Friday, January 09, 2009

Giving Up The Ghosts

Readers of this blog will not find it at all surprising that I don't envy Scientologists, be they public or staff. Between damaging practices such as auditing (which can lead to psychotic breaks) or the purification rundown (which involves dangerously high vitamin doses), practices such as disconnection, the harrassing marketing strategies, and the subtle threats and pressures that come about from the existence of case study files and the RPF, their lives can very easily stray from the "good roads, fair weather" front they are supposed to maintain. But that's not what this post is about. It's about something much much closer to home.

I recently had something of an awakening. It's not usual for me to post about myself, but in this instance, it's appropriate, and I hope you'll see why. I was raised in a spiritualist environment. This "raising" was by no means a harsh, controlling regime. It really just amounted to an active belief that the dead are with us still; trips to a church that followed fairly mainstream Christian dogma, but also involved a spot of platform mediumship at the end. My most vivid memory of this mediumship was of a woman who burst into tears on being told by a medium of the bizarre image of a "rhubarb sandwich". Even then I was aware of the ridiculousness of a medium asking a crowded room if anyone knew of a person in spirit called John. Here I had tangible evidence that mediumship was real - a stranger calling out an obscure snack that was such a potent image that it brought tears to the person for whom the message was received. This became something of a touchstone for me through my adult years; without having much in the way of encounters with the Spritualist church, whenever I caught myself doubting the existence of the afterlife, I would think to myself "ah, but what about the rhubarb sandwich", and my belief would remain intact.

Spiritualism, you see, prides itself on being evidence-based. Where other Christian faiths will talk about Heaven and immortality, Spiritualism serves it up at the end along with sweet tea and biscuits. What a draw!

A few years ago, however, I took up another childhood interest for a second time, that of conjury. As a result I read Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer. This charted the development of stage illusions, the eponymous effect being Houdini's vanish of an elephant on the stage of the Hippodrome. Wanting to learn more about Houdini I read a biography and learnt about the work he did to expose fraudulent mediums. I, with my spiritualist head on, thought this was no bad thing. I knew there was a difference between reproducing the appearance of a séance and disproving that genuine séances existed, but much of Houdini's exposure involved specific mediums who were, for one reason or another, clearly fakes. Perhaps it was the submergeance in biography and history, but I began to view the Spiritualist movement from a chronological perspective. I had revelled in the antics of the golden age mediums; those that could produce ectoplasmic entities and other more physical phenomena. This seemed a world away from the necromantic messaging service I had witnessed. But the trouble was, once a method of reproducing such effects was presented to the world, by Houdini or Robinson or whoever, although the mediums who practiced such arts objected, those particular phenomena died out. Rather than devising ever-more thorough tests that did away with fraudulent methods, the spirit activity was withdrawn.

And how did the Spiritualist movement get started in the first place? It emerged from the following of three girls, the Fox Sisters, who began to experience ghostly encounters in their Hydesville home. These encounters seemed to follow the girls around, and soon they were giving audiences with people determined to have answers, seemingly, from beyond the grave. From the Fox girls we get the rapping codes so popular with entertainment programs such as Most Haunted. In fact Most Haunted seems to present an interesting return to the older methods of fraudulent mediumship, with its focus on channelled voices, and its love affair with ideomotor driven phenomena such as table tipping and talking boards.

The trouble is that in 1888 Margaret Fox admitted that their mediumship was bogus. Reasons have been put forward for this; that she was impoverished by this point and had been offered a large sum of money to make a false confession. Such conspiratorial imaginings run riot to this day, with the notable disparity that whistleblowers always come from those practicing allegedly paranormal abilities, and never from conspirators debunking such powers. Spiritualism to me became a movement that was founded on a lie, was furthered by more lies, and as faiths went didn't have much in the way of a unique selling point as a result. Nevertheless I was still left with the miracle of the rhubarb sandwich to cling to in hope.

If this were a movie, we'd now be in a montage, where I would be flicking through books, looking at evocative woodcuts and doing my best "smell the fart" acting, before addressing a close personal friend with my discoveries; ferven whispering in medium close up. That is not how it happened at all. It was a slow and steady transformation in my thinking, and not a straight line. It was more like mulling over a jigsaw puzzle, piece by piece, and then suddenly realising that it had already been solved.

Platform mediumship is something like a comedy circuit. You get bookings from a number of churches up and down the country, but with the added benefit that congregations remain fairly stable. But your source of work isn't just at the platform. You also have private clients. You'll get many of these private clients directly from members of the congregation that you address, from people who either received messages, or were impressed by the messages others received (and felt a bit left out). So what happens is the touring medium will be in a position where she receives private clients who she performs one-to-one sessions with, and consciously or unconsciously cold reads them. When she does platform mediumship, she will (out of courtesy) let her private clients know when she has a demonstration in their area. The platform medium is playing to a congregation some of whom are her private clients...

