I was delighted when HarperOne in San Francisco offered to send me a review copy of Steve Volk's Fringe-ology. As journalists sympathetic to parapsychology we already have a lot in common. But that was a month ago and the book only showed up this morning.
(I had the same experience sending copies of my book to American contacts; they took weeks to arrive and some never arrived at all. What gives? Perhaps I should sacrifice to the postal deities.)
Still, better late than never. I'll review Fringe-ology here shortly.
In the meantime, perhaps by way of consolation, the publisher sent me two other recent books by American mediums: Growing Up in Heaven by James Van Praagh: and Psychic: My Life in Two Worlds by Sylvia Browne. Neither has much exposure in the UK, so I'm not familiar with them, although sceptics complain loudly about them in print.
Browne especially seems to be what is politely termed a 'polarizing figure'. She has a large following in America, thanks to a high profile in the media, but also a reputation for unreliability, vagueness, and claiming successes that really aren't. Few of her predictions come true, according to Michael Prescott here, and her conviction of financial fraud doesn't help.
So I read her book with curiosity. As a human story of a down-to-earth, gutsy woman making her way in the world, I found it engaging and sympathetic. It helps that it's penned by a professional writer, but the wit, sensitivity and passion are obviously hers.
Some negatives: I gather from comments on Amazon that Browne has told the story of her life several times already, so it's unlikely there's much here that's new. In fact it's similar to any number of other biogs by professional psychics that I've read over the years. Even the title 'My Life in Two Worlds' is familiar, used by Gladys Osborne Leonard who was the subject of a number of weighty research papers by the Society for Psychical Research.
As with all such books I found myself rebelling against the sheer literalism of the whole psychic thing. It's easier to believe when it's a family talking about something that happened to them once or twice, that they can describe but can't explain. But it's much harder to take at face value someone who claims to have these experiences all the time, especially when she's on the telly all the time. Even if you accept that there is such a thing as psychic perception you've no way of knowing if any given event she descibes is real, or if she's making it up to get attention and fill up space.
I also feel uneasy about the intimate knowledge that mediums claim of the the geography and demographics of the next world. Browne is big on angels, which she says are 'their own species, God's divine legion of messengers and protectors', and have wings of varying hues that indicate their level of power. Why did mediums of earlier generations never talk about angels? Or perhaps they did, and I just wasn't paying attention.
Allowing for the self-congratulation and exaggeration that's inevitable in celebrity memoirs it's an engaging story well told. Fortunately there's little of the defensiveness or settling scores with naysayers that quite often mar these sorts of books. She might have indulged in self-pity over her financial woes and failed marriages, but doesn't. There's little detail of the case for which she was charged and convicted: her story is that it was a failed venture by her then husband and former business manager who was signing cheques in her name, and she only found out when the shit hit the fan. Well, it's possible.
I'm guessing Browne is a genuine psychic who has overreached her abilities with constant high-profile public appearances that create a demand for results she can't possibly satisfy. But she doesn't care, because she knows she can depend on key friends in the media and an adoring and uncritical public, who all fall for her self-assurance and charisma. It wouldn't be the first time.
There's a paradox here. High-profile psychics like Browne certainly do a great deal to convince large numbers of people - the ones who are easily convinced - about the reality of survival of consciousness. They do good in spreading ideas about spirituality, bringing consolation to the bereaved and helping people find meaning in life. At the same time, their high profiles, and the short-cuts and fudging they are bound to fall into, make them an easy target for sceptics, who only have to point to them to carry their case with their more critical audience. That makes it harder for people like me to insist that psi is real, and not just a way for hucksters to make a killing. Polarizing indeed.