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Till Seth Do Us Part


ELMIRA, N.Y. — Off the main street of this small upstate city, there is a crumbling three-story mansion with an overgrown lawn and peeling paint. The roof droops. The banisters are splintered.

There is no marker, but this is a kind of sacred ground, the site of an unlikely spiritual revival happening today.

Sixty years ago, so the story goes, a tenant named Jane Roberts began channeling a spirit from another dimension. She called him, simply, Seth. He brought arcane wisdom from afar: on astral projection, past lives and the power of the mind to bend and shape reality.

Ms. Roberts published more than 20 books based on these supposedly spirit-channeled revelations. They sold millions, and spurred a full-on spiritual movement. Over time, though, Ms. Roberts shrunk from the spotlight. In 1984, she died at the age of 55. Her legacy, like this home, has faded.

This could have spelled the close of the Seth story in Elmira, making it a curious paranormal footnote to the town’s history. But a new chapter is opening.

In that perennial spirit (no pun intended) of “everything old is new again,” a group of followers have begun renovating the sagging home, with the hope of transforming it into a spiritual center. There is a new nonprofit, called the Seth House; reading groups; and small reunions of old students.

As part of fund-raising, the apartment has been rented out for $129 a night: a combo country getaway and mystical pilgrimage.

Local interest is growing. The regional NBC affiliate has visited the home twice The Elmira Star-Gazette, in an in-depth feature this month, declared the project “a story of hope, revival and a being named Seth.”’

Ths fresh activity is thanks in large part to a 59-year-old woman named Donna Waago (she also goes by “Oshara,”) who believes spiritual signs drew her here three years ago, her partner Kate Holton, and a small band of new Seth readers they have gathered.

On a recent Sunday, a handful of new students crowded in the back room of a nearby New Age shop for a discussion group. They chatted over tea and a crumpled box of pastries.

Ms. Waago cradled her dog-eared book, notes scribbled in the margins, and offered a testimony.

“You can dive anywhere in a Seth book and find a paragraph that blows your mind,” she said. “Read it over and over and over. Then read it again.”

There were nods and murmurs around the table.

Another student, Michael Irving, said, “I always wanted to know, ‘What is reality?’ Seth filled in the puzzle for me.”

Ms. Waago said, “Yes.” She gave his arm a gentle squeeze. “We all learn from Seth.”

The currents of spiritual experimentation run steady and deep in America. And Ms. Roberts was hardly the first homespun prophet to emerge from the valleys of upstate New York.

In the 19th century, this swath of land was known as the “burned-over district,” after the religious revivals that blazed through. Joseph Smith unearthed his Mormon tablets in northern hills; the Millerites inveighed about apocalyptic rapture; and the Fox sisters communed with ghosts in their Hydesville farmhouse. Religious innovation is a sort of regional specialty.

Before her own brush with the supernatural, Ms. Roberts was born in Albany and grew up in Saratoga Springs in the 1930s, according to “Speaking of Jane Roberts,” by Susan M. Watkins, a journalist and early student.

Ms. Roberts had a hardscrabble childhood and tended to a bedridden mother. She went to Catholic school, showed an early knack for writing and was accepted into Skidmore on a poetry scholarship.

She never finished school, though; she was expelled and eloped with a boyfriend to California on a motorcycle. She returned to New York a few months later and, at 24, married again, to Robert Butts, an illustrator she had met at a party in her hometown.

The couple moved to Elmira for work and found an apartment in an old converted mansion. Ms. Roberts saw some success as a pulp fantasy writer, but the work left her empty.

Then, in the early 1960s, she reported strange experiences in the new home.

There were dreams and visionary flashes. And then one night, sitting at her desk, she felt reality rip apart. Her soul seemed to leave her body and plummet through space. Her skull was like a radio receiver, she added, as if something, or someone, was sending transmissions.

Maybe, she thought afterward, there was a kernel for a book here.

Ms. Roberts or her husband didn’t fashion themselves as hippies. But they decided to dig deeper, with a Ouija board. They claimed results, almost immediately.

“You may call me whatever you choose,” the board spelled, as they gathered around it one night. “I call myself Seth.”

Soon, Ms. Roberts believed she could hear the spirit’s words right in her head.

With the Ouija board cast aside, she would drop into a trance. Her voice would deepen. Words tumbled, with a lilting, hard-to-place accent. Seth had arrived.

News spread about the peculiar happenings at 458 West Water Street. By the late ’60s, Ms. Roberts started offering small psychic classes and public channeling sessions in her living room. Students would pay a small fee and crowd in. Wine bottles were popped open; the air grew thick with plumes of cigarette smoke.

Ms. Roberts-as-Seth lectured on a sprawling mix of occult topics, and regaled the crowd with tales of past lives.

Seth once resided in a lost civilization named Lumania, “he” said. Then he was reborn on Atlantis.

Seth lived among cave men. He was a biblical courtesan. A corrupt pope named Protonius Meglemanius III. Seth had lived as men. He had lived as women. He said, “I always found my deaths highly educational.”

And Seth was reputed to perform paranormal feats. Mr. Butts said he had seen his wife’s hand transform into an animal paw, then grow another set of fingers. Another student saw a tall robed apparition with a cone head drift in the room.

Above all, though, Seth’s favorite topic was the miraculous power of thoughts to shape reality: If you believe it, it is so; we create our own worlds.

