Peter Robb talks to John Geiger
Angels on our shoulders
The Angel Effect contemplates the possibility
The Angel Effect
Q & A with John Geiger
Are there angels watching over us? Some people think so. Is there a way to measure their impact? John Geiger has made understanding the phenomenon one of his missions. His latest book which will be on store shelves this holdiat season examines the stories of ordinary people who experienced extraordinary things and talks to Peter Robb about the people and their stories.
The 'Angel' revival, as I call it, often is full of trite tales. You're a pretty serious guy, why are you venturing onto this turf?
I like the challenge. Look, I knew the use of the word "angel" in the book's title would be fraught. So many people dismiss the concept of angels out of hand, and there is a risk the book will be marginalized if it's labelled a 'spiritual' work. Yet there are also a great many people who do take religious questions seriously, and the alternative title, The Sensed Presence Effect, just didn't have the same ring to it. There's a whole lot of serious research around the subject, and the book is full of brain-based theories, but at the end of the day it's Occam's razor: If it walks like an angel and talks like an angel, maybe, just maybe, it really is an angel. It's certainly the simplest explanation for a phenomenon that has been experienced by a great many serious, credible people. I understand that in our secular times, it's a radical act to even contemplate such a possibility.
Can you describe your own experience with this kind of phenomena?
My wife and I lost a baby son six years ago. It was the most horrible experience in my life. Months after losing James, no doubt still in grief, I experienced a sense of his presence. I know he was there, except he could not have been there. I felt somehow repaired by the experience. The book opens with that.
You are not a religious person. Is this a religious book? Explain?
I guess that's a fair comment. I am an Anglican but like many people I am still trying to work things out for myself. It's very much a work in progress. I'm probably quite typical of a lot of people. What surprised me is that try as I might, in writing this book and trying to understand what happened to me, I could not dismiss the idea that it was very much an angel experience, that what people are experiencing today is the same thing that people experienced in the Middle Ages and, indeed, in the pre-Christian era. It doesn't matter what your dogma, even if it's atheism, there's still a reasonable chance that during a time of great stress or peril, you will be comforted by a the presence of an unseen being, who will communicate with you and help you. When that happens, even very secular people will describe it as an angel.
The book is broken down into various types of phenomena, can you walk me through some?
The Angel Effect walks through all the theories as to the source of the experience, such as that it's evoked by what's called "messianic ecology," that is to say it's the product of a carefully tended garden of expectations, such as at pilgrimage sites and in other spiritual contexts, or that it's the product of a pattern of devotion and prayer. Then it looks at psychological explanations, such as a theory that the presence is brought on by absence, that is that we are a highly social species, and that when we are under stress and feel alone and ill-equipped for that stress we create a friend. Then there's a host of neurological theories, such as that it's an externalized second self, or the product of the HADD (Hypersensitive Agent Detection Device), which is an innate human survival mechanism to alert us to threats.
The stories are the experiences of ordinary people in ordinary situations. Why do you believe these folks?
I believe them because they are credible people, in fact they are very brave people. It's not easy to step forward and share this sort of experience, about what happened to you during childbirth, or after a car crash, or during a near-drowning episode, or even during a bout of depression and loneliness. There's a real risk that your friends are going to think you are losing it. Far easier to pretend nothing happened, to keep it a little secret. I think the angel effect is much more common than anyone realizes. I think a lot of people can't rationalize what happened to them, they can't explain it, and so they just don't want to go there. I don't blame them.
I'll ask you an editor's question: Why should I care about these stories?
You should care about these stories because one day something terrible, an immediate physical threat or even profound loneliness or existential crisis, might very well happen to you, and how you respond to what results - that sense of an unseen friend - and whether you heed the advice and comfort you receive, might make the difference between whether you live or die. Sure it happens in fiction and in films, notably in the recent blockbuster film Gravity, but it also happens in every day life in places like beaches, and banks and livingrooms. Set aside the question of whether this is a spiritual experience, or a neurological response, or simply a psychological coping mechanism. Let's just accept the mountain of evidence that even scientists agree on, that this is a real lived experience for a great many people. That is startling and important enough.
Tell me about yourself.
As a day job I work as CEO at the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. I formerly headed the editorial board for The Globe and Mail. I attended the University of Alberta. This is my sixth book, and the topics range from the Franklin Expedition (Frozen In Time) to the Canadian artist and Beat generation icon Brion Gysin (Nothing Is True Everything Is Permitted). I co-authored, with Prof. Peter Suedfeld, a scholarly paper on this phenomenon, The Sensed Presence as a Coping Resource in Extreme Environments. My last book, The Third Man Factor, also looked at the sensed presence phenomenon, but only as experienced by explorers and others in extreme environments. The Angel Effect shows that it can happen to us all. We are never truly alone.