Faith Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Sally Quinn, Magic, and Meaning

Tony Powell

Credit: Tony Powell


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.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • What Quinn and others who find any semblance of legitimacy describe as ” psychic “, the APA calls ” psychotic “.
    Quinn’s book will bring about the biggest run on ” garlic necklaces ” since Vlad….

  • This is pretty serious mess here. No joke. But there’s a silver lining: Maybe this RNS article will help us all to stop putting so much naïve trust in the secular national media.

    First, let’s give some credit. It takes courage to write a book in which you come clean about your religion (and what you’ve been doing with it). Also takes courage for scholar Jana Riess to offer such a down-to-earth interview with Sally Quinn. So kudos to both, for courage and honesty.

    But baby, the rest is a mess. Any apologies for those hex victims? No apologies? Oh well. This is a leading national journalist and DC insider. You been relying on this spell-casting witch and occultist, and also the biased libbie WaPo rag, to give you truthful news & views. Mm-hmm.

    (Folks, this ain’t no good. If you are currently into atheism or witchcraft, please get outta that mess ASAP. It’s rat poison on steroids. Choose Christ instead, at any cost.)

  • “But baby, the rest is a mess. Any apologies for those hex victims? No apologies? Oh well. This is a leading national journalist and DC insider. You been relying on this spell-casting witch and occultist, and also the biased libbie WaPo rag, to give you truthful news & views. Mm-hmm.”

    This. I’m totally with you in that part of your assessment, although I no longer throw around the “libbie” epithet. Just don’t care that much anymore. Plenty of crazies on the right, too.

    But then you recommend one magic for another, “Christ” instead of witchcraft. Yes, you also mention atheism. I get it. But it leaves me wondering. Are you really protesting the hexes and other occultic weirdness, or just that the hexes and weirdness weren’t done in the name of Jesus?

  • That’s a good question Danny. Some skeptics suggest that Christians (or at least those Christians that still believe in healing and miracles today), are merely trafficking in their own brand of magic and witchery. Merely trading off witchcraft for Jesus.

    So it’s important to tell people, “Magic is not miracle.” It’s a necessary explanation, and even we Christians need to hear it. I usually offer a quickie GotQuestions gig on it.

    Meanwhile, what Sally Quinn has gotten into is very real, it’s not fake. But don’t think for a moment that the You-Know-Whats won’t be collecting ALL the favors she owes them. Without Jesus’ powerful salvation, it’s a guaranteed Bad Scene someday.

  • (Folks, this ain’t no good. If you are currently into atheism or witchcraft, please get outta that mess ASAP. It’s rat poison on steroids. Choose Christ instead, at any cost.)

    Maybe, when Christians clean up their “act”.
    Inflicting abuse, blame, and shame upon the innocent in the name of their Christ while feeding a persecution complex is one poisonous act.

  • Your last paragraph was especially spot-on. The extreme measures Sally Quinn took in order to have her wants met is nothing short of disturbing. Voodoo is not a game. People who delve into this need to realize that there are debts to be paid once you let the “magicians” take over and do the dirty work for you. I’ve known the collectors to come knocking on the doors of certain people..

  • Quinn has made a number of errors in judgment. She says she lost her faith in Christianity after viewing photos of Nazi concentration camps. Yet, tragedies occur every day: children dying of brain tumors, people being killed in accidents, people being kidnapped and tottured, natural disasters, murderous regimes wiping out whole populations. We live in a fallen world, and God allows the laws of nature to play out — including the evil within the hearts of men.

    She also thinks all religions are the same. But every Christian knows that there is only one God and one true religion: Christianity. You either know and have faith in Him, or you don’t. Scripture is very clear about this.

    Another error, attributable to her upbringing, perhaps, is the juxtaposition of Christianity with the occult. The two are not compatible and occultism is an abomination to God.

    Then she writes it all off as magic, including all the acts of Jesus Christ. There is no magic in Christianity, and God condemns its practice. She denies the power of God.

    Sally Quinn needs our prayers.

  • Expecting Christians to be perfect is not reasonable since all humans are imperfect. And many who call themselves Christians do not practice the faith, or are not really Christians.

