By John Geiger
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Do “angels” exist?I If so, are they heaven-sent or products of the human brain? After the publication of the bestseller The ThirdMan Factor, which examined the phenomenon of explorers who found themselves at the edge of death and experienced a benevolent presence that led them out of the impossible, John Geiger was inundated with firsthand accounts from people who had the same experience — a vivid presence that aided them as they faced crises ranging from physical and sexual assaults to automobile accidents, airplane crashes, serious illness, childbirth, and depression. The Angel Effect examines this phenomenon, and Geiger argues that it has the potential to aid us, even to save us, and asks whether it is a trainable skill. He investigates the numerous experiences along with historical accounts and scientific research as he reveals compelling discoveries about the human brain and our innate capacity to hope.
In 2008 I experienced something extraordinary at a moment of great pain, something that has altered the way I think about the world and has given me firsthand insight into a profound mystery.
It happened to me when I had nearly completed writing The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible, and it brought the phenomenon of what scientists call the sensed presence vividly to life for me. That book arose from my growing realization—gleaned from my own experiences in the Arctic, my conversations with explorers and field scientists, and reading the published accounts of explorers—that people under enormous stress, sometimes at the edge of death, often experience a sense of an incorporeal being beside them who encourages them to survive. Climbers refer to it as the “third man.”
I assembled a trove of such stories and investigated religious, psychological, and neurological explanations for the phenomenon. In the process I also published a scholarly study, “The Sensed Presence as a Coping Resource in Extreme Environments,” with Professor Peter Suedfeld, a renowned expert of the psychological effects of exploration who has also advised NASA.
Suedfeld and I identified four indisputable facts about the sensed presence, notably that they occur to otherwise mentally normal, physically healthy individuals; they arise in stressful situations; they serve as a coping resource in that they aid the individual’s efforts to survive; and that, despite various theories, their source remains a mystery.1
The sensed presence is far greater than the simple feeling that we all sometimes have when, alone at night or when walking down an alley, we feel that someone is there. Various reductive explanations have been offered, and although many of those indeed may play some role, none of them comes anywhere near to capturing the richness and profundity of the experience, which person after person describes as among the most important of their lives. Peter Suedfeld and I argued for the need to better understand the “dramatic helpfulness of the sensed presence, which includes not only encouragement, but also factual information … and, on occasion, physical intervention.”
That study, and The Third Man Factor, held closely to the view that you had to be astride Everest or engaged in an equally harrowing pursuit, such as those undertaken by solo sailors, polar explorers, and astronauts, to experience the phenomenon. It worked wonderfully as a way to introduce the radical idea. But in fact, it is not the case that explorers and adventurers are the sole recipients of such interventions. Far from it.
I opened The Third Man Factor with the experience of Ron DiFrancesco, the last person to escape the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11, who told me that he survived that day because an angel helped him. DiFrancesco was just going about his routine business when terror struck. He found himself trapped in a smoke-filled stairwell, above the point of impact of United Airlines Flight 175, with flames and a collapsed wall obstructing his escape. Other people were with him on a landing, some apparently unconscious, when, he says, an angel urged him to carry on. It addressed him by his first name and gave him encouragement, telling him, “Hey! You can do this.”
DiFrancesco felt that he was literally helped to his feet and then guided on, saying, “It led me to the stairwell, led me to break through, led me to run through the fire. … There was obviously somebody encouraging me: ‘That’s not where you go, you don’t go toward the fire.’”2 He covered his head with his arms and literally fought through it. He believes the flames continued for three stories. Only after he got safely through the debris, to below the flames, did he sense the angel leave. It had been with him for five minutes. When talking to him, I was struck by the idea that something extraordinary can touch everyday people caught up in crisis situations they weren’t looking for or were in anyway prepared for.
Then, following the publication of that book, hundreds of people began to step forward with their stories, accounts that do not involve high-altitude climbs—though I do still get plenty of those. Intriguingly, however, these stories often include quite routine stresses, the sorts of hardships that we all potentially face in our lives when confronted by grief, physical and sexual assaults, automobile accidents, raging fires, and bank heists as well as a result of long illnesses, the pain of childbirth, the despair of alcoholism, and even in cases of persistent loneliness.
