So Much for the Afterlife
By Svetlana Gelman
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
Those who know what happens after they die are few and far in between. Many of them are deeply religious and believe they
have a soul. There are many more among us who purport to know what happens to everyone after they die. Many of them are
fanatics and scam artists and tend to give souls a bad reputation. Mary Roach (Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers)
explores all the ideas and possibilities surrounding the soul according to literature, folklore, and scientific experiments. She
seeks proof and while trying to stray away from the anecdotal and philosophical, presents all these possibilities from the
point of view of science in her newest book, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.
She starts in India, with the reincarnation center, and then moves on to the history of the search for the soul’s storage area
in our physical bodies. Although it was not ascertained where the soul resided, it was nevertheless weighed and then supposedly even seen once photography was invented. She then explores the various down-and-dirty scams that involve ectoplasm and mediums, going as far as finding some ectoplasm filed away in the Cambridge University library. And if that wasn’t odd enough, she even talks about a legal case won in favor of a ghost and interviews the alleged ghost’s descendants in a chapter titled “Chaffin v. the Dead Guy in the Overcoat.”
The book consists of her experiences while doing research alongside her findings. It is quite obvious that she means to entertain and inform to the best of her ability. During our interview she modestly explained, “I’m not a good enough writer to just make stuff up and entertain people with my writing, I feel like I have to teach them cool things too. Also, it’s even more interesting to do it, than it is to read it.” Some wondered why she had to go to the great lengths of traveling to, for example, India, just to learn about reincarnation when she could have just read about it, “Some people go, ‘well, couldn’t you just get this stuff out of a book?’ and I just sort of sit there [and] blink at them.” Her end result is unique because this is a work that is scientific, yet not dry or paranormally biased. It is the sort of non-fiction that really sounds more like invention, allowing glimpses into the strangest places both geographically and historically.
Roach traveled to England to enroll in a school for mediums and later tried to telecommunicate with spirits in the Donner Memorial State Park. While the medium school was one of the more exasperating experiences of her research, “exasperating because everyone just sort of accepted things that I just felt like, there is no reason to accept it for what it was being presented as.” Telecommunication, which involved walking around with a tape recorder, trying to blushingly explain what she’s doing to passersbys, was also a bit irksome. What makes the book fun to read is that Roach does not hide behind objectivity in these situations. She places ridicule where she feels it belongs.
Roach is not only an avid traveler but also a lover of the bizarre. In her own words, researching for the book “was a hoot, I’m the kind of person, put me in a yard with a bunch of decomposing bodies and I’m on top of the world.” As part of her research, she also subjected herself to electromagnetic fields which could really change modern haunted houses forever and even attempted to volunteer herself for near-death experience research. Of course it wasn’t easy to place herself in these situations and find all this material outside of plain literature, “there weren’t that many people doing this kind of work in ‘legitimate’ places.’” She admits that “the hardest part of my book [was] finding a good place to go… and finding someone who would be willing to be in a Mary Roach book.”
Narration-wise, Spook doesn’t read like your average novel. It is an array of fascinating facts and studies which are compiled in a loose chronological order. If not for Roach’s sense of humor (she will not fail to point out the hilarious: in her interview with the Catholic Church one of the priests would not reveal his name and instead would like to be known as “Deep Throat”, in Roach’s words, “forever linking… the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops with porn movies”), this book would probably not be the easy read it turned out to be.
As great as this book was, I found one the beginning chapters to be a little odd. Roach seemed uncharacteristically agitated by her co-researcher in India and although a little ridicule is to be found everywhere in the book, the amount aimed at Dr. Rawat bothered me a bit. I asked her about it and it turned out that she wasn’t very happy with that part of the book either. “Me and him… it was kind of like a bad arranged marriage… My editor actually asked me to kind of play up that relationship between the two of us, originally it wasn’t in the book and I felt a little odd about it.” Of course, he received a copy of the book, “He wrote ‘Mary, your book is like a bouquet of roses, many flowers and leaves, and a few thorns.’ I’m sure he felt a little bruised about it… [But this was] mainly an attempt to make more of a narrative out of this little journey with the two of us…”
The response to the book was varied. “How can you possibly… treat this subject with humor?” was the biggest criticism Roach got, usually during her appearances on radio shows. People tried to educate her. She was offered books to read and told about personal experiences which supposedly prove the existence of afterlife. No one seemed to feel attacked by her book, but many felt she was simply misinformed despite her rigorous investigation. I expressed my fear that with such a subject as after-life, her target audience may include people who would be very dissatisfied with her take on things. “I just hope those people don’t end up buying the book and feeling… a) disappointed that they spent the money and b) that it is challenging what they believe.” But people who, for example, have crystals all over their houses and commune with the dead on regular basis will more than likely not shop for this book, as the disclaimer is part of the title, this is science.
Another hard criticism of the book is that there is no conclusive evidence. There is no real resolution, but then, could one have been expected? Roach admits that an inconclusive conclusion is “a frustrating place to end up… but with this kind of topic… not at all surprising…” It was not a real possibility and not necessarily the objective to prove or disprove the existence of after-life and how souls may go about living it. “Who am I to solve mankind’s mysteries? In a way it would be sort of naïve to think that if there is proof out there, I would be the one to discover it… For me the book is more an exploration of the attempts, and the creativity that people apply, and the personalities that get involved in it.” However, Roach admits that even her perspective on afterlife changed after writing this book. Initially, she could not be brought to believe in anything important that could not be proven through the scientific method, but she softened up this black and white approach because with this book she “didn’t make the case that there is no evidence, just couldn’t make the case that there was.” And that still leaves the possibilities wonderfully endless.
For all those who already are or will soon become Mary Roach aficionados, there is a new book on the way, but “it’s not about dead people in any shape, way, or form. I kinda wanna get away from dead people,” Roach says, “I’m already known as a weirdo…” Not to worry though, because “the new book is more bizarre science… it’s where I am most comfortable and have the most fun.”
It will be out in 2007.