on 10 December 2012
This book is a recent example of a genre that dates back to the mid-Nineteenth century; the story of one person's search for evidence of Survival After Death. It's honest and well-written, and raises important issues for any Spiritual investigator.
The author is a successful journalist in her thirties, who is still devastated by the death of her sister three years before. Her grief is overwhelming and, in her case, time doesn't heal, and neither does Prozac. She has also, more recently, lost a close friend to suicide, and during the course of the book, her sister-in-law dies in an accident. Altogether she feels surrounded and beleaguered by Death, and decides to investigate Spirit Communication as a means of `bringing back' her sister.
She's from an overwhelmingly sceptical and Rationalist background, and was brought up on Freud, who casts his long and gloomy shadow over the whole book. No doubt this accounts for the importance she places on her dreams, which take up a sizeable part of the narrative. At every stage of her investigation she's surrounded by friends and relations delivering the usual, familiar put-downs and rubbishings of any psychic phenomena she encounters.
Nonetheless she's touchingly persistent in her attempts to get in touch with her sister, and you have to give her full-marks for honest effort. I counted at least seventeen different attempts at Communication using a wide variety of techniques, some more serious than others, and including some that I'd never recommend as a way of getting worthwhile evidence. For example, she seems particularly attracted to various forms of EVP and its derivatives. (Electronic Voice Phenomena describes the faint, anomalous voices which are sometimes found recorded on cassette tapes in response to spoken questions). This is a notoriously unreliable technique which, if it works at all, produces only tiny fragments of coherent speech.
However, she also has about seven conventional, one-to-one, sittings with different mediums, and of these, three produce what I would describe as excellent and evidential results. One of these, a telephone sitting with celebrity medium Rita Rogers, is stunningly good, producing wonderfully detailed information - more evidence in one sitting than I've ever had - and yet she seems strangely unengaged by it all. She's surprised and intrigued by the results, but does she really accept that it's all genuine? It's hard to tell.
She pokes gentle fun at some of the more eccentric Spiritualists she encounters, including a frightful American `past-life therapist' who would put any sensible person off the whole idea of Survival in two minutes flat, but in no way is the book an exercise in `debunking'. However, neither is it the story of someone discovering an important truth; like any good journalist, she seems determined to remain resolutely uncommitted.
Over the course of a year, as she constantly nags away at the problem, she begins to have conversations in her head with Ruth, the lost sister. At first this seems to be a literary device, for however heartfelt the book may be, Picardie remains a clever, professional writer throughout. However, as these conversations continue, they begin to show the tell-tale signs of being real clairvoyance; the voice doesn't say what the listener expects or wants to hear, there are physical sensations associated with the Communication, and so on.
The author doesn't seem to be aware of the fact, but it's long been known that the moment some people start seriously investigating this subject, they'll promptly develop a degree of genuine psychic ability. As if to confirm this, she attends a rather grim-sounding weekend mediumship course and, during an exercise in clairvoyance, delivers two highly accurate and evidential messages to the course tutor. However, even this rather remarkable achievement doesn't seem to trigger any great insights or emotional breakthroughs.
She's done, more or less, what I would advise any investigator to do, and she has actually obtained good evidence, but at no time does she weigh-up her evidence or come to any kind of judgement. She draws no conclusions. Perhaps the problem is that she's not simply looking for evidence of her sister's survival; she wants her sister back, in person, and won't settle for anything less. In many ways this is a desperately sad book.
Perhaps one could argue that, in the course of her search, she feels a bit too much and thinks a bit too little. But on the other hand, she's grieving, and this is how we are when we grieve, and a good proportion of the people who start to investigate Spirit Communication do so precisely because they're grieving. There's no easy answer to all this.
By the close of the book, however, it seems that she may, at last, have begun to move on. She speaks in terms of knowing that she will, one day, be reunited with her sister, so perhaps the exercise has achieved something. I hope so; she seems like a nice person.