Talk 4: Nicholas Wallace on séances, skepticism, and the power of magic

Nicholas Wallace in Toronto

NICHOLAS WALLACE is an illusionist, a practitioner of magic, and the star and co-creator of Séance, now playing at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille until October 11.

I walked into Séance not knowing what exactly I was walking into, other than a show about a séance. A perfect way to kick off October, season of spooks, on a lovely, warm Sunday afternoon. Without giving up its secrets, I can tell you, I’d like very much to tell you, that Séance is part theatre, part magic show, and part haunted house. That you, friend, do not merely watch this show, you participate in it. Perhaps you will be chosen for an experiment, or to actually be the Medium used to contact the dead. If you don’t chicken out before that, that is.

It’s a dark tale. Like, literally. When is the last time you sat in complete blackness? In a room full of strangers? This is part of it. As is multi-media presentations on death photography, spirit writing and a rather haunted chair. The show is designed to please believers and skeptics alike. And as a skeptic myself, I was wholly and completely entertained.

Walking out in the sunlight after, I wanted to tell all my Toronto friends to go see this show before it closes. Because for all the arts and activities around this month, you won’t find anything else quite like this. And so I tracked down Nicholas Wallace, who co-created Séance with director Luke Brown. I wanted to speak with him about his own experiences with the supernatural, with traversing the space between the dead and the living. And so we met at a Starbucks steps from the theatre, a refuge on a blustery, wet October day.

I soon realized that, being a magician, Nick’s art depends in great part on remaining a mystery. He is a man used to controlling the reveal of information, not spilling all the beans. And so I will keep some of his secrets, his more personal stories, out of the light. But I will share this conversation about his show, about his own skepticism in the face of ghosts, and the public’s need to believe.

More about Nicholas and Séance:
Official Website, Seance Show Info, Buy Tickets


What is a séance?

It’s a ritual to communicate with the dead.

When did you first encounter this concept?

I remember going to a Halloween party when I was really young. And that’s where I was first introduced to the Ouija board. But I was the guy pushing the planchette, moving it around and saying, “I’m not doing it!”

When did magic come into your life?

It was on/off all through my childhood. I grew up in Beamsville, Ontario (and recently moved back there). My grandfather was a really big gambler, and at one point I found his marked cards. I also remember my cousin making a match disappear and being blown away that you could do that. So I became the kid who got the Magic Kit for Christmas, and was doing close-up hand stuff for a long time. In high school, I started to take it more seriously. Yet I was determined to be an animator. So I went to film school, and studied to be a filmmaker. But I was still doing magic along the way. After I graduated, I decided I could go wrap cables for 16 hours a day or do card tricks. Card tricks won.

Were you ever curious about black magic? What do you know about necromancy?

All I know about that is what I’ve seen in Evil Dead movies. So not a lot! [laughs] For me, it’s all for entertainment sake.

In your show, you show examples of Victorian Death Photography. I was surprised how many people around me in the audience gasped. It reminded me that most people are unaware of this practice of taking portraits of the dead, posed as in life. How did you become aware of it?

We did a ton of research for the show, and came across a lot of weird things done during the Victorian era. What I found disturbing is if you look up those photos, most of them are kids. I have a three-year-old now, and a six-month old. When we started working on this, I had just a newborn baby, and I couldn’t look at those photos. Luke wanted to use one of the kid photos and I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t until last week that we added one. When we started this run, we realized it had changed a lot, that there are other dead kids in the show, so we put one in. And it’s interesting, because people tend to chuckle at those photos. But when that one comes up, they don’t chuckle anymore.

The show also deals with spirit photography. You explain how back in its day it was revealed to be a hoax. And yet the practice continued afterwards. Even when people are told something supernatural is fake, why do they still believe?

Because we want to. Do you know James Randi, the Amazing Randi? He’s a die-hard skeptic, and there’s a documentary on him where he talks about that. How people don’t just want to believe, they need to believe.

Have you ever lost a loved one and wished you could contact them beyond the grave?

Yes. I think that’s the appeal of a séance. Haven’t we all?

People don’t just want to believe, they need to believe…

Do you believe in the supernatural?

When I was young, I always loved ghost stories. I believed our house was haunted, growing up. It was a very old house, and my parents would tell me stories about smelling bacon and eggs at night, or cigar smoke. I wanted it to be real. But then you realize how you can trick people…or rather, how people can trick themselves into seeing things that aren’t really there. I’m never going to say there is no such thing as ghosts, but for me…well, I guess you could say I could be convinced. But I haven’t been yet.

So nobody has ever really tried to convince you? Or they haven’t been very convincing….

I’ve never been utterly convinced, no. But I believe people when they tell me they are convinced. I have a good friend who came to the show, early on. He’s a complete believer, and he said, “Dude, be careful.” He kept telling me I should have a real medium in the room, just in case things go awry. I believe that he believes. But you know Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World? He talks about why people believe weird things. And one of the things he takes a look at is night terrors. Have you ever experienced that?

I’m pleased to say I haven’t.

I have. It’s terrifying. You wake up, but you can’t move. You feel this pressure, you feel this ominous fear in the room. Sagan says if you go through history, and look at any craze that was popular at the time, you’ll find that’s what people say was causing it. Ghosts at the foot of the bed at the height of spiritualism. Fairies sitting on your chest. Demons. Aliens. It goes in waves. For me, at least now when it happens I know what’s happening. It’s still a panic. You want to get up but you can’t. But I can imagine that if you had no idea what was going on, you could believe it was anything.

I’ve experienced night terrors. You wake up, but you can’t move. You want to get up, but you can’t. I can imagine that if you had no idea what was going on, you could believe it was anything.

