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The Paranormal Surrounds Us: Psychic Phenomena in Literature, Culture and Psychoanalysis, by Richard Reichbart

Cover of The Paranormal Surrounds Us
Publication Details: 
McFarland, ISBN: 9780786495368.
Publish date: 
January, 2019

The Paranormal Surrounds Us is an anthology edited by Richard Reichbart. Although some material is new the anthology includes several articles that he originally wrote for the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (JASPR). Given that many readers lack access to JASPR their republication is welcome. Reichbart was openly interested in parapsychology during the 1970s, but since then he has published little. Reichbart is a clinical psychologist and a psychoanalyst. He is not as familiar with parapsychology literature as he used to be, but his writings are not without value. Reichbart writes as an outsider looking at parapsychology. His interest in the subject was sparked by Jule Eisenbud, who was his psychoanalyst in the 1970s. The title, The Paranormal Surrounds Us, is due to Reichbart’s belief that:

... we live and breathe psi phenomena without awareness. It is the sea around us. It is all we know—so integral to how we survive and relate to one another and the world and yet we cannot quite get a hold of it. It is ubiquitous and elusive at the same time (p. 11)

One does not need to be receptive to psychoanalytic ideas to appreciate this book, but it certainly helps. The first section concerns psi phenomena in Western literature. Although the old Handbook of Parapsychology (Wolman, 1977) included a chapter about this it is a topic rarely explored by parapsychologists. Reichbart explains that Hamlet the play is “a musing and a cogitation about the nature of death” (p. 15) and highlights how Hamlet, like a parapsychologist, considers various hypotheses. Reichbart also notes that psi phenomena are enmeshed in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina “in such a manner that the full extent of them may entirely escape the reader’s detection” (p. 23) and that Tolstoy “had an intuitive grasp of some important features of the subconscious” (p. 26). As a psychoanalyst Reichbart speculates that Tolstoy’s ambivalence towards women was due to his own mother’s death less than a month prior to his second birthday and that “his need to create being compensation for a need to destroy those closest to him through subconscious, psychokinetic action” (p. 29).

Reichbart also writes about E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India and notes “What is particularly informative about Passage is that the psi phenomena interweave in the mental disturbances of the central character” (p. 36). Furthermore, he writes about G. K. Chesterton’s play Magic and Ingmar Bergman’s movie The Magician. He notes that Chesterton “thought it futile to confine psi phenomena in the strait jacket of a scientific method” (p. 44) and that he suggested that “the established representatives of societal institutions and customs are all threatened by the possibility that psi exists” (p. 46). Finally, Reichbart writes about James Joyce’s Ulysses and notes that “Joyce depicts unconscious psi-mediated communication, not so much highlighting them but rather embedding them into the work” (p. 60).

Suddenly, in the section about psi phenomena in Western literature, he jumps to Ted Serios known for thoughtography (also known as psychic photography). Eisenbud is perhaps best remembered for his work with Serios. Reichbart notes that Eisenbud suffered due to his interest in parapsychology, Patrice Kean, executive director of  the ASPR, was mistaken when she told the New York Times that “his professional standing helped shield him from the sting” of criticism. Eisenbud never became a training analyst and an attempt was made to oust him from the New York Psychoanalytic Society. Before his interest in parapsychology became known he was considered to be a rising star. Naturally this affected Reichbart and made him more prone to keep his interest hidden. Reichbart notes that “Eisenbud, who built upon the findings of Freud, tend to be forgotten, marginalized, or dismissed” (p. 75). Eisenbud himself, shortly after the publication of The World of Ted Serios, recognized the possibility that his work with Serios could end up being forgotten (McGraw, 1969). Reichbart finds the early attempts to explain the phenomena away as being due to fraud utterly unconvincing. However, Serios was an alcoholic womanizer, the varying control during the sometimes rather chaotic sessions, and the fact that Serios needed to get intoxicated to produce certainly did not make parapsychologists eager to accept the phenomena as genuine. Annoyed, Eisenbud once suggested that the Parapsychologocial Association should change its name to the “Parastatistical Association” (McGraw, 1969).

