By Janine Verbaro
It is surprisingly difficult to meet Kate Welker. Not because of any reluctance on her part but simply because she lives in, as she says, "the next best thing to the middle of nowhere." Freeville, NY, might charitably be called a rural suburb of Ithaca -- and Ithaca itself is not on any major highways, nor close to any major cities, nor supplied with more than a tiny one-gate airport. Of course Cornell University, and more specifically Cornell's veterinary school, can overcome quite a lot of geographic isolation.
The countryside is also gorgeous, in a bleak, wintry way.
When I spot Welker's long, dirt driveway and turn toward her house, I first pass a series of tidy barns, pastures, and dog yards that comprise the animal rehabilitation center she considers her main calling in life. "The activism is something that just happened," she says, her face and voice expressing neither enthusiasm or distaste. "The animals are something I love. They need to know someone understands them and cares about what they want. They're a lot easier than humans."
Welker's refurbished 19th century farmhouse is filled with dogs, cats, birds, and various rodents, all roaming freely on and around innumerable bookcases and a few pieces of plain, heavy furniture. There is remarkable peace among them; prey and predator seem to leave their roles aside at the door.
Welker moves through the tide of fur and feathers with absent ease, and a clear path remains open long enough for me to follow her into the kitchen. The animals behave as if an invisible fence is stretched across the open doorway, though now and then an inquisitive whiskered face peers through for a moment. "Do you like cocoa?" Welker asks, already pulling a box of Swiss Miss packets from a cupboard. "I also have some coffee left over from Kerri's last visit, if you don't mind amaretto flavor."
"You can't just tell?" I ask, before realizing that's a question she's undoubtedly heard far too many times. This is probably not the best way to start what will hopefully be a revealing conversation.
Welker simply shrugs and begins filling a kettle at her sink. "Dale could, easily. He has to work to shut people out. Eric could probably find out if he concentrated, though it gives him a headache. Kerri and I can only pick up what people actively send to us."
"Hot chocolate is fine, thank you," I say.
Within five minutes we're seated at a bare wooden table in the pale midday sun of early winter, heavy clay mugs set neatly on coasters between us. Welker telekinetically whisks over two napkins and a plate of naked gingerbread men.
"I like baking," she says, snapping off a leg and dipping it into her mug. "Decorating, not so much."
I can believe that. For all the fantastic nature of her gifts and her life story, in person Welker projects an overwhelming impression of practicality. Her light brown hair is cut ruthlessly short, she wears no makeup, her glasses are rectangular and plain, and her clothes -- jeans, boots, a faded green sweatshirt -- are clearly meant for outdoor work. Only her silver snowflake earrings give a grace note of style.
Her gingerbread is delicious. I tell her so, and she breaks her impassivity with a smile. "You can take some home if you'd like," she offers. "Payment for services rendered."
By that logic, shouldn't I have brought cookies for you?
I never say no to snickerdoodles, but I'm taking shameless advantage of your magazine to get publicity for the Institute and animal rights. All interviews are two-way transactions. Nobody would agree to them otherwise. Well. Fewer people.
Some people do love to talk about themselves. Speaking of which, I have to ask: Paramount is releasing a deluxe Blu-ray box set of The Girl with the Silver Eyes to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the declassification of the Institute of Psychic Phenomena. What--
What's my reaction? [laughs] Oh, that movie. It was awful. Beyond awful. I always heard people complain about what Hollywood does to history, and I knew that it was almost always more interesting to read a book than to watch the movie version, but seeing those lessons applied to my own life... Ouch.
It's not terrible in its own right, of course, no more than most stories. William Dear and the actors did the best they could with the scenario they were given, and the studio obviously had to change some things to keep our parents from suing. And in the long run it was probably helpful in nudging the general public toward acceptance of psychic abilities. Even so, the list of errors is unbelievable.
Your age, for one.
Yes. I was only nine when I learned about Kerri, Dale, and Eric -- almost ten, but not quite. I remember being very conscious of being almost ten. Those fine gradations matter so much more to children. But we were sixteen when the Daily News ran the exposé on the Institute, so the public was more familiar with us as teens. Aging the characters up also let them add a romance.
Between Kellie Walker -- the character based on you -- and Jared James.
