Books reviewed by SPR reviewers
A review by Robert Charman will appear in the SPR's Journal.
A review by Alan Murdie will appear in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
The Britten Memorial Museum, named after Emma Hardinge Britten, is housed in the Arthur Findlay College at Stansted Hall, Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex. The College is administered by the Spiritualists’ National Union, and the museum contains a wide range of exhibits relating to Spiritualism. Among these are a number of casts made from wax moulds, artefacts said to demonstrate the reality of spirits. The museum’s curator, Paul Gaunt (also editor of both the Psypioneer and The Pioneer electronic journals) has compiled this informative booklet which discusses the museum’s collection of casts, other instances of them in the literature, and the debate that took place within the Society for Psychical Research over the evidential value they provide.
The theory behind the moulds is that a spirit would be able to produce one by materialising a portion of itself, usually a hand but also part of a foot or even its face, and pushing it into a bowl of warm paraffin wax. The resulting wax sleeve could be set in cold water, leaving a mould that would be undamaged upon the limb’s dematerialisation. Repeated immersions, building up layers, would serve to increase the thickness and strength of the mould. As wax is so fragile, it can be filled with plaster of Paris which upon setting retains (leaving aside distortions and damage from handling) the shape and detail of the materialised body part in a more permanent form.
Wax moulds date from as early as the 1870s, but those at Stansted Hall were donated by Sutton-in-Ashfield Spiritualist church in Nottinghamshire, where they had been on display since 1938. These, Gaunt suggests, may well have been the last done by mediums (as opposed to researchers). An article in the 16 December issue of Two Worlds, which is reprinted, describes their production through the mediumship of William and George Finney, uncle and nephew, at Sutton-in-Ashfield.
According to the Two Worlds article, the moulds were created by the pair in informal conditions, not during a séance but sitting in the dark in a cupboard under the stairs with buckets of melted wax and cold water. The booklet contains three colour photographs of the museum’s casts, wax still adhering, showing them in all their strange beauty. One is of a pair of hands with interlinked fingers presented in a way that, it has been argued, would be more difficult to fake than it would a single hand.
The article is followed by an outline history of wax moulds, placing them in the context of the development of Spiritualist phenomena. Wax moulds were preceded by impressions left in putty and flour, but paraffin offered a more suitable material, and the technique was used by a number of mediums. Gaunt gives a short overview of some of them, but notes that each generally only tried the procedure for a brief period, and after becoming fashionable in the 1870s it went into abeyance until revived by the remarkable Franek Kluski, subject of a recent book by Zofia Weaver. Weaver and Gaunt both mention that at least in Kluski’s case it was a messy business, with splashes of wax everywhere, which perhaps made it unappealing for sitters even though the results were startling.
Gaunt includes sections on experiments with Kluski at the Institut Métapsychique International in Paris and in Warsaw conducted by Gustave Geley (three photographs, two of hands and one of a foot, from Geley’s 1927 Clairvoyance and Materialisation are shown, the hands revealing remarkable skin features), and on the rather fractious debate that took place in the pages of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in the early 1990s over whether it was possible to reproduce moulds like Kluski’s by normal means.
Gaunt’s conclusion from the debate is that a living hand can be removed from a wax mould IF the wax is of a reasonable thickness caused by repeated immersion; but the thinness that Kluski is reported to have achieved through a single immersion, and without setting in cold water, should make the operation impossible as the mould would be too fragile for withdrawal without its destruction. His verdict is that, pending further research which adheres to Geley’s precise method (which recreations so far have failed to do), Kluski’s moulds can be considered good evidence for the return of spirits.
Beatrice Brunner (1910-83) was a German-speaking Swiss trance medium. Over a period of 35 years (1948-83) she produced some 2,500 lectures, including 91 reports said to derive from departed individuals. A selection of twelve such reports, received between 1961 and 1969, have been transcribed into faultless English from the German-language tape recordings and published by ABZ Verlag, Zürich. Typically an account gives some indication of what life was like before death, initial experiences after it, and how spiritual progress has been made since. The focus is firmly Christian, but earthly religious affiliation is irrelevant; it is the quality of the life which was lived that is important, and divine justice ensures that sins and good deeds are weighed. Even atheists are allowed entry, and they soon see the errors of their ways when it becomes obvious that God exists and is the supreme ruler. If their admittance comes as a surprise, even more so is the existence of gnomes and elves living alongside humans described in one narrative.
So what is it like in this place? All arrive on equal terms, as status on earth is irrelevant here – in fact an easy past life can prove to be a disadvantage as it means more work to catch up spiritually. This is a world of balance and karma (though not a term that is used). An increase in earthly prosperity has it appears actually created a change in afterlife conditions. In the old days, when more people had nothing, arriving in the hereafter was to find comparative luxury. The humbler circumstances prevailing during life meant that more ‘spiritual purification’ could be achieved prior to death. With conditions for many improving though, that pre-mortem process is less available, requiring greater effort after it. Having been pious in life is not enough to guarantee progress in the afterlife if it was in form only; there has to have been sincerity behind it. The degree of sincere devoutness the person had on earth, and the amount of adversity faced, influence the speed of advancement in the Hereafter. One gets credit for having remained true to one’s faith in difficult circumstances, or enduring extreme poverty and hardship, or even having had a lot of children.
