“OUT ON A LIMB”
When a made-for-TV movie gets this much hype, I watch it out of curiosity.
Ordinarily, I would have tuned in “Murder, She Wrote,” but I can’t stand to
be ignorant on the topic of everyone else’s conversation.
For some imponderable reason, ABC-TV offered a 5-hour pulpit to Shirley
MacLaine to display her odyssey from spiritual skeptic to Aquarian “true
believer.” Atlantis, the Great Pyramid, trance mediums, astral projection,
and telepathic space aliens — we find them all in “Out on a Limb,” along
with the logic (such as it is) for their legitimacy.
MacLaine begins by telling us it was an affair with a married man which
awakened her spiritual hunger. A friend introduces her to Gerry Stamford
(played by Charles Dance), a culturally-sensitive but atheistic Socialist
with a seat in the British House of Commons. A strange magnetism draws each
to the other — indeed, MacLaine is convinced Stamford is her soul mate.
Stamford, however, is tortured and embarrassed by his duplicity and the
threat of discovery, but by meeting in Paris, Stockholm, London, and various
cities around the globe they can minimize this threat.
MacLaine soon encounters David Manning (John Heard), an “off-and-on” painter
who exudes an aura of Eastern spirituality. Manning awakens her to new
realities, all the while dropping standard New Age slogans (“I don’t believe
in accidents –everything happens just as it should”). Manning is cryptic
about his own beliefs and background, constantly remarking things like,
“When it’s time, I’ll tell you.” Yet MacLaine finds him strangely
Manning takes her to the Bodhi Tree bookstore in Los Angeles, where MacLaine
baptizes herself in literature about metaphysics, reincarnation, and New Age
philosophy. Later, MacLaine visits a psychic bookstore in London, where a
book literally drops itself into her arms, to teach her the wonders of
Shirley is hesitant to accept all this new information so quickly, hardly
sure of her own status as a manifestation of God. Yet, David is the one
person who, as her “spiritual guide,” is destined to help her progress.
During an oceanside conversation, David presses her to stand up and assert
the presence of the “God-truth” within. After suggesting several
affirmations, he selects a powerful one for Shirley: “I am God.”
Timidly, she stands at the Pacific. Stretching out her arms, she mouths the
“Say it louder.”
Shirley blusters about this statement being a little too pompous. For him to
make her chant those words is — well, it sounds so insufferably arrogant.
David’s answer cuts to the quick: “See how little you think of yourself?”
This deep insight embarrasses MacLaine into holy boldness. Intuitively, she
comes to feel he’s right. Lifting both arms to the sky, she pumps it out —
“I am God! I am God!” — as the ocean laps at her feet.
Yet, her innate divinity is somehow tied to reincarnation, and it’s hard for
her to accept. “If reincarnation is true, why isn’t it mentioned in the
Bible?” she asks.
David replies that the emperor Justinian controlled the Second Council of
Constantinople, and had reincarnation erased from the Scriptures. Justinian
was so high-handed, the Council so corrupt, that even the Pope refused to
attend, Manning says. Shirley is mute at David’s wealth of knowledge on
Most Jewish historians would be surprised to hear that a Christian council
managed to tamper with their Bible (to Christians, the Old Testament). And
in the case of the New Testament, there are texts that which predate this
sixth century council by more than two hundred years. The council,
incidentally, had no control over the retention any verses of Scripture. It
was convened to answer questions and denounce heresies relating to the
divine and human nature of Christ.
MacLaine’s feels an increasing conflict between her lover’s atheism and her
own deepening excursion into the enchanted forest. The tug of curiosity
pulls hard from Manning, her books, and new friends who introduce her to
She meets Sture Johanssen and Kevin Ryerson, two mediums who reveal
experiences from past lives (played by themselves). (Shirley MacLaine noted
on an interview with the Oprah Winfrey’s TV talk show that while Ryerson
forgot his lines, his “spirit guide” memorized all his lines perfectly for
each rehearsal.) Ryerson, it turns out, provides a metaphysical explanation
for MacLaine’s attraction to Stamford, informing her that 300,000 years ago
they were married in the fabled continent of Atlantis. In that incarnation,
Stamford was preoccupied with making cultural exchanges with
extraterrestrials, leaving no time for MacLaine, Ryerson tells her.
