For about 80 years, seekers have sought answers to questions big and small at the Association for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia Beach.
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Illustrations by Shawn Yu
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The Health Center & Spa
Lying on a table in a dimly lit room, I wonder if a castor oil pack applied to my abdomen truly will help “detoxify” my liver and ascending colon, as the brochure from the Association for Research and Enlightenment (A.R.E.) Health Center and Spa promises. It may not matter: I don’t think my liver and ascending colon actually need detoxification—and to be honest, I’m trying this treatment (with accompanying “reflexology” massage) only out of curiosity. Edgar Cayce, the reputed medical clairvoyant who founded A.R.E. in Virginia Beach in 1931, was a big proponent of castor oil packs and alternative health treatments of all kinds—classic “cure-alls” for whatever ails you.
Whether castor oil has any genuine medical benefits—there are indications that it can help relieve everything from rheumatism and constipation to menstrual disorders and dry skin—I can’t say. I do know that when my A.R.E. therapist, Tawnia, applies the warm oil pack to my tummy, the sensation is very pleasant—comforting, even. It reminds me of my grandmother, who used to place a hot water bottle in my bed to keep me warm. As a ceiling fan whirs overhead and ambient music plays in the background, the oil drips down my sides. Meanwhile, Tawnia skillfully massages my feet, which she says will “gently stimulate my organs.” What? According to ancient Chinese medicine, pressure points in our soles correspond with various body systems, and massaging those areas, a practice known as reflexology, helps resolve health issues.
I soon stop thinking about all health claims and drift off into a dreamlike state for an hour or so. When the session ends and Tawnia has cleaned off the oil, a sense of well-being suffuses my body.
In the crowded waiting room, people of all ages patiently wait for their own A.R.E. experience—for treatments ranging from acupuncture and massage to Reiki and hypnotherapy, all done in the four-story white house on 67th Street that Cayce built in 1928 as the country’s first (and only) psychic hospital.
Known as the father of holistic medicine, as well as “the sleeping prophet” and “miracle man of Virginia Beach,” Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) was best known for the some 14,000 mystical “readings” that family members claim he delivered during his life—all while in an apparent sleep-induced, or hypnotic, state. It is a welter of material on a vast array of heady topics—astrology, reincarnation, Atlantis, the biblical history of Egypt and dream interpretation, as well as health and life issues, spiritual matters and ancient mysteries. Nearly every day for 40 years, he’d lie down on a couch, put his arms across his chest and hold forth, often diagnosing the health concerns of individuals who’d written him asking for help, and then prescribing treatments. His wife, Gertrude, would “guide” the readings—he’d sometimes do several a day—and a stenographer took copious notes.
While Cayce dabbled in the otherworldly, he also had a practical side. He was said to be among the first to suggest that alternative treatments, such as castor oil packs, dietary changes, exercise and massage, can contribute to better overall health. He was one of the first people in America to recommend that people eat more fruits and vegetables, and to avoid fried foods. Author and futurist Stephan A. Schwartz thinks Cayce should get more credit for being ahead of his time. “Not only is he the father of CAM [complementary and alternative medicine],” Schwartz says, “the principles of health that he espoused have withstood the test of time.”
Apparently so: While traditional allopathic medicine remains the first choice for most people, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) claims that 38 percent of Americans seek answers to at least some health concerns using alternative modalities. And A.R.E. is one of their destinations. Every year, say A.R.E. officials, some 60,000 people visit its sand-colored brick building on Atlantic Avenue to attend seminars (there was a recent one on the Mayan calendar and the “transformation of consciousness” as well as a 14-session course on discovering your past lives), buy books or to explore Cayce’s many metaphysical ideas. The organization has 33,000 members, including 800 in Japan, and Edgar Cayce Centers can be found in 37 countries. Besides the spa, a massage school and the visitor’s center, which houses the largest metaphysical library in North America, the A.R.E. realm also includes Atlantic University, which offers an online degree in “transpersonal studies.” Edgar Cayce died more than a half-century ago, but there is no disputing the fact that his life and his theories—he had many, and they are not light reading—still resonate with many people today.
What is his appeal?
Roger and Joy Bloom, a handsome Virginia Beach couple in their 50s, are Cayce devotees. In Joy’s words, they’ve become “happier and healthier” since their involvement with A.R.E. The Blooms, who first met at an A.R.E. conference in 1996, follow Cayce’s dietary guidelines and have also used some material from his readings to help with health issues. Joy Bloom says that she used castor oil packs to overcome a painful bout of kidney stones.
