Mystical Realism and Memoir: An Interview with Karen Kaplan
Paracultures is pleased to present an exclusive interview with writer and international speaker Karen Kaplan. In her first memoir, Descendants of Rajgròd, Karen reflects on her life as a child of a Holocaust survivor and her struggle to forgive her father for his abusive behavior. The book is candid, inspiring, and an amazing read. (You can’t make this stuff up.)
This interview focuses on her second book, Conjoined, which focuses on the fact that her father assumed the identity of a fallen WWII soldier, and explores Karen’s conviction that her father was conjoined with the spirit of the man whose identity he had stolen. Taking this concept seriously (an important turn), Karen realizes that she too has a connection with this spirit, and that this connection can help her understand her father and herself. (The book is written but not yet published—stay tuned.)
The interview was prompted by a number of personal academic interests. 1. I’m interested in providing examples of paranormal and spiritual experiences from various faith traditions as part of an informal genealogy of paranormal concepts. 2. At the outset, the Paracultures editorial team affirmed its commitment to featuring a wide variety of voices from academia and the general public, so as not to iterate the prejudices of academia or skeptical pop culture. (More on this in an upcoming post with the working title “A Democracy of Experience.”) 3. The particular topic of this interview, entity attachment, calls into question not only the sovereignty of the individual which underlies many of the aforementioned academic and “skeptical” prejudices, but the philosophical subject/object split which I plan to address in the “Democracy” article through an engagement with William James’s radical empiricism.
Hi Karen! Thank you for agreeing to the interview. We have been friends and shared common interests for some time now, since we met in a spiritual direction program. I think it was 2007 or 2008? Do you remember what year it was?
I think it was 2007, and so happy that we became friends. I signed up for this Spiritual Direction program to learn to help others grow, live, and love in their spiritual life. Yet this program encouraged me to reflect on my own life and was partially responsible for leading me deeper onto my spiritual path. I didn’t realize it at that time.
What I loved about that program was its openness to different religious and philosophical ideas as well as its focus on various psychological approaches. I know you found it a bit too “Catholic” while you were there, but I was really impressed by one instructor who helped a man (profoundly) by taking seriously his reports of alien abduction. She told us she didn’t believe him at first, but soon realized that she couldn’t help him unless she suspended judgement. This reminds me of that great scene in The Sixth Sense, when the young boy says: “How can you help me if you don’t believe me?” The child ends up being the therapist in a way, revealing deeper truths. Well, I’m digressing . . .
Maybe I want to assert, for our readers (you already know this), that Paracultures is a place where we suspend judgement for scholarly as well as ethical reasons. Is there anything else you’d like to say before we begin . . . in terms of background or preliminaries?
There is a difference between being spiritual and religious. One can also be both or either spiritual or religious. There’s no judgment there. I wanted to be in a spiritual direction program that did not reflect certain beliefs about a specific religion. In the end, it was well worth my time.
There is a subgroup of our audience that is really interested in early twentieth-century spiritualism, and this is the context of the creation of the play The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds. Though I have mixed feelings about it, I’m fascinated with the play. I don’t want to focus on it, here, but it has suggested some topics for the interview. (I say this because you’ve given more general interviews, one of which is reposted below.)
The author of the play S. Ansky (Shloyme Anvi Rappaport) said that the play is “a realistic drama about a mystic.” This reminds me of language used by a prominent scholar of the History of Religions and friend of Paracultures, Jeffrey Kripal, who would like to see “mystical realism” in art. By this he means presenting mystical experiences in a realistic style rather than a “paranormal” (say, Gothic) style. You’ve said your work could be interpreted as a real story—it is based on your actual experience after all—or a fantasy. I’m really impressed with the fact that you’re not overly attached to one or another interpretation.
Could you say more about the reality of your own experience and reflect on why you’re so comfortable with different perspectives?
My experiences dealing with an entity attachment are real. Yet it was so absurd and out of the ordinary that, at first, I had trouble believing that things like this are possible. I also understand that many will consider my story incredulous.
Whatever people choose to believe or call my experience is fine. My memoir also brings a powerful message that life continues on after death, that we can continue to help those who have crossed over or are in limbo, and that love transcends all the realms.
In the play, one of the main characters dabbles in Kabbalah to solve a seemingly intractable problem. This, however, leads to his demise and the death of his beloved. In that sense the play seems a cautionary tale about dabbling in “dark arts” as well as being a mystical text itself.
Do you have any thoughts or opinions about this tension? Not in the play, but in your experience or the experience of others you’ve met along your journey. Can a mystical experience also be a cautionary tale? Are mystical experiences negative, positive, both/and, or is there a spectrum of mystical experiences?
