City Paper is not for tourists
Occasionally, white men in uniforms come to visit Caroline Casey at her home in Cabin John, Md. They’re Pentagon men, and they want answers. A lieutenant colonel once arrived in full military regalia, his shoulders jacked up with epaulets, his chest weighed down with medals. Standing in the garden outside her house, it’s easy to envision these military types parking their cars discreetly in the guest lot and climbing stiffly up the leafy pathway, trying not to muddy their military-issue shoes.
Casey can’t teach her uniformed guests anything about stopping terrorism, preventing Middle East dictators from upgrading their missiles, or making sure their coveted defense programs are funded. But Pentagon brass—like Casey’s visitors from myriad other professions—don’t show up to talk shop. Instead, they come seeking guidance of a more spiritual sort. Casey, a self-described “visionary activist,” offers them her own blend of astrology, mythology, and “magic.” It sounds like mushy schlock, but Casey makes a nice living showing Washington careerists that there’s more to life than moving from GS-12 to GS-13.
When you first meet Casey, she looks like someone sent over from Central Casting. She dresses only in purple, little brass coins dangle from the hem of her vest, and she’s got long, artsy earrings. The dog beside her is named “Moondog.” One look and you think, “Oh, great. It’s the Kumbayah lady. It’s the woman who assigned me a mantra when I was 10, then made me give up a week’s allowance to the fucking Maharishi.”
Worse still, her consultation room is festooned like a new-ager’s wet dream—soothing and templelike, but high-tech in a way that suggests money and business. It’s full of spiritual artifacts and inspirational tchotchkes: terra cotta walls adorned with a homage to Frieda Kahlo, a print of the Holy Grail, a gold moon mask from a Jungian therapist, a medieval astrology chart, a palm-shaped lamp, and the requisite cat slinking about the furniture. Hooked up to the phone is a tape recorder and microphone that Casey uses to record her sessions (a third of which are conducted via Bell Atlantic with people as far away as Sweden) as well as audio tapes of seasonal lectures that she markets herself. Next to her desk is a Peter Danko chair—where the Pentagon men sit when Casey does their astrology charts.
“The Pentagon guys really believe in this,” says the 43-year-old Casey, who charges $200 per session. The daughter of a New Deal congressman, she grew up in the District and has been practicing and promoting “mythological literacy” since she “flaked around” London as a teenager. Since then, she has gorged on Joseph Campbell, mastered world mythology, earned a degree in semiotics from Brown University, and ricocheted between D.C., L.A., and Rhode Island—all the while reading astrology charts for a clientele ranging from stars to juvenile delinquents. In Rhode Island, she spent a summer working with troubled inner-city kids, teaching them to use mythology and ritual to redirect their violent energy into the chivalrous “path of the warrior.”
It all sounds a little flaky, but Casey has formulated a simple core message for all her consultations: Believe nothing but entertain possibilities. As she talks about how cynicism is intellectual laziness and a form of self-suppression, you realize that this might be someone you could actually learn something from if you’d just sit down, shut up, and get over yourself. Her voice is deep and hearty, with none of the gauzy pretension of most garden-variety seers. “I’m a skeptic,” she says wryly. “I have no patience for that touchy-feely new-age stuff.”
Casey is convincing enough to have appeared in People magazine and on ABC’s Nightline and to write astrological forecasts for U.S. News and World Report. When the media weenies at CNN sicked Pat Buchanan on her on a segment of Crossfire, he ended up conceding on-air that Casey was “one of the real ones.” She, in turn, concedes that he’s the best interviewer she’s encountered to date. “The confident Jesuit part of himself made him unafraid to ask questions, to keep his mind open,” she says. “Liberals are intimidated by the ‘silliness’ of spiritual discussion.” She is accomplished enough to have been mistaken for Joan Quigley, Nancy Reagan’s official astrologer, and sage enough to have turned down Geraldo.
