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What a skeptic learned from consulting psychics — and astrologers, tarot readers, empaths and more

Salon talks to Victoria Loustalot, author of "Future Perfect," about her journey through the mystical unknowns


Erin Keane
January 6, 2019 12:30AM (UTC)

Victoria Loustalot didn't set out to write another memoir, exactly, when she decided to spend a year interviewing psychics, astrologers, tarot card readers, shamans and other mystic art professionals about their work to examine what's real, what's fake and what's just wishful thinking in the relationship between them and their customers and fans. Unlike her acclaimed memoir "How You Say Goodbye," this story — "a skeptic's search for an honest mystic," as it's billed — wasn't initially meant to be about a personal journey. And yet a psychic she visited on a bachelorette party trip gave her a preview of a future relationship that ended up coming eerily true, and after she embarked down the path of investigation that became her new book "Future Perfect," she told me, "it ended up being by far one of my most personal projects."

"That part of it really caught me off guard," said Loustalot. "But at a certain point I just had to listen to it and say, OK, you know, this project is something other than what I had envisioned. Something more terrifying, but I think also better for it."

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That direction includes a forthright examination of the highs and lows of her relationship with a man identified as M., the start of which was described so perfectly by that first somewhat reluctant visit to a psychic that to the reader it feels almost like romantic destiny when their initial texts turn to an intense first date. Loustalot weaves the story of their relationship throughout her reporting on the world of mystics and psychics and those who consult with them, turning "Future Perfect" into an exploration of how an individual learns to trust in the unknown future, which is one way of saying how to trust in the universe and another way of saying how to trust in one's self.

Salon spoke to Loustalot over the phone last week about the hip astrology boom, using these tools to cope with trauma, the difference between religion and spirituality and why Americans are comfortable trusting our guts but not our intuition. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Did the process of engaging with all of these different mystics, to use that catch-all term, and their tools and methodologies open you up to taking a more personal route with the book?

Absolutely.

I did find that almost inevitably when I would talk to someone, or interview them, they would to various degrees make it personal. When I was transcribing these interviews and looking at the things that we discussed in the examples or analogies they gave, I really did find it sort of impossible to write honestly and thoughtfully in an impersonal way. Just by default, on this topic and these themes, we don't reach out to the mystical community for something that feels impersonal.

A first step was realizing that I was going to have to be a little more personal, because there was no way to honestly reflect the experiences I was having without acknowledging the personal component of it. Once you acknowledged the personal component of it, if you're not going to reflect or have some sense of analysis or evolution, what are you doing? Somebody starts somewhere and ends up somebody or somewhere else. I just wasn't expecting that somebody to be me. Both on a professional or a personal perspective, I think I absolutely benefited. I feel like a completely different person in so many ways from when before I wrote this book to after.

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What did you think about psychics, astrologers, shamans, tarot readers, etcetera, when you started the project, and how did that transform over the course of writing the book?

When I started the project, I pretty much felt like there were sort of two types of individuals in the mystic community. There were people who I figured are probably good people, well-intentioned, didn't necessarily have any sort of ability or talent or gift or skill but they were trying to help people. People came to them and felt like they had a good experience for a half an hour or an hour hearing about some sign or their chart, or the possibilities for their future. It's a win-win for everybody, right? I gave you 100 bucks and you made me feel a little bit better. It was fun and it was like a party trick. Cool.

Then I thought that there were people who were scam artists, who were con artists and frauds, who were tricking people out of large sums of money and taking advantage of people when they were super vulnerable.

Those were the two categories that I thought were possible. There was "really bad," and then "well, OK, we all kind of know what we're doing here, but it's not real.”

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I also had no notion when I started this project of how much overlap there was going to be, when I started looking at the history and the cultural components of the mystical world, how much of it was going to overlap with spirituality, religion, philosophy and poetry. So when that happened, that was really the first big turning point for me. It's not just scam artists and a party trick. There are people in this community who are really wrestling with the biggest questions that we have as humanity, questions that we've been wrestling with since we've had conscious thought. This is just another means of going about it.

