Six feet over
by Tom Ruffles
[ strangeness | bookreviews ]
Fresh, if that is the right word, from Stiff, her exploration of The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and thank goodness for the subtitle, Mary Roach trains her eye on what might happen to, in the title of Frederic Myers's book, the Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death. The result is an entertaining and informative tour of the various reaches of psychical research.
The persona that Roach adopts is that of the interested novice, from California no less, starting from scratch with no knowledge, bugging the experts until she gets some kind of coherent picture of a phenomenon, even if ultimately she is not convinced by it. The book's front cover has an enthusiastic endorsement by Jon Ronson, which is not surprising because their styles are similar (though Roach is far less self-absorbed than Ronson tends to be in much of his writing). If you enjoy his breezy style, you will really like this book. If you don't enjoy his breezy style you might still like it. And if you read right to the end you might find yourself writing like it.
To begin with, Roach heads off to India and pesters Kirti S Rawat, director of the International Centre for Survival as he goes about interviewing families with children who appear to exhibit the memories of people who have died, and which therefore might support the reincarnation hypothesis. She discusses the work of Ian Stevenson (though she states that Stevenson's Biology and Reincarnation is 2,000 words rather than pages long, which undersells it). She notes how such claims tend to be embedded in a culture which has a general belief in reincarnation, how evidence can be twisted unconsciously to fit a particular scenario that chimes with wider cultural and religious beliefs, and how testimony can be contaminated and exaggerated by prior discussion before the researcher ever arrives on the scene.
Then Roach gives a brief overview of the history of attempts to locate the soul, in order to get a better idea on what it is that disappears at death. Starting with Aristotle, she examines efforts to understand how ensoulment was theorised and eventually discarded as science progressed, and the microscope and autopsies increased understanding of human processes. But she notes how science in the late 19th/early 20th centuries was not finished totally with the soul, as she describes attempts to weigh it by putting dying patients on a scale and seeing how much weight was lost at the point of death, the difference being considered the weight of the soul.
In this way, Duncan MacDougall, working with consumptives in Massachusetts, was able to determine that the body lost three-quarters of an ounce, or 21 Grams if you are a Hollywood director, at the moment of death, though of course all sorts of questions are begged about when precisely the moment of death is, what else might cause the weight loss, and whether MacDougall's study had any value whatsoever. Roach considers these problems, and finds possible answers in MacDougall's personality, home situation and poor experimental methods, especially when more recent work weighing sheep (tubercular patients thankfully now protected from such indignities by ethics committees) strangely found a temporary weight gain rather than loss.
After looking at auras and Kirlian Photography, Roach moves on to ectoplasm. Here she follows in the footsteps of Marina Warner, who also visited Cambridge University Library (CUL) to handle, with similar trepidation, Helen Duncan's 'ectoplasm' (see Warner's Phantasmagoria, p 299). There is a section on the mediumship of Kathleen Golligher in Belfast which highlights the white knickers fetish of investigator W J Crawford; the Margery mediumship of Mina Crandon; and of course Helen Duncan herself, with some thoughtful speculation on the carrying capacity of 'the womanly interior' as a hiding place for ersatz ectoplasm.
It is only a short step to examining mediumistic communications more generally, and Roach discusses them with a variety of researchers. The Summerland it turns out is a mixture of good and bad - the climate is 'Florida without the humidity', and hopefully without the drug dealers, but you do get the Carpenters, which makes a good advertisement for The Other Place. To get close to the practitioners she decides to attend a course on Fundamentals of Mediumship at the Spiritualists' National Union HQ at Stansted Hall, a very Jon Ronson chapter in which she comes to the conclusion that sitters tend to be uncritical. She looks at codes left with the intention of supplying the keys that will unlock them post-mortem to prove the survival of the code setter, listens to the evidence for electronic voice phenomena, tries Michael Persinger's hallucination-inducing electromagnetic fields, and visits Vic Tandy to discuss the possibility that exposure to infrasound can induce the misperception of a ghost.
The best chapter is the one devoted to the famous Chaffin Will Case. James L Chaffin's will left his entire estate to only one of his sons, who duly inherited. However, his ghost is supposed to have appeared to one of his other sons to say that there was a second, hidden, will that superseded the first, distributing his estate equally between his children. Roach mounts a serious investigation, visiting the area and speaking to relatives. She submits both wills to a handwriting expert, and although she can draw no firm conclusions, there is a possible non-paranormal scenario that would account for the evidence.
