THE ENCHANTED VOYAGER: The Life Of J. B. Rhine by Denis Brian


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The habitual skepticism one brings to an authorized biography is reasonably assuaged by Denis Brian's even-handed report on the life of J. B. Rhine (1895-1980). While Brian is pro-ESP and a Rhine admirer, he makes no bones about the autocratic personality, domineering ways, and just plain stubbornness of the man who sought to bring academic respectability to parapsychology. Brian initially engages the reader's sympathy with a description of Rhine's difficult youth--16 moves as his father tried to make a go of farming, retailing, teaching, what-have-you; bouts of troubled sleepwalking, plus an episode of measles that left Rhine without a sense of taste or smell. He married a slightly older schoolteacher and, with their collected pennies, arrived on the doorstep of Harvard psychologist McDougall just as the great man was about to depart on a round-the-world trip. He had been trained in biology and botany; now, his compelling interest in strange phenomena led (via McDougall) to a career change, to Rhine's discovery of his first important fraud--the scandalous medium Margery Crandon--and to his disavowal of the (pro-Margery) American Society of Psychical Research. Side by side with his lifelong pursuit of fraud, hope lingered. Lady Wonder, the ""gifted"" horse, was clearly getting signals from her owner; yet Rhine persisted in believing that the first time he observed the horse, her psychic abilities were real. During Rhine's years at Duke, Brian chronicles the endless tests with endless rounds of students, the famous Pearce-Pratt experiment, the continual visits from celebrities and debunkers. Eventually, Rhine's patience grew more thin. There ensued clashes with staff, firings, estrangement from the Duke faculty, and a disastrous fraud involving the lab's young director. At the same time, there was money coming in from the rich (frequently those interested in communicating after death), recognition of parapsychology by the AAAS, and world fame climaxing (belatedly) in Rhine's presidency of the British Society of Psychical Research when he was 83 and dying. The book's low-key accounting of the experiments will neither offend the unconvinced nor shake true believers. Altogether, a creditable portrait of an innovator occupying a unique, if somewhat peripheral, niche in the history of ideas.

Pub Date: April 29th, 1982
Publisher: Prentice-Hall