Just because it was unfamiliar to me and my cultural and religious upbringing doesn't mean that it didn't have the same amount of depth or historical context as our oldest religious traditions. When you look at the Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and the faiths that may or may not have been my own faith, but that I recognized as having very long, rich historical and cultural traditions, I wouldn't have previously put anything related to the mystical in that category. That was my first big lesson learned.

I was coming to the project from a place of . . . I was curious and I was fascinated, but I also was developing a great deal of respect for this world.

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I think that was probably the biggest shift of the book — understanding that I had to give this realm a space and a time and a consideration, that there was nuance here that I hadn't had any awareness of previously.

I think by the end of the book, I came away from the project [knowing] there are still con artists, of course. There are still party tricks and magicians. Then there are also people  who really can be of service in terms of helping us understand our purpose and our meaning, and finding direction, and not just peace and acceptance in our lives, but also excitement and expansion.

I think there are people who find that through religion, through philosophy, through poetry and literature, through music. I think there are also people who find it through these mystical means. I don't think anyone is better or worse than any other.

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Throughout the book, there is this theme of learning to honor feelings and empathy and intuition. All are tools that the astrologers, the psychics, the shamans that you talked to use, but they're not exclusive to them either. Why do you think that mystics are looked upon as woo-woo nonsense, or even shady, by so many people who wouldn't necessarily sneer at the benefits of seeking counsel from a therapist, or a clergy person, who tend to use a lot of the same tools?

I think part of it is recognizing that I am born and raised in America; a lot of my audience, people who I am speaking to or with, are also American. I think in many ways this is, not entirely but in some ways, a uniquely American perspective. I think when you move outside the United States, there is actually a greater willingness or openness to allow the mystical to exist side-by-side with science and religion.

In Italy for example, obviously for many Italians there's a strong association with the Catholic faith. It's a very religious country in many ways, and has very rich religious traditions, but there is also in my understanding in southern Italy a huge deal of respect and reverence for astrology. For example, Rob Brezsny, an astrologer I talk about in the book who's actually based in California, has a huge following in Italy.

I've spoken to a few people who have lived for various portions in Italy — and southern Italy, specifically in Sicily — who talked about when you're meeting new people, that it's not uncommon for an Italian to ask you what your sun sign is or to say something like "are you a Scorpio?" or "are you a Leo?" I can't say that I've personally had that experience, but I've heard that from quite a few different people. Of course in Latin America, you also have a huge history of Christian faith, but also residing side-by-side with indigenous cultures and more sort of mystical beliefs and practices. This is a long way of saying I think there are a lot of places in the world where those ideas are not in tension, but for a variety of historical, political, social, cultural reasons, that's not the case in America.

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I mean, what did we do? We came from Europe because we were escaping religious persecution. Then, we just decimated the indigenous population that was already here. America was built on the idea of ignoring religion and spiritual and mystical ideals in place of the acquisition of land and power and gold.

Of course, that's a sweeping generalization, but there's truth to that. It's hard for me to imagine that hasn't influenced the way in which we think about these ideas, and in being less comfortable with that gray area. I think that's something that was a big part of the book. For me it was that it's not necessarily a multiple choice question. The answer can be all of the above.

The notion of energy — though it's talked about in America, when it comes up it is with that kind of woo-woo eye-roll: “Oh yes, energy.” That was something that I tried to get at in the book, that on the one hand we scoff at that as Americans; on the other hand we all totally acknowledge the way that someone entering a room can throw off the energy, or create tension or lessen tension.

It can be much more subtle of a shift in thinking. Maybe you realize that actually you already are open to some of these concepts, if you just change one adjective: "Oh, I don't know about intuition, but I'm comfortable with following my gut." It's taking that pause and saying, wait a minute, how different are these things? We're comfortable with it when it's phrased this way. This is really just another way of saying the same thing.

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I think that was something that I really wanted to get across specifically for an American audience. It's actually not that I'm trying to convince you to believe something new, but rather you already believed that, you just didn't realize it.