Have you ever been frightened while doing the show? Have you ever felt that just maybe you had contacted the other side?

It’s always terrifying the first couple of times. But not because it’s about séances. There’s a big element of the unknown for me, because it’s dependent on people in the audience, people I don’t know. That’s very stressful for me. But I’m finally got into a groove now where there are times I can enjoy it. Sometimes I even forget I’m in a scary show until I see the audience react.

What’s the most you’ve ever scared someone?

Well, the fewer people assembled, the easier that is. I got hired to do a one-on-one thing for a TV person in a haunted house. They thought they were going to a Canada’s Wonderland type of thing. But it was an abandoned home, for a séance. She didn’t want to do it. But eventually she did. It was just her and I sitting in a room with a bell and candle. I barely had to do anything. She was so freaked out. We actually had to stop. I felt bad.

Has that situation ever been reversed? Where you were the scared one?

When I was [studying film] at Sheridan, we did a documentary on this paranormal company. They went to these ruins near Hamilton, with this big group of people. They wanted us all to sit in these dark rooms alone for 10 minutes. And I didn’t make it the 10 minutes. I know there was nothing there. But your imagination goes off. It was too freaky.

What’s the different between magic and hoax, to you?

If you’re trying to change someone’s worldview, to convince them, “ This is real,” that’s crossing the line. If they are aware they are being entertained, it’s OK.

When the lights come up and the audience leaves the theatre after Séance, what do you hope their reaction is?

I want them to say, “That was awesome. And I’m terrified.” I want people to have fun. But the most fun for me is those moments in the show where people freak out, when it feels really real for them. They know it’s a show, but…….

Will you continue to explore supernatural themes in your future work?

I do have another show in the works. It will be happy. And light-hearted. And not so many dead kids.

What do you think will happen to you when you die?

I don’t know. I don’t know how anyone could know. I guess for some people that’s upsetting. For me it’s exciting.

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Talk 3: Ali Jafri on Islamic funeral rituals, burying your father, and honouring the dead

Ali Jafri at the Lakeview


ALI JAFRI is a musician, a Sufi dervish, a filmmaker, and a man of many words.

After this blog went public, some of my friends and colleagues came forward offering to sit down and discuss their own experiences with death. One of them was Ali, a musician I’ve known since his band Ariel relocated to Toronto from Ottawa in the 1990s.  Ariel circulated in the local goth scene at its heyday, drawing comparisons to post-punk acts like The Cure. But they were not the typical wannabe Brits. At their live shows, you would usually see and hear the sounds of sitar, and percussion, the smell of incense in the air. It often felt like you were watching Ali play in his living room.

Except Ali never grew up playing music in his living room. In his Shia Muslim household, popular music was forbidden. This great divide, between his artistic self and his family life, has remained, long after he moved out of his parents’ house. I’ve known this part of his story for a while. But I wanted to learn more about his religious background, and how it influenced his perspectives surrounding death and the dying. So we met one night nearing sundown at the Lakeview restaurant, where he spoke about Islamic burial rituals, death anniversaries, and the responsibilities of honouring the dearly departed.

More about Ali and his music:
Official Band Website, Band Facebook, Jafri Media Tumblr


Why did you volunteer to have this conversation?

I think about death a lot. It’s also a huge subject in a lot of the music I listen to. Then there’s the whole Sufi aspect of my life. A huge aspect of that is being aware of death, or how temporary this all is. I don’t know when I’m doing to die. That motivates me to be a better person. A lot of people around me don’t want to talk about these things. But I do.

Growing up, what were you taught about death?

I’m Pakistani, and I was raised in a Shia Muslim household. So, it’s your typical Abrahamic faith. There’s going to be a doomsday. There is a purgatory. Then, an after-life. And, of course, a lot of guilt about all of the above. [laughs] I attended some Islamic Sunday school classes. There would be sermons or speeches that addressed these things. And that would extend over into the house.

So when you were confronted with your first death or funeral, you understood what was happening.

Yes. But it was still shocking. Because I was so young. I had an uncle who was 16 and hit by a train. I was 4. He was a fun guy and we would double-ride on his bike. I remember the shock of seeing him in the open casket. He was actually in amazingly good shape for a guy who got hit by a train. I remember staring at his face and noticing how different he was, yet it was so definitely him. I don’t remember being very emotional. I wasn’t crying. I remember being sad, because everyone was talking about how we weren’t going to see him anymore. But when I saw him dead, it was not unlike seeing dead animals on the street. Like, “there it is.” I didn’t really, really process the death right away. But then the conversations started happening. “Where did he go?” The clerics used the opportunity to talk about what the religion teaches about death.

I know you recently lost your father. There’s a specific ritual you went through that those of us not of Muslim faith may not know much about. Can we talk about that?

There are actually several. In the Islamic tradition, there is a 40-day period after the death where we do a bunch of things. There’s a belief that they are still with us. They can see us. They can hear us. All they can do in that state is receive. So us as the living have to take up the duty during that 40-day window, to serve them, to honour them. So we have to grieve, because they are watching us. But the burial happens right away. The longer the body stays out of the ground, it’s stressful for the soul. And it’s the children’s duty to prepare the body, to bathe the body.

The living have the duty to serve [the dead], to honour them. We have to grieve, because they are watching us.

Was his death sudden? How much time did you have to prepare for this task?

