The Harp That Came Back:
My Journey Begins
In December of 1991, my daughter's harp was stolen; we got it back. But it came back in a way that irrevocably changed my familiar world of science and rational thinking. It changed the way I go about living in that world. It changed the way I perceive the world and try to make sense out of it.
This book is about what unfolded as I attempted to explain what happened. I encountered questions: huge and disconcerting questions about the world as we know it. They held radical import not just for science but for the ways we live our everyday lives. This is a book about those questions and some of the surprising answers I encountered along the way.
In 1991 I was teaching in the psychology department of the University of California at Berkeley and at the University Medical Center in San Francisco. I was doing research on female development and seeing patients in my psychoanalysis practice. I was a member of numerous professional associations, doing committee work, attending international meetings, functioning on editorial boards, and lecturing all over the country. I was a training and supervising analyst in the American Psychoanalytic Association. I was busy and fulfilled, and life was running along the way it does.
My eleven-year-old daughter, Meg, who'd fallen in love with the harp at age six, had begun performing. She wasn't playing a classical pedal harp but a smaller, extremely valuable instrument built and carved by a master harp maker. After a Christmas concert, her harp was stolen from the theater where she was playing. For two months we went through every conceivable channel trying to locate it: the police, instrument dealers across the country, the American Harp Society newsletters—even a CBS TV news story. Nothing worked.
Finally, a wise and devoted friend told me, "If you really want that harp back, you should be willing to try anything. Try calling a dowser." The only thing I knew about dowsers were that they were that strange breed who locate underground water with forked sticks. But according to my friend, the "really good" dowsers can locate not just water but lost objects as well.
Finding lost objects with forked sticks? Well, nothing was happening on the police front, and my daughter, spoiled by several years of playing an extraordinary instrument, had found the series of commercial harps we'd rented simply unplayable. So, half-embarrassed but desperate, I decided to take my friend's dare. I asked her if she could locate a really good dowser—the best, I said. She promptly called the American Society of Dowsers and came back with the phone number of the society's current president: Harold McCoy, in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
I called him that day. Harold picked up the phone—friendly, cheerful, heavy Arkansas accent. I told him I'd heard he could dowse for lost objects and that I'd had a valuable harp stolen in Oakland, California. Could he help locate it?
"Give me a second," he said. "I'll tell you if it's still in Oakland." He paused, then: "Well, it's still there. Send me a street map of Oakland and I'll locate that harp for you." Skeptical—but what, after all, did I have to lose?—I promptly overnighted him a map. Two days later, he called back. "Well, I got that harp located," he said. "It's in the second house on the right on D— Street, just off L— Avenue."
I'd never heard of either street. But I did like the sound of the man's voice—whoever he was. And I don't like backing down on a dare. Why not drive to the house he'd identified? At least I'd get the address. I looked on an Oakland map and found the neighborhood. It was miles from anywhere I'd ever been. I got in my car, drove into Oakland, located the house, wrote down the number, called the police, and told them I'd gotten a tip that the harp might be at that house. Not good enough for a search warrant, they said. They were going to close the case—there was no way this unique, portable, and highly marketable item hadn't already been sold; it was gone forever.
But I found I couldn't quite let it go. Was it the dare? Was it my admiration for the friend who'd instigated the whole thing? Was it my devastated daughter? Or was it just that I had genuinely liked the sound of that voice on the other end of the line?
I decided to post flyers in a two-block area around the house, offering a reward for the harp's return. It was a crazy idea, but why not? I put up flyers in those two blocks, and only those two blocks. I was embarrassed enough about what I was doing to tell just a couple of close friends about it.
Three days later, my phone rang. A man's voice told me he'd seen a flyer outside his house describing a stolen harp. He said it was exactly the harp his next-door neighbor had recently obtained and showed him. He wouldn't give me his name or number, but offered to get the harp returned to me. And two weeks later, after a series of circuitous telephone calls, he told me to meet a teenage boy at 10:00 p.m., in the rear parking lot of an all-night Safeway. I arrived to find a young man loitering in the lot. He looked at me, and said, "The harp?" I nodded. Within minutes, the harp was in the back of my station wagon and I drove off.
