The Paranormal

Who believes, why they believe, and why it matters.

A Skeptic Recalls Unusual Experiences

A Paranormal Memoir?

I consider myself a skeptic. If somebody makes an extraordinary claim, I want to see the evidence. And not the kind of contrived evidence a magician shows us—evidence we can all see, without curtains, trick boxes, or puffs of smoke. Evidence in court? That too is contrived, but the observer has to know how to read between the lines. Observation is far from infallible, and eyewitness testimony is often flawed. Even trained scientists have based their published work on tainted or biased evidence and have reached erroneous conclusions. With respect to paranormal powers and forces, my guess is that all such claims are bogus, which is why The Amazing Randi offers a million dollar prize to anyone who can demonstrate them, in action, to him, on demand, under his conditions, shorn of gimmicks and monkeyshines.

That money’s still in the bank.

Here are a few strange experiences I’ve had over the years; I recount them in my book, The Paranormal. They seem to argue for paranormalism at work. I’m still not sure what to think. Coincidence? Probably. If you live long enough, more than one are bound to happen.

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To narrate them, I employ an expository device—an interlocutor whom I’ll call Jim. In real life, I had this conversation over a period of time, with several people.

I ask Jim, “Do you believe in paranormal phenomena? I mean, like coincidence and other stuff? Do you think there’s some significance to things happening together?”

Jim says, “I’m not sure. Like, exactly what do you mean? Give me an example.”

“I’ll give you three,” I say. “Here’s the first one. Years ago, long before I met my wife, Sally, I was sort of having an affair with a married woman, Nora. Nobody knew about it. We were at a party—Nora, her husband, and I were there, and a bunch of our friends. Nora and I were sitting on the floor, in a corner, a bit away from the rest of the party. Somebody handed us a Tarot deck, and we decided to check it out. We opened up the box, took out the deck, put it on the floor, and turned over the card at top of the deck. Do you know what it was?”

“I have no idea,” Jim responds. 

“The Lovers. The card we turned over was The Lovers. We just looked at one another, put the card back on the pile, and put the deck back in the box. That was spooky.”

“I guess,” Jim responds. “The odds were against it, but they weren’t astronomical. How many cards are in a Tarot pack? Sixty? Eighty? We’re not talking about something that’s beyond the laws of chance, are we? OK, what’s the second thing that happened? 

“This wasn’t quite a coincidence; maybe it was parapsychological or something, the transference of what was in one person’s mind to another person’s mind. A couple of years before the first incident, I was dating a woman named Ellen. We were talking about mind reading, and we decided to check out if it works. So I said, look, I’ll concentrate really hard on something, a thing, a physical object, and you tell me what I’m thinking about. OK, so, I forced my mind completely on one thing, one object. I though and thought about this one thing. Ellen tried to focus on what I was thinking about, right, and she said, a car. Then I said, that’s amazing, it’s not a car, but you’re really, really close. Now you keep concentrating and I’ll keep concentrating, and we’ll see if you can get any closer. On the second try, Ellen guessed a jeep, you know, an army jeep. And I said, wow, that’s really amazing! It’s not an army jeep, but you got closer, much closer. On the third try, she said, a tank—an army tank. That’s what it was! Out of all the objects in the world, she guessed the very thing it was! Now, is that amazing or what?”

“I’m not sure,” Jim replies. “You two must have been thinking along similar lines. Maybe a few hours before, there was something in the news about the military. Or maybe your friend just figured, you being a man, you’d think of a car or something along military lines. Anyway, what was the third thing?”

“This happened nearly twenty-five years ago,” say I, “when our daughter, Tara, was a toddler. She was, oh, fourteen-fifteen months old. She had barely learned to walk. Sally and I are sitting on the living room couch, talking about the old Brooklyn Dodgers. I mentioned The Boys of Summer, which is about the Dodgers’ glory days in the forties and fifties. I tell Sally about one time when a bunch of players went down to Havana to visit Hemingway, and they’re in a bar acting like tough, macho guys, drinking booze, getting drunk, and bragging about how tough they all are. Hemingway tries to prove he’s the toughest guy in the bar, and he sucker-punches one of the players, I forget which one. Remember, he’s like 20 years older than any of the players, and he’s overweight and drunk, and so Hemingway gets punched back, and ends up on his rear end, on the barroom floor. I couldn’t remember some of the details, like who knocked Heming way on his ass, so I got up and walked over to the bookcase to find the book. There are three bookcases against that wall, and there’s a total of maybe four or five hundred books on those three shelves. I looked for The Boys of Summer for around five minutes, and I just couldn’t find it. Annoyed, I sat down and finished telling what I could of the story. OK, now, here’s the really intriguing part. Are you ready for this?”

Jim nods solemnly.

“Tara toddled over to the bookcase, pulled a book off the shelf, toddled back to me, and handed it to me. Do you know what that book was? It was The Boys of Summer. The same book I had looked for and couldn’t find! I’m telling you, our one-year-old daughter pulled the very book I was talking about off the shelf and handed it to me! Out of all the books she could have grabbed, she hands me that one!”

“Yeah,” Jim says, “I’d say that was a coincidence. One out of five hundred anyway. It’s remarkable, I’ll give you that. But what does it mean?”

“I have no idea,” I reply. “Maybe something. Maybe nothing. I’m not sure.”

“Of course, we remember coincidences,” Jim says. “They’re interesting and striking. We forget about all the times when the laws of chance prevail. Over the course of a lifetime, there are a lot of coincidental events that take place just because, well, a lot of things happen to all of us. There may be nothing to any of this.”

“I’m telling you,” I insist, “there’s something really spooky about all of this. Surreal. Something that’s not quite, I don’t know, not quite normal. Like somehow, sometimes, the laws of nature don’t apply.”

I think Jim—or my three “Jim” interlocutors—were right. If we live long enough, we’ll see a lot of coincidences, and we’ll remember more of them than those events where things happen as expected. I haven’t changed much, I’m still a skeptic, but I’d love for something spooky to come creeping up on me.

Erich Goode, Ph.D. is an independent scholar, the author of dozens of academic and popular articles and chapters and encyclopedia entries, and ten books, most recently Drugs in American Society. more...

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