As I lay in my bed at night in my early childhood, I could hear my parents’ lowered voices drifting in from the living room, talking in the strange, esoteric language of mysticism. Mysterious phrases such as “planes of vibration,” “cosmic consciousness,” and “astral bodies” resounded in my head as I floated off to sleep to dream dreams that maybe only a child of mystics can dream.
My mother had found a substitute for the Catholicism in which she’d been raised in Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s Theosophy, as put forth in her book The Secret Doctrine. As a brilliant young woman, my mother worked for a man whose followers called “The Master.” She ghostwrote the texts of the weekly lectures he gave to the mystical cult he led, lectures that always began “Dearly Beloved.” While doing research for The Master’s presentations, she met my father, newly arrived from New York City, in the religion section of the Los Angeles downtown library, where Blavatsky’s writings were on the shelves. My father, too, was dissatisfied with traditional religion, in his case Judaism.
At first, perhaps to better woo my mother, but later in earnest, he also took up the cudgels of mysticism. He read friends’ palms while my mother cast their horoscopes. Blavatsky’s particular set of occult teachings, derived from the Hindu religion and westernized by her, became my parents’ mutually adopted “liberation” from their traditional Western religions. My parents considered these teachings a form of “free thought” and proudly passed them on to me.
There were attractive—even seductive—features to the mysticism they inculcated in me. I spent many a daydream hour trying to visualize the different “planes of vibration” my mother told me about. Eating supper with my parents at the round kitchen table, I thought I sensed the presence of people existing on another plane who somehow occupied the identical space and time I did but whom I couldn’t see or hear or touch and who couldn’t see or hear or touch me. How intriguing that was!
There were comforting aspects too. I was assured that no one I knew and loved, such as my grandmother, was ever really lost to me. If I were patient and receptive, I would be able to see and even communicate with her undying astral form. And phrases such as “beyond the beyond” evoked images suggesting the dizzy thrill of a roller-coaster ride’s downward plunge. What was it like to fall into and merge with the great “cosmic consciousness?” My mother claimed that she merged when she meditated, and I hoped that one day I, too, would master that secret.
Never mind that there was no logical connection between these various ideas. After all, a child doesn’t demand much logic. It would be a long time before I would be able, in my mind, to separate mysticism from real freethought and before I would understand that mysticism, traditional religion, and magical thinking all share a common core—a suspension of the recognition of the fundamental law of cause and effect, upon which all science is based.
How, then, did I eventually become a materialist and a humanist, serving a term as president of the Humanists of Houston (HOH) and editor of the HOH newsletter in the early 1990s? Multiple cumulative experiences led up to my materialist philosophy, but only a few of them stand out clearly in my memory. A growing recognition of the inevitable and irreversible nature of death stirred up the first inklings of materialism in my thinking. My beloved kitten Robin caught a cat disease that was going through our neighborhood. She dragged herself under a toolshed to die. No amount of coaxing and calling her name could bring her out.
In a wild windstorm one spring, baby birds in their nests, featherless and with their eyes still closed, fell out of the palm trees in front of my house, breaking their tiny, scrawny necks. Despite my tears and pleas, no one could restore them to life and put them back in their nests in the trees.
When at the age of seven I learned the game of chess, I became totally absorbed in it. Soon I was checkmating my father and members of the Hollywood Chess Club. Seeing the board both from my point of view and that of my opponent took away many of the mystical tendencies I still harbored. The logic of chess excludes mysticism. Every move I and my opponent made had an effect on the outcome of the game. In the small universe of sixty-four squares, I could see in detail the operation of cause and effect.
Though I waited patiently and receptively, my grandmother, who died when I was ten, never appeared to me in her astral body. At her funeral, I had gazed at her immobile, marble-like features and touched her cold hand, feeling the stark reality of physical irreversibility. Little by little, it was dawning on me that no matter how much one engaged in wishful thinking, life and death and chess proceeded according to their own immutable laws.
In college, I studied the social sciences and learned from the writings of Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict the importance of cause and effect in the social world. The writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels gave me new conceptual tools to help me understand the economic and social forces that drive history. When I married a physicist, I learned to appreciate materialist philosophy even more, while he learned from me to appreciate the ideas of historical materialism.
Later, on a job, given a large data set of children’s burn accidents to analyze statistically, I used the concept of cause and effect to tease out a strong relationship between a family move and an accidental burn injury.
Through the years, as my family grew, I came to realize that materialist philosophy alone was not enough. Becoming a humanist helped me round out my materialist philosophy with an ethical outlook in which pragmatism, as expressed by John Dewey, played a role. Feeling that materialism supplemented by humanism and pragmatism was still not enough, I drew into my philosophical mix certain ideas and values developed by feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon and Kathleen Barry. I was able to apply these ideas in helping to organize a group of women in Houston whose purpose was to educate ourselves and the public about the global problem of trafficking women and girls.
Do I ever want to return to the seductive comforts of my childhood wishful thinking? Absolutely. Do I ever long to see my dead mother and father again; am I occasionally tempted to secretly search a room for their astral forms? Yes. Do I ever experience pleasure in contemplating the fairy tale of a cosmic consciousness? Indeed I do. But underneath these brief reversions to childhood states of mind, I value the solid foundation of materialism, humanism, pragmatism, and feminism that I have spent a lifetime building.
Alice Leuchtag has a BA from the University of California at Los Angeles and an MA from San Diego State University, both in sociobiology. She has worked as a migrant farmworker, a journalist, a cabdriver, a social worker, a college instructor, and a researcher. She has published poetry, epidemiological research on burn injuries, and other articles. She lives with her husband in Texas Hill Country; they have a son, three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.