Twenty-five minutes later, as I turned into my driveway, I had the thought, This changes everything.
I was right. The harp changed how I work as a clinician and psychoanalyst. It changed the nature of the research I pursued. It changed my sense of what's ordinary and what's extraordinary. Most of all, it changed my relatively established, relatively contented, relatively secure sense of how the world adds up. If Harold McCoy did what he appeared to have done, I had to face the fact that my notions of space, time, reality, and the nature of the human mind were stunningly inadequate. Disturbing as that recognition was, there was something intriguing, even exciting, about it as well.
Over the ensuing months I spent a lot of sleepless nights. I argued with myself a lot. I regularly woke up at 3:00 a.m. certain that with just a little more effort, a little more clear thinking, I'd come up with some comfortably rational way to explain how that harp had ended up back in my living room where it belonged. Finally a friend of mine, a statistics professor at Berkeley, listened to my conflicted ranting and said in exasperation, "Get over it and get some sleep, Lisby. As a statistician, I can promise you the odds that dowsing works are a lot greater than the odds that this could have been coincidence."
I decided it was time to consider what it might mean if I started taking the whole thing seriously. What if, I began wondering. What if I stopped trying to explain it all away but instead tried to consider how on earth a dowser, over the phone and from two thousand miles away, could pinpoint the exact location of my stolen harp within the vast metropolitan San Francisco Bay Area?
I began to look into the scientific evidence for dowsing. That quickly led to reports from some very respectable scientific minds about all kinds of other, possibly related anomalous phenomena. I was discovering a vast, strange new territory of research regarding anomalous mind-matter interactions—interactions between mind and matter that simply cannot be contained inside what we call normal science.
Of course, I also discovered that the world of anomalous mind-matter interactions is filled with shoddy research, flaky research, and research based on questions that are neither particularly interesting nor rooted in a solid grasp of science, scientific method, or scientific thinking. Yet as I delved more deeply, what most impressed me was the significant bank of well-conducted, scientifically impeccable research that imposes enormous questions on anyone interested in making sense of the world from a Western scientific point of view. I began to wonder, why had so much of this excellent research been overlooked, its conclusions dismissed?
Weeks after I'd published my first tentative foray into exploring mind-matter anomalies, a physician I barely knew came up to me at a professional meeting. He'd read my article and wanted to tell me something. The story poured out. He'd been diagnosed twenty years earlier with fatal bone cancer and had become deeply depressed. As a marathon runner, he'd found relief from despair only while he ran. Early one morning, two hours into his run, he'd been suddenly overcome by what he described as "a sensation of light—clear, soft light, as though light was filling my bones, as though light and air were infusing each bone. I saw it—light penetrating those bones, right through to the marrow."
The next week his X-rays were clean. "I've never told another colleague," he said. "I told my wife when it happened—no one else. And this part I didn't tell anyone: I know that's what cured me. The light crowded out the cancer cells. I don't know how, but I know it did."
As word of my new interest spread, my medical and psychoanalytic colleagues began to inundate me with accounts of their own anomalous experiences, personal as well as clinical. As with the physician, the stories they shared with me were often ones they'd never revealed to another professional associate. Their accounts—by e-mail, snail mail, at conferences, in seminars, in hall corridors or at dinner—made as little sense to me as they did to the colleagues telling me about them. The stories were all about knowing things in bizarrely inexplicable ways:
"My patient walked in and I knew her mother had died—no clues—I just knew, instantly."
"I woke up in the middle of the night like I heard a shot; the next day I found out it was exactly when my patient took a gun and tried to kill herself."
