Monday, July 23, 2012

Extraordinary Biographies

Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural by Jim Steinmeyer

It seems that every time you turn on the TV now there is a new show featuring someone hunting out the paranormal or the supernatural: ghost hunters, monster hunters, UFO hunters. But there was a time when such researches were far from everyday, and it took a special type of person to pursue the anomalous. 

Charles Fort (1874-1932) was so diligent in his studies of anomalous phenomena, and his findings were so remarkable, that he influenced generations of researchers to come and actually lent his name to the field. Researchers now speak of Fortean events - falls of frogs and fishes, levitation, unexplained disappearances, spontaneous fires, etc. - and refer to collections of reports of such phenomena as Forteana. A print magazine, The Fortean Times, has since 1991 offered monthly updates on such reports.

Jim Steinmeyer (a designer of equipment for professional stage magicians, and author of several biographies of famous magicians) has done an admirable job of pulling together a biography of Charles Fort. A man who spent much of his life in libraries poring over old journals, meticulously making notes of the things he found that did not fit any of the accepted scientific beliefs. Notes that he cross-referenced and filed in stacks of shoeboxes, to become the basis for Fort's four published books, Wild Talents, Lo!, New Lands and The Book of the Damned. Books that influenced many of the researchers into the paranormal who are active today.

One of the most remarkable things about Fort is that, while he gave his life to researching and recording unusual and fantastic events and sought always to find patterns that would somehow explain how they could be possible, he managed to avoid taking on any particular belief. He was a wry and wondering commentator on what he had collected, but never felt called upon to present or protect any one viewpoint - a far cry from many of the "objective" researchers active in the field.

Jim Steinmeyer's Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural offers not only a fascinating overview of the life of a fascinating man, but also gives the reader the flavor of the time Fort lived in, a time when scientific conclusions were being drawn fast and furious and the average person was often left struggling to catch up.

Related reading:

"Forteana" titles

Many people have heard of Edgar Cayce, mostly due to two popular biographies: Jess Stearn's Edgar Cayce: The Sleeping Prophet, and Thomas Sugrue's There Is A River. These biographies revealed to the world the extraordinary story of Cayce who, after being put into a trance by a traveling hypnotist, not only cured his own ailment but developed the ability to diagnose and suggest cures for other people. Cayce's fame grew, especially once he went beyond medical diagnoses and started speaking on a wide variety of subjects including, famously, Atlantis. Cayce (1877-1945) founded the Association for Research and Enlightenment, which to this day continues to study and disseminate the information contained within the "readings" that Cayce gave while in a trance (which practice led to his being called "The Sleeping Prophet").

But Sidney Kirkpatrick, in the more recent biography Edgar Cayce: An American Prophet, now reveals that the most remarkable stories about Cayce had long gone untold.

Kirkpatrick, given unprecedented access to Cayce materials over a period of seven years, shows that many extraordinary tales had been left out of the previous biographies, partly due to concern for the privacy of Cayce's relatives and partly due to the fear that the truth would not be believed.

It seems that Cayce not only provided diagnoses, past life histories, and predictions while in trance, but also experienced visions and paranormal events while awake. Fires of unexplained beginnings plagued his life. He had visitations from angels, and a lifelong involvement with "little folk" - fairies. (It also seems he had a longtime extramarital relationship with his assistant.)

One question people often ask about psychics is, "Why aren't they rich?" Kirkpatrick chronicles how Cayce, perennially short of funds for his Association, tried many times to make money with his powers but somehow only ended up adding to the problems in his life (even though some people around him grew wealthy using his insights).

Some of the newly-revealed information is so fantastic that the reader may occasionally wish that the author of the book was a bit more critical in his discussion of them. But for anyone familiar with Cayce the new information provides "the rest of the story", and for those just learning about this remarkable man this book will be a startling read. Cayce's fame arose during a time when folk traditions in medicine were being replaced by science-based practices, and Kirkpatrick's book helps place that time and conflict in perspective.

Edgar Cayce: An American Prophet examines not only the life of a remarkable and controversial man, but also a period in history when a belief in prophets was still strong.

Related reading:

There is a river : the story of Edgar Cayce / by Thomas Sugrue

Edgar Cayce, the sleeping prophet / Jess Stearn

We've all heard the stories: someone experiencing a violent accident or a critical surgery leaves their body, heads into a tunnel of light and meets dead family members. Sometimes they see angels or God; sometimes they see their whole life reviewed before them. But they come back into their bodies and live to tell of their experiences.

We've all heard those stories, that is, since 1977 and the publication of Raymond Moody's book Life After Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon - Survival of Bodily Death. The book was a bestseller, and soon everyone was talking about "near-death experiences" (a term Moody coined) and TV comedians were joking about people heading into the light.

Moody's new book, Paranormal: My Life in Pursuit of the Afterlife, details not only the researches that lead to the publication of the earlier book but also Moody's pursuits since then, studies that have pushed his already extraordinary findings even further.

While Moody has resisted ever stating that his findings constitute proof of life after death (much to the consternation of those who think his researches represent exactly that), he does admit that many of his findings could be interpreted as being in support of the supernatural view. The near-death experience involves experiences out-of-body just as in many metaphysical disciplines, and during experimentation he encountered what seemed like people expressing memories of past lives.

A good scientist (with degrees in philosophy, psychology, and medicine), Moody examined these anomalous findings, with the particular intention of finding how such experiences might be used in the therapeutic setting. Many near-death experiencers had reported it was a life-changing event, usually for the better, and Moody wondered how such an experience could be induced short of taking subjects to the brink of death. (A brink with which he is familiar -- part of Moody's personal journey is to reveal in this autobiography his own struggles with depression and an attempt at suicide, the depression caused by a long-undiagnosed thyroid condition.)

To foster the altered states necessary for people to have visions of departed loved ones, Moody turned to the ancient practice of scrying: staring into a crystal ball, mirror, or pool of liquid to gain insight. Even though Moody had learned that scrying was a common practice in the ancient world, he was still startled at the results of his scientific studies - not only were most of the subjects able to "see" their lost loved ones, many people also reported that the person "came out of the mirror" and had conversations with them! Conversations that did indeed have therapeutic value.

Moody's work continues to challenge our understanding of dying, death, and the possibility of an afterlife, and Paranormal: My Life in the Pursuit of the Afterlife gives insight into the path of a scientist whose researches keep leading him into new, seemingly unscientific, territory.

Related reading:

Life after Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon--Survival of Bodily Death by Raymond A. Moody, Jr

Life after Loss: Conquering Grief and Finding Hope by Raymond A. Moody, Jr. and Dianne Arcangel

The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death by Gary E. Schwartz with William L. Simon ; foreword by Deepak Chopra

Encyclopedia of Afterlife Beliefs and Phenomena  by James R.Lewis ; foreword by Raymond Moody

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