Oddly, MacLaine never considers the morality of breaking up a marriage in
this life, to continue a relationship which had ended several hundred
thousand years ago.
Manning eventually persuades MacLaine to accompany him to Peru, in search of
extraterrestrials and further revelations. Manning says there is a
spiritual knowledge she can only learn in Peru.
On one of the high and winding roads in Peru, Shirley and David peer down a
deep precipice. A bus and several autos lie in twisted silence at the
bottom of the crevasse, so deep that no attempt has ever been made to remove
the wreckage. The ugly remnants of freak, violent death shocks her.
She asks Manning if he can explain those deaths, if everything happens for a
purpose, and if we all create our own reality.
David is unmoved by this challenge. He explains that it was time for them
to move on to another incarnation. And before you can say, “Jack be
nimble,” we hear that these tragedies are only an illusion because the
victims are “not really dead.”
In Peru he reveals to her his secret. He is in telepathic contact with an
extraterrestrial woman he met eight years ago in Peru. She calls herself
“the Mayan” and comes from the Pleiades star system, and has chosen him as a
vessel to convey psycho-spiritual truths to one special person. Manning, in
turn, is commissioned to find this person, who will bring these truths to
the world in a book. MacLaine is the person, and what became “Out on a
Limb” is the book.
Ironically, MacLaine, who went to Peru to see flying saucers, now thinks
David is crazy. After she has several bizarre experiences, including an
out-of-body episode that takes her beyond the moon, MacLaine is soundly
The viewer who is not already predisposed to embrace space aliens or
reincarnation is left with a few nagging questions.
Although “Out on a Limb” is a propaganda piece, we would expect dialogue
with greater maturity than slogans snipped from an est (Erhard Seminars
Training) session, such as, “We all create our own reality” or “Everybody’s
got their own truth.”
I’m not so sure. Everyone may have his own OPINION, but TRUTH should be
made of sturdier stuff. The “truth” to Charles Manson is that there is no
evil and there is no death. The “truth” to Sharon Tate and our criminal
justice system is the opposite. What was true for Hitler is not true for
Nuremburg. And ultimately, one truth is justified while the other truth is
MacLaine is stretching a point in appealing to the Bible as justification
for reincarnation, trance mediumship, and self-deification. It is
intellectually dishonest to press historic monotheism into the service of
pantheistic philosophy. If MacLaine wishes to embrace the idea that we are
all God, there is no need to pretend that Judaism or Christianity support
True, the Bible is widely acknowledged as a source of spiritual truth, but
its underlying philosophy posits a vast difference between the Creator and
the creation. The omission and implicit rejection of reincarnation in the
sacred text was is not due to any ecclesiastical tampering by the Christian
church, or it would be found in the Jewish text. The Bible’s view of the
afterlife is simply opposes to theory of transmigration of the soul, just as
it prohibits people from consulting mediums. MacLaine and her New Age
counterparts should be honest enough to admit the basic incompatibility of
It is all too easy to dismiss Shirley MacLaine as spiritual eccentric, to
laugh at her vivid accounts of past-life love affairs and extraterrestrial
cultural exchanges. To do so is to underestimate the weight of her error.
These views are proliferating in our society at an alarming rate. The
distinction between opinion and truth is blurred, even as are the
distinctions between desire and reality, and between Creator and creature.
This mini-series began with the words, “Shirley reaches out for the fruit of
the tree, and goes out on a limb.” Long ago in another Garden a certain
pair of humans also reached for an alluring fruit in the promise of becoming
deity. The original sin in the Garden is neither entirely past nor easily
erased. Our desire for knowledge can be virtuous, yet such knowledge cannot
be obtained through dubious means. Denying biblical and historic truth in
favor of telepathic visions is perilous. Our hunger for God is real, and we
should accept no plastic substitutes.