Hands down one of the most interesting reads of this winter has been Victoria Loustalot’s latest book, Future Perfect: A Skeptic’s Search for an Honest Mystic (Little A Books, 2019), which was just published earlier this month. Seamlessly weaving together an exploration of the world of psychics, shamans and astrologers with her own personal experience, she has written a novel that is not only eminently readable, but one that is at once insightful, engaging and relatable. Read on to see what she has to say about how the book came about, what (at least in part) may be attributed to the increased interest in psychics and much more.
Andrew DeCanniere (AD): To begin at the beginning, how did Future Perfect come about?
Victoria Loustalot (VL): I always like to point out that this was not a world I knew very much about. It wasn’t something I was particularly interested in or drawn to. I certainly didn’t have a history of being interested in the mystical world, in psychics or shamans or astrology. I just hadn’t really given it much thought, to be honest. Then, one of my best friends was getting married and wanted to have her bachelorette party in Montreal. I managed to find this psychic there, and so we made this appointment. I would not have gone otherwise or sought out this experience on my own. I very much went to see the psychic thinking ‘Well, this will be sort of ridiculous. We’ll have a little fun. This isn’t a big deal.’ I didn’t attribute much to it. There were four of us. It was a small bachelorette party and three of us, in particular, had these really compelling readings. The thing that struck me first about it was that the psychic, Catharine River-Rain, was incredibly specific in terms of describing people we would meet and when we were going to meet them. She told a friend of mine that she was going to have a baby girl in a year-and-a-half. I expected her to be very general and to say things that could be interpreted in a million different ways. There was some of that, but I was really astonished at the specificity. Even more so when, in the coming weeks and months, a lot of what she told us started coming true, in exactly the way she had described it.
She told me I was going to meet someone and he was going to be very tall and have very curly hair and that he would work in comedy. She just saw us walking all over New York City and I met this guy who is 6’5”, has super curly hair and had been in comedy for 20 years — both sort of as a comic, doing improv at Second City, and also as a producer behind-the-scenes of comedy specials and shows. On our first date, he suggested we go for this two-mile walk, and we just ended up walking all over the city. I started talking to him on June 21st, the first official day of summer, and the psychic had said I was going to meet this man right at the beginning of summer. There were just things like that. That experience happened and I just didn’t know what to make of it. It was like ‘This just seems wild. I don’t have an explanation for this and I just can’t dismiss it.’ So, I started talking to other people about it and telling friends and colleagues this kind of wild story. What I realized is that people were really interested in it. They were really taken with it and they had their own stories of psychics and astrologers. I realized there was an audience — an interest in this topic — but people were very shy about it. No one really wanted to admit their own experiences in front of other people. Now, it was like they had an ally, so they would pull me aside and say ‘You know, I have to tell you about this psychic that I see.’
They were just people from all different professional backgrounds — and not necessarily people who I ever in a million years would’ve thought would be open to these types of experiences. That was the first inkling I had that maybe there’s a book here, maybe there’s a story here. I wanted to find out more about this for my own self, but it also seems like this is something other people are interested in. I realized that there really hadn’t been a book that had been written that explored this topic from the perspective of someone who is skeptical but open. There were those that has been written by people who either believed they had this ability themselves — so they were working on their own brand so to speak. That’s fine and great, but that’s a very different type of book. Then there were books that addressed the topic very much from the perspective of ‘This is all nonsense. There’s nothing here. These are all scam artists and frauds.’ It just seemed there was a huge gap in-between those two and that there was space for a third approach.
AD: Right because, as you say, there certainly are people who may have certain abilities or these other senses. As you touch on in your book, people can be more intuitive than they perhaps realize — especially if they would be a little more in-tune with those feelings. Then, of course, on the other end of the spectrum, there are those who are looking to trick people out of their money, which you sort of touch on as well.
VL: Yeah. There absolutely are scam artists, and there is a lot of fraud that happens, and I would never suggest otherwise. Just because those things exist, that doesn’t necessarily mean that magic can’t also exist.
AD: Absolutely. You can’t just generalize.
