KIRSTEN VAN GELDER and FRANK CHESLEY
Wheaton: Quest, 2015. 352 pp., paper, $24.95.
This lively biography of Dora van Gelder, clairvoyant, healer, and late president of the Theosophical Society in America, arose from an unusual collaboration. Its core is drawn from taped interviews of Dora by journalist Frank Chesley. Unfortunately, Chesley died before he could finish the manuscript. Kirsten Van Gelder, wife of Dora’s nephew, continued interviewing. She also drew on papers of Dora’s husband Fritz Kunz and on interviews with her coworkers to complete this work.
Dora Van Gelder was born in 1904, in Java, then in the Dutch East Indies, to a family of sugar planters. Even in her childhood she had natural clairvoyant abilities and was able to see nature spirits in the garden and woods around the house. These abilities were taken seriously at home, as her grandmother and mother had similar ones. And because the belief in nature spirits is widespread in Java — an island with a mixture of Chinese, Hindu, and Muslim cultures — people working on the plantation did not find the ability strange either. Her mother taught her meditation techniques at an early age and encouraged daily meditation practice.
Dora’s parents were leaders in the Theosophical Society and were in active contact with Theosophists living in Asia, especially India, and Australia. With the outbreak of the First World War, C.W. Leadbeater, a close coworker with Annie Besant at the Adyar headquarters of the TS, decided to stay in Australia, where he had been visiting, and open a small school to train boys both in academic studies and in spiritual abilities. Leadbeater was also a clairvoyant, and he was interested in having Dora among his eight students — the only girl. She went to Australia at the age of twelve and never lived extensively in Java again. In fact, her parents moved to Australia.
During the First World War and again during the 1930s, there were efforts to develop Theosophical communities based on common work, sharing of revenue, and common study. Dora’s parents were leaders of such a community, and Theosophists from different countries would spend time at the Manor, as the Australian community was called.
Thus she met Fritz Kunz, an American educator who had also been a student of Leadbeater’s and was working at Adyar. Despite a sixteen-year difference in age, young Dora married Fritz. He encouraged her to go with him to the U.S., where he became a popular speaker at Theosophical centers. For many years Dora devoted her life to helping him in his educational activities and raising their son, John.
In 1940, Fritz founded the journal Main Currents in Modern Thought, devoted to the concept of integrated education — a way in which science and spirituality could cooperate and share the results of their collaboration in schools and universities. Through Main Currents Dora met a good number of leading educators, but she did not speak often of her clairvoyant abilities, except to a small circle of friends.
With Fritz’s death in 1972, Main Currents ended publication and Dora could focus on her own interests. Her clairvoyant abilities had already been investigated by Shafica Karagulla, a British-trained professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York, for Karagulla’s book Breakthrough to Creativity (1967), but Dora’s name was only given as “DVK.”
Once Dora could act on her own, she and Karagulla teamed up to write The Chakras and the Human Energy Fields. Long before, Leadbeater had written books along these lines called The Chakras and Man Visible and Invisible, and Dora knew of his work from her years of training with him. Leadbeater had clairvoyant abilities, but he also had a strong imagination. He was not interested in a scientific approach, and a reader of his books cannot make a distinction between what he saw and what he imagined. Thus Dora had to start over in the study of subtle energies, but she would do so in the spirit of Main Currents rather than of “CWL,” as she called Leadbeater.
The analysis of the nature of the chakras and the alignment of their harmonious flow of energies led naturally to work with healing. With Dolores Krieger, a professor of nursing at New York University, Dora developed a technique of healing based on the universal energy as a way of to restoring order and wholeness within the patient. This marked the development of what is now known as Therapeutic Touch. Therapeutic Touch is increasingly taught to nurses and other health professionals and is widely used well beyond the TS membership.
From 1975 to 1987, Dora was president of the Theosophical Society in America and lived much of the time at its Wheaton headquarters. She had known many of the members of the second generation of the TS — Leadbeater, Annie Besant, Rukmini Devi Arundale, Krishnamurti — and so served as a kind of living memory of the organization and its activities. She published The Real World of Fairies based on her earlier clairvoyant observations. She also remained interested in the educational ideas exemplified by Main Currents. Still, her keenest interest was in the healing process. After leaving the presidency of the TS, she lived in Seattle, near her son and other relatives. She died in 1999 at age ninety-five.
René Wadlow is president of the Association of World Citizens and a representative to the United Nations, Geneva, on its behalf. With a long interest in education in Africa and Asia, he collaborated with Fritz Kunz and his journal Main Currents in Modern Thought.