Women in Tarot: Sandra A .Thomson, CTGM
by Bonnie Cehovet
This is the first in a series of articles on women in the Tarot world. I wanted to peek into the minds of those women who are making outstanding contributions to the field of Tarot, to honor their body of work, and to take a look at what they see for the future of Tarot.
Sandra Thomson is a lady who I greatly admire, and consider to be a mentor. (You heard it here first, Sandra!) She has the ability to tell you what you don't want to hear, and to do so in a very classy manner. It is not surprising that Sandra focuses her efforts on both writing and teaching.
Sandra's background is that of Clinical Psychologist (non-active), and licensed family, marriage and child counselor (non-active). She is a Certified Tarot Grand Master (CTGM) through the Tarot Certification Board of America and the Canadian Tarot Network, and a Tarot Sage (TS) through the American Board For Tarot Certification. Her body of work includes "The Lovers' Tarot" (co-authored with Signe E. Echols and Robert E. Mueller, Avon, 1993), "The Spiritual Tarot: 78 Paths to Personal Development" (co-authored with Signe E. Echols and Robert E. Mueller, Avon Books/Harper Collins, 1996), "Cloud Nine: A Dreamers Dictionary" (Harper Paperback, 1999), "The Heart of the Tarot: The Two Card Layout" (co-authored with Signe E. Echols and Robert E. Mueller, Harper Collins, 2000), and Pictures From The Heart: A Tarot Dictionary (St. Martin's Press, 2003). Sandra has also written for professional journals, and has done in-depth reviewing of many Tarot books and decks.
Sandra has served on the Board of Directors of Independent Writer's of Southern California, as Secretary for Phoenix Tarot Rising, Inc., and is currently President of the American Tarot Association (ATA). She has taught at the Philosophical Research Society, and continues to teach privately in Southern California, along with her life partner of thirty-one years, Robert Mueller. Sandra also does presentations for different Tarot groups, including the Orange County Tarot Society, and the Los Angeles Tarot Symposium (LATS).
Sandra's focus in Tarot at this point in time is on using the Tarot for shadow work, and to address weight issues. (I have the honor of doing group work with Sandra on the latter, and am quite impressed with her insights. The interesting thing here is that the deck she chose to work with ("The World Spirit Tarot") is not one that I immediately resonated with. However, in working with it I found that it opened doors for me that a more familiar deck would not have.)
I want to thank Sandra for being willing to start off this series, and will now turn the podium over to her.
BC: Sandra, let's go back to the beginning. How did Tarot come into your life?
ST: Robert and I were going to take a trip to Egypt and his symbology teacher had told him that using the Tarot was one of the best ways to begin to understand symbology, so we took a deck to Egypt and drew a card every day, with Robert interpreting for me. He also did readings for some of the people in our group. Still, it was not something I did actively until Robert and a classmate, Signe Echols, decided to write a workbook on how to use two decks to do readings for couples.
They wanted to teach workshops in the Los Angeles area. They met weekly and by the end of a couple of months had managed to write a couple of paragraphs. I told Robert that if he really wanted a book, I would help them write it, but if he didn't, they could continue the way they were going. They decided they wanted my help and I wrote a proposal and found an agent. By that time we had much of the book written, and I sent that with the proposal.
Our working title was called "Pictures from the Heart," and within a couple of days after sending our agent the material, he called and said he loved the title, but as it was written it had too limited an audience and asked if we could rewrite the entire thing for a larger audience. I often joke that I wrote my first Tarot book before I had ever done a Tarot reading, which is factually true, although I had seen readings done by others. After that book, I knew that I wanted to know more and began several years of study with Mary K. Greer.
BC: Did your two worlds ever collide? In other words, have you ever worked with the Tarot in connection with your psychology clients?
ST: It is illegal in California to use Tarot cards in a psychology practice and one can lose one's license, although now Art Rosengarten has gotten a continuing education course approved for marriage counselors, now called marriage therapists, and I presume they are now allowed to use them. If you have both licenses, as Art and I do, I'm not certain how you distinguish. So, I did not use the Tarot cards in my psychology practice, but also I was not involved with the Tarot cards at that time and wouldn't have known what to do.