"I suddenly felt that my partner's son was in trouble. I called my partner; it worried him enough that he tracked down his son. His son had been in a bad car accident and my partner got there just in time to make a decision about surgery that probably saved his life."
I was particularly fascinated by how eagerly my colleagues shared even the most weirdly personal stories with me. Their eagerness puzzled me, until I realized how badly people wanted to reintegrate corners of experience they'd walled off from their public lives for fear of being disbelieved.
"I was on a bus and all of a sudden found myself smelling the perfume my brother's ex-wife used to wear. When the bus stopped, she got on. I hadn't smelled that perfume or seen her in thirty years."
"My husband and I fell in love with a house in London on our honeymoon—very distinctive, across from a park. Fourteen years later, living in Boston, I woke up one day, and thought, maybe we could buy it. I tracked down a realtor in London, asked if she could figure out the address and find out if it was for sale. Crazy! But she did. The man who'd been living there had just died; the For Sale sign wasn't even up yet. We bought it the next week."
I began taking notes, word for word and with every detail I could catch. I couldn't figure out what else to do. I couldn't ignore the things people were telling me, but I couldn't find ways to make sense of them either. The stories were from credible people, backed up by enough hard facts that I couldn't reject them out of hand.
As my files of all these notes grew, I found myself pursuing the odd, unexpected conversation with a new kind of curiosity, not just with colleagues but also with friends, students, and even first-time acquaintances. I began asking different questions. Someone would mention an unusual outcome of a friend's illness; instead of letting it pass, I'd ask what was so unusual. In return, I'd often hear accounts of apparently anomalous healing or treatment or even diagnoses: perhaps a stranger delivering an accurate, complex diagnosis of a medical condition over the phone, without any background information. Or someone would describe knowing something but having no idea how they knew it, and I'd probe gently. Peculiar stories would follow: a woman wakened by a sudden ache in her chest just as her father suffered a heart attack three thousand miles away; a man assaulted by shooting leg pain at the moment an identical twin fractured his leg; a student instantly guessing to four decimal places the exact strength of a chemical solution that should have taken hours to work out; a mother seized by panic at the exact moment her baby across town took a bad fall.
My new focus also encouraged me to tune in to my patients in a new way. I gradually had to face the realization that there were things my patients had been only half telling me for years, things they viewed as too weird or risky to reveal for fear I wouldn't believe them or—worse—would think they really were crazy. Now when my patients began to hint at strange incidents, odd images, or funny coincidences, I worked harder to encourage them to explore their meaning. And I began hearing some remarkable things.
I was somewhat stalled with one deeply troubled patient, a woman who was isolated and very frightened of the world. For years she'd insisted she couldn't remember any of her dreams, and indeed she'd reported almost none to me through our work together. Then, during one session, she told me that the night before she'd dreamed of my going to Arizona. I had indeed been planning a trip to Arizona that week, but I'd told none of my colleagues or patients about it. I asked her, why Arizona? She had no idea, no associations. I told her that I was in fact going to Arizona and wondered if she'd somehow picked that up. For a moment, she was quiet. Then she hesitantly told me that she often had dreams in which she knew where people were going, and it turned out she was right. She couldn't begin to explain it. She'd learned not to tell people; it was too weird. She had had dreams like that as a child and her parents had raged at her and called her crazy. They would sometimes beat her until she said she'd made it all up. So she'd learned to shut up and started pretending that she didn't have dreams, that a lot of things she experienced weren't real. Pretending to others, to herself, had made her feel safe, but it had also made her feel that she wasn't very real.
That exchange with my patient was a turning point in her psychotherapy. It was also a turning point for me. My evident curiosity about her dream had liberated a flood of experiences. As my patient started believing that I could believe her—and considered her neither crazy nor dangerous—a new world opened up between us. She began for the first time telling me about other bizarrely intuitive experiences, and about how they terrified her. Bit by bit, her comfort in the world took new root. Her life changed in profoundly positive ways. She told me that she started feeling she could be real.
From the Hardcover edition.