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I am a restless writer of fiction, film, and music. I scripted such films as 9 and ½ Weeks, Sommersby, Impromptu (personal favorite), What Lies Beneath, and All I Wanna Do which I also directed. Both my documentaries, Marjoe and Thoth, won Academy Awards. Formerly a recording artist, I continue to write music, posting songs on my website. I live in New York with my husband James Lapine. My second novel, the paranormal thriller Jane Was Here, was published in 2011. My latest film, Learning to Drive, starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, came out in August 2015, now available on VOD, DVD, and streaming media. This blog is a paranormal memoir-in-progress, whenever I have spare time. It's a chronicle of my encounters with ghosts, family phantoms, and other forms of spirit.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

At Home With a Ghost - 61


On set of Marjoe. Photo by Jeanne Field.

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

I began this memoir by recounting my first contact with the spirit of my grandfather in 1974. Yet he was not my first ghost. Three years before, I had an unexpected run-in with the front office: the supreme all-infusing Holy Ghost.

It was July 1971, a hot and humid night in Texas. Parishioners attending the evening service sat on folding seats and fanned their faces with paper paddles. A country-western band played their original composition “God I Love You”; the pedal steel swooned around the singer. What was I doing in a Pentecostal revival tent in Fort Worth?

I had only attended Christian church services a few of times in my life, on the insistence of my mother. My dad, adamantly agnostic, used to claim with a straight face that he was a Druid, or “Druish.” Meanwhile Mom had four children to raise, with little energy remaining to drag us all to the local Episcopal church, which had no ramp for her wheelchair anyway. She let the matter slide.

By the time I turned ten, I was in love with Greek mythology and showed every sign of becoming a pagan. Mom got the idea to turn me over to her mother, who was passing through New York, asking her to introduce me to the church experience. My grandmother’s religious affiliation was indeterminate, as she was always shopping for sects. I took the train in from Connecticut; Grandma scooped me up and plunked me down in the vast, packed Madison Square Garden to hear Billy Graham, her new crush.

The ensuing yell-fest traumatized me. When my mother met my train afterwards, she picked up a quiet, cowed, unnervingly polite child. I was so afflicted with sin, and remorse for sin, that I went on a goodness binge for a week. Yet I knew so little about what defined a sin that it seemed I could make no move without committing one. Practice-kissing the mirror was vain and carnal. Stealing my brother’s dirty books and not returning them: lust and theft. And candy? It was discouraged in my home, on account of the dentist bills for my mouthful of silver fillings. I ate it in secret, which made it a lie. Gluttony, falsehood, and cavities. The noose of sin drew tighter.

Eventually I began to suspect God wasn’t watching. The thought brought me great spiritual comfort. I stole my parents’ marriage manual; my tongue turned green from lime lollipops; my dark side, sensing the coast was clear, crept back from exile.

Still, Mom felt guilty that she had not given her children a religious education. My two older brothers were teenagers and no longer meek enough. There was still hope, however, for my younger brother and me. Mom dressed us up and dropped us off at the nearest spire, St. Paul’s Church, along with a small sealed envelope containing a quarter for the collection plate. We knew no one in the congregation, and were too shy to ask for help deciphering the service, which was utterly bewildering. How did people know when to stand up, sit down, or kneel? We didn’t realize that the numbers posted on the bulletin board were hymn numbers and not page numbers; opening the hymnal at the wrong place, we could never find the songs everyone sang. Plus, even at one hour, the service was excruciatingly long. My brother and I were hungry.

One morning at Holy Communion, whatever that was, I dared to go to the altar and kneel at the rail with some other people to get a snack. The body of Christ turned out to be a thin scrap of something that tasted like office paste (which, in larger quantity, was delicious, but in wafer form was just a cruel tease). The priest deliberately didn’t tip the chalice far enough for me to get even a drop of the blood of Christ. I think he knew pretty well I was not confirmed and shouldn’t be hanging there with my tongue out in the first place.

