It can be illuminating to check the primary sources cited by people making extraordinary claims. Blatant omissions and misrepresentations can distort a kernel of truth into a misleading message. Sometimes, the source can be quite evasive. This is a story of my futile effort (so far) to track down such a source.
I was in Germany, and I was promoting one of my books there, and I was very young, it was 1974. And you have to realize the hostility in those days was ferocious. The heat was enormous. I remember doing a press conference in Munich. And there was a room full of journalists, probably as many people as there are in this room now, and it's daunting because they're all hostile. They don’t believe you, you've got to prove yourself. They've all got cameras right in your face. Anyway, one of the journalists produced a rather nice elderly gentleman called Professor Schiebler, who came from Regensburg University, and he had a rather interesting gadget with him. It was a box, and I don't know what was in the box, it was something electrical with batteries. And coming from the box was a loop of wire going from one side of the box to the other, and on the wire were 10 light bulbs.
Now he had this idea that if I was to really concentrate all my energies on this box, I could make the lights illuminate. So there I am, with a room full of hostile journalists, and I'm thrown out this challenge to make these lights come on. And if I don't succeed, I'm gonna really get it the next day in the press. So there I am for about 10 minutes really concentrating on this box, and nothing happens. Suddenly, with one last blast, and really throwing my hands at it, one of the lights came on. You'll never guess what the headline was the following day in the German press: "Psychic Can Only Light One Lamp." [laughter]
Nevermind the fact that one had come on, it was a failure, because 9 hadn't come on. And that really was a turning point for me and I thought, "This is not what I want to spend the rest of my life doing."
I wondered about such an article as it should be clear to anybody that a 10% success rate at this feat is a tremendous paranormal accomplishment. We’re not talking about predicting rolls of a die or something similar of chance. I wanted to read the article to judge for myself, but I didn't expect help from Manning, and didn't have enough information to find it, so I chuckled and moved on.
A few months later, I came across an article on Manning in the British GQ magazine from May 2014 by Robert Chalmers. The title of the online version is "An interview with Matthew Manning: Poltergeist boy”, but the title in print was, "THE POWER TO HEAL CANCER". One passage in particular jumped out (emphasis mine):
I have a tabloid clipping from this period which describes a laboratory experiment in which Manning was presented with a row of light bulbs wired in series, and asked to switch them on
using only mental energy. The headline reads: <strong>"Psychic Can Only Light Two Lamps".
"That's right," says Manning (who, on one occasion, was reported to have blown every fuse in a Madrid department store). "The amazing thing about that experiment, to them, was that out of nine light bulbs I failed to light seven."
- the feat was part of a "laboratory experiment" rather than an impromptu press conference challenge.
- the title of the article was "Psychic Can Only Light Two Lamps” instead of "Psychic Can Only Light One Lamp".
- Manning had lit 2 of 9 instead of 1 of 10 bulbs.
The message was the same, but important details were different. Why the discrepancies? Were there two separate uncannily similar events and corresponding newspaper articles? If not, which version best corresponded to the original article? How did Chalmers come upon this article? Did he find it himself or was it provided by Manning directly? Did he read it in German? Did he have it translated? Did he read it at all?
I was encouraged that someone besides Manning claimed to have the article, which I thought increased my odds of finding it. So I e-mailed Chalmers and asked if he could share it with me, or at least tell me when and where it appeared so that I could retrieve it myself. He offered to help if possible, but explained that he wasn't sure that he had it anymore, and wouldn't be able to look immediately. He couldn't recall any details of the article, including what language it was written in,
and repeatedly encouraged me to contact Manning for more information, and offered to do so on my behalf, which he says he tried.
Over the course of several weeks, Chalmers explained that for various plausible personal and professional reasons, he hadn't gotten around to it. I asked if he would be able to say conclusively that he did not have it if he looked and didn't find it - he didn't answer.
On Chalmers recommendation, I wrote Manning and corresponded with his assistant, confirming that Manning has the article, but that he was too busy to share it, although he did offer that the incident was in Germany in 1974, which agreed with his own account from his conference talk. When I inquired why it should be so time-consuming to find an article, I was told:
The reason Matthew does not have time to look is he would have to locate a piece that's 40 years old from amongst literally tens of thousands of newspaper and magazine articles.
Chalmers had said he must have gotten the article from the Tasiemka Archives, so I called them. I was told that it was "very unlikely" that they had such an article, especially because of their focus on English language press. I passed this information on to Chalmers and asked if he was sure he had it from there or from somewhere else, and whether he could offer any evidence that it even exists. By this point, he had stopped replying to my e-mails.
In case the entirety of his article wasn't evidence enough, Chalmers explicitly states in it that he finds Manning "honest and believable":
While I’ve never found Manning anything less than honest and believable, some of his acolytes’ statements are of the kind that would strain most people’s credulity.
Does this article exist? The only evidence that it does appears only to be that two men say they had it. But their accounts differ in significant ways, and neither can be bothered to provide me with either the article or enough information to find it myself, and have stopped replying to any requests for information.
I believe that if you're going to write a one-sided article, at least the one side should be accurate. I wrote a complaint to GQ expressing my concerns, and asking if Chalmers is in any way accountable for the accuracy of such statements. I explained that I was particularly concerned that an article with such inaccuracies entitled "THE POWER TO HEAL CANCER" would potentially give some readers the impression that Manning had the power to heal their own cancer or that of their loved
ones. Managing Editor Mark Russel disagreed with my concern:
I also want to reassure you that in no way did the article intend to promote the idea that cancer suffers should pursue ineffective treatment the display copy on the opening page refers explicitly to his claims, rather than facts and his being "apparently" gifted. As for the author, our reading was that his intention overall was to focus on the fascination and reaction to such a character, rather than to support, or otherwise, his claims of supernatural abilities.
[...] are fact-checked by a dedicated team within the magazine [...], although on rare occasions the team do have to go on the word of a writer if there's a fact they're struggling to verify elsewhere. As
Robert Chalmers is one of our most experienced, award-winning contributors, I can see why the fact checkers would have made this decision to take his word on this occasion.
If the fact checkers had as much doubt over a certain part of a story as below they would have taken that part out, absolutely. However I've outlined already the reasons for why it was kept in at the
question to him was whether GQ cared enough about potentially fabricated sources to at least annotate the online version of the article. He also stopped replying to my e-mails. Another dead end.
If this 40-year old article exists, I hope to see it some day. If this article doesn't even exist, I won't be able to prove it. The irony would be that an anecdote which was meant to illustrate how ferociously cynical the press can be instead became a
case study of how sloppy, credulous reporting turns extraordinary claims into apparent facts.