Others sent me testimonials handed down from loved ones who had served in war or survived other personal calamities. They wrote to me from Australia, the UK, Spain, the United States, and Israel, and they were men, women, teenagers, and seniors. Some of my friends and acquaintances also came forward to say it had happened to them. These stories are every bit as compelling as those of the explorers and adventurers. This phenomenon is universal; it can happen to any one of us.
And then it happened to me.
JAMES ENTERED OUR LIVES AT 1:26 A.M. on Friday, June 15, 2007, three minutes after his brother Sebastian. Despite a diagnosis of hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a rare congenital heart condition first detected in an ultrasound, he declared himself a strong little boy, very much a fighter. He was fine when inside my wife, Marina, and indeed he had thrived, surprising us by coming in at four pounds, nine ounces—two ounces heavier than his older brother.
He was a gorgeous baby. He looked normal; in fact, he was normal in every other way, but basically James had half of a heart, as his left ventricle was severely underdeveloped. From the moment of his birth the clock started ticking.
We had been trying to have a second child for five years. After our first was born, Marina’s obstetrician said that if we wanted another, we should not delay, that time was not our friend. But the demands of new parenthood overwhelmed us so much that we set aside the thought of immediately having another child.
By the time we were ready, the ground rules had changed, and we needed fertility treatments. Finally, after much effort, we produced a pregnancy—twin boys. This was joyous news, but the very serious diagnosis that an ultrasound delivered after twenty weeks soon tempered our happiness.
Among the options presented to us was the selective “termination” of the second fetus, a procedure that would also have had a slight risk of jeopardizing the healthy child. Even without the risk to the other twin, it was an unacceptable option for us both. We opted to see the pregnancy through, bracing for the trauma that lay ahead. We read everything we could find about the condition. We met with a couple who had a child with hypoplastic left heart syndrome and whose son was doing quite well given the severity of the medical journey he was on. The boy was in school. Looking at him you wouldn’t know, they said. But we also understood that his was an exceptional case.
The twins were born prematurely, and this further complicated James’s condition. At his birth, James cried briefly, the only noise I ever heard him make. He was literally rushed from the delivery room—each was. The two boys were then immediately placed in separate incubators. I was unable to photograph them together. Shortly after their birth James was whisked away to the Critical Care Unit at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. Sebastian remained across the street in the Intensive Care Unit of Mount Sinai Hospital. Marina was also hospitalized for several days.
After James was born he developed some symptoms of respiratory distress and later was treated for necrotizing enter-colitis. He stabilized twenty-four hours after birth and was maintained on mechanical ventilation and other support—in the words of his critical care physician, written with clipped detachment on his chart—“while his parents worked through their concern regarding James’ long term prognosis.”3
We were presented with two horrible options: one was to have open-heart surgery on a premature baby with a serious risk of brain damage, to be followed by two more open-heart surgeries before the age of three. These would attempt to construct a heart that could sustain James through his childhood. Needless to say there was a high risk of death at every turn. Sudden death between surgeries was also a possibility. Then, by about age twenty, James would require a heart transplant, as his surgically constructed heart would begin to give out. This was the upside option.
The other choice was simply to remove life support and allow James to die as children with this condition had always done before the heroic measures of modern medicine.
Despite the vast experience of the specialists at the hospital, their policy was to offer no advice whatsoever. In hospital jargon it’s called “Patient Autonomy.” Their policy was to leave the decision entirely to the parents, regardless of whether they were equipped to make it. It was a cop-out really, possibly designed to protect the hospital’s interests ahead of our own. It is presented as a patient’s right, the right to make decisions about medical care without health care providers influencing the decision. They are allowed only to “educate” patients or, in our case, the parents of an infant patient, in an either-or sort of way. There is a great deal of debate among medical ethicists and practitioners as to whether this is the correct approach, especially as some studies show that “many patients do not have a strong preference for autonomy … and many even prefer a paternalistic model.”4
The hospital record the critical care physician wrote put it much more starkly than it seemed at the time, with a young life hanging in the balance: “I and others met with them several times over this period to give them information regarding the options for palliative surgery. The increased potential for an adverse neurologic outcome in general and specific to James’ prematurity were discussed at length.”5 In fact, we were presented with a monstrous situation that no parent should ever have to face and decisions that no parent should ever have to make, especially as it concerned a life just born and so full of promise.
