The other day I received an email from a woman (and fellow New Jerseyan) named Kim Sillen Gledhill. Kim told me that she enjoyed the article I wrote last year about my mother’s uncannily accurate premonitions and precognitive dreams, and went on to say that she has had similar experiences.
In 1995, at the age of twenty-four Kim received a clear message from a “voice”, the origin of which she could not locate. This voice told her that she was to suffer a devastating illness. Several months later the first symptoms of this illness began to manifest itself, and shortly thereafter she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
Kim has penned a book, which is as yet unpublished, about the premonitory dreams and voices that have visited her throughout her life. She invited me to read the first two chapters of her book, and I found them very well-written and quite fascinating.
I also immediately thought that Seeing in the Dark would be of interest to the readers of this blog, so I asked Kim if she would allow me to include them here on The Paranomalist. She very generously agreed to this, and I now have the pleasure of presenting them to you.
Joan of Arc should not look so normal, I thought as a seven-year-old. This assessment made me all the more entranced with the painting of her at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Even though she appeared to be momentarily visiting another dimension, she was earthy and beautiful and seemed completely trustworthy to me, not like some flighty, religious lunatic who believed she was a messenger of God. Hearing voices in the woods looked so out-of-character for her. I paid her visits on occasion throughout my childhood, and as I reached my teens, having had my own inexplicable visions of needles, cantors and houses I’d never seen, she struck me as looking like the kind of modern college girl I had admired from afar. I could picture her nonchalantly throwing on a pair of beat-up Levi’s and a worn T-shirt and unknowingly being the coolest girl in town. This version of Joan would wear handmade silver jewelry that everyone would ask about and she’d never be the kind to gossip. She’d be the one who was nice to everyone, oblivious of her looks and the fact that all the guys liked her.
I realized that Bastien-Lepage, the painter whose name I could never remember, probably knew nothing of all this when he painted Joan. But he had to know how magically he had crafted her, how humble and gorgeous and strong she looked all at once. He had breathed life into her and created an athletic girl who could paddle her own canoe with those thick, sturdy wrists; a girl whose merit you couldn’t question. She appeared to be at least eighteen — older than she was supposed to have been — but still young enough to emanate a milk-fed wholesomeness.
I felt somehow protective of Joan while viewing the painted image of her standing in the wooded yard of a cottage with angels hovering behind her. “Look how spaced-out she is!” viewers around me would comment. Don’t judge her for this, I wanted to say to anyone who was looking.
In the painting Joan’s left arm is stretched outward, fingers interlaced with the leaves of a nearby tree, and her gaze is fixed upwards in an otherworldly stare. What always affected me the most about this painting (aside from the weirdness of what appeared to be toppled junk yard furniture lying around in front of the house, Southern-style) was the empathy and love that the painter embedded into Joan’s image.
I remember feeling struck by the kindness that came right through the paint as a child. Even then, it was specifically this lack of mockery — the absence of any nudge and wink — that also unsettled me. There were no metaphorical quotation marks around her image; Bastien-Lepage painted her vision as though it actually happened.
I had learned about Joan of Arc in one of the young-reader biographies about women that my mother had lined up for me when I was in the second grade, so she occupied an adjacent spot in my mind next to Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Helen Keller, and Harriet Tubman. But I could never tell if she really belonged there. All of their facts were verified, but I had my doubts whether her backstory could be proven, too. As I grew older, the feeling I had while looking at the painting started to trouble me, and it stayed with me even during the long gaps between visits to the Met.
How could there be no trace of patronizing this girl for her nutty hallucinations? How could the painter so convincingly portray her as sturdy and reliable if he didn’t believe in her mythology at all? He couldn’t seriously believe all that religious stuff, I figured. I reasoned that he must’ve at least thought that Joan believed that she heard those voices, though it seemed impossible that he could actually believe it himself. But the paint seemed to say otherwise. Without consciously analyzing it, I interpreted the painting as heartfelt sincerity despite a foundation of disbelief.
