Journalist Sally Quinn has been a Washington insider for half a century, with an astonishing resume of journalistic credentials, as well as a longtime marriage to Post editor Ben Bradlee of Watergate fame. All of that is a backdrop for her new memoir Finding Magic, but it’s not the main story; her evolving faith is.
The book is bound to be controversial, especially because of her revelations that she has hexed people to devastating effect (including a romantic rival who subsequently committed suicide and a journalist who got cancer after doing an unflattering and inaccurate article about Quinn). The hexes may capture the headlines, but there’s more to this book. Throughout, Quinn focuses on big questions of what religion is and what we need from it. I hope “spiritual but not religious” readers will give the book a chance. — JKR
RNS: Your childhood is a particularly beautiful and important part of the book. What was your religious experience growing up?
Quinn: For me, it was what I call embedded religion. The occultism was so much a part of my growing up and my beliefs. If you’re brought up Catholic or Jewish, you just assume that if you’re Catholic you’ll have your First Communion, or you’ll have a bar or bat mitzvah if you’re Jewish. It’s the normal assumption of the way things are. So I had this Christian family, but after I was looking at my father’s Holocaust scrapbooks when I was four years old, I lost my faith in God. What worked for me was this kind of belief in magic, really.
Whatever faith it may be, it’s all magic. I was exhilarated when I figured that out, when it became clear to me that my magic was no different—no better, no worse, and no less legitimate—than anyone else’s.
RNS: Throughout your life you’ve had a number of deep spiritual experiences with what we would consider to be psychic phenomena, from visitations from the dead to telepathy. Can you describe some of that for people who may feel skeptical about those experiences? And how open have you been about that until writing this book?
Quinn: I haven’t been that open about it, because I thought people would think I was crazy. Some of them will still think I’m crazy. My close friends all know, and I write in the book that they all call me witchy, giving me voodoo dolls and astrology presents and things. My close friends know it’s just part of who I am.
As a “serious” journalist, I’ve not talked about this before. I’ve certainly never written about it. But the fact is that I think everyone has psychic abilities. And I don’t have it all the time. When I do have it, it’s like an antenna just shoots up and starts quivering. Almost everyone has some story of “I was driving along and all of a sudden I had a really bad feeling that something bad was happening, so I made a phone call and it turned out to be really true.”
But 150 years ago, people would have died laughing if you had told them about radio or television or the Internet. No one would possibly have believed that. How is it that you and I are talking on these little cell phones, and you can call me and not get somebody else in the world.
RNS: What stories are you worried about telling for the first time?
Quinn: The one that was worrisome for me, and also for my editor and some of my friends, was about the hexes. When I write about the hexes, one of the things I had forgotten, and didn’t add until after the galleys, was Ben’s reaction. He didn’t believe any of it, and thought it was very funny. Also Barry Goldwater, who was my parents’ friend. Barry and Daddy would say to Ben, “Look out! Don’t cross these Quinn girls.” If Ben would get mad at somebody, he would laugh and say, “Go get em, Sal.” But he thought it was all completely ridiculous, which makes it more acceptable to people who are skeptical about it.
As I point out in the book, I have no idea whether I had any effect on events at all, but it was just part of my upbringing, my embedded religion.
RNS: As someone who has lived through half a century of change in Washington, and particularly within GOP, what is different now?
Quinn: This administration is totally different from anything I’ve ever seen before. In any other administration, whether it was Democrats or Republicans, people respected the office of the presidency, and even though they disagreed with each other, they still had some respect for the process, for each other, and for the institution. They had values and ethics and morals, and they had respect for the truth. That is missing now.
When I first started in Washington, before I ever went to the Post, I would go to dinners all the time where there would be Republicans and Democrats together and they would be having dinner as great friends. They would argue on the floor of the Senate and the House, and have disagreements, but at 5:00 they would meet each other in their offices and pull out the bourbon. Certainly at dinner parties they would be sitting next to each other and enjoying each other. But that doesn’t exist anymore.
RNS: One theme in the book that I found particularly beautiful is that you have a lot of rumination about the “stuff” of religion, the material culture—the things that you hold, the talismans you carry, and even the house that you bought. I had no idea until I read this book that you bought Grey Gardens! What it is about these tangible objects with a history that makes them resonate for you religiously?
Quinn: I don’t know how to answer that. All I know is that I’m sitting here looking at my evil eye bracelet, and I’ve got Ganesh right next to me, and my chains around my neck. I feel protected. There are so many people who wear crosses or St. Christopher medals. My father carried a Buffalo nickel. It’s something that you can’t explain, but it has to be based on faith, which is part of the mystery, magic, and meaning, the three sections of my book.
All of these sayings and these rituals and charms and talismans are about faith; it’s all about magic. I don’t know why I feel protected, but I do. And each one of these things has a lot of meaning for me.
RNS: In the final sections of the book, what is it about the experience of caretaking for your husband before his death that made you more open to these ultimate questions of meaning?
Quinn: I also had those experiences with [my son] Quinn, and he’s 35 now and still has medical problems. My mother’s stroke, my father’s death, and then her death. And then finally Ben. I found that I felt incredibly fulfilled in my life in a way I never had by anything else taking care of Quinn and Ben, and all of them. It gave my life meaning, and that’s the whole point. I care a lot about my profession and my writing and my friends, but it’s taking care of people that has given me a sense of fulfillment and was really for me a spiritual experience.