Patience Worth: Author From the Great Beyond

Pearl Curran, a St. Louis housewife, channeled a 17th-century spirit to the heights of 20th-century literary stardom

Pearl Curran began channeling messages from Patience Worth in 1913 by means of a Ouija board. (Douglas Smith)
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Pearl’s archaic language and knowledge of history might have been partly the result of extraordinary memory—that is, a replaying in her mind of information imprinted there by books she had read or listened to as a girl. “It seems similar to photographic memory surrounded by a context of spiritualism,” says Howard Eichenbaum, director of the Center for Memory and Brain at Boston University. But such a medical abnormality would not explain her stunning narrative skills or the moments of true art in her writing.

“We don’t really have an explanation” for cases like Pearl Curran’s, says McGaugh. “It’s a frontier of neuroscience that’s never really been explored. We just haven’t had the conceptual tools to think about it.”

The answer, however, may lie in a short story Pearl wrote under her own byline in 1919 for the Saturday Evening Post (and was ignored by Prince, Marion Reedy and other critics at the time). In that story, “Rosa Alvaro, Entrante,” Mayme, a lonely salesgirl in a Chicago department store, is told by an obviously fraudulent fortuneteller that Mayme has a spirit guide, a fiery young Spanish woman named Rosa Alvaro. Mayme begins slipping in and out of Rosa’s persona and eventually confesses to a friend that she purposefully adopted it to enliven her drab life: “Oh Gwen, I love her! She’s everything I want to be. Didn’t I find her? It ain’t me. It’s what used to be me before the world buried it.”

Pearl was thrilled that she, and not Patience, was the acknowledged author. When the movie rights to “Rosa Alvaro, Entrante” were sold, she wrote to a friend, “I got word Saturday that it was sold for FIFTEEN HUNDRED DOLLARS! To the GOLDWYN FILM COMPANY. Oh my dears, can you imagine! And that is not all—the Famous Players [movie company] have written that they are ‘tremendously’ interested in my stuff and want me to submit ‘any and all’ stories to them....I can hardly believe my eyes. They tell me there is a world of future for me if I won’t get foolish.”

That Pearl wrote “Rosa Alvaro, Entrante” at all shows she had “some sense of looking at [the phenomenon] from the outside,” says Shea, the Washington University professor emeritus. “When you consider the ease with which Pearl went back and forth during the Patience Worth sessions between her own parlor talk and the Ouija board dictations, you wonder, did she ever say to herself, ‘I know it’s all me’?”

Shea believes there might have been fraud involved, some preparation on Pearl’s part by reading books and other material in the hours before the Patience Worth sessions. If true, Pearl may have felt guilt, which might have been expiated by her writing “Rosa Alvaro, Entrante.”

The film, titled ‘What Happened to Rosa,’ was well-received on its release in 1920, but nothing much more came of Pearl’s literary career. What success she had she owed to Patience. The 17th-century spinster gave Pearl’s life shape and meaning and allowed her to project herself beyond the confines of domestic womanhood to become a writer.

But she was hardly the first artist whose creativity was enhanced by channeling something outside herself—the poets Samuel Coleridge, William Blake, James Merrill and Sylvia Plath come to mind. When Pearl described receiving scenes, characters, plots and dialogue from Patience that “immediately become my real to me as personal experience,” she echoed many writers who live as fully in their writing as in their own lives.

There be nay a trick in that, as Patience would say.

Gioia Diliberto, a biographer and novelist, lives in Chicago. Douglas Smith, an illustrator for magazines, books and corporate clients, lives on Peaks Island, off Maine.


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