As years went by I began to feel embarrassed by this elaborate lie of compassion, and by the time I was college-age, I suspected that maybe this contradiction was a part of being human. Maybe it was a clue to finding the key to the universe that adults never told you about, that you’d spend your life being adoringly humored by others who actually doubt you on some level but never want you to know it because they love you. Despite a childhood full of my own visions and premonitions, even I found it impossible to consider that God or his messengers had instructed a teenage French girl to lead troops into battle. Yet the painting made me desperately want to believe it.
I don’t remember having any knowledge as a child of Joan being burned at the stake; I just recall a vague sense that things ended badly. Maybe I conveniently forgot the death-by-fire part.
Up until my early twenties, the uncomfortable distance between wanting to believe someone out of kindness and actually knowing something else to be true stayed with me. I guess I always realized subconsciously that this might apply to how people related to me. And in a convoluted way, I suspected that it might approximate the way I questioned myself.
The two Labrador mutts, Scooter and Maisy, were panting behind me on the trail in the woods at the Botanical Gardens before we made it to the clearing on that scorching June day in Georgia. It was the middle of a heat-wave, 1995. I was twenty-four years old, and that year I was house-sitting in the ante-bellum mansion belonging to Bill Berry, R.E.M.’s drummer, while the band was on tour. The dogs belonged to the band’s manager, whose home I also looked after. Part of my job was taking care of Scooter and Maisy, and I loved them as if they were my own.
They were almost the exact same size and shape as each other, about two-thirds the size of a full-grown Lab with Lab features. Maisy was all black and Scooter had the markings and coloring of what must have been his German shepherd parent. Everybody who saw them commented on how they loved each other, and they were dogs with a distinctive theatrical flair. If someone said that Maisy was doing something funny, like dragging her butt across the lawn by pulling herself with her front two paws, Scooter would put on a performance to outdo her — say, kicking up his hind legs like a mule. And he’d check periodically out of the corner of his eye to make sure everybody was watching.
I knew it was essentially crazy for me to be there with them in the woods that day at noon, and I was aware that my running had turned into a compulsion. The conversation I had with myself in my head started out as pretty standard stuff for me: I always played devil’s advocate in my own mind, pairing Ego against Super Ego. Or Defensive Do-Gooder against Stern Reasonable One. I’m still not sure if this is the mode in which all human brains work, but I was always beating myself up about something or other. The dialogue began like this:
Madam Rational: What are you doing running at noon in the middle of a heat wave?
Miss Defensive: Well, maybe all this running I do keeps me healthy. Look at me, I’m a vegetarian; I’m not into drugs; I exercise every day…you should thank me for doing this. I really pull out the stops to keep myself well.
Madam Rational: So what are you saying? People who get sick are at fault for their sickness? Maybe they wouldn’t get sick if they acted like you?
Miss Defensive: Well, maybe. Not like they’re being punished or anything, but maybe their life choices and thought patterns have contributed to their illness somehow. But maybe all these choices I make keep me healthy. Maybe all this effort…
And then my thoughts were cut off completely. My inner dialogue was boldly interrupted in a moment that changed my life forever. It hit me like an eighteen-wheeler that no one saw coming, sweeping a pedestrian off the street and into the air like a rag doll. This was the Joan of Arc experience for which I had unwittingly primed myself throughout my entire childhood. I heard a clear, booming voice in the woods outside of my body—a resolute voice that shook me in the fact that it was entirely sexless, without a trace of being either male or female. It was definitely not coming from inside my head. I had never heard a voice like this before.
“No, you’re wrong,” the voice said in response to my thoughts that I was keeping myself healthy. “You will either become paralyzed or you will develop multiple sclerosis.”
The voice was not scolding or reprimanding, simply informing me in a straightforward way. It was like there was a tacit clause — Excuse me, I hate to interrupt, but I just need to tell you — silently attached to the voice’s words. I didn’t believe in God or angels exactly, but either choice seemed like a pretty good guess at this point in time when trying to figure out who was addressing me while running through the woods. Before I tried to process any of it more deeply, I needed to give the owner of the voice my input: “Can I choose the multiple sclerosis?” I asked anxiously in my head. I’ll take the case behind curtain number two, Bob.
