Summer 1969, Age 17
As usual, Mother complained of feeling unwell. There was always something: constant headache, discomfort from a prolapsed womb or indigestion from a hiatus hernia. Endless physical ailments were a background drone, easy to ignore; I assumed alcohol and drugs were the causes. Anyway, Mother had a will of iron: if she wanted to be sick, she would be sick; if she wanted to be well, she could do that just as easily.
This time seemed different. She looked pale and haggard, had a hard time moving about the caravan and described a strange dragging pain in her abdomen.
“It just doesn’t feel right.” She said, on the verge of tears. “Look at my belly. It’s gone all hard—I look like I’m pregnant.”
She pulled up her sweater to show me her stomach. Mother had no modesty but I did my best to avoid seeing her naked body; it made me slightly queasy. With a quick glance, it was obvious her belly was grossly distended, the flesh tight and strained, the navel pushed out. Neither of us could deny it any longer—something was terribly wrong.
“What do you want me to do? Go see your doctor tomorrow—and tell him the truth this time!”
I found it hard to be sympathetic. Whenever she visited the doctor’s office, she multiplied her diagnoses and made up symptoms to get the prescription drugs she craved. If she wanted medical help, she had to stop manipulating.
Next day, Mother returned from the surgery white-faced and shaken. She slumped down on her bed and relayed the news in a small toneless voice, eyes wide and vacant.
“He says I’ve got a tumor—almost as big as a football. He thinks it could be cancer of the ovaries. I’ve got to go to hospital and have it checked.”
The nearest hospital was in Waterford, 30 miles away.
“When do you have to go?” I asked. The bus fare was expensive.
“They’re sending an ambulance tomorrow at nine. I need to pack a bag—they don’t know how long I’ll be there.”
Then it hit me—this was a real emergency. I had to take it seriously.
“OK, you pack and I’ll go to the chip shop. Is there anything else you need?”
That night we ate a somber meal of fish and chips straight off the greasy newspaper. When I helped Mother into bed, she seemed frail.
Nine o’clock the next morning there was a knock on the caravan door. A young male medic dressed in blue stood hesitantly beside the water buckets; he asked for Mrs. Evans. I carried Mother’s bag while the medic took her arm and walked her slowly up the lane to the ambulance. It was a shock to see Mother so infirm and vulnerable. The medic wrote down the hospital number and suggested I phone the next day: they’d know by then. I gave Mother a goodbye hug, the doors of the ambulance closed and she was gone.
In a daze, I walked back down the lane and opened the screechy caravan door. The place felt empty. I was completely alone, on my own in the caravan for the first time. Yes, a part of me was worried about mother’s illness, but another part was almost giddy with freedom. I could do whatever I liked, read whenever I wanted, delve deeper into the mysterious and arcane. I had all the time in the world and no one to bother me.
The next day, I phoned Ardkeen Hospital from the green-and-yellow phone box in the square. The box stunk of urine and the call made me nervous. We’d never had a phone at home, and I had a hard time with the complicated instructions and big silver buttons.
I dialed the operator, gave her the hospital’s number and fed a bunch of coins into the slot. A tinny voice answered, “Ardkeen Hospital. Can I help you?”
“Is Mrs. Pamela Evans a patient? She came in yesterday by ambulance,” I half shouted into the mouthpiece.
The receptionist put me on hold while the operator demanded more money and button pushing. Finally, a nurse on the surgical unit told me Pamela Evans was having an emergency operation that afternoon. I could visit in two days after she’d recovered. The news left me unsettled.
My stomach lurched whenever I thought of visiting Mother. The road to Waterford was unfamiliar; hitchhiking was bound to be slow and tedious. Then there was hospital—hospitals put me on edge. I had too many bad memories of hospitals: feeling unwell and isolated, lingering sickly smells of disinfectant, corridors echoing with the crash of bedpans and bossy, intrusive nurses—hospital were the last place I ever wanted to visit.
In the meantime, before I had to face the dreaded journey, I had two days of liberation. Without Mother and her indulgences, there was almost enough dole money to live on. I didn’t have to pick winkles every day. Instead, I could focus on my new obsession and immerse myself in the Black Arts.
