An Interview with English Author Trevor Hamilton
Posted on 01 October 2012, 14:27
Anyone who has read Trevor Hamilton’s in-depth 2009 biography of Frederic W. H. Myers, one of the distinguished pioneers of psychical research (Immortal Longings), knows that he has objectively and thoughtfully explored the whole area of psychic phenomena. He knows the evidence in support of the reality of various phenomena and the skeptical arguments in opposition to that evidence.
In his latest book, Tell My Mother I’m Not Dead: A Case Study in Mediumship Research, Hamilton, who lives in the South West of England and is a member of the Society for Psychical Research, tells of his personal search for truth in the most important of all subjects, whether we live on after death. It involves the death of his 27-year-old son, Ralph, in an automobile accident on July 7, 2002. Over the next eight years, Hamilton had ten sittings with nine mediums in the hope of hearing from his son, as well carrying out a research project. The first half of the book provides details on the 10 sittings with mediums, while in the second half, Hamilton reflects on mediumship research in general and its application to his own research.
With degrees from Oxford, London, and Sussex Universities, Hamilton (below) spent 40 years in management, education and training, retiring from his post in higher education at the end of 2006 in order to write full time. I recently put some questions to him by e-mail.
When and how did you first become interested in this whole subject of mediumship research?
“I have always had a general interest in the field but the main catalysts for action were the death of my son in 2002 and more time to work on my own projects when I retired in 2006. I had spent half a lifetime writing turgid managerial prose and wanted to do something more meaningful. As I read more deeply into the subject I began to realize that by no means all of the individuals who had suffered loss approached mediums in a credulous attitude, searching, unthinkingly for any crumb of comfort from the sitting. Many were well educated and well balanced individuals and it was far too arrogant and superficial an approach to dismiss the whole experience as the product of wishful thinking by the sitter and highly skilful fishing and cold reading on the part of the medium.”
What motivated you to write the book about Myers?
“I did not want to investigate mediumship in depth without getting my bearings in the field: that is some sense of how people had gone about it in the past and what their conclusions were as to the processes involved and the issues they raised.
And, of course, I quickly found that Myers and his intimate friends Gurney and Sidgwick (and his wife, Eleanor) were the first to really tackle the subject in a systematic fashion. I became fascinated by Myers for three main reasons: firstly, because of the controversies surrounding him and the wildly differing views as to his character, motivation and achievements; secondly, the fertile richness of his mind. He has been called the Coleridge of psychical research. His masterpiece, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, is still full of imaginative and penetrating insights that have not been operationalized and followed up in a scientific environment.
Thirdly, I wanted to find out why a man with the background, intelligence and drive to go right to the top of any branch of Victorian life chose to put these huge advantages and gifts into the marginal field of Spiritualism and related phenomena.”
The Myers book must have taken many hours of dedicated research and writing. What was the most difficult part of that project?
“The primary research for the book was conducted, over four summers, in the beautiful Wren Library at Trinity College Cambridge where Myers had been a fellow. My visits always seemed to coincide with a heat wave – the Wren often touching 90 F or more, with no air conditioning. The main intellectual problems were trying to get to the truth about him and his enquiries, wading through the various prejudices and disinformation that abounded. The prior work of Alan Gauld in this field was very helpful as were the PhD theses of Emily Kelly and Peregrine Williams, and in terms of contextualizing his ideas, the impressive book Irreducible Mind (the Kellys, Gauld, Grosso, Crabtree et al) was hugely valuable. A third problem was Myers’s wife, Eveleen. She was a possessive woman who, like many widows of great men at the time, jealously guarded his posthumous reputation. There is plenty of direct and indirect evidence that she weeded his archive and this has made the assessment of the evidence that convinced him of the survival of bodily death, very difficult.”
After completing your research, was your opinion of Myers greater or lesser than when you began?
“Greater. He moved, for me, from being a minor Victorian curiosity to being one of the major influences emanating from that period. In his life he was well known as a poet and a classical scholar (one of his early religious poems St. Paul went through 16 editions) and as a charismatic spokesman for the work of the Society for Psychical Research. But his more important and posthumous importance has been in his influence on the psychology and philosophy of his friend William James and on the gradual penetration (despite the twin opposition of Freudianism and Behaviorism) of his ideas (still a long way to go) into those parts of the wider scientific and psychological communities that are not hostile to parapsychological research.”
The mediums you visited in your attempts to hear from your son seem to be quite different from most of the mediums that Myers investigated. Why do you think that is?