The final chapter concerns near-death experiences and work going on in hospitals to see if NDEs have some veridical aspect or can be explained in subjective terms. This is a promising area, though as Roach points out, being nearly dead is not the same as being totally dead. Unfortunately she recounts the story of Maria and the plimsoll on the hospital ledge without noting the critical 1996 article (Maria's Near-Death Experience: Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop) in Skeptical Inquirer which shows the oft-repeated anecdote in a less positive light, rather than as the 'dazzle shot' Roach considers it.
There are a number of other lapses occasioned both by her unfamiliarity with the subject and by hurry. She believes that CUL 'acquired the archives of the Society for Psychical Research.' They did no such thing - the SPR reached an agreement with CUL that the library would give the archives a good home and look after them, but they are still the property of the SPR. Clearly Roach found compensations for having to trek to Cambridge to see them though - I shall certainly look out for the 'madonna-skinned Manuscripts Room page' the next time I am there, a sight I seem to have missed thus far. Harry Price would have been tickled to have been credited with a PhD, but he didn't have one. It is possible that, as does happen, Roach has confused him with H H Price, Henry rather than Harry, who was Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford and SPR president from 1939-41 and 1960-61. Maxwell Cede is actually Cade.
Frederic (not Frederick) Myers's 'opus' is not Phantasms of the Living, on which he was a co-author, but the bulk of which was compiled by Edmund Gurney (Myers mainly contributed the introduction). Roach has confused this monumental work with Myers's almost equally monumental Human Personality, from which the quote she supplies actually comes rather than from Phantasms. Both books were originally published in two volumes at far more than 700 pages, the length she suggests for whichever she has in mind, and though each was later published in an abridged version, neither of these is 700 pages either, each being closer to the 500 mark. Still on Myers, she says that he left a sealed envelope which Oliver Lodge opened fourteen years after his death, and wrote up the results in the SPR Journal in 1905. Well, Roach is certainly in the right place, the January 1905 Journal, but a more careful reading would show that Myers sent the envelope to Lodge in January 1891. Myers died in 1901, and the envelope was opened in December 1904, i.e. nearly 14 years after it had been sent to Lodge.
A couple of pages are devoted to experiments conducted by A D Cornell and students of the Cambridge University SPR in 1959 and 1960. These involved dressing up as ghosts and seeing what kind of response they got from members of the general public. Not a lot as it turned out. But I was startled when Roach describes an experiment that took place on 28 May 1960 where the intrepid group did the same thing in a Cambridge cinema which she describes as a 'porn theater.' Unfortunately the article in question (the SPR Journal, December 1960) only refers to 'a local cinema.' However, finding it hard to believe that Cambridge in 1960 harboured such an establishment, and even less that Tony Cornell would conduct an experiment with students in one, I asked him which cinema they used. It was The Rex Cinema, now demolished, which was in Magrath Avenue behind the Shire Hall County Council buildings. Cornell, dressed in a white sheet, walked slowly across the stage in front of the screen both ways, after which the audience members were quizzed on what they had or had not seen.
It seems most unlikely that a cinema situated directly behind Council offices, with that most suburban of names, would show pornography. The discussion of the experiment indicates a number of women present, and however enlightened Cambridge was at that time it seems implausible that women would be sitting among a bunch of dirty macs, and even more so that they would be happy to discuss the experiment with Cornell and his assistants. The Rex was showing an X-rated film but it certainly would not have been porn; possibly the cinema was screening Peeping Tom, which was released in May, pretty strong for the time but certainly not in the same category as the sorts of things you could see in Soho.
Roach suggests that the Cambridge spectators were rather more interested in what was on screen than on what was happening in front of it: 'No mention is made of the specific images showing on the screen behind the ghost, but clearly they were a good deal more interesting.' In other words they found porn more absorbing than Cornell in a sheet. In actual fact he was very specific in the article that he walked across the stage during a black and white trailer for the following week's attraction, not the film about to be shown itself, which might mean that the audience's attention was wandering somewhat, rather than that they were fixated to titillating events on screen.
This is a thoroughly engaging book, but one black mark - no index. That suggests Canongate had a general reader in mind, but it is a shame as this is a useful book for those with more than a passing interest in survival research. One other minor caveat: although the UK publication date is 2007, this is a straight reprint of Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife from 2005, so it is not quite as up to date as the UK date might suggest, for example not mentioning the deaths of Ian Stevenson and Vic Tandy. It is a shame that Canongate changed the title because the old one, as no doubt Roach intended, makes a nice companion to its predecessor Stiff. But Roach tends to avoid the anecdotal spontaneous case which Spook conjures up, and is to be applauded for trying to find some hard evidence for the phenomenon under scrutiny, even if, like so many before her, she finds that it remains tantalisingly elusive.