I always knew it was upon me to do this. It’s so intense. They die. And it’s like, “Wow, they’re dead.” Then you quickly have to do this bathing, and wrap them in the cloth then get them in the ground. For my father, he died on a Thursday and was buried on a Friday, so very fast. And his death was unexpected. He had lung cancer surgery. But it was a success. He recovered. We were all breathing a sigh of relief that he’d be home in a week. He was supposed to be kept in the ICU for three or four days, but they moved him the next day. I’m like, “Why?” He’s in such a compromised delicate state. And as he was moved, he contracted pneumonia, in the general ward. That’s what killed him. He was dead in five days.

Were you angry at the hospital?

Oh, yes. The last night, we were told to go home. I wanted to spend the night with my dad. He didn’t look very good. We didn’t know how long he had left. Both of my grandmothers died in that ICU and we spent nights with them. But they were telling us to leave. The next morning, before work, I came in to see my dad. And they said, “You have two minutes.” What?! There were all these nurses and doctors in the room. They said they were going to have to put him on life support. What?! So I had my last conversation with my dad. My mother wasn’t there. My brother wasn’t there. They were coming, but I was alone. I got to tell him that I love him. He said “OK.” [laughs] Which is so him. Even in the final moments. For him to say “I love you too” would have been ridiculous. The onus is on me to express it. I was hoping he would. But I got “OK.” It was very intense. I told him, “You’re going to pull through,” but he knew he wasn’t. For him, it was goodbye. It was a bit poetic in a way. My dad always made me feel guilty that I was never there for him. And in that moment, it was a kind of redemption. He knew he was going under. And I was there. I was the last face he saw.

How long was he on life-support?

My dad was on life support for about three days, and then transferred to St Mike’s, where he was on the oscillator for about two days. There was no improvement on the oscillator, which was a very bad sign. But before my dad went into surgery, he actually told us if there was ever a situation where he’d be on life support for a long time, he wanted us to pull the plug. We had a family meeting and everything. So when we were faced with that decision, he had already made his wishes known. Later, after he died, there is all this stuff they do. They tie the chin. Close the eyes. Straighten the legs. I watched him flat-line. I heard the death rattle, as the last breaths were being breathed. Heavy duty. Especially when it’s your dad. That transition period isn’t very long either. He was dead in five minutes after they unhooked the machine.

I watched my dad flat-line. I heard the death rattle, as the last breaths were being breathed. Heavy duty.

 

Can you explain the bathing ritual?

My dad died in the daytime. Around midnight, my brother and I went to do the washing at the mosque. They put this loincloth over his privates. He had an opening in his back, from the tube into his lungs. That was weird to see. Another thing… my dad’s feet and mine are identical. And I remember washing his feet and it felt like I was washing my feet. But they were dead. It’s so weird seeing someone you resemble in that state. I now know what I would look like in corpse colour. And there is all this cotton up his nose and his ears. We had to be careful with the water, not to get any in his ears and such.  When you do the washing, there are three cycles. One where you use camphor power. They have it set up with these hoses. And you can smell the camphor strongly. And then there’s another leaf. And then there is straight water. You do the right side first, then the left. It’s a specific procedure, with all these rules. And the same time, it’s so emotional.

Did you find it helpful, to have all these rules to follow?

I did find it helpful. It’s that service thing. Skeptics think it’s for you, for the living to feel better about the death. Believers know it’s for the soul. I think it’s both.

When’s the last time you saw the body?

At the cemetery, before they lowered him into the ground. Something I really love about Islam is how death is the ultimate equalizer. No matter how rich or poor you are, we all look the same in death. Everybody goes in the same pine box, in a white shroud. You look at a corpse and you shouldn’t be able to tell the status. You don’t have to pick a casket, a fancy headstone. That’s not supposed to be a big deal either. Because it’s not the time to show your wealth. It’s over. It’s not important. And I love that message. A millionaire and a pauper, at their funerals they look the same.

Something I really love about Islam is how death is the ultimate equalizer. Everyone goes in the same pine box, the same white shroud. It’s not the time to show your wealth. It’s over.

What is the death anniversary?

We do something annually, to mark the anniversary of someone’s death. We call it barsi. There are so many! Usually, my mom would sponsor a gathering at the mosque or community centre for that person. There is a sermon and people come and listen and the cleric asks everybody to recite the opening verse of the Koran. We also do a niyaz at home for our dead. It’s all very normal to me. We are all about death rituals, the Shias. [laughs] I actually love the idea. It think it makes you have respect for your elders.

Do you ever think about your own barsi?

My family would be against it, but I would gravitate towards a more Sufi commemoration. They do it in a more beautiful way, not so sad. They acknowledge that people died and it’s a tragedy, but it’s more of a tribute, not so morbid.

Have there been any texts or teachings that have helped you in your life, in terms of coming to terms with death?

There’s a book by [Hadrat Ali] called Living and Dying With Grace. It teaches you to be sincere at all times. Do not lie to yourself. That self-awareness comes from realizing that you are going to die. That your physical self is going to die, I mean. And then of course, music has been a huge part of my life. So much of what I’ve listened to touches on these themes. But I’ve lived with a lot of guilt because of playing music. In my family, I was always told it was sinful. Any kind of music. Anything with a beat. The Koran is supposed to be enough. That is changing, I think, but the general message when I was growing up was that music was pornography for your ears. I shouldn’t be making people feel sexy. But that’s not all music is about! My dad came to see our band play at the Opera House — and thought I was so Hellbound! He said since I was never going to give it up music, I might as well check out the Sufi thing. My dad of all people, directed me there.

