Soul in a Dunce Cap
The author of “Stiff” (and now “Spook”) enrolls in an English medium school.
By Mary Roach
[Editor’s note: In her new book, “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife,” Mary Roach puts her finger on what’s so fishy about medium-channeled messages from the Great Beyond: “Dead people never seem to address the obvious—the things you’d think they’d be bursting to talk about, and the things all of us not-yet-dead are madly curious about. Such as: Hey, where are you now? What do you do all day? Can you see me? Even when I’m on the toilet? Would you cut that out?”
Roach describes her session with Allison DuBois, the medium upon whose life NBC’s “Medium” is based. DuBois contacted Roach's mother, but the author was skeptical. “Maybe that was my mother coming through,” she writes. “But what’s the meaning of it? Why would one of my brother’s hourglasses be the image she chose to present to me? Was she simply trying to prove she was there? Then why not deliver my birth date or the name of our street or any of a thousand things that would more clearly suggest to me that it was her?”
Roach allows that if she understood the mental processes of mediumship—“the methods and limitations of spirit communication”—she could answer these questions. “This,” she writes, “was what I was thinking when I committed the bold and ridiculous act of signing up for “Fundamentals of Mediumship,” a three-day course at England’s ancient and stately Arthur Findlay College.” Here's her report.]
Arthur Findlay was the president of the Spiritualists’ National Union and a very wealthy man. Upon his death in 1964, Findlay bequeathed his enormous home, Stansted Hall, to the union to use as a college “for the advancement of psychic science.” Accordingly, the upstairs portions of the building have been outfitted with two floors of dormitory-style bedrooms. These are arranged in six separate hallways, each portion of hallway reachable by one of two dozen possible combinations of interlinking stairways and obscured by fire doors and dead ends, such that a degree in psychic science is necessary simply to find one’s bed in the evening.
“Fundamentals of Mediumship” begins on a Friday and runs through Sunday. We were instructed to arrive at 2 p.m., though nothing is scheduled until dinnertime. A staff person shows me to my room. I unpack my bag and then head back downstairs. Everyone seems to be in the gift shop, so I join them. People who enjoy fairies and dolphins have a wide range of purchase options here. I leaf through a copy of Findlay’s gigantic opus "The Psychic Stream," which should probably have been dammed at around page 200. For no good reason, I purchase an Arthur Findlay College box cutter and then wander upstairs to the museum. The featured exhibit is a display of paintings done “via precipitation” by mediums channeling artists in the spirit world. One painting is of Abraham Lincoln, who was said to have held séances in the White House, and one depicts Sir Arthur Conan Doyle “on a conducted tour of Hades.”
I decide to go back upstairs to get my coat for a walk around the grounds. My map includes evocative details such as “West Transept,” but no schematic of the loco upstairs hallways. At last, sweating and cranky, I locate my room. My roommate has arrived and is propped on her bed, reading a romance novel. We make small talk for a minute, and then she says, “I foresaw that you’d be an American. Blond and chubby.” I’m hardly blond or chubby, but I feel it’s too early in our relationship to mention this.
The grounds are vast and beautiful and empty, except for a stone sundial that, if this weekend’s weather is any indication, reflects a potent optimism on the part of the owners. I walk as far out as I can, in the direction of a single vigilant bull standing in the roughs at the edge of the property. On the way back, I am soaked “via precipitation.”
The evening orientation is led by Glyn Edwards, the school’s head tutor, which is what the English say in place of professor. Edwards recently suffered a neurological event that rendered his face uneven and his breathing deep and slurpy. He has a huge head and an unsettling tendency to put it right up next to yours and confront you with a question. His hair is arranged in a swept-back country-and-western style, with sideburns that are allowed to spread out and roam the wide, pale plains of his cheeks. Over his turtleneck he has on a gilded medal strung on a ribbon, as though he’d recently taken first place at a swim meet. I find him unnerving and strange, but people here speak highly of him, at least as a medium. A sitting with Edwards is being raffled off at five pounds a ticket.
