Historians rarely have the opportunity to say something that might be of practical relevance to clinicians or workers in other fields of applied scientific knowledge. As mentioned previously, I was therefore particularly chuffed when psychotherapist Nick Totton invited me last year to contribute an article to an envisaged special issue of the European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling, which he was to guest-edit on the theme of psychotherapy and the ‘paranormal’. Thanks to the Wellcome Trust, the article is now openly available as a pre-print PDF and will remain freely accessible (with updated biographical information) once the special issue is published in full.
Hoping to whet your appetite sufficiently to make you want to read the full article, I reproduce the introductory section below.
In Memory of John Forrester (1949–2015)
‘Ways of Being in the World’ in Historical Research and the Therapeutic Setting
At first glance, psychotherapists and historians appear to have very little in common. To be sure, both professions are concerned with human beings, but your clients are obviously alive, while my historical protagonists are long gone. The persons you work with usually seek you out to get help understanding and changing their individual present, whereas I select my historical actors in the hope they might prove useful to me as a lens to understand collective pasts. You empower your clients to become active collaborators in the therapeutic process by encouraging them to mobilize own resources, while my historical actors are perfectly at my mercy should I chose to distort their lives to make them fit any preconceived narratives of mine. Not least, your clients are protected by basic human rights and can take legal steps if they feel mistreated, whereas I have nothing to fear in consequence of, say, retroactively tainting a historical protagonist’s reputation as the dead are unable to sue.
Yet, it seems that in a crucial sense some of these differences actually indicate a mutual work ethos. I take it for granted that the first step in establishing a fruitful client-therapist relationship requires the therapist’s commitment to treat those seeking help on their own terms. Rather than forcing your own way of being in the world upon persons in your care, you will strive to base therapeutic interventions on a thorough understanding of where each is coming from.
Ideally, historians are trained to observe very similar methodological maxims. For our job is no longer to justify the present by limiting reconstructions of the past through compatibilities with today’s epistemological and metaphysical standards, but to faithfully resurrect the past by doing our best to obtain a thorough understanding of sentiments and existential categories that were actually at the disposal of the individuals whose ways of being in the world we aim to investigate.
Quite often, I struggle to get my head around beliefs and sentiments of my historical actors, even if I know this doesn’t necessarily require me to drastically modify my own presuppositions and cultural conditionings. I expect similar issues to arise as challenges to therapeutic practice.
A client may, for instance, report a certain class of recurring ‘weird’ experiences, such as fulfilled prophetic dreams of accidents and deaths, possibly intrusive telepathic rapport with a parent or lover they are in the process of separating from, frightening out-of-body experiences, visual or auditory hallucinations of dead relatives and friends, or dramatic ‘poltergeist’-style episodes involving loud noises, levitating objects, and other ‘things that go bump’ in their homes or maybe even workplaces.
In many cases, you may find it advisable not to encourage your client’s belief in the reality of the reported phenomena, while trying to establish what emotional conflicts and issues each experience may represent. On the other hand, you might have encountered instances where ostensibly ‘paranormal’ experiences, rather than being inherently unsettling, on the contrary inspired a client’s confidence in higher and ultimately benevolent realities. Far from persuading such clients to abandon these apparently irrational and naive beliefs, you may have come to acknowledge that at least some individuals can exploit profound forms of ‘transpersonal’ optimism as highly effective means to cope with, and possibly even overcome, concrete hardships and emotional problems. And from conversations with various therapists I’m practically certain that there are cases where a client’s fear of being considered ‘not normal’ or mentally ill simply by virtue of having such experiences constitute a major obstacle to therapeutic progress. After all, most of us were brought up in the belief that science has conclusively shown that these things are impossible, and that something must be wrong with those reporting experiences that appear to suggest otherwise.
Obviously, as a historian I have no intention let alone competence to argue for the existence or non-existence of parapsychological (or ‘psi’) phenomena. It is merely as a potential token of assistance with such cases – however small it will be – the present article is written. In a sense, it could be viewed as complementary to recent clinical studies and revisions appearing to show that, whatever their ultimate nature, exceptional or ‘paranormal’ experiences are neither particularly uncommon nor intrinsically pathological (cf. Cardeña, Lynn, & Krippner, 2014). In fact, some of the recent historical research I shall try to distil in the following pages has revealed that the ‘occult’ was always a part of our scientific and intellectual heritage.
© Andreas Sommer