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Small Mediums at Large

Boston Globe Review

March 13, 2005
The mediums are the message
By Caroline Leavitt

When two books about psychics came into my house -- one about 19th-century spiritualist Maggie Fox and one about modern-day clairvoyant Terry Iacuzzo and her family of psychics -- I was thrilled, because as an equal-opportunity believer, I love reading about the occult as much as I love reading about quantum physics. But as I read, I realized clairvoyance was really the subtext, and not the main point, of these stories. These books were more about two unique women at the mercies of their family and their time, each struggling to forge an identity and find her place in the world. And that is something that fascinates me even more than tea leaves or the lines in the palm.

''Small Mediums at Large: The True Tale of a Family of Psychics" (Putnam, $22.95), by Iacuzzo, brings us into the bosom of a dysfunctional Italian-American family of seers living in working-class Buffalo. Iacuzzo's unpredictable and unloving mother ministers to the neighborhood's psychic needs and then threatens her own kids with murder. Sister Rosemary casually foretells catastrophes to shocked strangers, while brother Frank chats with the dead and rages at anyone who dares question his advice. It's only Iacuzzo who doubts her own gifts (she has visions) and who is, in fact, as fearful of her family as she is of her powers.

As soon as she can, she hightails it to New York City in the height of the '70s, to stay with Frank, who's already becoming a celebrity psychic. Unsure what to do with her life, and yearning for love as well as purpose, she trips on acid for days at a time while she wanders the strange and marvelous urban landscape. All things psychedelic -- and psychic -- pull Iacuzzo, and as she navigates this new terrain, she begins to make her way to astrologers, psychics, and palmists, hoping for guidance and, in the end, stubbornly refusing to follow any guru or path not of her own choosing. When Frank finally throws her out, she's forced to emerge from her family's shadow and find her own sort of light.

Iacuzzo is a fresh, funny tour guide. Her you-are-there portraits of New York's sexual and spiritual underbelly are as strange and wonderful as a Fellini film, filled with sťances, palmists, drag queens, and tarot cards, and because she's so ruthlessly honest and skeptical, because she treats her talent so matter-of-factly, I don't doubt a word she says. Clear-eyed, fascinating, and brimming with peppery wit, this book takes us along on Iacuzzo's journey as she claims her place as a clairvoyant and a talented writer.

Honesty and skepticism might be the cornerstones of Iacuzzo's charming debut, but in ''The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox," by Nancy Rubin Stuart (Harcourt, $25), duplicity reigns. Like Iacuzzo, Fox came from a dysfunctional family, but unlike her, she was easily molded. At 16, bored by her country life, she and her sister Katy scared their mother with rapping noises they learned to make with their feet, insisting they were communicating with the dead. But what started as a prank snowballed, and soon there were eager crowds, and then the press, and the young Fox sisters became celebrities, cofounders of a spiritualism movement that would go on to claim over a million passionate followers. Fox, though, was terrified. It wasn't spirits she feared, but being caught at her trickery, and the only other person who knew the truth was her older sister Leah, who kept quiet in exchange for retaining iron control of all monies made -- and of Fox.

Like Iacuzzo, Fox was looking for love and acceptance. Enter Elisha Kent Kane, the famed doctor and Arctic explorer, who became besotted with Fox, despite the violent opposition of his aristocratic family. But love didn't liberate Fox the way she had hoped. Instead, it was yet another control, and Kane was just another person wanting her to be someone she wasn't. He insisted she give up spiritualism and go to a school he himself picked out. He agreed to marry her, but when he died suddenly, the only thing he left her was his parents' ire.

Deep in debt, Fox marinated herself in alcohol. She wrote a book about her affair with Kane, but a Civil War-weary country cared little, and she had to start giving sťances again for money. But the sťances took a toll, and in 1888, Fox shocked the country by proclaiming all spiritualism fakery, going so far as to demonstrate the trickery to packed audiences. Years later, her finances once more in ruins, Fox was forced to recant again, reembracing spiritualism because it was her only way left to make a living.

Stuart has created a richly sympathetic portrait of a fascinating and tragic woman, trapped by her family, her times, and her own aching heart, a woman who, unlike Iacuzzo, didn't have the mettle or the means to make her own way but was swept along in the era's spiritualism fever.

Who do we believe we are -- and why? Both these fascinating books show that family, money, and power all can work to shape or destroy us, but how we respond creates our personalities. Fox was haunted by her deception and cowed by public opinion, but Iacuzzo doesn't care what anyone thinks. And maybe it's that gritty integrity of hers, her willingness to question and explore, that makes me want to call her up and make an appointment.