 

When I was 16, I would secretly listen to the band Bauhaus under the covers at night, with my headphones on, after everyone else was in bed. I would sign the tapes out from the library because I wasn’t supposed to have these things. So when I met [Bauhaus singer] Peter Murphy because he was rehearsing in the same building as my band, and our first words were an Islamic greeting, that blew my mind. Because listening to his music used to make me feel so sinful. And then here he was. It was a huge trip. And I finally felt ok. That music was not bad. It is my path. And I didn’t have to feel so guilty. Peter says in a song: “Looking for the next world/it’s a natural thirst/But the next world is made up/of what you make of this one first.” That’s it. If you make this life a hell, your next will be a hell. That makes sense to me. When you die, you get locked into that. If you die in misery, that energy will follow you.

What do you think happens when you die?

I don’t really know. I do believe we go on in some way. By the way, I think a lot of atheists are closer to god than “believers.” Because they are heavily invested in humanity and justice. I don’t judge non-believers. But I personally think that when you die, there is something beyond. The whole dervish tradition is about cycles. You can see that in the whirling dervishes. But it’s more than that. It’s such a symbol of life and the universe and everything. The seasons, the clock, the cosmos, you know? Molecules. There’s so much emphasis on the cyclical, ever-rotating pattern. There’s so much evidence. It’s hard to verbalize this stuff, it’s an intangible thing. What is on the other side? What if there is nothing? Well, that’s still not a bad way to be. I believe our ego dies with our bodies. We need them, but only in this world. And we shouldn’t be ruled by them. Our souls are what’s eternal.

Are you afraid of dying?

I am very much afraid. Because I have an attachment to this world. And my lifelong work is to work on that. An enlightened person detaches. If you tell that person they are going to die, they are OK. I’m not that guy yet. I’m trying to be. I’d like to be.

Talk 2: Liz Worth on suicidal thoughts, reincarnation and the apocalypse

Liz Worth in Trinity-Bellwoods Park
Liz Worth in Trinity-Bellwoods park


LIZ WORTH is an author, a tarot card reader, a performance poet, a journalist, and a voice of truth.

I first met Liz many moons ago when she interviewed me about Goth for Toronto zine The Raven’s Call. She was a music journalist then, and a poet. In many ways, she reminded me of my younger self. More accurately, a braver version of myself. In her poetry books, including the early chapbook Eleven: Eleven and the raw collection Amphetamine Heart, she is all guts. (Also, I once watched her pull bloody pieces of animal meat out of her bra and throw them into the audience at a poetry reading.)

Liz has two great books in the library: Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk Rock in Toronto and Beyond 1977-1981 (2010), and her novel PostApoc (2013) about a girl who survives a suicide pact only to find herself living in the End Times. It’s not quite horror, but it is horrific, a dizzying trip into a desperate world where getting high off the ashes of the dead is one of the only ways to keep going. Her next book is No Work Finished Here: Rewriting Andy Warhol (coming fall 2015 from BookThug), and she’s been doing a poetry series based on Twin Peaks. She has also just launched a tarot card reading business. But more than any one project, what inspires me most about Liz is the honesty in everything she does, and her willingness to share, both her own struggles as well as discoveries on how to live a positive, creative life. I met her on a summer afternoon in Trinity-Bellwoods park to ask about the darkest theme in PostApoc—suicide. As always, Liz was very open. Here, we talk about teenage depression, reincarnation, the ghost of Kurt Cobain, and, of course, the end of the world.

More about Liz and her work:
Official Website, Twin Peaks Poetry, FacebookTarot Readings



I’d like to use PostApoc as a leaping off point. You wrote your first novel about an apocalyptic universe. How much thought have you been putting into what life would be like if most things were dead?

There was a time in my 20s when I used to feel that the end of the world was just around the corner. And I would think of all of the things that would go totally wrong if everything stopped working tomorrow. So, like us living in a place like Toronto, where we have access to this huge lake but we can’t actually drink from it. If all of a sudden our plumbing and water filtration stopped working what would we do, in a city this size? What if all of a sudden air pollution was so bad it was affecting everyone, not just people with asthma? The more possibilities I went through, the more I realized the future could be really, really bleak. And I figure most people would expect to be saved. But what if we couldn’t be saved? What if it really was the end? I was really obsessed with that thought for so long, it started to stress me out. I had to stop thinking about the end of the world. I had exhausted myself asking these questions. A couple of years later, when I was removed from it, I could revisit the idea and write that book.

You’re talking about resources, and how we adapt to changing environments. What about the mass loss of people? We know how bad it is when we lose someone important. And to imagine that times 10, or times 100…it’s hard to imagine grief on that scale. Was any of that part of the story you wanted to tell?

I don’t know. I mean, in PostApoc the main character [Ang] really isn’t functioning. Her and her friends thought the end of the world would come and they would be free. Free of needing money, and having to work, and to conform to society. All of a sudden they realize there is no structure, there is nothing for them, and they are not capable of building that structure for themselves. Her answer to everything is to be as obliterated as possible. So she’s always looking for whatever drugs or alcohol anyone still has hanging around. Because it’s really too hard to live through. But she has survival instincts, so she keeps going even though she doesn’t want to.

The future could be really, really bleak. And I figure most people would expect to be saved. But what if we couldn’t be saved?

Other people have asked you about the suicide pact in the book, and you’ve spoken openly about your own thoughts of suicide. Is that something we can talk about?

Yeah, I can talk about that.

Why is suicide the ultimate taboo?

I don’t know. I think that there are some very simplistic, knee-jerk reactions to suicide, where people can be very harsh and unsympathetic towards anyone who is struggling mentally or emotionally. And I think part of the reason for that might be that there are people who just don’t want to connect on that level. So if they hear that someone has a problem, or that someone is thinking of suicide, they don’t go to a sympathetic place in their reaction. They don’t want to deal with it. Why that is I think is very individual.

