Justine Picardie’s memoir of her search for post-mortem contact following her sister Ruth’s death from cancer was first published in 2002. It has been republished by Picador with the addition of an introduction by Andrew O’Hagan and an afterword by Justine Picardie. As well as a heartfelt exploration of sisterly love and the grief of bereavement, it provides an interesting outsider’s perspective on the state of psychical research and mediumship research at the time, as Picardie tries various methods of contact and meets individuals who may have answers for her.
The book is written in the form of a diary covering a year, from Good Friday 2000 to Easter Monday 2001. Ruth, her best friend as well as only sibling, had died in 1997 at the age of 33, but three years later Justine still felt the rawness, and thought and dreamt about her constantly. The usual methods used to control the worst symptoms – therapy, anti-depressants, sleeping pills, Valium, homeopathic remedies – having proved useless, she decided to follow up a suggestion given to her some time earlier that she visit the medium Arthur Molnary at the College of Psychic Studies. This was the start of an investigation into the possibility of communication with Ruth, or exploring ‘the underworld of spiritualism’ as the Picador description puts it.
Unfortunately Molnary, being extremely popular, was not available for a couple of months, so in the meantime she had a session with a ‘junior sensitive’ at the College which was less than illuminating. She was then contacted by Judith Chisholm, an Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) researcher, who sent her book Voices from Paradise after reading an article Justine had written about Ruth. Picardie visited Chisholm to listen to samples of EVP, but was unpersuaded, Chisholm’s interpretations of the recordings seeming to be an example of something Picardie was to encounter many times during the course of the year, finding what you want to find. Her sitting with Molinary went better than the one with the junior sensitive, but while he was able to tell her things about Ruth that were true, much else was banal, and she felt it unlikely that he was communicating with Ruth. Her attempts at EVP and automatic writing were failures.
On a visit to New York she met Dale Palmer, another EVP researcher whose grand plans for comupterised communication with the dead have gone the way of many grand plans in psychical research, and a medium who charged her $120 for a sitting and gave her a book by Sylvia Browne. The indications are that Picardie did not find the sitting a good investment of time and money. A visit to the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain was similarly fruitless. Attending a mediumship training weekend at the Arthur Findlay College (the most notable aspect of which was the bizarre presenting style of course leader Glyn Edwards) showed mainly to demonstrate that Picardie has some talent for cold reading.
She even flew to Tucson, Arizona, USA, to a conference run by Gary Schwartz and Linda Russek at a grim venue in an industrial area, where she learned about Schwartz’s emphasis on love, which irritated her, and his fondness for singing James Taylor songs at the drop of a hat. She met a woman who claimed to be a transfiguration medium, but despite squinting hard and getting a headache, Picardie could not see it. On the other hand Ray Hyman, Executive member of what was then the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, did a cold reading on her to show how easy it is for mediums to get what appears to be information from those in the afterlife, and was woefully inadequate. Despite the presence of supposedly top-notch mediums, the quality of the evidence at the conference seemed no better than that in England.
Of particular interest to SPR members will be those sections dealing with aspects of the Society. Picardie attended a Gwen Tate lecture given by David Fontana where she met Montague Keen and purchased a copy of The Scole Report, written by Fontana, Keen and Arthur Ellison, which discusses séances held by a group in Norfolk. Having read the Report, she had lunch with Keen, where he told her about the ‘Spellchecker’ case at Westwood Hall school, Leek; a discarnate spirit, ‘Prudentia’, was said to be communicating through a computer via corrections to misspellings in documents (the case was reported in the October 2005 SPR Journal). Monty also attended the Schwartz conference and later he and Picardie visited Westwood Hall for a demonstration of the mysterious computer, but when Picardie attempted to communicate with hers she failed to obtain meaningful results, perhaps because her Mac did not have the requisite software bug that allowed Lady Prudentia to manifest.
Picardie’s approach to those who are sure of communication with the afterlife is one of sympathetic objectivity, being willing to examine the evidence yet not allowing her judgement to be clouded by her wish to believe that Ruth survived death. Sceptical friends she talks to about her researches express surprise that she should engage in what they consider an irrational activity, but she is always prepared to try if there is a chance of success. As she proceeds though her initial excitement and sense of anticipation fade as one failure follows another, until the sense is that by the end of the book nothing has convinced her that the various techniques have indicated Ruth’s survival of bodily death. True a briefly reported telephone reading by medium Rita Rogers contained a significant proportion of hits, but even they do not prove that Ruth continues to exist and was the source of the information.
The book is not just about Picardie’s venture into afterlife research. It also recounts everyday life with her family and friends, including her children and her divorced parents, who grieve for their lost daughter in their own ways, her therapist mother unostentatiously, suggesting various ideas in Freud’s writings to help Justine, her father floridly emphasising his Jewishness as his means to find consolation. What comes through the account of family life is the sense that bereavement can result in self-absorption, an unwillingness to let go of the dead that can affect relationships with the living. The true hero of this book is Justine’s then-husband Neill MacColl, endlessly patient throughout Justine’s search for answers despite his own tragedy – the death of his half-sister Kirsty MacColl in Mexico in December 2000, hit by a speedboat as she pushed her son to safety. Despite his own grief he still has to listen to his wife’s obsession with her sister while trying to come to terms with the loss of his own. Picardie refers to Kirsty MacColl as ‘a semi-famous pop star’, which seems an unnecessarily grudging verdict on someone who was very well known, as if Kirsty’s death is a distraction from Picardie’s preoccupation with Ruth.
There are no easy answers about the loss of a loved one, for Picardie as for any of us, but perhaps the main, hesitant, conclusion she reaches is one she comes to near the beginning of her search, not at the end:
‘But still I love my sister. And my sister loved me … And now I know, at least I think I know, that after all, after all of this, in the end there is a beginning. And there is life after death, because I am still living.’