IN SEARCH OF A WAYWARD SPIRIT: Freddie Irland, on the couch, acts as a medium as Laura performs a spirit detachment on Susan Vitale, foreground, in 1995. Violette Gain assists Laura. This detachment was conducted at the home of Lauras mother in New Port Richey. This is not something for children, Laura said.
Laura told the woman everything was fine. She reminded her that she and her son were safe. But they needed to go back to the beginning, back to the turnpike, and start over.
"Let's go through it again," Laura said. "A little more slowly this time."
It was the night of Thursday, April 15, 1993. Laura and Freddie and their subject were working in Laura's living room in her home in New Port Richey, there on Montana Avenue. Outside it had been storming. Inside, all was quiet, except for the interplay between Laura's voice, soothing yet insistent, and the woman's voice, confused and edgy. Occasionally there were the chirping sounds of the family's cockatiels; there were also murmuring noises as Freddie whispered a few words to Laura.
More questions. Freddie wanted Laura to ask the woman many more questions. He was very excited, and when Freddie got excited, he could be a little pushy. Laura did not mind. She adored Freddie; besides, the unwritten contract of their relationship allowed great leeway for pushiness.
The two of them were not just friends; they were cosmic explorers, trying to solve the mysteries of the universe. Timidity would get them nowhere.
That evening, they had the house to themselves. Laura's children -- including Arielle, now 3 years old -- were with Laura's mother. Lewis was working late.
Laura still did not know what to think about her marriage. Lewis was a good man, decent and hard-working, and he did his best with the children. But to Laura, it seemed like he was growing increasingly removed. The two of them hardly talked anymore. Lewis did not seem to know what to make of Laura these days. He was there beside her, but also far away. Or maybe she was the one who was far away.
One night, Laura had a disturbing dream. She saw herself in another life, somewhere in Europe during World War II. In this dream, she was married to a different man, and her heart belonged to him in a way it did not belong to Lewis. They were happy, and their happiness came naturally, without effort. Still, it did not last. In the dream, she saw her husband being killed. She was standing on the balcony of their house, and there were Nazi soldiers in the street below, and as she watched, they seized her husband and shot him to death.
The dream haunted Laura. Not just because of its violent ending, but because of the depth of emotion she had for the man in the dream. Long after the dream, he stayed in her thoughts. She felt that the man was real, not a figment of her subconscious. To her, it seemed that she had truly known him and that he had known her and that the two of them had not only been married but had been meant for each other.
She decided that the dream had not been a dream at all, but a vision from a past life. She'd had other visions that she was convinced were from other lives -- she had seen herself in ancient Egypt, in Paris during the French Revolution -- and this one was the most powerful yet. It would not leave her.
Laura did her best to put such thoughts aside. What good did it do, dreaming her days away like that? She was married to Lewis, and they had these children, and it was far too late to change any of that. The kids were growing -- Aletheia, her oldest daughter, was 14 now -- and Laura had decided to home-school them. After her own experiences in the schools, Laura did not think highly of public education. She thought that the schools were not nearly demanding enough, that what they really taught children was to be quiet, to not ask questions, to conform and become complacent consumers who did what they were told and bought what they were told.
She had plenty of books on hand; the walls of the house were covered with shelf after shelf of them. She had a blackboard and chalk. Most important, she had her curiosity, and the children's. She taught them physics, led them through literature and mythology, tutored them on virtually every subject in the library. Hers was not the traditional classroom. To her, life was the real school, and their lives in particular were the real education. And every day she tried to blend it all together. When the children were taking a bath, she would teach anatomy, showing them the muscles in their shoulders and the tendons in their legs. When they were baking together, she would lecture on chemistry, explaining how all the ingredients bonded in a carrot cake.
"Their classroom," she would say, "is the world."
THE COMFORT OF MOMS BED: Laura consoles her daughter Arielle when she had a fever in 1995.
"I don't believe in quality time," she said. "I believe in all the time."
The children weren't the only ones getting an education. Laura herself was learning at an exponential rate. In the last few years, she had given herself free rein to pursue all the questions inside her that she had spent so long trying to push down.
She was studying astrology and making charts for herself and others. She was reading the literature on astral projection and psychic auras and ESP, delving into crystals and meditation and out-of-body experiences. She was also continuing with her experiments with the Ouija board. Often, she conducted these experiments with her friend Freddie.
