MOTHER MYSTIC’S APOTHECARY SHOP
SOMEWHERE, NESTLED AMONG PUBS and pizzerias, the wise Susan Asselin was waiting for me. I had scheduled a Tarot reading, but I couldn’t find any occult images or neon lights. Her shop, with a gray exterior and wide storefront windows, was fairly unassuming. Only an ornately decorated sign reading “Mother Mystic’s Apothecary Shop” distinguished it from the rest of Federal Hill.
I didn’t know at the time that Tarot cards—playing cards with symbolic images ranging from a tower struck by lightning to a fool carrying a bagpipe—have a far broader cultural background than the occult. Originally used for recreational card playing in 15th-century Italy, the cards attained mystical significance in the 18th century, when French scholar Antoine Court de Gebelin linked them to the religion of Ancient Egypt. Since then, the mysterious symbols have been linked to traditions as diverse as the Hebrew Kabbalah, Christian mysticism, and Jungian psychoanalysis. It wasn’t until the 1960s, amidst great spiritual upheaval, that Tarot became popular in the United States.
The front room of a Tarot reading shop could have been anything from a mini-museum of Egyptian artifacts to a sanctuary of water fountains and incense This room was neither. On one shelf lay a collection of herbs used for healing and for creating love, among other things. On another, penis-shaped candles lay side-by-side with blended glass candles. An entire wall was dedicated to books on the occult, some brand-new and some covered in dust. They covered subjects from handy spells to the lives of great psychics to the histories of magical traditions in the West. I turned around and saw the woman I had come for sitting behind the front counter: Susan Breton Asselin, known to her faithfuls as “Reverend Mother Susan Asselin.” Wearing a beaded necklace and a long dress, she was drinking tea out of a plastic mug. “Hey, Susan. Do you still have time for a tarot reading?” I asked.
She looked up, revealing a face drained of emotion—or maybe spiritual energy. But her blue eyes shone beneath her fatigue, even as she responded with a flat “yup.”
A door with a sign that read “Be respectful—psychic reading in progress” opened into a large, dimly-lit room with a square table. She grabbed a deck of ornately decorated cards and handed them to me. “Here—shuffle the cards and think about what questions you are trying to answer.”
I had come in to be taken on a spiritual journey; I didn’t have any questions prepared. But like anyone else, I suppose I had been mulling over a lot of questions recently. If Susan could offer me quick answers, why not ask? I thought hard as I shuffled and handed her back the deck.
Without hesitating, she flipped over a series of cards and stared at them intently, trying to figure out what the metaphysical world was telling her. Still staring down at the cards, she asked me what my questions were.
I told her that I wanted to find a sense of inner happiness. To this she nodded and answered unwaveringly, “Yes. It seems like you’ve already found it, though. But you ignore it, again and again. Why do you keep ignoring it?”
For a second I was speechless. I squinted at her questioningly as an idea took shape in the back of my mind. I had been toying with an interest in poetry for the last few years. When I asked Susan about “inner happiness,” I had wondered whether, maybe even hoped that, she would tell me that poetry was worth my time.
I responded: “Poetry. It’s just so risky...I guess I’ve always known that it’s something special to me. But I’m afraid of it.”
She nodded again. I had to follow my heart, she explained, in order to find success. Our session continued this way for a while, with her drawing insecurities out of me as she gave me more and more soul-freeing advice. “Follow your gut,” “Don’t be held down by definitions,” and “Be your own boss” were the common threads. She even had some predictions about my future career: as a poet, I would be the “bridge between two worlds,” and my art would be the center of various streams of income.
Several times, it crossed my mind that her predictions might be one-size-fits-all responses for anyone coming to a psychic for guidance. After all, anyone coming to a reader for guidance is ready to take a leap of faith. All the reader needs to do is say “jump.” I knew this, but I didn’t care; her suggestions were exactly what I needed to hear.
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SUSAN HAS DRAWN CUSTOMERS from all religious persuasions: “I have Muslims, I have Christians, I have Hindus, I have atheists, I have agnostics. When your life gets stressful, and you’re looking for answers, this is a place where you will generally come if you can’t find answers in traditional beliefs. Paganism doesn’t require that you believe in anything.” This made sense coming from a woman who grew up steeped in “magical Catholicism,” a religion that involves performing witchcraft to communicate with saints. The saints to her were not higher beings residing in heaven, but rather “archetypes with energy behind them.” She spent her childhood playing with Ouija boards and swinging divining pendulums to communicate with the spiritual world.
It seems that while Susan didn’t believe in organized religion, she did believe in her intuition. When I asked her how she approaches Tarot reading, she told me, “I use Tarot cards to spark my intuition.” Then she corrected herself: “To spark my psychic ability.” When she reads Tarot, she told me, “Suddenly I’ll ‘know’ things. Sometimes I’ll just hear words. Other times I’ll see pictures.” When she stared meditatively at those cards, images and words were popping into her mind. Whether they were simply more intense versions of the average person’s eureka moment, or distinguishably other-worldly experiences, I don’t know.