So it came to pass that my little brother and I associated church with two things: hunger, and feeling like idiots. One Sunday, when we were deposited at St. Paul’s, instead of entering I tore open the offering envelope and extracted the quarter. About a half mile away, a brisk fifteen-minute walk, was a tiny convenience store the kids called The Louse House because it was run by a woman named Louise. Louise sold penny candy. A quarter bought twenty-five pieces, from a huge variety in her display case. Twelve pieces for me, twelve for little bro, and we could split the twenty-fifth, snapping the last raspberry licorice shoelace in half. Fifteen minutes to walk to the store, ten to buy the candy, and fifteen minutes to eat all of it on the way back to church, joining the congregation streaming out of the service just when my mother arrived to pick us up: it was a perfect plan.

The Louse House orgy came to an end when Mom stopped Sunday deliveries without explanation. I think that chauffeuring kids to cello, piano, violin, oboe, and trumpet lessons, soccer practice, the allergist and, all too often, the dentist, Monday to Saturday, was punishment enough for her sins. She really did need a day of rest.

My next exposure to Christian ritual came in prep school. Weekday mornings at Rosemary Hall began with chapel service. It was pleasant enough, and brief: ten minutes of mad singing and very little worshipping. I loved the music, so I joined the chapel choir to do some more of it. Thus I innocently committed to show up for Sunday services. The tedium of a full-length service was a revelation. I quit the choir. There was one particular image I took away, when at the climax of the service the minister approached the altar and raised the gold collection plate of cash to show Jesus the fruits of his sacrifice. It offended me that faith should be mixed up with money.

In college, Religion 101 was a required freshman course. Here I honed my objections to Christianity. Like my father, I ticked off the items that strained credulity. For example, why did God the Father need to have a gender, which can only be determined by examining someone’s sex organs? Surely God was bigger than anatomy. Most important, why was it a Christian deal-breaker that we accept Jesus as divine? Why couldn’t he just be the son of Joseph and descendant of King David, as the apostle Luke claimed; why couldn’t we just recognize him as a great and wonderful teacher for the ages? Or was the Son of God a better plot device to lure people into the theater? And get their money. The whole enterprise felt fraudulent.

I seemed to have a much higher opinion of God than the one that scripture described, and a lower concept of Jesus. Still, I was moved by flashes of beauty and wisdom in the text. And I would miss the music.

Meeting Marjoe Gortner, when I was 23, brought the issue of fraud into full spotlight. At the time, I was a budding screenwriter; my boyfriend Howard Smith was a newspaper and radio journalist. One day Howard was approached for an on-air interview by a lanky, handsome, charismatic man with a scrapbook under his arm. The contents were staggering. Photos and news clippings from the 40’s and 50’s revealed this man’s early career as a child preacher. His parents, both Pentacostal preachers themselves, ordained him when he was three; promoting their son as the world’s youngest minister, they coached the bright little boy to perform a wedding ceremony at the age of four. Filmed by Paramount News, the stunt was shown in newsreels all over the country, and little Marjoe Gortner the holy-rolling phenomenon was launched. He told the press he received his sermons directly from God; he filled churches and revival tents throughout the Bible Belt, healed some of the sick, made it into Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and earned his family a lot of cash in offerings over the years.

The Great Gantry
By the time Marjoe approached puberty, the “child of God” act was wearing thin; his father absconded with all the money, creating a simmering resentment toward his parents and mistrust of people in general that never left Marjoe. He ran away, knocked about on his own in California through most of his adolescence. Then, in his twenties, he went back on the evangelical circuit – for the money. Preaching was what he knew best how to do, and if he could keep up the man-of-God masquerade for six months, winning souls to the Lord, he could make enough money to chill with his hippie friends for the remaining six. Congregations welcomed grown-up Marjoe heartily. He cut a spectacular figure in foppish mod threads; he moved like a rock star; his sermons were riveting. They paid up. He did the same thing the next year. And then he found he couldn’t stop.

In Marjoe’s entire life, he had never believed in God. On the other hand, the power he held over parishioners, the excitement and the adulation, bound him to the church as firmly as faith. He was, in his own words, “a religion addict.”

When he met us, he had just arrived in New York to take a whack at an acting career. If he could achieve stardom, it would replace the high he got from preaching. But he had no patience to start at the bottom. A radio interview with my partner Howard was just the exposure Marjoe needed to lift him above the crowded pool of anonymous actors struggling for recognition.

