Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Whistling past the graveyard

Every once in a while, when I have nothing else to write about, this hole in the blogosphere will be filled with an old review of a book still very much worth reading -- and worth giving for the holidays. The following piece appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2005, a year before I retired.

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.
By Mary Roach.
Norton, 2005, available in paperback, $13.95.

By Henry Kisor

There are three kinds of people in the world: Those who believe in an afterlife, those who don't, and those who whistle past the graveyard.

Mary Roach sides with the nervous undecideds. She is the author of Stiff, a 2003 best seller that explored in exquisitely grisly (and hilarious) detail what happens to our bodies when we die. Her new book, Spook, chronicles her equally rollicking attempt to find out what transpires when we shuffle off our mortal coil -- what happens to our spirits when they leave their temporal homes.

Or, rather, if we really have spirits, or souls, or ghosts, or whatever you want to call them.

Never mind Heaven, Paradise, or the nonsectarian Great Beyond. Roach is not out to debunk religion, for she has the good sense to separate faith from science. Those are two distinct and parallel realities that don't mix well (a fact that seems to escape rural school boards with unintelligent designs for their science curricula).

What she wants to know is if there's actually something quantifiable within us -- call it a floating consciousness -- that leaves our bodies when we die and goes somewhere to say hello to all those consciousnesses that have gone before.

What is this consciousness? What is its shape? What color is it? How much does it weigh? How does it get in there? And afterwards, where does it go?

Or are these silly questions? Maybe the late Francis Crick, the discoverer of DNA, had the right idea: "You, your joys, your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."

"But can you prove that, Dr. Crick?" Roach asks. It is apparent from the beginning that she wants to believe that humans have a soul, but she is also a skeptic. She wants proof, one way or the other.

First she travels to India to find out if the disembodied human spirit can set up housekeeping in someone else down the pike -- in other words, if it can be reincarnated. The reincarnation researchers she observes may be serious scientists, but their eagerness to believe seriously affects their techniques. There's lots to debunk, and debunk she does.

She enrolls in a school for mediums and learns their parlor tricks as well as weird practices (you'll never be able to watch James Van Praagh again without bursting into laughter). But she is willing to give some of them the benefit of the doubt: "I believe that they believe, honestly and with conviction, that they are getting information from paranormal sources. It's just a different interpretation of a set of facts."

Most mediums prosper, she argues, because their clients are so uncritical, so credulous, so eager to believe that they will grasp at any straw of possibility and ignore a mountain of contrary evidence. Who cares if Uncle Joe never owned the Mercedes the medium said he drove if he actually wore the blue tie she says he mentioned? (Bet you've got one in your closet, too. Who doesn't?)

Roach visits weird historical researchers, such as the doughty Duncan Macdougall, a Victorian doctor who put moribund TB patients on a scale at the moment of their deaths to see if he could weigh their escaping souls.

Most fascinating of all was Harry Price, a famous magician and spirit researcher in the 1920s, who proved that the filmy "ectoplasm" a celebrated medium regurgitated was actually cheesecloth smuggled into the room in her vagina.

She takes us to a University of Virginia operating room where doctors have installed a laptop near the ceiling, out of reach, to study out-of-body experiences during surgery. If someone's spirit takes a brief stroll, perhaps it will report what it saw on the laptop screen. So far, no dice.

In the end Roach answers her questions with a resounding "Who knows?" The existence of the human soul is not proven, she avers -- nor is it disproven.

That would have been a disappointing anticlimax if this book had been written by a sober and single-minded debunker of the paranormal, one whose mission is to annihilate hokum wherever it might be. But Mary Roach is warm, deliciously witty and has the happy knack of unearthing humor under the oddest tombstones. This makes her the ideal guide for a field trip into the otherworld.

When she joined spirit researchers in the high Sierras where members of the snowbound Donner Party turned to cannibalism to survive the awful winter of 1847-48, she took great delight that the International Ghost Hunters Society set up shop at the Donner Camp Picnic Ground.

All sorts of weird facts cause Roach to bubble over in glee. Many of those alleged voices from the beyond claim that in the afterlife, fat people are thin. One dear departed is even supposed to have confided to a medium that "I can wear pleated pants now."

But discarnate beings never seem to say anything truly interesting. They never discuss what we're curious about, Roach complains, such as "Hey, where are you now? What do you do all day? What's it feel like being dead? Can you see me? Even when I'm on the toilet? Would you cut that out?"

In the afterlife there seems to be no sex, if we are to believe those dispatches. If that's so, what's the purpose of all those voluptuous houris in the radical Muslim Paradise? Window dressing? All those suicide bombers who were promised an eternity of whoopee for their martyrdom must have been sold a bill of goods.

If you read this book, you'll laugh past the cemetery every Halloween for the rest of your life.


  1. Gotta buy that for my a few of my Dr. Ravi followers. "Bill" D

  2. The Muslim sucide bombers are in for a big surprise. The 72 virgins are Nuns with yardsticks......