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The Psychiatrist Who Believed People Could Tell the Future

18 March 2019

From The New Yorker, perhaps a writing prompt:

For many years, Kathleen Lorna Middleton lived at 69 Carlton Terrace, in the North London suburb of Edmonton. The house, which faced one of the main roads leading out of the city, had a small plaque to the left of the front door: “Miss Lorna Middleton, Teacher of Pianoforte and Ballet.” Middleton was born in Brockton, Massachusetts, in 1914. She was a talented dancer as a child and had friends who went to Hollywood, but, during the Depression, Middleton’s parents, who were English, lost everything and moved back to London. Middleton, who had small hands, buck teeth, and a pronounced New England accent, opened a school for dance and music in the front room of No. 69 and called her students the Merrie Carltons.

Middleton played the piano, swivelling on her stool, while six girls at a time practiced port de bras using the bookcases for balance. The next class waited on the stairs. The house was crowded with dark furniture and programs from Middleton’s childhood performances with the dates erased. “There was always something—not exactly exotic, but she was totally different,” Christine Williams, who started taking classes with Middleton when she was four, told me recently. “Whatever she did, she posed. She never just stood.”

. . . .

“I cannot say what I really felt or indeed what I feel now,” Middleton wrote. She experienced premonitions, in one form or another, throughout her life. A headache would precede an earthquake. Names and numbers would appear to her. “I am drawn to these events by what appears to be a blaze of light,” she wrote. “An electric light bulb.” Middleton never worked as a psychic or seemed unduly bothered by her sensations. Williams took lessons with Middleton into adulthood, and the piano teacher would bring out sketches of recent visions and occasionally complain about all the information reaching her. “She would say sometimes, ‘I just turn it off. I am too busy. I am too busy,’ ” Williams recalled. “And she would wave her hand.”

At around 4 a.m. on October 21, 1966, when Middleton was fifty-two, she had a powerful feeling of foreboding. “I awoke choking and gasping and with the sense of the walls caving in,” she wrote soon afterward. She told Alexander Bacciarelli, her lodger, about the ominous feeling when he came home from a night shift. At 8 a.m., Middleton accepted a cup of tea from Bacciarelli, although she didn’t usually drink tea in the morning.

A little more than an hour later, a group of laborers, who were working on an enormous heap of coal waste in South Wales, also paused to make a cup of tea. The pile stood on a steep hillside, and had shifted because of weeks of heavy rain. As the water boiled over a small fire, the waste began to move. Tall black waves crawled up the slope before a hundred and fifty thousand tons of slurry rushed into the valley below, overwhelming Pantglas Junior School, in the village of Aberfan. Children and staff heard what sounded like a jet plane, and then were buried.

A hundred and forty-four people—including a hundred and sixteen children—were killed in Aberfan. Eighteen houses were destroyed. In places, the slurry lay thirty feet deep. Within hours, the village, an isolated place off the road to Merthyr Tydfil, was clogged with press trucks, ambulances, and earthmoving machinery. Miners, volunteers, and sightseers descended on Aberfan. Phone lines were jammed with offers of help. When a call went out for rubber gloves, six thousand pairs were sent. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, arrived at nightfall, as children’s bodies were being laid out for identification by their parents. The Duke of Edinburgh came the next morning. “There was a greyness everywhere,” the Merthyr Express reported. “Faces from the tiredness and anguish, houses and roads from the oozing slurry of the tips.”

. . . .

John Barker was among those who reached Aberfan that day. Large and somewhat brusque, Barker was a forty-two-year-old psychiatrist with a keen interest in esoteric mental conditions. “A lot of his thinking was a bit futuristic,” Harry Sheehan, a former nurse at Shelton Hospital, near Shrewsbury, where Barker worked, told me. At the time, Barker was researching a book about what he called psychic death—what happens when people come to believe that they are about to die. In the early reports from Aberfan, he had heard that a boy had escaped from the school unharmed but had died of fright. When Barker arrived at the scene, victims were still being dug out. “The experience sickened me,” he wrote. The devastation reminded him of the Blitz, in London, where he had grown up. “Parents who had lost their children were standing in the street, looking stunned and hopeless and many were still weeping.”

In the hours that he spent in Aberfan, Barker was struck by “several strange and pathetic incidents” connected with the coal slip. Bereaved families spoke of dreams and portents. On the eve of the disaster, an eight-year-old boy named Paul Davies had drawn massed figures digging in the hillside under the words “the end.” Davies died in the school. Barker heard the story of Eryl Mai Jones, a ten-year-old girl, “not given to imagination,” who had told her mother two weeks before the collapse that she was not afraid to die. Then, according to an account written by Glannant Jones, a local minister, signed by Eryl Mai’s parents and later published by Barker:

The day before the disaster she said to her mother, “Mummy, let me tell you about my dream last night.” Her mother answered gently, “Darling, I’ve no time. Tell me again later.” The child replied, “No Mummy, you must listen. I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down all over it!”

Barker was a member of Britain’s Society for Psychical Research, which was founded in 1882 to investigate the paranormal. In a paper for the S.P.R.’s journal, he wrote that, even if people had experienced a plausible prophecy of what happened in Aberfan, there had been no way to report a warning, let alone for it to be believed: “Firstly because their premonitions would probably have been insufficiently clear, and secondly because no means existed for them to communicate them to the proper authorities.”

Given the singular nature of the disaster, Barker decided to collect premonitions of Aberfan from across the country. He asked Peter Fairley, the science correspondent of London’s Evening Standard, to publicize the experiment.

. . . .

On October 28th, a week after the disaster, Fairley carried Barker’s appeal in his “World of Science” column. “Did anyone have a genuine premonition before the coal tip fell on Aberfan? That is what a senior British psychiatrist would like to know,” Fairley wrote. The Evening Standard had a circulation of almost six hundred thousand; Middleton would read it in bed in the afternoon. She mailed an account of her premonition on November 1st.

. . . .

Barker received seventy-six replies to his Aberfan appeal. Two nights before the disaster, a sixty-three-year-old man from Bacup, in Lancashire, had dreamed that he was trying to buy a book. He faced a large machine with buttons, which he thought might be a computer. White letters spelled “aberfan” on the screen, a word he had not heard before. In Plymouth, the evening before the coal slide, a woman had a vision at a Spiritualist meeting. She told six witnesses that she saw a schoolhouse, a Welsh miner, and “an avalanche of coal hurtling down a mountainside” toward a boy with long bangs. Within minutes of the disaster, a thirty-year-old film technician from Middlesex jumped up from her chair complaining of an earthy, decaying smell, which she recognized as that of death.

Barker was particularly drawn to a group of seven correspondents, including Kathleen Middleton, whose premonitions were accompanied by physical as well as mental symptoms. In the manner of Enoch’s uncommon syndromes, Barker posited the existence of a “pre-disaster syndrome” experienced by a small subset of the population. These “human seismographs” have bodily sensations ahead of important or emotional events, not unlike twins who say that they feel each other’s pain even when they are hundreds of miles apart.

In the weeks after the Aberfan disaster, Barker replied to sixty “percipients,” as he called them, and travelled to meet several. The material he gathered convinced him that precognition was not unusual—he speculated that it might be as common as left-handedness—and he wondered how to broaden the experiment.

. . . .

In the weeks that followed, Fairley and Barker persuaded Charles Wintour, the editor of the Evening Standard, to open a premonitions bureau. For a year, readers would be invited to send in their dreams and forebodings, which would be compared with actual events. Fairley had a date stamp made. The experiment began on January 4, 1967. Fairley devised an eleven-point scoring system for the predictions: five points for unusualness, five points for accuracy, and one point for timing.

. . . .

The bureau got its first major hit in the spring of 1967. Alan Hencher, one of the Aberfan seers, telephoned Barker to predict a plane crash “over mountains.” “There are one hundred and twenty-three people, possibly one hundred and twenty-four,” he told Barker, who made notes during the call, which was at 6 a.m. on March 21st.

Thirty days later, a turboprop Britannia passenger aircraft, carrying a hundred and thirty people, attempted to land in Nicosia, Cyprus, during bad weather. The plane, which was on its way from Bangkok to Basel, made a low circuit of the airport, its lights visible through the clouds, before crashing into a hill, breaking into pieces, and catching fire. “124 die in airliner,” the Evening Standard reported on its front page. (Two more people later died.)

. . . .