  • You mean like saying that ISIS represents all Islam ??? You have a little complex there. In the heat of passion words just escape, don’t you think ?? Calm down, breathe, recalculate.

  • “Well, to put it as bluntly as possible, we are now learning that the Queen of Camelot aka Sally Quinn is an occultist, a witch of sorts who honestly believes (according to her own new memoir) that she murdered three innocent people through the dark art of the hex: a young woman who committed suicide after flirting with Quinn’s boyfriend; a magazine editor who published an unflattering profile of her, who decades later died of cancer; a psychic who died of a cerebral hemorrhage before the end of the year after telling Quinn something she did not want to hear.”

    Enough already!! Why cater to such idiocy!!

  • You think Quinn’s beliefs are any different from yours? It’s all supernatural – just different flavors.

  • Hellfire and eternal damnation. And those Christians who aren’t True Christians© will be gnashing their teeth along with the other condemned souls. It’s in the Bible therefore it must be true. Praise the Lord and pass the Aloe Vera! Amen.

  • Actually I do have a soft spot for Aloe Vera. Works well in the SoftSoap, and also squirt some on one’s hair (whatever one has left) to wake it up a little.

  • The natural world abounds with influences that span the spectrum from good to bad, and from better to worse. Why should we assume the “supernatural” world is any different? The radical reductionism that can only see equivalence among all the world’s religions remains blind to the observable fact that some “supernatural” connections have a positive life-influence, while some others clearly don’t.

    Sally Quinn is a boring and pretentious woman. Once upon a time, people paid attention to her because she was married to the Editor of the Washington Post, and was therefore hostess of The Most Important Cocktail Parties in DC. Then when Bradlee died, people quit paying attention to her – a deprivation that her sense of self-importance couldn’t abide. Quinn’s nosedive into the occult (and her book about it) is her effort to muscle her way back into the sense of relevance she once enjoyed because of a status she no longer holds.

  • We have absolutely no basis to assume there is a supernatural world let alone one with a multitude of detailed descriptions. Why would any reasonable person accept it?

  • The idea of a hellfire where billions of good people, who just happened to have choosen the wrong religion or denomination, will burn forever in total agony is both laughable and as repugnant as the god who would approve of such punishment. What ignorance and hate on the part of the people who believe this nonsense.

  • ISIS represents exactly what is written in the Koran. Now as in Catholics who vote for pro-abortion candidates, socialist and communist candidates, there are Muslims who act kindly to infidels, not every Muslim will participate in this global Caliphate with murder and terror. HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF MUSLIMS TAKE THE KORAN LITERALLY.

  • Yet in this country imperfect Christians are rapidly gaining seats of power as well as setting about establishing public policy that suits their particular and peculiar Christian dogma. Look at Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama…etc.

  • Non believers are condemned and therefore not entitled to expect equal treatment/rights within a country established on the equality of all.
    Sectarian driven countries do not have a long and peaceful existence.

  • I don’t know what you’re referring to about those states. I do know this: There is no mandate that we be a secular society. Christians have the same rights as everyone else to run for office, and the people have the right to vote them in.

    And non-Christians are every bit as flawed and imperfect.

  • Then explain why politicians are creating special legislation protecting Christians, entitling them for special treatment under the law. Adapting policy so Christians aren’t insulted or slighted. I never said non-believers were not flawed, we all are.
    What Christianists are demanding is that we hew to their dogma when it comes to public policy. Why are non-believers forced to alter our existence to avoid offending fragile dogma when purchasing a cake, renting a venue, requesting health/medical services, or anything else that’s contrived out of the ether deemed offensive to Christianity? Why can’t non-believers be protected when they refuse service to Christians who are publicly violating their own religious ideology?

  • “Then explain why politicians are creating special legislation protecting Christians…”
    Name the cases, with links, please.

    “What Christianists are demanding is that we hew to their dogma when it comes to public policy.”
    Again, please be specific. Links are best.

    “Why can’t non-believers be protected when they refuse service to Christians who are publicly violating their own religious ideology?”
    When have nonbelievers refused service to Christians and been prosecuted for it?