I don’t know why I thought it was such a good idea to make a film about this two-faced preacher. Documentaries were not commercially viable then. There was really only one distributor who exhibited them. But Howard knew the guy. And I don’t know why this distributor and his millionaire partner thought it was such a good idea to finance the project, but they gave us the money immediately. From there everything went very fast. Looking back, it was as if a wind blew eerily at our backs, a wind that would blow us straight to the Oscars, where we accepted the feature documentary award for Marjoe two years later.

Howard and me with two bad boys
Marjoe had agreed to let us shoot him on tour, cautioning us to be on our best behavior and blend in with the born-agains. “They already accept me as real, so, with me bringing you in, they’ve already accepted you, too. Just call everyone Brother this or Sister that, and they’ll be happy.” He also agreed to expose all the cons and tricks that ministers, radio and TV evangelists, and Marjoe himself employed to whip up a congregation and extract money for “ministries,” cash that was mostly used to line their own pockets.

One of Marjoe’s gimmicks was the sale of “prayer cloths,” actually cheap red bandanas; if the believer really believed, and prayed hard over these schmattes, blessings and salvation might follow. For an additional sum, people could line up and Marjoe would personally “lay hands” on them; God’s grace would flow through his touch. If he laid on hands extra hard, some would be seized with joy and fall to the ground. And when the Holy Ghost was present, folks could experience the “infilling of the spirit,” to be set free from their troubles for a moment, an hour, a day, maybe ever after.

Marjoe laying on hands
We had already filmed revivals in Los Angeles and Anaheim, so we’d grown accustomed to the sight of evangelicals, overcome with ecstasy, writhing on the floor, speaking in tongues, weeping, beaming, after being harangued with threats of hell and damnation by crooked ministers who were blatantly manipulating them. (The minister in this particular church in Fort Worth was later arrested for running stolen cars across the Mexican border.) But on this Texas summer night, my cynicism faded.

I became transfixed, instead, by the manifest beauty of the same sight: of people released, to dance, sing, quake and faint, giving themselves completely to a ghost, a vibe that permeated everyone. I envied their child-like porousness. It didn’t matter how they got to that state, or how much they’d paid: they were euphorically happy in these moments. The only time I’d felt like that was when I took LSD. These enraptured folks took pharmaceutical-grade Belief. I wished I had some. I wanted to be infilled by Spirit.

Marjoe said, toward the end of our film, “If I could just do the faith number, and get up and say, ‘Okay, everybody, let’s really get loose this afternoon, get rid of our hang-ups and have nice group therapy,’ that would be great. But you can’t do it that way. I have to throw in the sin and damnation and ‘you’re all going to hell’ – it’s got to all be done under this fa├žade of holiness.”

Yet he was a gifted preacher, good enough to give folks a taste of pure Spirit – almost in spite of himself. A friend once asked him, “What if Jesus was working through you anyway?” What if a conman could still be a conduit?

Marjoe looked wistful. He knew he was the very definition of a sinner. But could you lie, eat candy, fool everyone and hate your parents, and still be good?

That film about a religion addict set me on the highway to find heaven, running through checkpoints and scattering traffic cones, to seek my own Belief. Ghosts lay ahead, all with something to teach. One day, I would be infilled by Spirit. But I’d be nowhere near a church.

Thirty years after Marjoe, I made another documentary. A wind at my back propelled me toward another flamboyant subject, this time a dancing, singing, junkie for truth.

(To be continued.)

You may download, rent or buy Marjoe here.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

At Home With a Ghost - 60

Putucuci Mountain and the secret door. All photos by Barbara Doran.

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)


There was no reason for him to be here. The little yellow mutt sat beside my left hiking boot, gazing up at me. He must have crept up from behind, while I was standing at summit’s edge and panicking at the sight of the vertiginous plunge and the infinite stone stairs I’d have to stagger down if I was to reach camp before night fell.

But how did the dog get here? To arrive at my feet on Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point of the Inca Trail, he would have had to climb for a day and a half, just as I had done. Did he belong to a hiker from another group headed for Macchu Pichu, and had somehow gotten lost? Yet dogs were strictly prohibited on the ancient trail.

Nor was he feral. He was not bony, dirty, hungry, tired, or fierce. Instead he was plump and clean, and as friendly as if he had met me on a previous occasion and, after sniffing me thoroughly, judged me to be okay. His brown eyes were sweet. I could have bent down to pet him, except my knees were shot and my legs gone rigid in the cold.