Middleton had been worried about Senator Robert Kennedy for months. She had sent her first warning on March 11th. Four days later, she wrote to Barker again: “The word assassination continues. I cannot disconnect it from Robert Kennedy.” In early June, Middleton became frantic. She called the Premonitions Bureau three times on June 4th; Kennedy was killed shortly after midnight.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

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13 Comments to “The Psychiatrist Who Believed People Could Tell the Future”

  1. Very interesting!

    My husband had a premonition, years ago. He was visiting the top of the World Trade Center in NYC, and suddenly got an overpoweringly depressing emotion. He’d never felt anything like it. About two years later, the twin towers collapsed.

    He hasn’t had that feeling since, except once…when he was watching a ballgame at the Safeco Field in Seattle. Nothing yet has happened at the Safeco field…but since then, he won’t go anywhere near it.

  2. I wouldn’t be here to write this if my dad hadn’t paid attention to a dream premonition about a semi coming up over a hill on the wrong side of the road.

    Premonitions are far more common than the logical and cynical like to believe, and most are about the small things in real life that have nothing to do with major disasters. The trick is to learn to pay attention to those whispers in our ears and dreams that mean to protect us and our loved ones.

    I just finished a paranormal thriller called NO GOOD DEED by MP McDonald about a man who had a premonition of 9-11 and ended up branded a terrorist when he called a bunch of government agencies to warn them.

    Considering what happened to psychic Etta Louise Smith, this shouldn’t surprise me.

    • I believe you. When I was about six years old, my parents bought a new car. My dad took my brother and me with him to go see about the insurance. On the drive, I heard what I consider a “mischievous voice” in my head, telling me that I didn’t need to wear my seat belt.

      “They always say it’s in case of an accident. But nothing ever happens. Go ahead and take it off.”

      I made sure Dad wasn’t watching — I was in the front passenger seat — then I quietly unclicked the belt. A few minutes later I glimpsed a pickup truck, and then the next thing I knew I was waking up in Dad’s lap. I cried that I didn’t want to go to jail. I had never remembered how I ended up in Dad’s lap, but I thought the voice had tricked me. I always wear my seatbelt, to this day.

      A few years ago, when my brother and dad were reminiscing, they revealed that I was the only one who had seen the accident coming, and that I had jumped out of my seat and into Dad’s. Dad said my actions were what warned him that we were going to get hit.

      Later I looked through my mother’s photo album, and saw the car: the front passenger door was was all smashed in, all the way into the seat where I had been. I don’t think I would have had time to take off my belt, and escape my seat. The voice hadn’t tricked me after all … I still wear my seatbelt, though. The probability I will get into an accident is still greater than zero, thanks to that first accident 🙂

      A while back I dreamed that I was in North Carolina, in a break room with a bunch of reporters. We were all glad that we weren’t in New York City that day for the twentieth anniversary of September 11.

      “We would have been there when the monster attacked,” one reporter said. In the dream I specifically had to correct a woman who thought the monster was Godzilla.

      “No, that’s clearly a knock-off,” I told her. “It’s some other kaiju we never imagined.”

      I have been considering a move to North Carolina, where my grandmother lives … but maybe I won’t. Just in case 🙂

      • The kaiju will attack NYC, not NC, so you would be safe unless you are moving to the coast where those sneaky giant monsters can come up from the ocean. Why not? NC has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Coincidentally, I’m from NC and still live here.

        • I’ll bet you enjoy living in NC. Grandma loves to tease me about how warm it is there while I’m digging myself out of my house in the winter … I’m planning on going inland, though, just because of the more mundane threats of hurricanes.

          And you’re right about NY vs. Kaiju. If Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that monsters and aliens prefer to bother Americans living in New York or LA 🙂

        • Huh, WordPress ate my reply. But basically, I’m thinking of inland NC just because of the more mundane threats of hurricanes. My grandma loves to tease me about how warm it’s been in the winter, while I’m digging myself out of my house.

          And you’re right about NY vs. Kaiju. Hollywood has taught us that monsters and aliens prefer to bother Americans who live in New York or LA. North Carolina should be safe …

  3. I strongly advise courses in statistics and confirmation bias as a foundation for this sort of topic. Until you understand, viscerally, just how many coincidental “confirmations” you can get out of random data, it’s difficult to understand how to rate the value of a strong premonition of disaster.

    I am reminded of leaving a movie theater after a horror film and glancing down a dark alley as I walk by it, sure (at some level) that a monster would grab me as I walked by. The irrational certainty of that sort of psychological belief should temper one’s credulity.