It was an agonizing trial. With Marina still hospitalized and Sebastian in the ICU, I crossed University Avenue countless times each day going from one hospital to the other. We had the joy of one healthy, though premature, baby to celebrate, and we also had a slow-motion emergency unfolding across the street. I spent hours sitting with James. He was constantly monitored. I rubbed his feet. He briefly opened his eyes during the first couple of days of his life. I spoke to him. I told him that his daddy was there and that I loved him. I felt every minute was precious. His nurse, a wonderful, heroic young woman, gave me a card from James, with tiny handprints, for Father’s Day.
We were under unimaginable stress. Marina was recovering alone in the hospital. Grabbing a few hours sleep at home one night, I experienced an episode of bioscopic feedback, in which the events of the previous days were replayed at high speed. We consulted a minister, a social worker, a psychologist—none of it seemed to help. Some of our friends and family were supportive, and my stepmum, Jean, flew in from Calgary to help. Others apparently despaired over what they could do or say, so they said and did little. Many did no doubt pray for James, as did we. Marina was recovering, and she and I visited James together, as did our oldest son, Alvaro. We had plaster casts made of James’s hands and feet. Very quickly the situation worsened, and ultimately the decision was taken away from us. I feel I bear some of the responsibility for this, for the delay in our attempts to understand what to do didn’t help his chances, if there were any chances. To this day I don’t really know.
James was slipping away, as were our dreams for him.
On his last day I asked the attending physician if we could take James outside, just for a few minutes, but I was told that was impossible. I wanted him to experience the warmth of the sun, to hear some birds, to feel a breeze. Instead, he was wheeled from the Critical Care Unit to another room just down the hall. According to the hospital record, “James was extubated while in his parents arms and he died approximately one hour thereafter.” How can I describe that hour? A horror unlike any other, certainly. One without any of the consolations that accompany many deaths, such as thoughts about the well-lived long life. There are no happy memories to hold on to.
The hour was spent in a room specially designed for a child’s death, with the sort of chairs, books on grief, hand-knitted throws, stuffed toys, and other accoutrements that psychologists no doubt believe make the experience more comfortable, bearable, or survivable. I shudder to think of the pain and grief that has been suffered in that room over time. At least we got to hold James finally. Our baby died at 11:11 P.M. on Thursday, June 21.
Marina is a woman of faith, and she derived strength from that. Hard as it was on her—and it was terribly hard—the idea that James was somehow in a better place consoled her. I admire her for that. I have never had such certainty or conviction, and in fact this experience left me feeling bereft or abandoned by faith, so I coped in other ways. I felt James had been denied the only chance he had at life. I was then—and, to a certain extent, remain today—angry about the situation, the injustice of his short life, and his death. As far as I was concerned, our prayers had not been answered. A few days after that, on a sweltering June afternoon, we gathered around a tiny plot in a Toronto cemetery. We had a few words from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows carved into James’s gravestone. They come from a chapter titled, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”: “Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.”
Here’s what I said at James’s internment:
“We cannot but help ask ourselves: Why this boy?
“We seek the comfort of our faith. But still we ask ourselves: Lord, why this little boy?
“What could this innocent life have done to have earned such a fate: to have received the gift of life and then have had it snatched back so soon and, frankly, so cruelly?
“And we think of the things that we can now never know: What would James Geiger have made of his life? What kind of journeys would he have undertaken? How would he have loved, how would he have lived, had he been given that chance?
“There are no answers to these questions. Only a terrible void, a pain that we will carry all of the rest of our lives. That, along with the memory of a beautiful little boy dying in our arms.”
In our grief we then set out to try to mend our terribly damaged family and to focus our attention on our two beautiful, healthy, surviving sons.
The days passed, and then the weeks. I buried myself in my work, hoping that when I finally put my head up again the pain would be gone, but it wasn’t. I must have been more brittle than I had supposed.
One evening I was up late in my study working as the rest of the household slept. I remember taking a break and walking upstairs to the rooftop deck. A wind had come up in advance of a thunderstorm. I sat for a few minutes on a lounge chair, at once sad and exhilarated by the fresh and cool air. I then went back down to my computer and resumed writing. My old border collie, Kirby, sauntered in and laid down by my feet.