When it was happening to you, did you talk about it with anyone? I ask because I’m wondering how much writing about it is a way to talk about it when you can’t in real life.

I had some friends who were also going through some things and we had talked about suicide. This would have been in my early teens. We were all kind of feeding each other in a way. That wasn’t the right outlet. I did see a social worker and a psychologist for a while. I didn’t really want to talk to them, I felt like I was being forced. So I didn’t open up to them and I didn’t really take advantage of that help. My parents knew, but not because I wanted them to know.

This would have been the 1990s, right? A time when goth and vampires and the romance of the undead were becoming mainstream. People often look at Goths and assume they are depressed even though for many it’s purely an aesthetic. For you, were those things connected?

I was actually more into grunge and stuff like that, when I was first starting to have thoughts of suicide. But I was thinking about the concept of suicide when I was as young as eight. I had a cousin who was maybe 18 when she died. She had hung herself in a closet. I was in grade 3 or 4. So I was already very aware of it.

How was that explained to you?

It was pretty straightforward.

You mention grunge and this of course was also around the time of Kurt’s suicide.

Yeah, the 90s were really weird. I feel like a lot of people were living on a very different edge. I think back to how many people I knew who were talking about suicide, or self-harming. Which in the 90s was still being referred to as self-mutilation. The 90s seemed little bit more unhinged.

Liz Trio

What did you think would happen if you killed yourself? A different state of being? A light switch going off?

I wasn’t so much concerned about what would happen afterwards. I was more focused on what I could stop if I died. So, if I wasn’t alive anymore I was trusting that the stream of consciousness that goes through my head all the time would stop. Because I wanted it to stop. There were things I wouldn’t have to worry about anymore. Like, I wouldn’t have to worry about the future anymore. I wouldn’t have to think about my insecurities anymore. You know, there were just all of these things that would not be a problem anymore. It was more about that for me, than it was about the thought of entering into something else.

I’m wondering how that even connects to the idea of dying. Like, when someone knows they are dying, from an illness, it effects them in a certain way. But suffering from a different type of illness where you want to, it’s hard to imagine.

Yeah, I think that’s part of why suicide is hard for people to understand. Because it goes against our survival instincts. We are supposed to want to fight for our lives. And a lot of people do when they find out that they have a terminal illness, they want to do everything they can to reverse it, if possible. We want to cure ourselves. We want to stay healthy. And I think going back to your question about PostApoc, and Ang, I think things for her are so confusing because she had wanted to die before, and she had been involved in a suicide pact before. And now she finds herself in a place where there is really nothing to live for, but she can’t bring herself to die, you know, because her survival instinct has kicked in. And for her, that is a very difficult thing to reconcile.

Did you think about the people who love you who would be left behind?

I was mostly worried about my parents. Like, what happens if my parents find me. That was my biggest fear. I didn’t think much about anyone else. It sounds sad, but I really didn’t feel like I had that many friends. When I was in high school I had boyfriends, and a few friends, but I wasn’t sure if people would even care. Like, if I did die, would anyone come to my funeral? I thought probably not.

When you think about that now, how do you feel?

Well, I was really lonely, a lot of the time. Even when I was with people. A lot of that had to do with some of the mental health struggles I had. I found it very hard to relate to other kids. It’s hard to be a teenager because a lot of other teenagers aren’t that sensitive, but you don’t know that yet. You don’t realize until you’re an adult the expectations you might have for your peers and that they might not be able to meet them, and that it’s not personal. Nobody tells you.

I wasn’t sure if people would even care. Like, if I did die, would anyone come to my funeral? I thought probably not.

One thing that made it worse was that because I was self-harming, people would notice. And someone told the guidance councilor. The guidance councilor told the principal, and then the principal called Children’s Aid. They didn’t call my parents first. Children’s Aid connected me to a social worker and psychologist at a hospital. [They told me] if I didn’t go through this six-week program they wouldn’t let me back in school. I got really mad. Because they hadn’t talked to me or my parents about what would be best for me, or what I needed. So I left the school. I just got up and left. Then they called the police. So then there was this missing person’s report out for me. When they brought me back to talk to the police, they made a really big show of everything. It was back in the school. The school principal was there. He was saying, “Show them – what you’ve done to your body. Show them how you’ve mutilated yourself.” It became very exploitative. It was like everyone wanted to look at me. It was uncomfortable and strange. To have a police officer there, it’s intimidating! So it was just really weird and I felt that all of these people were going through the motions of helping me, maybe following a protocol that had been written down somewhere rather than asking me if I was OK. That was a really bad experience. I was only 13.

How did your parents react?

They weren’t helpful in any way. And I’m an only child as well. So to have that happen, and your parents come and pick you up, and to go home alone with them alone, that really sucks. After that, nothing really got better for me for a long time. I self-harmed until I was 27. And I really couldn’t stop thinking about suicide. Even though I got to a point where I didn’t want to die anymore, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I didn’t think I’d live to be 30. I always felt that I was falling apart. Even though I could be together in so many ways and nobody would know. You never know what people are really going through. Right? I guess that’s why I think it’s important to talk about these things. So that people realize it’s happening to so many people.

For me, I just woke up one day and decided I didn’t want to feel that way anymore, and that was it. I was 27. I think that if I had been treated differently from that very first time, when I had an opportunity to get help, when there were adults involved, if that hadn’t been so scary, I could have had a little bit more of a voice in everything. Things could have been a lot different for me.

I’m doing in the math. I knew you when you were 27. I feel weird that I didn’t know you enough to realize it, or to know to ask. Even though I liked you and cared about you, I was oblivious. It feels weird now.

