Just in time for Halloween, there are several recent books out that are claimed to have been written by dead people through living writers. One is by musician David Young called "Channeling Harrison," in which he claims that the spirit of ex-Beatle George Harrison is in contact with him, guiding his songwriting and teaching him life lessons.
There is nothing new about this; so-called "channeled" books were very popular in New Age circles in the 1970s and 1980s. Among the most popular was the 1970s book series "Seth Speaks," dictated by Jane Roberts, who claimed that an energy named Seth possessed her body and dictated esoteric information through her about the soul, the nature of consciousness, spiritual truths, higher planes of reality, and so on.
Channeling remains immensely popular among New Agers; hundreds of books, audiotapes, seminars, and DVDs are devoted to the practice.
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Ghost-Written Books Earlier this year in her book "Conversations with History," claimed psychic medium Susan Lander wrote that Betsy Ross, widely credited with sewing America's first flag, came out to her as a lesbian about 175 years after her death. According to an interview on Out.com, "When Lander asked Ross why she contacted her, the American icon announced: ‘I am gay and I fly the flag of pride and liberty for all of us... I am gay, I am gay, I am gay... I am speaking now as a revolutionary act," Ross explained [through Lander], saying she no longer wanted to carry this secret. ‘I want history to accurately reflect who I was.'"
It's a surprising revelation from Ross - especially since many scholars doubt that she actually sewed the flag she's famous for. According to "The Washington Post," "There simply is no credible historical evidence that Ross... either made or had a hand in designing the American flag before it made its debut in 1777... it is all but certain that the story about her creating the American flag is a myth." Given Betsy Ross's interest in wanting history to accurately reflect who she was, it's very strange that she would not have offered evidence defending her claim to fame.
Wendy Weir, sister of the Grateful Dead singer and guitarist Bob Weir, wrote a book titled "In the Spirit: Conversations with the Spirit of Jerry Garcia," in which she offered 250 pages of what she says the dead singer told her about life, music, and the world, in a series of lessons from the cosmic beyond.
Unfortunately little of Jerry Garcia's lyricism seems to have survived death, and most of his messages are indistinguishable from standard New Age platitudes; here's a typical message: "Joy is love. Joy is peace. Joy is within each and every one of us if only we listen to it calling, follow its song, and open the doors to where we so often keep it hidden behind pressure, guilt, work, obligations, fear, and pain. Allow the light of joy to shine forth from within, allow it to penetrate the Universe, and you will be transformed, for life within you will be raised to a high vibration and the life without you will respond to this shift... This is a lesson we should incorporate into all of our lives, every day. Open up, allow your joy to shine forth, and feel the radiance, the joy, shining back to you."
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One of the problems with channeled books is that for the most part anyone can claim to communicate with the spirit of anyone, from Jesus to Napoleon to Michael Jackson, and write a book about it.
Verifying Ghostly Information While the vast majority of information imparted through psychic mediums and channelers is impossible to independently verify, every now and then they do offer facts that can be examined.
For example before its demise in 2007 as a printed magazine, "Stuff" had a regular column called "Beyond the Grave: Interviews with Dead Celebrities." It's not clear how tongue-in-cheek the readers took it, but the psychic who wrote it, Victoria Bullis, was certainly serious about it. Bullis "interviewed" many dead celebrities including ex-model Anna Nicole Smith, and when Smith was asked about the then-hyped controversy over the paternity of Smith's daughter Dannielynn, Smith was clear and unequivocal: "Please tell everyone it's Howard K. Stern."
However soon after the interview was published, DNA tests revealed that in fact Smith's former boyfriend Larry Birkhead was the father. For Bullis and others who believe that people can talk to the dead, this presents an interesting problem, because the ghost said something that wasn't true.
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There are several possible explanations: 1) Smith did not know who the father of her child was, and therefore the dead don't have any better information than the living (about paternity, cosmic truths, or anything else); or 2) Smith lied to Bullis and her readers (thus calling into question the truth of anything communicated by a ghost) or 3) "World-renowned psychic" Victoria Bullis cannot really talk with the dead as she claims.
The Psychology of Channeling So are all these communications with dead people hoaxes or frauds? Not necessarily; surely some are cynically cashing in on dead celebrities, but most of them truly believe that they have been in contact with the dead or some unseen presence. This is neither pathological nor unusual: countless shamans, prophets, priests, and others claim to hear voices or receive supernatural knowledge or messages from the spirit world.
It's an interesting phenomenon with a psychological explanation. When people meditate and relax, random thoughts, images, symbols, and messages may spontaneously arise. If we believe in ghosts or higher powers - and especially if we are actively trying to communicate with them - then in this harmless dissociative state we may interpret our own thoughts as coming from another consciousness outside the body.
David Young, author of "Channeling Harrison," believes that George Harrison began communicating with him in his dreams, and Young soon began noticing what he considered to be significant coincidences in his life.
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For example he writes, "I decided to put on a CD, and pulled a handful of random disks out from the glove box. Speaking to God, I said aloud, ‘Pick me a good one.' The lucky random CD was a Beatles album, ‘Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.'" Thus, in Young's interpretation his CD pick wasn't a random chance (or whatever happened to be in arm's reach) but instead a message that God (or George Harrison) meant for him.
Later Young claims that in a dream George Harrison mentioned playing tennis with grass behind him, and a few days later Young picked up an issue of ‘Rolling Stone' which happened to include a photograph of Harrison playing tennis with Bob Dylan and grass behind him. The photo of the two young musicians was captioned "Forever Young," which of course was a sign to Young from Harrison that he was meant to see it. Where others see mere coincidences David Young sees clear signs that George Harrison is communicating with him.
So was Betsy Ross really a lesbian? Does Jerry Garcia really spend his afterlife talking about joy and love? Is David Young really channeling George Harrison? There's no good evidence for any of it. But many people will always want to believe, and those speaking for the dead will always have an audience.