13 November 2012

Hostility to research on hallucinatory phenomena

text of a letter

This is an account of the conversation about Charles McCreery’s sister Sarah, which I had with Sir George Joy.

Sir George was the only one of our ostensible supporters who visited us fairly regularly and to whom we talked about what was really going on. During my early years at the Society for Psychical Research he had been more like a wholehearted supporter. This had lasted long enough for him to play the role of senior supporter in getting the covenant from Cecil King, chairman of the group that owned the Daily Mirror, but by now he (Sir George) was as worried as anyone that we might get enough money to enable us to do something noteworthy, and acted as if threatened by anything that might increase the chance of that.

The conversation with him about Sarah McCreery must have been fairly early on, because it was very much in the context of everyone having made a lot of effort to convince Charles’s parents, and Sarah, that there was no reason why types of experience which had been associated in the past with parapsychology could not be studied quite objectively and scientifically. What we were proposing to do was in no way different from other psychological research, and we had a large number of prestigious academic Consultants to ensure that we never deviated from the best standards of experimental design.

So I said to Sir George something on the lines of, ‘I hope Charles’s family are genned up enough by now.’

Sir George conveyed to me that Charles’s sister certainly appeared not to be, and that she was stirring up people connected with the SPR, including himself, in demanding further details about what it was really all about, and what Charles’s motivation could be for becoming involved in it.

I was rather dismayed to hear this and said something on the lines of: ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake. What more is there to know? She sounds like a troublemaker. Can’t you get her to simmer down?’

It was clear by that time, although we accepted it philosophically, that Charles’s family were a bad investment. A good deal of time and effort had been expended on dealing with the usual prejudices about anything connected with parapsychology but, after making trivial covenants of £10 a year each when they first became Patrons, General and Lady McCreery had not made any further donations. Nor had any of their relatives or contacts, many of whom were wealthy.

In the years that followed, each time we started a new research project, we applied to the Research Committee of the SPR for funding to supplement our small covenanted income from Cecil King, and we were always turned down. There were plenty of ways in which the projects could have been made more informative, and a better preparation for future work, if it had been possible to spend more than the absolute minimum on carrying them out. Of course the negativity of the SPR might have been as bad as this anyway, but certainly it was increased rather than decreased by the agitation frequently expressed by members of the McCreery family.

It seemed that the most we could hope for was passivity on the part of the McCreerys. Nevertheless, Charles continued to work hard at keeping in with them, because it was so important that he should retain his position as an accepted member of his family and of his social class.

Sarah McCreery certainly did us no good with the SPR, which was already hostile, by contacting Sir George to express her doubts and criticisms.

* * *

Hallucinatory phenomena, as well as other phenomena associated with psychical research, aroused, and still arouse, strong reactions or prejudices. For example, there was a prejudice that the existence of such things must be regarded as a proof of spiritualism or other belief systems.

In fact, the work which we were able to do on them, restricted as it was by a lack of adequate finance, established the existence of some types of experience convincingly enough for them to become acceptable in academic contexts. Nominal research on them began to be done in university laboratories around the world, while complete resistance remained to allowing us to carry out research on them any further. We were as unable as before to obtain academic appointments, or funding for an academic institution, including facilities for research on the topics which we had pioneered, although research of a kind was now being done on them by people with the initial advantage of academic status and salary.

The only recognition of our position as pioneers in these fields was that Charles McCreery and I were, many years later, offered the opportunity to work for DPhils, as the hallucinatory phenomena had by then become acceptable topics for academic research.

* * *

Charles McCreery’s family have treated him outrageously. I was shocked that a respectable family with professed high moral standards could behave in such ways. His appeals for reparation, or even for support independently of any admission of responsibility for harm done, were greeted by assertions that his father was such a great man that other members of the family felt that respecting his wishes was the primary consideration. (I.e. that if he wished one of his sons to be unjustly treated, no right-thinking person could wish to remedy that.)

I was, however, amazed that no friends or relatives of the family felt it incumbent on them to use their influence to make the family behave honourably.

We are seeking money to enable us to do the research which we need to do outside the university system to establish our claim to be given suitable, high status positions inside the university system, and to take much further our work in various fields, including those associated with hallucinatory experiences which were initiated by us.