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Open Canon: Jane Roberts, or "Seth"
by E.R. Zarevich. Writer Jane Roberts claimed to have accessed the Other Side, but was her supernatural alter ego merely a gimmick to supplement a mediocre writing style?
She was born on May 8th, 1929, and when she exited the world fifty-five years later, she would leave behind a bizarre legacy in the school of New Age literature, a genre of Western writing, beginning in the 1960s, that documented experimental religious and spiritual practices. A great mystery still surrounds her death. Did she, by passing on into the next realm, unite at last with the ghostly specter of “Seth,” her supposed celestial possessor and mentor and the true mastermind behind her best literary works, or did “Seth,” perhaps an entirely made-up entity concocted to publish and sell more books, simply die with her?
The American writer, psychic, and spirit medium Dorothy Jane Roberts was born and raised under circumstances that groomed her to reject a traditional set of beliefs in favor of a form of spirituality that allowed her to enjoy the agency denied to her in her childhood. An invalid, suicidal, and emotionally abusive mother and her own poor health plagued her unhappy upbringing in Saratoga Springs, New York. With her mother, who was her lone parent, she never felt safe or cherished, and she was forced to take on a caretaker role at a young age. Though she received some stability and support from some local religious figures, Roberts would ultimately abandon her faith in God and Catholicism after the death of her beloved grandfather when she was nineteen. She had a mind more inclined to science and the mystic than conventional Christianity. She also had an unquenchable thirst to write. At the time of her grandfather’s death, she was attending Skidmore College on a prestigious poetry scholarship. She had been honing her technique since age five, both as a creative outlet and as a coping mechanism for her trauma, and according to her memorial on Find a Grave, she would bravely seek out help and inspiration from the Yaddo art colony as a child.
As an adult, she found help and inspiration for her writing from an odder, more unorthodox source. It happened on the night of December 2, 1963, when Roberts and her second husband, Robert (Rob) Fabian Butts, also an artist, were playing around with a Ouija board for research purposes. Roberts claimed that before their experiment she had already been experiencing unnerving psychic revelations in the form of scientific concepts. The voice whispering in her mind and consequentially expanding it identified himself, through the Ouija board, as “Seth.” From that day on, Seth and Roberts’s existences were intertwined. Roberts was the puppet, and Seth the puppeteer. Seth spoke through Roberts and used her as his host. Through Roberts Seth dictated to Butts, who happily took on the role of secretary for his wife’s extraordinary demon, a series of texts on science, philosophy, and metaphysics that would come to be known as the Seth Material. (The Seth Material is available for purchase in volumes, each labeled A Seth Book.) A cult following soon sprung up around Roberts and Seth, and fascinated onlookers attended ESP (extrasensory perception) sessions to hear Seth convey dialogues through Roberts, as if he were a regular lecturer. Seth was also a fiction writer and a poet. If he were real, both he and Roberts can be given credit for being versatile writers.
Of course, Roberts had, and still has, her skeptics. There are those who, understandably, believe she had some sort of mental illness, such as dissociative identity disorder. There are those who insist she was a fraud, and that “Seth” was a ridiculous gimmick to supplement what some considered a mediocre writing style in order to obtain fame. Others who have faith in the occult are willing to accept that Roberts bonded with an ingenious, kindred, quite literal spirit, but question Roberts’s ability to transcribe her “friend’s” words in such detail due to the complicated intricacies of mediumship (which often don’t allow such intimacy between the summoner and the summoned). But then there are those on the opposite side of the spectrum, who not only fully maintain that Roberts could channel Seth’s ideas through her body but consider Seth’s scientific theories seriously as well. One such loyal follower, Paul M. Helfrich, Ph.D., seemingly brushes off Seth’s strange origins in his essay “Seth on ‘The Origins of the Universe and of the Species’” before commencing a complete deconstruction of Seth’s take on the creation myth, all the while respecting Seth as a physicist and philosopher in his own right. In the essay, Roberts herself is barely mentioned, and is interpreted merely as Seth’s convenient mouthpiece.
“To his credit,” Helfrich writes. “Seth constantly works around the inherent limitations of English and its penchant for linear cognitive constructs that deal with objects and processes in space and time. Seth uses simple metaphors to explain complex concepts like the emergence of Mind into Matter, Timelessness into Time, Spacelessness into Space, dream oceans, plants, and bodies into physical oceans, plants, and bodies.”
One particular blogger remembers Roberts with fond affection, commemorating her as a remarkable and unforgettable eccentric separate from her Seth persona. “Without putting down my intent,” Roberts’s former follower Richard Kendall recounts, “Jane explained to me that while she had her highs, her life was not an endless series of peak experiences but was filled with ups and downs like anyone else’s life.” According to Kendall, who regarded her as a teacher and a friend, Roberts never aimed to become something like a sect leader or a God on Earth, but rather a writer who just so happened to have an uncanny connection with the Other Side. Whether or not Seth was real or counterfeit remains up to debate and interpretation, but those who want to believe will continue to believe.
E.R. Zarevich is an English teacher and writer from Burlington, Ontario, Canada. Fascinated by women's literary history, her biographical articles on female writers have been published by Jstor Daily, The Archive, Early Bird Books, and The Calvert Journal. She is also a writer of fiction and poetry.