Close encounters of the spiritualist kind

Far from being frightening, a session with a spiritualist medium can provide reassurance and supportive advice from familiar people who are no longer alive. Writer Kate Wilkinson sits in as believer Daphne receives counsel from beyond the grave.

Words by Kate Wilkinson and photography by Thomas S G Farnetti

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Photograph of Bexleyheath Christian Spiritualist Church at night. The two storey building is set in a residential street, detached but sandwiched between other residential buildings. The second storey shows a brightly lit window with a cross shaped light showing in the window.  To the right of the building are two cars.
Bexleyheath Christian Spiritualist Church, Thomas S G Farnetti. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

The Christian Spiritualist Church is a hut-like building tucked behind a small high street on the outskirts of a suburban commuter town, next to a flooring company and a bed shop. The windows are double-glazed rather than stained glass, but it has other features in common with a regular church: chairs set out for a congregation, an altar-like area, flowers, shiny embossed tablecloths, lots of trinkets.

Unlike many churches, it is sweet and comfortable rather than austere. The walls are painted pastel shades of yellow, lilac and blue. The fittings give the impression of both a chapel and a beauty parlour. Apart from the hand-painted clouds on the ceiling, there’s little to indicate that we’re about to connect with spirits of the dead.

In the altar area there’s a large brown faux-leather armchair and this is the seat Daphne takes – she’s here for a private reading. I sit down behind her on a front-row chair where a pen and a notepad are already waiting for me.

“I encourage friends to come and take notes,” the medium, Amy, says to me. “It’s so easy to forget what’s said.”

Care and support from the dead

Daphne grew up in the Netherlands and moved to the UK in her early twenties. Now in her 50s, she runs parenting courses and leads a family support agency. She has a husky voice and speaks English with just a hint of an accent, has straight reddish-brown hair, and wears glasses with dark blue frames that make her look both intelligent and fun.

Her first spiritualist experience was a 30-minute private reading with a medium who’d been recommended through a friend of a friend. Daphne was 32 and her husband had just died. Encouraged to bring a photo of the person she wanted to connect with, Daphne brought a photo of him.

Everything the medium said felt recognisable and “struck a chord”. As well as some pertinent insights about her late husband, the overriding message Daphne remembers receiving was, “I will always look out for you and the boys.” Their two sons were five and not yet one when their father died.

A few years later, as she was reading the newspaper one morning, Daphne saw her husband walking past the window the way he often used to, on the way to the garage, which doubled up as an office. Daphne found the experience “beautiful”; it confirmed that he was looking out for her, as he said he would.

It must have been powerful to feel that someone was there, I suggest. “Not just someone was there,” Daphne counters, “but to me it’s the continuation, that’s the lovely thing. I feel very strongly that we don’t just stop when the body dies; I just have that innate feeling. To have a confirmation of that.”

Since her first reading, Daphne has attended a spiritualist church on and off, but also counts a number of other spiritual experiences in her life. These have involved not only her late husband, but also her mother, who died in 2015, a close friend whose sudden death deeply affected her, and her father, who died when she was eight (like Daphne, her mother was in her 30s when her husband died).

Speaking through Spirit

During the hour-long session, Amy closes her eyes in concentration and breathes audibly in the pauses between each message, but otherwise there’s nothing particularly dramatic or affected in her speech or body language. On her armchair, Daphne doesn’t give much back, occasionally saying “mmm” in an assenting way.

Amy likes to stand while connecting to ‘Spirit’. She’s not just clairvoyant – she’s also clairsentient and clairaudient, so pacing and moving can help her to connect more physically with the other side. Amy had explained that she says everything she hears literally as it comes, so sometimes the meaning might not be clear at first: it might be symbolic or resonate more strongly after some time. I write down as much as I can.

On this occasion, none of the people who come through from Spirit are particularly close relatives or friends. One Daphne recognises as her godmother, another is more of a guide-like figure. A lot of the messages are advisory in tone and cover a mix of both philosophical statements – “Don’t worry about new doorways” – and more practical, everyday advice – “You could do with a massage”. An overall theme emerges; Spirit seems to be telling Daphne to focus on pleasing herself, not other people at this time.

I feel very strongly that we don’t just stop when the body dies.

Earlier this year Daphne decided to end a 17-year relationship that had become draining, controlling even. The break-up was traumatic, to the point of putting her in danger, but now she’s excited about the future. The decision had weighed heavily on her mind, so hearing these messages from Spirit feels like “a seal of approval”.

After the reading, in a pizza place around the corner from the church, Daphne pores over my bullet-pointed notes:

  • You could fit into lots of different places.
  • You couldn’t be pigeon-holed.
  • You could do consultancy or freelance work because of your experience and ability to be flexible.

All these points ring true to Daphne’s sense of herself and career, and for the past year or so she’s been thinking about working freelance. She even brought the matter up in conversation with her manager earlier that day, she tells me.

  • It’s no accident that certain things have happened. You were already thinking about a life audit.
  • This year is not about pleasing others. Sometimes you have to put yourself first.
  • Reconnect with hobbies.

“Completely spot on,” Daphne says of these points, “because I completely put myself in the background and I allowed the other person to dominate. And absolutely the stuff that’s been happening – I need to find out what Daph enjoys again.”

The practical uses of spiritualism

In an interview discussing her novel ‘Beyond Black’, Hilary Mantel says that asking whether spiritualism is ‘true’ or not is like asking whether psychotherapy is ‘true’ or not: it’s not the right question. “The question is: is it useful? Is it exploitative? Is it manipulative? And what are people’s motives for engaging in it?” Mantel says.

To Daphne, the question of exploitation feels irrelevant; attending a spiritualist church is a choice, and it fits in with a belief system that she already felt close to.

In terms of its uses, spiritualism allows Daphne to connect with the numerous people she’s lost in her life. There’s also the therapeutic element, like in the reading I attended, where messages from Spirit provided a more detached perspective on her situation and supported her to be assertive. It felt like sitting in on a psychotherapy session, but one where it’s the other person doing most of the talking. Daphne says, “I think this whole thing is enabling you to connect with your gut feeling.” 

Another appeal of spiritualism is the way it comes to people where they are, with supportive messages that range from the lofty to the banal. Unlike many spiritual belief systems, there’s an interest in small material comforts and practical self-improvement alongside the more profound or emotional messages. Being a medium is just one way Amy dispenses practical advice; she also delivers first-aid training.

This mix of small and big advice is also familiar to Daphne and the world in which she operates. In her job, she works with families in crisis, children under protection plans and parents who are struggling to cope. It’s a role she excels in, but she’s humble about her people skills, and her ability to know how to help someone. She describes times at work where she’s said something and felt the presence of her lost loved ones: “I’ve had those moments and I’ve thought where did that wisdom come from? That’s not me!”

About the contributors

Photograph of Kate Wilkinson

Kate Wilkinson

@KAWilko on Twitter

Kate is a Digital Editor for Wellcome Collection. When not submerged in a book, she can be found walking or practising Spanish. Sometimes both at once.

Photograph of Thomas S G Farnetti

Thomas S G Farnetti


Thomas is a London-based photographer working for Wellcome. He thrives when collaborating on projects and visual stories. He hails from Italy via the North-east of England.