Or was he a spirit? Had the little dog materialized out of the very thin air of the Peruvian Andes, right when I was begging the universe out loud for help to get down the mountain? After all, we were 12,000 feet above reason.

And I did need help. I was the only one left of my group. By now the others were probably halfway to the next mountain, where the porters were setting up tents and cooking dinner. My Outward Bound guide Robert and one of the Peruvian guides remained behind to make sure I survived the long descent. The two men were waiting for me, some thirty steps below; an opaque mist was rising fast to envelop them. Still I couldn’t move. Even with the aid of my hiking poles I had no strength left. I was Dead Woman Not Walking.

My insurance would cover a medivac rescue, if there was room on the pass for a copter to land, or if it could even fly this high. No matter, my friend Arthur had the satellite phone, and he was far away with the rest of the merry band. That left – what? Crawling down on my butt?

The dog seemed to have other ideas. He jumped down to the next stair, turned, and regarded me with encouragement. “You can,” said the brown eyes. So I planted my poles on the step below, and painfully lowered myself to his level. But the animal had already moved on, this time two steps down, where he paused again, offering his faith, and a promise of safety.

I simply couldn’t disappoint him. He’d gone through a lot of trouble to be real.

And that was how we did it: together. Step by step, my knight in yellow fur escorted me down, coaxing me past my pain, giving me the heart to go on. We breached the fog to find Robert and the other guide, who were relieved to see me walking again but mystified by the dog’s presence. I introduced him: “This is Li’l Yeller.” Adding, “If you have any questions, I don’t know.”

We hastened on. Li’l Yeller ran back and forth, romping around the men’s feet, then bounding back to me as I struggled to follow. He always tested the next step before I moved to it, finding the best spot to support my poles, then sending me a look of recommendation. Inky darkness overtook us; we turned on our headlamps.

Then the camp lights came into view. Perhaps smelling the food from the cook tent, the dog raced ahead; this time he didn’t return. I was too exhausted to wonder where he’d gone. Thrusting the flap aside, I fell into my tent and burrowed inside the sleeping bag. My tentmate Barb brought me some food from dinner, but I fell asleep between the first two bites.

Our tent was pitched on an incline. During the night, my sleeping bag gradually slipped downwards until, at dawn, I woke up at the bottom, curled in a fetal position and pressed against the flap. I could hear the breakfast pots clanging and the footsteps of my comrades heading for the makeshift johnny. As I sat up, to my surprise, my muscles obeyed without protest. It seemed that they had finally become habituated to abuse, and that the days of agonizing aches, the seizures and refusals, were behind me.

Something appeared outside the tent opening, a blurred silhouette. I unzipped the flap and stuck my head through. There was my magical mystery mutt, seated on his haunches like a sentry. He turned his head and gave me the brown-eyed once-over. His glance said, “Ah! You’re all right now – good to go. My job’s done.” And he scampered off.

I didn’t see Li’l Yeller again for the remaining two days of the hike. He went ahead with the porters, who had become enchanted with him, feeding him scraps and naming him Picchu (meaning “mountain,” from whence he’d come.) One porter decided to bring him home on the train back to Cusco, as a pet for his kids.

On the fourth day, my group reached our destination, entered the Sun Gate, and beheld the marvels of Machu Picchu. We showered off four days of body mung in a hotel that seemed like a mirage.

The following dawn, we convened to explore the sacred city before the trains of tourists arrived. Arthur decided, instead, to keep climbing. He was determined to scale Waynu Picchu, an even higher mountain nearby that overlooked the ruins.

Waynu Picchu looms over the sacred city

The top native guide recommended against the plan, warning that the path was too primitive and dangerous; only the year before, two people had fallen to their deaths; Arthur could proceed, but on his own and at his own risk. Incredibly, four others from our group leapt to join him. They all geared up and set off for the mountain.

Meanwhile, the porters were ready to go home – but Picchu had disappeared. They searched everywhere for the little dog, but in the end they had to leave without him.

After absorbing all I could of the stupendous Incan ruins, I paused to sit alone and meditate on a grass terrace facing Waynu Picchu. Faraway, one could see Arthur and his gang creeping like ants up the steep green flank of the mountain. I hoped they had some kind of divine protection. And I thought back to my little yellow companion who had appeared and vanished so eerily.