Which means the rhubarb sandwich is a lie. It was too long ago for me to confirm it in this instance, sadly, but mediums know what buttons to push to get certain responses from people. They cold read the crowd, but should they need a "convincer", something that confounds our understanding of how cold reading works, will come out with a "bolt from the blue" piece of information that not only couldn't have been guessed at, but gets a strong emotional response from the person that understands what it means. That information comes from previous knowledge gleaned, sometimes quite openly, from private sittings.

There is also, I suspect, still in existence the "blue book" - a system of mutual assistance where clients details are shared amongst mediums. With the advent of social networking sites, too, the amount of information that can be gleaned from someone's Facebook or MySpace page far outweighs what can be read from them on that first or second sitting.

So bye bye, rhubarb sandwich. Bye bye evidence of an afterlife. I still hope it exists, but I relinquish anything approaching certainty that it does. This has been (and I'm tempted to say "literally") soul destroying. I've gone from being an immortal being to someone that has, at best an outside chance of a life everlasting, and that's not an easy thing for me to deal with. Tears have been shed; sleep has been lost. But I'm getting through all that. Along with the anxiety is an odd sense of freedom. I think of life as a search for some kind of deeper truth about the universe we live in, and I've now dispensed with some blind alleys; I've finished checking the attic. That can only be a good thing. Ironically, I feel more open minded now than I did before. If that sounds odd, I can understand. I want to believe; I want to know, but the evidence for the belief and knowledge I once had is lacking. My newfound openness is in the assessment of the evidence. An open mind, but open eyes too.

Dispensing with the afterlife does new and interesting things to your perspective, I have found. It makes life a thing to be more greatly valued. Picture, if you will, someone who is suffering from a brain tumour. It's inoperable, and the only hope he has is chemotherapy. But chemotherapy is no picnic, so does he go ahead with it, or does he let the tumour take him? Whatever your take on this question is, it seems clear that the belief in an afterlife has a huge effect on that person's decision, and in what way. I often find myself wondering if suicide is considered such a terrible act by some religions simply as a preventative, something to counter this effect belief in an afterlife can have.

But I digress. I in no way consider myself the victim of a cult, but I do find myself in a "floating" state. Along with notions of necromancy, I bought into various ideas about subjective reality and magical thinking. I'll sometimes catch myself, in a run of bad luck, wondering if some outside force or agency is at work. What's worse is, these thoughts feel safe and familiar; they feel like the embrace of an old friend. I recognise them as sirens.

To make things more awkward, my mother and my sister both work in the psychic industry, to a lesser or greater degree. They are firm in their beliefs, which makes some conversations and encounters very difficult, and my most morally sound path difficult to identify. People can believe what they like, but when those beliefs tip over into practices that are harmful, that needs to be addressed.

So here I am, with little in the way of pointed indoctrination and control, struggling with my exit from a fairly simple and straightforward belief system. It's not an easy thing to do; it's genuinely transformational, has taken courage, has caused me pain. But it's nothing compared to what a someone in a cult is up against when they start mulling over their own jigsaw puzzle. They are often in an environment where the doubt itself, let alone the discussion of it, is utterly taboo. This is not a place where they can test their faith and have it grow stronger. I have awkward conversations with my family, but on leaving a cult, people will find they may have no conversation at all with the family and friends that remain behind. I'm not saying members of cults should stay where they are; leaving a cult is a way of embracing your own quest for truth, knowledge and wisdom. If I didn't think it was worth all the pain and heartache and regret in the world, then I'd be back chasing delusions at church in an instant. What I am saying is that critics need to keep in mind that it isn't an easy sacrifice. There are no ruby slippers.

There's a parrallel here, in a way, with drug addiction. Realising you have a problem is the "big step" but it's not the only step. Critics need to realise that barking out ridiculous bits of scripture, logical fallacies and factual inaccuracies may, on occasion, plant doubt in people's minds, but it's not the whole journey. A great deal of sensitivity and support and space (from the cult and the criticism alike) is also required.


  1. I love your stuff about Scientology. You might enjoy the UK skeptic blog Counterknowledge who have been writing a lot about "that citadel of counterknowledge."

    I also blog at For Great Justice. How can I get in touch with you?

  2. Hi Damian - thanks for reading! You can contact me at notechpleasewerebritsh at gmail dot com. I've only just started following Counterknowledge - haven't trawled the archive yet!


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