It can take time for the newly-arrived to adjust, but there is guidance on offer to help smooth the transition (assisting others conferring credit). Once the adjustment is made, the emphasis is on work. This is not the sort of afterlife where one relaxes with a cigar and a glass of whisky. At first life can be rather tedious, often with plenty of manual labour, though there is a suggestion that things get better as one grows spiritually and has atoned for past sins. There may be a Swiss work ethic reflected here, with Brunner unable to contemplate a heaven where souls simply sit around idle and the means of sustenance are provided without effort. The work is much the same as on earth, as it is obligatory to learn skills. It is also necessary to learn foreign languages, the afterlife not having apparently overcome the language barrier. Fortunately labour is not the sole occupation, as time is set aside to worship God. One spirit attends an appearance by Jesus which sounds much like a celebrity arriving to greet fans, and for some reason Jesus has guards to look after him.
With that sort of exception it sounds a dull place, with a rigid hierarchy, a surprisingly authoritarian emphasis on receiving permission to do things, and a requirement for obedience. Everybody we meet is parochial, with little appetite for exploring further afield, even though the territory, we are informed, is vast. There is also a strange obsession with one’s appearance, hard work and therefore progression enabling nice clothes to be acquired and the higher spirits looking, well, divine. Those who refuse to work wear drab tatty garments and are ignored by the grafters. Others cling resolutely to the earth for a time, unwilling to give up its pleasures even though they can only enjoy them second-hand, until they realise how futile it is. Everybody gets with the programme eventually.
Development thereafter is a personal task, and it is common for those newly arrived to be told that they cannot meet relatives, or only for a brief period, as they must all pursue their own individual paths. The wishes of individuals themselves count for little in the grand scheme. There is even a reference to being ‘re-educated’, which has a sinister ring. It is not a straightforward picture of heaven as a place of unconfined joy. Mixed in with the idea of upward progress is that of reincarnation, returning to the living world to undertake further learning (going from aristocrat to shepherd in consecutive lives, for example).
The publisher has done a good job with the book’s production but less well with the provision of supplementary information. There is an introduction, but it mainly deals with general issues of mediumship, much of it in a Biblical context. An epilogue indicates that Brunner is extremely influential in the German-speaking world: her lectures have been published in Geistige Welt, the oldest Christian Spiritualist paper, since 1948, and there is a very attractive centre in Zürich in which the recordings are played. Both enterprises are managed by an organisation called Pro Beatrice. However there is little information on Brunner herself, there is no indication why these twelve accounts should be particularly noteworthy, nor how they relate to the many lectures she gave.
It is entirely possible that Beatrice Brunner was able to tap into the afterlife, and the people there were able to channel testimonies through her that will help those whose turn is yet to come to be prepared. The general consistency of the witnesses would be the result of their world’s reality. On the other hand there is never any information that would help to identify them as having lived, and it is entirely possible that the consistency is more the result of Brunner’s own views on what the afterlife should be like.
While it always pleasant to think that our consciousness survives death, these reports do not come across as a particularly appealing view of the hereafter. The communicators talk about ‘coming home’, ‘for the true life is the life of the spirit’, yet it is hard to see how its strictness can compare favourably with the earth life left behind for anyone who has not previously suffered extreme privation and who can therefore anticipate being fast-tracked. It doesn’t feel like a place to look forward to for the rest of us if these descriptions of it are a reliable indication.
NB This volume was published in 2013. It was republished the following year in ebook form by ABZ Verlag as Life after Life: A Selection of Individual Experiences in the Beyond.
Pro Beatrice’s website: http://www.probeatrice.ch/index.php/en/
Dr Zofia Weaver, co-author with Ian Stevenson and Mary Rose Barrington of A World in a Grain of Sand: The Clairvoyance of Stefan Ossowiecki (2005), and a past editor of the Journal and Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, has produced a short book packed with information on the mediumship of Warsaw-born Teofil Modrzejewski (1873-1943), who used the pseudonym Franek Kluski. He is not as well known in the English-speaking world as other mediums, notably D D Home and Eusapia Palladino, or even Rudi Schneider, largely because much of the reporting of his mediumship was in Polish. Weaver has helped to redress the situation by making available material not previously translated into English and providing a balanced assessment of Kluski’s extraordinary career as a medium.
That career was an unusual one. The most significant portion of it was also surprisingly short, comprising some 340 sittings held between 1918 and 1925. He was already 45 when he began in late 1918, and fell into it by accident: he attended a séance and discovered that he too seemed to possess mediumistic abilities, though he did claim to have had psychic experiences in childhood. He began to hold séances himself, but never gained financially from doing so, never performed in public, and did not seek recognition. He thought mediumship in general to be a ‘circus’, of which he had no ambition to become a part. His choice of pseudonym itself played down the remarkable events which surrounded him – Weaver says that kluski is a particularly dull type of pasta.
