A SMALL WORLD OF CONTRASTS: Lauras children watch TV in the living room in 1995; in the next room, Laura was channeling.
My encounters with Laura Knight began a year and a half after her alleged sighting of the giant flying boomerangs.
I had never heard of dark entities or spirit detachments. I did not know that anyone around Tampa Bay actually claimed to be performing exorcisms. I certainly had not foreseen the day when I would be called upon to write, with a straight face, a sentence that ended with the words "giant flying boomerangs."
A shelf in Lauras bookcase attests to her quest for knowledge.
This was in the early stages of the current national obsession with all things UFO-related. The X-Files was only in its second season, the so-called alien autopsy video was not yet airing on the Fox network, and the only person I knew personally who had seen a UFO -- or at least, who had admitted such a thing to me -- was my former hairdresser.
Still, the congregants at the library were excited that Saturday. They knew that a ground swell of interest in other worlds and other intelligences was gaining momentum around the country; they sensed that they were in the first wave of a profound shift in the public's willingness to consider the possibility that alien visitations might just be a verifiable fact of life on this planet. After years of being derided, these people were finally getting some attention and respect.
To say that Laura made an impression that day is an understatement. When it was her turn to speak, she instantly seized control of the room. She had so much presence, she was almost radioactive. And hers was no ordinary presence. She was not about to be mistaken for a movie star; she was overweight and slightly mussed, and her clothes were almost defiantly unfashionable. She wore leggings that, as I recall, were a little too tight and a tunic adorned with amber beads and painted gold spirals. I took one look at her and said to myself, "I bet she has a bust of Elvis in her living room."
Somehow, though, Laura used all these qualities to her advantage. She was too much, and knew it, and did not care; if anything, she reveled in her over-the-topness, which gave her tremendous freedom and power. Her eyes flashed; her hair flowed freely; her slightly crooked smile ignited the atmosphere around her.
In a short talk, apparently delivered without any notes, Laura gave an overview of her life, telling a little about her childhood, her work as an exorcist, her hypnosis session with the woman with the missing time, the night she and the kids saw the two ships above their swimming pool. She also spoke about some recent experiences with a spirit board, which as I understood it was similar to a Ouija board but more elaborate. Using this spirit board, she said, she and Freddie and some other friends had begun communicating with what she called "sixth-density beings" from the stars that make up the Cassiopeia constellation.
Laura's story was easily the wildest I heard that day. It didn't matter. She was smart, charming, completely real. She joked about herself, her kids, her husband, her family's decidedly off-beat riff on middle-class life. She even joked about these sixth-density beings, whatever they were. "The boys from Brazil," she called them, and the way she said it made me laugh, even though I had no clue what she was talking about.
She was giving a performance, and I was not the only one in the audience who enjoyed it. Cherie Diez, a Times photographer with whom I'd worked for many years, had come with me to the MUFON meeting. The two of us were searching for someone unusual to follow for the newspaper. After seeing and listening to Laura that day, Cherie and I believed that we had found a subject who exceeded our every expectation.
In between our work on other projects for the paper, we were drawn again and again to Laura's house in New Port Richey, hanging out for hours at a time with her and her family and friends. What we saw, every time we visited, was a woman leading a life on her own terms, defining herself every day. Laura's life was crammed with seemingly incongruous elements. She was a walking smorgasbord of the paranormal, yes. But she was also a mother of five, making dinner and doing the laundry while she pursued aliens and demonic spirits. She was a glorious amalgamation, a mixture of Bette Midler, Father Damien, Donna Reed and Agent Scully.
Laura defied all categories. She did not, would not fit into any box, including one that I had tried to stick her into that first day at the MUFON meeting. When I toured her home, I found no bust of Elvis in the living room. But on her mantel, above the fireplace, there was an eerie, almost ghostly ceramic pitcher bearing the likeness of Edward VIII. Laura's grandparents had bought it in 1937, just after Edward gave up the English throne to marry Wallis Simpson.
So much for my stereotyping.
Laura's house was one huge encyclopedia of her life, overflowing with things that testified to the breadth of her curiosity and interests.
On the walls hung Victorian prints from her grandparents, a painting of Jesus, a map of the world, pieces of her children's artwork, oversized reproductions of tarot cards, Star Trek posters the kids had put up. Laura's study was lined with shelves crammed with hundreds and hundreds of books. Scanning through just a few of the titles, I found Angels and Aliens, The Bible as History, On the Dead Sea Scrolls, Alien Intelligence, Genesis Revisited, UFO Encounters & Beyond, Infinity and the Mind, Extra-Terrestrials Among Us.
