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Interview with a Witch:
Noe Valley Psychotherapist Deborah Cooper Tells How She Believes in Magic
By Marian Wilde
Deborah Cooper, 47, has been a practicing psychotherapist for 20 years. For the past 10, she has maintained an office on 24th Street. Yet this dedicated Noe Valley professional has a side that few of her clients are aware of: Deborah Cooper is a witch.
In San Francisco, a city that celebrates its diversity, being a witch is not that unusual. But Cooper is a witch with credentials.
Last year, she was featured in Modern Pagans, a compendium of interviews with the leading lights in American and British paganism and witchcraft. In 1997, she contributed to The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, by Starhawk, M. Macha Nightmare, and the Reclaiming Collective -- a group of "witches" committed to earth-based spirituality and healing. Her contribution to the book, a script that guides people on an imaginary journey to the mythic Celtic Isle of Apples, has been recited at Reclaiming's popular ritual the Spiral Dance.
Cooper's connection with Starhawk, who is one of the best-known names in witchcraft today, goes back to their graduate student days at Antioch College (where Cooper earned her master's degree in psychology).
As Cooper recounts in Modern Pagans, "Starhawk was there, and Reclaiming was starting. I attended meetings, a Spiral Dance, demonstrations, and fell in with a mad crowd. I started to create magic and mischief, and I joined a coven with people who are still my friends."
Today, Cooper is a member of a Bay Area coven, a group of mostly women that meets to celebrate the "turning of the wheel of the year," the solstices and equinoxes, and the festivals of Beltane [May Day] and Samhain [Halloween].
With Samhain (pronounced "sow-en") fast approaching, Cooper agreed to sit down and talk with a curious reporter about her spiritual tradition and practices. As we basked in the restful atmosphere of her sunlit psychotherapy office, with its shelves of neatly organized toys, a number of questions bubbled to the surface.
Q: You sometimes call yourself a witch, but at other times a shaman or pagan. Is that because of the misconceptions some people have about witches?
Cooper: So many people think witches are the archetype of the Wicked Witch, that we're up to no good. Because of the witch burnings, we're associated with evil and with the devil. But it's just not true. Modern scholars know that the women who were burned during the witch burnings [from the 15th up to the early 18th century] were actually healers, herbalists, and midwives. It's easier if I just say I am in the shamanic tradition. In fact, the European shamanic tradition is witchcraft. Shamans are healers who work with natural forces and spirit. Pagans are people who worship nature and see the earth as alive and sacred.
Q: Do witches have a creed of some sort?
Cooper: We have the Reclaiming Principles of Unity. These principles state our belief that "...the Earth is alive, and all of life is sacred and interconnected. We see the Goddess as immanent in the Earth's cycles of birth, growth, death, decay, and regeneration."
Q: What are today's witches like?
Cooper: Witches are a lot like eco-psychologists, a new field that looks at how the environment affects people. In the stories I hear of people's lives, I pay attention to the healing components of nature. Was there a place they went to that was healing? Where do they go to heal? Also, what kind of environment do they live in?
Q: Witches celebrate the earth and the seasons. What specifically do you do?
Cooper: At Samhain, I'll make an altar with all my ancestors and beloved dead. At the solstices, I go out to the beach and acknowledge the solstice. I do daily practices of grounding and feeling connected to the earth. In the '80s, my coven, Matrix, was very active in the anti-nuclear movement.... Starhawk and I went to jail for civil disobedience.
Q: Is a coven supposed to be 13 women, as I've heard?
Cooper: No, the number 13 has always been a big witchy number because there are 13 moons in a year. And two of my covens had men in them. There are more and more men getting involved in the craft. I think it's appealing to environmental types.
Q: Is there a prescribed form to your rituals?
Cooper: No, in the Reclaiming tradition it's so eclectic and innovative and creative. Usually when you do a ritual, you invite in the elements. How it happens can change, but the elements are always invited in and honored. It could be done formally, or I've seen someone just get up and flick a lighter [to invoke fire]. Witches in my tradition tend to use a lot of humor. We promote the imagination and spontaneity. We're very playful.
With my coven, we do a check-in, then we might cast a circle and make a sacred space, but then anything can happen in sacred space. In my women's coven, we often did beauty night. We did each other's nails, we did herbal facials, clay masks. No men were in that coven, but I think they wanted to be!
We also used to go out occasionally on the full moon and walk the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral. But sometimes we'd just sit around and make food together and light a candle for someone who was sick or wasn't there.
Q: You've told me you don't use "magic" in your psychotherapy practice, that you don't want your clients to get the wrong idea. But what does magic mean to you?
Cooper: My definition of magic is the art of changing consciousness at will, and that, in a way, makes therapy itself a magical endeavor. A lot of what I do is working on making conscious what is unconscious, and on changing thought patterns, which has its own kind of magic.
For instance, a spell is a ritual that you mindfully engage in to help change your external life. It's like prayer. Prayer is magic. As witches, we don't call it prayer, but we do light a candle and we invoke. We ask for help! This goes along with being a therapist. I think that we can be helped to get better, to be transformed, but we have to ask. When people call a therapist, they are asking for change to occur.
Q: So does being a witch help you in your practice?
Cooper: My spirituality informs my work, as it would anyone.... I'm not a monotheistic thinker. Monotheism is belief in one deity, in one God. As a witch, I believe in so many different energies, spirits, and deities that I don't have "one-way" thinking. A client comes in and I try to go at it with an open mind about what's going to be reparative for that particular person. We're all so different and we all have such different belief systems. It's actually made me really comfortable working with people from other spiritual traditions.
Q: How does being a witch help you in your everyday life?
Cooper: Gosh, how does it not help me? It's such a deep feeling of connection to this planet. And to believe in magic is really important now that things are so hard in this world, to actually have a belief that we can change things. And as a witch, I believe in miracles and magic.
Cooper and members of Reclaiming will be presenting their fourth annual "Dinner with the Dead, A Samhain Feast," on Friday, Nov. 1, at 225 Potrero Avenue near 16th Street. Doors open at 6 p.m., and the public is invited. Cooper asks that attendees "bring a potluck dish that your ancestors would enjoy and lots of energy for toasting and revelry. And dress for dinner! This is the time we tell stories of those who have gone before."