The NESS investigates a woman in Connecticut who claims to channel a thousand year-old spirit from the seventh dimension.
By Steven Novella, MD, Editor
The New England Journal of Skepticism Vol. 3 Issue 3 (Summer 2000)
Lynne LaFountain lives in a modest condo in the small town of Winsted, CT, which NESS investigators were invited to visit this May. As we sat in her living room, this ordinary appearing middle-aged woman spoke to the small gathering in the voice of D’Hartma, the spirit of a man who allegedly last lived more than 1000 years ago in Nepal, but now resides in the seventh spiritual dimension. Lynne has been channeling (the modern word for this form of spirit summoning) D’Hartma for 24 years, and claims that his only purpose is to bring his philosophy of love and spirituality to mankind.
A Brief History of Spiritualism
Modern channelers are the successors to a long history of spiritualism in this and other countries, which has waxed and waned in popularity over the centuries. The most recent rise in popularity of spiritualism prior to its modern resurgence was around the turn of the century. This was the age of mediums and séances.
The classic séance involved several people gathering in the parlor of a medium who, with the lights off, would summon the spirits of their client’s lost loved-ones. As proof of the presence of the spirit, there were often many physical manifestations, such as rappings, bell ringing, or other noises, items moving about the room, and levitating tables. These “parlor tricks” were often very persuasive to those who already had a strong desire to believe and were likely not schooled in the techniques of magic. The spirits would sometimes speak in a disembodied voice, at other times speak only to the medium, who would then relay their messages, or would speak directly through the medium, who would be in a trance state while the spirit used their voice to communicate.
Predictably, the messages contained vague and pleasant sentiments likely to validate the hopes of those seeking the services of a medium. “Aunt Alice says she is happy where she is, and you should no longer worry about her. She wants me to tell you that she loves you.” At times cold reading techniques would be used to give the illusion that the medium had knowledge that could only come from the deceased (see ‘Cold Reading’, The CT Skeptic, Vol. 2 Issue 2).
The problem with this form of physical mediumship (for the mediums, that is) is that they were vulnerable to discovery. If someone caught them ringing a bell with their toes, or lifting the table with a rod placed in their sleeves, then they were caught red-handed, and were branded a fraud with no plausible deniability.
This made the spiritualism-debunking work of Harry Houdini very immediate and satisfying. Houdini, the most famous magician of his time and also an ardent skeptic, knew that the mediums of his day were using standard magical and escapist techniques to pull off their cons. He knew because he recognized all the tricks, and could do them himself, better, in fact, than the mediums (similar, in this respect, to James Randi’s modern debunking career).
Harry Houdini was part of a committee put together by Scientific American magazine to investigate spiritualism. He caught medium after medium in the act of committing blatant fraud, exposing them to the public. He was almost single-handedly responsible for the sharp decline in physical mediumship in the early 20th century.
The Rise of Channeling
Although physical mediumship disappeared, largely through the efforts of Houdini, spiritualism survived and adapted. The solution for mediums was actually quite simple – eliminate the physical aspects of talking to spirits and simply just talk to them or allow them to speak through you. This eliminates any physical evidence of fraud or trickery, for the only evidence of the presence of a spirit is in the mind of the medium.
Two basic techniques of non-physical mediumship developed in the latter half of the 20th century. One type involves “psychics” or “sensitives” who can speak to spirits, and then relay what they hear to their clients. This form of spiritualism is little more than a variation of cold reading. The most widely known current practitioner of this form is James von Prague, who claims he can speak with the dead. His performance entails a sequence of rapid-fire questions, from which he derives the information he requires to amaze his audiences.
The other form of non-physical mediumship is called channeling, in which the channeler goes into a trance and then becomes “possessed” by a specific spirit, who then talks through them. The most successful and widely known channeler of this variety is J.Z. Knight, who claims to channel the spirit of Ramtha, a 30 thousand year old man. At her height, Knight was channeling Ramtha in front of audiences with thousands of people, and was bringing in millions of dollars from true-believers. She still has a loyal cult following, but her popularity has declined significantly in recent years.
The art of channeling is actually quite easy to perform. All that is needed is a modicum of acting ability and a simple, feel-good philosophy to peddle. The standard new-age fluff will do. Following J.Z. Knight’s success, small-time channelers proliferated, but most followed what had become the standard format.