In addition to providing biographical details and outlining what is known about Kluski’s character, Weaver sets this period in the context of Poland’s fortunes before the First World War and its emergence as an independent state in November 1918. It seems likely that Kluski was involved in the conflict as he had extensive military connections and was a volunteer during the Polish-Soviet War (and he had actually fought a duel in his twenties). After the war he had a day job in banking, in addition to being a journalist and man of letters, though he never wrote about his séance room activities and was reluctant to talk about them. In addition to his military friends he had a wide range of professional connections. People from both spheres attended his séances and Weaver provides details of a few of these individuals, giving an insight into the milieu in which Kluski moved. In short he did not conform to the typical stereotype of a medium only partially connected to this world.
Kluski’s mediumship was intensively scrutinised, not only by Polish psychical researchers, but by others further afield, notably Charles Richet, Camille Flammarion, Everard Feilding, Barbara and Hewat McKenzie of the British College of Psychic Science, and particularly Gustave Geley. Kluski was happy to work with sympathetic investigators, and they were impressed by what occurred in their presence. A primary source is the 586-page Polish-language book, Reminiscences of Séances with the Medium Franek Kluski (1926), by Colonel Norbert Okolowicz, who attended many of Kluski’s séances, and Weaver draws on it extensively. A further important source is Gustave Geley’s Clairvoyance and Materialisation (1927), which has much to say about Kluski. In addition Weaver has been able to examine Polish records compiled by others, and provide information on Kluski and his achievements that has not hitherto been available in English.
The sheer range of what went on around him is astonishing. Kluski is probably best known for the production of wax moulds said to be made by the immersion of spirits’ materialised body parts, but there was a great deal more. Phenomena included strange phosphorescent mists, movement of objects, odd noises and raps, odours, apports in and out of the séance room and lights moving around. Figures were frequently visible, sometimes only partly materialised. At other times they became increasingly clear until they achieved their final form, seeming to take their energy from the participants by rubbing their clothing, or growing from a small to full size in accordance with the sitters’ intention. It is important to note that Kluski did not insist on complete darkness; dim red light and luminous plaques aided vision, and a number of the figures were self-illuminating. Sitters often recognised the visitors and there was interaction between them; the materialised apparitions demonstrated personality, some could read sitters’ minds and would respond to thoughts. The participants’ attitudes set the tone, and the degree of group cohesion, along with Kluski’s physical and mental health, influenced the production and strength of phenomena.
In addition to the human figures, too dissimilar to Kluski to be the result of impersonation, materialisations included dogs, cats, squirrels, a large bird, all suggesting that not only humans survive bodily death, and an ape-like creature which Geley called ‘Pithecanthropus’ and which was said to smell like a wet dog. Strange phenomena were not confined to the séance room but occurred outside it as well. These included floating lights, compass needles in a display case moving when Kluski leaned over them, and affecting electric lighting. On one occasion at a regimental dinner he held a fluent conversation with Tartar officers in their language, despite not knowing it, and only understood he had done so when told the following day. He was able to exercise clairvoyance, and most dramatically (a somewhat relative term when discussing Kluski) had a facility for bilocation, including one occasion when Geley saw him in Paris while he was actually in Warsaw.
Weaver deals at length with the wax moulds, the subject of vigorous controversy in the pages of the SPR’s Journal in the 1990s following first a book review by Michael H. Coleman in 1989 which dismissed them, and then stimulated further by Weaver’s 1992 paper ‘The Enigma of Franek Kluski’. The hope that they (or at least the plaster casts taken from them) might represent an unambiguously permanent paranormal object has not been fulfilled, but if they were a trick, it was an accomplished one in the confines of the séance room, surrounded by witnesses. In a refinement to the normal procedure Geley and Richet added blue colouring to the paraffin to guard against pre-prepared wax moulds being smuggled in, and the wax in which the mould was made was found to be blue, showing that it had to have been created in situ. An alternative safeguard was to add cholesterol to the paraffin; the advantage over a dye is that it does not discolour the wax on its own, but when sulphuric acid is added it becomes red. These are controls which critics need to account for when assessing how the moulds might have been produced.
Kluski’s general health was not good and he suffered during séances, finding them exhausting. At times Kluski turned more to automatic writing, which placed less strain on him. The words were sometimes in a language he did not know, albeit he was a polyglot, and the handwriting and content (though not necessarily the views, perhaps influenced by Kluski) were acknowledged by sitters as appropriate to particular deceased individuals. Messages occasionally arrived from people who were living but asleep at the time. Weaver notes that his mediumship continued after 1925, but again the emphasis was on automatic writing. He clearly felt that there was a tension between his mediumship and his religious faith and he eventually stopped altogether in September 1939 because of Church disapproval; one suspects though that he did not find it difficult, considering the physical toll, and perhaps he felt he had nothing to prove so no reason to continue.