[Pause. A super happy, tiny dog runs over. Much laughter ensues.]

So, almost half your life was spent thinking that maybe dying would be better than being alive. That’s intense.

Yeah. It was. Even now. This is the longest I haven’t self-harmed, but it’s still a really short amount of time in comparison. Right? So, yeah, that’s’ weird.

Does writing help?

I guess writing PostApoc was kind of cathartic because it let me talk about my experiences and get a lot of stuff out there in a way that I don’t have to think about anymore. Once a story is told, it’s out of me. But in general I find writing stressful. The feeling of never being satisfied that you’ve done enough, the constant nagging. That’s what writing is to me, the feeling that something is undone. No matter where you are, you’re always “with” your writing in your head. You’re always in two places at once. This feeling of striving towards more.

Do you believe our lives on Earth are one-shot deals? Is that part of the stress, the struggle to get everything done?

I definitely believe in reincarnation. I believe that we have souls. Even though my parents are not very spiritual, I am. But yeah…there are beliefs that everyone you meet, you’re already supposed to know. And we all play a role in each other’s lives, for better or for worse. We are all here to see each other through certain chapters of our lives, to give each other certain types of experiences that we all agreed to do before we got here.

So do you feel that you have lived before?

Yeah.

As a theory, or as a sensation? Do you feel your past lives?

I don’t have memories. But when I was really young I felt that I was an old soul. Sometimes it would worry me. That I was too young to be so tired. That things were maybe a bit too much. But I’ve had some really interesting interactions with people who work as mediums. And I’ve had three different mediums tell me the same thing—that this is my last life here. Depending on what your school of belief is, souls can go on but they don’t always come back as human. They might come back as a guide for someone. But I don’t know what happens to me after this.

How do you personally deal with the end of things?

I don’t believe that anyone ever totally leaves us. We still have our memories of them. My dad died two years ago, but I still dream about him all the time. And I feel that those dreams are real. When we are in dreamtime together, those are real interactions to me. Other times, I’ll be walking down the street and think I see him, for a second. It’s not him, it’s someone else. But I feel like for that flash it was him. I feel that people can hang around, in that way. Even though the physical end is hard. Because that’s what we know, everything we touch and see and feel and talk to. But I do believe everything has a life cycle. I do believe relationships do, jobs do, places that we live. And sometimes they come to an end when they are ready even when we are not ready. And part of that is the lesson on its own. Right? Because all of those experiences inform us later on. We just don’t know how we are going to use that information yet.

What kinds of books have you read that help you understand the bigger questions about life and death?

I got really interested in the occult when I was younger. In divination, in mediumship, in witchcraft. That kind of stuck around, but I’ve also expanded into other areas. I’ve started working with shamanic healers, trying different types of meditation, exploring things to find what resonates with me the most. I’m very curious.

You mention divination. If someone could tell you when you were going to die, would you want to know?

Yeah, I think I would. I just spent the last eight years working in an industry I didn’t like working in. I would tell myself, “If I knew I was going to die in a month, I wouldn’t come back here tomorrow.” So I’d want to know, to keep myself in check about what I’m doing with my life.

I don’t believe that anyone ever totally leaves us. My dad died two years ago, but when we are in dreamtime together, those are real interactions to me.

If we have a choice, why keep living?

I think hope has a lot to do with it. We hope that things are going to be really great one day. We hope we’ll be able to accomplish some of the things that we dream about. We hope that we’re going to fall in love. And we hope that we’re going to grow old with that person. We hope that we’re going to have a nice house, or go on a great trip. That we’re going to write an awesome book, or have kids. I think those are the things that keep up going. Because we don’t really know, what we’re going to get off our wish list. Right? Some of us get everything. Some people don’t get anything. You know?

You said “us.” How much is hope part of your own transformation these past few years, into someone who thinks less about your own early death?

I think so. There are a lot of things I want to do. But there were always a lot of things I wanted to do. I think the important thing to remember is that if anyone is thinking about dying, it’s not like that’s the all-encompassing thought. Because there is all of this life that happens in between all of that, still. There are friendships, there are things that you do and things that you laugh at, things that you work on, goals that you accomplish. Life keeps moving forward. And you keep moving forward too.

Forgive me the cliché question, but since you believe in reincarnation I thought I’d end with this one: What do you want to come back as?

It doesn’t work like that. I don’t think it does anyway. But I do think it would be cool to be a ghost. The experiences you could give people! The stories! It would be a great way to still be a writer.

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Talk 1: Sarah Legault on cheating death and the ghosts among us

Sarah Legault at her home in London, Ontario, with her painting
Sarah Legault at her home in London, Ontario, with her painting “Ladybird.”


SARAH LEGAULT is a filmmaker, visual artist, illustrator, doll-maker, writer, curator, photographer and more. She is the Bird Behind the Mask, the lady in red hair and high heels, and my friend.

When I first planned having these conversations about death I knew I wanted to talk to Sarah in part because I honestly didn’t know what she might say. She’s a quiet woman. But I knew that she had been having a really rough time, health-wise, and was finally on the mend. I wondered about the characters in her art—the skeletal, bird-like figures in her drawings and comics, the creepy dolls and lonely figures in her films, and what they might be manifesting. I knew that she had recently suffered the death of her long-time canine companion and wanted to know how she was dealing with that, and if she had a ghost dog living in her house now. I had hoped that she would be open to being my first subject on this new journey, and she was. What I found out that afternoon over tea on her red velvet couch was just how much death has surrounded Sarah her entire life, and how much she thinks about the spirits of those who have left us.

