A few years ago, while between jobs, I started doing astrology readings for cash. I got the idea to charge for my hobby in the Vegas airport, on a layover, drinking a beer at the Dolly Parton slots. Something about being surrounded by people making petty cash doing essentially nothing inspired me to turn my preoccupations into profits. I never studied astrology formally, but I was online a lot, and living in California, which meant I knew enough.
I was first drawn to astrology as a conversation piece. I often find small talk tedious. I really don’t care to hear about someone’s intermittent fasting journey or how orange wine changed their life. I like that astrology skips the bullshit, or is perhaps just a more interesting type of bullshit. I want to know whether someone has control issues or is prone to hysteria.
I like too that it transcends class, gender, sexuality. We all have a birthday and a birth chart, and while some signs are more demonized (Scorpio, Gemini) than others (Taurus, Pisces), all traits have good and bad qualities, and they have nothing to do with where we grew up, the hue of our skin, our gender presentation or the prestige of our jobs. This was how I justified my mounting obsession. We use the sun to tell time and we know the moon controls the tides, so it’s not outrageous to think the placement of the planets at the time we were born impacts our personality. Or maybe it is outrageous! I’m not a scientist. I’m a novelist. I make things up for a living.
There is an art to doing readings that I appreciate. Frankly, it reminds me of my brief stint as a lawyer. I suspect that lawyer to astrologer is an unusual career trajectory, but hear me out: the two vocations draw on similar skills. In both, I was given a set of rules (in law, statutes and case law; in astrology, signs and planets), and was tasked with making a coherent argument. When a friend asked me to do the astrological compatibility for every member of her bachelorette party, I felt like I was taking the LSAT. In general, water signs and earth signs get along; whereas air signs are more compatible with fire signs. But I had to consider not just the Sun sign (our soul), but also the Moon (our emotions), Venus (love), Mercury (communication) and Mars (sex). I made a big spreadsheet to keep everything straight and to see who matched best with whom. I probably didn’t need to take it so seriously, but I am who I am. A Virgo, meaning perfection is always the goal.
For many years I was ashamed to be a Virgo. It’s not exactly a cool sign. We’re known for being bookish, shy, clean freaks. I am of course all of these things, and they aren’t my favorite traits. But then I found out that Beyoncé’s a Virgo, and I started feeling a little better. Beyoncé isn’t a nerd; she’s a superstar. She’s reserved with the press, which is admirable, and her obsessive compulsions manifest in a fastidious dedication to her craft, in platinum records, in hundreds of millions of dollars. Nothing has ever felt more Virgo to me than Homecoming, a concert documentary in which every minute detail is agonized over, in which Bey has control over everything from the dancers’ costumes to the architecture of the stage, and in which she is constantly down on herself for her failure to achieve perfection, which, of course, is impossible – the ultimate Virgo conundrum!
As Virgos prefer control to spontaneity, I’ve always had an easier time expressing myself in writing than in contemporaneous speech. As a lawyer, I practiced appeals rather than trials because appeals are slower paced and mostly in writing. I chose to do my chart readings in writing too – as opposed to in person or on Zoom. I loved doing readings for people I knew because then I could fill them with inside jokes. If they had an Aries Moon, I could write: this explains why you treat all conversations as a cross-examination. If they had a bunch of planets in Capricorn, I could say: this is why you spend all your time at Soho House ‘networking’.
I wasn’t always a bitch. I loved telling people who they were in a way that made them laugh but also feel proud. The cool thing about astrology is that there is enough wiggle room in each planetary description to make an argument either way. (Very similar to the vague ways in which laws are written and interpreted, to account for endless possibilities and outcomes.) Say someone was a Sagittarius. If I liked them and wanted them to feel good about themselves, I’d say: you’re an upbeat philosopher, an optimistic intellectual, curious and entertaining, the ideal travel buddy and party guest. If someone had a Sagittarius ex they wanted me to shit on, I’d say: they’re tactless and corny, ‘happy to be here’ vibes, obnoxious dad energy, probably a sex addict – and not the fun kind.
Astrology became a way to organize my universe, in turn making it less frightening. Like most Virgos, I’m anxious as hell. Always have been. Sometimes more so than others. Los Angeles, where I live, is beyond dry, a place great for lizards but less hospitable for humans. During a particularly bad period last year, I became convinced that LA was killing me. My apartment is right by the freeway and I was sure that breathing the exhaust fumes 24/7 was going to lead to my premature death. If I wasn’t going to die of exhaust poisoning, I was going to die on the freeway, where people drive like maniacs and a reckless confidence is required. Either a car would crash into me or I’d lose consciousness at the wheel from panic and crash into the median.