Freddie was 34, tall and thin, with a quiet rumble of a voice. His official job was working as an office manager for a local company that produced infomercials. But Laura, who had met him a few years before, believed Freddie to be a talented medium in his own right. At first, when the two of them had gotten out the Ouija board, they'd been searching for lottery numbers, hoping to strike it rich. Now they were trying to speak to the dead and to spirits from what Laura and Freddie called "other realities."
Always, Laura looked for signs of deeper patterns. She studied the weather, scanned the newspaper, kept track of floods and earthquakes and even the movement of palmetto bugs inside her house, trying to find some way to tie it all together.
Sometimes, the kids would roll their eyes.
FIRST, PEACE ON THE HOME FRONT: Before a channeling session one evening, Laura separates a boisterous Jason and Amy in the kitchen.
"Mom," they would say. "Get a grip."
Much of Laura's time was devoted now to the hypnosis sessions, which occasionally evolved into exorcisms. Laura had been interested in hypnosis for years; she had read exhaustively on the subject and taken classes. Using the hypnosis, she had begun performing what she called "spirit detachments," where she would put a subject under and find what she thought to be spirits of the dead that had attached themselves to a living host. Once, as she would later explain, she went inside a subject and found the spirit of a man who had died in a house fire; another time, while performing a detachment on a young subject, she found the spirit of a boy who had been fatally hit by a car in a grocery store parking lot and was lonely for the company of another child.
Laura's techniques were straightforward. She would put her subjects under, locate the spirits and talk to them, find out what was bothering them, then tell them it was okay to let go and move into the light. Basically, she saw herself as a counselor to the dead.
The exorcisms were different. They involved entities -- "dark entities," Laura called them -- that had never had a life of their own. Some people would call them demons.
She had done only a few exorcisms. Sometimes she worked with children who were behaving in disturbing ways; other times she worked with adults who were alarmed by their own destructive habits and wondered what was causing them.
Laura had prepared herself for the exorcisms as best she could. She had read everything she could find on demonic possession; she studied the literature on traditional exorcisms, as performed by the Catholic Church. Her version of the ceremony was more informal. She would hypnotize her subjects, find her way to the entity, then send it away.
ANOTHER SATURDAY NIGHT: Laura says good night to Arielle as she sits at the spirit board, preparing for one of her regular channeling sessions, in 1995.
"What is your name?" she asked one of them.
"I never had a name," it answered.
"Who sent you?"
"My master sent me."
Whether Laura was truly confronting demonic beings, she had no idea. All she knew was that something -- some form of negative energy -- had found its way inside these people, and after these sessions that she chose to call exorcisms, the energy was gone.
She was thankful that the sessions were rare. The spirit detachments were much more common. Sometimes Laura was called upon to conduct them as often as once a week. She didn't mind; the detachments were not nearly as stressful and required far less of her emotional energy. She approach-ed them like any ordinary counselor, on her way to just another therapy session.
"Talkin' to dead dudes," she called it.
Still, even after all these encounters, Laura had never come across anyone quite like the woman reclining on the couch before her this night.
"I wish that damn light would change," the woman was saying again.
As Laura would later tell it, she had met the woman a couple of weeks before. They had talked, and Laura had mentioned in passing that she did hypnotherapy, and the woman had told her about this strange experience, several years before, on the highway in Pennsylvania. Something had happened, and she didn't know what it was. But every time she thought about it, she said, she would grow extremely upset -- upset to a degree that did not make sense. She wanted to know why. She wanted to understand what had occurred that night. When Laura offered to put her under and see what she could learn, the woman agreed.
Now here she was, lying in Laura's living room with her eyes closed, driving again through that night. Every time she replayed it for Laura, it came out the same. She and her son would be driving on the turnpike, and they would take the detour, and then she was seeing the blue light. Then the skip. The same skip, every time. Suddenly they would be at that traffic light in Waynesboro, 50 miles down the road, and her son was opening the tin of cookies with the knife and cutting his hand.
Laura was determined to find out what had happened during those 50 miles. Freddie, videotaping from the corner, already thought he knew. That was why he was so excited.
"This is an alien abduction," he told Laura.
Freddie was big on UFOs. He was well aware, as was Laura, that a growing number of Americans -- the exact number remained unclear -- had come forward in recent years with stories of disturbing encounters with creatures that had traveled here from other planets. Many of these people believed, or claimed to believe, that aliens had abducted them from their cars or bedrooms, somehow rendered them helpless, then taken them aboard a spacecraft of one kind or another, subjected them to medical or scientific experiments, then returned them to their lives with all memories of the abductions blocked from their minds. When these people would try to recall what had happened, they would simply draw a blank; their recollections of the aliens typically surfaced later, often under hypnosis.