Weaver draws comparisons with other mediums and concludes that while elements of Kluski’s mediumship can be found in theirs, what makes it noteworthy was its scale. To explain it away as trickery is to assume a high degree of gullibility, but many of the sitters were highly experienced and aware of methods of cheating. That is not to rule out deception completely, and an assumption of expertise can lead to complacency; but if the sitters had been gullible then Kluski’s success at fooling them so comprehensively would betoken a degree of idiocy as incredible as the things they witnessed. If fraud, it was of a sophisticated kind that could hoodwink sharp and knowledgeable researchers so thoroughly. While séances seem to have been well-controlled (Kluski was prepared to participate naked, which definitely shows a willingness to cooperate), sceptics will argue that holding them in Kluski’s own apartment was a fatal weakness. Yet he was happy to work in red light, and there were still manifestations when Kluski was away from home, including visiting the Institut Métapsychique International in Paris in 1920 where he was studied by Geley, its director. Again that does not rule out fraud completely, but it does make it more difficult to dismiss the phenomena.
Kluski is a significant figure in the history of psychical research who deserves to be better known, and for more than just the production of ‘spirit hands’. What makes him special in Weaver’s eyes is that his mediumship manages to combine just about every aspect of mental and physical mediumship. In trying to evaluate this wealth of data she asks: ‘what is impossible?’ If we can’t answer that, how can we dismiss Kluski’s evidence as not being possible, however unlikely it is? Alan Gauld, who contributes the foreword, characterises Kluski as ‘a uniquely puzzling individual’, so the use of ‘enigma’ in the subtitle is well chosen. Any kind of conclusion is elusive, but Kluski, as a result of Dr Weaver’s efforts, can assume his place among those mediums of the first rank whose accomplishments pose challenges for our understanding of the world. She concludes with the suggestion that physical mediumship should be taken more seriously today for what it might tell us about, in her words, ‘realities not available to most of us’. Who knows, in so doing we may find another Franek Kluski.
An interview with Carlos Alvarado, in which Zofia Weaver discusses the book, can be found here: https://carlossalvarado.wordpress.com/tag/zofia-weaver-franek-kluski-physical-mediumship/
A review by Robert L Charman will appear in the SPR's Journal.
Chris Aspin, a member of the SPR, has written a booklet containing paranormally-related anecdotes that have their origin in and around Helmshore in Lancashire. He is a local historian, and came across many of these during the course of his general researches into the area. Most were told to him personally, including a striking one from his grandmother and great-aunt which must have occurred in the late 1890s: they passed in the street, and spoke to, a local man they knew well, before remembering that he had hanged himself the day before. They saw him go into a pub, but on following him in (quite a brave thing for two teenage girls to do) were told that nobody had entered for some time.
This story is typical of the sort Chris Aspin has recorded. Many involve the ghosts of people, and animals too, including a ‘small bear’ on a staircase witnessed independently by two individuals unknown to each other. A pre-war commotion heard one night by a newly-appointed second footman at Compton Verney, and recounted many years later to Aspin, had apparently been experienced on a number of occasions previously, and was thought to be linked to the 1642 Battle of Edgehill.
Aspin also has examples of poltergeist activity, including one from his bank manager, not normally the sort of person with whom one discusses these things – or these days even has – and a Second World War instance of a dog that knew when its owner, or at least the son (a serviceman) of its owner, was coming home. There is a mediumistic communication involving the author’s grandfather, and a number of coincidences round off the booklet.
As Aspin points out in the introduction, these sorts of accounts can be found across the country, and they make intriguing, if frustratingly inconclusive, reading. Helmshore is changing, having been a place noted for its mills, but now part of the Greater Manchester commuter belt, yet these sorts of stories have a timeless quality that roots us in a place, and connects us to those who came before us. In turn, capturing testimony before it vanishes is a valuable project because we can never know what significance may be found in it by those who come after us.
The booklet is twelve A5 pages. Copies can be obtained from the author at £2 plus 60p p&p - email chris_aspin[at]yahoo.co.uk. for details. I’m sure he would also welcome further stories about the area to add to his collection.
Patricia Pearson, like many people, became interested in the possibility of an afterlife, and what it might be like, as a result of bereavement. In her case it was the deaths of her father and sister in a short space of time which prompted her interest, but more importantly her sister Katharine’s feeling, while suffering from aggressive breast cancer, of a presence the night their father died but before she learned of it. It suggested to Katharine the possibility that he had visited her to say farewell, giving her much comfort. Intrigued by this event, Patricia decided to look into the subject to see if it could have a meaning that pointed to something more than coincidence.
Opening Heaven’s Door is the result. In it Pearson surveys phenomena which suggest the continuation of some kind of consciousness, interweaving her research and interviews with her own anecdotes, giving her journey a personal aspect lacking in technical academic texts. Her approach makes discussion of the issues more digestible for the interested person who does not want to wrestle with the specialised literature. She covers a range of issues relevant to the consideration of the survival of bodily death, such as deathbed visions, or ‘Nearing Death Awareness’, including terminal lucidity, shared (between living and dying) death visions and the highly significant ‘Peak in Darien’ cases in which a dying person recounts seeing someone who has died but of whose parting they were unaware; apparitions; dreams and visions of the living that coincide with someone’s death; the sense those in extreme peril often have of a guiding force coming from outside themselves; and of course Near-Death Experiences, the topic with the highest profile in the field today.
