I've been working on an e-book transcript of Leonora Piper sittings, with a view to making this material more accessible (although it's probably still a few months away). It's been on my mind, as a large body of credible research that tends to make sceptic views of mediumship untenable.
So I was delighted to see Michael Tymn's new book Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife. In principle I'd recommend to open-minded people - those who really do want answers - that they check out the Piper material, but if I haven't often done so, that's because there's no obvious source for them to go to. Thanks to Tymn that's no longer the case.
I'm also gratified by what a good job he's done. In other hands the story might well have been told as a conventional biography, covering the whole of psychic research in the context of the thought of the day. In other words, it would have been diluted and hedged about with the sorts of qualifications that tend to make this sort of thing invisible. Tymn's achievement has been to hammer home a shocking and still largely unknown fact: a human being has lived who was repeatedly observed by scientific investigators to possess supernormal knowledge - and far beyond the ability of pseudo-explanations such as cold reading to account for.
To do this, Tymn has compressed a 25-year programme into 200 pages, focusing closely on the research and its implications. He tells the story chronologically, from Piper's 'discovery' (it seems a maid employed by her husband's family mentioned her doings to a maid employed by William James's in-laws); the three main 'control' phases: Phinuit, George Pelham and Imperator/Rector; the conversion of SPR investigator Richard Hodgson (who had begun with the expectation of exposing her tricks); the trip to England to hold sittings with Frederic Myers and Oliver Lodge; the later involvement of James Hyslop; and so on.
Some of the most interesting chapters are around particular episodes, for instance a series of conversations between a 17-year old boy who died in a boating accident in 1898 and his parents; a Boston public figure describing his new environment; Hodgson himself, following his death at age 50, communicating with James and Hyslop; and finally the deceased James himself communicating. The book deftly works in summaries of key passages with enough verbatim speech to give a good sense of the interactions. Wherever possible it highlights evidential exchanges, for instance those that show knowledge of little things known only to the communicator and the sitter, and again which could not remotely be explained in terms of fraud.
The impression left on my mind - as someone who knows a bit about mediumship, and Piper in particular - is amazement at just how easy, fluent and detailed this two-way communication can be, and also how much highly veridical material the investigations produced. There's a powerful sense that people who once lived are excited to find they can, after all, communicate with loved ones left behind, and reassure them of their continued existence, which they do with varying levels of skill - just as we would expect.
Sceptics will dismiss the book as a partisan account by a writer who accepts the reality of spirit survival. Some might argue that the material has been cleaned up, removing the errors and distortions that give a quite different impression, for instance showing the medium groping for information. It's impossible of course to counter these objections completely, although it might help if some sitting transcripts were given as appendices, so that readers can make an independent judgement. The economics clearly don't permit this in a printed book, but it might be possible in a future Kindle edition? Failing this, the transcripts can be made freely available on Kindle and elsewhere- as I am hoping to arrange.
Since I largely share Tymn's conviction about the reality of spirit communication, his presentation seems to me to be true to the material, and his conclusion entirely reasonable. There's no intelligent way that the supernormality of the Piper material can be denied (there are of course many unintelligent ones - like Martin Gardner's transparently false claim that the investigators were ignorant of fakers' methods - but Tymn rightly wastes no time on them). However it is also true that some investigators preferred to view the communicators - particularly the 'controls' like Phinuit and George Pellew who acted as go-betweens - as secondary personalities, or what they called 'dream creations' of the medium's unconscious mind.
A prime mover in this was William James himself, as Tymn records - in a recent post he laments James's fence-sitting as showing mere lack of courage. But James was not alone: the SPR's Eleanor Sidgwick also argued at length that the whole thing was largely a phantasmagoria in Piper's brain - a view that coloured much SPR thinking in the twentieth century and has informed subsequent debate. In Mediumship and Survival, Alan Gauld states that he does not see 'how it is possible to dissent from Mrs Sidgwick's conclusion that the Piper controls were one and all aspects of Mrs Piper's own personality'. Phinuit, he states firmly, was 'quite certainly fictitious'.
The 'Imperator' band of controls were never able to establish their identity, but hazarded all kinds of incorrect and contradictory guesses as their own 'real' names. Even the most life-like and realistic controls, such as GP, show signs of being impersonations . . . they break down at just the point where Mrs Piper's own stock of knowledge runs out. Viz. when they are required to talk coherently of science, philosophy and literature (which the living GP could readily have done).
In view of the quantity and quality of veridical statements Sidgwick couldn't reject the idea of spirit communication completely. So she talked instead of a sort of spurious drama being enacted by secondary personalities, that in some sense might sometimes be directed or 'overshadowed' by genuine spirits at a distance. Gauld's subsequent elaboration of this idea influenced my own thinking for a long time, even while I struggled to make sense of it.
I wonder now whether the idea of 'overshadowing' was ever coherent. It certainly never caught on. My impression now - from having recently read transcripts of hundreds of sittings, and reinforced by Tymn's book - is very much to the contrary. The sense is overwhelmingly of a channel of communication having opened up, and being taken full advantage of by real people, despite its imperfections. Yes there is some dud stuff - names given that were wrong; facts alluded to that didn't check out; and so on. Some sittings were a complete write-off. But much of this, as Tymn stresses, is accounted for by the very real difficulties involved, and which some of the communicators - particularly the deceased Hodgson and James - talk about at length.
I've come to I believe that fence-sitting by commentators like Sidgwick, James and Gauld should be seen less as an effect of ambiguities in the material than of the huge difficulty experienced by the twentieth century intellectual of stepping outside the secular-scientific consensus that there is no such thing as spirit survival. It's an inner struggle of which they may only be partly conscious. Their solution? Let it all be a subconscious dramatic production - something the secular mind can relate to - while the real dead, if they exist, remain remote and unknowable, pulling the strings from some way off.
This seems an odd phenomenon, to those of us who don't experience it. But it's surely something we should expect. We see it dramatically in the behaviour of militant sceptics - emotional, angry, desperately uninformed - but also in psychic researchers themselves. These rationalising manoeuvres represent themselves as objective analysis, and influence generations. The conclusion is that science will never get a grip on this slippery subject until it understands how it can affect the very minds that contemplate it.