Speaking of Americans and energy — the project unfolds over the course of 2017, which you aptly describe in the book as "a volatile, alarming year full of trauma." And that overwhelming feeling of 2017 carried over into 2018 as well, and in many ways we're still there, in the middle of a volatile, alarming era full of trauma. Then alongside that we've seen that uptick in the mainstreaming of things like astrology and tarot, which have a hip cachet these days in a way that I had not really seen in recent decades.

I mean, I read Rob Brezsny in college, he's been around for a long time. But now, so many good publications have an astrology column alongside their advice columns. How are these tools helping those of us who feel the general energy these days is volatile and alarming? Is it a coping tool or is it something else?

I think it is a coping mechanism. I think part of it is a feeling that the coping tools of our parents, or of the past few decades, didn't work.

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I'm 33. So of course I'm coming at this from my own place, but I do feel in some ways people in their late 20s and early to mid-30s are in a unique position in America right now, because when we graduated from college, the economy tanked. Everything imploded as you were coming into the workforce around 2008, 2009, 2010. So all the things that we had been taught to value, in terms of education, stability, corporations, getting jobs and pursuing degrees, all of a sudden seemed much more unreliable than we had been led to believe. That was our introduction to adulthood.

We spent our 20s trying to find our footing and make sense of a new world where we would be freelancing or we would be moving between the private and public sector. There wasn't necessarily a sense of you're going to get a job and stay with that company for the next 40 years until you retire.

Then finally as we neared the end of our 20s and moved into our 30s, we had the Obama era. Coming from a liberal perspective, I realize not everyone shares this idea, but there was a sense of hope — OK, things were a little rocky, but now we're good. Maybe we're going to get this female president [next] and whatever. All of these liberal ideas were feeling somewhat more solid for a segment of the population.

Then you had Trump. Trump hops in, right as the generation coming up behind us in their early 20s, they're still figuring out how to pay taxes, they're still figuring out how to write a good resume, and the generation that's older than us, they're looking at retirement . . . their shift is into the next phase. We're the ones who are still in the middle of our careers. We're the ones who are just thinking about getting married and having children and how we're going to raise these children. So it's still a little bit like we're the ones holding the hot potato of the Trump administration. Like it's on us to lead the way in terms of how we're going to handle this.

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Again, this is a generalization. It's not to say that people younger than us aren't part of that or aren't doing incredible things as well, but there's a feeling of we're the adults in the room, this is impacting us and our young children most directly.

[Occupying] that place in history and figuring out how we're going to navigate this feels really significant to me. As I was writing this book and 2016 was turning into 2017, and I was doing edits from the book in 2018, I just thought, “My God, how do we make sense of any of this?”

Getting back to this notion of tarot and astrology, I think for a lot of us there's been a feeling of . . .  there are other ways. There are other traditions that maybe we've been ignorant of. Relying on capitalism and the politics of the '80s and '90s in which we were born and raised — that feels suddenly like the joke, or that seems like the crazy thing.

That fell apart. What we thought was sensible and rational turns out to be totally unreliable. That was illogical and unreliable and isn't stable, so then who's to say that tarot and astrology, and following the cycles of the moon, couldn't actually be far more logical and rational and offer a stability of being in tune with nature and the world in a way that we've been actively turning away from for so many decades?

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I realized to a certain segment it sounds super hippy-dippy, but in some ways that feels more solid because the cycles of nature predate human beings. So much of shamanism and astrology and tarot is all about that connection of the seasons and the cycles of the planets and time.

If you look back at the Old Testament and New Testament, how our rituals and traditions came to be and what part of the year and the calendar that they're based on, all of it comes back to nature in some way shape or form. So yes, you could take tarot as a coping mechanism, but I think someone else might also make the argument that it looks like the original coping mechanism, and we're coming back to it.

That's such an interesting insight about stabilizing forces. We're living in an age right now where objective truth has been deliberately obliterated, it seems. So the qualities and practices that are valuable about these methodologies, like empathy and intuition, have also been deliberately weaponized to destabilize us to the point where some people feel there is no objective truth, there's only what they feel is true when it comes to things like, say, climate change. Was there tension there for you? Did you have to reconcile that? Because it seems like another way of looking at this — and I think that another segment of the population has done this — is to take refuge in nothing but empirical proof, nothing but hard science, as another means of coping with the lack of control that we seem to have over the truth right now.

