Q&A: Jane Stern
Connecticut's gifted roadfood-loving, emergency medicine-trained tarot pragmatist explains it all for you, from The Fool to The Tower.
This month, Ridgefield’s Roadfood guru (with former husband Michael) and Ambulance Girl of renown JANE STERN, 64, unleashes Confessions of a Tarot Reader (Globe Pequot Press; $22.95). Should you wish to contact her for a reading, call 203/438-4028 or write email@example.com.
Seems there are countless books on the subject of tarot. What made you decide to write yours?
Even though there are a bazillion books on tarot out there, every one I know of is about how to read the deck, for people who want to learn to become tarot card readers. As far as I know, there aren’t any by authors who have been tarot readers for many years on what they’ve learned from working with their clients. So this really falls under the dreaded category of “self-help”: It’s everything I’ve learned in 50 years of reading tarot professionally—the wit and wisdom of the deck.
I liked that Confessions wasn’t drenched in mystical hoo-ha.
For someone who is a tarot card reader, and from a family of readers, I’m probably the most cynical person on the face of the Earth. A few years ago, I started having discussions with a woman who, you know, channels spirits from the time of Cleopatra. And we were talking like you and I are now, and suddenly she started speaking in tongues. I just cracked up. I’d say 99 percent of the stuff people talk about with tarot is nonsense; the 1 percent I think I’ve tapped into is just good, hard advice.
What is the biggest misconception the average person has about the tarot?
That's a very interesting question.
People think the tarot will give them answers, but without their doing any work. Yes, you will find a tall, dark handsome stranger or write that best-selling book, but you can’t just sit there like a bump on a log and wait for lightning to strike. Even if the deck tells you you're going to win a Nobel Peace Prize and simultaneously become Miss America, you still have to do it. Clients may think they’re getting a free gift but they’re not—it’s a directive.
The second thing is that people kind of confuse tarot decks with Ouija boards—there are certain spooky things out there that really open the door to dark stuff that people don't necessarily want or need in their life. And tarot decks when they're read correctly, are very clean; they're not Satanic, witchy or spooky. They're almost a therapeutic way to figure out what you're trying to do in your life.
So they're metaphorical, in a sense.
Literal and metaphorical—and you have to be a good reader to figure out which is which. If you plunk down the death card—which is the classic metaphorical/literal card—people just assume that means they're going to drop dead before the session's over. It's up to the reader to figure out all the cards in the layout around that card, and all of the previous layouts, and all of the subsequent layouts, to really get an answer as to whether that card actually literally means death or it means—which it does in most cases, thank God—the end of something and the beginning of a new way of leading your life.
Confessions focuses on the heavily symbolic Major Arcana, a suit of 22 trumps within the full 78-card tarot deck. What role is played by the supporting cards?
Tremendous. There's one card, the Three of Swords, which is a really lowly card. But it is probably the central card if it comes up in a layout about extramarital affairs feeding a broken heart. If that card—which is certainly as far from a major arcana card as you can get-comes up in any layout, it helps the reader figure out what they're looking at.
Let's say the The Lovers, which is a Major Arcana card, comes up as your central card. And I'm the most boring tarot reader in the world; I've been doing the same layout for 50 years—it's called the Celtic Cross, and there are nine cards in it. So let's say the card that's in the center is The Lovers, and the one that crosses it is the Three of Swords. Right away, I'd know that we're talking about marriage or a serious relationship, and one that's comprimised: one where there's some kind of triangulation, perhaps an extramarital affair. If The Lovers had just plopped out by itself, I'd say, "Now I'm going to tell you about your love life," but I'm not really sure what I'm going to tell them. It'd be like having a play with a star but no supporting character.
There are some tarot readers who do what is called "one-card readings": It's sort of like pick a card, any card, in the deck; let's flip it over and see what that's about. To me, an analogy would be, instead of writing a sentence, let's write a verb. It's not quite enough information for me to go on.
To me it's like . . . have you seen the movie, The King's Speech? Obviously Colin Firth is great, but what would that movie be without the tutor? And what would it be without The Duke of Windsor? You can say, "Wow, what a performance," but without the supporting players there wouldn't be a story there.
You bring Carl Jung into the book. Much of your analytical discussion reminds me of what I studied in school about dream analysis.