The summer she met Roger, Joy was living in Kentucky and received an A.R.E. brochure about a music and healing conference in Virginia Beach. She decided to attend. “As I drove here,” she remembers, “I felt literally like I was being reeled in like a fish. I felt a magnetic pull.” Within 10 months, she’d sold her house in Kentucky and moved to Virginia Beach with her three kids. “I felt like I was coming home,” she says. Roger, a retired pilot with a background in aeronautical engineering, says he was drawn to Cayce’s readings because they were so well documented. “Psychic phenomena is a glittery subject that’s very controversial,” he acknowledges. “[But] I was very taken with Cayce’s character and the fact that he never became rich. His work was not done for profit.”
Edgar Cayce was born near Hopkinsville, Kentucky, in 1877, where he lived with his family until his late teens. His childhood was mostly uneventful, according to Tom Sugrue, author of There Is a River, considered by Cayce’s family as the most accurate biography of his life. Raised in a Christian family, Cayce vowed at a young age to read the Bible from cover to cover every year of his life, and family members claim he did so until his death in 1945. Even as he immersed himself in metaphysical mysteries, he served for many years as a Sunday school teacher at the First Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach and later as a church elder.
The first inkling of Cayce’s psychic disposition occurred in 1889, when he was 11. A poor student, Cayce was having trouble with his spelling lesson. Family legend holds that he fell asleep on one of his schoolbooks and awakened with a photographic memory of the spelling words. According to Sugrue, who knew Edgar Cayce and interviewed him several times for his biography, Cayce’s first psychic reading occurred after he developed severe laryngitis. With his father and a local hypnotherapist watching, Sugrue says, Cayce went to sleep, and then, speaking clearly, diagnosed himself with partial paralysis of the vocal cords. Cayce then suggested his own cure, saying increased circulation to the affected area would resolve the condition. As the story goes, Cayce’s chest and throat became rosy red, and when he woke up, he was cured. As with all his readings, Cayce recalled nothing of what he said.
Thus began his singular life. In 1910, The New York Times published an article on Cayce with a sub-heading that read, “Illiterate Man Becomes a Doctor when Hypnotized—Strange Power Shown by Edgar Cayce Puzzles Physicians.”
In 1925, at age 48, Cayce moved his family to Virginia Beach. “A reading told him to move,” says Edgar Evans Cayce, age 91, the younger of two sons. Healthy and alert, Edgar Evans still lives in Virginia Beach and plays “wallyball” (a form of indoor volleyball) three times a week. Edgar Evans did not follow in his father’s footsteps. He went to Duke (recommended by his father while in a trance), majored in electrical engineering, then worked for Dominion Virginia Power for 40 years. But he believes that his dad had special insights. He tells a story of being burned seriously in a fire when he was 7 and being unable to walk for three months. His father, in a hypnotic state, prescribed a treatment to heal his wounds—Edgar Evans doesn’t recall what it was. “I got well and was even able to play basketball, football, and baseball in school,” he says. He still tries to follow his father’s dietary strictures. He remembers when sacks of mail came to the house from people seeking readings. “He had to get an unlisted number because people would call in the middle of the night.” While Edgar Cayce led anything but a normal life, Edgar Evans says that he was a “normal [man] 90 percent of the time.”
When Jess Stearn’s Cayce biography was published in 1967, titled Edgar Cayce: The Sleeping Prophet, it caused a sensation. Public interest in the psychic and A.R.E. soared—so much so that Cayce’s grandson, Charles Thomas Cayce, now 66, left his teaching position at the University of Maryland in the late 1960s to return to Virginia Beach to help his father, Hugh Lynn Cayce, run the organization. He never returned to Maryland. Retired now, Charles Thomas still lectures occasionally at A.R.E. conferences and does fund raising.
Like his uncle, Charles Thomas says that he received relief for a health condition from Cayce readings. “I had a heart problem in my late 40s,” he explains. He consulted a cardiologist who prescribed meds and a shock treatment to help his heart beat regularly. They didn’t work. “Then I tried osteopathic adjustments and low-voltage vibration, and it worked. I went back to my cardiologist, and he said my heart was normal.” Cayce was a believer in the health benefits of vibration—and often prescribed a mild form of electrotherapy. A.R.E. sells a vibrating machine, the Radiac, for $200.
