Mira Ptacin’s The In-Betweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums, and Legends of Camp Etna
By Michael Colbert
April 13, 2020
The In-Betweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums, and Legends of Camp Etna by Mira Ptacin
288 pages, $26.95
Drive two and a half hours inland from Portland, Maine and you might encounter the other-worldly. Mira Ptacin does just this in her second book, The In-Betweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums, and Legends of Camp Etna. Ptacin’s account follows the birth of Spiritualists in 1876 and traces their journey to Maine’s Camp Etna. Inserting herself as a respectful observer, Ptacin ponders spirituality, mortality, ghosts, and place.
Each chapter of Ptacin’s book operates like its own individual essay, which together weave a complex understanding of the history of Spiritualism, mediums, and Camp Etna since its earliest days. She begins with the Fox Sisters, Kate and Margaret, who on a March day in 1848 heard tapping in their Hydesville, New York home and subsequently took the world by storm as they purported to commune with the dead. Their older sister booked them a show in front of an audience of four hundred to answer questions from spirits. Their shows offered a spectacle for audiences to enjoy as they communed with ghosts through a series of questions and taps: one tap for yes and two for no. Perhaps, for many, the spectacle was mainly about seeing two women speak in public, on stage. Though they later admitted to having made it all up, the Fox Sisters paved the way for Spiritualism in the US, and by the 1850s people “were holding séances and gathering to talk to spirits as casually as we gather for Sunday brunches.”
Yet Spiritualism isn’t about reading tarot cards and talking star signs at brunch. Spiritualism is an organized religion, and among its distinguishing beliefs is that “every living human has the power and was born with the tools to access and communicate with that great unknown directly, as well as talk directly to people who have passed and gone back to the big white light.” In her exploration of the religion’s history, Ptacin tracks the formation of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches, necessitated by the persecution of mediums, Spiritualists who were accused of being witches, charlatans, fortune-tellers. Ptacin gently and carefully observes how beliefs within the group diverge. Each source she follows, she gives credence to and allows that voice to be heard without judgment. These guides illuminate diverging understanding of the religion and its practices in contemporary culture.
Chief among these guides is Barbara Williams, a PhD in metaphysics who had her first encounter with spirits as a girl playing with a Ouija board. Williams explains how mediumship “operates on a far deeper level. It helps us understand our genuine nature as an eternal spirit, which in turn brings about peace, and healing.” As an inquisitive, patient observer, Ptacin unpacks the history of Camp Etna, which once drew thousands to its summer sessions and now calculates how to keep the lights on. Ptacin’s inquiry simultaneously blazes her own path of healing and love. She deftly dials into and out of the narrative through a powerful voice and her sharp wit.
This nuance appears in her unveiling of Harry Houdini’s relationship to Spiritualism and mediums. Spiritualism finds women at the helm, yet men still find ways to complicate the practice: “Houdini declared that these séances were a form of legalized fraud (although he himself in his American manhood was now rich from performing magic tricks).” Ptacin’s prose is whip-smart. Through her humor, she acutely renders inequalities or absurdities that act upon the religion. However, mediums and Spiritualists are never the butt of a joke. Instead, Ptacin reveals the ways in which mediums and spiritualists conflict with each other as beliefs and practices develop, and she casts in relief broader social structures that silence women.
Similarly, her investigation moves past the Fox sisters and acknowledges the Native American roots of Spiritualism. In the penultimate chapter, “The Powwow,” Ptacin asks native voices to speak for themselves. When discussing Maine’s history, she acknowledges its white colonization and stealing of land. Her humility in her investigation is key throughout the book. In a book about mediums and the beyond, a writer could focus their inquiry around whether or not the practices are “real.” Ptacin, however, acts like an anthropologist, actively participating without forming judgments. Seeing herself as a “complete neophyte, just a journalist eager to see a ghost,” she clarifies an openness to experience, a removal of preconception. Furthermore, she recognizes her own blind spots throughout:
“I wasn’t here to clarify or verify. What good would it do me–a personal conquest to prove something wrong and me right? The question of whether these Spiritualists were ‘making all this up’ was much more complicated than at first it might seem, because it was an impossible one. Truth and reality had a different meaning to every person at camp, and there was no way to tell if the truth began in their bodies or their minds or a part of their mind or from a voice in the heavens above. Nor did it matter to them, because it felt real…The question wasn’t whether I believed them: the answer was that I believed in them.”
In each chapter, as she dives deeper into this community and reconnects with her teachers and the people she’s come to know at Camp Etna, it becomes more and more apparent the amount of time and energy Ptacin has spent as an unobtrusive observer in the community. When Barbara Williams visits Ptacin’s house to cleanse it of an energy that has always made it feel off, Ptacin acknowledges her own shortcomings, her own skepticism, and fears of getting it wrong: “I pictured how it might go: once the three of us got to my home, Barbara would have already read my every thought. This would be a disaster, because whenever I try to control my inner monologue–in this case, trying to veer it away from my skepticism of ghosts, or of Barbara and Steve’s claims–I respond by automatically conjuring up my least desirable thoughts and images: butts, poop, racism, blood, guts, my parents having sex. It’s a weird response.”
With good humor and humility, Ptacin observes and participates in Spiritualist practices. In each chapter, her engagement with the movers and shakers of Camp Etna is sustained, profound, evidence of trust she builds with the community. So when at Parsonfield Seminary she observes ghost hunters practicing under Williams, people who maybe are like those who’d come to this book looking for something spooky, any judgment passed is earned and compassionate: these ghost hunters disrespect the spirits they pursue, their investigation leaders, and the traditions within which these leaders practice.
As she learns more, Ptacin reflects on what she as an open-minded skeptic has taken away from learning alongside these Spiritualists: “For all I cared, the Spiritualists could have been showing me how to walk on my hands, because what I soon began to see, whether I was upside down or right-side up, were two very blatant things: their faith, and my own lack of it.” She realizes how faith is a matter of making meaning for ourselves. Though Spiritualism offers proof of its veracity, the belief in it is not a matter of attaching oneself to this proof. With Ptacin as our guide, we learn how Spiritualism offers ways to confront our own losses. Throughout the book, several mediums observe Ptacin’s Spirit Guide. As Ptacin spends more time in the community, she wonders if her brother, who died as a teenager, is the one trying to make contact. Though her brother is the principal object of her speculation throughout the text–the mediums tend to identify male spirits around her–toward the end of the book surface her buried feelings on the daughter she lost during pregnancy, the subject of her first memoir Poor Your Soul. These reflections expand beyond herself and beyond Spiritualism to question how we confront grief in the US: “But with death and in life, despite our advances, our common American culture still doesn’t have an effective set of practices that deal with death, or that make any real sense…Current grief culture in the United States is a brief and perfunctory ceremony with no follow-up. Everyone is expected to have closure and move on.”
Diving into The In-Betweens, we learn that the question to ask is not whether mediums, spirits, and the divine are real but instead how we relate to our past and how we open ourselves to a universe of possibility outside of us. As an active participant in her investigation, Ptacin models the ways in which people organize their lives around Spiritualism’s beliefs. With tenderness, sensitivity, and compassion, Ptacin exposes what is possible when we throw open the door to the beyond.
The In-Betweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums, and Legends of Camp Etna by Mira Ptacin
MICHAEL COLBERT loves horror films (his favorites are Candyman and Get Out) and coffee (his favorites are Ethiopian and Costa Rican). His writing appears in such magazines as Avidly, Press Pause Press, and Kyoto Journal. Currently, he is pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.