There's a huge academic book I dragged myself through years ago about Jung and the tarot. It's a huge in depth study of the archetypes, and whatever. I try to keep this book very accessible, but it does in a way validate the fact that people who have been interested in the cards are not just kooks, but there is a serious side to this.
You talk about the cards as if they're living beings.
They are to me. I feel like when I do the reading, and I flip over the nine cards—then I gather them up and do it again—it's like peeling an onion. I turn up certain cards and it's like, "Oh, God, there she is again, what's she doing in the mix?" It's sort of like having a party and you're happy to see some of the guests, but wish some of the other ones would go away.
I assume that's because those cards are vexing, or carry baggage that's is no fun to talk about.
Yeah. Or sometimes, the worst-case scenario . . . I mean, I have no trouble figuring out bad news; it's certainly not my idea of fun to tell somebody something dreadful. And there are some clients I've had over the years who've told me "I want a reading, but I don't want to hear anything bad." What's more upsetting than a card with an ominous message is a card that comes up in a reading and you have no idea what it is. That's really frustrating because sometimes the cards go off on these weird tangents.
It goes back to your asking me about the main misconceptions people have about the tarot. I think really, the main misconception is that the reader controls the cards. I wish I did; I guess I could pretend I do. When I start a reading, I have the client tell me three things; first, "Why are you here?" The same way if you went to a shrink, you'd say, "I'm here because I'm afraid of elevators," yet the underlying problem is something else. But sometimes, no matter what you ask the cards, they go on this . . . I've had readings where they talk about somebody's brother who they haven't seen in 10 years, or a job they had 20 years ago, and I don't know what they're talking about. So there has to be a good dialog between myself and the client about, "Who is this?" and "Why are we going here?" so they can guide me.
So it really isn't a passive process for the client.
Not the way I do it, although there have been times when I have had such readings, and sometimes I do it extremely well. I read once for a shrink I was going to, who thought all tarot reading was just a crock of shit. I said, "Why don't I bring the cards in and read for you?" I really knew nothing about him because he was really very Freudian, and never told me anything about himself. I did one hand and he was so stunned that he wound up lying on his back on the floor. So sometimes it's a big challenge, but mostly it's a big pain in the ass when people won't work with me.
Most people, when they think of the tarot, think of the popular Rider-Waite deck. You talk in the book about the Bohemian Gothic deck. What’s so special about that?
The Bohemian Gothic deck is one of the most spectacularly beautiful from an aesthetic point-of-view that’s ever come around. It was produced about five years ago and was voted Deck of the Year; there are actually “Oscars” and “Emmy” awards for tarot decks. It came from Prague, in a limited first edition that you can’t buy for love or money anymore. It's a slightly dark, strange-looking deck. I still use the Rider-Waite deck when I do my readings, because it’s easier for clients to tell the scary cards from the happy, and the funny from the ominous.
Which of those cards do you find most fascinating?
Being from a family of very dramatic people—my great-grandmother’s brother was Boris Thomashefsky, a pioneer of Yiddish theater, and one of my cousins is composer-conductor Michael Tilson Thomas—I think I've inherited this kind of dramatic flair. I do tend to really like The Tower and Death, the dark and spooky cards. My clients don't like them, but I get very excited when I see them. To add a caveat, Death doesn’t necessarily mean death in the literal sense. And The Tower is kind of “the shit hits the fan” card, meaning your life will change dramatically, but not always for the worse.
The fact is that, I've had tremendous changes in my life—and I've hated every single one of them. I have yet to meet a person who's said, "Oh boy, my whole life is going to change; isn't it fabulous." We're all creatures of habit: No one wants to move; no one wants to change their marital status. So the change cards are the scariest.
Are we just creatures of habit, or are we also creatures of control? I think what scares me most about change is fear of the unknown.
We live with the illusion of control. I think it's the things that we think we're most in control of that, when they fail us, are the most devastating. You know, you go to the doctor regularly, eat well, and all of a sudden they tell you you have a heart condition. Or you think you're in a happy marriage, and guess what—you're not. Those are the things over which none of us have control. It's sad.
