s subsequent journey leads her through the aspirations and disappointments of a utopian commune in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the 1920s; to the poverty of migrant work camps in the Depression-era Salinas Valley; and to the courage of the first strikes on San Jose’s cannery row. Finally, when the relentless Erika cheats her out of an inheritance by having her committed to the Napa State Hospital, Mei-li finds her greatest wisdom and peace among the outcasts of the asylum–and there writes her “confessions.” (From Amazon.com)
Spiritual/metaphysical content: High. About ten pages into the 1919 – 1926 section, Bryant describes a spiritual experience, probably her own, in achingly vivid prose. She ends by stating that “I never saw it as a temporary flight from reality. It was the opposite, an experience of hidden reality which I have never doubted.” That singular event is the string upon which the remainder of her life experiences are threaded. From founding a commune in the redwoods to choosing to live at an asylum, every action she takes is aimed at coming to terms with that event. Although her metaphysical encounter differed vastly from my own, her half-page description of that singular event rang true for me; she was writing from her soul.
My take: Dorothy Bryant’s remarkable research into the history of spiritualism and psychology in the first half of the twentieth century, blended with her extraordinary metaphysical insight, made this book an instant classic for me. At once both epic and intensely personal, the story illustrates how difficult it is to realizes one’s full spiritual potential, even if we are lucky enough to realize what that potential is and have the resources and the discipline to reach for it.
Confessions of Madame Psyche, by Dorothy Bryant
Published by Ata Books, 1986
Paperback, 393 pages
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