Freddie believed these people's stories demanded attention. So did others who followed the phenomenon, including John Mack, a Harvard psychiatrist who had interviewed some of the alleged abductees.
Laura was not so sure. At Freddie's urging, she had been reading about the abduction accounts but had found them unconvincing. Laura was open to believing in many things; her whole life was devoted to considering possibilities in the universe that others found ludicrous. Still, she had trouble believing that little gray men were stealing people away by the hundreds or even thousands and playing doctor with all of them on some fancy mothership in the sky. If it was happening to so many, why was there no proof? Why could no one produce a single indisputable snapshot of one of these aliens or even one of their ships? Where was the video? Why weren't these aliens appearing on Geraldo?
Like many others, Laura found it far more likely that these people had undergone some serious trauma -- possibly sexual abuse, suffered during childhood -- and that now they were subconsciously transforming their buried memories of these experiences into encounters of another kind. Perhaps it was easier for them to imagine an alien illicitly entering their bedroom and violating them, rather than to confront the fact that it was really their stepfather or their mother's boyfriend.
Laura thought she detected an element of mass hysteria in the proliferation of abduction accounts. With the approach of 2000, maybe these people were simply going a little nuts. "Millennial disease," she called it.
All of which explained why Laura was taking such pains to find out precisely what had happened to the woman she was working with this night. Before hypnotizing her, Laura had asked the woman about her childhood, probing for any sign of abuse or family problems or anything suggesting emotional or mental instability. But she had found nothing to account for the missing time in the woman's story.
Laura was undeterred. She decided to take the woman under even deeper, getting her to slow her breathing even more and replay that night yet again. This time, the woman remembered a parking lot. She could see the blue light growing, and feel the car leaving the highway, and now she and her son were stopped in the parking lot of a diner, just off the road, not far from the billboard where she'd first seen the light.
"What happened next?" said Laura.
"I wish that damn light would change," said the woman.
Back to the skip. Whatever it was, it had happened somewhere between the moment in the parking lot and the moment when her son cut his hand.
So Laura tried again, taking the woman as deep as she knew how. Speaking softly, she asked her subject to imagine herself sitting inside a favorite room. Maybe the family room at her home; maybe a study. Anyplace where the woman felt safe. Inside this room she was asked to imagine a recliner. She was sitting in the recliner, resting comfortably, and in front of her was a television. On that television, she was to project the scene from that night, unfolding on the screen, and describe what she saw.
Laura told the woman she had a remote in her hand and could manipulate the action before her. She could fast forward, rewind, turn it off. Whatever she needed to do to feel safe and in control.
Back onto the highway went the woman, her son at her side. They were taking the detour. The billboard was coming up.
Slow it down, Laura told her. Use your remote, and hit pause, and let the tape advance one frame at a time.
The light. She saw the blue light. It was in front of the billboard. It was growing. She was losing control of the car. It was leaving the road. Then they were in the parking lot. They were in the lot, outside the diner. They did not know why. Wait. Someone was coming. Someone was approaching the car.
Laura asked her to describe who it was.
"I can't," said the woman. She was getting agitated again. She was hyperventilating; her upper arms were twitching; she was rubbing her hands, as though she were in pain.
"What do you mean, you can't?" said Laura.
"Because they won't let me."
Laura pressed the woman to tell her what was going on. Who was she talking about? Who was stopping her from saying?
The woman just shook her head.
"I can't tell," she said. "I can't."
* * *
That was the night when the other ghost realities began to tumble forward. When Laura's understanding started to shift, and the universe shifted with it.
It did not happen all at once, but slowly, in bits and pieces.
That evening, when the woman on the couch grew so upset, Laura decided to end the session. She wanted to keep probing, but for the moment it was too traumatic. So Laura brought the woman out of hypnosis and told her that they would try again, in another session. Laura was left to consider the implications of what her subject had revealed. Was Freddie right? Had this woman and her son been abducted by aliens?
At first, Laura remained skeptical. Then, in the weeks that followed, something happened that chipped away at her doubts. The newspaper and TV were reporting multiple sightings of UFOs in the area. From mid to late April in 1993, more than a dozen people in Pasco, Hernando and Pinellas counties said they had seen a large, boomerang-shaped craft moving across the sky. One of the witnesses, a Hernando County sheriff's deputy, said the craft carried no markings, was adorned with blue lights and had a wingspan of at least 200 feet. He watched it for several minutes, he said, before it accelerated away from him at a speed that would have been impossible for any human-made craft.
