For a while last year, I started using a little notebook to keep track of all the coincidences and synchronicities I encountered.
At first it was strange: people brought up something in the conversation that I had just written about the day before; I noticed that the name of a production company in a movie I was watching was identical to a key term in a topic I had researched that morning; two books that I was reading at the same time, a fiction and a non-fiction, both referred to the same historical anecdote.
Even though I have long misplaced the notebook, I continue to pay attention to these strange moments of serendipity. It was nice to discover some of them while reading New Yorker the first book by writer Sam Knight, The Bureau of Premonitions: A True Account of Foretold Deathwhose main subject is at the intersection of coincidence and the supernatural.
The Office of Premonitions, expanded from Knight’s 2019 New Yorker article, “The Psychiatrist Who Believed People Could Tell the Future,” ostensibly focuses on John Barker, a psychiatrist in his forties who first became known in medical circles for his work on aversion therapy, “ a technique that involved the use of electric shocks and nausea-inducing drugs to treat addictions and other unwanted behaviors”, and which (although Knight does not mention it) was used for some time to try to “cure” people. homosexuals or, in Knight’s example, “a man who wore his wife’s clothes and was afraid of being prosecuted as a transvestite.”
As disturbing as aversion therapy is, many might recognize an extreme version of it from Anthony Burgess. A clockwork orange and its film adaptation – it was considered, at the time, to be rather avant-garde. What has aged better is Barker’s forward-thinking attitude in his work as a senior consultant at Shelton Hospital, an asylum in Shrewsbury, England, where he and a young colleague worked together to make the old-fashioned institution’s conditions less miserable for its patients. , many of whom had been there for years and were going to die there.
Along with his modernity, however, Barker was also interested in a phenomenon that many saw (and still see) as entirely UNscientific and superstitious: precognition. His opportunity to investigate came in a roundabout way. In 1966, while working on a book about people dying of fear – yes, that’s really a thing – Barker heard of a tragedy in Aberfan, Wales, where a huge pile of rubbish miners broke away from the mountain he was sitting on and slid. down to the town below, burying a school and killing many. 144 people died, most of them young children; among them was a boy who managed to escape from school unharmed but later died of shock. When Barker went to Aberfan to find out more about this child, he began to hear stories of how “foolish, rash decisions in the moments before waste – a cup of tea before starting work, looking into the wrong way, leaning on a wall – saved lives and killed others.”
In the aftermath of the Aberfan disaster, Barker partnered with the evening standardScience journalist Peter Fairley, and they appealed to the British public asking if anyone had “a real premonition before the coal dump fell on Aberfan”. They received answers, of course, some more credible than others, and decided at the end of the same year to pursue the experiment further by founding the Office of Premonitions: “For a year, the readers of the newspaper would be invited to send in their dreams and presentiments, which would be collated and then compared with real events in the world.” Among those who wrote after the Aberfan disaster were two ordinary people who continued to bring their visions and feelings to the Bureau of Premonitions and whose premonitions seemed oddly reliable, and whose predictions ultimately took on a more personal twist compared to Barker.
Throughout the book, Knight probes the space between coincidence and the ineffable mystery of supernatural possibilities. “Finding meaning where there is none is a beautiful definition of madness… But making connections, in what we see, hear or dream, is also a definition of thought itself”, he writes, and later adds that we ” bestow sense as a means of controlling our existence. It makes life livable. The alternative is frightening. Chance is banal.
The Office of Premonitionswhich oddly does not include a notes section, so it is sometimes unclear who or what is being quoted, is a sprawling book that takes many detours along the way, and Knight’s arrangement of the main story and its admittedly fascinating tangents left me a bit puzzled. But ultimately, it’s a thought-provoking, deeply researched book that introduces readers to the weirdness of realized premonitions but allows us to come to our own conclusions about what to believe.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, critic and founder/host of The Other Stories podcast. Her first novel is All my mother’s lovers.