VL: Right, and I wanted the book to approach both of those. I do interview people who were scammed out of large sums of money. That was something really compelling to me because I think there are a lot of people who hear about those stories and think ‘I would never give someone $100,000 to remove some curse from me or something.’ I really wanted to talk to people who had done just that, who had gone through that experience. I wanted to explain and explore how that happens. Maybe we’re not all so far from that type of vulnerability as we think. That was a part of the book that was really interesting and compelling to me. The other question, which a lot of law enforcement [officials] will have is how do you prosecute people for these crimes? How do you press charges when you’ve been made vulnerable in this way? I did not want to brush that aside, or to be too eager to be open and ignore the very serious crimes that do happen under the guise of the mystical world.
AD: I think it’s like anything else. You have to do your due diligence and have to always use caution, which is admittedly sometimes easier said than done — particularly, as you discuss in your book, when you may be feeling down and you are in a vulnerable place in your life. That said, I would say you just need to use some common sense and try to keep a level head about it, if you do choose to go to a psychic or someone like that. Of course, just as everybody on the street isn’t a good person or a bad person, psychics aren’t all good people or all bad people.
VL: No, and I like what you said, earlier, too. The thing that really struck me about the psychics, shamans, astrologers and those who call themselves empaths — meaning they are highly empathic or highly intuitive — is that a common theme among those who I took the most seriously and who felt the most thoughtful in their approach is that they all emphasized that this is an ability everyone has and can develop to a certain extent. I may interview a psychic who says ‘I have the ability to do these readings for other people,’ and not everyone may have the ability to do a reading for another people, but everyone can do this for themselves in their own lives, of course. We’ve just become so accustomed to tuning out our intuition and to not paying attention to it. I thought it was really interesting that it was such a common theme that I heard from so many different people. Of course, that led me to the question of ‘Well, what’s the difference between following your intuition and trusting your gut?’
Trusting your gut, as I explore in the book, feels so much more masculine. That’s a position of strength and the type of comment you would hear in the boardroom, for example. Following your intuition, however, feels more feminine and doesn’t garner the same respect or attention that I think this notion of trusting your gut does.
AD: I think that kind of points to a problem within our culture — this thing of that which is seen as more masculine automatically also being seen as more trustworthy, while perhaps that which is seen as more feminine is automatically seen as less so.
VL: I think that’s definitely true. Again, I stress that I am an American who wrote this book primarily while I was in America. A lot of the people I interviewed, even if they weren’t living in America, were American. I think, in a lot of ways, it is largely a uniquely American problem. I think there are many other cultures where there’s much more of an openness and that there is space for all of these belief systems.
For example, my understanding is that particularly in southern Italy, there is a great deal of respect for astrology, but Italy is also a very religious country and is very Catholic. I know a lot of Catholics in the U.S. would feel the idea of being a Catholic and believing in astrology is sacreligious, but those ideas sit comfortably side-by-side in Italian culture and there is no discrepancy or tension there. I think that’s really interesting. If you look at a lot of indigenous cultures, science and biology and the study of plants and herbs sits very comfortably side-by-side with spiritual beliefs and shamanic practices. I just thought that was really beautiful — this idea of how there doesn’t have to be just one answer or that it doesn’t have to be sort of black-and-white. I think sometimes I have found, growing up in America and being an American, we are fixated on this idea that there is one right answer or that if one thing is correct, that automatically means something else can’t also be correct.
AD: Which I know your book also discusses at one point — how there is this obsession with facts and seeing facts as proof. We kind of value that above everything else. Yet, as you say, even in a court of law, we’re not necessarily making decisions based on absolute proof.
VL: That was a really important point to me — this idea of how culturally, in America, we’re fixated on this notion of facts and proof and science, but even our court of law is based on this idea of reasonable doubt. There is an understanding that we may not be able to definitively prove the innocence or guilt of someone in a criminal trial, for example. In our minds we know that on an intellectual level, but there still seems to be this kind of desire to say we found the proof, that we solved this, that we can tie this up with a little bow and feel like it is taken care of — that it’s not messy. A lot of the book is exploring this idea of ‘What if things are messy? Maybe that’s beautiful. Maybe that’s okay. Why are we so afraid of messy?’
AD: And, as you point out, within science, people take studies as absolute proof. However, as you say, even within science or within studies, there are biases.