The answer was an implicit Yes. With words unspoken, I was made to understand that multiple sclerosis was what I was going home with. Sooner or later. But I really didn’t know who I was talking to. My rejection of the idea of a personified God — especially a white guy with a long white beard—had gotten me into plenty of heated debates. This voice I heard was singular, but it felt like it represented a consortium of guiding souls. In the past I had only believed in spirit guides theoretically, not as potential conversation partners to chat with while running alone in the woods. I had always felt connected to something other in the universe, a guiding force of goodness to which I didn’t want to give a name, but there was no room for this force to have talking points.
I didn’t really know what MS was. No one in my family had it, and I had only known one person who I thought suffered from it, a guy I went to college with named Stefan. He used cane before he hit twenty. After having a few drinks with him and a bunch of friends one night, someone in our group decided we had to eat the mother-made apple pie that was in the fridge of his third-floor walk-up apartment. Stefan crumbled near the bottom of the first flight of steep stairs in that colonial Virginian hallway, half-laughing in anguished torment while the tears flowed down his red, inebriated cheeks. The lump in his throat was as palpable to me as if I’d swallowed a chunk of charcoal myself. Stefan’s cane resting on the dark wooden steps burnt itself into my memory.
As I kept running, I confused MS with muscular dystrophy and was puzzled by thinking that it was a condition stemming from birth. But in my mind anything was more bearable than being paralyzed and being unable to walk or run at all. I didn’t need any time to opt for a mysterious diagnosis over a known fate I found intolerable. I couldn’t bear the thought of being paralyzed.
Oddly, it was the voice and not the message that unsettled me most. When I say that the voice was sexless, I don’t mean that it was vague and that I couldn’t figure out its gender. It was absolutely neither one. I didn’t know what this could mean; I had no frame of reference it, and it frightened me as though I had looked in a mirror and seen no reflection. If you asked me to recreate that voice, I couldn’t do it. Hearing it was like walking out of the house on a normal day and looking up to see two suns in a clear blue sky when everything else looks exactly like usual. My brain felt like it was short-circuiting. I had no yardstick with which to measure this experience, no compass to comprehend where the voice could be coming from. I was dumbfounded and terrified, with the rug of reality completely pulled out from under my feet, my head spinning, my heart pounding.
The words were haunting and unequivocal. They seemed to reverberate from another dimension, yet they felt like they hit my eardrums tangibly in the physical plane of the here and now. I had to stop running. Maybe this was a set-up from something like Candid Camera and a film crew would pop out from behind the trees at any moment, laughing at my bewilderment. Or maybe someone was doing a kooky sound art installation and I’d uncover a speaker camouflaged by branches. I looked around nervously, gazing up into the leafy canopy of treetops above me. There was nothing unusual anywhere. I called out, “Helloooo! Is anyone here?” I knew there would be no response.
I felt nauseous about what had just happened. There was no doubt, no room for dismissive self-questioning. I had heard what I heard clearly, from a voice resonating loudly from above. There was no chance that this was my inner voice speaking to me intuitively, no continuation of my previous mental chatter. This was a voice from somewhere else in the universe. The dogs kept running as they always did, elated as they dashed through the clearing in the sun. All I could do was start running again and follow them.
In the next few weeks I considered that maybe I should start seeing a therapist. What had happened to me was simply crazy and perhaps someone’s credentials could push it deeply enough to the back of my mind where I could forget about it for a while and convince myself in a couple of years that it had been some kind of quirky hallucination. Within a month, however, I had the first sign that the words of the voice were proving true. It was then July, and my body seemed to be confusing hot and cold sensations in my legs. I had never had any weird symptoms of any kind before, no sense or warning that anything was ever wrong.
Suddenly, when the fluffy grey cat I was taking care of as part of my house-sitting gig rubbed against my bare leg, I felt as though ice cubes were touching my raw nerves. The scalding leather of a car seat made my skin feel as though Freon were running through my body, keeping me air-conditioned from the inside out. I did realize that this is a seriously fortunate symptom to have when you’re spending July in Georgia, and it seemed like the universe at least had a good sense of humor about it. Yes, you’re going to be diagnosed with an incurable illness, but on the bright side, you’re not going to have to pay a fortune to get the air conditioning fixed.
