In John Geiger’s previous book, The Third Man Factor, the author looked at popular accounts of people in extreme circumstances who claimed to receive help from a spiritual being, ranging from Ernest Shackleton on South Georgia Island to Ron DiFrancesco, the last person to escape the World Trade Centre. Third Man triggered an onslaught of correspondence – hundreds of letters, by Geiger’s count – from less heralded people with similar experiences, who had a traumatic encounter and felt guided through it by some incorporeal being. It’s easy to understand why these people might see Geiger as a confidant. While a strong majority of adults believe in angels – 67 per cent in Canada, 80 per cent in the United States, according to recent polls – there’s a general apprehension about those who say they’ve experienced one firsthand.
Geiger’s new book is a sequel of sorts, an attempt to give these letter-writers a fair hearing, a chance to tell a story some were too embarrassed to reveal to friends and family. (One of his subjects admits she felt much more comfortable discussing the details of her sexual assault than her experience with a presence.) But his mission is not for their benefit alone. In the introduction, Geiger says that he, too, has felt a presence. In 2007, his son, James, was born with a congenital heart defect, and lived only a few days. Weeks later, Geiger says James paid a visit. “I had a powerful sense that someone was watching me,” he writes. “I saw nothing, yet I knew he was there.” The Angel Effect is Geiger’s attempt to work through that experience.
The title is perhaps misleading – most of the stories aren’t about angels, in the stereotypical halos-and-harps sense, but spirits of many varieties. Some of the subjects talk about feeling a “sensed presence,” or an inner warmth; others hear voices; and some visualized a corporeal person. Many, like Geiger, are doubtful the experiences were a spiritual intervention, but remain steadfast that what happened to them was more than just a hallucination. The author spends part of the book grappling with possible scientific and spiritual explanations of these experiences, from Swiss researchers who were able to simulate the effect of a presence using electrodes, to the writings of Thomas Aquinas. But, of course, there is little expert agreement, something Geiger acknowledges early and often.
The inquiry becomes secondary to the anecdotes. The tales are often harrowing, like the one about a Rwandan bishop who waited out that country’s genocide with a fearful group of refugees while the buildings around them were ransacked. Geiger’s storytelling can be very affecting, and he captures details nicely, but the emotional punch is somewhat blunted by the sheer volume of subjects. Each story is given a few pages to unfold, and the arc of each one is similar – after a trauma, the person receives help from a spirit, and his or her life is saved or totally altered.
The two strains of the book – the anecdotes and the explanations – sit side-by-side, and come together to present interesting conundrums. In a chapter about plane-crash survivors, Geiger asks the question of why some passengers were able to swim around waters full of jagged metal with the help of a spiritual diviner, while the pilots were given no such help in trying to fix a simple mechanical failure. Geiger presents interesting neurological research, before engaging in uncomfortable speculation. “Is it possible that for the pilots, the capacity to access the sensed presence had somehow been disabled?” he writes, adding “Perhaps training and experience had diminished their ability to discern help when it arrived, silencing those voices in them.” He goes on to insinuate the pilots might have received outside help, if only they had been more open to belief.
Geiger acknowledges at the end that his search won’t yield any definite answers, but proposes the acceptance of this unknowability as a kind of spiritual revelation. “To sit courageously inside this agnosticism, to rest in the unknown,” he writes, “seems to me the mark of true intellectual and spiritual maturity.” This kind of detente should ring true to agnostics and anyone with doubt. But the effect is muted by his opaque last paragraph: “Are [angels] Heaven-sent, or are they the product of the human brain, or are they both? I think I know what the answer is.”
Chris Berube is a writer and radio producer. His work has appeared in The Walrus, CBC.ca and The New York Times.