Maybe an hour after that, I had a powerful sense that someone was watching me, literally standing close behind my right shoulder. I felt I could see someone in my peripheral vision. It was not eerie or unsettling in any way because I knew who it was. I surprised myself by saying aloud, “James?” But I didn’t need to turn and look. It was a powerful, vivid awareness. Kirby looked up. James was not as he had been seared into my memory: an infant lying connected to tubes and monitors, a pair of cardboard “sunglasses” to protect his closed eyes from the bright hospital lights. He impressed me now as full grown, or at least I had the sense that he was at the height of an older child or adult. Finally, I turned fully, expecting to see him. I saw nothing, yet I knew he was there.
It did not last long, perhaps only a few minutes. There was no communication as such. But it was powerful, and to this day it remains in my mind something profound. It was as though I had a glimpse into a different world of possibilities—for James and for me. I didn’t feel surprised or sad, nor did I experience a longing for what might have been. Instead, I had a feeling as though a love greater than any other had embraced me. I felt better for the encounter, almost like I knew him—a child I could not possibly have known. And somehow I was more at peace than I had been for a long time. It was him, but it was greater than him.
This was very emotional and also very personal. I wanted to include something in the book I was writing at the time, but the experience felt too raw, and to share it was simply not something I could bring myself to do, even with those very close to me. It wasn’t that I was concerned about what they would think—that didn’t matter to me. But I did feel like it was something intimate, something I needed to protect. I also wondered whether the fact I was writing a book about the third man, about sensed-presence experiences, might have contributed to what happened to me in some way. Was it only the power of suggestion? To be honest, I didn’t know what to do with it, so I put it, along with James’s few possessions, including his blanket, in a little box that we keep in my office. Marina suggested I dedicate The Third Man Factor to James, which I did, and left it at that.
It was only after that book was published and hundreds of other people stepped forward with their own stories and shared with me deeply personal experiences—and doubtless also after the healing that comes with the passage of time—did I feel I could open up that little box.
I began to look at the phenomenon with fresh eyes. After all, it had not happened to me on a mountaintop or in the barrens of Arctic Canada but in my own home. I had so many questions. To begin with: Why me? I was not in mortal danger when it happened, certainly in emotional distress, but nothing of the scale of climbers clinging to life in the Death Zone of Everest. And why then? It had not happened during the worst of the trauma, in the days leading up to or at the time of James’s death. It happened later, though I was still grappling with what I—we—had been through.
And finally I opened the box because I wanted to understand the fundamental mystery: Was it a religious experience? Does James exist in an afterlife? Or was this some process of my brain to help me cope with what I have been through? This book is my journey of understanding.
DADDY, CAN YOU SWALLOW ANGELS WHEN THEY FALL DOWN FROM THE SKY?
—Sebastian Geiger, age four
- 1 -
THE TUCSON NUN
THE SENSED-PRESENCE PHENOMENON
IT WAS A SUNDAY AFTERNOON IN MARCH IN ARIZONA, and the hot Tucson sun beat down on a brilliant yellow sports car. Jane Pottle had just driven her husband to work and now was passing down a broad boulevard on her way home. In an instant she was unconscious. She saw swirling stars and went limp. She had no idea, quite literally, what hit her. Later, she learned that a large Cadillac, driven by an eighty-year-old man, had shot out from a side street on the right, with trees obscuring its movement until the last moment. It smashed into her sports car, throwing it back twenty feet and virtually destroying its front end.
Jane had a vivid sense of fighting to come to. It took several minutes for her to regain some awareness of her surroundings, but even then she could not focus her vision except on the bright sunshine that poured into the shattered automobile. Her head had cracked the windshield, her forehead had split open, and blood was pouring from the injury. Her chest had hit the steering wheel, but at the time she had no idea what was happening to her. “I remember thinking, ‘Why is it hard to breathe? Why can’t I move?’ I then realized I was gravely hurt (was I in an accident?) but I was too weak to help myself. I started to panic, thinking I was going to die.”1
Jane prayed for help. Her breathing became more and more rapid and more labored. She knew she was in great danger. “That is when I suddenly felt a warm, soft hand holding mine,” she said. “I was not startled; I was happy and relieved that someone was there. I could not see her, but thought, ‘Gee, someone has sat in the passenger seat to help me! Maybe a passerby.’”