His real name is Jackson Jones. He delivered newspapers to the apartment building my mother and I lived in. He was thirteen or fourteen at the time. We were friends. When Mr. C scared me into running away, Jackson let me stay at his house overnight. That's all. No kidnapping, no secret witch-hunter cult, no experiments, no daring rescues, no explosions, no kisses. I suppose a little girl looking through the phone directory and taking a few bus rides didn't seem exciting enough to Hollywood, though it was more than sufficient for me.
Given the tensions between the Curtis Pharmaceuticals quartet and the IPP over the years, what made you decide to join their board of directors in 2006?
I wouldn't say we had tensions, exactly. Certainly Mr. C [Adam Cooper, a former IPP director] bungled his initial approach, but he meant well and before the Institute went public, there was hardly any good way to approach a family and say, "Hello, I hear your child has paranormal abilities." The families would either be defensive or in denial. Either way, the Institute employee would get thrown out.
The board let us set up our extension school without much fuss, and while the Institute has run a lot of studies on their students over the years, they've never done any tests without the full informed consent of both children and guardians. After the first decade, half the researchers were former students; they wouldn't have stood for any fishy business.
I will always be grateful to Mr. C and the rest of the Institute for helping the four of us realize we weren't isolated freaks of nature, and for their work to give troubled children a safe place to learn about themselves. But I think... I would say that the Institute can sometimes have an overly narrow focus. A lot of the board members are more interested in the abilities and the science behind them -- whether the physics of how they work, or the genetics of how they occur -- than in public relations or in helping gifted children integrate into the wider world once they've figured out who they are and what they can do.
There's also a lack of focus on the world outside America. We're still changing our environment in unprecedented ways. Children swim in a sea of chemicals from conception onward: additives, preservatives, petroleum byproducts, industrial pollutants in countries without strong government regulations, etcetera ad infinitum. While some mutations produce potentially beneficial gifts, the vast majority of noticeable changes are harmful to some degree. The human body is a complicated and delicate bit of machinery, and changes to any piece often have knock-on effects in other areas.
For example, did you know Dale Casey has been legally blind since 1998?
He has some residual vision -- about the same level as David Paterson [the previous governor of New York] -- but he relies on screen readers, audiobooks, and Braille. Eric and I also have congenital degenerative myopia, though ours hasn't progressed as fast as Dale's. Look at my glasses. [hands them over] See how thick the lenses are? If they were glass instead of polycarbonate, they'd be almost an inch thick. And this is after I had Lasik surgery. We're also hypersensitive to abrupt lighting changes. [puts glasses back on]
Kerri's lucky. Her myopia is the normal kind, just an eye too long for its own lens, none of the degeneration. We think that's related to her ability to see in ultra-dim light -- something in that set of genes counteracts whatever went wrong in the rest of us.
So the silver eyes aren't just a cosmetic mutation?
No. In fact, Ty-Pan-Oromine -- the drug our mothers manufactured -- has been linked to several hundred cases of degenerative myopia among children of women who took the painkiller during their pregnancies. None of those children are telekinetic or telepathic, though. Those mutations seem to require a much higher exposure level. There was a class action suit against Curtis Pharmaceuticals about ten, twelve years ago. I got eight thousand dollars in the settlement.
That doesn't seem like much.
Multiply it by over four hundred people. It adds up. I get a tiny check every month. It helps pay the heating bill.
Speaking of bills, how do you afford to run this place? The food bills alone must be astronomical.
If you go onto Cornell campus, sneak into the observatory, and point the telescope toward my house... [laughs] Yes, they're high. That's one reason I set up the rehabilitation center as a nonprofit, and why I'm associated with the vet school. I get a lot of free labor from students who need hands-on experience or just love being around animals. The rest of the money is my salary as an Institute director and an associate Cornell professor. I usually teach two classes a semester: a seminar on the ethics of human-animal relationships and a lecture course on the social history of psychic phenomena since WWII. And I do some consulting on animal management. Have you heard of Temple Grandin?
The woman who designs humane slaughterhouses?
That's a gross oversimplification of her work, but yes. Like that, except geared more toward vets and shelters. And then, obviously, I have my blog, which I'm still trying to work out if it's making or losing money. Accounting is not my strong point. Lots of things. I keep busy.
It certainly sounds like it. When do you have time for a personal life?
Root would say I don't, but she's just as bad. She's down in the city right now, actually, with Occupy Wall Street -- I haven't seen her except on Skype for five weeks.
Root being Agata Wolitsky, your partner.
My wife. We married in August.
