Patheos Book Club: The Hand on the Mirror and TOWTTHO

Patheos Book Club: The Hand on the Mirror and TOWTTHO May 17, 2015

(Content note: death, mourning.)

The Hand on the Mirror, by Janis Heaphy Durham, is an account of a widow’s exploration of the paranormal after her beloved husband, Max, passes away all too young.

The book’s title refers to a ghostly handprint she finds on one of her house’s mirrors–in the guest bathroom–on the anniversary of her husband’s death. Other stuff happens too, but that’s the first thing that really twigs her to the idea that something weird’s going on.

Though initially a skeptic about supernatural things, she finds her certainty shaken by a series of strange coincidences and occurrences that happen around her on significant dates. She ends up getting deeply involved in a bunch of New Age practices as she tries to figure out what those weird happenings might mean.

We see through a mirror darkly... (Credit: jessie essex, CC license.)
We see through a mirror darkly… (Credit: jessie essex, CC license.)

And I just want to say this, first things first, before we go any further:

I am completely sympathetic to this author and I can believe that she certainly believes that the things she’s discussing happened as she is relating them.

One of the most painful things anybody can experience is the death of a life partner. Just witnessing the anguish and devastation such a shattering loss brings could pull tears from a stone. I’m certainly no stone. And then to have one parent die relatively shortly afterward, and then soon after that the other? I can’t even imagine her pain. I lost my mom years ago and the pain of it still messes me up. If my husband had died just a couple years later, I’d be a wreck. I know how it is to be in such an emotional tailspin that one grasps at straws and goes to strange lengths to assuage that pain. It’s scary even to contemplate it.

This is the kind of grief that one hesitates to even question. Even to ask, even in the most gentle and roundabout of ways, if the things she describes in her writing might have been something besides a ghostly dead husband trying to reach through the veil to her, is to seem–and to feel–like a total asshole poking spears into someone who is already mortally wounded. Grief is a sort of protective shield against inquiry in that sense.

Indeed, that is how mountebanks and charlatans posing as psychics and mediums in the entertainment industry use grief: as a shield to protect themselves from accusations of deception and manipulation of people at their most vulnerable times of need. They stoutly admonish: How dare we try to hurt a widow in her deepest grief! How dare we try to rob this poor woman of something that is giving her some tiny bit of comfort in the face of crushing, staggering loss? They present themselves as providing this inestimable service to the grieving by giving them hope that their loved ones are okay–that they exist in some form after death still, so that they’re not really gone-gone, just gone from this life, and that their mourning, grieving, devastated families and friends will see them again one day.

In response, I’d have to agree with Penn Jillette, who said on Bullshit!:

But even if these fucks know they’re just making shit up and pushing people’s buttons, they tell themselves, “At least I’m comforting the bereaved.” Who the fuck are they to decide that lying about the universe and a dead loved one is what the bereaved needs? That’s condescending bullshit!

I don’t think it’s really that comforting to be told things that aren’t true. I think that people know deep down what’s true and what isn’t. Telling them that their loved ones are still around, but are limited to pushing rugs around or making prints on mirrors, is in my opinion more damaging and confusing than just saying that nobody knows what happens after death, but we all experience it and are all in this life together to make a little sense out of it as best we can, so let’s be sure to cherish what we have of it and each other.

One does not need, either, to be deliberately lying to one’s target in order to deceive. One can simply be mistaken and deluding oneself. And one can be mis-remembering things or manufacturing memories, or be the victim of other people’s machinations. I believe Ms. Durham when she attests, in her book, to the sincerity of those who are teaching her this stuff. That doesn’t mean that they’re making factual claims. In her desperation, she turns off that skeptical side of her mind; only the most obviously money-grubbing or sex-hungry nuts ping her radar as being people to definitely avoid. But for all her constant assurances to the reader that she is indeed very skeptical and rational, she accepts without questions or comments whatever woowoo she’s fed as long as it’s said by someone who seems very sincere to her.

I know exactly how it is when the mind is so frayed in grief and so ragged with mourning that it starts manufacturing shadows and coincidences out of everything. I’m glad that my friends in paganism didn’t let me get out of hand when I got like that. Lord knows I tried. I really tried. I saw divine portents and signs pretty much everywhere. Some of them I still don’t really understand, but my friends’ patient and sensible rejoinders to my wild-eyed hypotheses were exactly what I needed to calm my shit down.

Looking back at those early awful days after my mother died, I can’t help but wonder what my old friends in Pentecostalism would have said to a grieving daughter making similar assertions; I’ve seen how many of them shine each other on in those cases. Though many denominations feel that human spirits sleep till the end of the world, making ghosts impossible constructs that are more likely to be demons than deceased people’s spirits, that “low Christianity” folk religion rears its head whenever the drier “high Christianity” doesn’t quite handle the raw, seething emotions humans need to express and manage in times of great crisis.

We all have these situations when we’re frayed, vulnerable, and hyper-keyed-up, when we’re just so focused on ourselves and our environment that we start constructing coincidences out of nothing and leaping to conclusions in our uncertainty. I call them That One Weird Thing That Happened Once (TOWTTHO). Some of mine are personal and intense enough that I’m not sure I can ever share them with another living person; others are obviously misconstructed memories and misunderstood coincidences that I only figured out much later.

While wishing to remain respectful of Ms. Durham’s very real grief and her very real confusion and pain about these strange occurrences, I’d like to point out three particular occurrences she mentions that don’t sound otherworldly at all, and then I’d like to ask a pointed question about them.

