The day Ruth Rendell spoke to me from beyond the grave

November 20th, 2015

Do you believe in life after death? The house phone rings. I answer it. “Hello?” No answer. This happens all day long. At 5pm, I call psychic medium Laura Lynne Jackson in the United States for an arranged reading. After that, the mysterious calls stop. Two weeks earlier, when I first met LLJ in New York, she told me that the departed loved to play with phones. “It’s disembodied communication. I guess that’s why they like it – they’re just letting you know they’re around,” she said.

LLJ is 43. She is married to a lawyer. She has three children and works in high school teaching English literature. She is attractive, articulate and sane. I say this because I have met a number of psychics and mediums during my life and many have been batty. That doesn’t disqualify their authenticity – plenty of creative people I know are troubled. Actually, look at the world right now and it seems to be full of nothing but troubled or crazy people. But if you are claiming to talk to the dead, it’s better if you aren’t channelling Madame Arcati.

The mediums featured on Channel 4’s My Psychic Life recently might not have been deliberate frauds, but they came across as self-deluded crackpots. Questions to the bereaved that ran: “Before your mother passed away, was she quite ill?” were good fun but win no votes. It was different when LLJ told me that my adoptive mother, Mrs Winterson, had died of an enlarged heart. I haven’t written about that. She couldn’t have known it. How did she know?

LLJ has written her first book, The Light Between Us. It is straightforward, modest and unsensational – except for the fact that she is talking about talking to the dead. It began as a child with her psychic ability to see around the corners of time. One day her mother was making a routine visit to LLJ’s grandfather, and LLJ knew she had to see her grandpa, too, throwing herself – half soaked from swimming– into her mother’s car. Three days later her grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Three weeks later he was dead.

As a young woman, she found her power of reading into other people exciting – particularly when it came to guys she wanted to date – she just knew things about them she couldn’t know rationally. “It was normal to me to pick up messages about people – I didn’t give it much thought.” One night she had a vivid, frightening dream about a close student friend of hers – only to find he had fallen to his death during those hours. That night she made a deliberate decision to close down that part of her that seemed porous to life and death; the part of her that could occupy a liminal space between the two states. Except that she doesn’t call it death. “We are not bodies with souls. We are souls with bodies. We don’t die. We cross to the other side,” she says.

Of course, this is the central plank of most religions. But while LLJ believes in continuing consciousness, she doesn’t believe in heaven or hell, or the resurrection of the body. Mrs Winterson, a devout Pentecostal, didn’t believe in that either. Her body was so riddled with disease and toxicity all her life that she had no intention of taking it with her. Laura Lynne Jackson is tall, slender, with deep eyes and something other-worldly about her. When we meet in New York, she is not reading for me, but suddenly she says that a big woman with her arms folded is pushing in. It’s Mrs W, she tells me.

“She’s been dead a while, it’s been slow for her, although the dead don’t deal in time, obviously. But she’s still wondering why no one is being punished.” Poor Mum. Twenty-six years of waiting for the hell she was sure existed. “She’s saying she’s sorry. She wants you to know that.”

I feel unexpectedly sad. According to LLJ, the dead often want to apologise to us. For hurts, failures, lost chances. She belongs to the Forever Family Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people connect with their loved ones using mediums.

The fact that it is not for profit is reassuring. LLJ does charge for personal consultations, but she does a lot of pro bono work, too. “For me, bringing relief and comfort to people is part of my life’s work here.” Realising that she could help those in grief was what persuaded her to work as a psychic medium. Those parts of her book, a bestseller in the US and UK, where she reads for people she has never met, with no previous information, are moving and uncanny.

She does appear to know how someone has died – car crashes, brain tumours, suicides – and she can pick up personal facts impossible to fathom by deduction or guesswork. My own experience of her is that she does not ask leading questions or solicit information. With me, I know this is still tricky, because a lot of my life is available on the web. I am easy to research. But the people she reads for routinely are not easy to research – and usually she only finds out who they are when she is sitting opposite them.

When Ruth Rendell came through at my reading, LLJ said she was showing her a dark mass in her brain. Ruth, who died in May, had a stroke, but the complicating factor was that she hit her head heavily as she fell, flooding her brain with blood. This is not generally known.