A month or so after my failed exams, I was leafing through the paperbacks in a secondhand bookstore when I came across something totally unexpected: a thick paperback with a lurid cover entitled the Black Arts. The first sentence grabbed my attention: “The driving force behind black magic is hunger for power.” An electric energy shot up my spine: I had to have this book!
Back in the caravan, I plunged into its depths, read every paragraph again and again, saturated myself in its mesmerizing topics: Black Magic, Numerology, Cabala, Alchemy, Astrology, Ritual Magic and Witchcraft. It was like falling headlong into a dream world: nothing was as it looked; every action rippled through the ether; each name and number had its inner significance; the whole universe was symbolically connected.
The supernatural world was not so foreign to me. As a child, I’d accepted magic, fairies and ghosts as normal. We read and shared ghost stories, interrogated the spirits using Aunty Peggy’s Ouija board, assumed the nightly crashes and bangs at Talybryn were poltergeists on the prowl.
In Ireland, the veil between the worlds was flimsy. The other side was populated by an extensive crowd of magical beings including the fair folk, Sidhe or Tuatha de Danaan—People of the Goddess Dana. Irish fairies lived underground in their Raths. An old race of immortal pre-humans, they could be malevolent in a careless, amoral sort of way. On the surface, Irish people laughed at ‘fairy tales’, but they were careful not to provoke the capricious good people.
I didn’t just swallow it all whole; I had my doubts and hesitations. Was magic and the spirit world a reality? Maybe it was an elaborate hoax, a mirage of self-hypnosis and overactive imagination. The famous enchanters—Paracelsus, Francis Bacon, Eliphas Levi and Aleister Crowley—were they fooling themselves or did they actually have insight into the secret workings of the universe? Whether I believed in it or not, I was hooked. Magic was fascinating and it promised me power—power over my life and other people.
I read for hours late into the night, the candles and paraffin lamp creating a globe of light within the shadows. Immersed in soothing silence, insulated from demands, alone in my tiny island of independence, I felt a strange mix of anxious exhilaration. Finally I’d found a fascinating subject that could change my life. With Mother gone, I had all the time I needed to get ready for a major challenge—a ritual magic ceremony.
Two days later, I hitchhiked to Waterford. As expected, the journey took forever and it was afternoon before I walked through the hospital gates. To my surprise, Ardkeen Hospital was quite unlike the daunting, monolithic building I imagined—more like a series of bungalows scattered throughout expansive parklands.
After wandering around, I found the post-surgical unit. The young nurse told me Mother was recovering from the operation and needed to sleep. She suggested I talk to the doctor and ushered me into a small consulting room where I stood looking out the window. After a while, a smooth-faced young doctor with glasses dressed in a white coat entered, all brusque and business-like. The moment he spoke, I knew I disliked him.
“I’m Doctor Walsh. You must be Pamela Evans’s son.” He consulted a sheaf of paper attached to a clipboard. “Owen, isn’t it?” I nodded.
He made no motion to sit, so we stood uncomfortably, miles apart. He obviously wanted to get this over quickly.
Reading from the chart, he continued in a flat voice, “The operation was a success. We removed a large ovarian tumor and conducted a full hysterectomy.”
He paused, looked up and spoke slowly as if imparting a shameful secret. “I’m afraid it’s cancer.”
“How bad is the cancer? When will she be coming home?” I needed to know how long I had before Mother re-invaded the caravan.
“Not for quite a while. She has to recover from the operation. Then we’ll need to get her to Saint Luke’s in Dublin for radiotherapy.”
A wash of relief and confusion flowed over me. I won’t have to look after her in the caravan. But Dublin! How can I visit her there, over a hundred miles away?
“When does she go to Dublin?”
“There’s no beds available at the moment. It could be three or four weeks. In the meantime, we’ll transfer her to a long-term ward.”
He paused, gazing at me with blank eyes through his glasses.
“You need to be prepared for the worst. With this type of cancer, life expectancy is five years or less.” The words came straight from a textbook—no emotion, no concern.
“Your mother should be awake by now. You can visit her on the ward.”
My mind clicked into gear. Mother was going to die—but not yet. He’d given her a death sentence, but what did he know—the puffed-up gobshite? With Mother’s will power, you never could tell what might happen. No use jumping to conclusions.