More about Sarah and her work:
Official Website, Etsy Shop, Facebook Page


Sarah, can we start with your earliest experiences with death? What are your childhood memories?

The neighbourhood we lived in, in Orangeville, there was a lot of death that happened on our block. A girl across the street from us joined a cult. She ended up hanging herself. A man down the street had a heart attack on his front porch and died. A car accident happened with our other neighbours. They were driving, and they were about to get T-boned. Their grandson was in the back, so the man turned the car around so he would be hit instead. He died. And two kids with the backyards that matched up to ours got murdered, in the public school, over a weekend. It was a young kid that actually murdered both of them. They were good friends of ours.

What did you understand about what was happening to these people?

Because I grew up in a Catholic family, we were very much into the whole idea of heaven. You knew all about death and resurrections and stuff like that.

Can you remember your first funeral ?

Yup. My grandfather. He had lung cancer and emphysema. But the first traumatic death experience was my uncle David. He went into the hospital and we thought he was going to come out quick but he passed away. That was the first funeral I went to where I could not stop hysterically crying. It was difficult to even go up to the coffin. He was such a true gentleman, the kind that don’t exist anymore. It really sunk in, the actual loss, that there is nobody to replace this person.

Do you still believe in heaven?

When you’re a kid and you get told something, you believe that’s the way it is. It wasn’t until I was a teenager and moved out on my own that I started to use my own thought process about the afterlife. Now, it’s a mixture of confusion. I don’t think it’s as basic as Heaven or Hell. I want to believe more in science, that something dies and that’s it. But I feel there is too much energy in the world for that to be a fact. And I’ve seen some weird situations, with ghosts.

Whose ghosts have you seen?

It was my uncle Eric, my mom’s brother. He died at age 43. Cancer. My grandparents live in the middle of nowhere, and after he passed away I was walking up the trail there by myself and I looked up and I thought I saw a man walking, with his leather coat. Nobody walks around there. They are completely secluded, in the forest. Also, I was spending my summer writing letters on the beach and out of the corner of my eye I kept thinking I saw him. Then one night, I went to bed and I saw his face glow in front of me. This is when I was younger, so now it seems like a dream. “It” smiled, and I felt this — and this sounds cheezy — but it felt like some kind of happiness. Normally something like that would scare me, but it was calming. Like, “I’m OK.” I didn’t tell anyone about it…

Why wouldn’t you tell anyone?

It was hard for my grandmother to talk about him. So how can I be like, “I just saw your dead son!” But then later, my grandfather brought it up. He said, “Do you remember being on the beach a few years ago? I was working on top of the hill and I looked down and saw you talking to someone.” I asked if he had seen the person, and he said yeah. That made the whole thing really confusing for me. Because you know, you’re a teenager, you like ghost stories, you want to experience creepy things like that happening. I remember getting emotional and crying when he brought it up. Because of this hopeful feeling that there is an afterlife.

“I want to believe in science, that something dies and that’s it. But I feel there is too much energy in the world for that to be a fact.”

Do you remember the first time you felt your own mortality?

I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 17. Within a year, I started getting really sick. They thought I was having anxiety attacks. Then I started getting lung infections. I went to the hospital a lot. They would do blood tests and tell me to fix my iron. Then they thought I had hypoglycemia. But I was still getting lung infections. When I moved to London I just stopped seeing doctors. I went quite a while thinking that I must have social anxiety. Then …what year was it? … 2008. I was at work and passed out right in my chair. If you think I’m pale now, you should have seen me back then. Everything kind of went downhill after that. Every time I’d go to work, I’d pass out. I’d throw up. They’d send me home. I was shaking all the time. They put me on anti-anxiety medications and that made me way worse. When you’re trusting doctors to find out what’s wrong with you, and they are not doing it, that’s scary. I got pneumonia after that. Every two months. Then one day I was at the grocery store and picked up a 40lb bag of dog food and then couldn’t move. Next thing I know I find out I have a bi-lateral fracture on my spine. At that point, I didn’t trust my body anymore. I was 27.

Did you think you were dying?

I felt that I had a time limit on my life, that there was no way I’d make it to my 30s. It was terrifying. It’s difficult, because from the outside you look healthy. Nobody knows I’ve got a fractured back, and COPD in my lungs and organs, and thyroid problems, and not able to absorb nutrients. You’re not only trying to fight being sick, you’re trying to save face and act like nothing is wrong. The worse was when they started testing me for some pretty heavy conditions. They wanted to test me for MS, which my cousin has. And cystic fibrosis. And they had no fixes. Just see how much worse it was going to get. At one point, I went to the doctor’s office for a random check, and she read the report out loud and they said they found a small brain aneurism. Someone I knew had passed away three years previous of this. I was like, “Are you kidding me?” At that point, I really felt like a ticking time tomb. I remember walking down the street thinking every time I got a headache I was going to drop dead.

How did this fear affect your daily life?

I thought, if I died tomorrow, no one’s ever going to know who I was. I’ll be the girl who did ballpoint pen drawings and when the people who know me die, everything is gone. So I started to create a bucket list, like in the movies. I wanted to work on things that were more significant. Not a lot of people can leave an artistic legacy, but it doesn’t mean you can’t try! [laughs] So I quit my job, and I became a starving artist. A friend decided to open an art doll gallery. I helped manage and curate it and we became the only art doll gallery in the world and we were doing international shows. I got into stop-motion animation, for a project I was asked to do in Germany. Couldn’t afford to go to the opening but scrounged up every penny I had and went anyway. I thought it might be my only chance to see Europe. Then when I came back, I got selected for a festival and won an award. [Best Animated Short, 2014 Toronto Independent Film Festival]. I also got my follow-up about the aneurysm. They told me it was gone. I’ll never know if it healed itself or was a misdiagnosis.

