Memoirville

Interview: Philip Smith, author of Walking Through Walls

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

By Lisa Qiu

“A week before I hand in the book, I come across yet another folder of my father’s papers that I had not previously seen…I read a few of the messages in the folder and so far, so good. … Then I find a message to my father from one of the spirits dated 1971 telling him to “organize all his papers and material because Philip is going to write a book on you.” This is nearly thirty years before the book was ever an idea in my little brain…”

Philip Smith’s memoir, Walking Through Walls, is about his father, a Miami interior decorator-turned-psychic healer, and about his own ensuing teenage rebellion. We recently sat down and asked him a few questions—from one SMITH to another—about everything from his childhood to his writing process to his father’s genuine psychic powers.

Photo credit: Guido Apicella

Did you career as a journalist help you do research for the book?
Actually, I believe that being a painter helped me more than being a journalist. I have a funny type of memory—it’s the kind of memory that any KGB or CIA agent wished they had. When I walk into a room, I remember everything: who had a stain on their shirt, how one person’s eyes were not quite even, how the red flowers in the rug were really ugly and they should have been blue and that the refrigerator didn’t quite fit into the nook surrounding it. Fortunately or unfortunately, I also remember everything that was said to me. I have these memories forever and can usually retrieve them quicker than you can say “flash drive.” I think this is because I capture so much information visually. So recalling all these hundred of moments from my childhood was fairly easy. I would say that this was the more intuitive or emotional aspect of the research. Seeing these moments in my minds eyes helped me describe them on paper as if I was seeing something that I wanted to sketch. My mother, who I inherited these extraordinary memory brain cells from, was very helpful in verifying these flashes that I had from all moments of my family’s life.

However, being a journalist was extremely helpful in finding the information from my father’s archives that substantiated my memories. My father left behind rooms of archives and I had to find a method and an order to get through all that information and then organize it in a way that supported the narrative of our lives and his development as a healer. He was fanatical about documenting everything. Every phone call of his was noted with the person’s name, symptoms and the healing treatment he dispensed. He taped his phone calls, his lectures, his healings and his small classes. I think it is these two sides of my brain that made the book both so visual and readable.

As a journalist, I’m someone who has to look through and read everything before I make a decision. So my research becomes a kind of archaeological dig. I think this comes from being a journalist when I wrote for Interview Magazine and had to transcribe the tapes word for word. I had to get it just right even though Andy (Warhol) didn’t really care.

What were some challenges you faced in collecting all this information—did you receive any help from spirits?
The main challenge was that there is so much material—hundreds of hours of audiotapes and over five thousand pages of psychic dictation. It’s mind-numbing how much data my father generated. I don’t know if there is any other healer that has so meticulously documented their work.

Here’s the best story about my friends the spirits: I started working on the book in 2000 and handed it in toward the end of 2007. For the first several years I was very, very unhappy with the book. It just wasn’t clicking and I wasn’t doing my father and mother the justice and honor they deserved. In the last year, the book really came together and I was quite pleased. So, of course, I gave myself a little pat on the back. It was MY book, right? Since I was the person who sat down and wrote the book, who else could possibly take credit for this?

A week before I hand in the book, I come across yet another folder of my father’s papers that I had not previously seen. I thought, “Oh boy, I hope there is not some earth-shattering material in here that I left out. I don’t have time to do anymore rewrites, I need to get this in to the publisher.” I read a few of the messages in the folder and so far, so good. I had already covered this material. Then I find a message to my father from one of the spirits dated 1971 telling him to “organize all his papers and material because Philip is going to write a book on you.” This is nearly thirty years before the book was ever an idea in my little brain, which of course my father did without telling me.

As they say in all the award-winning infomercials, “But wait…there’s more.”

A few days after I read this message I saw that there was a small plastic bag with a few old cassette tapes that I had not listened to because they had no label on them and I assumed they were blank. I took them in the car with me as I was driving to the airport. I popped one in the cassette deck. It was a solid white cassette with no label. As I listened, it was a tape recording also from around 1971 of an English woman giving my father a psychic reading. Midway through the tape she asks my father, “Do you have a son?” He says yes. She says, “Oh good, because he’s going to write a book on you, it’s going to be like a documentary, so please get everything organized for him. I also see it on videotape, like a documentary.”

After reading the message and hearing the tape, I realized that I had no decision whatsoever in writing the book. It was predetermined and was going to get written one way or another. And here I thought that I was the creator but in reality I was simply the secretary. I wish I would have known all this before I started the book, I wouldn’t have sweated it so much but that’s the only way you learn and I doubt that the book would have been as good.

In your book you struggled with mental privacy when you were a teenager, but nowadays, teenagers are happy to forfeit all aspects of their private online. Sharing makes a lot of teens feel connected, but you write that it made you feel separated. How would you compare the teenage experience now to yours?
Well, there is a huge difference. My involuntary transparency was due to the fact that my father and his spirit buddies could read my mind and monitor my whereabouts. I had no choice in the matter. My father knew how, what, where, when and why I was having sex, using drugs, or being somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. It’s one thing to knowingly share this information with your friends, it’s quite another to be nailed by your father every time you did something “bad.” I guarantee you, if kids today had psychic parents who could read their minds, they wouldn’t be wasting their time showing off how bad they are on the Internet.

