We like our science in well-defined, straight lines, like a map. “Here Be Science,” we read. And, “Here Be Monsters.” Science is not so willingly refined, alas, and neither is everything outside of it. This gets really messy when we’re depending on science to help us, for example, wage a war. In our military messes reside both great science and great stories. So-called psychic powers have been “scientifically” (if not correctly) explained for well over a hundred years, so it is no surprise that we’ve attempted to exploit them as weapons.
In books like The Pentagon’s Brain, Area 51 and Operation Paperclip, Annie Jacobsen has been exploring our unadvertised military history and finding extraordinary stories. With Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis, Jacobsen ups her own game to scare up the true stories of the US government’s psychic research programs. Conspiracy theories and science fiction may seem a bit mundane compared to Jacobsen’s tense, absurd and often terrifying story.
Jacobsen traces the most modern beginnings of our attempt to use human psychics as weapons begins at the end of World War II, alongside Operation Paper Clip. This was the rush to grab all the Nazi scientists before the Russians could. It was not just science we found; evidence of research into the supernatural was found as well, and soon enough the arms race was paralleled by a psychic race that probably continues to this day. Jacobsen’s book focuses on the characters, from Dr. Henry Karel “Andrija” Puharich to Uri Geller, James Randi, Ingo Swann and astronaut Edgar Mitchell. As we grow to know and like (or, at least, enjoy reading about) the people, Jacobsen carefully orchestrates the complicated history of science meeting the supernatural with an eye towards war.
Having interviewed many of the participants herself, Jacobsen’s knowledge feels intimate, and readers who have been through this wringer will find clarity and re-assurance with regards to the reality of her reportage. No spoilers: so far, there’s no good working hypothesis to account for so-called psychic powers. That said, Jacobsen manages to evoke true chills as she describes experiments and successes. Some participants are quickly (and entertainingly!) written off, but some simply disappear into the government machinery. Watch for a fellow named Patrick H. Price. He might be someone you’d prefer not to meet.
Jacobsen’s grasp on this huge, complicated and often contradictory history is nothing less than astonishing. Given the topics and situations, only the footnotes and veracity of the text separate it from contemporary science fiction and horror novels. And for readers of say, Stephen King’s Firestarter, the pleasures (and terrors!) of what actually happened during the MKULTRA project are refracted in and magnified by the cultural and fictional mythology. Yes, Phenomena does read with the speed and intensity of a novel. The fact that it’s true makes it even more compelling.
At the heart of this book is a conflict that is not and may never be resolved. How do we feel; what do we do, when science gives us no ground upon which to extrapolate, but results suggest that there is some mechanism that must be explicable by science at work? Fascinatingly, it all comes down to humans, individuals, characters, who simply don’t reside on one side of the line. Perhaps the human population has grown to the point where the statistics are coughing up human anomalies with increasing frequency. Beyond science, you’re left with humans and stories.
It is often said that holding two mutually exclusive ideas in one’s mind requires something extraordinary. While training soldiers to be psychics proved to be problematic (to say the least), this book offers up the kind of ESP we can all aspire to: to hold in our minds an extraordinary and self-conflicting narrative. Annie Jacobsen’s Phenomena is an example of our only and most powerful psychic ability: storytelling.
While it is tempting to post an audio file consisting of an hour of silence, which is to say, psychic communication between Annie Jacobsen and I, all that happened on the printed page as I read the book. When we sat down to talk, it was two friends shooting the breeze about a mind-boggling work of non-fiction that one happened to have written. We tried to tease out the themes and keep the narrative stories intact, so that they can better warp your mind. We start small; here’s a link to download the lightning round, or just pop in your “mind reading” earbuds to listen below.
If you prefer a longer experience of hearing the voices of people who are not actually there with you, download a telepathic 45-or-so-minutes here. Alternately, you can prove the reality of these Phenomena by playing those voices right out loud below.