Before Casey set up shop here in 1986, she worked in Hollywood—a place that, with its rampant wannabes, seems like ideal soil for an astrologer. But Casey hated it. “Hollywood is full of people who are the ‘reality police’—tyrannical little boys who are so egocentric that they would sacrifice the psychic well-being of their own children for money,” she says. “L.A. is strange, but not in an interesting way. Most people who came to me basically wanted to know, ‘When should I call my agent?’ The West Coast looks hip, but it’s really conservative.”
Oh, Casey jokes that Washington is a “spiritual hardship post” and “the land of disenchantment.” In the land of buttoned-up lawyers, she knows that some of her clients visit her as covertly as a mistress. She admits that one of her friends recently made an anagram from DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA that came out I TOIL BAD COSMIC TURF.
But Washington is Casey’s hometown, and she returned to work here of her own volition. “I grew up in D.C. I feel like I’ve been trained to take metaphysics to the skeptical,” she jokes. To her, Washington is actually the inverse of L.A. “D.C. looks boring, but its shadow is really hip. A lot of people from powerful institutions, public and private, come to see me,” she says. “And they’re people who really want to work on themselves and improve the world.”
Her clients say Casey has a down-to-earth approach to mystical endeavors. “At Caroline’s lectures, no one’s far-out or on the edge,” says Royelen Boykie, 39, who works at a District law firm and recently attended a seminar that Casey gave at the Omega Institute in upstate New York. “They’re mostly government people.”
Astrologically, Washington is a “Scorpio city,” Casey explains. Scorpio is the sign that embodies the use and abuse of power. Hidden forces radiate from Scorpio, affecting the rest of the world. Just like the zodiac sign, she notes, everything interesting in D.C. is beneath the surface.
Like these guys from the Pentagon. They’re a surprise party. They show up at her office dressed like defense fascists, but—tah-dah!—once they start talking, they declare their belief in astrology and beyond. You find out that “they’re into UFOs, and they have a secret meditation room in the Pentagon where they pray for peace,” says Casey. They come to Casey to find out how to do good in the world, to find spiritual mooring.
So what if Quigley used to tell Nancy Reagan when to fly to Leningrad? So what if Jean Houston egged Hillary into conversing with the dead? Oh pul-leeze, laughs Casey. Who doesn’t talk to Eleanor Roosevelt?
Diplomats, power brokers, and policy makers come to Casey, hoping to gain the ultimate insider information. Scientists and doctors, frustrated by the limits of the empirical world, come to her, too. Journalists come seeking the ultimate scoop, asking her how they can bypass government censorship and find the most opportune time to schedule an interview that will uncover the truth. And then there are the pollsters, the campaign managers. “Lots of people come to see me about how to win elections,” Casey says. “The candidate doesn’t come, but the pollsters will come, or the staff. In all honesty, the candidate usually doesn’t know about the visits at all.” Politicos also come to get advice about how to avert scandal—an ironic move in a town where consulting an astrologer can be a scandal in itself.
“When I mention ‘my friendly local astrologer,’ people look at me like I just stepped off the 410 bus from Mars,” admits Jamie Yeager, a 48-year-old technical writer from Bethesda. Yeager, a self-described skeptic, nonetheless consulted Casey eight years ago, when he was sobering up. He has been in touch with her ever since—although, he says, “If you want to be a successful party-giver in D.C. like, say, Meg Greenfield, then you don’t mention going to an astrologer in D.C.—you just do it.”
Like Yeager, more and more of the people going to see Casey are men. Uptight, middle-aged men—men who wear plaid shorts and boat shoes on the weekend, who drive around in Volvo station wagons and tell their kids, “If you don’t quit poking each other, I’ll stop the car right here and you’ll walk to the mall.” Suddenly, they’re thinking outside the box and craving psychic guidance.
“In the last couple of years, there’s been a big shift,” Casey says. “It used to be 80 percent of my clients were women. Now that’s down to 65 percent.”
It’s not that Casey has done any mailings targeted toward men. Guys seem to be showing up in droves because the volatility of the corporate world is saddling men with personal crises they can’t manage with traditional tools. Men who did everything right and played by the rules are getting pink slips the week before Christmas or the year before their pension comes due. Or they’re disillusioned with the goody basket that has traditionally been the reward for masculine aggression. They’re realizing that being an asshole in pinstripes and driving a little red car doesn’t cut it anymore.
