American Culture

Lily Dale: Getting a read on a reading

By Jared VanDyke

Part four of a five-part series

Rev. Bonnie White, spiritual artist and medium, pegged my age without asking.

“Oh,” said Bonnie. “A digital recorder. How does it work?”

With all the enthusiasm a nerd of my generation carries, I explained the workings of my recorder. I spent two minutes dissecting my device’s memory, extraction methods, sensitivity, and ease of use, all for a woman who just smiled and nodded. Her over-worked and liver-spotted hands ran over my toy’s plastic case, waiting with that ever-patient smile for me to finish yammering.

“So,” said Bonnie. “You were born with the chip, huh? Your whole generation is like that. Some days I wish I had it too.”


I walked into Bonnie’s ocean-blue cottage hoping to receive a blank reading—to give nothing away prior to her contacting my dead relatives. By a practiced art, divine intervention, and/or stupidity on my part, Bonnie established me as a digital-generation desperate stepping into the foreign realm of spirit. My long hair, patterned polo, and worn jeans probably enforced her impression, but not so surely as my tech-geek kersplosion.

I hoped for a better fortune as the reading began.

* * * * *

My experiences at Lily Dale taught me to disregard stereotypes and to investigate any oddity before laying a claim. Under those guidelines I selected Bonnie to be my medium.

Her website ( contains cheerful messages regarding the spirit, poorly explained supernatural services, and a detailed set of price tags to go with said services. Bonnie expected a $65 donation for my off-season mediumship appointment. Sacrificing my checking account would serve as my means towards spiritual enlightenment.

But why pick Bonnie of all the mediums at Lily Dale?

Each medium is put through the same certification process, where a jury of spiritual superiors evaluates a trainee’s private reading style. Information on what makes a wanna-be medium certifiable is restricted to community members only.

Bonnie carried certification like the 40 other (listed) mediums, an average donation requirement, and she offered a bonus. With each reading, Bonnie provides a spirit etching—portraying, in face or symbol, your links to the spirit world.

Might as well get a picture for ponying up so much money.

* * * * *

Why must Spiritualists cover their walls with paintings? I’m not sure why I didn’t expect a personal art gallery since Bonnie is an artistic medium, but the concentration of works made it impossible to catch the wall’s color. The paintings looked like the amorphous dreams of opium addicts—or the frames of an a-Ha music video combined into one cell.

Mirrors clustered with family pictures hung where charcoal etchings did not. Old wooden instruments and floating bookcases full of literature on dead French artists filled any other gap. Other than a large wooden dragon statue in one corner, and a collage of ceramic angels in the other, the room contained two chairs and a side table holding a dish full of charcoal chunks.

“Have a seat,” said Bonnie. “Give me your hands. I’d like to start with a prayer.”

Her wrinkled mitts twitched against my palms as we clasped. She closed her eyes and gently tossed her long, scraggly hair from her face. Her outfit of a homemade lizard-print shawl, Wal-Mart quality stretch pants, and an antique navy blouse, reminded me of a gypsy séance. Though, Bonnie needed a headband to pull the vagrant ensemble together.

“Great Spirit, all-loving God, Angels and Guides,” said Bonnie, “bless this reading with the highest and best. Amen.”

Our hands parted and she went to work. Without opening her eyes, Bonnie placed her hand into the charcoal dish. She clutched a pile of blackened bits and took to a white sheet of clipboarded etching paper on her lap. She didn’t draw with the charcoal so much as rub the jagged pieces onto the paper with a flat palm. I switched watch between her hands and eyes to make sure she drew no intentional symbols.

After 45 seconds of rubbing she opened her eyes, placed the charcoal back in the dish, and gasped in surprise.

“There’s a lot (in the portrait) to talk about,” said Bonnie. “But I’d like to share the images I’m receiving about you first.”

She went on to explain how my spirit embodiment and element is water—about how my spiritual energy is a lake with three folds of surface tension, allowing no reflection on either side. Supposedly, that means I’m harboring some massive spiritual power in my subconscious, which is represented by the lake’s depths. The tri-fold surface is protecting me, and others, from the power until it’s developed. Which is for the best, since the air quality above my spirit-lake’s surface is rich—meaning I influence the lives of many.

But who doesn’t influence the lives of many? And what else about that stretch couldn’t be attributed to any random human?

