She is conceived in the Blue Grotto on Capri, with Carabinieri standing guard over the site. This is because her parents, traveling in royal style, are mistaken for British Royals visiting Italy incognito. So Joan Grant begins the story of her life in her memoir Far Memory.
I discovered her through her novel Winged Pharaoh which takes us vividly into a life lived in early dynastic Egypt by a girl who is trained as a dream seer in a temple of Anubis and grows to become a warrior-queen defending her country against invaders. This remains my favorite book on the practice of dreaming in ancient Egypt, though academic Egyptologists may cavil at some of its contents. It was a bestseller in its day, and the author initially kept mum about the fact that her novel, for her, was not fiction, but “far memory” of a past life in Egypt, triggered when she was allowed to handle a blue scarab. Much of the content came through in channeling sessions recorded by her then husband.
I first picked up Far Memory to clarify how Joan Grant received her knowledge of ancient Egypt, and of other lives in other cultures. I recently re-read it, for the sheer pleasure of its bouncy narrative and to follow, in closer detail, how central the author’s own practice of dreaming became to her gifts as a writer, a psychic and a time traveler.
As a young child, she remembered other lives. She dreamed of a French girl who died in Paris under the guillotine, and knew – through dreaming that experience – that “beheading does not hurt at all.” She received visitations from her deceased grandmother.
When her father took her to a subway station on a family visit to New York, she glimpsed the remains of a man who had thrown himself in front of a train. She dreamed that she met this man, and took the form of the daughter he loved to comfort him, washing him clean from blood and whiskey fog, and reattached his severed feet. She did this, not as the child Joan, but as a personality that was living as a girl born in 1906, with the knowledge of many other lives and a sense of identity that transcended any single body or life situation.
During World War I, she traveled in dreams to a battlefield, where she took on the body of a Red Cross nurse, carrying out orders to deal with casualties in one of two ways: to explain to soldiers who had just been killed that they were “safely dead”, or to encourage the wounded to return to bodies that were not yet due to die. “I had to get close, so close to the person I was trying to help that I became part of him: feeling, seeing, fearing as he did, until I could slowly instill my own faith in him.”
And she wakes from these dreams in the body of a girl who is now eleven and can’t get the adults around her, apart from the occasional servant, to take her dreams seriously. The disconnect is so great that for a time she seeks to cut herself off from her dreams. But this plan can’t prosper because dreaming is a vital part of her calling. She starts getting confirmation of things she has dreamed but could not otherwise know about. Finding a young man in uniform alone at the breakfast table, she dares to tell him the dream from which she has just awakened in which she was with a soldier named McAndrew when he was killed. She describes his regimental badge and the slang name his unit gave to their trench. The officer at the table identifies the regiment as Canadian, and after checking is able to confirm all the details of the dream, the name of the soldier who was killed, even the slang name of the trench.
She makes dream excursions, and she receives visitations. Jennie, her deceased grandmother, gives her music lessons and plays through her hands – an obscure piece that a Cambridge professor recognizes because Jennie played it for him. The sheet music no longer exists, and Joan could not know the piece in any ordinary way. “Quite extraordinary but completely evidential,” pronounces C.G.Lamb, the professor of engineering and amateur psychical researcher, giving her encouragement both to grow her clairvoyant gifts and to pursue academic studies.
Another mentor was H.G. Wells, a house guest at Seacourt, her father’s immense estate on Hayling Island. Wells urged her to write – which she had not considered – while insisting that “you must live in order to write about living”.
She dreams of places before she goes there, and of events unfolding at a distance in space or time. The night before Esmond, the lover she plans to marry, is due to return to her, she dreams he is staring at something on the floor, puzzled and angry. In the morning the news comes that he killed himself, apparently accidentally, cleaning his revolver. Later, she dreams of a kind of honeymoon with him in a beautiful environment he says is another planet, and delights in the kind of body she can enjoy here. “It was a material body, obeying a less stringent law of gravity, able to run faster, to leap higher, to swim farther under water, but still in its own place equally solid as the one I re-entered on waking.” She is startled when Esmond tells her that dream visitors aren’t especially welcome here. The residents call them ghosts, ‘earth-ghosts”.
She develops the discipline of a real dreamer. She wakes herself several times during the night in order to record her dreams. She learns to distinguish “true dreams” from “the fustian and tinsel so dear to psychoanalysis”. In “true dreams”, she travels across time and space. She is with people at a distance . She visits the future. She enters or reenters life experiences of other personalities.
In her development of “far memory” of those other lives, psychometry – the art of receiving impressions while handling a physical object – becomes increasingly important, after she first establishes that she can do it. But first and last, in the education of Joan Grant, is the dreaming. Reading her, we are reminded of just how important and just how practical this is. We urgently need many more people who can do pyschopomp work of the kind Joan narrates, helping the dead to find their way, and the best training for this is in dreaming, as I explain in my own "manual for the psychopomp" (Part III of Dreamgates) and in my Dreamer's Book of the Dead.
Until I reread Far Memory, I had forgotten what a hoot this is. If I were publishing a reprint, I would give it the subtitle A Seer in the World of Bertie Wooster. She grows up in a world of tremendous wealth and power, of houses with scores of rooms and dozens of servants. She bangs up her wrist cranking up "a borrowed Bentley". There's a below-stairs scandal when it turns out a chic and snooty French governess is a man in drag who's had his private parts "tucked up". When she is allowed to live in a London flat (with maids of course) Daddy sets up an account for her at the Berkeley Hotel so she can entertain those who invite her to dinner in equal style, and the maitre d'hotel gives her private instruction on just how to do this.
She is forever running into stately ghosts and haunts, and dreams them before she encounters them. Her parents entertain the foremost luminaries of the day, while her rich, tennis-mad father rushes through his immense fortune trying to make a definitive study and plan for the eradication of British mosquitoes after being bitten on the forehead at their island estate. Suitors buzzed around her like those south coast mosquitoes, especially after poor Esmond was removed from the scene. In 1922, one of them gave her the kind of car Bertie Wooster favored – a Minerva sport coupe – as an offering. What fun!