The second section of the book concerns psi phenomena and psychoanalysis. Here Reichbart comments on the writings of Freud about psi and the rare more recent publications (e.g., Eshel, 2006). He notes that Freud came across discussions about psi early on in his career: “the atmosphere in which he was working at Charcot’s Saltpetriere [sic] was rife with speculations about psi phenomena associated with hypnotic trance at the very time he was there” (p. 82). Reichbart comments on Jacques Derrida’s (1988) article about telepathy and refers to it as “a turgid but haunting piece” (p. 107). Derrida noted that Freud’s writings about psi are all lectures that were never delivered. Reichbart notes that psychoanalysts, including himself, are reluctant to not only publish but also to write about their encounters with psi during psychotherapy.

What should a psychoanalyst do when she encounters psi during psychoanalysis? According to Reichbart, Eisenbud was perhaps a bit too eager to delve into psi experiences—the clients are not in psychoanalysis to present case material for psychoanalysts interested in parapsychology. What to do and tell the client is a question that concerns ethics and professionalism, Eisenbud never really dealt with this question. Reichbart address this but does not present a straight answer.

I believe Reichbart missed an important observation made by Eisenbud and Montague Ullman. In the late 1940s a Medical Section of the ASPR was founded; among the members were Eisenbud, Jan Ehrenwald, Joost Meerloo, Robert Laidlaw, and Ullman. “Our monthly meetings provided a welcome forum in which we could present our case material and exchange views. It soon became apparent that these meetings somehow provided a catalyst for the occurrence of the very case material we were meeting to present” (Eisenbud, 2010, p. 12). That is, their interest at the time provoked the occurrence of psi phenomena. Many psychoanalysts’ lack of interest in parapsychology might be the reason for the lack of psi during their meetings with clients. Perhaps psi phenomena are encountered, though ignored or not recognized, just as often by sceptical psychoanalysts.

Reichbart returns to the fear of psi several times in the book: “the fear that adults presumably feel toward entertaining the psi hypothesis is the fear of regression to aspects of that early development state, when the ego looses its boundaries and tends to merge with another” (p. 117). He does however note that telepathy is among the less provocative of the psi phenomena and speculates that psychoanalysts would have been more receptive to Eisenbud’s ideas if he had just studied telepathy and ignored all other phenomena. Reichbart himself acknowledges “I have often thought that in some ways it would be a much more comfortable world if parapsychological phenomena did not exist” (p. 143). Although he was not the first acknowledge this, Reichbart notes:

For to grant reality to psi is to come face to face … with the possibility that our subconscious death wishes directed towards loved objects can be effective. This possibility is something which we do not wish to entertain (p. 186).

The third and final section concerns psi phenomena and culture. Here Reichbart writes about shamans and magic (meaning the simulation of psi phenomena in this context) as being psi-conducive. What I think is missing in this section, especially given Reichbart’s commentary about fear of psi, is a more extensive discussion about societies in which psi phenomena are accepted.

The anthology includes a Foreword by Mikita Brottman, “a new, articulate and unremitting exponent of Eisenbud work”(p. x), who wrote Phantoms of the Clinic, an Afterword by the author and blogger Michael Prescott, a glossary and an index. The three appendixes include an obituary for Eisenbud, previously unpublished correspondence between Reichbart and the psychoanalyst Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, and a “psi mystery story” that remains mysterious after reading. Although I am not too receptive to psychoanalytic ideas I nevertheless found this anthology interesting.

Derrida, J. (1988). Telepathy. Oxford Literary Review, 1, 3-41
Eisenbud, J. (2010). My life with the paranormal. In R. Pilkington (Ed.). Espirit: Men and Women of
   Parapsychology, Personal Reflections, Volume 1
(2n Ed.) (pp. 7-18). San Antonio, TX: Anomalist
Eshel, O. (2006). Where are you, my beloved? International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 87, 1603-
McGraw,W. (1969). The World of the Paranormal. New York: Pyramid Books.
Wolman, B. B. (1977). Handbook of Parapsychology. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.