    Of all of those predictions of an airplane disaster, one would want to know:
    * How many did not predict an event
    * How many predicted a similar event
    * Out of how many?

    …and if a randomly drawn population made up random predictions, how many would match to an event a month later? More than zero, I feel sure. Chance is a poor tool for proof.

    • To be honest, given the rules of dream logic — you can never know anything in a dream that you don’t know in real life — I would dismiss any dream as “prophetic” unless the dreamer could supply concrete details that they simply don’t know, and couldn’t know in real life. Even Biblical prophets followed that rule 🙂

      But come on! This is great fodder for fiction. You could get a lot of mileage out of stuff like this. In real life I would dismiss the after-the-fact claims of the Aberfan prophecies, but the before-the-fact claims? Just enough plausibility to power a thriller, or a horror novel, depending.

    • Quite agree. Prophesies scratch a deep itch, which makes them great writing prompts, but dreadful guides to life.

  4. This is a running theme in many of the stories I have.

    People are seeing the future and changing their worldlines all of the time, all day long.

    The Greeks had a way of looking at time that is right:

    They saw us standing in a chariot, being pulled forward in time, with us standing, looking back in time to where we were in the Past. You can’t turn around and look ahead, but you can turn your head side to side and glimpse the Future.

    The mistake people make, is they look right, see a glimpse, and act of that glimpse. Each time you look ahead, you change that Future. You have to look right, then left, then right again, to get a more accurate view of the Future and how to act.

    Seen in today’s quantum way of seeing time:

    Think of Now, not as a knife edge instant, but as a bead on a guitar string. That Now covers a region of Past and Future, with the bead, that Now, constantly crossing itself into the Future.

    That guitar string is bounded by where it is anchored, to make the sound. Unbound, and the string is silent. Your birth anchors your beginning. The moment of your death is variable, constantly changing.

    Seen from above, spread over time, that bead of the Now would appear like an amber tube with the string at the center, so some part of you is always aware of your entire life.

    – The string vibrates, is not still, constantly changing key as your death moment changes the pitch.

    Your awareness of where you are in time is based on where you are in that bead of Now.

    – If you are being pulled along by the Now, in the Past side of the bead, then you see where you are Now.

    – If you are racing ahead of yourself, at the Future part of that bead, then you feel like you don’t know where you are going.

    You’ve seen this every day.

    – You are standing in line at the store, and the person ahead of you seems beyond jittery going, “Come on, come on.” That’s because they are at the Future side of the bead, already believing that they were out of the line, not seeing where they are Now.

    – You are driving and are missing all of the Red lights, seeing that crazy guy that just cut you off before he did it. That’s you on the Past side of the bead knowing what is about to happen. Paying attention to the Now before you.

    It’s why we have such a high level of airplane safety.

    You go online to order tickets for a flight. You see a great deal that has you arrive in plenty of time for a connecting flight, maybe even time to have lunch at the food court before the flight. You show up on the day, have lunch, get onboard, the plane is packed, then you die when the plane goes down, regretting that extra slice of pizza you had before the flight.

    In that instant of death, you flow back along your own worldline to that morning when you ordered the tickets, and you see a different deal that doesn’t tempt you with food court pizza that you don’t really need. So you board that flight, and when you land you hear that the other flight you were looking at went down.

    That process occurs over and over as people reset their choices, until the service guy who missed the bad bolts during the routine maintenance check, that caused the crash each time, calls in sick because the repeated resets makes him ill. The replacement service guy catches the bad bolts, swaps them out and no accident occurs.

    The latest crashes with the 737 are examples of being overruled no matter what. The software was making the choices, not the people.

    The Final Destination series overtly plays with this idea, but reality does not have Tony Todd trying to kill everyone who survived the first worldline.

    Final Destination Trailer (2000)

    – There is no “cheating death” to restore because everyone is changing events everywhere all the time.

    You cannot “consciously” see the Future, because you are like that guy standing in line saying, “Come on, come on,” tripping over your own feet, pressed against that Future side of the bead.

    You can only ride along, seeing what is about to happen, when you are in the flow.

  5. I’ve been waiting a longgggg time for this headline:


    • Ooh! Yes, I’d pay attention to the psychic who could demonstrate they could predict the lottery. Even if they claimed that they couldn’t ethically obtain such winnings for themselves, let them prove their prowess by giving someone else the winning number.

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