Yes, absolutely. It's an excellent point. That is very true. My concern with that is, my hesitancy to go down that path is . . . I touched on this a little bit in the book, but I think sometimes we are almost too eager to say, "A study was done. That's a scientific fact. There's research behind that. It is without a shadow of a doubt, we can rely on that. We can trust that." That certainty I guess alarms me a little bit, because science is also an evolution. It's also constantly evolving. There's so much that we don't know. In a similar way that maybe in years past we've been over-reliant on trusting a certain political system or the way in which we approach our money and how we earn it, how we save it, how we invest it, sometimes I sense or perceive there's something a little dogmatic about trusting the whims or the trends of science, and they are often whims and trends.

Part of the appeal for me of moving in a more spiritual and religious direction is that at least in the world that I was raised and the perspective that I'm coming from, we've never thought that religion or spirituality or mysticism were particularly reliable or stable. And so I feel less likely to get caught up in thinking in black-and-white terms or in certainty and then being caught off guard, if that makes sense.

I'm coming into this world knowing that it's fluid and that it is full of uncertainty and being open to that uncertainty. My hesitancy to follow a more quote-unquote “scientific approach” is that I would be lulled into feeling that I had found certainty and then if the rug got pulled out from under me, because we realized that some truth that we had held to be certain, or that was the foundation for our scientific method of the last 100 years, was actually faulty or not exactly as we had imagined, that I would be ill-prepared to handle that, because I was still thinking in these terms of looking for something solid.

So instead it was like, forget that. I'm just going to jump off this cliff and know that there's nothing solid and at the very least that's the one certainty I have, is that there's nothing solid. I'm not getting wrapped up in some story or some narrative, this lullaby that we tell ourselves — this is fact, this is proof, so it's going to be OK — because it seems to me that time and time again, that has proved to actually be false.

I think many of us are experiencing this sort of collective recognizing or understanding of a lack of control over the processes and institutions that we had had been raised to have a lot of faith in. This passage from the book really stood out to me, when Hunter the astrologer writes, "You're not here to politely override your feelings and sensations but to incorporate them into your humble human offerings." Then your response to that was, basically, that all you do is try and fail to override your feelings through sheer force of will, to dominate and subsume them, to succeed in spite of feelings, not because of them or in aid of them.

That jolted me as a reader because it speaks to the massive amounts of self-control that we, and I think in particular women, are expected to perform at all times. It's a form of self-domination and the pursuit of perfection, or something close to it. If we can just whip ourselves into shape on all fronts — the shapes of our bodies and our health, our careers, our relationships and family status — then we will have achieved something. I don't know what. I don't know if any of us know what's on the other side of that.

Because it's impossible.

And to achieve what? We're working so hard, and what's the goal? What happens then? It's like we don't even know.

The insight that you followed with: "My feelings are just a tool. My feelings are not who, or what I am." I thought that was so interesting because I feel like that's the opposite of what we intuitively expect, which is our feelings are all of who we are. That's our consciousness, right? That's what makes us uniquely human. The emotional through-line of the book is your relationship with the man M., that forms the memoir backbone of the book. Did those insights about understanding feelings as tools, not as who or what we are, and therefore also something to dominate and control in order to shape ourselves into something better than who we are, help to shape your approach to relationships in general?

Yes, absolutely. I think that for me, the key insight or shift in perspective with that notion of our feelings not being who we are is that, it just made it so much easier. It's about the personal, right? If we are our feelings and that's it, that's our consciousness, when you strip down to it that's our essence of being, of life, then, if we your lose control or if we're emotional or if we have an emotional reaction that is alarming to the people around us, then that's a judgment on our very essence, right? That's part of why, I would imagine for a lot of us, it feels so loaded, or why we have such a complicated relationship with our emotions.