Mother was just waking and looked drugged and groggy, but her mood was cheerful. We chatted a little about nothing. As I got up to leave, she whined at me, “When can you come again?”
I knew if I gave in to her demands, I’d spend every moment travelling back and forth to Waterford.
“I’ll be here next Sunday. It takes all day and Friday is when the man collects the winkles.”
If I could keep the visits to once a week, I’d have plenty of time to myself. Mother was cared for and she didn’t need me. Anyway, the boot was on the other foot; I was the one in control now.
In the caravan, nights were given over to studying magic and preparing for the big event. I hadn’t decided what to do, but whatever I tried, everything had to be perfect. I’d read too many horror stories of botched demon summoning with the necromancer possessed or torn apart. You couldn’t be half-hearted or wishy-washy. Magic was a test of courage and determination and I had to fortify my will power. I cut down on food, stayed awake into the wee hours and pushed myself out on the strand, picking winkles faster and harder than ever.
On my next hospital visit, Mother had moved to a light, airy ward of four beds. She looked quite recovered, sitting up and chatting with the other patients.
“Oh, there you are, Owen. I was wondering when you’d get here.” She waved me over and introduced me to a round-faced lady in the next bed.
“Margery, this is my son Owen. Isn’t he handsome? Such a good boy.” Her neighbor made appreciative comments while I sank into the floor.
Mother and her friend had been prescribed a new set of wonder drugs, Corticosteroids; they helped you heal and made you feel good. According to Margery, the medication even reversed aging—her white hair had turned quite dark. The drug did have one drawback: it gave you a ‘moon-face’ like Margery’s. I noticed Mother’s face looked a little bloated.
“Have they told you when you’re going to Dublin?”
“Not yet. There’s a waiting list—and it’s the only cancer hospital in Ireland. They said it could be another three weeks.” I breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
“I talked with the chaplain, and he should be able to find you a place to stay in Dublin. I’ll know when he visits next.”
Oh my God— what now? I have to follow her up to Dublin! What am I going to do up there?
Mother chatted on blithely while I stayed silent, waiting impatiently until I could get out of there.
The following week vanished into the ether: whole days missing, the rest hazy and dream-like. Winkling got forgotten, chores went undone and the caravan turned chaotic. Did I eat or sleep—who knows? I still had to face the big question: would I do magic or not? Was I strong enough? Could I find the things I needed: knife, brazier and blood sacrifice? Where should I draw the magic circle?
I knew where to get one essential ingredient—an item infused with sacred energy. That evening I trekked over the bridge and around the bay to the 13th century chapel in Abbeyside. The last time there, I’d sat in the wooden pews drinking in the peace and struggling to decide whether to stay in Ireland or not. This time was different.
No one was around. I slipped through the arched oak door and hurried up to the altar. Now the hard part: cross the forbidden altar rail, climb the sacred steps and wrench a beeswax candle from its silver candlestick. My resolve almost failed: stealing was a sin; robbing a church was sacrilege. Hands trembling, I pushed aside my fears and pulled the candle out of its holder, stuffed it under my shirt and got out of there.
Still I wavered. In the middle of the night, it came to me: my dread of evil was getting the best of me. What I needed was protection, and what better shield than a powerful magical symbol, the Seal of Solomon. King Solomon wielded power over the djinn (genies) through the sigil on his ring: a six-pointed star of two equal triangles enclosed in a circle. The shape was simple and defined—and it felt right.
With a pen, I drew the Seal on the soft inner part of my left forearm. Then I bent copper wire into the shapes I needed, heated the wire over a candle flame and line-by-line, burnt the design deep into my white skin.
It was fascinating—the lack of pain, the sizzle and smell of burning flesh, the challenge of getting the lines right and most interesting, the way my left arm kept jerking as if it had a mind of its own. Locking my arm in place, I branded each line to my satisfaction. The magic symbol was complete—perfect!
At my weekly visit to the hospital the next Sunday, Mother was totally involved in her small new world with its daily gossip. Interrupting, I proudly unveiled my scab-encrusted arm and described how I’d branded myself. She looked at the arm and commented casually: “Be sure to keep it clean while it heals.”