I had a patient once who was having trouble with her mother's ashes, in that she talked to them and they talked back, and her sisters did not want her to do that. We worked on many things she could do instead of having these conversations in the common living room, none of which appealed to her, and all of which she vehemently resisted. One Monday morning she walked into my office and announced that she had gotten rid of her mother's ashes over the weekend
"Ah," I'm thinking, "we make progress!"
"How did that happen?" I asked.
"Well," she replied, "I went to my Tarot reader this weekend and she said for me to get rid of the ashes, so I did."
So much for a therapist's ego.
Coming from a psychological background, however, helps me immensely in understanding what's happening in a situation and what the cards might be suggesting.
BC: Your first publications in the Tarot world were "The Lovers' 'Tarot" and "The Spiritual Tarot: 78 Paths to Personal Development." How did these books come about?
ST: Co-authoring "The Lovers' Tarot" was my entrance into the Tarot world. The only thing I might add here is that for "The Spiritual Tarot" we wanted a book where the cards would be able to speak, plus we were interested in comparing how two decks we were playing with - the Aquarian deck and the Morgan-Greer deck - compared to the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. Interestingly, although we were intrigued by the Aquarian and the Morgan-Greer, I've never actively used them since, and I don't think Robert or Signe have either.
I've had some people tell me that they don't consider the book a spiritual exploration of the Tarot, and now that I am into Andean spiritual work, I think I would have to agree. As an author of mainstream books, you don't have much say-so about the titles of your books, and every book we've written had a different working title in the proposal. I think titles are mostly chosen by sales personnel. I do still think, however, that the "Spiritual Tarot" is a good book to assist beginners to delve more deeply into the cards beyond fortune telling.
BC: "Cloud Nine: A Dreamer's Dictionary" and "Pictures From the Heart" both deal with symbolism. Can you give us a bit about their background - on what was going on that made them important for you to write?
ST: After the "Spiritual Tarot" was accepted, Avon wanted me to find someone to write a dreamer's dictionary similar to one published by another company. I contacted a number of people who were not interested in the format Avon was requiring, and since I had worked with my dreams as a psychologist, Robert persuaded me to write the book.
Because of the particular style, most dream "experts" do not like the idea of a dictionary, and hence do not like the book, but I tried to overcome some of that by writing exercises ("dreamercises") into the front of the book, to which Avon finally agreed. One of the wonderful things about the book is that at one book signing, a lovely young woman came up to me and said she was a recovering alcoholic and that my book had saved her life. She was on her third copy.
"Pictures from the Heart: A Tarot Dictionary" (recognize the name now?) came about because my agent had always loved the name and still wanted a book published by that title, so he found an editor who wanted a Tarot dictionary. And the rest is a lot of hard work. When I write my first draft, I write what I want to say and then go back and edit several times from different perspectives, the first usually for word-count. I had to cut out 5,000 words from my first draft to meet the word-count specified by my contract.
(Note from Bonnie: You had to cut 5,000 words? That hurts!)
BC: Many readers feel that using smaller spreads brings about more in-depth results. What was your focus when you wrote "The Heart of the Tarot: The Two Card Layout"?
When I submitted the proposal for what became "The Heart of the Tarot," it was quite a different book, and probably one that I would never have been able to write because it was so complicated. Robert, Signe and I had been playing around with two-card readings because of Rachel Pollack's remark that if you understand the mini-heart of the Celtic Cross reading, all the rest is elaboration. Thank you, Rachel!
After I submitted the proposal, I did a two-card reading and drew The Fool for the situation, and the Five of Cups for the challenge. And I said, "This proposal is not going to be accepted." Within two days I got a phone call from my editor saying this wasn't the kind of book in which they were interested. I mentioned that we had been playing around with a two-card spread, and what my reading had been after submitting the first proposal (noting the two cards still standing behind the figure in the illustration) and she said they would be interested in that kind of book. So, we rewrote parts of the proposal, submitted it, and got a contract.
BC: Can you tell us what led you (and Robert) to teach at the Philosophical Research Society? How does this compare with the private teaching that you and Robert are still involved with? What is your focus in your private classes?