I bit my lip, nodded in polite agreement, and let her continue.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Bonnie. “It’s something even I will have to think on.”

Oh really? You’ve never told a client that they’re special and/or powerful in some way, and that they influence the lives of others? I really wish I had the extra funds to send my co-adventurer John in for his own reading. Maybe he’d get a lake of fire.

Bonnie turned to the etching with a single stick of charcoal. With little jabs and lines she started to flesh out faces among the undefined smears of black. In my patience, since she took her sweet time doctoring, I looked at the portrait as a whole.

And there it was. Upside down on the top right corner of my spiritual portrait:

An ass.

I paid $65 for a charcoal etching of my spirit guide’s ass.

Well, I assumed that the pert cheeks in my spiritual portrait belong(ed) to someone of great importance. Too shapely a bottom to be mine, but not shapely enough to be an angel’s. Couldn’t have been a demon’s butt, since I’d expect their derriere to have a tail dangling down. Maybe one of my dead relatives takes to mooning living kin through the spiritual barrier. I know I’d press a ham from beyond the grave if I could.

But, Bonnie avoided addressing the mysterious rump. Even when asked, she kept her attention on the faces poking through.

“There are a lot of people looking after you,” said Bonnie. “You’re a blessed young man.”

Going into this reading I tried to tally how many dead people I knew. I could think of three: my mother’s parents and my mentor from the old Boy Scout troop. I didn’t know my grandma at all, my grandpa suffered from dementia so I barely knew him, and I only knew my mentor through scouts—nothing more.

“Like this face here,” said Bonnie. “Look how he’s smiling and laughing. He was very animate. Did you know anybody like that?”

Who doesn’t know somebody like that? She waited patiently for me to jump in and identify the ambiguous face with a loved one—adding more detail in the gap. I caved and burned one of my three tickets, assigning the laughing man to my Boy Scout mentor. It’s true that he loved to laugh, but the face looked nothing like him. No beard, no glasses, and far too much hair. I suppose it could have been a younger form of him, but why would my spirit identify with a stage of life I’ve never seen?

“Who’s the stern man in your family,” said Bonnie.

Onto the next face already, and just as vague as ever. This face held almost no detail, and looked like someone trying to press their head through a stretched rubber sheet. I said it must be grandpa since I know no other dead men worthy of my spiritual smear.

“Is your grandmother in spirit, too?” asked Bonnie. “Because there’s a woman’s face next to him. She’s always on his mind.”

Not dead. “In spirit.”

Why would she be on his mind if they’re both in the spirit realm, contacting me through this charcoal mess at the same time? I hadn’t mentioned my grandmother’s death after suggesting my grandfather for face two. When I’m not dressed as a vagrant, I look to be late 20s, early 30s, in age. Assuming my grandparents are “in spirit” is a pretty safe route.

No more than 10 of my 30 minutes passed and Bonnie already smoked my stash of death. Of the three she identified she offered no specific details, no telling messages from the person in spirit, and no evidence that the reading equaled the $65 I wanted to save for a few bottles of victory gin.

“And this face,” said Bonnie. “This person with a big nose. I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman.”

Again, Bonnie waited for me to fill in the blank.

I wanted to give her an “F-you” in return.

I spent $65 for cryptic garbage. But the majority of my rage stemmed from my collective experience with Spiritualists, and how Bonnie’s mess of a reading reinforced the stereotypes I’d been attempting to explore and dismiss.

From big nose on, Bonnie’s predictions and messages relied on lead-in answers. She’d give a trait, wait for me to associate with it, and make a bunch of safe guesses against my reaction.

Yet, one saving grace shined among the session of sub-par guesswork.

“Who owned the little dog,” said Bonnie. “The little furry girl with a pushed-up red nose?”

She described my family’s pet down to her unique details. Liz-beth, a little Pomeranian with an upturned red nose, made it to 18-years of age before passing on. The representation of my dog in the etching looked nothing like her—or much like anything—but she gave a spot on description.

But that was it. After the dog, Bonnie said we ran out of time. Thirty minutes exactly. I paid my donation, she wrapped my etching, and I hopped in the car with John.

“Have a blessed day,” said Bonnie.

It seemed as though Bonnie’s week already received its blessed.