VL: Absolutely, and that’s one of the things we forget. Science is an industry like any other, and a field of study conducted by human beings. Human beings are inherently fallible. So, anytime you have a human being who is running a study or writing an article for a scientific journal, it is impossible to be entirely without bias. You have your perspective, you have your years of experience that are shaping your beliefs, you have your desires, and you have your career that is riding on something. It’s all about that idea of unconscious bias. You know, you might not even be aware of it, but we treat the results of a study as unassailable proof of something and I think that’s really dangerous. It’s dangerous not only to us as the readers, but also to the field of science, because it’s limiting our scientists and our researchers.
It’s not a bad thing if someone comes along and disproves part of the study. That’s what science is. It’s a constant conversation, a constant dialogue of coming up with new information. That means the system is working. It’s not a threat. It doesn’t undermine your work. It’s the way in which work builds on each other. That, to me, is very much how I approached the writing of this book. I’m looking not only at science, but spirituality, religion, psychology and why we do anything — why we do what we do when we get up in the morning, why we’re here and all of those big questions. Whether you’re working in the field of law or science or psychology or human development — or you’re living your day-to-day life and, like you and me, you’re a journalist or an editor or a writer, and you’re just getting through the day, we are all asking those same questions. What’s our meaning? What’s our purpose? I think we need to try and answer that question through science, through law, through religion, through psychology and through spirituality. I think we need it all.
AD: Speaking of identifying a purpose in life, in your book, you also suggest that there perhaps is an error in thinking of one’s purpose as one unchanging thing.
VL: Which I thought is such a cool idea. I think it’s a constant conversation and question. I really do believe in this idea that your meaning and your purpose can change from moment to moment. It’s not just once it’s set and done, I can stop thinking about this.
AD: Absolutely. I think that if you’re living and you’re continuing to grow as a person, you aren’t done. I think that is a notion my mom instilled in me and I know that’s something she has lived by, and continues to live by, to this day. I think this really fits in with that.
VL: I think that’s absolutely true, because if it really were ‘Now, I found my purpose, I found my meaning,’ and you’re not dead yet, it’s like ‘Well, now what? What am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ So a part of me doesn’t want to answer that question because it is the asking that is the interesting part.
AD: You also talk about how people seem obsessed with this idea of having ‘made it,’ or with ‘arriving.’ I think this sort of ties into all of that as well.
VL: Definitely, and I don’t know how conscious we are of it, but there’s this list people start to create in their minds of what it’s going to mean when they’ve made it. It’s a certain title at work or a certain job, or maybe it’s a certain house or apartment in a certain neighborhood, or else it’s a kind of car or a partner or kids. Whatever it is, they’re these markers in life. Even if you achieve all of those things, you may not find them as satisfying as you thought you would — or you do find them satisfying, but life is precarious and you don’t know how things are going to evolve. So, putting all of your eggs in that one basket seems somewhat limiting. That’s another thing I talk about in my book. I don’t want to be limited by my own imagination.
I can come up with a list of things that I think would be fulfilling or make me feel like I had arrived, but in doing that and in setting out on that course to do everything I can to make those things happen, perhaps there were other opportunities that I could’ve explored that would’ve been even more exciting or fulfilling, but I was never open to them because I was so focused on this list I made one day. So, I think that’s something that is compelling and worth considering. I think anytime you decide you’re ‘arriving’ or that your sense of self is going to come from external things — from a job or house, or from having a certain kind of partner or from having a couple of kids — all of those things are really beautiful and amazing, but I don’t want my sense of self or my self-worth to ever come from my work, from my writing or from the person I am either dating or am married to, or from my children. I mean, that’s an extraordinary amount of pressure and responsibility and obligation to try and put on another human being — or on a job — that, frankly, they are never going to be able to fulfill. They are never going to be able to live up to that. That was another idea I was certainly wrestling with in the book and is something I wanted to open up for discussion.
AD: Right. I think all of those things may be parts of what makes us who we are, but none of those individually is all of who we are. Switching gears a bit, with all that has been going on recently, particularly — as you say — with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, it certainly seems like your book is very timely as well, given that more and more people seem to be turning to — or at least exploring and opening up to — the idea of psychics and astrologers and the like.
VL: You know, I was drawn to this topic because my friend was getting married, of course, and we were on this trip. All of that happened in the summer of 2016. So, it just happened that I was writing this book during the end of 2016 and all through 2017, which was an incredibly tumultuous time — particularly in America, though certainly not exclusively in America. There’s been a tremendous amount going on abroad as well. It became impossible to write this book and not address the elephant in the room.
