And in Manhattan these days, there's an army of unconventional, nonscientific healers, led by an elite set whose cell-phone caller I.D.'s are alight with the home numbers of celebrities and the very rich, who rely on them for everything from ritual healing to ghostbusting.
Fashion model turned actress Carolyn Murphy is just finishing a session with emotional healer Aleta St. James when I arrive at her Hell's Kitchen healing sanctuary. Two panting white Maltese dogs greet me at the door, where I'm instructed to remove my shoes before entering a delicately painted boudoir of an apartment. Huichol Indian masks peer down at the peach-colored rug from the peach-colored walls.
Aleta St. James is Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa's older sister. Somewhere during her life journey from merchant seaman's daughter with a psychic gift to actress to globe-trotting healer-to-the-rich-and-famous, she changed her name. In her early fifties now, she slightly resembles Victoria Principal, and pads around barefoot, toenails painted Vamp.
"There used to be sacred secret schools for this," she says. "Now people are evolving very quickly and moving into the millennium. People's stuff backs up on them, and they have to learn to deal with their emotions and not be debilitated by them. There is such a parallel between sickness and emotions."
St. James used to treat a lot of aids patients, but now her clients tend to be physically healthy members of the entertainment or fashion communities. New patients wait a month or more for a first visit. An hour costs $200 for the first visit and $150 thereafter. She also leads trips to Mexico on which clients can swim with dolphins and meditate at Mayan ruins in search of a higher plane (although she returned from her latest dolphin trip with a decidedly earthly intestinal parasite).
Her method is a combination of repressed-memory recovery, quasi-Freudian psychotherapy, touch therapy, scanning for energy blocks, and breathing exercises. In a brief exhibition session, we proceed into the healing room after she asks me a few questions about my childhood relationships with my parents. It's dark and there's a futon on the floor, a Buddha and some crystals in the walls. I lie on my stomach. With her hand on the small of my back, she asks me to mind-travel back to when I was 6 and let "Little Nina" come out. "Tell her to let go of her fear," she says. "Exhale the fear. Do you feel it leaving? Do you see the light?"
After a few minutes of deep breathing with St. James's hands on my back, she places a small object in my hand, puts headphones on my ears, and leaves the room. My brain is filled with the sound of Gloria Estefan singing "Coming Out of the Dark." I peer down and in my hand is a glass cylinder with a silver spring inside it. Silver, St. James explains later, is the color of the maternal. A white Maltese hops on my chest and licks my nose just as the song ends. It's the signal that the session is over.
"She helped me become a better person," says Carolyn Murphy, 25, who sought out St. James's services after reading about her in Allure two years ago. Although Murphy says St. James has mostly helped her work through the tensions of everyday life by getting her centered, the healer has also alleviated some physical problems. "I've had stomach ailments where I've gone in and she's placed her hands on my stomach and it's gone away. I've had sinus headaches she's cured. She's a really powerful woman. There are people put on earth to heal people, but you have to be open to it. She definitely has a gift."