That must surprise people who expect you to be more like Kellie Walker.
Well, Hollywood. What can you do? To be fair, in 1992 I was dating a boy and we broke up because he moved to Seattle, not because we had incompatible sexual orientations. Root just happens to be the person I want to share the rest of my life with.
Does being a member of yet another minority group ever split your focus on animal rights and psychics?
Look. I'm bisexual. It's not a secret. My mother knows, my father knew, my friends know, my students can find out if they ask. But that's not what I've built my life around. If you want to talk about LGBT rights, talk to Root; she's on Twitter at @aggregata. She has her causes, I have mine. If we both tried to do everything, we'd burn out in a week. We love each other, we support each other, and the rest of it is nobody's damn business.
More cocoa? [The box of Swiss Miss and a full kettle float across the kitchen.]
Yes, thank you.
My neighbor Mrs. M used to say that cocoa makes it difficult to stay annoyed.
She sounds like a wise woman. Moving on to a hopefully less fraught topic, what is it like to use telekinesis?
It doesn't feel different from using my body. I move my arm, or I move a book from across the room. It's the same impulse, only one transmits through nerves and muscles and the other transmits through -- this is where you should be talking to Dale and Kerri, not to me. Dale got very into the physics of the power in high school. I think the current theory is that we somehow manipulate quantum folds in the string symmetry of the universe to release and direct fractions of the energy inherent in spacetime. Or something like that. Kerri does DNA sequencing so she can tell you more than I can about the specific mutation sites the Institute has tentatively linked to various manifestations of psychic abilities.
What about telepathy? Is it more like overhearing someone talking or reading a book?
Again, Dale is the better person to ask. He knows the science and he's a lot stronger at reading people. But I'll give you the layman's version.
What we pick up through telepathy is an electrical echo of nerve impulse patterns. Most human brains have roughly similar wiring -- we all have the same language centers and so on -- so after a while you learn which general types of pattern are associated with which types of mental activity. You can pick up that a person is thinking about food, or words, or music. But you can't tell what kind of food, or which words or song, unless you've spent a lot of time comparing a specific person's brain patterns to their actions and speech. Then it starts resolving into detailed meaning, and I do, personally, tend to interpret that as spoken words. Eric sees pictures, and Dale says it's more like feeling intentions with some margin notes for clarity.
Dale receives nerve impulses more clearly than the rest of us and is also better at interpreting the patterns. It's like having a gift for learning foreign languages. Eric is pretty good at reception, though less at interpretation. Kerri barely picks up anyone who isn't actively sending. And I'm tuned in to animals instead of humans -- or really, I should say that I tend to only pick up broad images and emotions, and animals don't clutter those patterns with all the conscious nerve chatter that humans do. I've noticed that chimpanzees, gorillas, and dolphins are harder for me to read than dogs, cats, and horses.
So it's not useful for cheating on tests?
Sorry to disappoint fans of the movie, but no. Except if you're Dale. [laughs] Or if the four of us were taking a test together. We can pass secrets back and forth like the worst gossip network you've ever imagined, as long as we're within a mile or so of each other. That used to drive Mr. C crazy when he was teaching our little extension center. We were good, mostly, but we'd all been lonely for so long that it was hard to stop talking for any reason. After the first year, the Institute switched staff around so he had a telepath as an assistant. Ms. N wasn't much good at reading neural patterns, but she could make a distortion field that scrambled anything we tried to send.
That was the first time someone was able to follow what we were doing and stop us from breaking the rules. It was good for us.
I vaguely remember that was part of the controversy around the movie's release in the early 90s -- that there was no way to control children with psychic powers, no way to keep ordinary people safe.
That old devil child scaremongering. There's some truth to that. If I wanted to, I could hold you immobile and silent with telekinesis while I shot you or slit your throat, and if Dale had gone into, say, the CIA, not even language barriers would keep him from being the world's most effective interrogator. But the point is that we wouldn't do those things, just like most highly intelligent people don't become criminal masterminds and most incredibly strong people don't beat people to death just because they physically could.
The trouble we ran into as children was mostly because we unnerved the people around us. Before the Institute went public, nobody had a scientific framework for psychic phenomena, so they tended to opt for denial or dislike. Dale was kicked out of three schools. I had a set of neighbors convinced I was a witch. Even Eric, who's the best at playing normal, didn't have any close friends our own age. Finding each other was the best thing that ever happened to us.