“Mediumship,” he is saying, “is about proving that life after death is a fact. I challenge you to prove that what you feel this weekend is coming from beyond.” Edwards introduces the five other tutors, each of whom will lead a group of us for the rest of the weekend. We are not an easy gathering to stereotype. Along with the more predictable assortment of New Agers and old spiritualists, there are trendy-looking Europeans from the continent, a clique of regular-looking English blokes, a Maltese retiree, a blind man.
“Is everyone a medium?” Edwards asks, but does not wait for an answer. “No. Can everyone become one? No.” He looks around the room, breathing audibly. “It’s about you finding out what you’ve got.”
So far I’ve got: jet lag, an Arthur Findlay box cutter, a roommate who reads romance novels, a bad attitude.
Next morning we splinter off into our groups. My tutor is another popular English medium. She is reminiscent of Eliza-beth Taylor in her forties: a rolling terrain of voluptuousness and eye shadow, balanced on tiny, dressy black heels. Medium-ship came to her one night when she went to see a gypsy. She describes a curtain opening in her mind’s eye, and suddenly there they were: the spit-its, to use her pronunciation. She says she was, until that moment, an atheist. Like Allison DuBois, she strikes me as intelligent and savvy. I want to get her drunk in the Arthur Findlay pub, take her aside, and say, “No, but really . . .” But I haven’t the nerve. Like Edwards, she’s an intimidating presence. You get the feeling they cut up doubters and serve them for lunch around here (all the more so once you’ve tried the lunches).
I’ve been very curious to find out how someone teaches a skill as ineffable and seemingly unteachable as spirit communication. Our tutor speaks to us for about fifteen minutes, but actual take-home instructions are thus far few. They amount more or less to this: Expand your energy. “Push out your energy, fill the room with your power.” It seems to be something you just try to do. I try, I really do, but I have no idea where my energy is located or how to control its size or direction. I notice I’m moving my ears.
“Right,” says the tutor after a minute has gone by. “Does anyone not feel a contact?” No one raises a hand. I haven’t got my energy out the door, and apparently everyone else’s is off in heaven at an ice-cream social. I raise my hand. The tutor comes over and puts her hand up to my face. She asks if I can feel my face. What does this mean? It’s not numb, so I guess the answer is yes. I nod.
“Okay, good, you’ve got it.” She turns back to the group. I don’t read minds, but I think I know what’s going on in hers: AVOID THE YANK. The Yank is trouble.
We’re paired off to do our first reading. For now, we’re told to try to pick up information about the person we’re sitting with, rather than try to commune with his or her dead relatives. I’m with John, a soft-spoken, reticent man of maybe fifty, with a heavy Midlands accent. “Project your energy
John looks unhappy. He doesn’t look like he wants to be encompassed. “My wife brought me here,” he confides. The tutor is making the rounds, so we have to do something. John rubs his face. He squints at me. “So we’re supposed to poosh somethin’ out?” He clenches his eyes shut. A minute passes. He opens his eyes. “I’m sorry, luv. I’m not gettin’ anythin’.” All around us, partners are jabbering enthusiastically. “You want to have a go?” John offers hopefully.
I tell him a boat comes to mind. His face is tan and lined, and he looks like a friend of mine who sails. You say these things not because you’re trying to cheat, but just to be saying something, just to get on with it. John shakes his head. No boats. “Brown green striped wallpaper,” I say next. “Big old homey sofa.”
John leans forward in his chair. “That is incredible.”
I’m not so sure it is. I imagine the wallpaper and sofa came to mind because John’s accent sounds working-class and that’s part of my image of working-class English living rooms.
The tutor has pulled up a chair beside the pair sitting next to John and me. The woman says she sees a den. Her partner nods. With a framed certificate, she adds. The man nods some more. “What color are the walls?” says our tutor. The woman says cream; the man says yes. “That’s brilliant,” the tutor says, getting up from her chair. “You quit while you’re ahead.”