I told my therapist these things, my suspicion that I should leave LA, live somewhere more peaceful, greener, wetter, less populated. She told me about ‘astrocartography’, maps that indicate where your astrological influences show growth opportunities or disadvantages. (God bless a woo-woo Californian therapist.) After the session, I immediately plugged my birth time into a website. Once I figured out how to read the map, I learned my Jupiter line was going right through Los Angeles. Jupiter represents prosperity, good fortune and miracles. Basically, I’m blessed here. Learning this helped my anxiety immensely. Whenever I felt that creeping doom on the 405, I remembered Jupiter was protecting me. Whether or not the fifth planet from the sun was actually keeping me safe felt irrelevant.
But at a certain point, my interest in astrology seemed to go from ‘fun’ to ‘perhaps maybe a little unhealthy’. At parties, I couldn’t talk about anything but. If I didn’t know someone’s sign, I would go a little crazy, begin a relentless pursuit to find it, asking things like, ‘oh, you said you like the spring, is your birthday then?’ I would guess the signs of strangers, fictional characters, places, even inanimate objects. My bedroom was a Cancer, cozy and warm like the womb. The palm tree outside my window was a Leo, tall and proud, brightening my day. My iPhone was a Gemini, annoying but addictive.
I started to think a lot about how my placements were interacting. My Virgo Sun would frequently tell my Leo Rising to shut the fuck up and put a bra on. My Leo Rising would retort, get a personality, loser. My Aquarius Moon would chime in, oh, trite babies, there is no self. And my Mercury Libra would be like, y’all are too serious, what’s the tea! And my Scorpio Venus would scare everyone silent with, EVERYTHING IS AS SERIOUS AS DEATH. I found myself using astrology to detach from the present, from emotions, from intimacy. I would write off entire signs (cough: Tauruses), half-joking but not really, while romanticizing others (cough: Geminis). While astrology started as a fun way to get close to people, joke around, boost myself and others, it was becoming a way to judge, criticize, isolate.
My friend loves to remind me of when, while watching a high-speed chase on the LA freeway, I shouted out the word ‘Aquarius’. All I could see, while watching this legitimately dangerous event unfold, was a Zodiac sign. Astrology reminds me of the narcotic effect of Pinterest, the way your eyes glaze over as you categorize images. The world is no longer random and scary, but finite and ordered. If you have an issue with someone, it’s not because either of you did anything wrong, or because your vibes are mysteriously mismatched. It’s because they’re a Taurus. People don’t die for no reason; Aquarians just occasionally get reckless on the freeway. Simple. No mystery. No one to blame.
Whenever I feel negative obsession brewing, it signals to me that I need to start writing about it. When I couldn’t stop thinking about all the ways the law is inane and backward, I channeled these ruminations into my book, Bad Lawyer. Obsession isn’t a great trait in my personal life – it can make me very annoying to be around – but it’s a great tool for generating words on a page. In this case, I started writing Exalted, a novel written from the perspective of a cynical internet astrologer. The protagonist Emily Forrest is partially inspired by the astrology meme-maker who was subletting my friend’s apartment during this time, a lonely stoner who didn’t believe in astrology but who found astrology memes ‘the easiest to make’. As I explored Emily’s relationship with astrology, I became more attuned to my own relationship with it. The way it fueled the flames of my worst habits. The same way law encouraged me to be petty and argumentative, astrology made me even more judgy and alienating than usual.
Toward the end of Exalted, Emily hires a hypnotist to stop her from thinking about astrology. It doesn’t work. I don’t think my attempt to exorcize my obsession with astrology worked either. In between writing sentences for this essay, I’m texting with my friend and writer Grace Perry about our theory that all great geniuses were born at the Cusp of Pisces and Aquarius (Rihanna, Sally Rooney, Kurt Cobain . . .) Is astrology my toxic lover I just can’t quit? Or am I just giving more weight to the bad instead of the good, the way humans are wired to do?
I don’t mean to dismiss astrology or the immense importance it has for other people, and for me at times. I know it gives a lot of people strength, a millennial religion in a godless culture. Maybe one day I’ll manage to have a more ‘chill’ relationship with it. But in the meantime, I’m sticking with the ancient Paris Hilton maxim: ‘the stars are blind’.
Anna Dorn’s Exalted is out now with Unnamed Press.
Image © Bill Smith