Given that, why did you stay in New York City instead of attending the IPP's main school in Charlottesville VA? I'd think that if finding three other psychic children was good, joining another twenty or so would be even better.
Except the school was three hundred miles away from our homes, and our parents wanted us to grow up as people instead of lab rats. Not that the Institute school was in any way bad! But it was isolating, and I think our families thought we'd been socially isolated enough already that adding physical isolation wasn't a good idea.
We did go down to Virginia for summer camps, and it was fun to meet people who were like us but in different ways, because their mutations had different causes. Eric met his first boyfriend there -- Marcus Brown, who was mildly clairvoyant. They tried to start a band when we were fourteen, but nothing much came of it, probably for the best. Can you imagine me as a rock singer? [sings] "When I'm ridin' round the world/ And I'm doin' this and I'm signing that/ And I'm tryin' to make some girl--" [laughs] Mick Jagger I'm not.
Actually, I can imagine you in a band. Maybe not hard rock, but alternative. You have a nice voice, mellow with just a little bit of a burr around the edges for character.
So, you were associated with the IPP but indirectly enough that when the Daily News was tipped off about your existence, their story only mentioned the Curtis quartet, not the main school. Why did you wait nearly two months for the IPP to go public instead of dragging them in immediately?
Partly because Mr. C asked us to buy them some time to get permission from the other students' families to out them on a national scale. Partly because we wanted to protect the others as long as we could -- it was like living under siege that first year, with reporters and photographers practically stalking us. And partly, as embarrassing as it is to admit, because we liked the attention. If you've spent your childhood being overlooked and ostracized, it's a bit like being drunk to have the world suddenly think you're fascinating and worth listening to.
I watched some of your old interviews this past week, and I have to say, the four of you don't act like most socially ostracized children that I've seen. Some of the tricks you played took a lot of chutzpah.
Most of that I blame on being sixteen. At that age, consequences don't seem to weigh much compared to the thrill of doing crazy things just to see what happens, and we egged each other on a lot. But it's also because the four of us together create a sort of feedback loop. I have to decide to use telekinesis, like I have to decide to physically pick up this mug with my hand. But when I'm with Kerri, Eric, and Dale, sometimes our subconscious impulses get out -- a person we dislike will spill his drink down his shirt, drop his groceries, tear his pants, that sort of thing -- even if we'd never consciously decide to do that.
Where are Eric VanAllsburg, Kerri Lamont, and Dale Casey these days?
Dale is with the Institute in Charlottesville, doing research on the mechanisms behind psychic phenomena. He's married with two sons. Kerri is at Washington University in St. Louis, doing DNA sequencing for the Cancer Genome Atlas project. She's divorced and her ex has custody of their daughter. Eric works at Pixar in California; last I knew, he was working on rendering fabrics for the sequel to Monsters, Inc. He and his partner have an adopted daughter. Anything else you'll have to ask them yourself.
About two years after the IPP went public, VanAllsberg, Lamont, and Casey faded out of the public eye. You're the only one who continued giving interviews. Why is that?
Bluntly, college. We went to different universities. I was the only one still in New York City, and I got invested in politics at the time -- I worked on the Dukakis campaign -- and since I was already used to dealing with the media, I did a bunch of segments for local radio and TV stations. I never really got out of the habit, though I did grow out of my political obsession.
What changed there?
The death of the Clintons' health care plan. I wanted that to pass so badly. You have to understand, it's a bit personal for me. The entire reason my mother was working for Curtis Pharmaceuticals when she got pregnant, despite their iffy reputation, was because she'd had a miscarriage and my dad's job didn't pay enough to cover their medical bills. I don't regret being born, nor being born different, but I know that strain had a lot to do with my parents' divorce. So I wanted universal health care in my mother's honor.
Because I was a minor celebrity, especially so recently after the movie, I did a bunch of media segments on the issue. One in the New York Times, one on NPR, one on FYI with Murphy Brown, lots of interviews. I believed in the Clintons' plan. And it tanked, and politics has just gotten less and less connected to reality and compromise since then. I don't have the stomach for beating my head against a brick wall anymore. I leave that to Root and stick with the Institute and my animals.
Your animals certainly seem grateful, judging by the number who've looked in the doorway.
That's not gratitude, that's a bunch of con operators looking for dinner. [laughs] Would you like to help feed them?
That's the spirit. But first, let me wrap you some gingerbread.