Discovering Parapsychology: Some early experiences with two kinds of segregation

Duke
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Politely ignored. Allowed to live in a separate space. All this seems peaceful enough unless you press for inclusion and then you quickly find how passionately a division may be maintained.

Does this sound like racial segregation? Well, it was that, but I am not referring only to that. Racial segregation was a fixed way of life in Durham, North Carolina in 1959 when I first moved there to attend college at Duke University. I felt deeply that it was wrong. I didn’t know it, but I would discover another kind of segregation that was also politely maintained, but also had great forces sustaining it just below the surface. This one is not nearly so well known, but I have experienced it and come to understand it better over many years.

Hammering across the southern states in the late summer of 1959, my train soaked up the warmth and humidity like a sponge. The cracked leatherette seats were pliable and sticky. I was heading east to begin college at Duke University. Waiting rooms and restrooms and water fountains seemed charged with the drama of racial segregation and I wanted to experiment with it, to challenge it. I used all the “colored” facilities I could find, but no one seemed to take any notice. I approached an elderly Black man sitting alone in a station house and chatted him up. He answered my questions politely and circumspectly, and was quick to drop his eyes back to the suitcase on his lap. I had boarded in El Paso, not too far from my dad’s home in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with a footlocker and a suitcase and some vague ideas of what lay ahead for me. I was excited and nervous.

What was college going to be like in North Carolina? I had been East once before, between my sophomore and junior years in high school. Rivers and trees. So much green and so much water. This was a big change from the arid landscape around Las Cruces, New Mexico where I grew up. I had taken that trip as the prize for winning an essay contest. A magical bus full of high school kids from some southwestern states spent a month traveling much of the country, lingering a week in New York and a week in Washington. The city and the capital were wonderful, but I took scores of photographs of rivers and trees.

That trip hadn’t taken me into the south and I didn’t know what to expect. The glossy pamphlets from Duke showed well-dressed young people looking friendly, having fun, looking through microscopes, studying at library tables. Duke had offered me a great scholarship. I thought, Why not?

One thing I knew I was going there for was parapsychology. It opened mysterious doors into the mind. I had read books about hypnosis and psychoanalysis, and stranger stuff like parapsychology (these came from Duke) and stuff stranger still about astral projection. I had been having what are called “out-of-body” (OOB) experiences, and a friend told me to read a rather eerie book by Sylvan Muldoon about “astral travel.” In my experiences, I would wake up from a nap and find myself hovering at the ceiling of my room. There I would look down upon my still-sleeping body. When I tried to move my body I would find I could not (this is called sleep paralysis). When I gave in to floating around, I found I could seem to fly about freely. I flew places and saw things, but the experience varied between very real and dreamlike. I didn’t know what to make of it. Muldoon took it very literally, if he was experiencing what I was (I think he probably was). But I thought his ideas about a traveling soul were a big stretch.

But Rhine’s books seemed more solidly scientific than the speculations of writers like Muldoon, and I thought that ESP was a very cool idea. Actually, a lot of 18 year-olds think this perennially, but almost all of them are talked out of it by psychology professors and otherwise grow away toward more feet-on-the-ground concerns. A few of us stick with it.

I was picked up at the train station by a well-groomed, confident senior in a pick-up truck. I was surprised that he carried an umbrella. My family had never owned one, nor did I know anyone else who did. He was to be one of our student advisers for the year. It was a majestic drive in the back of that truck with other freshmen and our luggage, winding through the streets of Durham, which seemed like a big city to me, then along lanes of magnolia trees, finally through great stone entrance-ways down the long drive culminating at the majestic gothic chapel. I found my dorm, met my roommate and a clump of neighbors, and began to get some bearings. Here were the dining halls, there the post office, over there the registrar, take this bus to the girl’s dorms. We were reassured there would soon be mixers for meeting coeds. That first night I heard southern voices arguing into the night about some battle of the civil war as if it were recent history (I didn’t realize then how recent it actually was). Was I on the moon?

The second day the heavy, grey skies collapsed in drenching rain, and I learned why every student owned an umbrella. After an orientation session, I asked my hall adviser where the Parapsychology Lab was. He wasn’t sure, but he knew it was not in the Psychology Department. Why not? Too controversial.

I had read two of J.B. Rhine’s books about the research that he and his colleagues had been doing at Duke. They had found evidence for an ability in the human mind to get information about things without using the senses (telepathy, clairvoyance, ESP), and even before they had occurred (precognition). And equally magically, evidence of an ability to change physical events like dice throws by mere wishing (psychokinesis). This was why I had chosen to try to go to Duke. I had carried out some ESP tests with friends following the books’ instructions using playing cards and gotten what the statistical tables said were significant results. And I had written to Rhine and asked him his advice about coming to Duke. I was too naive to be amazed that he replied – courteously but noncommittally. It was enough encouragement for me.

I met Rhine and his colleagues. They welcomed my interest and allowed me to attend weekly research meetings. There I got a picture of the developing world of experimental parapsychology, both from reports of ongoing studies at the lab, and from the international mail that Rhine would read aloud from each week. I learned what Milan Ryzl was doing in Czechoslovakia, how S. G. Soal’s research was holding up against criticisms in London, how the Italian psychoanalyst Emilio Servadio thought ESP is expressed in psychotic states, what book about ESP that Gardner Murphy was currently editing, and so on. Over time I helped giving lab tours to visitors and administered informal ESP tests. Many of the visitors were interesting people. Burl Ives scored above chance, but not too much. The president of Mexico had no time for tests but lots of stories to tell. Arthur Koestler was gracious at lunch, and the actor then playing Tarzan bought me a beer at Mayola’s Chili House, my favorite hang-out.

While I spent time at the Parapsychology Lab, I also took classes in psychology across campus. There I discovered a deep hostility to Rhine’s work that was puzzling and disturbing. Professors insisted that it was nonsense, but gave no details. When one man who liked me learned that I had been spending time with Rhine, he gave me a friendly lecture I heard several times later: if I thought I might become a psychologist, parapsychology would kill my career. Avoid it!

Thus I first ran into the academic apartheid that runs invisible borders around parapsychology. It’s in bad taste, it’s to be avoided, and it isn’t to be discussed. “What’s wrong with it?” I wondered and asked. I got no clear answers about that, or at least none that really checked out.

Around that time the other, bigger kind of segregation, the one that afflicted all African-American people, became brutally apparent. One afternoon I heard from a friend about the sit-ins that went on the day before at nearby Greensboro. Similar actions were being planned in Durham. Was I in? You bet!

I participated in anti-segregation activities for perhaps a year and a half. It began one night when a line of us from Duke and North Carolina College stood in the scruffy law office of Floyd McKissick. We all recited the oath of nonviolence written by Dr. King. The next day we hit the streets and lunch counters. The south is a polite and friendly place by and large, but I quickly experienced a different face. An attractive, middle-class, well dressed woman tried to run me down with her Buick by jumping it onto the sidewalk. If the high curb hadn’t dragged her to a stop just touching my knees, she would have succeeded. Two teen-aged boys with letter jackets pulled me off a lunch counter seat and threw me to the floor like a heavy bag of trash in Woolworth’s. There were many other adventures, and many much worse that I heard of that were experienced by my White and mostly my Black friends. Here was an invisible line that became visible by being pushed against!

At the time, I saw no connection between the academic lines drawn around parapsychology and the social lines of Jim Crow drawn around African Americans. The parallel only dawned on me many years later.

Note: This article originally appeared on the First Sight blog.

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