Then LLJ saw Ruth pointing to August 28. She wanted me to know she had been with me in spirit that day; the day after my birthday. My partner was returning from abroad on my birthday and so we had celebrated the following day. Do I think that LLJ swotted up to become a JW expert before our first meeting or the later reading? Actually no. I’ve said she’s sane. I’d stake it that she’s not a liar or a fraud either – in the sense that she is not setting out to deceive. But that doesn’t get us nearer to understanding what is going on.

Communicating with the dead has a history as long as death itself, but popular spiritualism took off in the US and Britain in the mid-19th century. The Ghost Club was founded in London in 1862. Charles Dickens was a member. Later on so was Arthur Conan Doyle. The Society for Psychical Research opened its doors in 1882 and immediately formed the Committee on Haunted Houses. I have researched some of this for my own interest and one theory about the Victorians and psychic phenomena is the hallucinogenic effect of carbon monoxide poisoning from gas lighting. Add the fog and gloom of the streets, and a widespread belief in ghosts, and it makes the upsurge in “sightings” understandable.

The First World War marked a huge rise in mediumship, for obvious reasons – and a similar determination to debunk it all. Harry Houdini fell out with his friend Conan Doyle because Doyle refused to believe Houdini’s exposé of frauds. “Everything I have investigated,” wrote Houdini, “has been the work of deluded minds.” At my reading with LLJ, Ruth wanted to talk about something that had been troubling me since she died – and I’m afraid that I can’t discuss it here. The message –if you want to call it that – rang true. But does my mind just want closure? As a fiction writer, can I read the story I want into the story I hear? I was brought up religious.

The dead were part of our household. Mrs W explained all the dilapidations of our damp terraced house as “ectoplasm”. Her father ran off with a barmaid who held seances in the front room. When Mrs W was too depressed to cook, she often said the kitchen was full of soldiers from the war. In 1951, there was so much spiritualism in England that Parliament passed the rather glamorously named Fraudulent Mediums Act. This was repealed in 2008, not because mediums had become less fraudulent, but because those seeking to contact the other side are now covered by the unglamorous Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Act of 2008. “I can shut off the mediumistic part, but not my psychic side.

That’s just a sixth sense I have. I can see the colours of your aura,” LLJ tells me. “And I can see around the bends in time –backwards and forwards.” But she isn’t a prediction merchant. “The future is always about free will. There is destiny, but there is also choice. What I can see is where you – anyone – made certain choices in the past. But time is not really a straight line.” Neuroscientist David Eagleman at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas would agree. Eagleman has written extensively about the brain and time – why it slows or speeds – and why we have déjà vu, or premonitions. Eagleman’s book The Brain: The Story of You outlines the next hot ticket in brain research – how to separate consciousness from the body.

This is intriguing, because scientific objection to religious belief in a hereafter has been that consciousness cannot survive physical death. Yet we now have a cryonics industry where anyone can get their head deep-frozen after death until the future can transpose their consciousness. Far-fetched? So was a trip to the moon for most of history. And why should consciousness be obliged to materiality? It doesn’t feel like it is, does it? Scientists are now looking at how we could “download” our consciousness into a less fragile vessel than a body.

The territory of science fiction –or religion – is being colonised by scientists who would never go anywhere near a medium or a psychic. But some scientists do get up close. LLJ is one of 19 screened and blind-tested mediums at the Windbridge Institute for Applied Research in Human Potential in Arizona. The idea is to try to find out what is really going on, separate to what believers or sceptics think is going on. “Ask questions. Apply rigour,” says Laura. “Don’t you think I want to know how this works as much as anyone else does?” She laughs. She’s easy to like, with clear, steady eyes and a reflective way of talking; no aggrandisement, no patter.

Yet it is unnerving when she says: “The data supports that communication with the consciousness of the dead is possible.” Surely this is worth researching? We have so little idea of what consciousness is that it would be wise to keep an open mind. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle always hoped he would be remembered more for his psychic research than for Sherlock Holmes. He couldn’t see into the future. But as Holmes put it, in The Sign of Four: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Do you believe in life after death?