One day, while I was talking to Laura in that same study, I asked her what she liked to read purely for fun, when she wasn't memorizing science textbooks or researching the paranormal. Her son, Jason -- he was 12 at the time and liked sitting in on our interviews -- started laughing and shaking his head.
"She reads puppy books," he said.
I didn't understand.
"You know," said Jason. "The man and woman fall in love, get together and then have puppies."
He reached for a well-worn paperback from one of the shelves. It was The Golden Barbarian, a book with one of those covers where a woman with a heaving bosom surrenders to a man with rippling biceps.
Jason handed it over with a knowing grin.
"Check out Page 193," he said, nodding meaningfully at me, one man to another.
These were the kinds of moments when I found it impossible to simply dismiss Laura and her life. It was one thing trying to get a handle on a woman who thought she was an exorcist and a psychic and a transmitter for long-distance calls from enlightened aliens. But someone who was into these things, plus raising an adolescent son who knew where all the racy sections were in her romance novels? That person I could begin to understand. It helped me relate to her, even if I didn't subscribe to everything she believed.
Though some of her children occasionally were enrolled in the public schools for a semester or two, Laura still home-schooled them for the most part. She seemed to be doing a good job. Jason and his siblings -- he was the middle child, and the only boy -- were smart and well educated. They were constantly drawing, reading, playing the piano, inventing their own secret codes, working out math problems for fun; whenever I asked them anything about history or science or literature, they usually showed themselves to be far ahead of most other children their age.
THE BROKEN MONARCH: This pitcher of Edward VIII was damaged, Laura says, in 1998 when Arielle came into the room with gold paper, asking Laura to make her a crown. At that moment a plate sitting behind Edward fell forward, for no apparent reason, and the pitcher tumbled to the floor.
Aletheia and Anna, the two oldest girls -- they were 16 and 13 when I met them -- were embarrassed by their mother. This was not surprising. Virtually every teenage girl is appalled by her mom at one time or another. But in their case, Aletheia and Anna were appalled because their mother gathered with friends on Saturday nights, channeling communications from sixth-density beings.
"Mom," Aletheia would say, "can't you play bingo? Would you please sell Tupper-ware, for God's sake?"
As Cherie and I went on interviewing Laura, asking her to fill in the blanks from over the years, the children listened, adding their own details and impressions of what they had seen themselves. In many ways, they were Laura's witnesses. They had been on hand for much of what she described to us, and they corroborated her stories. They remembered seeing the boomerangs flying over the pool; they also had seen channeling sessions. Though the children were not allowed to attend the exorcisms, they knew about those sessions as well.
Lewis Martin, who was 10 years older than Laura, said little about his wife's paranormal activities. Many times, when Cherie and I visited the house, Lewis was not around. By this point he was working for a construction company, and he seemed to be gone much of the time, either off at his job or out fishing. Once, when we did talk, Lewis told me he had been raised in south Florida and had spent much of his childhood wandering the Everglades with his stepfather, hunting and exploring. He still loved the outdoors.
I liked Lewis. He was always polite and friendly -- he had a big, calloused, he-man handshake -- and he seemed to enjoy the kids. Like most children, Jason and his siblings craved their father's attention and adored it when he took them out in his pickup truck to go fishing. Still, as I watched Lewis puttering in the yard, I could not help but wonder what he made of the direction in which his wife was taking her life. I never heard him utter a word against her, but I also never saw him take much interest in Laura's activities. She would be in the study with Freddie and others, channeling with the Cassiopaeans, and often Lewis would be in the next room, eating a sandwich or watching TV. Sometimes, when he came home, he would not come inside immediately, but would sit in his truck in the driveway, listening to music on the radio.
IN THE SHADOWS: Lewis Martin often stayed in the background during Lauras Saturday night channeling sessions.
Lewis' detachment was a relatively benign response to what was happening under his roof. I got a kick out of Laura and all her exotic endeavors, but I didn't have to live with all of it day in and day out. Just from my contact with her, I knew how exhausting she could be. It wasn't just the channeling and the spirit detachments. Laura was constantly reading another handful of books on Atlantis, and cataloging her dreams, and contemplating the nature of evil, and drawing up astrological charts, and writing massive treatises on vampires and aliens, and driving away to UFO conventions, and firing off e-mails about the latest alien sighting in Brazil.