ST: Signe has always been active in the now defunct Philosophical Research Society (PRS) and she managed to get them to let us teach a class. After the first class, she decided she did not want to do it anymore - it took too much time and energy - but Robert and I continued for some time. Then at one point they decided to discontinue our classes, when we were right in the middle of some topic (I no longer remember what) and we offered to continue teaching our students at our Hollywood office. That was the beginning of private classes. Because our space is quite limited, we naturally have smaller classes than we could at PRS, and the students become very intimate and bonded with each other. They become very supportive and compassionate in their readings and interpretations of cards for each other.
Our focus in all our teaching is changing slightly and slowly as we practice the Andean spiritual path, and we come to understand the cards differently and how they express (or don't) our relationship to Spirit. We present this to our students simply as additional information which they may choose to utilize or not. We are not in the process of producing mini-me's but, rather, in helping each student understand how the cards speak to him or her. There are cards that I dislike that some of my students like. Can you imagine the audacity of that!
BC: What led you to your work with the ATA, and what do you hope to accomplish during your tenure as President?
ST: Oh, my, the ATA question. There was a time in the past when the political situation at ATA was in dire circumstances and it appeared that the organization might be disbanded, and that there were people who wanted this result. I was, and am, good friends with several prominent Tarotists and we all felt that it was not the right time for the demise of ATA, so we bandied around ideas about what we could do. Some of them were willing to hold offices, but none as president. I spent a morning on the Internet getting various ideas, thoughts, and information about who would do what. Then I spent the afternoon with Art Rosengarten who did an extensive Tarot reading for me and the cards seemed to say that even though I was reluctant, I could be a successful President if I could get the board I wanted. When those people did agree, I became the President.
That wonderful, dedicated board spent the entire first year in weekly telephone-call meetings and putting out fires that we didn't even know existed when we took over. We were exhausted after that first term, and some of the board members resigned then. I remained for a second term in the hope that I could provide some continuity, which I think I have. Once again, however, we are in dire straits inasmuch as we have lost several board members and are having difficulty replacing them. When they first volunteer, most people don't realize how much time being a volunteer board member takes, although you probably do, Bonnie, because of your work with the ABTC. I suspect that the ATA needs some new blood, some new ideas, and some new energy, and I'm not certain that I can bring that to the organization. I think we are probably in a holding pattern at this point.
(Note: I was ATA Secretary on the board just before Sandra took office. I left after only a few months because of the difficulties that we were having in making the transition from the previous leadership to the new leadership. A enormous amount of time and energy is necessary, and teleconferences become a way of life! I give full credit to Sandra and the other board members who are trying to retain the ATA as a viable entity.)
BC: You are doing some very exciting work with Tarot and dieting that I have been blessed to become involved with. What lead you down this Tarot path?
ST: Thank you, I think it is exciting. I finally faced the notion that I am a food addict, and I believed that the Tarot could help with weight issues. Robert and I went to Weight Watchers and lost the weight we needed to lose, but felt it didn't address pertinent psychological/emotional/spiritual issues. I kept sitting in the back of the meetings, saying softly through gritted teeth, "that's not all there is." I believe, however, that if W.W. addressed the issues I think need to be addressed, they would probably lose 75% of their members.
I was sure I could find a way to work with the Tarot, but, much as I love the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, I couldn't find it there. When I began trying to find a deck that did, ultimately I decided that the illustrations for The World Spirit Tarot addressed many of the issues I thought needed to be addressed. So I began an Internet group. Many people joined, but few responded to the postings (some told me they saved them to consider someday in the future, hence few responses), and I ultimately stopped posting and began working with a much smaller, more intimate group.
Unfortunately, my Andean work has taken such a prominence that I have slowed down with the food group, but we are not finished, I vow. Besides we are only part-way through the Major Arcana.
(Note: Sandra, your food group will not allow you to be finished yet! LOL)
BC: Sandra, I know that you have become involved in some very special studies with the Four Winds Society. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and about how it has impacted your Tarot work?
ST: I've alluded to this work in answering several questions. The Four Winds Society is a group founded by Alberto Villoldo, Ph.D., who spent some 25-30 years studying with Peruvian queros (our equivalent English word and the one that makes sense to many people is "shaman"). Subsequently, his teacher allowed him to bring some of the material to the U.S. He has combined what he learned in Peru, with some of his own original ways of working, into an organized program.