In the process she shows how common these various phenomena are, but not much talked about by either those who have them or those who witness others having them, because people do not want to be tagged as hysterical, delusional, or weak-minded. In a society where ‘letting go’ is prized for mental health, talking about connections with the afterlife comes to seem pathological. She recounts a conversation at a party in which she discussed her sister’s experience the night their father died, and was shocked at how easily it was attributed to imagination, with no attempt to consider whether there was some factor that could not be reduced to a chance correlation. By contrast she finds the sorts of theories couched in terms of hallucinations, wishful thinking, anoxia and other by-products generated by a dying brain to ease the transition to extinction to be inadequate as explanations. End-of-life experiences and those reported by people who have undergone an NDE possess a coherence and vividness not exhibited by the fragmentary imagery caused by lack of oxygen or administration of drugs.
However, the secrecy that has surrounded these experiences in the past is giving way as those who have undergone them are becoming more willing to speak out than they used to be and more research is published, attaining a higher profile in the media. The result is an ever-expanding database, and complex theoretical debates, that have generated a rich body of data that can be daunting to the newcomer. That it can still be difficult to speak out is indicated by Pearson herself, when she recounts how she saw a platform medium who gave a series of messages highly relevant to her that seemed to come from her late sister, but which she found she could not acknowledge in public.
The book is very readable, though Pearson perhaps foregrounds the personal angle more than is necessary. What is lacking in her journalistic approach is the depth that comes from a thorough familiarity with the literature beyond that which meets her immediate needs. For example she refers to Sir William Barrett simply as a physicist in Dublin, and suggests that he wrote his classic 1926 book Death-Bed Visions because of a case that his wife had drawn to his attention in 1924 (it appears in the December 1924 issue of the SPR’s Journal, ‘A Remarkable Case of Vision of the Dying’). She does not indicate what a significant figure he had been more generally as a psychical researcher during the preceding half century. The SPR itself barely rates a mention.
There is no new research here, but it is a useful survey that makes an accessible introduction and anyone interested enough to read this will have a good foundation to go into the topics Pearson covers in more detail. It is possible that much of the evidence she presents can be explained in terms of normal, if unusual, processes, but to reflexively dismiss such experiences as ‘woo’, as so often happens, is inimical to healthy debate. Many possess a dimension that on the face of it seems to indicate something extraordinary is occurring. It is the type of experience that suggests some psi element at work which particularly deserves close scrutiny to see if we can determine what is going on. Pearson finished her investigation a different person to the one who started it, and her journey of discovery deserves to be taken seriously, whatever conclusions we wish to draw from it.
A separate review, by Robert McLuhan, appeared in the October 2014 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
A review by Michael Potts appeared in the January 2015 issue of The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
A review by Steve Hume appeared in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
A review of Wolf Messing: The True Story of Russia’s Greatest Psychic, by Tom Ruffles and Alexandra Nagel, appeared in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
Miles Edward Allen is the author of a number of books, the Survival Files: The Most Convincing Evidence Yet Compiled for the Survival of Your Soul; The Afterlife Confirmed: Even More Convincing Evidence from the Survival Files; and Defending Bridey’s Honor (that is Bridey Murphy, concerning reincarnation), among others. More people will probably know his work, if not his name, as president of The Association for Evaluation and Communication of Evidence for Survival and his The Survival Top 40. The last of these is an attempt to ascertain the strongest survival cases by using a scoring system based on objective criteria. Critics may argue that we never know enough about the detail of cases to say with certainty that scores can be assigned with confidence, but it is an interesting project which has helped to raise the profile of the best-attested cases from among the mass of weaker evidence.
Now Allen has produced Astral Intimacy: Fifty Spirits Speak About Life, Love, and Sex After Death. He has chosen a provocatively eye-catching but misleading title, because the book covers much more than that. It is a compilation of quotations arranged thematically, taken from books published between 1852 and 2001 in which spirits have allegedly communicated to the living the details of their environment as they understand them.
Reading through the fifty sources, totalling fifty-eight books, from which the communications are drawn, Allen has scored them to assess their perceived value as sources. He has then extracted representative quotations which describe conditions in the afterlife and the relationship of its inhabitants to those still alive, interspersed with his comments. As might be expected from his back-catalogue, Allen starts from the position that survival is a fact, and that mediumistic communications, used with care, are valuable sources that allow insights into that other life.
Before getting into the quotes, Allen takes a detour into Biblical exegesis, tackling the generally negative view which that volume has concerning spirit communication, possibly to reassure those who feel that their faith prohibits taking an interest in such matters that they need not fear that they are going counter to their beliefs. Those in that category who read on may occasionally find it an uncomfortable experience because organised religion takes something of a beating, as Allen’s view of it is that it is a means for the exercise of power.
Beginning with what is said about the process of transition at the end of this life, the quotations deal with the reactions of those who have just passed over, then the various stages through which souls pass: the lowest astral plane, the Shadow Lands, Summerland, how reincarnation works, and on to the higher realms, which spirits themselves cannot adequately describe nor the living adequately comprehend.
Most space is given over to Summerland, its society, the development of children, the status of animals, how travel is accomplished, the work its inhabitants do, leisure activities (television isn’t mentioned, which will be a relief to some, but there are books aplenty) and learning, the fruits of which are often transmitted to scientists on earth. Initially conditions are similar to those on earth, but diverge as spirits progress and leave self-imposed constraints behind. In all this God is real, but is considered a remote beneficent presence accessible only to those who have progressed the most.
The final chapters sum up the main points uniting the quotations, showing that from the first, by Adin Ballou in 1852, there has been a remarkable amount of consistency in the communications, which Allen sees as strong evidence that they contain a large degree of truth. Towards the end he comes back to examine some of the plot holes in the Book of Genesis, and the way that issues of sexual shame can be used for social control, that feel more like an anti-established religion hobbyhorse than an integral part of the book.
It’s a quick read which extracts the essence from what can be ponderous and windy musings by those who have departed this life and are sending back reports. Communicators range from well-known Spiritualist classics to the obscure. Cumulatively they form a reasonably coherent image of the afterlife, and Allen summarises them into a number of points which draw out the major conclusions. Before reaching the quotations a number of representative cases are presented to show that, if accurately reported, there is good evidence for the survival of bodily death.
Overall this is a heartening vision, one in which we continue to learn and evolve, and be together with loved ones, where earthly religious piety counts for less than one’s moral outlook (so even atheists who have led an ethical life should not be disadvantaged, unlike those who commit atrocities in the name of their faith). It is a humane vision, not a sterile one of gathering to praise a supreme being, but one in which the spirit works towards self-actualisation. The lowest levels may be pretty grim, but if they are it’s because it is a grimness of its inhabitants’ own making, and one from which they can progress eventually, once they have achieved the necessary self-awareness, while those who are more ‘advanced’ skip them altogether.
And what about sex? It definitely happens, at least initially, before the emphasis shifts to more ethereal planes. It is sex without guilt and with no risk of unwanted pregnancy or disease, conducted as part of a loving relationship. It reflects the earthly realm not as a separate sphere, but as a continuation of what comes afterwards. as suggested by the epilogue taken from G. Vale Owen, which talks about the importance of living in such a way that once the transition is made, progress can be smooth and uninterrupted. Allen has used the idea of ‘sex after death’ as a hook for the curious reader, but it is an important point which the literature stresses, that there are continuities between this existence and the next, that life after death is not so very different to life before it; except that in a strange way, to be ‘dead’ is to be more alive than the still-living.
Throughout, Allen’s tone is respectful but light, indicating where there are contradictions or claims that seem puzzling. These can always be overcome by arguing that spirits do not become omniscient suddenly simply because they are dead, and those at differing levels have views that appear contradictory but may reflect their limited perspectives. There is also the issue of communication difficulties and the problem of casting experiences that are beyond human understanding into terms that can be understood. Alternatively it may all be wishful thinking, but even if it is, there are worse things to believe. The book will make a good introduction for anybody interested in learning something about survival before tackling longer, more demanding texts.
This title was reviewed by Walter Meyer zu Erpen in the Society's Journal, July 2014.
Physical Séance Room Recollections, a pair of CDs containing first-hand accounts of physical mediumship, is produced by Stewart Alexander, a well-known medium himself and author of An Extraordinary Journey: The Memoirs of a Physical Medium. He was also President and Archives Officer of the now-defunct Noah’s Ark Society for Physical Mediumship in the early 1990s, and had realised in talking to older Spiritualists that over time their vivid memories of the mediums of the past, and the physical manifestations they had witnessed, would be lost. He decided he ought to try to preserve these memories for future generations, to which end he put out an appeal for audio recordings to be sent to him. A cassette assembling several submissions (‘The Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism – Archives Compilation Tape 1’) was made available to members of the Noah’s Ark Society in 1995.
As the tape was restricted to members of the Society, it had a fairly small distribution, and the demise of the organisation precluded any further releases. Alexander has now taken the original cassette and added further recordings to make up a two-CD set. The recordings have been digitised, cleaned and processed by Lew Sutton, but the quality is variable, unsurprising considering many were made at home on amateur equipment, probably small analogue recorders with built-in microphones. In addition to the speakers themselves, Alexander introduces them with biographical details to give some context. These are not interviews so are not structured, but that allows for a degree of spontaneity which might be lost in a formal conversation.
The first disc (77 minutes) begins with a new introduction by Alexander, plus the original 1995 introduction. Tracks 2-4 are a 20 minute extract from a very entertaining lecture on physical mediumship given in 1976 at a Reading Spiritualist church by Douglas Lawrence. He describes witnessing ectoplasm, looking like a large white shimmering silk sheet (but wasn’t), ‘translucent, glistening and beautiful’. Because it is a public event he is reticent about mentioning names of mediums, but it gets the collection off to a good start. Track 5 is provided courtesy of the SPR and is different in being a séance room recording of Mrs Gladys Osborne Leonard, sitting with the Rev. Charles Drayton Thomas. (Alexander dates this to 1951, but it closely resembles the two Mrs Leonard tracks included on the 2007 triple CD Okkulte Stimmen Mediale Musik: Recording of Unseen Intelligences 1905-2007, one with W. S. Irving and Theodore Besterman, dated 17 November 1932, the other with Drayton Thomas, dated 6 January 1933.) Other tracks on the first CD feature Eugene Woods from Ohio, USA, Kathleen Allen, and Joan Honor, all Noah’s Ark-era contributions.
The second disc (76 minutes) has the final reminiscence from the original cassette, Elsie Richards on medium Frank Havard, followed by the 1995 summary plus a new addendum containing a fresh appeal for additions to Stewart’s collection. Subsequent tracks were not on the original cassette. William Cookson and the Rev. Merrill recount their memories, followed by another non-Noah’s Ark recording, extracts from a lecture given to the College of Psychic Studies by Ivy Northage in 1990. In it she displays great talent as a raconteur. The longest in the set, it occupies 38 minutes over four tracks. The final track is the daughter of Mrs L. T. Gordon, reading her mother’s written account of her experiences.
Cumulatively the CDs paint a vivid picture of a Spiritualist culture which has always been controversial, but whatever the listener’s opinion, these accounts are told with absolute sincerity, compassion and often humour. The notion of a ‘Christmas Tree party’, in which spirit children choose gifts and take the etheric component with them, leaving the earthly form behind, will not convince the sceptical, but these witnesses do not come across as gullible fools, even when talking about the most remarkable phenomena, including materialisations and ectoplasm. While there are no guarantees that what the witnesses say happened really did happen, they have left a valuable record. The listener will have to decide how credible they are, but whatever position one takes on the reality of what is said to have occurred, this is a window into the past that comes alive in a way that it wouldn’t if transcribed onto the page.
There is a great interest in non-elite oral history these days, but in 1995 there was less awareness of its value. The project shows us that it is easy to be blasé about earlier times, and then find it is too late to do anything about it as witnesses die. This is the kind of initiative which should be carried on in a rolling programme so that today’s witnesses are able to give permanent expression of their memories for tomorrow. In parapsychology, Rosemarie Pilkington has issued two volumes of Men and Women of Parapsychology:, Personal Reflections, and more recently Carlos Alvarado has produced his online ‘People in Parapsychology’ series, but these can only touch a fraction of the workers in that field. Spiritualism is even less well served. In seeking to preserve these memories, Stewart Alexander has done a huge service to future historians of the subject, and anyone else with an interest in physical mediumship, in making these recordings available. As the title suggests, Alexander has more in his collection so this project will continue. It is also to be hoped that in due course the full archive is deposited in a suitable home, and made available to researchers in its entirety. In the meantime, it is to be hoped that anyone with stories of physical mediumship will get in touch
Details of how to obtain the album can be obtained from Stewart Alexander – stewart.alexander [at] finka.karoo.co.uk. The cost is £12.50 plus p&p.
That’s a strong claim by Alex Tsakiris; ‘almost’ doesn’t leave very much that science appears to be doing right. Even those who feel that science’s boundaries have been drawn too tightly, and orthodoxy imposes a too-rigid limit on what should be considered acceptable subject-matter, may take issue, finding science pretty useful for everyday life. In fact Rupert Sheldrake, who wrote the foreword, felt uncomfortable with the title. While characterising Tsakiris as a ‘fearless investigator’ he considered it went ‘too far’, as science was right about ‘a great many things.’ Sheldrake thought that the title should have restricted itself to science’s failings in investigating consciousness.
Even the endorsement by Dean Radin, who would agree with much of what Tsakiris says and who is treated positively in the book, begins: ‘There’s nothing wrong with science itself.’ The problem, as Radin continues, is with scientists who misrepresent the evidence. Tsakiris, presumably for marketing purposes, preferred his original title, but his provocative strategy may backfire. While he will get a number to pick up the book because they are intrigued by its title, he is as likely to deter others who might agree with some of his sentiments but who feel that such a title is merely a stick that opponents can use to beat them with as scientific illiterates, or that someone who takes such an extreme stance is going to be an unreliable commentator.
Tsakiris is of course no stranger to controversy. His Skeptiko podcast has carried interviews with researchers and thinkers of diverse persuasions. He began in 2007 and at the time of writing this his show has clocked up over 260 interviews. Why Science is Wrong contains extracts from a selection of these, a tiny fraction of the total, grouped thematically, and they demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of his agenda.
Science, according to the chapter titles, is wrong about all sorts of things. It is wrong about … consciousness, quantum physics (five pages that barely touch on the topic), near-death experiences, psychics and mediums, telepathy (including the canine variety), psychic detectives, healing and medicine, atheism, Darwin and evolution, even science itself. Tsakiris admits he is not a scientist and his persona is that of a keenly interested fast-learning autodidact able to talk with ease on the same level as experts who may have spent decades studying a subject (though he has an MBA, so he is no slouch intellectually).
