The Spiritualist

Pearl Shannon always knew your questions before she read your questions.

Many years ago, when I was first interested in psychic work, a friend of mine suggested that we go see a spiritualist named Pearl Shannon.

There is a sort of church service, my friend told me. You write your questions on a piece of paper and put it in an envelope with your initials. Then she goes through all the envelopes and she answers your questions. It seemed all very queer to me.

Nevertheless, the following Sunday off we went, where we joined many others in a packed living room on Portola Street in San Francisco. Pearl had converted part of her house into a church service every week. She had helpers, all women who acted rather like alter boys, helping with this and that, collecting donations (donations were required for your questions—five bucks for three questions), leading sing-alongs. They sang old-fashioned Christian songs. But no one came for the songs. They were waiting for the songs to be over. They wanted Pearl to answer their questions.

Pearl was a very big woman. She often asked her audience to be as quiet as possible because, she said, sounds felt like knives to her. Her voice was slightly shaky. She talked to a lot of dead people. The first time I saw her for a private reading she immediately described a woman named Edith, who was interested in my musical development. Edith was my childhood piano teacher, long since dead.

I don’t think that Pearl would have described herself as a psychic, but rather as a spiritualist. She did a very particular type of reading, and she was very good at it, perhaps the best of her kind. There were many of these spiritualists back then, all with their own tiny services in a corner of their houses. I don’t know if they all knew each other, or where they learned how to do it, or who they learned it from. Everyone we saw were little old ladies, and no one was replacing them as they retired or died. They weren’t passing on what they knew.

Their methods were all the same: they answered your questions before they opened the envelope and actually read the questions. But Pearl was the best.

“J L M,” —she always announced the initials on the envelope first—“J L M, as I touch with you…” Sometimes she would talk about a loved one who died; she seemed to see the room as overflowing, not with people, but with spirits. But she always answered your questions. She would answer every question, the worries about health, relationships, life, children, death, everything.

Then she would open the envelope and read the questions. She usually added a few more words of advice to what she’d said before. But I never saw her get a question wrong.

One day I brought a friend to introduce her to one of Pearl’s services. There was a note on the door. Pearl was in the hospital with pneumonia. She died soon after; the house was sold. She has never been replaced. She died before internet was born to remember her, and her gifts disappeared with her. But she was an inspiration and one of the first psychics I ever met. She left a lasting impression: the unusual abilities she had, the generosity of her time, and the toll it ultimately took on her health.

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