We’re learning, but what are we learning? Our tutor never said to us: Stick with the everyday. Try to be general because there’s a better likelihood you’ll be right. But we’re picking it up anyway, or I am, at least. You want to get things right, because it’s no fun not to. So you find yourself gravitating toward common, nonspecific attributes, things that apply to lots of folks—or dens, or what have you. No one is getting, say, the word “trilobite,” or Jefferson Monument on a winter day, or the name Xavier P. Pennypacker. Because that would be a terrific long shot, and no one wants to set oneself up to be wrong. It’s exciting to be right. Maybe you’re psychic, you find yourself thinking, maybe you’ve made contact in spite of yourself. The little successes are their own reward.
I’m also learning to work from visual hints. Our tutor never told us to look at our partners’ clothing and accessories to get a feel for their backgrounds, their milieus. But I found myself taking this tack with John right away, almost without thinking. And others are clearly doing this with me. Before we’re done, three people will tell me they get the sense I’m a student. I’m not, but I am the only one taking notes in a notebook.
I am alone in my assessment of the class so far. When we get back together in a group, there’s a buzz of excitement. I resolve to try harder.
After a lunch of soup and something ectoplasmic in tan sauce, we pair off again. This time we’re to try to make contact with the spit-it realm, to pick up a transmission from someone dead who is known to our partner. I’m with Nigel this time. Nigel is upbeat and likable, and seems not the least bit self-
Our tutor is behind us, working one-on-one with a serious young man named Alex. She’s describing the house of a deceased grandmother. “I feel a problem with the windows.”
He looks puzzled, shakes his head.
“Well, there is,” our tutor insists. “Had she changed the curtains?” He shrugs. “Was she thinking of changing the curtains?”
This is something I’ve seen done by TV mediums. They seem to employ a subtle bullying. Blend this with the natural human tendency to want to please, and it’s fairly easy to bring someone around to your point of view.
At dinner we sit at long tables, students from all the tutors’ groups mixed together. The consensus seems to be that the course is fantastic. I do not meet a single person whose reactions or opinions resemble my own. Of course, a seminar like this self-selects for those prone to embracing New Age beliefs. It seems every other person I talk to has their Reiki 1 energy healing license. I’m the only person I can find who so far believes they have no mediumistic abilities. I am very much out of my element here. There are moments, listening to the conversations going on around me, when I feel I am going to lose my mind. Earlier today, I heard someone say the words, “I felt at one with the divine source of creation.” Mary Roach on a conducted tour of Hades. I had to fight the urge to push back my chair and start screaming: STAND BACK! ALL OF YOU! I’VE GOT AN ARTHUR FINDLAY BOX CUTTER! Instead, I quietly excused myself and went to the bar, to commune with spirits I know how to relate to.
I have learned some things this weekend, though not what I came here for. I have learned that I was wrong about mediums. I no longer think they are intentionally duping their clients. I believe that they believe, honestly and with conviction, that they are getting information from paranormal sources. It’s just a different interpretation of a set of facts. Mediums and the people who believe in them tend to, as the song goes, accentuate the positive. I tend to do the opposite. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I am.
It seems to me that in many cases, psychics and mediums prosper not because they’re intentionally fraudulent, but because their subjects are uncritical. The people who visit mediums and psychics are often strongly motivated or constitutionally inclined to believe that what is being said is relevant and meaningful with regard to them or a loved one. As parapsychologist Sybo Schouten put it, “It is the client who makes the psychic.”
Nonetheless, there have been enough famously, flamboyantly fraudulent mediums over the decades that the men and women of the paranormal research community eventually began to look for ways to remove the middleman. Ways to communicate directly, person-to-person, as it were. If Alexander Graham Bell could make a disembodied voice hopscotch a continent, if Guglielmo Marconi could send invisible messages through the air from one town to the next, how hard could it be to forge a link with the Great Upstairs?
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Mary Roach is the author of "Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife" and "Stiff." Her writing has appeared in Salon, Wired, Outside, GQ, Discover, Vogue, and the New York Times Magazine. She lives in Oakland, Calif.
Excerpted from Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach. Copyright 2005. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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