Has anybody your dad has helped picked up this book and contacted you? Has anyone expressed gratitude, or anger? How did the government of Haiti take it?
Yes. Numerous people who either knew my father or were healed by him have contacted me. Overall, they are extremely grateful that the book was written and that my father’s life and work was made available to a larger audience. One woman in particular had studied with my father when she was attending college. I had never met her and she showed up at a reading and told the standing-room-only-audience, incredible stories of the extraordinary healings she had witnessed. In fact, you can see a mini interview with one of my father’s students on YouTube: “My Father was a Faith Healer.”
Other students and friends of my father have expressed some regret with that they didn’t spend sufficient time with my father to learn more from him. But we all feel this way when someone leaves this planet and we didn’t treasure his or her presence. What is most interesting is the huge amount of emails that I receive from people claiming that my father is currently working with them in their healings. Even more amazing was that just last week, I received a call from someone who read the book and said, “Your father has been bugging me all morning to call you as he wants to talk to you.” She proceeded to deliver the most amazing message for the next half hour that was, without a doubt, my father still being my father.

With regard to Haiti, I have not heard from them but they have more important problems, and frankly most of the people there today are so young that they don’t remember President Maggoire. It’s like asking a thirty-year-old, “What do you think about Harry Truman as President?” Time flies.

Do you think you’re too hard on yourself when you describe your attitude during your teenage years? It seems like the kid you describe is a totally different person from the man writing the book.
I grew up under extraordinary circumstances with nothing or no one to compare or share these experiences with. I could have been a better kid but was caught between these two schizophrenic experiences of my home life and the outside world. Looking back, I could have been more understanding and appreciative of my wonderful parents rather than the brat I often was. Today, I would have enjoyed the dichotomy. Happily, I am a different person from that kid who was growing up in the Twilight Zone. I can now easily and simultaneously navigate my internal and external environment. Even my remarkable karate master of 16 years has commented that the Philip in the book is not the same Philip that he sees in the dojo. I have him to thank for that.

Recently I’ve been in bad spirits and now I have a cold and a cough that nothing seems to cure. Reading your book has given me some paranoia I’ve never had before. How do you live with it? You seemed to believe your father but it didn’t phase you—do you ever get creeped out by other people’s psychic skills?

Sorry to hear about your cold, I hope you’re getting better and better as I type these words.  I’m not sure what paranoia you are referring to. If the book has caused that, I apologize. I would hope it had the opposite effect. My father always worked for the higher good so you should not be worried about him coming to spook you. If anything, he’s around to help you. Growing up, watching people plug into the supernatural was as routine for me as kids plugging into the Internet. I do sense when people’s psychic abilities are creepy or motivated by ego and control. When this happens, I just surround myself with the white light and get the hell out of there as fast as possible.

In your book, the spirits say you will be a healer, though not in the direct way your father was. Do you think you’ve fulfilled that prophecy?
I do believe that I use a small amount of those abilities in my paintings. However, I have come nowhere near what my father was able to do. Recently, I have received numerous emails and phone calls from people with messages repeatedly stating that I haven’t even begun to fulfill this prophecy and that there is more coming. So something’s up and I do feel that he’s tapping me on the shoulder.

Why did you decide to write the book, and what’s your writing process like?
I wrote the book for myself never really thinking about that it would get published or end up in bookstores or that I would be answering questions for Memoirville. Why? I honestly don’t know. I just felt compelled to put my family’s story down. As I said above, clearly the book was meant to be and it didn’t matter what else I thought or was doing in my life, the book needed to be written. When I was working on the book I stopped painting for the first time in my life and just devoted myself to this project.

On one hand, I just wrote. It’s as simple as that. But if I think about it, my writing was a bit more like remote viewing where I would suddenly see the event in front of me watch the movie clip in my head and basically transcribe it.

And finally, what is your six-word memoir?
How about eight words? I hope to be worthy of this life.

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READ an excerpt from Walking Through Walls

BUY a copy of the book

VISIT Philip Smith’s website

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3 responses

  1. Excerpt: Walking Through Walls by Philip Smith | Memoirville says:

    [...] published memoirists, artists, and other storytellers. « The Barracuda in the Attic Interview: Philip Smith, author of Walking Through Walls [...]

  2. Lynn Kearcher says:

    Dear Philip,

    We worked together briefly at GQ Magazine when Jack Haber was the editor. You book sounds interesting. Would you trade me a copy of your book, for my recent children’s book enttiled “Man’s First Word.”? You can Google it on Amazon to take a look.

    Best wishes,

    Lynn Kearcher

  3. Following up with Philip Smith, author of Walking Through Walls | Memoirville says:

    [...] in July, we interviewed Philip Smith about his new memoir, Walking Through Walls, which explores his late father’s [...]

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