Not only has the work changed the way I look at my life, but it has also changed the way I look at the cards; specifically, in understanding some of them more deeply than I originally did, although I do have some differing opinions from Four Winds about how to use the cards and what they mean.
In our Tarot classes, we do now smudge each other before beginning and we open sacred space, not in the quero way, but utilizing the Aces, the Empress and the Emperor and the archetypes/universal processes to which they correspond.
(Note: I get to tell a story on Sandra here, with her permission. Actually, the story is in Sandra's own words, speaking to me: "I don't know if I told you, but a couple of days before you (as a representative of the ABTC) sent me my Tarot Sage certification (a tremendous honor and surprise), I had joined the Four Winds Sage program. So, I laughingly told them I didn't need their program because I had already been officially declared a sage. They said that this was certainly confirmation that I was on the right track." I definitely am of the opinion that Sandra is on the right track!)
BC: Sandra, I believe that the focus of your own Tarot studies at this time is in the area of psychology and shadow work, and Tarot and dieting. Where is this taking you, and can we expect to see another book in the future?
ST: I do not work with the Tarot as a psychologist, but, certainly, I would be an idiot not to include what I know from my years as a psychologist in doing readings. I have been doing shadow work for a long time, plus we do a lot of shadow work in our Four Winds work (although not necessarily with the Tarot). I have had proposals out for both shadow work and Tarot, and food issues and Tarot, and all have been turned down as either being too limited, or having to put the food issue book in the Tarot section of a bookstore rather than in the dieting section, so I don't think you will see another book from me on either of those topics.
BC: The question of all questions - what do you see for the future of Tarot?
ST: A number of years ago when Tarotists, notably Rachel Pollack and Mary K. Greer, changed the direction of Tarot readings by beginning to consider personal growth possibilities, there was what the Andeans call a "patchakuti," a major overturn, in the way people began to relate to the cards. I perceive the Tarot deck as a Mystery School all its own, and I would like to see fortunetelling with the cards become such a way of the past that it would be a laughable part of our history. I would like to see people more and more begin to know that it is, and to use it as, a way of contributing insight, certainly to their personal growth, but more important, to their spiritual growth. If ever there was another Tarot book in me, it would be in that direction, but I don't think I know enough at this time to write that book.
(Note: Sandra - I have to disagree here. You do know enough to write this book, you just don't realize it yet.)
BC: Sandra, this is your time. Is there any advice that you would give someone new to the Tarot world? Is there any advice you would give to someone that has been involved with the Tarot world for some time, and considers it their path?
ST: I would hope that those who have been involved with the Tarot for some time have already learned that they will never stop learning and that there are an infinite number of ways to understand the meanings in the cards, and, therefore, to grow in your ability to do readings. I have been working with the Rider-Waite-Smith deck for some 25-30 years now and I still have not fathomed all its mysteries.
If someone is still reading Tarot cards the way they first learned many years ago (and I know someone who is), I think that is a travesty. Your practice needs to grow as the Tarot world grows and as you yourself grow.
As for those people who are new to the Tarot world, I can only say that the Tarot path can be a most rewarding experience if you allow it to speak to you. It can facilitate understanding any number of other personal growth paths; that is, it can accompany them. Take the time to find a deck that "feels good" for you and with whose illustrations you resonate, so that you can connect with it; find a good teacher who can surprise you with his/her information; and discover the amazing fact that the Tarot will never lie to you. Mostly while respecting it, have fun as well. In the Andean tradition, we say that "if the work is work, it isn't the work." So laugh at what the Tarot reveals for you, love your deck, and plan for a lifelong journey.
Thank you so much, Bonnie, for asking me to do this interview.
The thanks go to Sandra for being willing to share her time and her ideas. I hope that those of you reading this article take note of Sandra's body of work - it deserves to be on every Tarot students resource list. The gift of her wisdom will become the seed of someone else's work - and so it shall be.
© Bonnie Cehovet
Bonnie Cehovet is Certified Tarot Grand Master, a professional Tarot reader with over ten years experience, a Reiki Master/Teacher and a writer. Bonnie has served in various capacities with the American Tarot Association, is co-founder of the World Tarot Network, and Vice President (as well as Director of Certification) for the American Board For Tarot Certification. She has had articles appear in the 2004 and 2005 Llewellyn Tarot Reader.