A disclaimer: My understanding of what Dion Fortune wrote is slight, as is my knowledge of the occult. I read Psychic Self-Defense because I was intrigued by Bowie mentioning the book and his use of “psychically damaged,” which I previously figured he used because of his antipathy toward psychiatry. Psychic Self-Defense defies summary. If I get things wrong, please comment.
Page numbers are from this 2001 edition (Weiser Books) of Fortune’s 1930 text.
Speculation: Could one of the reasons Bowie cited Psychic Self-Defense as one of two books about the occult that were most important to him during his terrible time in LA, be that it allowed him a different way to think about what was happening in his head? He never denied that his behavior during that period was bizarre, and I expect he probably wondered if what he had long feared had come to pass, that he would have a psychotic break like his half-brother Terry, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, institutionalized for much of his adult life, and committed suicide, or one of his three maternal aunts, including one who was lobotomized.
Fortune trained as a psychologist, and a good deal of Psychic Self-Defense addresses mental illness and psychic experiences. The differential diagnosis of a mental illness or psychic attack is complicated because the effects of both are so similar. An unstable person might have delusions of psychic attack, but a psychic attack can cause madness as well. There are ways of dealing with and overcoming psychic attack, according to Dion Fortune. In Bowie’s mother’s family, psychiatry lost the battle with mental illness every time.
“We live,” Fortune writes, “in the midst of invisible forces whose effects alone we perceive [and] invisible forms whose actions we very often do not perceive at all, though we may be profoundly affected by them” (3). Life goes on, the veil between worlds stays in place – until it doesn’t, and we are face to face with the Unseen. It’s not that the Unseen is any more inherently evil than water or fire. It’s when it has been “corrupted and perverted” by “adepts of the Left-hand Path” that problems arise (6).
One of four conditions usually applies when the Unseen makes itself known in a psychically damaging way:
- Being in a place where forces are concentrated*
- Associating with people who are “handling these forces”*
- Seeking out the Unseen and getting in too deeply
- Being ill with “certain pathological conditions which rend the veil.” [p. 4]
Any – or possibly all – of these could have contributed to the psychic damage that took Bowie from Beverly Hills to Bel Air to Berlin, and years to repair.
Psychic attacks are preceded by a sense of fear and foreboding, then nervous exhaustion, fear of sleep, and mental breakdown – in other words, the warning signs are much the same as what Bowie experienced. The liminal state between sleep and wakefulness is a time of vulnerability. If Bowie feared sleeping, his wakefulness may not have been a side-effect of the cocaine; it may have been the goal. **
Fortune warns against jumping to the conclusion that these feelings are necessarily the result of an externally sourced attack. When a person first becomes involved in the occult, psychic disturbance is not uncommon since his “consciousness is being disturbed by an unaccustomed force” (102). Another risk is “partial recovery of the memories of past incarnations” (103), especially those having to do with involvement in the occult. The emotions associated with the memory are recovered first, and it can take a long time for the memory itself to emerge.
Although Bowie had been interested in the occult for many years before LA (“Quicksand”), it is possible that all he knew was limited to what he had read. Fortune stresses that it one thing to read about the occult, and another to participate in ritual and ceremonial magic (if he did so).
Bowie’s years of training with Lama Chime Rinpoche, beginning in 1965, may have made it easier for him to deal with memories of his past lives. I expect he would have had a better understanding of this than most who get involved in the occult.
When other explanations had been rejected and Fortune was asked to evaluate a probable psychic attack, she considered three possible causes of the disturbance:
- physical disease
- “malicious human action”
- “non-human interference” (175).
I’m going to leave “malicious human action” for the next post and concentrate instead on “non-human interference.”
A good deal of detective work went into evaluating whether a psychic attack had occurred and if so, what type. When Fortune interviewed a victim, she’d first ask about the place where the attack occurred and check out the neighborhood (Had a prison, asylum or workhouse been there before?). Were any unusual objects in the house, particularly those associated with religious rituals?
Bowie’s house was described as Egyptian in style. Who had owned or lived in it before? Did they practice any ceremonial Egyptian magic? What had caused them to leave the property? Did it contain any Egyptian artifacts?
His collection of occult books would have been of interest as well. Surely among the hundreds of occult books Bowie is said to have carted around there would have been more than a few second-hand ones, and some of these may have been used by sinister magicians (180).
Knowing Bowie had an interest in Buddhism, she would have asked about any Buddha statues he possessed. Fortune had her own encounter with a seemingly benign Buddha that had been excavated in Burma. One evening she spontaneously placed a marigold before him; the next time she passed him, she found herself pursued by “a ball of pale golden light.” Later she learned that these types of statues (“archaic soap-stone statuette, some nine inches high”) had been consecrated with human blood (66).
Fortune also notes that care should be taken with Buddhas from Tibet in case they have been used in Dugpa sect, one that engaged in “some of the worst black magic in the world” (66).
His investigator would want to know too whether Bowie’s symptoms improved when he was away from home. A likely yes. Had he been as tormented in New Mexico as he was in LA, he could not have worked. Then again, he wasn’t using cocaine when on The Man Who Fell to Earth set.
He possibly felt better in New Mexico because, probably by accident, he was doing things that Fortune suggests to alleviate suffering: One is exposure to sunlight, which strengthens the aura (169), and another is to eat regularly (170). Anything that strengthens the body is helpful. Solitude is not. The person under attack is advised to stop all occult studies and return to the “prayers of his childhood” (172).
But whatever progress he had made in New Mexico, when Bowie returned to LA, he came closer than ever to the abyss.
When the attack is in the nature of a haunting, the solution is to get away from the place and leave behind all possessions (185).
The dates are vague, but at some point Bowie left the Beverly Hills house for one in Bel Air. He only lived there a few months before decamping for Berlin. This was his fourth residence in 11 months, not counting time spent in New Mexico.
And yes, I do know about the exorcism of Bowie’s swimming pool, but since the only witness was Angie Bowie, I hesitate to credit it. Some accounts say that white witch Walli Elmlark exorcised the demon in the pool, but Angie (Backstage Passes) says that David himself conducted the exorcism as she looked on, aided by notes from Elmlark and several hundred dollars worth of occult supplies. She says the experience prompted the move to Bel Air.
*For a sense of the concentration of occult activity in Bowie’s neighborhood, see Christopher Knowles’s The Secret History of Rock N’ Roll or visit his blog and follow the “rock and roll” tags. http://secretsun.blogspot.com/
**When Fortune suspected psychic attack, if the victim had to be drugged to sleep, she sought the assistance of someone who knew how to keep an “occult guard” (169).