“As you know, better than I, there was a bewildering variety of forms of mediumship in the Victorian period and Myers investigated them all – trance mediumship, automatic writing, physical mediumship and so on. Nowadays (though physical mediumship seems to be making a comeback) most mediumship seems to be of the mental variety with the medium in either a normal or very slightly altered state of consciousness. I welcome this since a one-to-one sitting in a pleasant room in daylight is far removed from the sensationalist and potentially fraudulent group séance in the dark. I suppose that one reason for this change is the desire by mediums or sensitives to dissociate themselves from some of the potentially ‘dodgy’ practices of the past and possibly to align themselves with the greater potential professionalism associated with those working in the guidance and counseling industry. There are, however, dangers in this which I mention below.”
Overall, were you satisfied with your attempts to communicate with your son?
“Anne and I were very impressed by the first sitting two months after Ralph’s death. There was no fishing and the medium, with very little hesitation, poured out a string of accurate information. Sadly, it was the only sitting that was not recorded and we may well have missed useful evidential material. He no longer gave private sittings and we were too new to it all to appreciate the importance of taping/videoing (if possible) all sessions.
Impressive, too, in a more general sense was the consistency across the readings particularly with regard to Ralph’s life situation, character and interests, and also the personality of my father who ‘came through’ particularly vividly on occasions. Most persuasive, however, were the accurate and precise statements (it is always difficult to judge personal qualities) about things that could be checked and measured: the number of chapters in my draft biography of Myers, the name of the woman who baby sat Ralph as a child and what happened to her house, my mother’s birthday, the ornament that fascinated Ralph as a child and so on. Many statements that mediums make can of course apply to many people. I provide a full list of them in the book and readers can make up their own minds about the quality of them. The best sittings were moving and persuasive but there was one fundamental problem with all of them. Sittings with the great trance mediums of the past like Mrs. Piper, Mrs. Leonard or John Sloan, or direct voice mediums like Leslie Flint, allowed the sitter much more opportunity to converse with the apparent discarnate personality. Modern mental mediumship seems more fragile and when the sitter interrupts or tries to establish an extended dialogue, the sitting often falters. This is a topic crying out for research and investigation.”
Would you recommend that people who have lost loved ones sit with mediums, as you did?
“This is a complicated issue. I would not recommend going to a medium for at least two months after the death of the person they wish to make contact with. They should also read a little in the background literature – including skeptical literature – as preparation. They are in a vulnerable state and could be exposed to manipulation. However, if they have done some thinking and reading, and are recommended a medium by someone whose judgment they trust, or know of a medium who operates under the umbrella of a reputable spiritual organization, they are unlikely to be exploited. On the other hand, they should look carefully at the price (neither too low- the medium has to live – nor too exorbitant). They should also not sit too frequently, nor attribute undue authority to the medium’s statements, or expect an excellent reading every time. I have to say that though the readings I/we had varied in quality, I liked all the mediums as individuals and thought that they were genuine, even though in two cases I felt there was a bit of show biz patter when the ‘connection’ faded or an obvious mistake was made. Now a little personal prejudice: I am not, personally, in favor of the large-scale theatre displays by mediums or the use of medium and psychic chat lines. The potential for abuse is too great. But, I admit, some people have had remarkable experiences in both those categories.”
Why is so much indifference in the world to this whole subject of life after death, including communication with spirits?
“For me the question that stands out is – why is this whole field so marginal to life in the Western World? One would not expect people, busy with their working and leisure lives (it would be unhealthy) to be constantly brooding on the topic of survival. But the lack of insight and knowledge of this area shown by many in the churches and the academic and scientific communities is staggering. It ebbs and flows to some extent over the years but always within fairly narrow parameters. I think the fear, quite rightly, of a return to pre-enlightenment thinking, and the impressive evidence that strongly suggests that consciousness and a sense of personal identity are totally dependent on the body/brain are the two main reasons for this. They have to be taken seriously and, as I argue in my book, only a concerted and equal partnership between sympathetic but rigorous scientists and gifted, thoughtful mediums, to produce high quality survival evidence under unimpeachable conditions, will do this. Such people exist and they deserve our support and, if we have it, our funding. Do we survive death? If we do, what is the nature of that survival? What are the implications of this for how we should live our lives now? These questions are not easily amenable to empirical scientific enquiry and they need to involve historical and philosophical scholarship as well. But Julie Beischel and her colleagues have taken impressive steps in engaging with the first question. My little book is just meant to provide some support, guidance and awareness raising for those who through general curiosity, or sadly through personal bereavement, start to tackle these great issues for the first time.”
Tell My Mother I’m Not Dead: A Case Study in Mediumship Research by Trevor Hamilton is Available from Amazon.
Immortal Longings: FWH Myers and the Victorian Search for Life after Death by Trevor Hamilton is Available from Amazon.
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After we Die, Transcending the Titanic, and The Afterlife Explorers Volume 1., published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and all good online bookstores.
Next blog post: October 15