Publication Date

Fall 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Fine Arts (MFA)


English and Comparative Literature


Cathleen Miller


Automatic Writing, Biography, California Delta, Early 20th Century, Feminism, Mystic

Subject Areas

Creative writing; American studies; Spirituality


This book is about Helen van Löben Sels, an automatic writer born in the late nineteenth century, who was my great-grandmother. It explores a part of her life during which her writing was inspired by a spiritual or subconscious agency rather than by her conscious intention. I describe her childhood as an East Coast publisher’s daughter, and her career as a California ranch wife and mother to discern what might have precipitated her mediumship. By exploring cardboard boxes filled with her papers, family memoirs and other sources, I found that an inherited propensity to write, the difficulty of being heard in her female role, loneliness, and a sudden illness all probably combined to produce what some mystical teachers refer to as “purification by fire,” preparing her for the sensitivity required to channel entities. After examining how she continued to follow her calling despite its unorthodoxy, the book concludes with an appendix of brief passages she channeled through automatic writing. Automatic writing is a controversial topic, and Helen’s claims divided her family. However, there is a hot market these days for what are now called “channeled” books, and I intend for this biography to add to the cultural conversation. So that readers might draw their own conclusions about her life, spiritual development, and writing in context, I have concentrated on rebuilding the world around her, providing a slice of early twentieth-century California life.