The NESS was not surprised to learn that we have a channeler right here in New England, in Winsted, CT in the northern part of the state. Lynn LaFountain has been channeling the spirit of D’Hartma for 24 years. D’Hartma, apparently, has had many incarnations but his last incarnation was of an illiterate Hindu who lived in Nepal from AD 932-968 (for simplicity, in this article I will refer to D’Hartma as if to a separate person). After dying he went, as we all do, according to D’Hartma and his followers, to the first spiritual dimension (there are nine in total). D’Hartma decided not to reincarnate, which he says is an irrevocable decision, and rather has gone on to higher spiritual dimensions, finally arriving at the seventh dimension, which is the realm of masters. Masters, of which there are always 144 at any time (an even gross), have achieved a sufficient level of spiritual enlightenment to teach other spirits how to advance. It is this mission which brings D’Hartma to the Earth to spread his philosophy to mankind. When his mission is complete, he will progress onto the eighth dimension and then finally onto the ninth dimension where he will merge with the god entity of the universe.
Of course, we were very excited to have the opportunity to speak directly to such an ancient and wise spirit, or at least someone pretending to be an ancient and wise spirit. Prior to the interview, we were asked (communications were handled over e-mail) to provide the names and backgrounds of the NESS investigators who would attend. I dutifully complied with background information for myself and Perry DeAngelis, who was to accompany me. At the last minute, however, Perry could not attend the session and Evan Bernstein (the CT Vice-chairman), came in his place.
After some preliminary questions, Lynn was ready to begin the channeling. In addition to Evan, myself, and Lynne, five of D’Hartma’s faithful followers were in attendance. Lynn explained to us that what she does is actually called soul transference, because while D’Hartma is in her body, her spirit will be in the tunnel which leads to the seventh dimension (not actually in the seventh dimension itself). She began by assuming the obligatory lotus position in her easy chair, arms in her lap.
She closed her eyes and began slow deep breathing. In a few moments her head dropped forward, and we were informed that Lynn was now gone. A few moments more and her hands began to slowly twitch, as if coming to life. They then assumed a thoughtful position, with forefingers extended together, and we were informed that D’Hartma had arrived. Without further warning, Lynn’s body sprang to life, and I found myself being addressed by a strange voice tinted with a vaguely Indian accent.
I had feared that we would get nothing more from D’Hartma than a repetition of his philosophy, which I had already read on their website. We did, in fact, get that, but there was more. To my delight, Evan and I were treated to personal readings. D’Hartma informed me that I have an interest in science and teaching others about science (hardly amazing, considering that Lynn knew I am an academic neurologist at Yale). He also told me that my true desire is to discover the ultimate nature of the universe, but I must be more open and look beyond science for this. Finally, D’Hartma made a specific prediction, that I would be taking a long trip on a very large boat sometime soon. Evan received a somewhat more generic reading. He was told that he is a more powerful person than he realizes, and that he is a “blessed spirit.”
D’Hartma’s reading was, from my perspective, completely unimpressive and predictable. The statements made about myself were not very insightful, and could easily be derived from information Lynn was given about me. Looking at the statements from the perspective of a cold reading, I suspect that the boat trip prediction was an attempt at a high-probability hit, given the fact that I am a physician, and might be taking a cruise sometime in the future. What Lynne (and D’Hartma) apparently did not know about me is that I am very susceptible to sea sickness and have no intention of getting on a large boat at any time in my future. Still, we will see if the fates conspire to force me into a boat trip any time soon. So far, there are no signs of this. It is also very telling that Evan’s reading was far more generic than my own. D’Hartma’s level of knowledge about the two of us seemed to mirror the amount of information Lynn had available to her (remember that Evan was a last-minute substitution for Perry).
What about the rest of the session? Most of it was spent discussing D’Hartma’s philosophy and the nature of the spiritual dimensions. Here again, D’Hartma failed to impress. His philosophy is a variation of the standard new-age themes of “limitations are all in the mind,” “Love is the greatest power in the universe,” and “We all contain god within ourselves.” Most of his advise somehow related to these basic themes. That’s it. You can save yourself the $150 Lynn charges for sessions with D’Hartma, you have just heard the whole thing.
In addition to preaching this philosophy, D’Hartma apparently dispenses sound financial advise on the side. Lynn reports that she has a clientele of wealthy and famous (and, of course, anonymous) people who have prospered from D’Hartma’s financial wisdom. D’Hartma also dispenses medical advice. Here, too, the philosophy is all too predictable new age nonsense. Disease is also all in the mind. If you believe yourself to be sick, then you are sick. If you do no accept illness, then it cannot harm you. One of those present asked D’Hartma if the fatigue they have been feeling recently is a sign of any illness they should be concerned about. D’Hartma reassured them that they were fine, sparing them the hassles of a visit to their physician.