“No one dies who has not decided to do so,” he said. “You make your own reality.”

Seth told students they could contact their own spirit guides, just like him. He suggested he might visit them too, when the time was right.

Ms. Roberts would blink back to her senses after each trance with little recollection of what happened. Her husband diligently took notes. And from those notes came the books.

First was “How to Develop Your ESP Power.” Then, in 1970, “The Seth Material.” Two years later came “Seth Speaks.” Other Seth titles spilled out at a regular clip over the next decade.

The books spawned reading groups across the country and filtered into the counterculture. The author Richard Bach and the puppeteer Jim Henson sojourned to meet Ms. Roberts. Self-help gurus like Deepak Chopra cite Seth as an early influence. And other entrepreneurial channelers rose across the country, with similar acts; Seth had helped spur a new subgenre of pop spiritual literature.

Outside of the metaphysical circuit, though, responses were muted. The New York Post described Ms. Roberts’s upstate project as a kind of shallow eccentricity, pushing a “guilt-free, me-first self-help program.”

Other critiques were far more dramatic. Christian polemicists decried Ms. Roberts’s work was not heavenly, but an outright devilish deception. “Seth is a demon,” Chick Publications printed in one tract.

Gradually, Ms. Roberts grew uneasy with the enchanted enterprise spiraling around her, and the pressure that New Age fame brought.

Her journals, archived at Yale University, offer a window. She believed in the value of the work, for sure, but feared she would be dismissed as a “second-rate psychic rather than a respected author.”

“Before they were lovely dreamy ideas,” she wrote, “now suddenly they have to compete with what people call facts.”

Ms. Roberts struggled with rheumatoid arthritis, the same disease that had plagued her mother, and her health was deteriorating. In 1983, Ms. Roberts was hospitalized.

Health faltering, she urged her husband, “Don’t let them make a god out of me.”

She died the next year, and Seth of Elmira went dormant, for a time.

Ms. Waago was among millions of other who discovered the Seth books as a young seeker. She picked up the paperback of “Seth Speaks” in college in the 1980s, opened it and was transported. Ms. Waago had already had uncommon experiences in her life (she believed she was visited by angels as a child), and the book seemed to give direction.

She has been a Seth advocate since her 20s, helping organize Seth reading clubs over the decades and an annual conference in California, where she later lived.

Three years ago, she believes, a voice told her to move to Elmira. She obeyed.

Ms. Waago said, “I heard a voice tell me, ‘Go to the Water Street house. There may be a place for you there.’ And, lo and behold: There was a rent sign.”

She sent the landlord a check the next day.

She also began looking for new Seth students in the area. She met Ms. Holton, the owner of a New Age shop, in whom she found a budding romance and a new collaborator. They began the discussion group and sent out a call online.

A diverse handful of local seekers — a bus driver, a horse farmer, a worker from the nearby fire hydrant factory — showed up, and took to the material.

The new students also pitched in with apartment repairs, which began in earnest about a year ago. They patched gaping holes in the ceiling and chased away wasps nested in a vent. They repainted the walls and scrubbed the floor. In the spring, Ms. Waago and her gang held an open house for the town.

There are still six other tenants in the ramshackle building who are uninvolved in the project. Ms. Waago hopes to buy the place outright. The asking price is $200,000; they have raised $13,000 so far.

Standing in the living room earlier this fall, Ms. Waago drew my attention to a full-length mirror on one door. It was the same one Ms. Roberts had used. Where she had gazed, maybe, preparing for Seth to arrive.

Ms. Waago plopped herself on the couch and said, “Jane sat here. Seth sat here. This is one of the greatest joys in my life.”

Then she added, “Seth hasn’t stopped speaking. I have felt the Seth essence.”

The Seth revival of Elmira is loping along. But old questions, unsettled since Ms. Roberts’s death, still hover.

The books have spread across the country, and even overseas; there are two American publishers keeping the channeled works in circulation.

But, reluctant prophet she was, Ms. Roberts never set up any kind of successor or instituted any formal organization.

After Ms. Roberts’s death, scores of competing Seth channelers cropped up, each claiming to be in touch with the spirit for themselves.

Rick Stack, an early student and publisher, said, “Lots of people have tried to trade off Seth’s name, as a way to get traction for themselves.”

He added, “The focus is not on Jane, or even Seth. It should be on the content of the material.”

The community is sprawling and diffuse, with no central authority. Opinions are divided, too, about how best to memorialize Ms. Roberts. Or if they even should. Not all students leapt to support the South House. In fact, some old-timers feel sidelined; others see the new project as veering into something like saint worship.

Last month, I booked a night at the Seth House. How-to volumes about channeling were placed by the bed. Framed quotes from Seth hung on the walls. In a living room nook, scraps of original wallpaper were preserved in little bags like talismanic relics.

Rain pattered on the windows, and the house swayed slightly in the wind. The evening passed uneventfully.

The next morning, I asked Ms. Waago and Ms. Holton if we might try a Ouija board. Several were stacked nearby. We gathered around the table and set our fingers lightly on the board.

Fifteen minutes passed in silence. Slowly, the small plastic guide wove teeny circles. Then it lurched clear off the edge, nearly dropping to the floor.

Ms. Holton let out a gasp. “I felt it.”

We were, by all appearances, still alone. But Ms. Waago looked up, as if regarding a tall figure. She gave a slight bow.

“Hello,” she said. “It’s nice to be with you, too.”


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