If you are open to the idea of spirit animals, those creatures who act as guides throughout our lives, whether in real form or symbolically, then it becomes fun to identify them. Once, before going to sleep, I experimentally asked my unconscious to reveal my personal spirit animal in a dream. My unconscious obliged. I was shown a wooden rabbit perched like a signpost at the head of my driveway. I was unsurprised; I’ve always adored rabbits and owned many. They represent my soft and vulnerable side, needy of protection and love, that I prefer to hide from most people. Yes, it is true: I’m basically fluffy.

People generally have more than one animal guide, so I asked to glimpse a second one in the next night’s dream. Accordingly, I was shown a painted snake with its jaw encased in a tin muzzle. This one came as a shock: I never imagined a spirit animal could be a creature that has always terrified me. Yet in my dream I was not afraid of the snake; being muzzled, it would not bite me. I grudgingly recognized that, like rabbits, snakes have been a constant throughout my life as well. They tend to show up when I need the message: to take my head out of its cloud hat and look where I’m going. I fear but also admire their stealth, their shape-shifting, their dynamism. If I can accept that the snake is actually on my side and not against me, then it’s a powerful defender for the bunny-self to have.

Was there a third? This time I posed the question while meditating. Suddenly I found myself gazing down into the shallows of a limpid pool. I saw weeds wafting over colored pebbles, small fish flicking by. I stood utterly still on long legs, watching, analyzing...At length I raised up, spread my wings, and flew up into the sky. I was a crane. This was a perfectly apt metaphor for an artist. We stare intently into the secret world of the unconscious, pluck an idea or an image from the depths, and fly away to present our findings to the world.

As I mused on animal guides, in the meantime Arthur and company had arrived successfully at Waynu Picchu’s peak. On top they found someone already there: a hiker, apparently Jewish because he wore a tallis shawl, who was seated on the ground in meditative prayer, eyes open and focused on an invisible point beyond. As Arthur looked on, a huge condor swooped down and alighted in front of the praying man. The bird folded its wings and stared straight into the man’s eyes. Neither moved. Minutes passed. At last the bird turned away and sailed back into the air. The man blinked, then rose and quietly gathered his things, not acknowledging the new arrivals as he passed them to begin the hike down.

It was then that Arthur and his friends saw another animal was present. It was Picchu. How he got to the top of the peak, no one could imagine. This time, the dog was completely exhausted, with nothing left in him to go down. This time, he was the one rescued. One of the group carried Picchu all the way to the bottom in his arms, and, in the process, fell so deeply in love with the little mutt that he resolved to take him back to U.S., no matter what it took to get him out.

The divine Picchu, saved

After moving heaven and hell, hacking at red tape and offering bribes, Picchu’s savior had to admit failure. The dog remained in Peru, and the expedition cook took charge of him, intending to keep him as a family pet. I’ve often wondered if, as the cook approached his house with Picchu at his heels, the man turned around to find the pup gone.

Picchu was a gift of the mountain, after all, to which he returned.

I had one more encounter with the cosmic before leaving the sacred city. On my way out I took a last glance at Putucuci, a third mountain thrusting up between Waynu and Machu Picchu, like a green-mittened hand with the thumb folded in. As I stared, I felt an immense pressure pulling me toward the mountain – so potent that I had to grip the railing to keep from being swept off the edge. The fold in the mountainside opened, showing a triangular entrance. The urge to fly overwhelmed me. If I succumbed, if I let go of the rail, if I trusted the power that both compelled and paralyzed me, if I took a few deliberate steps forward, I would leave the parapet and soar over the depthless chasm, through the mountain door and into the mother ship.

Eyes locked on this portal, I could not turn my head. “You’re going to die! Look away! Look away!” I hollered at myself inside. Tourists streamed by, unaware of my battle with reason. Someone jostled me, and broke the trance. I ripped my gaze away from Putucuci, hurrying from the site.

Later I pulled one of the native guides aside to tell him about the experience, asking if this had occurred to anyone else. He allowed that one year, someone stole onto the site during the night and stepped off the edge to his death. “There’s nothing strange that can’t happen up in these mountains,” he added, with an odd faraway look that implied both fear and respect. “Things you can’t even name.”

I had felt that same unseen pressure a few years before, pulling me to a fateful encounter with an unusual man.

(To be continued.)

To Picchu with thanks: