More Things you Can do When You’re Dead: What Can You Truly Believe?, by Tricia J. Robertson
Reviewed by Robert A. Charman
This review first appeared in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research Vol 80(3).
Taking the Things You Can Do When You Are Dead title common to this author’s two books (Robertson, 2013) in a literal sense, it seems that there has never been a more exciting time to be dead. The list of post mortem possibilities seems endless. They range from mediumistic communication including being a ‘drop in’ communicator baffling all present to ectoplasmic modelling of forms that may even shake hands before disappearing again. Then there is the possibility of making apparitional appearances from being rather wispy and insubstantial to more solid, full body including, for example, sitting on the bed or sofa and weighing it down or haunting old pubs or hotels or inhabiting a brand new home. Another opportunity open to you is to perform psychic healing and psychic surgery by taking over the mind of a healer. You may wish to develop your musical, painting or other artistic abilities through the minds of living artists, employ automatic writing to create novels, poetry and other works or reincarnate as a secondary personality in young children. Operating in psychokinetic mode you can move things around, hide them or throw them. According to other investigators you can also switch lights, radio or television on and off and ring doorbells to indicate that you are still alive and just as much fun as everyone fondly remembers. You can leave messages on voice mail, ring a dead telephone line and answer the surprised ‘Hello’, ring and answer a landline or mobile phone or maybe speak through a switched-off radio. With so many interesting things to look forward to the idea of just ‘resting in peace’ seems a very unadventurous option.
Turning to the book itself, as most Journal readers will know, Tricia Robertson, a former teacher of mathematics and physics, is an experienced investigator of psychic phenomena, often in the company of the late Archie Roy, Emeritus Professor of Astronomy, Glasgow University, and a very engaging speaker. In her Introduction she says, “I am not trivialising the subject of life after death but merely making it ‘normal’ which it is…. This is reality — this is what actually happens”. She goes on to say that “Some of the material in this book is mindboggling and often stretches the limits of credibility, but nevertheless the material is accurate. Everything I have written is expressed with 100% honesty and from a very grounded state”.
I do not doubt for a moment this author’s sincerity and total belief in the afterlife, and this certainty drives the narrative forward in a very readable way. Assuming the cases and examples presented match what actually occurred — as distinct from what was thought to have occurred — it really is very difficult to account for some of them without invoking the hypothesis of life after death no matter what the neurosciences say to the contrary.
Like the first book (reviewed by Playfair, 2014), this is written for the general public in the hope of convincing readers that dying is not the end of their existence. It is a transition from a physical way of life to a new way of life lived in a psychic dimension where all might meet up again. It is prefaced by enthusiastic endorsements from Stanley Krippner, Professor of Psychology, Saybrook University, David Hamilton, ex pharmaceutical chemist and cofounder of the International Spirit Aid Foundation, and John Poynton, Emeritus Professor of Biology, University of Natal and current president of the SPR. Her Introduction is followed by a brief historical background concerning the pioneers who founded the SPR in 1882 and the reasons why it was formed. The Contents list many named cases under chapters covering materialisation, drop-in communicators, earthbounds, poltergeist activity, inspiration through authors, obsession, possession, reincarnation, mediumship, paranormal healing, a ‘medley of phenomena’ and ‘a potpourri of paranormality’. These are interspersed by chapters on common features pertaining to obsession, possession and reincarnation and another chapter discussing resistance to accepting paranormal phenomena which includes Swedenborg’s apparent clairvoyant vision of the Stockholm fire that occurred on 19th July, 1659 while he was at dinner in Gothenburg some 400km away. The final section is composed of chapters on Quantum Thinking, Science and Psi, The Afterlife: What might it be like? And Trying to Make Sense of it All. There is an extensive Further Reading/Biography and an About the Author.
The opening chapter on séance materialisations observed in dim light does not include any materialisations witnessed by the author. In fact, this book contains very few investigations undertaken by Robertson herself, which I found very disappointing. Following historical mention of Sir William Crookes, Miss Florence Cook and the materialisation of a long dead Katie King, they are all accounts given to her by other witnesses, mostly from mediums she knows, concerning séances held by the physical mediums Rita Goold, Gordon Higginson, Stewart Alexander, Kai Muegge, David Thompson, and a couple called Tom and Kevin who often work with the physical medium Bill Meadows. Each account of perceived materialisation as told to Robertson reads very convincingly. For example, during a Rita Goold séance in which the sitters used torches with red paper over the bulb to see what was going on a materialised small boy smiled at Archie Roy and demonstrated how he could wriggle his bare toes, and in another Rita Goold séance a very well built Helen Duncan (some 225lb in real life) materialised, plonked herself heavily down on the sofa next to him repeatedly saying ‘Ye ken what I mean Archie’ while vigorously slapping his upper arm. This is possibly an ectoplasmic first. At the end of a Tom, Kevin and Bill Meadows séance a materialised warm hand on which you could see the hairs of someone said to be long dead shook hands with all present.
Having great personal difficulty accepting materialisation as a genuine phenomenon, I am not in a position to comment as to whether it really is an acquired post-mortem skill. When I consulted the Wikipedia entry under ‘mediumship’ I found a depressingly long and fully referenced list of physical mediums exposed of cheating in a variety of ingenious ways. This list includes Tony Cornell’s very sceptical assessment of those same Rita Goold séances with respect to whether the materialisations were truly ectoplasmic revisioning of those who have died or had a more immediately human origin (Cornell, 2002). In more direct support of belief in afterlife communication, Robertson discusses the Cross Correspondences, taking the Lethe case as an apparent example of post mortem communication between deceased classical scholars speaking through various mediums in which the references had to be painstakingly assembled by others. As for mediumistic communication of information known to or later confirmed by sitters, and assuming that psi is a genuine faculty of the living, there is always the more likely possibility of telepathy between medium and sitter.
We seem on more secure ground with ‘drop in’ communicators not known to the séance group. Robertson presents two examples from the séance transcripts of a group in Cambridge who held meetings from 1937 to 1954 using a Ouija board. In the 1960s Dr Gauld used their records to identify an aggressive Gustav Biedermann, of Charnwood Lodge, London, ex-London University lecturer, rationalist and admirer of Hitler who died in 1942 aged 72 who ‘dropped in’ on the group in 1943; and a Harry Stockbridge, born in Leicester in 1896, 2nd lieutenant, Northumberland Fusiliers, killed aged 20 on the 14th July, 1916, who ‘dropped in’ some 36 years later in 1952. The problem is that there does not seem to have been any purpose to their ‘drop in’ especially 36 years later. If it had not been for Gauld’s exhaustive inquiries the séance group would have been no further forward. Apart from eventually confirmed personal details, neither ‘drop in’ communicator contributed any information about life after death or information for their family, so why ‘drop in’ at all? If ‘drop ins’ are so easy to do why don’t those who are murdered, or disappeared presumed dead, ‘drop in’ to provide urgent details of what has happened to them, either to bring those involved to justice or explain the circumstances of their death to their grieving family? Is the concept of a ‘drop in’ communicator blocking the search for a real explanation for this experience?
‘Earthbounds’ are assumed to be those who either do not know they are dead or who know that they are dead but are unable to ‘move on’. Several accounts are given of mediums picking up details. But what if the mediums are using retrospective clairvoyance? Poltergeist activity does seem to be a genuine phenomenon, but as it often seems to act as an agent in its own right it may not be an acquired post mortem skill. Under ‘Obsession’ Robertson quotes the case of Frederick Thompson, who in 1906 became convinced that the recently deceased American seascape and landscape painter Robert Swain Gifford wanted him to paint in his style, which he did obsessively. Thompson later became mentally deranged. Some familiar childhood cases of apparent reincarnation are reviewed and they do seem difficult to explain but, again, why so relatively few (some 3,000 or so) when some 56 million people die each year, many through traumatic causes but are not heard of through the lips of children again? The ‘medley’ concerns OBEs and NDEs including the neurosurgeon Eben Alexander. But as OBEs and NDEs occur in those still alive they seem irrelevant.
‘Paranormal Healing’ presents 15 testimonial cases taken from Robertson’s 5 year study of people who received healing from Gary Mannion and Nina Knowland. They all felt that they had received great benefit from healing but there is no mention that their healing was through the agency of anyone deceased. ‘A potpourri’ presents a few cases of children who said they had previous parents, a hotel haunting, an appalling case of an irresponsible medium’s message to a distraught mother whose baby had died (which, thankfully, Robertson was able to resolve), and psychic art as illustrated by the Bang sisters who claimed to psychically ‘paint’ portraits on blank canvas. These sisters also appear on that long list of exposed frauds. In the final chapter Robertson mentions the successful 1994–99 study that she and Archie Roy carried out with mediums to determine whether they could predict who would sit in designated chairs at lectures and dinner tables. But, again, this could be explained in terms of psi abilities possessed by the living rather than the dead.
What then, of the ‘More things to do’ in the title? Well there is no ‘more’ in the sense of new forms of possible post-mortem things to do as the same topics were presented in her first book, with the added advantage that they included many personal investigations not published previously. In fact, very many of the cases recounted refer to psi in this life so in that sense they are interesting but irrelevant. Whereas the subtitle of the first book was ‘True Accounts of After Death Experiences’ thus confirming the confident certainty of the title, the ‘What Can You Truly Believe?’ question makes no sense as the author has already answered it for the reader; you can truly believe what is in this book, no matter how mindboggling, because the accounts are accurate.
Enjoyable though it is to read, and while most readers will agree with her arguments for the existence of psi in the final chapters, that is not the same as an argument for life after death. Psi belongs to this life. What we need is a follow-up book based solely upon the wide range of unpublished investigations carried out by the author and Archie Roy and I do hope she will write it.
Robert A. Charman can be reached at email: email@example.com
Cornell, A. D. (2002). Investigating the paranormal. New York: Helix Press.
Playfair, G. L. (2014). [Review of the book Things you Can do When You are Dead by T.
J. Robertson]. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 78, 102-103.
Robertson, T. J. (2013). Things you Can do When You are Dead: What Can You Truly
Believe? Guildford: White Crow Books.