The interview with D’Hartma contained a few other details that may be helpful to a rational assessment of Lynn’s claims. D’Hartma, although he speaks with a distinct accent that is reminiscent of the region of Nepal, could not speak Nepalese. He speaks only in English, which is the only knowledge that he derives from Lynn. Otherwise, he does not have access to her knowledge. One might wonder why D’Hartma remembers his life in Nepal, but not the language. One might also wonder why, if he derives his knowledge of English from Lynn, he speaks in the broken and accented English one would expect from a foreigner.
D’Hartma did speak one word of Nepalese, Namaste, which is a greeting (used for both hello and goodbye throughout the region) which means “I bow to the divinity within you.” This was the single most unconvincing aspect of Lynn’s performance. She could not speak the language of the spirit she hopes to convince others she is channeling. This is similar to claiming to channel the spirit of King Kamehameha, but not speaking Hawaiian, only speaking English in a cheezy Hawaiian accent and greeting people with “aloha.”
D’Hartma also made the following claims: he does not perceive the passage of time while in the spiritual dimension; time has no meaning to him, since past, present, and future are all the same thing and time is merely a man-made construct; he did not pay attention to events on Earth while in the spiritual dimension, nor communicate with other spirits, as he was consumed with the task of gaining spiritual wisdom; and he lived from AD 932-968. Someone who is less than completely trusting might wonder how D’hartma would know the dates in which he last lived. The Christian calendar was not in wide-spread use in the tenth century even in Europe, and was unknown in Nepal, especially to an illiterate peasant.
Finally, I found it amusing that D’Hartma claimed that people only use 15% of their brain, a common new age myth with no scientific validity (see ‘90% of a Brain is a Terrible Thing to Waste,’ NEJS, Vol. 2 Issue 1). The other 85% is allegedly used to “channel energy,” however this 85% is dormant and unused in most people.
Lynn’s background is pretty much what one would expect from a new age channeler. She says that her mother is American Indian, and so Lynn was raised with spiritual beliefs. When she was young she had many encounters with spirits. At one time she claims she saw ghosts leaving a burning building. She believes in astrology and reincarnation.
Lynn has also followed the career of JZ Knight and says she does not believe Knight is genuine. Perhaps she was at first, but isn’t any longer. She also reports that Knight was part of her inspiration for her current channeling career. She had stopped channeling D’Hartma for a period of time, until a friend of hers was lamenting the fact that she could not afford the exorbitant fee Knight charges to attend a channeling session. Lynn graciously offered to channel for her, and has been doing it ever since. Lynn currently lives off the fees she charges to consult D’Hartma.
Lynn also is not impressed with James von Prague, and believes he is just a fast talker. We were also amused to discover that Lynn had a brief association with our old friends, Ed and Lorraine Warren. Apparently, the Warrens wanted D’Hartma to help them banish a demon. D’Hartma, however, informed the Warrens that there is no such thing as evil, and that there were no evil spirits in the house the Warrens were about to exorcise. Thus ended their brief association, a victim to competing paranormal belief systems.
The only physical aspect of Lynn’s channeling is what she called the “water miracles.” D’Hartma can apparently summon water or burst water pipes as validation that he is genuine. He did not manifest any water miracles for us, leading me to conclude that he either cannot do so, or chose not to, which was definitely a bad call on his part. A few days prior to our interview, D’Hartma was interviewed by a local news station, and had promised the reporter a water miracle. When asked by one of his followers if the water miracle had occurred, D’Hartma responded, “No, because he is looking for it too much.” To this date, the reporter has yet to receive the predicted water miracle. So much for validation.
Our evening with D’Hartma was certainly an interesting experience. Lynn’s performance, however, was predictable and unimpressive. It was stylistically very similar to the standard model of the current channeling phenomenon. I found D’Hartma’s philosophy to be simplistic new age, feel-good tripe, with no new metaphysical elements. The details offered were also lacking, including D’Hartma’s inability to speak his native language, the problems with time, the mediocre cold reading complete with poor prediction, and the endorsement of common new age mythology.
If we consider the two most obvious hypotheses to explain Lynn’s apparent channeling of D’Harmta, either she is genuinely channeling a spirit from the seventh dimension, or she is pretending to do so, what can we conclude about which of these two hypotheses is more likely to be correct? The fact that Lynn’s performance fits so cleanly into the standard new age model, I find to be a compelling argument that D’Hartma is a cultural construct, not a genuine entity. The principle of Occom’s Razor would also favor the far simpler explanation that D’Hartma is a product of Lynn’s mind and nothing more, since this hypothesis adequately explains all available evidence, without having to introduce new extraordinary elements, such as nine spiritual dimensions and reincarnation.
Although I am satisfied with this mundane explanation for Lynn’s claims,
I still can’t help feeling somewhat unfulfilled. Her performance offered no
opportunity for a Houdini-style exposure. No climactic “Aha!, Caught you.” And
I suppose that is the point of non-physical mediums - plausible deniability.