I managed to catch a peek of her appointment book as I went out the door. Bonnie served two customers before me, and she expected two more after. The rest of her week—and month—looked just as full.

$65 a reading, 5 or 6 customers a day, 5 days a week. Almost a six figure income for rubbing charcoal, making assumptions, and never leaving your home. Even with a slow month, half of Bonnie’s salary is twice as much as the median salary of $25,000 the surrounding towns boast.

All this business generated during the off season.

“You look like a small dog owner,” said John. “I mean, you look comfortable enough not to compensate. But who the fuck knows where she got your dog from. She’s a freak.”

I had to disagree with John, despite my bitterness. If Bonnie registered as a medium through Lily Dale’s requirements then she couldn’t have been a freak. Bonnie bore the standard for her community. Her prices are average compared with other Lily Dale mediums. Her experience level held 30+ years worth of mediumship, which most of the other mediums have as well. And, come summer, she’d be heading seminars in line with her Spiritualist brethren.

Through the readings at each church, videos by other spiritual communities, and pop-culture associations, Bonnie encompassed it all. If I paid for a spirit healing she’d have a bed of crystals waiting for me. If I wanted to define my future she’d have a stack of tarot cards ready. Whatever I wanted through the spirit she’d provided.

This is what the Spiritualists of Lily Dale stand for. Ease of spirit. A price tag to go along with any emotion you desire.

But are Spiritualists freaks for putting a value on assurance?

Scientology requires thetan-level tests for placement in their church. Catholics have reintroduced the sale of indulgences to ease sinners. Hindu and Christian doctrine calls for donating a percent of your income to the church, believing that their God will provide what’s needed.

How much do you pay for entertainment—for anything that makes yourself feel better?

$65 a week? More?

“(Mediums) are just con artists,” said John. “They take your money and tell you what you want to hear.”

The only real crime Spiritualists have committed is being so forward with their process. They ask for X-amount of dollars to contact the dead and give you advice. It’s not a mistake that many of Lily Dale’s mediums have counseling, psychology, and/or theology degrees.

But as John and I headed back home I dwelt on Bonnie’s messages. The images of the lake could be applied anyway I wanted them to—the faces could have been any person I wanted to hear from.

Problem is, I wouldn’t allow it.

I made the mistake of going into my reading expecting Bonnie to accurately identify my character. That’s not the point of mediumship. Talking to the dead isn’t even the point of mediumship. Finding answers is, and I went into my reading without a single question besides, “Is this junk real?”

Mediumship, in its essence, is real. True mediums offer solutions to problems as spiritual counselors. They don’t hold the keys to the spiritual realm so much as the keys to unlocking your mind and emotions – be it fear or happiness. The same can be said for the Spiritualist religion.

All you need to do is believe.

My second-to-last trip to Lily Dale started with hopes of either exposure or amazement. I exposed Bonnie’s reading methods as half-baked and full of self-fulfilling prophecies. Yet, there’s an amazing quality in how her predictions can still reinforce and govern a patient’s mental and emotional—and spiritual— state. The whole of Lily Dale is represented by Bonnie’s service. Monetarily or emotionally, you only receive what you put into their community.

And whatever you believe is what will serve you best.

Lily Dale residents are just trying to provide spirit made easy.


Jared VanDyke is a freelance writer and graduate of St. Bonaventure University’s Journalism and Mass Communication program. He is attending Goddard College for an MFA in Creative Writing, in June of 2010, to strengthen his preferred writing style of New Journalism.

1 reply »

  1. Too bad for his experience and what he has written! I have been on a spiritual journey after having gone thru a very difficult divorce. I am going to write s book about my experience and what I have learned! I first went to Bonnie White in 2005 and she gave me a reading and did a spiritual charcoal drawing and nailed it!!! I had a Twin Flame experience and had gone thru my divorce and she had known nothing in advance! I again went back to Bonnie in 2018 and she nailed it again with a spiritual painting that is my most prized possession!!! In that painting my family members came thru, my TWIN FLAME and other very valuable information that was confirmation for me! Those that Have crossed over to the other side know exactly what is going on here on earth. It is important to communicate with them! One must be open to that and be comforted by that. I know I need to write my book and tell my story so that the world will know!!! Many do already know but many many do not! It is so comforting to really know…As in the Bible, for those that see! Be OPEN ❤️