Not in Kansas Anymore – Christine Wicker

Not in Kansas Anymore: A Curious Tale of How Magic Is Transforming America
Christine Wicker
HarperSanFrancisco, 2005
276 pages

I first encountered this book when doing research for A Field Guide to Otherkin. I’d heard that the author had a chapter on Otherkin, and that was the first part I read. I wasn’t particularly impressed by what I found; it seemed a bit touristy and sensationalistic, though well-written.

Now that I have time to just read for the fun of it, I decided to give the entire book a chance. Unfortunately, my initial impressions aren’t that much different from how I feel now that I’ve seen the whole thing.

Wicker is a journalist, and it shows from the very beginning. She talks about her peers’ worries that she’ll “go native”, and her attempts not to do so are quite obvious. At least she’s honest, rather than pretending to be a member of a group to try to find out more about it. She states clearly where she’s coming from–not magical, pretty much an atheist, and seriously squicked about certain things (she seems terrified of BDSM in particular and takes any opportunity to describe it in lurid, evil manners).

The book seems largely dedicated to three subjects: Hoodoo, witchcraft and its variants, and Otherkin and vampires. She visits Zora Neale Hurston’s grave to get grave dirt, hangs out a bit with the Silver Elves, and gets witchy in Salem. In fact, she gets to have all sorts of experiences that numerous pagans and magical folk would love to have.

Granted, it does seem that she learns something from the experience. The book is a journey for her, from superstition to magic. Unfortunately, this is bogged down by numerous descriptions of various events and people that seme to be purposely slanted towards the extreme. She freaks out about every single instance of BDSM she encounters, describes in great detail just how bizarre everyone looks, and spends pages upon pages relaying the absolute worst of the paths she encounters. And while some of the people she interviews seem pretty down to earth and informational, others appear to be whoring for attention. Whether that’s the actual case, or just how Wicker chose to portray them, isn’t made clear here.

And everything is taken out of context, with the exception of some of the Hoodoo and witchcraft. Background information on the various topics she covers would have helped to ground her writing and make it seem less sensationalistic. For instance, all she really says about Wicca is that it’s white-light and not every pagan likes it. And she leaps from topic to topic fast enough to make my head spin.

I appreciate what Wicker was trying to do: present the magical fringes of society in a manner that the mainstream can palate. Unfortunately it feels more like a patchwork of whatever she happened to find; from reading this book one might assume that all vampires are into BDSM, all witches are tacky, kitschy, weird people who wear too much eye makeup, and that Hoodoo seems to be the only thing discussed that has any redeeming value. While it’s not as horribly sensationalistic as some of the “occult expose” books out there, there are better “outsider” views of magic and paganism out there and go in more depth; I recommend Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves by Sarah M. Pike, an academic look at the neopagan festival culture by someone who is not pagan but who manages to cover the material in a respectful, even-handed manner while writing at a level that non-academics can easily digest.

As for “Not in Kansas Anymore”…

Two pawprints out of five.

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6 Comments

  1. Lyssa said,

    May 10, 2007 at 2:02 pm

    Wow. I so got the exact opposite from reading Wicker’s work. I certainly did NOT find her confusing or all over the place. In fact, her journalist’s perspective came off very clear to me, as an outsider presenting what, yes, she knew the “mainstream” would find weird, but also how she came with a sincere desire to know these folks, their beliefs. Sensationalistic? I think she is entertaining, and very approachable, if a little too hard at attempting to find humour at times, in winking with the audience. But I never found it to be truly mocking or insulting to anyone she presented. I read her commentary was not directly snarky, but more tongue in cheek, as if to say, “You’d think X…and this is strange…and yet, look what it *does* for people.” Hence, the supposedly lurid BDSM experiences actually were showing that people were coming off unharmed and enjoyed it, despite that it wasn’t her kink. Not every vanilla person will see the need nor share the same positive perspectives of a kinky person on the subject, but she also did not interfere, nor was she disrespectful. (In fact, she found, Belenger’s scene, I think it was, a bit performative, and though that is the nature of kink at times, she stated she finds that uncomfortable, as she is more inclined to “look away”.)

    I find her approach honest and intelligent–she notes when she is moved by something and when she is not, rather than get sucked into every moment. In the end, her participation and experiences, for her, means that she can chose her magic and take something from it’s varied sources–much like I see a lot of folks doing. The author has moving dreams and experiences she cannot explain. She is not in denial of their validity, for herself or others, even if she does not share the path. It makes parts of her own faith stronger because she HAS encountered that which she cannot explain–and she is honest and not assuming or labeling of what that experience might be for others. I agree very much with her approach and her conclusions:

    You can call it religion, you can call it spirituality, you can call it magic. Maybe what you call it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you don’t settle for being cut off, that you take the power, that you demand the completeness of human experience. To taste fully of all we perceive, to expand our hopefulness beyond the heavens, is our birthright. We aren’t born merely for death. We are here also for transcendence, to save the numinous, to wander through the shifting corridors of meaning, and to follow them wherever they take us. If we go to far, we can stop. We can be inconsistent, illogical. What we must not do–no matter what the scientists tell us–us to allow ourselves to be cut off from our own experiences of life as it presents itself to us. IF we do, we will have lost the very ground beneath our feet. (Wicker, pg. 263.)

