'The Vanishers': Psychics Gone Wild

An interview with Believer editor Heidi Julavits about her new novel



In The Vanishers—a new novel by Believer editor Heidi Julavits—trouble starts for Julia Severn when she takes a job working as a research assistant for a powerful professor at the college where she is enrolled as a student. This isn't just any college: Julia's studying at an academy for psychics. And her professor is going into trances to try to find the lost films of a notorious artist and pornographer named Dominique Varga. When her professor's trances turn out to be mere naps, Julia submits her own notes in hopes of saving the professor's contract and her own job. But when she's discovered, her professor attacks her with psychic powers, leaving Julia unemployable and the victim of a range of undiagnosable illness. That is, until she's hired by rival academics who are also seeking Varga, and have become convinced that Julia's the way for them to do it. The journey that follows plunges Julia into a surreal world where organizations help suicidal people disappear, an art movement encourages participants to turn themselves into look-alikes of the dead, and Julia's mother, who committed suicide in Julia's infancy, just might be the key to understanding where Dominique Varga disappeared to.

We spoke to Julavits about the role of the mind in illness and the history of female hysteria, the ways book marketing has become a more artistic endeavor, and why we're so eager to give up our own identities.

The Vanishers starts out with rivalrous psychics and ends with high-art pornographers. I have to ask: Where did the idea for the novel come from?

I think it all started with just the psychic attacks. That was the foundational inspiration onto which I was able to stack spas and pornography and everything else. That came about because I found a book by Dion Fortune, who was an occultist back in the 1930s. She wrote occult novels and also what could be seen as psychic self-help. She wrote this book called Psychic Self Defense, so I ordered it...I knew a bunch of people who are close to me had over the past few years been diagnosed with illnesses that, even after they'd been to every conceivable doctor, nothing could be located, no culprit could be fingered for the cause of their malaise. Then there was this interesting shift in public perception. People felt really bad for them, and when nothing could be found, there was this shift to "It must be in their head, they must be depressed." When I encountered the idea of psychic attack, I thought, "This is such an interesting paradigm shift. What if we were in a world where this was a valid diagnosis?"

I would get a migraine and think, "Who out there hates me?" I think there's a lot of self-blame when we get sick...There's something nice when you're feeling terrible to outsource that blame to someone else...It's not such a leap, either. People make other people sick. They give other people colds. This was taking that logic and applying it to a telepathically communicated illness....though I explore that as a very literal phenomenon in the book, I was very much thinking of its real world, more metaphoric applications in the book and the way we talk about other people: "Oh, she's toxic." "She makes me sick."

Did you read the big New York Times Magazine story about the girls in Le Roy, New York who are experiencing inexplicable illnesses?

I'm so fascinated by it that I'm trying not to be fascinated by it. Especially since my last book, too, was about female hysteria and the contagious element in that. I'm obviously deeply, deeply fascinated by that. And I'm scared that I'll get so fascinated that I'll want to write another book.

Well, there's obviously a long history of these outbreaks.

[If it were an earlier era] they might be treated very differently, i.e. tied to a stake and set on fire... This form of contagious hysteria, I guess you could see it in a negative way, as women contaminating each other. It's some sort of negative share. But I frequently see it as this kind of communing. It's almost like an army of levels. They are together expressing what is inexpressible about their lives. I almost see it as a form of supportive sisterhood, to put the most positive spin on it.

Speaking of sympathy and identification with each other, a lot of the women in your novel seem to be trying to become each other, whether they're usurping each other's professional roles or literally having surgery to look like each other.

The kind of identity absorption in my novel, it's there are these very unusual women, and you want to become them because they're so not like these other women...It's the difference between idolizing somebody's power, wanting to have somebody's power versus wanting to fit in.

Faces fascinate me no end these days. I think one of the reasons is I'm of the age where my face is really starting to change. You get a face when you're 18 and it's your face until you're 38 or 40. And suddenly I feel like I have a different face. I had never felt very attached to my face for the last couple of decades. It felt like it was the wrong face for the person I was. And now it's as if my insides have had an effect on my physical appearance...I almost feel like I underwent some sort of plastic surgery via my own personality, that somehow my inner self is now more imprinted on my outer self. Which I guess is the best way to describe being 43.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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