Patience Worth and the Problem of Bias
September 26, 2016
As editor of the Psi Encyclopedia, I’ve been taken to task for an article there about Patience Worth, authored by philosopher Stephen Braude from a chapter in his book Immortal Remains. Braude ends by echoing an earlier commentator’s conclusion that,
it is…safer to credit “Patience Worth” to the unconscious and to classify her, officially, as Mrs. Curran’s “secondary self”.
The complaints seem to be twofold: that this conjecture is unwarranted, and that the encyclopedia is imitating Wikipedia by giving a platform to sceptics.
I gave a short answer in the comments thread in Michael Prescott’s blog where this was aired, pointing out that the encyclopedia has (unusually) two articles in on this subject; the other is by Michael Tymn, who it’s fair to say would not endorse Braude’s view, although his piece is more straightforwardly factual. I also mentioned that I didn’t myself necessarily agree with Braude’ conclusion, and indeed had thought of writing a sort of rebuttal. That would take a lot of work, more than I have time for – so this isn’t it! But here are some general thoughts.
First, the question of bias. The Psi Encyclopedia aims to give a window onto psi research as it actually is, not the garbled version offered by sceptics (as in Wikipedia). But there’s always been lively debate within the field itself, notably about the reality or otherwise of postmortem survival. Spiritualists who helped found the Society for Psychical Research quickly bailed out – they couldn’t accept that the evidence might not seem conclusive to everyone – and over the years, some have continued to criticise the SPR and individual researchers for continuing to argue against it.
I believe the encyclopedia should reflect those internal debates. It doesn’t need to make the case one way or another, it should just describe the evidence and the arguments. That’s what I ask contributors to do, to try to make their pieces factual and objective, and reflect the spectrum of opinions.
That said, I don’t think it’s useful to exclude altogether articles that argue a case. On the contrary, it’s of benefit to readers to see psi research in action. It’s surely to the advantage of the field – if not an absolute necessity - to show that it takes a tough-minded approach and is prepared to properly interrogate the evidence – not least to help combat the untruth that psi-advocates are religiously-inspired ‘believers’.
So I envisage eventually a separate section containing articles that take different positions. If Braude’s Patience Worth piece seems an anomaly it’s only because the first of these, and is not properly marked off from the rest of the material. Once that’s been done more effectively than at present, I think there’ll be less confusion about what the encyclopedia stands for, or concerns that it’s promoting a particular (and controversial) point of view with regard to postmortem survival.
It’s worth also making the point that Braude doesn’t play down the extraordinary talent that shines through the Patience Worth character – on the contrary, like most of us who are familiar with the case he’s in awe of her genius. Nor does he understate the challenges (as a psi denier would): that Curran had previously shown none of the characteristics, in terms of creative and intellectual powers, feats of memory, knowledge of literature or arcane areas of linguistic and historical research; that the character didn’t develop over time, but emerged fully formed; the extensive use of obsolete and archaic locutions, some never used in the US; and the extraordinary feats of composition, in terms of speed, consistency and memory. He concedes that the literary facility has no parallel in history.
But Braude disagrees – against Walter Prince (who investigated the case), and others since – that that the scale of this achievement, being far beyond anything of the kind previously achieved, therefore could not have originated in Curran. This might be the first and only instance of a rare talent, he suggests. He chips away at the assertion that her real interest lay in music, arguing persuasively that there’s a lack of real evidence for this, and the music thing might actually have been imposed on her by her mother. He finds intriguing similarities between Curran’s history and the life profile of exceptionally intelligent and gifted people. Altogether, he builds a picture of a young girl whose creative urges were stunted by her family’s expectations, and who unconsciously found an outlet for her repressed abilities through mediumship, an acceptable female role.
The fact that savants have been capable of extraordinary feats of memory and creativity suggests that something of the order of a Patience Worth is within human capabilities (however rare). Inevitably, he finds support in the case of Helene Smith, where the semblance of discarnate communication seemed decisively overturned in favour of Smith’s imagination, and to other cases of creativity in mediumship.