I think somewhere in the book, in regards to one of the last arcana cards, I write, "There would be no life without hope." If there was no hope that things would get better, or good things would ever happen, why bother? The cards can really be most effective when people are in a horrendous situation, to help show them the path. It's better to know you're on a path than you're at a dead end.
You said that you're layout is the Celtic Cross. How many deals do you do in a session?
I will probably try and do eight layouts within the hour. But I don't like to move on until I really know that people are really understanding what I said to them. And sometimes, for whatever reasons—it's usually not stupidity, but stark terror or denial—I'll say something like, "It's sunny out and 76 degrees" and they'll say, "Okay, so it's night and it's freezing." You kind of have to make sure they're hearing you, and that is not an easy thing. People hear what they want to hear, so sometimes we get very remedial. Sometimes people are so terrified, and expecting such horrendous things to come from the cards—and I'm telling them wonderful things and they absolutely cannot accept it. So, people are hard.
I think we all tend to believe that we're responsible for all the crap that's happened in our lives. And maybe we are responsible for some of it—it depends on the person and the crap. You kind of have to explain to people that it's not always their fault—it's their partner or boss or situation—and try to alleviate the feeling we all carry that we're 100 percent responsible for everything that happens in our life.
Do you have a signature as a tarot reader? Is there something that sets you apart from others who read?
Actually, yes, a number of things. The average image of the tarot reader is that weird storefront with some strange woman schlepping around in bedroom slippers. Obviously, I've had my cards read by every tarot reader in the world whether there in a storefront or an ivory tower. It would be fair to say that a lot of tarot readers are not legitimate; they're running a scam. Hopefully, people understand that I'm not.
On the other hand, I think people come to me because they know they don't have to keep coming—which sounds like I'm putting myself out of business. But there are a lot of card readers who kind of act like chiropractors; they keep bringing you back for "adjustments." People always ask me, "When should I see you again?" and I always answer, "Whenever you want to." I don't get people to come all the time. If they're in a major crisis, I certainly let them know that I'm always available for them. But I think some people really need gurus, or therapists, or any person they can come to once a week; and tell the same story to over and over and never do anything. I'm not like that. If you're going to come back 10 times and tell me the same story, and not do anything to change, I don't want to see you. This makes me a horrible businesswoman.
So, I never call a client and say, "Do you want to come in?" I don't think it's ethical. I don't read for anyone under 18; I don't do bar mitzvahs or barbecues; I'm very serious about what I do and have a good work ethic.
And how long have you been reading professionally?
Since I was 18. I'll be 65 in October.
And how much of your time is spent doing readings?
It varies, because you know, I lead three lives—wasn't there an old TV show by that title? Obviously, I'm Jane Stern the food writer; that takes up most of my time. Then, I'm Jane Stern the EMT at the Georgetown Fire Department, another job I don't get paid for. I'm really brilliant at figuring out how to do the most work possible and make the least amount of money. Tarot I've been doing the longest. I do about three readings a week; there are times when I've done three in one day and I will tell you, people don't understand how exhausting it is for the reader. I'm wrung out st the end of a session; it's total and utter concentration. I don't think I could do more than 8 readings in a week. I literally can't write or do anything after a session; I have to lie down with a towel wrapped around my head.
Ultimately, what is the greatest benefit one can gain from a reading?
If you've been through psychotherapy, as I have, you know that there are just those blessed moments when the curtains part and you go, "Now I get it. I see what I've been doing wrong," or, "I see what I should be doing." It's that wonderful moment of clarity that unfortunately, doesn't happen enough to most of us. When a reading works—and I really am very, very, very, very good at what I do; I'm probably the best reader I know of. I had somebody read for me a month ago; it was down in New Orleans, and she told me, "You're a suburban housewife, a soccer mom with four kids." [laughs] So I'm very good, and I've been lucky enough to witness the lightbulb going on over the head of my clients. That's the greatest thing. Often, I will never see the client again, but I'll hear from them down the road—people will e-mail or call me—and they'll tell me, "Everything you said was absolutely on target; I took it seriously and I made all these changes, and I'm very happy now." That's the greatest satisfaction in the world.
But you have to work for it, you really do, and from the client's point of view, you have to hear what is being said to you—take all the fear and the voices in your own head, and tell them to "hush" for awhile and listen.Q&A: Jane Stern