February 05, 2008
Just getting into Braude's The Gold Leaf Lady (see Fear and Loathing in Academia, Jan 31). The subject of the title is 'Katie', a Florida housewife now in her mid-50s. Katie's thing is that patches of what looks like gold foil appear suddenly on various parts of her body - face, arms legs, etc - and can be quite large, as much as four-by-five inches - analysis shows it to be actually brass. It is said she has no control over the process - it just happens. The material doesn't seem to be exuded through her skin, as it sometimes appears on her clothes.
Katie's weird ability came to the notice of local psychiatrist Berthold E. Schwartz, who alerted Braude to it some 20 years ago. Braude seems convinced he is not dealing with a hoax - he has 'no doubt' of Schwartz's honesty, and has found no reason to distrust Katie, who he describes as intelligent and honest, modest and non-opportunistic. Braude's investigations were necessarily limited, but there was one incident when he and his wife observed the process, and were sure it was not faked.
I had not heard of this before, probably because no one has obtainined proof, in the form of video film for instance (although Braude says Schwartz has not tried very hard). It bears close similarities to the 1960s case of Ted Serios, who apparently projected mental images onto polaroid film. Braude has written about this often before, and I see he comes back to the subject in a later chapter here too. Both are rather unique one-offs by people at the bottom of the social ladder living rather turbulent lives, and both are utterly implausible to anyone who has not witnessed it repeatedly and up close.
Braude places it in the context of séance phenomena materialisation (the production of ectoplasmic forms, which soon dematerialise) and apports (the paranormal transportation of a real object from one place to another), suggesting that it accords more with the latter, since the brass foil is a permanent object. If one takes séance phenomena seriously - and many investigators have done - one might feel inclined to accept this as a new addition to the collection of weird Forteana.
But of course to sceptics, and not necessarily just out-and-out militants, it's like Serios, another tired example of fakery, appealing only to people who have given up thinking (one took the University of Chicago Press to task for publishing it). Braude makes counter-arguments: the material is clingy and hard to work with, as a magician confirmed; Katie does not benefit, and finds the process uncomfortable and embarrassing; and so on. But that's not nearly enough to convince anyone who thinks the paranormal is a lot of baloney. It doesn't help that he describes other of Katie's abilities, which sceptics can easily explain.
So the gold leaf lady is now out there, like Serios and Uri Geller, stirring up trouble. That interests me more than the phenomenon itself: the combustion between claim and counter-claim, believer and sceptic. Braude's descriptions of the fiasco that followed a TV programme's attempt to film Katie, and its interview in the interests of balance with Paul Kurtz, founder of CISCOP, are what make his account so revealing. I believe this is what we should be focusing on, not just whether such things could possibly happen, but what rules we apply as a means to determine the truth.
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