The Sexologist’s Secret

Still from the movie "Ghost," with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze (1990).

My favorite English professor told us that the more intense a tragedy was, the closer it skewed to farce. “Take King Lear on the heath,” he’d say. “Give it just one tiny push, and he’s a senile old man, shouting nonsense from a stage. Ridiculous.” Probably he was thinking of Martin Esslin and the Theater of the Absurd, but over the years I’ve come to believe that he’d hit on a fundamental truth about the human condition.

Take sex, for example: On the one hand, it’s the transcendent union of two bodies and souls, sanctified and sanctioned by the holy sacrament of marriage, with the miracle of conception a real possibility. On the other, it’s the beast with two backs. Or take religion, if you can bear it, which inspires the best in humanity—cathedrals, the poetry of Rumi, Bach chorales—and the worst extremes of ignorance and violence.

In Heaven’s Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr and Madwoman, Leigh Eric Schmidt gives us a story of high tragedy and heart-breaking ridiculousness, set at the crossroads of religion and sexuality in late Victorian America. Born in 1857 in Philadelphia and raised in comfortable circumstances by her widowed mother, Craddock was a precocious student—by the time she finished high school she had a working knowledge of Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian. She hoped to become the University of Pennsylvania’s first female matriculant, but after passing its entrance exams with flying colors—“four days of written examinations on ancient and modern geography, mathematics, English grammar and composition, Latin grammar and hexameter verse, and Greek grammar and prose composition … followed by a fifth day for an oral examination on Cicero’s orations and Horace’s odes”—she was rejected by the board of trustees three times, even after Susan B. Anthony took up her cause. Instead of the important academic career she’d dreamed of, she taught stenography at Girard College, a charity school for orphans. (She would publish two textbooks on the subject, Primary Phonography: An Introduction to Isaac Pitman’s System of Phonetic Shorthand and Intermediate or Full Phonography.)

But neither shorthand nor Philadelphia could hold her for long. Craddock swiftly jettisoned her mother’s genteel Methodism and embraced the whole gamut of spiritual and intellectual possibilities available in the closing decades of the nineteenth century—freethought, New Thought, spiritualism, Theosophy, and yoga. She served as secretary of the radical American Secular Union for several years; she produced a vast amount of research on ancient phallic worship and the sexual roots of religion; and—an act of incredible boldness for an unmarried woman—she took up the cause of marital reform, lecturing, selling pamphlets, and providing private counseling to couples. An ardent advocate of Alice Stockham’s Karezza method and the coitus reservatus practiced at the Oneida Colony, she taught that the act of sexual congress should last for at least an hour and result in a full orgasm for a woman (but not necessarily ejaculation for her male partner). Physical and emotional pleasure were ways to bring God into one’s life, she advised. She counseled couples to “think and talk during the nude embrace … of good books, pictures, statuary, music, sermons, plans for benefiting other people, noble deeds, spiritual aspirations.”


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As ahead of her time as she was in some ways, she was very much a Victorian in others—Craddock regarded homosexuality as a perversion and deplored masturbation of any kind, which by her definition included manual and/or lingual stimulation of the genitals. “There is but one lawful finger of love,” she wrote, “the erectile organ of the male.” She discouraged clitoral contact as well, instructing couples that that organ should be “saluted, at most, in passing, and afterwards ignored as far as possible.” Not surprisingly, many of her male clients hit on her. “There are times,” she wearily confided in her case notes, “when I think maleness in men is something diabolical and loathsome.” In other ways, she sounded altogether modern:

Just as long as wives remain, by reason of their wifehood, economically dependent upon their husbands, just as long as they are willing to fill, at one and the same time, the various positions of cook, chambermaid, seamstress, laundress, housekeeper, child’s nurse, governess and concubine, with no salary for their exhausting labors and remuneration beyond their board and clothing—and often not that: Just so long will marriage mean for the average wife sexual slavery and thankless household drudgery.