That evening, I stood hitching on the side of the road for three hours; I knew it was hopeless. The weather was threatening and I had almost no money in my pocket. What should I do: try the Guards? I walked around until I found the blue-lit sign: Garda Síochána. A rotund Guard behind the counter looked up as I came in.
I had my speech ready: “Excuse me sir—do you think I could stay the night. The last bus has gone, I have no place to go and I can’t get home.”
He gave a mirthless laugh: “D’you think we hand out free room and board? This is not a hotel. Get away with you.” He dismissed me with a wave of his hand.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Sir. I was visiting my mother in Ardkeen and I missed the bus to Dungarvan. She’s recovering from her cancer operation—and I’m her only relative. I’ve nowhere else to go.”
Trying to maintain his gruff manner, the Guard gave me a long, hard look. “I hope you’re not having me on.” I reassured him and his face softened. “I suppose it won’t hurt to let you stay the night. The cells are empty.”
He gave me another of his looks. “Don’t make a habit of it, mind you. I don’t want to see you again. C’mon, follow me.”
He led me down a corridor to a solid steel door. Behind it, the narrow cell came complete with cot, blanket, thin pillow and metal pee bucket. “I’ll be leaving the door ajar. Would you like a cup of tea and biscuit before you bed down?”
I thanked him wholeheartedly. With hot tea in my stomach and surrounded by concrete, I slept like a baby on the thin mattress.
Back in Dungarvan, the universe shifted. The sun shone in a clear blue sky; I enjoyed picking winkles with Dog at my side. Daylight lingered late into the evening, my mood mellowed and an inner darkness lifted. Mother’s absence had liberated me, opened up new possibilities. The tight band around my chest—the battle between duty and resentment—loosened and I could breathe.
Then it appeared—how, I don’t recall. I knew of the book, the I Ching or Book of Change, from a half-remembered conversation with Veronica and her boyfriend John. It was their sacred manual, their go-to seer for every major decision. John had bound their fat version in brown leather embossed with the Chinese ideogram. Now, I possessed the Book of Change by John Blofeld. Though a thinner, poor man’s version of the I Ching, it was still the same profound ancient Chinese text.
As enigmatic as any grimoire or book of magic, the I Ching appeared to be a series of inscrutable symbols, vague texts and curious commentaries based on hexagrams: short stacks of six solid or broken lines. Mysterious, multifaceted, immeasurable—understanding the Oracle, as it was called, could take a lifetime. Yet it was immensely practical, a valuable guide to help make sound decisions. At last, here was what I needed most: a wise captain to help navigate the treacherous waters of life.
By chance or design, it arrived at the perfect moment, touched a precise strand of my soul and spelled the end of my obsession with magic. Almost overnight, my resolve to do a magic ritual faded and the Black Arts got stuffed in a cupboard with all the other moldering books. Now I was determined to become the Superior Man, a person whose actions and choices were in harmony with the universe—not a dark magician desperate for power.
Distant from dreary Dungarvan, I wandered dreamily along a narrow country lane bathed in wildflowers, overhung with tall luxuriant bushes on high banks. Through gaps in the hedges, I glimpsed vibrant green fields and purple mountains shimmering in the distance. Surrounded by nature, I was on a quest to find 50 yarrow sticks to consult the Oracle in the traditional manner.
Not knowing what yarrow looked like, I settled for the straight twigs of a witch-hazel bush. The symbolism made perfect sense: peeled, scraped and dried, the witch-hazel twigs transformed from articles of witchcraft into elements of pure wisdom.
With my sticks assembled, I was ready to consult the I Ching in the proper manner. Hungry for answers, I interrogated the Oracle about everything: Mother’s illness, the family and particularly what I should do. Annoyingly, I kept getting a similar answer to my questions: “It is advantageous to cross the great river (or sea).”
What did that mean—should I abandon Mother and go back to Wales? Desperate for clarity, frustrated by my lack of understanding, I kept asking the same question: What should I do? In response, I got a stunning rebuke:
I am not one to seek out uncultivated youths, but if such a youth seeks me out, I shall at first read and explain to him the omens. Yet should he ask me many times, just because of his importunity, I shall not explain anything more.