    That’s my .02. Way different reading than what you got–sorry.

  2. lupabitch said,

    May 10, 2007 at 2:05 pm

    See, I compare Wicker’s writing with what Pike did in “Earthly Bodies”, and I much prefer the latter. I do agree that she did show her own growth as she went through the process of researching and writing the book, but I think she also did a disservice to the people she interviewed for the most part. It read more like she was trying to titillate her audience than actually educate them on what paganism and Otherkin and Hoodo and other such things are.

    You can be detached from something and still give a balanced assessment of it. I think part of the problem was that she tried to delve into too many subjects in one book without enough depth. I still don’t understand why she had that chapter on ceremonial magic in there. Pike did a better job, IMO, because she focused on one particular subject–neopagan festival culture–and analyzed it from numerous angles, good and bad.

  3. prezzey said,

    May 10, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    Oy vey, I was wondering whether to buy this one, and now two people, both of whose opinions I highly value, completely disagree over it. What to doooo!!

    (come to think of it, my friends disagree over pretty much everything. But it usually does not concern my monetary decisions like this time! ;] )

  4. Lyssa said,

    May 10, 2007 at 3:38 pm

    I’ll condense the added comments I had in your LJ 🙂 :

    Wicker has no pagan agenda to put forth, nor was she an academic trying to prove or validate anything as pure research. She’s NOT out to educate so we all find this acceptable and can be happy with it. She is journalist, and that work informs her writing and her purpose in a different manner–often to explore and entertain. Exploring is exactly what she does, from her own perspective outside of all these subcultures. She IS the mainstream, looking in–and she does not run away screaming.

    Wicker also has no need to do ceremonial magic or cover all grounds–again, that’s not point, heh, nor, I think, would she have time to do so, but you’d have to ask her that. Hell, if she included EVERYONE who might say, “But wait! There’s US!”, she’d still be writing .I have not read Pike’s work to comment, but my above impressions stand.

    I think you disagree on the agenda of her style, here, from what I am seeing, but I find her refreshing exactly for that lack of bias, for her skepticism (which is like my own, very often), and for the quiet faith she does come away with.

    And we can agree to disagree. 🙂

  5. The Doctor said,

    May 10, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    Some of her writing did come across as sensationalistic, but I think it had more to do with the people she interviewed than any real attempt to make them seem scary, frightening, or fascinating.

    Let’s face it, some people in various subcultures come across as being ‘larger than life’ and more visible simply because of how they live their lives. Look at Tyagi on the Net. Michelle Belanger’s another good example of this, love her or hate her. The Silver Elves are famous in many subcultures because of how active they are in many respects. They’re not vying for the attention of people, they’re just doing their thing.

    It could be argued that you fall into that category as well, Lupa.

    As for BDSM coming across as a scary thing that gets bad press, let’s face it: For Joe and Jane Sixpack, the idea of someone who very much enjoys pain in some form is downright weird. Pain is ‘supposed’ to be nature’s way of telling you that something’s gone wrong with your body. The idea of someone surrendering control for some period of time sends a chill down quite a few backs because it runs counter to every assumption mainstream society has about living and free will. Until you’ve been through it, it’s a difficult thing to grasp.

    Also, never underestimate the power of an editor trying to put some ‘flash’ into a book so that it’ll review better (and thus, sell better).

  6. lupabitch said,

    May 10, 2007 at 6:38 pm

    Larger than life is one thing; I don’t see it as a bad thing. Some people are just capital-P Personalities with a ton of charisma, and there’s nothing wrong with it as far as I’m concerned. That’s not my issue. My issue is that Wicker seemed to take that larger than life, with people who (at least as far as I know) are experienced in their respective fields and could have given her all sorts of solid information–and she turned it into a freak show. I mean, she talked about Laurie Cabot in there, who’s known for being a hell of a personality in Salem. Most of what I got about her, though, was the fact that she wears robes and dark eyeliner all the time, not the spiritual aspects of what she does. Wicker seemed really intent on showing the outward images of the people she talked with; the most balanced portrayals seemed to be of the Hoodoo folks–maybe they weren’t wearing enough black eyeliner (just kidding).

    And I understand the BDSM is NMK for a lot of people. However, she seemed to mention her squickiness of it a *lot*. She didn’t really seem to talk to people about why they liked it, either, not in much detail.

    And I think that’s the crux of my annoyance: she skimmed over the surface of a lot of topics–Otherkin, Hoodoo, BDSM, Wicca, etc.–without really going into detail about any of them. Maybe I’m spoiled because I read Pike’s work first, and so set that as my standard for an “outsider’s” view of subcultures.

    Perhaps there was an editor in there who screwed around with things a bit. I’ve never talked to Christine Wicker, so I don’t know. But the *impression* I got from reading this was someone trying to spook the masses with how “weird” these people are. I mean, the subtitle of the later edition of the book was “Dark Arts, Sex Spells, Money Magic, and Other Things Your Neighbors Aren’t Telling You”. Maybe she didn’t have any choice in that, but regardless of who was responsible for the presentation of the material, I found it could have done a lot better, especially considering she had access to some pretty decent names and experiences in there.


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