1. The handprints on the mirror.
On or near the anniversary of her husband’s death, powdery handprints appear on her guest bathroom mirror for three years running. She includes photos of these in her book. I do not doubt she found handprints on her mirror; what I doubt is that a ghost made them. Ms. Durham attributes the timing to her husband’s spirit moving on to whatever blissful end awaits us when we die. Without wishing to accuse, I’d like to point out that her son and a variety of other people have access to that mirror every single time she mentions seeing pictures on it; the fourth year, her son moves out of town to attend college and the prints simply stop. She doesn’t even wonder if maybe someone living did it though. The handprints do not appear to be meaningful for either her or her husband, and she doesn’t mention that they are the size of his hands in life. Nor do they particularly seem, in the photos, to be all that difficult for a person to make. She does not scrape the powdery gunk into a container to send to any labs, nor does she really do anything to analyze them except to take photos before the mirror gets cleaned.

2. Two rugs slide along the floor.
When she moves in with a new man, the area rug she lays in their bedroom seems to creep in one particular direction every night, necessitating its repositioning every morning. When allowed to creep all it wants, it ends up scrunching along the wall on that side of the room. The room it’s in already has a carpet, she writes, so there’s never been a rug in there before; she doesn’t mention if it had a proper pad underneath it but the photos don’t seem like it does (nor the second one). When they put another rug downstairs, it, too, moves in the same direction, creeping a few inches a night toward one part of the house. She doesn’t mention if they try places other rugs in those rooms. She decides immediately that these are moving because of ghostly force; I’m wondering if she needs to have the house’s foundation checked, or maybe check for vibrations in the house or something.

3. The footprint on the chair.
While vacationing in an extremely remote mountain cabin with her husband, the two of them discover a man’s bare footprint on the armrest of one of their overstuffed casual chairs. The footprint reappears over the next few days. I’ll just leave this right here By the way, that last link is about a fugitive called “the Barefoot Bandit,” a near-feral criminal adolescent boy who broke into a lot of cabins in the Pacific Northwest around 2008 to 2010. He actually liked leaving his bare footprints on his unwilling hosts’ property as calling-cards that he’d been there, and she was definitely in the right part of the country for this kid’s activities–and given that the footprints seem to have appeared in summer of 2010, she was there at about the correct time, too. She assumes that ghosts are trying to talk to her so doesn’t immediately leave or call for help. Frankly, I think she’s lucky to be alive–but I don’t think ghosts had anything to do with either her incredible good fortune or the footprints on her furniture.

There are other phenomena she claims happen that aren’t quite so easy to explain, if her accounts are trustworthy, but I just rattled off three that probably have perfectly earthly explanations. There’s no reason to think the other strange occurrences don’t have equally earthly explanations of some kind.

And that’s what brings me to the real question I have here about her account:

Why? Why why why why why?

Why, out of everything her dead husband could do to communicate with her, is he apparently doing so with handprints on mirrors, creeping carpets, and dusty footprints on the furniture? None of these things are meaningful to her or holds any special significance to either her or her dead loved ones. If Max could put footprints on a chair, why couldn’t he do something meaningful? Why these parlor tricks? And how is it that a love that spans even the barrier of death manifests in such, well, heartbreakingly mundane and petty ways?

If I were dead, and I could somehow meaningfully interact with stuff in this world to communicate with my still-living husband, you can bet I’d pick some other stuff to do than rearrange furnishings. That’s one of the huge problems with this whole “talking to the dead” idea: it assumes dead people want to play charades and coy guessing-games instead of communicating directly. The industries that have sprung up around people’s desperation for reassurance have much to answer for here. For all the meandering around all the metaphysics and supernatural Ms. Durham does, she doesn’t actually ever receive or share any evidence that any of this is actually communicating with the dead; indeed, many of the so-called gurus she meets specifically construct their teachings in such a way that they are simply not testable, and they take pride in so doing.

And Penn & Teller are right: that’s just bullshit. These reindeer games get our focus on what’s not true and stop us from focusing on what is true. While Ms. Durham is jetting around talking to metaphysical gurus, what must her living new husband think about her obsession with her dead husband? What must her son think? How much money is she wasting on these travels and how much emotional capital is she investing in this stuff she’s “learning”? She’s incredibly fortunate in having a family that is willing to let her work through her grief and even to be supportive of her efforts in getting over her pain.

Ms. Durham has blown an entire supernatural world up in her head out of what are, for the most part, picayune coincidences and what are almost certainly human-caused trails of evidence. She gets into noetics and digs on the thoroughly-debunked claims of Dr. Eben Alexander about his supposed experiences in the afterlife. She visits mediums who play “guess my name” with her while they cold read her. Most of her breathless discoveries have been debunked quite roundly, needless to say.

Skeptics who read this book will almost certainly come away largely unconvinced that anything supernatural happened in it, while fundagelical Christians will probably burst into flames early in, especially since she barely even touches on their religion and treats Jesus like a New Age ascended master type of figure. But I don’t think they’re the real target audience for this book. Instead, it aims to reach the large number of people who buy into sayings like “there’s another way of knowing”, the horoscope-enthusiasts and crop circle “researchers”, and the folks who devour near-death experience and “heaven is totes for realsies” books like I’d devour watermelon-flavored Jolly Ranchers if given half a chance. Folks like that will love this book.

It’s fair to say, in the end, that she’s right about the most important thing she learns: when we talk about being in this thing together, “this thing” is love. The connections she’s forged in her life–like the ones we all forge in our own lives–are what, ultimately, matter most. And so for that, I’m grateful and honored that she included us in her journey, and wish her nothing but the best.

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