The I Ching had given me slap on the wrist and a severe message: grow up, get serious, stop messing around and do what is needed. It was time to revisit the negative conclusion I’d written on that slip of paper: DEATH IS WELCOME.
Wrestling my thoughts into some sort of order, I tried to come up with an alternative statement to guide my life. The past months had taught me profound lessons: life changes in unpredictable ways; my moods affect how I see the world; it feels better to be good than to be evil!
Struggling with my thoughts, knowing I couldn’t get them to hang together perfectly, I devised a set of proposals:
Life seems painful and meaningless, so it is reasonable to kill myself.
That I do not kill myself implies that, at some level, I believe life has some purpose and meaning.
Therefore, (even if I’m not totally convinced) I should live life as if it has meaning.
Magic and Intention
The night after I wrote about black magic, I had an unusually disturbing dream. In the dream I was 17 years old and had lost my identity and memories, with no idea of who I was or what I was doing. A shadowy helper persuaded me to go to a police station and talk with a group of detectives.
That is where the dream turned spooky. Suddenly, I had a short stick or wand in my hand and quickly poked specific spots on the chests of the detectives. Instantly, each went into a waking trance, their memories completely erased. I realized the same thing had to have happened to me.
Like rising up from a deep murky pool, I struggled to wake fully from the dream; it held me fast, sucking me back into an evil embrace that sent shivers up and down my spine. Even after I turned on the light, the feeling stayed with me. Later, working with the dream images, I realized it was a dire warning: Never get involved with black magic—you will lose your self.
In the logical, scientific world-view, magic and the supernatural are dismissed as superstition. That attitude is fueled by unconscious fears of the unknown rather than true understanding. The unexplained and inexplicable happen every moment: we don’t know how the brain generates consciousness; we don’t even know if we experience real ‘reality’ or simply a useful projection of our minds. If we cannot comprehend such fundamental questions, we have to be very careful not to ‘explain away’ unusual phenomena.
As a therapist, I encounter compelling energies, mysterious coincidences, precognitive dreams and psychic phenomena on a regular basis. These things happen often enough that I assume they are normal and natural. Our inner and outer experiences are not separate universes: they are intimately intertwined aspects of one reality. What we desire, hope for and intend—whether good or evil—have a tangible impact on other people and on the physical world.
Intention is a force that moves and shakes. Its most inspirational practitioners—Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi or King Jr.—changed the world forever. In its darker aspect, one person’s driving desire for power can cause untold harm to other human beings—think Hitler, Stalin and those who degrade our environment for personal profit.
Magic seeks to channel and communicate personal intention in order to achieve a particular outcome. Rather than using material means, it relies on rituals, symbolic objects and altered states of consciousness, seeking to produce an effect at a distance without direct physical contact. This is not so unusual as it sounds. All communication, whether spoken or written, seeks to influence the receiver without direct physical contact.
In that sense, psychotherapy is a form of magic. The therapist uses his/her intention and words to create positive change in the client. There is no material cause for that change. All that is exchanged in a session are the patterned vibrations of air that we call sounds. How do those sound vibrations effect profound personal change in another person? We have no clue; it must be magical!
I witnessed the power of intention and communication when I messed around with sympathetic or imitative magic. Pissed off with my father’s indifference, I’d sculpted a wax model of Dad, complete with hooked nose. I stuck pins into the little manikin and wrote an angry letter to Veronica describing my pseudo-witchcraft. Upon reading the letter she immediately experienced a full-blown debilitating panic-attack and took to her bed.
At the time, Dad was suffering from acute back pains and Veronica believed I was putting a similar spell on her. Dad’s ailment may have been coincidence; Veronica’s terrified reaction showed that simply believing you are the target of witchcraft has an intense physical effect.
Magic promises influence over others and the world. A depressed and angry adolescent, I was naturally attracted to anything that could increase control over my life. In truth, I was too scared to perform a real magic ceremony. My desire for power was fueled by insecurity; my anger at the world was more mood than fierce motive. I had no real stomach to conjure up demons, whether from the depths of Hell or the dark side of my psyche. The sacrilege in the chapel and the self-mutilation were more teenage rebellion than magical intent.
