Unhappy Mediums

Mary Roach. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. W. W. Norton, 2005.

Gary E. Schwartz and William L Simon, The Truth About Medium: Extraordinary Experiments with the Real Allison DuBois of NVC’s 'Medium' and Other Remarkable Psychics. Hampton Roads, 2005.

Mary Roach, an American journalist - whose previous book was Stiff: the curious life of human cadavers - takes a perhaps less than reverential look at the evidence for life after death than the traditions of psychical research and some modern researchers. She runs the gamut from the ectoplasm of Kathleen Goligher, still stored in the SPR archives at Cambridge University (and you thought archives were dry and dusty and dull places didn’t you?), through experiments with the weighing of the soul, to accounts of reincarnation, and from ghost hunting and electronic voice phenomena to work with mediums past and present. What she manages to point out is how little things change in this field and today's new and exciting experiments always seem to echo something done years and years ago with equally indecisive results.

One interesting development is her re-examination of the notorious ‘Chaffin Will’ case, in which the ghost of a North Carolina farmer is supposed to have returned to reveal the existence of a hidden will which conveniently disinherited his by then widowed daughter-in-law. While I had assumed that Chaffin Senior had written this will himself and hidden it as a back-up in case his favourite son died before he came of age and there was a danger of the widow remarrying (telling his other children about this beforehand), Roach has had this will examined by a documents expert who thinks there is a good chance than the signature on this second will is a forgery. Another case of yours truly not being sceptical enough I am afraid. Amid all the dross there is the odd incident which sends that shiver down the spine, in Roach’s case when medium Alison Dubois comes up with images of hour glasses, which Roach’s brother collects.

DuBois is one of the main subjects of Gary Schwarz’s rather wide eyed book. Schwarz performs “experiments” on mediums which seem to involve him ranking the statements they make about people he knows. Though these seem to produce hits, to the outsider many of them seem typical mediumistic waffle and clichés. None of the mediums' statements are transcribed in full, so there is no way of knowing whether Schwarz is simply selecting from a wider sea of clichés those that fit. It should also be said that many of these relate to Suzy Smith, a well known figure in spiritualist/psychical research circles whom Schwarz regards as an honorary grandmother.

The obvious way to test these claims, at least to eliminate cold reading, would be to reproduce all the medium’s statements and show them to a large group of people, to see how many they fitted. This is not done of course. As I said, few of the statements are impressive to the outsider; no one comes up with anything like this hypothetical example:
“Do you remember that holiday in Long Island when you were 10 ...never forget it... You know we were travelling in that blue Chevrolet, the one with that stain on the left back seat where your cousin Kirsten threw up that Christmas when we were visiting Aunt Rebecca. We were going to that old cabin by Globtown, nice enough except for that ghastly yellow wallpaper in the third bedroom.
Of course we never got there did we, because your dad ran into that young deer and you and your friend Colleen were so upset that we had to take it to the vet and we spent the holiday money on vet’s bills, and we took it to Puddletown zoo, you called it Mimi and we used to visit almost every Sunday for years, and you’d feed it strawberry ice-cream bought from that green van with the red flash. Then you met Jamie in junior high, funny the way he used to keep one red pen in his left shirt pocket. Honey you didn’t make out with him in that blue Chevrolet did you, on the day of Uncle Enoch’s funeral..."
But that example is really what would expect from ‘surviving personalities’: a mixture of obscure domestic details and testable facts, and a sense of real conversation, very difficult to fake. Of course much of this would be untestable to outsiders, but my example does give snippets which could be verified by independent investigators.

Better still, as some of these mediums claim to be in touch with Albert Einstein and James Clerk Maxwell, get some physicist colleague to hold a natural scientific conversation with them, using lots of technical terms and maths which they would find easy but the medium would find impenetrable. Why do I suspect though that what they would come up with is yet more spiritualistic waffle and cliché? -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia Supplement 60, February 2006.


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