"Based on what I know now, no, I don't think it's from this planet," the deputy told a St. Petersburg Times reporter. "Nothing on Earth could hover and haul ass like that."
Reading the accounts in the newspaper, Laura was startled to discover that the first alleged sighting of the boomerang-shaped object had been made in New Port Richey on the evening of Thursday, April 15, the same night she was conducting her hypnosis session with the woman in her living room. The person who had seen the object that night lived only six blocks or so from Laura's house; she said she had seen the craft through her bedroom window after 10 p.m. that evening, after L.A. Law came on.
As Laura read the details of the account, she realized something else. The witness claimed that she had seen the giant boomerang at the exact time Laura was deep into her session; in fact, she said she'd seen it hovering over Laura's own neighborhood.
To Freddie, this was all more proof that the woman with the missing time had been telling them something dangerous that night, something the aliens didn't want her to share. That's why her memory block was so strong, he said; that explained what she'd meant when she said "they" wouldn't allow her to continue with the story.
Laura still was not ready to buy Freddie's theories. As far as she was concerned, the rash of sightings was just another outbreak of millennial disease. One person claimed to have seen the giant boomerang, and the rest had probably heard the claims, then gotten excited and imagined seeing the same object. If there were so many spaceships out there, carrying all these aliens and snatching all these poor earthlings, where was the proof?
"Where's the evidence?" she asked Freddie. "Show me a damned alien, for God's sakes."
As it turned out, no more evidence was forthcoming from the woman with the missing time that night in Pennsylvania. After the first session with Laura, she called and said she'd changed her mind. She would not be returning for another session.
Laura went on with her studies. She continued reading about UFO sightings and other paranormal events; she also continued performing the spirit detachments and the occasional exorcism. She and Freddie were still experimenting with the Ouija board, trying to contact beings from other realities.
Then, one night late that summer, Laura had a stunning experience. This was Aug. 16, 1993. Laura and her family had eaten dinner. It was getting late. Lewis was inside, Laura was in the back yard with three of her children, swimming in the family's above-ground pool and staring up at the sky. There was a meteor shower that week, and Laura and the kids were hoping to relax in the pool and see some shooting stars.
As Laura would later describe it, they had been staring at the sky for just a short while when suddenly an enormous black boomerang-shaped object appeared directly above their house and over the pool. It was low in the sky, perhaps 10 feet above the roof of the house. It moved slowly. It made no sound.
"Mom, look at that!" the children cried. "What is it?"
Laura didn't know what to say.
"A flock of geese," she said, grasping at any explanation. "Flying south for the winter."
Then came the second boomerang.
This one was on a path about 50 feet to the west of the first object, again flying low, just above the house. Floating in the water, Laura studied the object carefully. She looked for flapping wings, listened for the telltale honking, but saw and heard nothing that suggested a flock of geese. This was a single, solid object, with a black, metallic surface. On its burnished exterior, she could see the reflection of the lights from the family pool.
Slowly it passed over them, the houses beyond, the middle school down the street. Then, it disappeared into the night.
The children were beside themselves. They were yelling. Laura did not know what to say. When Lewis came outside to find out what all the shouting was about, Laura clung to her original statement and told her husband that they'd just seen two flocks of geese.
Laura knew it was impossible. No, these had not been birds of any kind. She could not erase what she had seen with her own eyes.
But what exactly had she seen?
In the days to come, Laura narrowed it down to two possibilities. Either she had become infected with her own case of millennial disease. Or UFOs were an undeniable, inescapable, objective reality.
* * *
There was something else Laura had to consider.
It was the woman with the missing time. Her account of that night on the highway had elements that seemed disturbingly familiar to Laura. In fact, so did many of the other accounts from people who had experienced their own missing time episodes and who later claimed to have been abducted by aliens.
The stories were linked to hers. Laura could feel it.
All of these accounts bore similarities to many of the strange things that Laura had felt happening to her throughout her life. The face at the window, the dream of the woods, those presences she had sensed in her bedroom time and again. And of course, the night when she had dreamed that bright lights were streaming through her bedroom window and then awoken later to discover that she had been walking outside in the dark.
Laura had pushed these connections away for so long. That was why she had resisted Freddie's theories. It was why she'd fought against the evidence before her.
It was all too real.