Thursday, October 26, 2006

Myth and Memory and . . ?

Had the best talk ever today with Nancy Zingrone at the Parapsychology Foundation. Nancy was one of the first people I ever met in academic parapsychology, and she is still one of the most remarkable people I know. I ended up back in touch with her over a case going on in Wisconsin, and she filled me in on lots of developments in the parapsychological community.

I've still never met Nancy in person, but I've known her since I was an undergraduate, amazed at the existence of the science of parapsychology. As many young people do each year, I contacted the Parapsychological Association for information about careers in parapsychology, and I got the same advice that parapsychologists have always given: Don't quit your day job!

So I didn't. I pursued a career in history and folklore, which has gone a long way, I think, in helping to make Chicagoans aware of "what lies beneath" their city. When I wrote my first book, Chicago Haunts, back in the mid-1990s, two Chicago ghost tours had been operating for years, but--though we had the the Halloween stories in the local papers each year--not a single volume had ever been published on the subject of Chicago's ghostlore.

Unfortunately, among the great reviews of Chicgo Haunts were the unspoken responses of those famous Chicago ghosthunters who suddenly decided to publish their own books after thirty years. I know what their reviews were: "Who does this girl think she is?"

But that's okay. Because now, their years and years of research are documented for generations to come. That's a great thing! And that's all I wanted in the first place: for someone to write down all these intriguing stories. And boy did they ever! Today, there are about a dozen books on Chicago's ghostlore. And they're still coming.

Ghostlore is a funny word, but it works.It's a funny word because it's a made-up word. And it's a made up word because we needed one.

There is no word which adequately describes what my more able colleagues around the world and I do. It's its own thing--kind of like parapsychology itself. If you don't get it, you don't get it. And you can't get it unless you're willing to look at what you're looking at from out of the corner of your eye. Sound confusing? It is.

As some of the reviews on attest, "Is this supposed to be history?" "Ursula Bielski is a lousy historian . . . she doesn't even tell us the year these things happened!"

And so ghostlore is not traditional history. It is purposefully--and shamelessly--elusive at times, sparing of dates and names, all in the interest of maintaining a certain fogginess that speaks to the way in which people experience the remarkable events of which we write. Ghostlore tries to communicate that these events are timeless, and universal, and transcendent of our mundane existence.

Ghostlore is not folklore, because its subject matter comes from the rush of real experience--believe it or not.

Ghostlore is not even properly categorized with the thousands of ghosthunting reports published each year these days on the internet, or on television (or in books, less and less), because it is not searching for answers, but is happy with emotions . . . with memories . . . with sighs for days gone by. In fact, these are its only rewards.

I am enmeshed these days in preparing the third volume of Chicago Haunts, and as I work each day my own memory is flooded again and again with memories of my own Chicago--with that special blend of myth and memory--and experience--that makes ghostlore something that (like these beautiful, preternatural phenomena) refuses to be defined. I hope that my flooded memory--and the memories (and experiences, and myths and . . . ?) of many, many past and present Chicagoans--will make this coming volume as elusive, as transcendent, as decidely undefinable as the first two.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

It is children who have the most extraordinary relationships with the paranormal. Many are aware that adolescents usually serve as the agents in poltergeist cases, unwittingly upsetting the force fields of random or significant objects with their own displaced energies. What I didn't know is that, in the world of parapsychological research, children are proving responsible for much more than the chaotic activity of the poltergeist. In fact, many autistic children demonstrate significant psi abilities--abilities which they seem able to control much more easily than "normal" children or adults.

Judith Lecuyer, mother of an autistic boy named Ben, was used to living in a slightly different household. Like all of us, little Ben had habits that were difficult to live with, some of them symptoms of the mysterious condition called autism. Lecuyer was used to carrying Ben up the three flights of stairs to their apartment (he refused to use stairs but would climb up on to the furniture with delight), but she didn't quite know what to think when dangerous objects began to appear in Ben's hiding places. These were objects that had been deliberately placed in high, locked cabinets, well out of reach of a two-year old, yet they appeared again and again. Similar events continued to cause Lecuyer to wonder if something paranormal was going on. While the children were strapped into their feeding chairs in the dining room, a Winnie-the-Pooh cake on the sideboard found its way into the baby's lap. When questioned about the cake, Lecuyer's older son said that, while buckled into his chair seven feet away, Ben had made the cake fly. The moment of truth came one day in the family's kitchen, when an empty two liter pop bottle became the object of Ben's desire. Unable to reach it, Ben stared intently at the bottle. Lecuyer tells how his little face became beet red, and she watched as the bottle "shimmied and trembled and gently bounced its way to the edge."

Many people are discovering what the families and friends of autistic children have known for a long time: these deeply misunderstood children surely exist on a higher spiritual plane; they exhibit a deep empathy with both people and with animals and are often able to "teach" these abilities to those around them. Frequently, family members like Lecuyer report that, at an early age in the autistic child's life, the parents and siblings became aware of receiving images and messages from the child via paranormal means. With Ben, it was at the most frustrating moments--when communication seemed hopeless--that he would press his forehead against the forehead of his mother or father, brother or sister. And what followed was always a moment of clarity: instant knowledge-- without a word--of what Ben needed or wanted or felt.

"Normal" children, adults and their families aren't typically able to use their paranormal abilities at will. If I press my forehead against yours, it's unlikely that I will suddenly know you are hungry or thirsty or want to dance. Parapsychologists are starting to think it's because we don't have to. Often, even those with motor or vocal impairments have alternate means of normal communication. If one cannot pysically write or type, one can still speak--to another person or a machine that will transform that speech into writing. If one cannot speak, writing and typing are always there. Likely, it is the lack of any channel of "normal" communication--speech or writing--that forces autistic families to a place where they're desperate to communicate, and it's that desperation that starts the psi powers flowing. Interestingly, autistic individuals can sometimes learn to use a keyboard to communicate with the "outisde" world. Six years ago, when Ben's mom wrote her book about his paranormal abilities, Ben had not been introduced to one. I wonder if now, at the age of nine or ten, he has begun this method of communication. I wonder if, simultaneously, his psi abilities have decreased in proportion to his fluency with the keyboard?

I aim to try to contact Judith Lecuyer to learn more about the progress of her remarkable son. Her story--their story--is a fascinating one for anyone interested in paranormal communication. You can find Lecuyer's book, "Mommy! Ben Made the Cake Fly!" at