Her eyes could not focus on the person, but she knew it was a woman and could feel her hand and hear her calm, soothing voice. It seemed almost like a whisper in her ear and, indeed, inside her head. While the soft hands clasped on to hers, the woman’s voice spoke with extreme clarity: “Calm down. Breathe very slowly. Help is on the way.” It was more than simple advice—it was a command. The voice repeated, “Calm down. Breathe very slowly,” until Jane cast off her panic and practiced breathing slowly as the voice advised. “I had the feeling I only had minutes to live. I assumed she was a real, tangible person in authority who knew exactly what to do. Yes, I feel the woman was there to ensure my survival. I would have died without her help.”
Jane gradually became aware of many voices around the car, but she could not understand what they were saying. She just practiced breathing extremely slowly as the woman suggested. The woman—Jane thought she was a nun—assured her that she had no reason to panic and told Jane that she would not leave her side. Jane felt relieved and decided to just concentrate on surviving. The accident occurred just around the corner from a hospital, directly in front of a church. She had no concept of how much time passed, though it seemed like a good while before paramedics arrived. Her legs were pinned in the wreckage, so firefighters had to pry open the door to free her, which took another ten minutes. When they succeeded, Jane realized her helper had left. “The nun’s hand had disappeared at the same time the paramedics grabbed me,” she remembered. “I just assumed she made way for them. She was there right up to the last second. It had seemed to me that she dissipated. But I thought she was there just to keep me company until help arrived. I didn’t think it strange that she left; I did, however, think it strange at the time that she seemed to have just disappeared into thin air and none of the other paramedics were speaking to her as they entered the car. But I had other things on my mind, so I didn’t dwell on it.”
The paramedics worked quickly to assess her condition. They gave her an injection and asked her whom they should contact. She said her husband’s phone number was in her purse. She was lifted onto a gurney and then into an ambulance before being conveyed to the hospital. The paramedics were talking loudly to her all the way, ensuring that she did not slip into unconsciousness, and Jane was now more alert and coherent.
The last thing she remembered before entering surgery was the sound of the gurney going clickety-clack as the medical personnel hurried it down the hospital hallways. Her surgery lasted five hours, from three o’clock to eight in the evening. She was clinically dead for two minutes at 7:30 P.M. Soon she lapsed into a coma and remained in that state for a month, hooked up to life support.
Jane had some level of awareness during the coma. She noticed the nurses’ shift changes and registered when doctors made their rounds. She also felt as if a woman visited her each day during this period and put a red rose on her night table. She could smell the strong, sweet fragrance of the single rose as the aroma filled the room. To this day red roses are her favorite flower. Later, when she emerged from the coma, she asked the nurses about the visitor, and they insisted there was no woman visitor. No one other than her husband and parents were allowed to see her in the intensive care unit.
She also asked about the woman in her car, the woman whom she feels saved her life. The nurses tracked down the head paramedic at the accident scene, who assured her no one else was in the car when they arrived and confirmed that, in fact, no one would have been able to enter the car through either door.
The small vehicle had crumpled like an accordion in the collision. In took the jaws of life to open the driver-side door to get her out. Jane had no memory of the equipment or the noise it made to retrieve her. “I guess I tuned it all out and focused on breathing. If I had continued to panic during that time, I would have died. My ribs were broken and had punctured a lung, which was bleeding. My nose was ripped off (but still attached and hanging to the side), and my insides were slowly filling with blood. Indeed, if I had continued to panic, the blood would have filled my lungs and airways, and I would have drowned.”
It was a long and difficult recovery. Even after she emerged from the coma Jane had to learn how to breathe properly, eat, and walk again. Both her arms and legs remained in traction for three months. After she was released from the hospital, she remained on crutches for another six months. “The doctors say it was a miracle that I survived. I was told by the doctors that they did not know how I lived through such an ordeal, but I knew.”2 Jane wanted to live, and she received help that made her survival possible.
Initially, Jane was uncertain what had happened to her, stating, “Whether she was an angel who had materialized to help or a human being, I don’t know.”3
- On Sale
- Nov 12, 2013
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Hachette Books