Strange Experience: The Autobiography of a Hexenmeister—Personal Encounters with Hauntings, Magic and Mysticism (Prentice-Hall: New Jersey, 1971). 355pp. Illustrations.
Let me begin by saying I have wanted to review this book for a long time. Primarily, that is because I have wanted to read this book for a long time, at least in something beyond excerpted form, which is the best I’d been able to do. The book itself seems to be out-of-print, and runs upwards of seventy-five dollars on the second-hand market, and I have always just told myself that when I find a copy for less than fifty, I’ll grab it then. Thankfully, my friend Atticus Hob did a sort of book exchange with me, and let me borrow his copy, and so I have finally been able to dive fully inot Gandee’s text and join him on his meandering journey through his mystically charged coming-of-age tale of sexual awakening, spirit contact, and magic.
I knew of this book for a long time before I read it, largely because one of the people whom I consider a teacher and friend, Jack Montgomery, studied with Gandee during the seventies. Jack included stories of his experiences in his own work, American Shamans, which has already been mentioned before (and we interviewed Montgomery in an earlier episode, too). What I knew the most about was Gandee as an adult, living a hexenmeister’s life and dispensing his perspective for an eager grad student. Strange Experience lives up to its title, showing that Gandee’s youth and development—both magically and personally—were extremely unusual, yet not at all unfamiliar to anyone who has struggled with identity at some point in his or her life.
The book is broken into nineteen chapters and an introduction, with titles such as “A Dead Man’s Treasure” and “The Strangest Prayers are Painted.” Each chapter is introduced with a hex sign—a Pennsylvania German art design frequently seen on barns in Lancaster and Berks Counties. Some of the signs are essentially reproductions of old barn signs, but a number of them are Gandee originals, and all have short explanations about their significance and attributed powers (such as “perpetual watchful protection and guidance” or “man’s power to create through mental and spiritual action”) (pp. 27, 115). He begins with his childhood, which launched on a turbulent evening and never seems to have settled down much. He regularly saw his mother in his tender years, but was largely raised by other relatives, mostly his grandmother. The book explains that Lee’s childhood was full of demons, ghosts, hauntings, and apparitions, but that most people he knew simply accepted those as part of the world in which they lived.
Gandee quickly shifts gears into a bit of a sweet if emotionally confounded romance with a boy named Stud, whom Gandee clearly regards as the love of his life, although he goes to great lengths to account for this love as something other than homosexual. The struggle for sexual identity dominates the book, at least as much as any aspect of magic or regional culture, and Gandee eventually recounts a past life in which he was a sort of sacred prostitute named Zaida, and Stud was a sailor with whom she fell in love. The romance was doomed by jealousy in the past, and in their reincarnated state the two boys don’t fare much better.
Much of the book recounts the simply mind-boggling spiritual world of Gandee, which ranges from the native hexenmeister-craft he practices (including the aforementioned chapter on painting prayers through hex signs) to working with Christian Science methods and encountering ferocious ghosts in Mexico (in the chapter “Ni; Uari! Go!; Die!”). Gandee runs a group of spiritual mediums in college, helps find lost things, manifest desires for his friends and neighbors through art, and studies the powers of animal magnetism and hypnosis along the way. He generally tries to rationalize what he experiences in a blithe, worldly tone, although in many spots he is clearly as swept away by circumstances and wonder as any reader might be.
The information on hexerei and Pennsylvania Dutch magic is incredibly interesting, and shows a tremendously syncretic, vibrant faith-based practice. A student of the pow-wow/braucherei culture would gain a great deal from a close study of the many charms and stories shared by the author, and a student of folk magic generally might see some of the potential inner workings of well-known spells in the book, too. When reading Strange Experience, however, any reader would do well to remember that the experiences are only those of Gandee, and do not speak for a larger culture generally. Gandee was certainly a distinct individual, and the things he writes about are connected to very old practices and traditions, but he quite openly acknowledges the changes he has made over time as well.
Because of the paucity of good, first-hand accounts of this sort of folk magic, Gandee’s book stands out in its field. It hardly reads as a dissection of Pennsylvania German religious or magical culture, and Gandee himself is hard to pin down at times (which is largely the point of his text). I feel that the questions about magical ethics, regional distinction, and social dynamics for sorcerors and their communities all make for good intellectual fodder, even if Lee’s conclusions about such things seem, well, strange. I do hope that others will read this book as well and that Gandee’s place in the pantheon of American magicians might receive a restoration of sorts. What he manages to accomplish in this book is far different than any magical how-to manual, because Strange Experience highlights the humanity of a man with feet in two worlds, belonging to none.
Thanks for reading,