When I finally worked up the gumption to open a medical encyclopedia from the built-in shelves in the oak library where I was staying, I flipped the pages nervously to multiple sclerosis. Oh God, there it was in black and white — a potentially debilitating neurological disease in which the body’s immune system eats away at the myelin, the protective sheath that covers the nerves.
I read on, shaking, as I underlined each passage with my index finger:
Numbness or weakness in one or more limbs, tremor, lack of coordination or unsteady gait: No, I could run five miles like a steam engine without breaking a sweat…definitely not me.
Double vision, blurring of vision, partial or complete loss of vision, usually in one eye at a time, often with pain during eye movement: Nuh-uh, I had perfect sight.
Electric-shock sensations: Oh crap! This was exactly me!
Tingling or pain in parts of the body: Okay, maybe not…
Fatigue, dizziness: No, no.
Cognitive impairment: WHAT the…?!
Somatosenory disorder, where neurological receptors that produce sensory modalities such as touch and temperature are impaired and in some cases reversed, causing warmth to be perceived as cold and vice versa: (Loud primal sobbing.)
At that moment the phone rang and I don’t know why I answered it, but I did, and it was my mother. I continued bawling. Through my tears I explained to her what had happened a few weeks prior in the woods and I could tell she was starting to cry, too, but trying to keep me from hearing her muffled sobs.
“No, Kim, you’re wrong—you just had a false premonition this time and this isn’t going to happen,” my mother stated in a steadier-than-usual cadence, wanting to convince us both. “Sometimes you ARE wrong and you’ve just let your imagination run away with you. You can’t make a diagnosis by looking at a book.” It didn’t sound like my mom talking; she had never told me she doubted me before.
“But Mom,” I cried, the tears still streaming down my cheeks, “you know I’ve never had a premonition that was wrong — and this was the clearest one ever!”
“You’ll see,” she said softly, “I just know it won’t happen like you think. It’s been very hot and you’ve been running too much, but there’s nothing wrong with you.”
My symptoms weren’t really terrible, but in my heart I knew I had to see a doctor. I wondered how I should phrase the problem, and I was terrified that I would sound like an insane hypochondriac. My complaints included feeling like Freon was coursing through my veins in hundred-degree heat; nerves that delivered electric shocks; and the feeling that it was all due to MS because of a voice in the woods. I could imagine answering the question I would be asked: No, absolutely NO family history of mental illness. Ever.
Somehow fate intervened on my behalf, and I wound up in the office of a compassionate internist at the University of Georgia healthcare center. The tension in my shoulders softened as I walked into his office. He was affable and seemed like the kind of guy who had young children. He had a lot of thick, straight hair with a side part, the way I would draw an exaggerated cartoon character with a generic male cut, and his eyes had a sympathetic droopiness at the outer corners. As I told Dr. Peteet my symptoms, I prayed he wouldn’t book me the first open appointment with the school psychiatrist. But he seemed to take me very seriously and I worked up the nerve to ask him what was really on my mind.
“Is there any chance that this could be multiple sclerosis?” I asked tentatively.
His answer was thoughtful and deliberate. “Yes, there is a remote possibility…but that’s probably the very last diagnosis we’d need to consider at this point. There are many other factors that could be causing this, and MS generally first appears through other symptoms than what you’ve described. This could very well be an isolated incidence — we’ll just have to keep an eye on you.”
My gratitude for his response swelled in me like a pink balloon as he went on to ask me general questions about my past health history, caffeine intake and stress levels. I was comforted by his manner, even though I was fairly certain that I was experiencing my first MS episode. But the truth was, I’d rather have MS and be sane than have nothing wrong with me and be stark-raving mad. I kept on running in the woods with the dogs as usual. In a couple of weeks, the symptoms completely disappeared. Maybe the disease would just never hit me too hard. Maybe it would.
Ms. Gledhill also makes these chapters available on her website, www.seeinginthedark.net. If any publishing companies or literary agents would like to get in touch with her, they can find her email address there. For more about Kim’s writing, see: www.kimgledhill.com.
Thanks again, Kim, for sharing your very personal story. I look forward to reading the rest of the book, and have no doubt that it will soon be published.