By contrast, Braude finds little of value in the survivalist case, not least because no evidence has ever been turned up of a person who lived that fits the meagre details that Patience Worth supplied. He also suggests that this case goes far beyond the norm in mediumship in being ‘the first and only documented case of literary and mnemonic abilities at such a high level of creativity and fluency, and the first and only recorded case of mediumistic communication with virtually no ‘noise in the channel’ (and for nearly twenty-five years at that)’. In its robustness and multi-dimensionality, he concludes ‘Patience’s personality more closely resembles those of well-developed alter identities’ in cases of disassociation identity disorder (DID).
I found all this intriguing and well-argued, if somewhat speculative. I’ve never really thought that Patience Worth was good evidence of discarnate survival in the conventional sense, like the best drop-in cases, for instance – there are too many puzzles for the matter to be clear.
But that cuts both ways. Once the effect of Braude’s lawyerly pleading has faded somewhat, I’m still left with the stubborn, if perhaps subjective sense of something occurring that really can’t be accommodated within orthodox ideas about the mind. How could Curran’s ‘unconscious’ conceivably have acquired the easy familiarity with copious amounts of seventeenth century archaisms so obscure they had to be hunted down, and the facility to deploy them, by cryptomnesia or any other mysterious process? It’s one thing for a savant to demonstrate astounding feats of arithmetical calculation, something quite else to display an extensive knowledge of past terrestrial facts. Yes, the fact that Patience could write just as effectively in nineteenth-century English undermines the impression that she was a former denizen of the seventeenth, as sceptics point out. But that only amplifies the mystery – it doesn’t explain it.
What really strikes me about Patience Worth is her strongly didactic intent. Her casual utterances, poetry and aphorisms in particular seem intended to show up the shabbiness of human behaviour at every turn – if you’re not familiar with them, check out the examples in both Tymn's and Braude's articles in the encyclopedia, and Amos Oliver Doyle’s excellent website.
There’s something unearthly in her utter sense of security and rightness, as if she’s come from a different moral universe to give us struggling mortals lessons in wisdom. In that sense, she might be seen in the context of spiritual teachings, like Jane Robert’s Seth, White Eagle and the rest – that are no more ‘evidential’ in a scientific sense, but are sufficiently outstanding to have had a powerful impact on millions of people. Hers is a quick wit that radiates humour, never airy-fairy or boringly pious, but tough-minded and down-to-earth.
If we argue that a startlingly accomplished level of creativity can emerge in full flow from the unconscious of a person who has never hitherto shown the slightest sign of it, aren’t we obliged to develop similar arguments to account for the high moral seriousness shown by Patience Worth? Were these inclinations, too, repressed in Pearl Curran in some way? Is there evidence for this in DID?
Still, I’m not sure how useful it is to try to reach a conclusion here. Inevitably, those who doubt postmortem survival will describe Patience Worth in terms of DID; those who believe it occurs will see it as evidence of that. To the thinking, secular mind it’s of course ‘safer’ to see the case as one of unconscious confabulation, in the narrow sense of avoiding new realms of mystery and speculation. But surely few who are truly familiar with it would agree that that’s ‘officially’ decided.
Speaking for myself, I don’t think I’m satisfied with the view of Patience Worth as an event in Pearl Curran’s psyche. But neither do I necessarily think of her as a ‘spirit’, a discarnate individual in human terms. Over the years I’ve abandoned the temptation to be literal about survival, or to project assumptions shaped by terrestrial existence into a posthumous state. ‘Patience Worth’ might be a composite creation, perhaps based around a previous existence as a seventeenth century farm girl, but drawing on other lives as well, even the incarnation of Curran herself.
When she insists her origins don’t matter – and tosses crumbs of information she hopes will satisfy our cravings – we might take her at her word. She’s not necessarily being evasive. In her world, the notion of individuality has been left far behind – like a suit of clothes it’s adopted in order to communicate meaningfully in ours, as Jane Robert’s Seth too said he’d done, taking on the guise of a previous existence (although not the most recent, a rather ‘colourless’ individual called Frank Withers that he preferred to forget).
In this line of thinking we’re not dealing here with a duality of humans and spirits in their different realms, but rather the creative power of consciousness, which transcends boundaries and, in different ways, can emerge on both sides and intermingle. If creativity continues beyond what we call death, in myriad and powerful forms, then to express it in partnership with the living, when the opportunity offers, seems like a cool thing to do.