He has a robust – putting it mildly – interviewing style. At his best, with a subject he knows a lot about (notably NDEs) and with a sympathetic interviewee, his conversations can be illuminating. Conversely he can pick out the weaknesses of his interviewees’ arguments in a way that is merciless. He is adept at showing how little sceptics (or rather pseudo-sceptics) have often thought about the ramifications of the subject they are on to talk about. In that sense Tsakiris provides a useful service in showing that simply because someone expresses a view strongly, it does not necessarily mean it is based on deep research. On the other hand he has a tendency to take an inability to provide a counter-argument as evidence for his own position, and he is not even-handed when debating those whose ideas he finds uncongenial.
The book is billed as ‘A rollcking assault on science’s inability to answer life’s most important questions’. I’m not sure it counts as rollicking, but an assault it certainly is. The section on consciousness attacks the premise that consciousness is solely a product of the brain. It seems that the reason why Tsakiris chose his title, and spends so much time discussing consciousness, is because he views it as the key area where science has failed, and catastrophically so: ‘If my consciousness is something – anything – other than a product of my brain’ (and he is convinced it isn’t a product of his brain) ‘then science is out of business until it figure out exactly how my consciousness interacts with this world.’ Without an understanding of how consciousness fits into the picture, he argues, science can never give a complete picture of any subject to which it is applied.
Instead, to cover up its deficiencies, we get what he calls the ‘Dopey Science Creed’ characterising mainstream science which makes bold claims that there is no purpose to anything, free will is an illusion, we are nothing more than our physical brains and the death of the brain means the death of the person, the paranormal is bunk, and so on. By contrast, Tsakiris has concluded from his interviews that the evidence strongly supports the contention that consciousness is not constrained by the brain, we survive death, and our existence has meaning.
In fleshing out this thesis the book’s first half is by far the strongest, but it feels weaker as it proceeds. The chapters on consciousness, NDEs, mediumship, telepathy and healing go into as much detail as space will allow, and while the reader may not shift from a sceptical position as a result, the interviews are stimulating and challenging. That on psychic detection descends into a ‘he said she said’ which shows the lengths critics will go to in splitting hairs to try to prove a point, but doesn’t go beyond hearsay in discussing the reality of psychic detection.
The chapter on atheism is confusing and unconvincing as Tsakiris has an image of atheists that they uniformly believe life to be ‘a meaningless illusion created by biologic (sic) robots.’ While there may be those who think it, though I’ve not met one, or at least one willing to admit to such a bizarre belief, it is a crude generalisation to lump all atheists in that category. Such a broad claim should be backed by evidence, but there is none here.
The interviews on evolution and Charles Darwin are mostly about charges that Darwin plagiarised Alfred Russel Wallace, the true ‘discover’ of evolution, with no dissenting opinions. Tsakiris considers evolution a ‘reasonable approximation of how living organisms change’, but seems to feel that the problem with Darwinism is that it promotes a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality inimical to broader spiritual values. This may be deemed a curious attitude from someone who has an MBA and describes himself as ‘a successful entrepreneur’, but one can see why he might be unhappy with a lack of meaning within Darwinian evolution. Although Tsakiris does not mention Russell’s interest in Spiritualism, he considers Russell’s brand of evolutionary theory to be superior because it ‘isn’t about survival of the individual, but survival of the group.’ Presumably that involves the notion of existence containing meaning so lamentably absent in Darwinism; it’s really hard to tell.
Tsakiris’s introduction is, as is his website, subtitled ‘Science at the tipping point’, the tipping point being science’s move away from crass materialism to give the role of consciousness its due. He comes back to this issue towards the end when he characterises science as it is currently conceptualised as the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ and argues that we need to move beyond the restrictive approach which says, in his words, that ‘we’re just an illusion created by this meaningless electrochemical reaction going on inside our brain.’
On the contrary, Tsakiris vehemently protests that we are not ‘meaningless’, while acknowledging that he does not know what that meaning is. But it’s really not clear to me on what basis he concludes that there is meaning to existence, other than wishful thinking. As a consequence it’s an interesting yet ultimately unsatisfying book, too short and bitty to do justice to the richness of the Skeptiko archive, too often concerned with point-scoring, and not pulling the interview extracts into a coherent narrative. Instead he jumps around, with a tendency to stray from the subject of a particular chapter.
Even so, the book should provide a service in directing readers to his website so that they can listen to the podcast interviews themselves. Used with care they are a valuable resource, with some fine researchers given space to expound, but the listener needs to be aware that Tsakiris has an agenda, and make allowances accordingly.
Now that he has a higher profile, it is possible that people not in tune with his views will be increasingly reluctant to appear on his show, so the range of interviewees may decrease in future. Those who are invited on and are fooled by the ‘Skeptiko’ tag into thinking that they are dealing with a host who is in sympathy with the aims of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and who fail to do due diligence on what they could be getting themselves into, will only have themselves to blame for a bruising encounter.
Is the term ‘Skeptiko’ misleading? Yes, in a way, but only because ‘scepticism’ has been co-opted by an approach that Tsakiris would claim isn’t sceptical at all, because it represents a narrow materialist status quo. He sees himself as truly an iconoclastic sceptic because he takes on those vested interests, but he has a problem distinguishing the baby from its bathwater.
NB Alex Tsakiris has posted a response on the Skeptiko website: