ReadingRoom

The dawning of the age of Leo

A personal essay on astrology – and one of the greatest authors of all times, Sun Signs legend Linda Goodman - by Talia Marshall. ‘I believe all sorts of mad stuff, most of it Māori’, she writes, ‘but I still use astrological archetypes as a shortcut to get through the human relationship jungle.’

My first proper boyfriend was a Leo. A lion, like me. He was a swimming and basketball jock and I thought he looked like Brad Pitt but we were only 15, and really he looked more like Macaulay Culkin. We were the same on the inside, me and him, but he was truly golden and smelt cleaner than soap. I was the one with the big mane in our pride of two. We doubled on his bike down one of the steep streets of Dunedin. I was in charge of the handlebars which meant he got to give me a hickey while I was shrieking with indignant delight because there was nothing I could do about it. I loved him so much I cheated on him at a party at the surf club, and because I'm an idiot, I told him about it to clear my conscience. It wasn't even sex and it was never the same after that. I walked up to him at another party and poured a full bottle of Speights over his head, ‘what are you doing that for’, his friend gasped, but Macaulay/Brad stared hard at me and didn’t budge, he knew why…I was a lioness and my pride had been offended. The friend was a Virgo, so maybe it was the waste that upset him?

My next boyfriend was a Cancer, a crab that looked like River Phoenix. He did! He was 17 but he was ‘cultured’ and favoured astrology, yoga, computers and jazz drumming. We listened to John Coltrane and Górecki together. The opening bars of a Love Supreme still sound like waking up in New York to me, a place I have never been. The crab plotted my astrological chart with his mother, before the Internet really took off, you had to plot these charts by hand. Now you just put your birthdate into the online calculator and it still feels like it shouldn’t be that easy. He told me I had a Pisces moon in the tenth house, like Shakespeare. I took the lioness bait and nodded along. Ah, yes, I said, that makes sense. How amazing though that a boy would be invested enough to plot my chart. I was a lucky teenager, bad skin was something that happened to other people and because that's the nature of youth I had no idea I was blessed. He was also sulky and clingy, these traits were his astrological shadow and as a Cancer he was close to his mother. I mean there she was helping him with my chart, in an oedipal twist she was also a Leo.

We got together on New Year’s Eve at the camping ground in Wanaka my grandparents took me to. The next day I looked for a sign it was meant to be, the sun and the moon obliged by being in the sky at the same time! My totemic orb was the sun and as a Cancer his was the moon. By the next New Year’s we were back at the camp, I'd survived a year of his moods. I tried to escape him on our anniversary by talking to some Open Brethren teens from Gore, big blond bland boys who played volleyball a lot and looked born with teeth. In the camp kitchen one of them snickered, “your boyfriend’s outside”, I looked out the door and there he was lying face down and thumping his fists into the dusty ground like a toddler. He was upset I’d just walked off and left him, I’d lied and said I was going back to the tent and the stars overhead twinkled tut-tut-tut and told you so. I cheated on him in my first year at university with Macaulay/Brad and he went to Europe to get away from me and get over it.

Writing this it occurs to me I was something of a terror. It also occurs to me that this version of my romantic history is flattering, and if there's anything a Leo was born to do, it’s to flatter themselves. Ask any Virgo, Taurus, Sagittarius or Gemini who has had the dubious pleasure of being my friend. Geminis encourage the vanity because they are well-known for laughing out all the cubist angles of their many faces. Born under the sign of the twins, duplicity comes easy to them.

I used to disappoint my English teachers by telling them the Flowers in the Attic quartet were my favourite books and astrologer Linda Goodman was my favourite author. I’d first come across Linda when I was 10, compared to the radical lesbian material that made up the bulk of my mother’s non-fiction collection, Dworkin, Firestone et al, Sun Signs was like a fairytale and like most fairytales the content was heterosexual. Heterosexuality was exotic to me, I had to learn its codes from books and TV and I didn’t read Sun Signs so much as palm its pages and let the osmosis work its magic. As such I tend to approach my love life like I’m an ethnographer in the field. Somehow I managed to get my hands on her gender binary riddled romantic version Love Signs too. Linda told me the first thing you have to accommodate in a Leo woman is her sentimentality, that it’s likely she has an album full of her old boyfriends. I was quite the scholar of learning to be myself, I still talk about the relationship I was in to the new victim for at least six months.

Here she is with more to say about the Leo Woman, really she created a monster: ‘A Leo woman is as sleek and graceful as any thoroughbred horse who ever won the Kentucky Derby. She's playful and warm and sunny - she's generous, wise and sensible. She also possesses a very sensitive ego, an uncommon amount of pride (some of it false pride, some genuine) and she can be more than a little supercilious, arrogant and demanding. The word, if we must be plainspoken… is: spoiled. All Monarchs are spoiled. She is, remember, the Queen of the jungle pride - and of all she surveys…’

Goodman was a self-help pioneer. No one knew how to help themselves before she came along and her books aren’t really about astrology at all, they’re about the straight, white, human condition. In the 70s, that orange and brown velour decade into which I was born, you didn’t just get to know someone, you got to know them through their sign. ‘What’s your sign’ was a pick-up line, Armistead Maupin mocks it in Tales of the City. It wasn’t enough to fall in love with a stranger, the planets had to be watching over it, like Shakespeare (again!) and his star-crossed lovers you weren’t really happening unless you considered your part in the alphabet of the astral soup.

It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, yes I stole this line from the musical Hair but they probably stole it from Linda Goodman. She talked about that kind of thing, about new dawns, using her hazardous blend of prophecy and philosophy. She was a great writer though, a natural storyteller and it was like sinking into a beanbag, her books. In the den of my mind, I felt snug and loved, witnessed even. She pulled so many disparate elements together to let you know your life had meaning. Her spirituality refused silos, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland were just as sacred as God.

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Lately astrology has been experiencing a postmodern revival. I know this because it’s become popular on Twitter. Astro Poets, the lovechild account of poets Alex Dimitrov and Dorothea Lasky, does a roaring algorithmic trade (477K followers).

But it makes me suspicious, I find myself squinting at the screen when one of their droll drill-through-the-cheek posts comes up on my feed. I don’t believe you really mean it I hiss in my shabby den. Maybe it’s because combining astrology and poetry is worse than gilding a lily, it’s like inflating it into a metallic Jeff Koons sculpture which rotates as glitter shoots from the stamens. Or maybe my Leo grandiosity is offended that someone else got there first. But also a basic earnestness, I am a lost disciple of Linda Goodman and like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, like sappy St Paul banging on about hope, faith and love, Linda’s message wants to keep twitching through me.

Linda Goodman's personal altar to St Francis of Assisi. Her former home in Cripple Creek, Colorado has been a b&b until quite recently and her room is just as she left it. All images courtesy of Sofia Balas of Linda Goodman's House formerly Last Dollar Inn.

I thought Linda’s life would be as Arcadian as her books but the truth was shocking and sad. A 1979 People article interviewed her at home in Cripple Creek, Colorado. It describes her descending the steps of her tacky Victorian wonderland to begin her daily ritual, which like her books, is a cosmic clusterfuck. She begs the lord in front of a stained glass window of St Francis, her personal saint, to make her an instrument of his peace. You see, in between writing Sun Signs (1968) and Love Signs (1978), her daughter, Sally, killed herself and Linda’s young lover disappeared. She refused to believe either of these things, these terrible too-close-together events had actually happened.

The loss of Sally consumed Linda Goodman until her death in 1995.

Her other problem was generosity. Despite the wild success of Sun Signs, the first astrology book to make The New York Times bestseller list, she was living in Cripple Creek on the money of famous friends like Steve McQueen and welfare cheques. She went to New York where her daughter died and pursued fruitless leads for seven months. She slept on the steps of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Back in Colorado she continued to set the table for her lover convinced he’d return to her. When asked why she refused to believe her daughter is really dead, she said this extraordinary and ridiculous thing: ‘I’ve done her chart over and over again. An astrologist can’t predict death, but I can foresee non-death…’

Her daughter was cremated and it seems Linda never witnessed the fact of her corpse.

Prior to this, her ex-husband Sam describes Linda as a happy obsessive. She spent up to 20 hours a day in her nightgown poring over starry texts to write Sun Signs. I wish I could write a bestseller so I could lead this exact life, minus the tragedy, but she wasn’t famous then, she just had a supportive husband. It makes sense that there are so few recognised female geniuses when you consider how rare a supportive husband is.

The view from Linda Goodman's bedroom in Cripple Creek, Colorado.

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I have a friend who receives a daily horoscope because Cancer men are flakes. And I switch off when he sends me the latest doom-filled predictions, I’m not interested in the future, I couldn't care less about it with its promises of boiling wastelands and personal problems. I'm also not interested in Mercury when it goes retrograde, like PMS, it's only useful to know it was happening once it’s over.

No, what I'm interested in is what people are really like. This isn't psychology, I couldn't care less about that Pākehā nonsense either, I'm interested in souls, in essence. As with any belief system it doesn’t cope with slippage, like when they discover a new planet and the Zodiac has to be recalibrated or Pluto discarded from its schema for being an imposter. Being rational sets the axis wobbling. And as much as my vanity enjoys the fact I was born in the Chinese Year of the Horse, a beautiful animal, everyone in my year at school was born during that year, mostly, and some of them had the great misfortune not to be anything like me.

Although it’s possible for disparate world views to co-exist. The year I looked for consensus from the sun and moon about my love life was also the year I taunted my beloved Mormon Nana about being an atheist. I should have gone for Linda’s integrated approach because Nana still hasn’t forgiven me. Besides I’m being disingenuous when I say I’m a true disciple of Linda Goodman, I believe all sorts of other mad stuff now, most of it Māori and genuinely held but I still use astrological archetypes as a shortcut to get through the human relationship jungle.

My mother is an Aries, like Winston Peters, you are never going to win an argument with them, ever, especially if the truth is on your side. Linda Goodman was an Aries too, a fire sign, which explains why she liked Leos so much. Affinity, that simple act of getting along is her goal, she was trying to demystify the science of compatibility. Our last fiery cousin is the Sagittarius, to avoid their searing truths or being mocked you have to get in first and mercilessly take the piss out of yourself. That way everyone stays friends.

I can no longer guess what sign someone is and refuse to if I’m asked, because I’m not invested enough and I get it wrong and having failed at life I like people to think it’s because I’m psychic and the gods, those kuia stirring the cauldron of the sky couldn’t let me have it all in real time.

And I still follow heaps of astrological accounts on Twitter despite their heretic deviations from Goodman doctrine because sometimes there is a gem that really speaks to me.

The great Kim Kardashian getting sassed by popular Twitter account Astro Bebs (108K followers)

The year me and my lion cub boyfriend were born in Dunedin, the year Linda published Love Signs two lions, Sonia and Sultan escaped from the circus in the valley town of Lawrence. They were shot by inept police and have ended up as taxidermy in the revived Animal Attic of Otago Museum. They keep this exhibit open to let us know we are better people than the Victorians who went around shooting and stuffing everything for their decorative arts.

There is nothing to say their lion souls didn’t leave their lion bodies and enter ours, so that 15 years later their spirits could fly down a Dunedin street. Or that Sally and her mother’s lover didn’t run away together twice. Nothing except reality, which bites worse than a hyena. Besides, don’t physicists posit that energy can’t stop being energy it just changes form, the sparks rising from the flames?

Really I have no idea what this means because Linda Goodman would have you know Leos can be quite lazy, and here I am lying down with the other animals, while the globe turns within the galaxy, part of a cosmic dance, of wheels within wheels, kitschy windmills turning into modern turbines as Dusty Springfield’s apple spins through space and still it’s not too late to expect a miracle. Biting into hope should never hurt.

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