No matter how much we deliberate, or how much we search the ancient texts of our religions, there comes a point at which a problem seems unsolveable. It is from this place that people decide to turn to readers like Susan—because they need to be told to follow their hearts. Whether Susan offers psychic abilities or simply “intuition,” and whether her guidance is personalized or one-size-fits-all, this is her simple message.
On my way out of Susan’s reading room, I walked through a kitchen where a woman carrying a child sat talking with a man in a hoodie. At first glance, I mistook them for a family hanging out after a psychic reading. But, I remembered Susan had told me earlier that she was holding a “psychic fair” where three local psychics congregated and gave “mini-readings.” The man and woman were both psychics.
“Susan’s one of the best,” the man in the hoodie told me. His name was Jonathan. The esteem with which he held her was rare in the psychic world. It’s tough to find common ground where space is staked out for Catholics, Cabalists, and Romany. I was lucky to have stumbled upon this gathering of three readers.
Susan recommended that I speak to the man in the hoodie, whose name was Jonathan. A young, glib, self-proclaimed “bibliophile,” he was a skeptic, even towards himself. “I don’t care if you call it psychosis or psychic,” he said, “because my ability has allowed me to help people.” He went on to cite the services he has done for the community: solving crimes, identifying illness, and emotionally healing the victims of assault and rape. He is trained in mediation to handle clients who need to settle complex conflicts before they can be spiritually healed. But in cases, like those of assault and rape when, as a psychic, he “can’t ethically take responsibility,” he has “a list of numbers to call.” His duty to others, not his assuredness in his powers, grounds him.
Minus his psychic ability, Jonathan is a therapist. But that’s a big minus. A conventional therapist provides clients with clinically-approved solutions to their problems. Some people simply don’t benefit from conventional therapy, and others have problems so complex that formal logic simply can’t tease out a solution. Still others may have no faith in Western logic. These are the people who all must find faith in something else: the irrational, the mystical, the occult.
KAREN BENTLEY, WAYLAND SQUARE
TO SKEPTICS, IT MAY BE A BIT easier to believe in a reader who doesn’t even call herself a psychic—or believe in the metaphysical at all. That may be the appeal of Karen Bentley, a Tarot reader who practices in an office in Wayland Square, Providence. When I looked up the stairs of her office complex next to L’Artisan Café, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would her place of work be a dark, incense-filled den covered in mystical artwork and shriveled heads? Or would this non-psychic reader live at the cutting-edge of Tarot in a bleached white and stainless steel station lined with flat-screen monitors?
A tall, young black woman stood confidently in the doorway. Her clothing was casual: She wore jeans and a blue sweater. She extended her hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Karen.”
With white walls and just enough room for a desk, two chairs, some shelves and small chest it could be described as economical. On the walls hung not incense-burning candles and or drawings of pentacles, but instead several certificates in Tarot reading and conflict mediation, along with a Bachelor’s of Science in Legal Studies from Roger Williams University.
As soon as we sat down, she perked up and began chatting excitedly. “I don’t give predictory readings. I view Tarot as a creative aid,” she said clearly and quickly (she has taken acting classes to refine her speaking skills). Unlike most psychic readers, she does not believe that Tarot has any fortune-telling powers. “I don’t like the word ‘psychic.’ I try to distance myself from that movement,” she told me. Her ideas are closer to those of Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. Jung conceived of the Tarot as the ancient equivalent of today’s Rorschach test, bringing out archetypes contained in a person’s collective unconscious. These archetypes represented universal parts of the human experience hidden in the subconscious mind. The closest Jung got to the metaphysical was his belief in “synchronicity,” the idea that meaningful coincidence, along with the conventional relationship between cause and effect, drives the interactions in the universe.
According to Karen, the images in Tarot cards have such a universal significance that they bring out deeply nested feelings from other peoples’ minds and her own as a reading occurs. “Whoever invented it, invented it as a psychological game,” she told me. Her Tarot readings are driven not by her predictions, but by the clients’ thoughts and questions. “I try my hardest not to ask questions. If I wait long enough, usually the client will. I have to stop myself from projecting onto the client.”
THE FRIENDLY CONGREGATION OF readers I stumbled upon in Mother Mystic’s was a rare occurence. There isn’t much cooperation in the psychic world. Susan said, “It’s not a community. It’s dog-eat-dog. Every person’s watching out for his or herself.”
Many readers hold their profession to a moral standard. But at the same time, some, Jonathan told me, are “nefarious assholes. They’ll tell you, ‘oh, you’re cursed. Here, buy a $200 candle.”
Readers do perform a special service to the community. In few other environments do people leave behind all formal schools of logical and religious thought in preparation for a leap of faith. Readers, whether guided by psychic power or synchronicity, are masters of instinct, and they impart every bit of intuition that they can to their soul-searching clients.
I asked Susan what she thought the purpose of the modern-day reader is. She told me, “Most of my clients come to me because they want to redirect their lives.” Then, with conviction, “I can see it on their faces.”
SAM LIN SOMMER B'17 is on a spiritual journey.