The Following Letters to the Editor concern the article above
Steven Novella’s article on D’Hartma was delightful (NEJS Vo. 3, Issue
3). I wasn’t present, and for all I know Lynne LaFountain dripped insincerity
from every pore, but there is one more logical possibility--that she is not
consciously “pretending” but becoming willfully suggestible to a delusion in
which she believes. One of my oldest and dearest friends reads Tarot and
trance-channels not only for money but when he is alone, for his own guidance.
So far as I can tell, he is sincere.
To assuage your disappointment in not having produced a dramatic Houdini-like exposure of Ms. LaFontaine’s trance-channeling, I offer you the vicarious pleasure of such an exposure as recorded by John Aubrey (1626-97), the antiquarian and collector of entertaining but sometimes apocryphal anecdotes:
“Imposture: Richard Heydock, MD, a former fellow of New College in Oxford, was an ingenious and a learned person, but much against the hierarchy of the church of England. He had a device to gain proselytes, by preaching in his dream; which was much noised abroad, and talked of as a miracle. But King James I being at Salisbury went to hear him. He observed that his harangue was very methodical, and that he did but counterfeit sleep. He surprised the doctor by drawing his sword, and swearing, ‘God’s waunes, I will cut off his head’: at which the doctor startled and pretended to awake; and so the cheat was detected.”
You must remember to take your sword next time. Keep up the excellent work!
Steven Novella considered only two hypotheses to explain Lynne
LaFountain's channeling of D'Hartma: 1. She’s genuinely channeling a spirit; 2.
She’s pretending to do so. In my experience, a third hypothesis is more likely:
3. She genuinely believes she's channeling a spirit.
“Pretend” in current usage implies deliberate falsification, conscious deceit. Old-style mediums and psychics who use special physical effects practice deceit, but the psychics, channelers, astrologers, and alternative medical practitioners that I've talked to all seemed sincere in their beliefs. I think they have deceived themselves, but are not "pretending" anything. Your hypothesis is more likely to be correct, however, the larger the amount of money that is involved.
Richard Epstein, MD
Dr. Epstein and Mr. Brockman raise an excellent point, which was not
directly addressed in my article. There are always at least three basic
hypotheses to explain any paranormal claim: the alleged phenomenon is genuine,
the claimant is perpetrating a deliberate deception, or the claimant is sincere
but self-deceived. We have addressed these possibilities in many other contexts
in the NEJS. In general, I agree that most believers, practitioners, and
promoters of the paranormal are sincere in their beliefs. It is easy to imagine
a psychic making what predictions come to mind, believing them to be the product
of psychic intuition, and then receiving positive feedback from their clients,
convincing them further that their powers are genuine.
It is also likely that, although mostly sincere, many practitioners do occasionally bend the rules when necessary, either due to immediate pressure to perform, or to confound those evil skeptics. Where religious belief is involved, the greater good can be used to justify “pious fraud.”
In our reviews of various topics, we typically focus on whether or not the first hypothesis (genuine phenomenon) can be rejected based upon evidence and logic, and then leave the reader to decide how much self-deception vs conscious deception is involved.
However, there are some alleged phenomena for which the self-deception hypothesis is simply not viable on its face, and can be quickly rejected. One example of this is psychic surgery, which involves the practitioner appearing to place their hands magically through the skin and into the abdominal cavity of their client, and then removing diseased tissue. Psychic surgeons appear to pull bloody tissue from the bodies of their clients. This apparently miraculous feat, however, can be duplicated with a little slight-of-hand, as has been demonstrated by James Randi on the Tonight Show and in other venues.
The point is, psychic surgery, if not genuine, requires a calculating and deliberate act on the part of the practitioner. This requires conscious and knowing effort, and also a little skill, and cannot be the result of self-deception.
Lynn’s channeling, in my opinion, is similar to psychic surgery in this respect. Lynn claims that while D’Hartma is in her body, she is on another plane and knows nothing of what transpires. Her adaptation of the affect and accent of a Nepalese man requires a conscious effort, and she can perform on demand. Simple self-deception is unlikely to explain her performance if her claims are not true.
Channeling, however, does lack the physical aspects of psychic surgery, in the same way that is lacks the physical aspects of the physical mediumship from which it evolved. As I pointed out in my article, this lack of a physical dimension is quite convenient for channelers for it makes rejection of the first hypothesis – that it is a genuine phenomenon – more difficult and less definitive. I suppose it also makes rejection of the self-deception hypothesis more difficult as well. Again, the true nature of D’Hartma lies only in Lynn’s mind, and we can only logically infer which hypothesis is most likely.