Cayce never referred to himself as a prophet, his grandson asserts. He preferred the term “clairvoyant,” which in French means “clear seer.” Charles Thomas says the word “psychic” has a negative connotation today. He considers his grandfather’s readings as “a gift from God, like a fine musical talent or an athletic ability, that needs to be used.”
Linda Caputi, a retired RN who works at the A.R.E. library, believes Cayce’s treatments cured her daughter of epilepsy. She recently wrote a book about the experience and says that her daughter hasn’t had a seizure in years. “Every day, someone comes into the library looking for an answer,” Caputi says. She helps visitors find information pertaining to their health problems. “They leave with a smile,” she says, “or at least hope.”
James H. Carraway, M.D., a professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School, asserts that Edgar Cayce’s regimens “improve the health and lives of people.” Carraway has a surgery practice in Virginia Beach and says that he often sees patients who follow Cayce’s teachings. “Most of these people are ‘self-help’ people,” he explains, “who are capable of pursuing a better diet [and] exercise, and relieving mental stress.”
While Dr. Carraway thinks some of A.R.E.’s recommended treatments are “off-the-wall,” he believes Cayce’s dietary ideas are sound. “Most of the diseases of our culture—including cancer, diabetes, coronary thrombosis and even arthrtitis—are a result of the foods that we eat,” Carraway says, “so it’s not hard to see how Cayce’s treatments would make you better.”
Kevin Todeschi, the president and chief executive officer of A.R.E., is a well-dressed 50-year-old with a warm smile. Todeschi began reading about Edgar Cayce when he was 15 and living in Colorado. He told his father he would one day move to Virginia Beach, graduate from Atlantic University, and become president of the Association for Research and Enlightenment. “At the time, my father thought I was crazy,” Todeschi says, “but I did all those things.”
He’s been on staff for 27 years, serving as CEO for the past three. “Most of our income comes from book sales,” says Todeschi. Though the recession has dented A.R.E. revenues, he says the organization nevertheless is poised to grow. A.R.E. will soon be opening another center in Texas, complete with a spa, conference center and bookstore, and Todeschi hopes a West Coast facility will follow. Membership remains steady, Todeschi adds, and as part of its expansion efforts, the A.R.E. has begun offering its conferences online.
The mission of the A.R.E. remains unchanged, says Todeschi. “Cayce’s goal was to have a place where people could come together from every religious and socioeconomic background and discuss a variety of topics for their own growth and development.” He says that Edgar Cayce’s work remains relevant because “people are still asking the same questions: ‘How can I heal this relationship?’ ‘How can I solve this health issue?’ ‘How can I have a closer walk with the Divine?’”
Charles Thomas Cayce agrees. “I think people deep down spend a certain amount of time asking, ‘What’s the purpose of life?’ ‘Why are we here?’ People are hopeful that the Edgar Cayce material might give them answers.” He believes the purpose of A.R.E. is to tell the Edgar Cayce story and “present this information from his readings—just put it out there.” Charles Thomas emphasizes the word “research” in the organization’s name. “There are thousands of [Cayce] hypotheses,” he says, and he encourages people, as his grandfather did, to “test them for themselves.” He adds, “There’s nothing in the readings that you have to believe in. It’s such a big tent, a conglomeration of Eastern philosophy, Christian mysticism and Christian theology. It’s simply information to be tested and tried.”
Until three years ago, A.R.E. had always been run by Cayce descendants. Now, with Todeschi, a non-family member is running the group, and futurist Stephan A. Schwartz says that could help enhance the organization’s credibility in the years ahead. He says that one of the problems with the Cayce readings is that they were compiled by non-scientific people, Cayce’s family—and a whole myth grew up around the clairvoyant. “My hope,” says Schwartz, “is that the next generation of researchers will evaluate [the material] independently. This is the first time it’s going to be possible to do this.” He believes that the current studies at the University of Virginia’s division of perceptual studies, as well as at other academic institutions worldwide, are just now recognizing “that there is an aspect of consciousness that extends beyond time and space.” Of Cayce generally, Schwartz says, “He was a simple person. He could have become Pat Robertson or Jim Bakker, but he never made more than $85 a week.”
In the meantime, Cayce’s many readings are stashed in neat blue binders in the A.R.E. library, where anyone can read them. Whether one is seeking help for arthritis or the meaning of life, Cayce had something to say about it. He was, as Joy Bloom suggests, an ecumenical man.