There was no way to write about this honestly and authentically, and with any sense of wholeness, without talking about the political landscape in the moment I was writing — and the ways in which people were feeling in response to this shift. It absolutely drove a lot of interest in psychic and astrologers and shamans. It had sort of gone underground, but it was still there, and it was having another wave of prominence it hadn’t seen since the 1980s — in America, at least. I attribute a lot of that to exactly what you’re saying — to this fear and this feeling that the country was sort of slipping out of our grasp and going in this new direction that people didn’t understand. It made people question a lot of their beliefs, and I think maybe made them reconsider beliefs that they had about psychics or astrology. It was something that they perhaps hadn’t given a lot of weight to previously, but everything they believed in before didn’t seem to be working. They felt that perhaps they ought to be more open to this and were just looking for comfort and reassurance. Again, I’m not speaking for everyone. There are a lot of Americans, of course, who were thrilled about the election results in November of 2016, but you can’t deny there was certainly a significant uptick in interest in psychics and shamans and astrologers in these last couple of years. That bears out in statistics, as well as when you look at publications and the type of content they were publishing around the topics and the audience response to those topics. So, from that perspective, it was fortunate timing.
AD: Needless to say, like you, I was not one of those who were thrilled with the results of the 2016 election. Anyhow, it certainly does seem like the interest in psychics and astrologers and the like is somewhat cyclical. It seems as tough it picks up in times of uncertainty and anxiety. However, you also touch on how people have increasingly moved away from religion and how that also has to do with the increased interest.
VL: It does. I mean, we’ve seen a sort of moving away from religion as the center of community life and connection for a couple of generations now. Again, at least here in the U.S. I think what’s interesting about that is that while that [moving away from religion] has been consistent, and seems to be continuing, it hasn’t changed an inherent desire for some sense of spirituality or connection to something bigger than ourselves. That’s something you used to get from organized religion, and if you’re not going to get it from the religion of your parents and grandparents and ancestors, where are you going to address that need?
I think that’s where a lot of this spirituality and shamanic practices and astrology and psychics have come in, in order to fill that. That’s not the only thing we get from religion. We also get this idea of community and connection — and that is the other thing that you’re seeing, these sort of new spiritual communities where people are exploring mysticism and the numinous and how it can impact all facets of their lives — and they’re doing it with friends or they’re doing it by going to these organized events. This interest isn’t happening in isolation. It’s not just a person going to a psychic on their own — although there’s a lot of that happening. There is also a community. Again, this is also cyclical. We’ve seen that in times past when we’ve seen a spike in interest in these ideas, but I think it is absolutely an answer to ‘Well, if I’m not going to be spending Saturday at the temple or Sunday at the church, what am I going to be doing instead? This is one answer.
AD: I can certainly see that. And I think it’s arguable that people are hungrier for connection now than they have been in a long time. Not that they live in total isolation or anything, but I think there may not be the same connection within communities — or, at least, within some communities, as there may have been in the past. It just seems people may be feeling a little more disconnected from one another. So, it makes sense that people at least some people would be turning to something like this as well. You also talk a bit about why it is people have been moving away from religion. One of those reasons is because there have, at times, been these abuses of power within organized religion.
VL: I think that’s definitely part of it, along with a realization that a lot of organized religion is a business. That’s true of psychics and shamans and astrologers as well. That’s a component of it. More often than not, you are paying to participate in these experiences, but I think there is certainly a lot of distrust of a lot of the powers-that-be in organized religion. There is such a history of abuse of power, going back centuries — and the idea that a lot of these spiritual and ‘alternative’ practices that have been on the receiving end of those abuses and have not been in the position of power.
Of course, that opens up cultural appropriation as well. You have people who are looking for different answers, and who are looking into different cultures for those answers, and they are maybe not doing the research they should — or are not taking the consideration that they should — to really understand these other ideas and beliefs before taking them on themselves. That’s something else I talk about in the book as well. People may be ‘good intentioned,’ but they are perhaps cherry-picking from different cultural experiences, which is offensive and hurtful to those for whom these are already the beliefs of their ancestors and their culture, and they are being misunderstood or taken away from them — they are seeing these ideas and beliefs reinterpreted in mass media and pop culture by people who don’t really understand them.