Whenever people dabble in the other realms, it is important to start with a prayer of guidance, love, and protection. There are so many unseen energetic forces . . . some positive and some negative. Just as in life, I aim to surround myself with highly positive and loving people. Those who are mentally ill, emotionally depressed, and fearful, I try to avoid. I need to be uplifted by others, not brought down by them.
My purpose in conjuring up the spirit was to gain knowledge about my father and his life during WWII. I never considered any consequences at that time. Fortunately, it became a positive and welcoming experience for me. Eventually, we became spirit friends, helping each other heal from the past.
The idea of a real dybbuk implies a transmigration of souls which I don’t think is recognized in normative, contemporary Judaism. I think you mentioned asking a Rabbi about astrology or spiritualism (communicating with the dead) once and receiving a very abrupt, negative response.
Could you tell us more about that experience (or correct me if I misremember)? Also, given the historical evidence that such ideas were once normative, what do you make of the contemporary rejection—perhaps fear—of such ideas? What do you think motivates the reactions?
Years ago, I was involved with a conservative synagogue, attending weekly services and raising my family in the congregation. When my mother died, I was feeling depressed and spiritually empty. So I asked the rabbi of this congregation about meeting with a medium to connect with my mom. He told me that it was against Jewish law and opened up the book of the Torah and read the sentences forbidding the meeting. But I said that King Saul had met with a witch of Endor, a medium drumming up the spirit of the prophet Samuel.
Then I asked him if he believes in life after death. He said to concentrate on life, not death.
I ended up going to the medium. Eventually, I embraced these new spiritual beliefs.
Life after death, reincarnation etc. was once a predominant belief in Judaism, until roughly 2nd -3rd centuries AD when the rabbis decided to change their views. Yet to this day, we still hold many traditions that were based on these beliefs. For example, we cover our mirrors and light a candle for seven days following the death of a loved one in the mourner’s home. The sages say that this is partly to assist the soul that might be fearful and earthbound and in need of returning to God.
The covering of the mirrors arose because if a soul is not able to cross over it may travel back from the grave to the house. If it sees itself in the mirror, it might think it is still alive. Likewise, the candle signifies that a death has occurred in this home. The soul will know that this candle is lit in its memory. Most Jews today are not aware of the reasons behind these rituals and do not recognize the spiritual realms.
On a side note, there is the tradition of reciting the Kaddish (mourner’s prayer) for eleven months following the death of a loved one. Since a wicked person will go to Gehinom [a place of torment] for twelve months, the mourner does not want to associate their loved one with a full year of judgment and will limit the prayer by one month.
The Torah also discusses angels, spirits, life after death, and entity invasions, and it is interesting that many who follow the laws of the Torah do not consider these stories believable. It’s quite incongruent. Because many today like to rely solely on science, they will not see this as truth.
Is it fear? Back then some beliefs were based on superstition. Events like earthquakes, plagues, eclipses etc. Today we understand the science behind these events and that back then their fear-based beliefs were an attempt to explain the unknown.
Your story has caused me to reflect on my own experiences. I think of some brilliant people I know who seem bent on self-sabotage. (This topic comes up in the recently released movie, Mank.) I’ve also thought about my own tendency to censure myself unproductively. I assume your father had a self-destructive tendency—that he was divided against himself. But that’s a psychological interpretation, and maybe one that undermines the reality of being haunted by another soul.
How did you experience your father’s struggle? Did it seem like an internal struggle or a struggle with an external force?
My father was not self-destructive. He was a sociopath and caused chaos onto others. His antisocial personality disorder was due to his trauma during the Holocaust when he witnessed his mother and sisters bludgeoned to death by Nazi sympathizers. He might have had a genetic predisposition to becoming a sociopath which was triggered by this event.
Because his physical, emotional, and mental bodies were distraught, he was very vulnerable to entity attachments. He fled into the forests of Poland for 3 1/2 years trying to survive the war. My father came upon this dead soldier who had died in the woods. Unbeknownst to my father, this soldier’s spirit, which was unable to move to the light, merged into my father’s auric field. This attachment remained with my father until the day he died.
This attachment carried immense anger which mingled with my father’s anger. My dad became episodic and volatile. He spewed his rage onto my mother, brothers, and me. Though my dad was unaware of this attachment, he did experience his presence with noises and thoughts in his mind. It made him more confused and abusive toward others.
