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An Interview With Author Mary Roach

Posted By Paul Comstock On April 3, 2007 @ 9:09 pm In Death,Non-Fiction Reviews,Religion,Sociology | 7 Comments

Mary Roach [Photo by Phoebe Rachles]

Mary Roach is the author of Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.

What were your expectations going into this project? Were you hoping that science had made progress in detecting an afterlife, or were you a complete skeptic?
I was truly hoping to uncover some little nugget of overlooked research to suggest that life after death is for real. Though I suppose it was a little naive to imagine that Mary Roach, with her B.A. in humanities, would single-handedly solve the 10,000 year old mystery.
Who was Duncan Macdougall? Is his work being carried out by anyone today?
Macdougall is the man behind that line in the movie “21 Grams” — “When you die, they say you lose 21 grams….” He’s the “they.” Macdougall was a Haverhill, MA, doctor, who, around the turn of the last century, took to installing dying TB patients on an elaborate bed-scale to see if the needle went down at the moment of death — suggesting that that would be the weight of the human soul. Thus proving that it exists. A creative, if mildly naive approach to the issue. I do love his can-do spirit. He made a cameo in my first book, Stiff, and was sort of the inspiration for Spook, which is all about people seeking evidence, or proof, of a soul or an afterlife.Yes, variations on his work are underway today. One was done by a sheep rancher in Bend, Oregon, with a background in quantum theory. Sheep standing in for TB patients. The other is a lot more sophisticated – proposed by a Duke professor and requiring a picogram-sensitive scale and an array of energy sensors and an enclosed system. Leeches are involved. Always a plus in my book. I’ve got a whole chapter on soul weighers.

You follow a reincarnation investigator in India and were not impressed with the cases he was working on at the time, but was there anything in the research you did on reincarnation that made you think this is an area that might have promise?
There are some cases that have been written up a lot, which, if you take them at face value, would suggest that the person was indeed reincarnated. But they happened long ago and have to be treated as unverified anecdote, I think. The main criticism of this work is that you rarely hear about cases in cultures where reincarnation isn’t part of the belief system. Hard to control….
You mention in your book that the spiritualism craze peaked after World War I when so many families had lost loved ones and wanted desperately to communicate with them. Can you tell us a little bit about one or two of the more colorful mediums from the 19th and early 20th century? What is ectoplasm?
Helen Duncan is my favorite. Huge, chain-smoking woman who used to swoon and occasionally pee herself in the frenzy of spirit possession. Helen had the scientists stumped. She’d produce ectoplasm (claimed to be a physical manifestation of spirit energy — in reality either cheesecloth or sheep entrails) even though the researchers had frisked her and done a cavity search prior to her entering the séance chamber. Turned out she was a talented regurgitator. She’d roll up the cheesecloth, which is very compactable, swallow it in a rubber sleeve, and bring it back up under cover of darkness. (Conveniently, the lights were always out during these affairs.)Then there was Rudi Schneide. Rudi would completely lose himself during especially intense séances, to the point of occasionally ejaculating in his trousers. To his credit, he did not try to pass off the semen as ectoplasm.

The Near Death Experience is something that seems to have happened to many people. How do people describe the experience? Are scientists investigating this? What are the results so far?
There are a few core elements of the NDE, as researchers call it: floating up above yourself, whooshing down a tunnel, moving toward a light, seeing dead loved ones who often tell you “it’s not your time.” The experience is pretty universal, though there’s often a unique cultural overlay: for instance, a man in China was told “there’s been a clerical error,” rather than “it’s not your time.” A truck driver sped down “a tailpipe” rather than a tunnel.A team of cardiologists and psychiatrists at the University of Virginia are taking a simple, rather elegant approach to trying to find out whether people who have these experiences are hallucinating or are actually leaving their bodies. They’ve got a laptop computer taped, flat open, on top of the highest cardiac monitor in an operating room, such that the only way you could see what’s on the screen would be if you were floating up by the ceiling. You can’t see the image (one of several rotating images, randomly chosen) from down below. Patients are interviewed after they leave the OR, to see if they report having seen anything. So far, none of the patients has had an NDE, but the project had only just begun when I was there.

After a year of research, field work and “Medium School” what do you think happens to us when we die?
No frickin’ idea. I’m more confused now than I was when I started out!
Would you like to take this moment to publicly proclaim what sign people should look for soon after your passing (many years in the future, of course), that will let them know Mary Roach is communicating with them?
All over America, copies of Stiff and Spook will keep flinging themselves from bookshelves – in homes, libraries, bookstores. It’s going to be very dramatic. Not to mention the effect on post-mortem sales.

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