“Caroline reminds us that we can do more than suffer in middle-class homes from BMW deprivation,” says Yeager. “There are not that many things in our culture that administer that kind of positive lesson. The normal message is: You’re stuck unless you buy this.
The No. 1 question Casey gets asked is, “How do I get out of my job?” (No. 2 topic is love, No. 3, money.) Most specifically, she gets asked how to get out of a government agency. Not surprisingly, a lot of her clients are postal workers.
Unfortunately for those in search of a quick fix (or cheap-thrill journalists), Casey will not tell people what to do with their lives. She may occasionally utter sound-bite gems such as “it’s not an isolated crisis but a crisis of isolation,” but she won’t for a minute play the role of an oracle, a dizzy mystic, a fortuneteller. What Casey will do, however, is look at a birth chart and interpret it as a blueprint for what peoples’ resources are, where their potential lies, and which areas of their lives are in crisis. She won’t use astrology to warn people that they’ll need a gall bladder operation in April or to predict the winning Lotto numbers.
“She always says that ‘prediction’ comes from the same root as predicament,” says Boykie. “She uses astrology as a tool to discuss the big trends and possibilities. She has changed what I think of as a psychic.”
“Neither my husband or I believe in astrology,” says Dorothea Brady, 49, president of Lifeworks Corp., a management training company in the District. And yet both of them, she says, have consulted Casey. “She’s one of the most spiritually ethical people I know,” she explains. “I didn’t go to her to get a prediction. Caroline focuses more on how one can develop aspects of your personality and where your inherent strengths are from the perspective of one’s chart. Astrology is a tool for knowledge and self-understanding. Though some people would argue this, I think it’s a tool just as valuable as Meyers-Briggs—the self-assessment tool that’s pretty standard in the workplace.”
But does Casey offer anything, then, that a therapist or a career counselor couldn’t?
“I suppose I could’ve gotten the same advice somewhere else,” Brady concedes. “But not as succinctly. I guess I could’ve gone through many sessions of psychotherapy,” she laughs.
Yeager believes as much in Casey as the astrology that underlies her advice.
“If I wanted someone to run my life, I wouldn’t pick Caroline, but I wouldn’t pick the pope, either,” says Yeager. “But she has clearly understood some of the conflicts in my life better than I did. She’s an actual healing person. When she sits down and tells you something, you get it. I don’t have to understand how [astrology] works. I don’t understand how automatic transmissions work, either.”
Ultimately, Casey says, her mission is to “catalyze social change” and “mobilize people’s spiritual adrenaline.” She says again and again—like a mantra: “What is personally possible for us is limited or expanded by what we imagine. The task of astrologers is to open up and imagine possibilities for people.”
When her clients ask if they’ll be rich or successful, she makes them define what they mean by “rich” and “successful.” She tries to push their imagination—whether they’re military brass or street kids back in Rhode Island. “My experience from working with really bad delinquent kids, which I like, is that they are completely mythologically starved and wide open to having a vision of how they can become powerful that doesn’t involve gold chains and drugs but involves a kind of magic and spirituality,” she says. “They want a redefinition of what it is to be hip, and what cool is.”
She adds that time spent rethinking assumptions can have very practical effects. “Imagination lays the tracks for the reality train to follow,” Casey intones.
Casey rails against using astrology to induce fear, a common phenomenon that she terms “spiritual harassment.” Predictions about doom and gloom and the End of the World drive her bonkers. She asks the audience at her summer solstice lecture, “Why does a prediction about world upheaval have to signify an apocalypse? Why can’t it be a renaissance? Do you like that vision of an apocalypse? If not, don’t vote for it.” It’s simple-minded people, she says, and lazy people with huge Visa bills to pay, who seem to have the biggest love affair with the apocalypse.
Ultimately, Casey is the anti-guru. She doesn’t want people to sit in her consultation room quietly, waiting for instructions. As an astrologer, she wants you to defy her, to surprise her. “I want to make people unpredictable.”—Susan Jane Gilman