In my teenage years, I understood that my father was off/crazy and physically kept away from him as much as possible. He usually taunted other family members and left me alone. But I was also emotionally distant from him which impacted my choices in my adult life.
Finally, could you tell us a bit about your previous book about forgiveness? I know you received pushback from audiences when you spoke about the subject in public. As well as a lot of enthusiastic support, I mustn’t fail to mention. I am sympathetic to this push back for various reasons, as I know are you.
But what is the socio-cultural context of it? Do you think it’s mostly a result of communal trauma? Or it there more to the resistance?
My first memoir called Descendants of Rajgròd - Learning to Forgive is a story about forgiving my father, a Holocaust survivor, for inflicting all sorts of abuse on my family and me. As an adult, I was ready to do the unthinkable . . . forgive my father. So, on his death bed, I forgave him. It was a difficult moment but standing at my father’s grave, I finally felt free.
This led me to question whether I can forgive those men that murdered my grandmother, aunts, and cousins in Poland. I held this ancestral anger and suffering within me. So I returned to Rajgròd, Poland and stood on the very grounds where my father witnessed the horrific death of his mother and sisters. I began wailing for over a half-hour, attempting to recite the mourner’s prayer for my family. When I returned home, I realized that I had forgiven those that murdered my family, at that moment.
During my book presentations, many Jews have told me that it is not for me to forgive what happened to my family in Poland, but I disagree. The Nazis murdered my family, and I was carrying the negative effects. They killed my grandmother, aunts, and cousins, and kept me from ever knowing them. They damaged my father, and he passed his anger onto me. I wanted to break this cycle of hatred and not pass it on to the next generation. My children deserve better. I deserve better. We all deserve to free ourselves from this lineage of suffering.
Forgiveness allows one to move beyond hate, anger, and fear. It allows us to be more present so that we do not remain victims of our past. Most Jews believe that the Nazis do not deserve our forgiveness. Anyone that would suggest this would be considered a heretic among the Jewish people.
Karen, I can’t tell you how much I admire your courage. Forgiveness is generally recognized as a healthy practice and a moral good, but your story reminds us that it is neither easy nor uncontroversial. I struggle to forgive the destructive factions in U.S. politics that have taken center stage in the last few years. In my opinion their transgressions are very grave, and I feel truly traumatized by the subculture of malignant narcissism and lies that has “possessed” the nation’s psyche. I realize my experience is not at all comparable to the ongoing personal trauma you experienced, and yet I really struggle to forgive. Much to think about . . .
Your story is so important. We often forget that many American immigrants are war refugees, or survivors of systemic oppression and violence in their home countries. It’s certainly true of my family (from an oppressed ethnic group in same part of the world as your family, though not Jewish). So, I think it’s a lot more relevant to the American experience than we generally assume. Anyone who doesn’t acknowledge the relevance (and prevalence) of the refugee experience doesn’t know American history, though that is most likely because these stories of trauma are just starting to be told. And--of course--many Americans are traumatized today, by the history and present-day facts of systemic racism! But that’s another conversation . . .
Congratulations on your recent accolades—the film festivals and awards! And best of luck with the development of the screenplay. I can’t wait to see the film!
See another recent interview with Karen Kapan here.
Karen Kaplan, Author/International Speaker
Karen L. Kaplan, was born and raised in West Rogers Park, a Jewish neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. She is an engaging international speaker and continues to share her compelling life story and the message of forgiveness. Karen received her B.A. from the University of Illinois in Nutrition and Medical Dietetics and trained at The Claret Center of Hyde Park, IL. as a spiritual director. After her father died, she began journaling memories (both bitter and sweet) that turned into a memoir of conquering the deep-seated fear and all-consuming hatred she felt towards him.
Articles, excerpts, and news stories of her memoir have been featured on WGN-TV Chicago morning news, Bialystok, Poland local cable and radio shows, The New Yorker, The Bronx Times, The Chicago Jewish News, Chicago JUF News, The Skokie Review, Deerfield Review and the Highland Park Highlander and Highland Park Landmark.
Since publishing her first book Karen has developed a feature-length screenplay that was selected for The Hemingway Award (top award) at the LA LIVE FILM FEST and also selected for the Eastern European Festival in Warsaw among others. She has recently finished a second memoir called Conjoined, and she is planning to integrate this part of her story into the film script that she is developing.
Raising her three children has been the most rewarding and joyous part of her life. Karen is married to Bobby Weiss and they live in Highland Park, Illinois.
WGN -TV Chicago news:
Image Source (collage): https://wgntv.com/news/holocaust-survivors-daughter-learns-lesson-in-forgiveness/