Like so many married couples, Lewis and Laura were obviously leading parallel lives. Yet, at that point, I did not hear Laura complain about the marriage, either. Sometimes she seemed tired and distracted; occasionally she would call me sounding a little down. But that was all. Most of the time, she seemed too busy to be depressed. She moved in a constant whirlwind, driving the kids around, throwing another load of laundry into the dryer, reading up on crop circles, typing transcripts of the channeling sessions.
She was always blasting one kind of music or another on the stereo. She swooned to Beethoven, Brahms, countless operas and choral pieces, not to mention Pink Floyd; predictably, one of her favorites was Dark Side of the Moon. She loved to go to movies, to escape on excursions with Freddie and other friends, to brush her daughters' hair and laugh at Jason's imitations of Data, the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation. And she never lost her sense of humor.
Once, we stopped at a diner for breakfast. The waitress, taking Laura's order, asked if she wanted home fries or grits.
"Who's cooking the grits?" said Laura.
The waitress stopped writing and looked up from her pad.
"My brother," she said, smiling uncertainly.
"Was he born in Florida?" Laura asked.
"Then I'll take the home fries."
Laura was always hard to keep up with. Cherie and I followed along as best we could. We sat in on one of Laura's spirit detachments; we attended several of the channeling sessions she and Freddie were leading. In addition, we spoke with many of the people around Laura. We met the Pasco woman whose story of the missing time had so deeply shaken Laura; this woman's son, who had been in the car with her on the night in question, joined us for the interview.
Although both the woman and her son preferred not to be identified in print, they confirmed at least the basics of what Laura had told us. I also watched the videotape Freddie had shot on the night of this woman's hypnosis. It did not show the entire session, and much of what the woman said was hard to hear -- she spoke very softly -- but the tape did seem to show the session essentially as Laura and Freddie and the woman had described it.
We were never allowed to attend one of Laura's exorcisms. They seemed to happen infrequently, and Laura told us the sessions were too personal and too volatile to permit our presence or to let us speak to her subjects after the exorcisms had ended. Besides, she said she had always found the exorcisms disturbing and was trying to scale back on that part of her work. A year or so after we first met her, she stopped performing exorcisms entirely.
Our understanding of this particular part of Laura's story, in other words, was based almost entirely on Laura's descriptions, and her word. The only corroboration came from Freddie, who sometimes assisted Laura in these sessions.
From the start, we recognized the possibility that Laura could have lied to us about the exorcisms and many other things. She could have made up her memories of the reptilian face at the window, the dreams, the breaking glass. If she had wanted to do so -- and it would have required the cooperation of not only her children, but many other people as well -- she could have been staging an almost impossibly elaborate hoax on us for several years.
Neither Cherie nor I saw anything to indicate such a hoax. After spending several years in her company, we never found any evidence to suggest that Laura was some con artist, faking her studies of the paranormal to gain money or attract publicity. Everything about her suggested someone who was trying her best to give a full and accurate account of her life.
When I asked difficult questions, she did not hedge. On her own, she shared with me sensitive moments from her past, moments where she had made a mistake or done something she regretted, such as a suicide attempt in her early 20s when she was distraught over the breakup of a relationship and the death of her grandfather. It was not easy for her to talk about these things, but she did.
In addition, the overwhelming volume of her activities -- not just the channeling sessions themselves, but thousands of pages of notes, essays and papers -- testified to the genuine depth of Laura's interest. She was clearly devoted to these questions long before we entered her life; she talked about the exorcisms and the channeling that first day at the MUFON meeting before she knew we were in the audience. Once we sought her out, Laura repeatedly expressed ambivalence about her story appearing in the newspaper. At times, when she worried about how readers might react to her story, she even asked us to reconsider writing about her at all.
Money never appeared to be the driving force behind Laura's activities. She lived modestly, driving a used van and raising her kids in a house that was in constant need of repair. Laura showed scant interest in making money from her paranormal activities. She charged minimal fees for her sessions, but they never amounted to much. Several years ago, when she made some transcripts of her channeling sessions for us, we paid her $100; since then, she has given us hundreds of more pages of these transcripts and has refused to accept a penny more for her trouble.
If she was out to make a buck, she was terrible at it.
* * *
I had missed it.
In all the time I was spending with Laura, and all the time I was thinking about her and trying to put together the pieces of her, I had overlooked one simple detail that had been available from the very beginning. A detail that should have told me so much about what was happening inside her.
The puppy books.
With everything else that was already on Laura's shelves, with all those science books and history books and volumes on the paranormal just waiting to be read, why on earth was she wasting a single second reading romance novels? Why were those books so important to her? What was she finding there that she could not get anywhere else?
It was right in front of me.
And I could not see it.