AD: At the very least, I would hope that people do begin to take a more mindful approach after reading your book.
VL: I think it’s all part of that conversation — of just saying ‘Wait a minute. Regardless of your intentions, this is the impact you are having on this other person or on this other community.’ That reminder to just step back, to stop and listen and to be aware of our actions.
AD: I think that also goes back to another point you discuss in your book. You talk about interconnectedness and the ways in which we impact one another, too.
VL: That’s it. We are so conscious of the ways in which people impact us, right? We are the main characters in our own lives. We never forget the way someone makes us feel — whether that is a positive or negative association — but we forget that we are going through life making the same kinds of impact on other people. If you’re having an off day and you snap at the barista at your coffee shop, how is that going to land? How is that going to impact her and how is that passed forward in her next interaction? There’s that kind of domino effect.
AD: I think it all sort of ties back to the idea of empathy for others and being able to put yourself in their shoes.
VL: Exactly. I think in a lot of ways it starts with loving yourself and with our judgments of other people. I’m obviously far from the first person to make this point, but if you are judging someone or coming down harshly on someone, what are the insecurities or fear you have that this other person is bringing up in you? I think that taking the time to address our own internal struggles is not selfish, however you do that — whether it’s with some form of spirituality or religion or literature or psychology or science or whatever it may be, or some combination of all of the above — you are going to benefit and so will everyone around you.
AD: Speaking of those around you, at one point in the book, you decide to give up giving advice, in favor of just being present and bearing witness and listening, rather than sort of prescribing solutions.
VL: That’s maybe one of the biggest takeaways for me in writing the book — that the answer is often to just listen. The answer is often not to say anything, but to be quiet and to listen.
AD: Right. To resist the temptation to say something to try and ‘fix it,’ if you will.
VL: Rushing in to be the hero is actually not nearly as helpful to you or to anyone else as you want it to be. The harder thing to do is to not offer a quick solution. The harder thing is to bear witness for someone else, to acknowledge what they are going through without being able to take it away or add to it — even if it’s a positive thing. It’s not always a negative thing. Your contribution is simply your presence and your awareness.
AD: You already talked a bit about how the book came to be, but you also touched on your concerns over the project and how it would be received. I thought it was interesting when you came to the realization that the book couldn’t be written at a remove, but would actually have to be written from a more personal place, which I think makes it a better book.
VL: I think so,too. It took me a while to get there, but I agree. You know, we go to psychics and shamans and astrologers for such incredibly intimate, personal reasons. It was really impossible to write this book and to interview the people I interviewed, who just inevitably made it personal when I interviewed them. So, there was just no way to have these conversations and not have it get personal. Then, consequently, I had to write it personally. Of course, getting back to our earlier discussion of the politics and the social climate under which I was writing these last couple of years, there was no way to ignore the personal impact on my self and others that it was having. So, yes, it was supposed to be an impersonal book, and instead it became my most personal book, but I have no regrets. It’s exactly what it is supposed to be. It just took me a while to get with the program.
AD: Last, but not least, what are you reading at the moment? What would you recommend?
VL: I’ve been reading a lot of poems by Tomas Tranströmer, who is a Swedish poet. He died a number of years ago. Maybe it’s because it’s winter and he has a lot of really incredible poems about the winter in Sweden, but I’ve been reading a lot of his poetry and there’s just an incredible amount of light and warmth in his poems about winter, which I find incredibly useful on these colder, darker days of the year. I would recommend your readers seek him out — especially your readers in Chicago, who know something about winter.
Victoria Loustalot (pronounced LOO-STA-LOW) has written for the New York Times, the New Yorker online, the Onion, Women’s Wear Daily, and Publishers Weekly, among many other publications. Her writing has also been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Thomas J. Watson Library and Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. She earned her BA as well as MFA from Columbia University in New York City and previously worked at Twitter as the global program manager for @TwitterMoments. Future Perfect is her third book. She is also the author of the memoir This Is How You Say Goodbye and Living Like Audrey, a meditation on the life and career of Audrey Hepburn. In the future, according to one psychic, she will call the Scottish countryside home. Another claims she will move to Hawaii. Loustalot is dubiously unopposed to both.