Those immature magic experiments were cathartic, an outlet for my frustration, a path toward self-exploration and ultimately a threshold into spirituality. Looking back, the symbolic meaning is clear: I was searching for a way to magically transform myself.
The magical dream I describe in the previous section still haunts me. When I connect with its images of being lost and amnesiac, a flood of meanings and associations fill my mind. I sense how it relates to my adolescent blindness, how I had no idea who I was—but it also references issues to be aware of in my current life. Its main themes are the danger of being unconscious and how we easily lose ourselves and abuse our power over others.
I could have dismissed the dream as just another senseless nightmare. Instead, I understand it as a message directed from my unconscious to my ego consciousness. A deeper aspect of my being needs me to gain certain insights, so it constructed a narrative and populated it with vivid images and intense feelings. Every aspect carries depths of significance and personal association; the dream was shaped to be loud and showy, making it hard to forget in my waking life.
Our inner Self, our unconscious mind is constantly communicating with our ego through dreams, synchronistic events and odd intrusive images and feelings. Socialization and rational thinking tells us to ignore these oddities; they are only coincidences or random eruptions of the brain. If we only take outer events at face value however, if we only believe in the literal meaning of experience, we lose connection with our inner world. To understand the world of dreams, fantasies and intuitions, we have to learn its unique way of communicating through symbol, metaphor, analogy and association.
To be effective in the world, we approach life with logic, rationality and the assumption that things are what they seem: a house is a house; a car is a car; a person is who they appear to be. In the famous phrase of Gertrude Stein, ‘a rose is a rose is a rose.’
This literal way of knowing does not work for our inner worlds. In dreams, a house often represents different aspects of our self; a car is how we move through our life; a rose can be the unfolding of our inner beauty. Nothing is what it appears to be at first sight; we only grasp the many unfolding dimensions of meanings in dreams and in life through mining its symbolic content.
My first contact with this mode of perception was reading the Black Arts. The author, Cavendish accurately describes my experience: “The great fascination of magic is in the type of thought on which it is based. Magical thinking is not random, it has its own laws and its own logic, but it is poetic rather than rational.” The obscure allusions of the I Ching further extended my symbolic understanding to an even more sublime level.
Poetry, religion, art, music and myth all embrace the symbolic rather than the literal. They evoke the airy clouds of correspondence rather than the rigid concrete of rationality. Symbolic understanding gets beneath the skin of everyday experience, opens up vistas of meaning and adds a richness and depth to our engagement with life. Exploring the worlds of dreams, imagination and intuition helps us embrace and includes the vast non-rational ocean of the unconscious, ever in motion, fluid and formless.
Sensing beneath the compelling perceptions of ego consciousness is not easy. We have to settle our overactive minds and allow the subtle images, feelings and intuitions to bubble up from below. It’s a bit like catching slippery fish swimming in a deep pool: you patiently grope around in the darkness until you feel something vibrant and alive.
When we capture a true symbolic meaning it reverberates in our inner feelings like a struck gong. Things are moved, insights illuminated, understanding expands and we see the world and our selves in a different light. This shift of perception is essential for deciphering dreams but also adds depth and significance to our waking experiences.
For instance, if I understand the incident of sleeping in a prison cell in Waterford as if it were a dream, what additional meaning is revealed? The outer event has three elements: stranded far from home; encountering the guard; sleeping in the cell. Symbolically, this could mean: I am far from my inner home, my true self; the inner policeman forces me to pass a test and then becomes protector and guardian. Once implanted in my cell (‘cell’ as in a monastic sanctuary or center) I can let go and rest in peace. This symbolic interpretation of my adolescent struggle is far more interesting and insight provoking; it also resonates with my lived experience.
We live in two worlds, outer and inner, and it is essential for our humanity that we experience all dimensions of our being, not just the literal and taken-for-granted. Approaching experience with symbolic understanding enriches who we are and allows universal and archetypal knowledge to illuminate our lives. In this way we extract every last ounce of juice from being alive in the here and now.
 Cavendish, Richard (1967). The Black Arts, Perigree Books, New York.
 Blofeld, John (1968). The Book of Change, Unwin Bros. Ltd. London.
 Black Arts, P 1.