“I felt that I had a time limit on my life, that there was no way I’d make it to my 30s.”

What were thinking about the worse care scenario? Did you make a will? Did you talk to your friends about your wishes?

I did not make a will. But it’s when I started thinking about where my body is going to go when I’m dead. I started to think of all these silly ideas. Like, just preserve my skeleton and give it to a good friend of mine. But then what happens when he passes away? Who is going to take care of me then? [laughs] That’s when I came up with the idea of water. What are the places I go to when I feel sad, or need to relax or think? It’s always bodies of water. When it’s raining I like to go outside and let the rain wash everything away. I love the ocean. So, even though I was terrified of the idea of cremation before….being cremated and then just tossed in The Atlantic, rain puddles, Lake Huron, that’s the only thing I can think of that makes sense….

Why was cremation scary?

Destroying the body. But then I figured my body has been such a let down why would it matter if we burned it at that point? [laughs]

Traditionally, Catholics exactly didn’t go for cremation, either…

Right. You have to preserve the body for the afterlife. But the idea of being ashes… you can just float anywhere. You can fly. If you’re just buried in the ground, you’re just there. And they might move you eventually to build some apartment building anyway.

1. “Vincent P. Usher”; 2. “Fragile”; 3. “Gluten-Free”

How do you think your illnesses manifest in your art?

The whole reason I got into art when I was younger was because I was sick all the time. I had bleeding ulcers at nine-years old. (Now that I know I have celiac disease I understand why I always felt most sick at restaurants, or at school — because I was eating sandwiches filled with gluten.) One teacher knew about my problems and she knew I liked to draw, so her tactic to calm me down was to give me some paper and some markers and say ignore the lesson, just draw. It was my way to zone out. I could hide and focus on something other than pain, I could put it somewhere else.

When I look at your drawings I see a lot of sickly women. Is this you?

I always draw naked people. Naked women especially. I’ve never really understood why. But something I noticed, I did a comic book called Vincent P. Usher. And his sidekick was a bird. Which was really my dog Salem. They would look at each other the same way a dog and person look at each other, rely on each other. So I always have birds and people in my work but it’s like the bird is my dog. A lot of it has to do less with me than with my best friend.

I want to talk to you about Salem. Is that OK? I know her death was harder for you than most people.

Oh yes. I’m still not over it. I will probably cry talking about it. …  I got her when I was 18. This dog didn’t leave my side since then. It’s like having a two-year-old for 14 years.

When did she get sick?

She was getting old in 2013, having trouble with stairs, falling down. I realized that her mortality was coming to an end.

Did you feel that you knew what to do?

I was in denial for a long time. Then one morning she really was having a hard time breathing. And as soon as she looked in pain, I knew. I looked at her and I literally said to that dog, “Let’s go outside for the last time.” She followed me down the stairs, went outside, then followed me back in and collapsed on the floor. So I lay there with my arms around her. My sister took pictures of us. It looks like I’m holding a dead dog in my hands, but she wasn’t dead yet. Then the vet came and she said there’s no way she’ll live, she probably has stomach cancer. I held her while the doctor put the needle in and she died in my arms. Her hair started to fall out into my hands. Then I was home alone with my dead dog on the floor. And I had an art opening that day and I’m at the gallery with all these artists who’ve travelled and I’m a mess. Afterwards, I rounded up 13 of my friends, and some strangers, and they came to my house with shovels and guitars and we had a funeral in the backyard for her and buried her there. It was an epic funeral.

Have you seen Salem since?

I wish! I talk all the time about how badly I want a ghost dog. I really do I think the lifeforce must go somewhere. We have airwaves and radio transmissions we can’t see. And if we only know what 7% of the brain does, how do we know what exists in other realms? I’m not sure.

“I thought, if I died tomorrow, no one’s ever going to know who I was. So I quit my job, and I became a starving artist.”

You know, people who aren’t like us, might look at your art, or your home, and think you have a fascination with death. Do you think you do? And does that effect how you experience actual death?

I think I’ve just been around death a lot, from when I was younger. From the kids that got murdered to people we know dying of accidents or cancer. I haven’t even mentioned my mom had a really horrendous experience when I was 16. We were supposed to go sign me up for summer school but we got in a big fight so she left without me and got hit by a car. It was really bad. The girl hit my mom from behind, she went over the hood, through the windshield, then flew. The driver thought she had killed my mother and went into a nervous breakdown, so she didn’t call for help. My friends were walking along and found my mother in a ditch. They came to my house and got me. I ran there and tried to keep her conscious. She was covered in blood from head to toe. Her scalp was hanging over her forehead. When the ambulance showed up, they got my mom in the stretcher and we raced to the hospital. I was in my bare feet. I wasn’t crying because I was in shock. Totally thought my last moments with my mom were going to be a screaming match. I broke down when the nurse came in and put my mom’s wedding ring in my father’s hand. Everyone thought she was going to die. She was in intensive care for a while but she somehow survived.

Do you think you’ve cheated death?

I felt that if I didn’t find the proper doctor to diagnose my condition, I thought that’s where I was headed. I think I cheated death that day that my mom got in the accident. That we got into the fight on purpose to prevent me from being with her on that road because I wouldn’t have survived. Normally, my mom being stubborn, she would have dragged me along but for some reason she left without me. So, I think about that a lot. She does too.

I’m glad you’re still here.

It’s funny. I’m 33 now, and I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been in my life. I’ve even upgraded my translucent make-up to pale. [laughs]

Sarah home