Craddock’s mother attempted to have her forcibly committed to an asylum on several occasions; worse still, her lecture on the benefits of belly dancing, which had been introduced to America at the Chicago World’s Fair, brought her to the attention of Anthony Comstock of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Constantly harassed by the authorities, Craddock moved frequently, making a precarious living as a secretary while pursuing her research and counseling on the side. She lived in San Francisco, Denver, and Chicago (where she started her Church of Yoga—and where her books were seized and burned after Clarence Darrow negotiated a plea bargain that kept her out of jail). She moved to Washington, DC, where she was arrested and expelled from the city. She spent two years in London, working for the publisher and spiritualist William T. Stead, and finally settled in New York City in 1902, where she was arrested again, for “debauching the minds of the young” and sending obscene materials through the US mail. After she was convicted on local charges, she spent three miserable months in the Woman’s Workhouse on Blackwell’s Island; on the day of her sentencing in federal court—she was facing another five years in prison—she committed suicide.

“I maintain my right to die as I have lived, a free woman,” she wrote defiantly in the note she left addressed to her mother. She was also tender and conciliatory: “I love you, dear mother; never forget that. And love cannot die.”

“Someday,” she added wistfully, “You will not be ashamed of me or my work. Some day you’ll be proud of me.”

She wrote another letter about Comstock and mailed it to her lawyer, who saw to it that it was widely published. “The man is a sex pervert,” she declared. “He is what physicians term a Sadist—namely a person in whom the impulses of cruelty arise concurrently with the stirring of sex emotion.” Comstock would continue his crusade for almost a decade and a half, prosecuting Margaret Sanger and banning works of literature by George Bernard Shaw, D.H. Lawrence, and Theodore Dreiser, but Craddock’s martyrdom dealt his reputation a serious blow—and galvanized the fight for free speech.


But here’s the jaw-dropping thing about Ida Craddock. Though her books and sex manuals spoke frankly about everything from seminal discharges to female pelvic rotations, she was almost certainly a virgin. Except she believed that she was married—to a businessman she had spurned as a young woman, shortly before he died, but with whose spirit she had later found enduring happiness. She called her angelic husband Soph and documented their marriage in a long manuscript. It was a blissfully happy union, but like all marriages, it had its problems—one night, for example, she was resentful of how lumpy their bed was and didn’t feel like sleeping with him (“I did think that a husband who couldn’t get his wife a comfortable bed to lie on, no matter how plain, oughtn’t to expect her to go to bed with him”); another night he was less ardent than he might have been because she had onion on her breath. Craddock worried at times that she might have been hallucinating the whole thing; she comforted and reassured herself by mining the history of world religion for accounts of other spiritual bridegrooms.

It’s “easy to dismiss all these stories, ancient, mediaeval, and modern, with contempt, as so many falsehoods, or at best, self-delusions,” she admitted. Nevertheless, “this mass of folklore belief is too overwhelming in quantity and too widely diffused to be dismissed lightly. Back of it all there must be some objective realities, some fire for all this smoke.”

The doctors that Craddock’s mother conferred with believed that she was legally insane—the victim of “fixed delusions,” of nymphomania. After her death, Theodore Schroeder, a lawyer-turned psychoanalyst, made Craddock—Ida C, he called her—the centerpiece of his psycho-sexual studies. Her religiosity and sexual hallucinations went hand in hand; she was a case study in the dangers of sublimation, he said.

Leigh Eric Schmidt believes that Schroeder is not just reductive and narrow-minded, but shallow and obtuse. “Of all the delusions on display … perhaps the most shocking was not Craddock’s fantasy of an angel lover, but Schroeder’s confidence in psychoanalysis to say all that needed to be said about [her] over-brimming imagination. The ecstasy of revelation versus the voice of reason—that is an old and almost tiresome choice,” he continues. “In contrast to Schroeder’s singular focus, Craddock multiplied the possibilities … for approaching the over-brimming relationship between Psyche and Eros. In her range of curiosity and allusion, in her refusal of the foregone conclusion and the light dismissal, the madwoman outshone the psychoanalyst.”

Heaven’s Bride is a brilliant work of intellectual reclamation. Schmidt calls Craddock “an escape artist of the imagination,” who ”tried to lift herself free on the paired wings of Eros and divine love.”  If her story skews perilously close to the ridiculous at times, he never for a moment allows us to forget that it is fundamentally a tale of thwarted genius, of boundless courage, and, ultimately, of visionary splendor.

Arthur Goldwag is the author of The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah (Doubleday, 2005), Isims & Ologies (Vintage, 2007), and Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies (Vintage, 2009). A contributing editor at Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine, he also writes for children.