But if our emotions aren't who we are, if they're just facts — if it's just, I'm feeling this and that's a fact, but that's not a bearing on who I am or whether I'm good or bad, or even thinking in terms of good and bad — if I can take a step back and say, OK, I am feeling really angry or I'm feeling sad or I'm terrified, or I'm feeling rejected or embarrassed or shamed or guilty or whatever it is, you can say, I'm feeling that [and] that's not who I am, it's not my value or worth as an individual.

If you can separate those two things, then it makes it a lot easier to say, why am I feeling ashamed, or what value is [there in] feeling ashamed, what is that serving? Who's benefiting from me feeling the shame, or this embarrassment? It's almost like once you separate the emotion from your sense of being, you're no longer emotional about it. You might still be feeling it, but it takes the sting out of it.

That was life-changing for me. Nine times out of 10, I feel like you realize the shame, the guilt, the embarrassment is serving no one. Even if I did wrong someone, even if I did make mistakes, me feeling guilty or ashamed about it is not benefiting that person, or making the situation better. It doesn't mean there aren't actions that I need to take to acknowledge the harm that I've done, but I don't have to do it from a place of shame or guilt. So, it was almost like taking the emotional out of the emotion.

As you can imagine, yes, that had a huge impact on my relationships. It's still having a totally dramatic impact on my relationship. Not to get totally cheesy and woo-woo —  although at this point, why stop now? — but the relationship that it's had the most impact on is the relationship that I have with myself.

This is the other thing that I didn't expect from the book: how many of the ideas that the mystics I interviewed would bring to me that are actually really, I don't want to say basic, because that sounds critical or dismissive, but rather fundamental ideas of human psychology and therapy. Healing from emotional and physical and all types of trauma. Understanding your value and your worth as being separate from anything you do or say, or achieve or acquire, or the types of person that you're dating or who you spent time with. Once I was able to rationally assess my feelings, it allowed me to stop seeking external validation, basically.

We like to say if a bad thing happens, don't let that get you down, or don't let that be your sense of self-worth. Which makes perfect sense. If someone hates my book and writes me a really nasty email about it, there's a whole form of logic that I think we're familiar with: that's external, don't get wrapped up in that, that's them, not you. I think that's valid, but I think we have to apply that same logic to getting an email from someone who loves my book, who's super excited about it — that can't be my source either.

So we spend all this time being like, if something bad happened, don't let it get to you; it's almost like if something good happens, don't let it get to you either. Both the good and the bad things, they're just facts. They're just like your feelings. It's just information. But you can appreciate it. You can celebrate both of them. If I get a nasty email from someone, I can celebrate the fact that my book hit a nerve, that it tapped into something that they needed to look at or they had a strong reaction to, and that's awesome.

Of course I want to celebrate someone who had a really strong positive reaction, but it's all energy, right? It's not necessarily good or bad. I almost wish you and I could have chatted two years ago because if you had told me 24 months ago that I was going to be talking about feelings as neutral information and all energy, not associating positive or negative feelings to energy, I would have thought that you were totally bananas. Now here I am, just one incense stick away from disappearing into the desert in New Mexico.

That sounds really lovely right about now, I have to say. To close out, have you continued with any of these practices after you stopped writing the book?

Yes. One thing that's kind of become a beacon, so to speak, is this idea that uncertainty is just opportunity with bad marketing. That has been very helpful to me. When we say things like, "if I can just sit with this uncertainty for a little while longer," that of course has this connotation that uncertainty is hard or difficult or challenging. We would never say, "If can just sit with this amazing opportunity for a little bit longer."

The first step is making peace with uncertainty. Then after that the next step is like, OK, in addition to being at peace with it, can I be really excited about it? That I think has been the thing that I have taken away from this.

I think I mentioned this a little bit in the book: I never understood how limited my imagination actually was. Why limit myself to my imagination? There could be something so much cooler than anything I would ever imagine. I want to be open to that possibility. Just in general, I would say now, I feel like I can't wait to find out what I'm going to think tomorrow.

Who knows what it could be? Which is just a really delightful concept to me. I find it really fun.


Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's deputy editor in chief.

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