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'The Premonitions Bureau' considers whether some can sense future events

The Premonitions Bureau
Penguin Press

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 eerie: People brought something up in conversation that I'd just been writing about the day before; I'd notice the name of a production company in a film I was watching was identical to a key term in a subject I had been researching that morning; two books I was reading at the same time, one fiction and one nonfiction, both referenced the same historical anecdote.

Even though I've long misplaced the notebook, I continue to pay attention to these odd moments of serendipity. It was pleasingly fitting to experience a few of these while reading New Yorker staff writer Sam Knight's first book, The Premonitions Bureau: A True Account of Death Foretold, whose main subject matter sits at the intersection of coincidence and the supernatural.

The Premonitions Bureau, 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 40s who was first 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 doesn't mention this) was used for a time to try to "cure" gay people or, in the example Knight gives, on "a man who dressed up in 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 cutting edge. What has aged better is Barker's forward-thinking attitude in his job as a senior consultant at Shelton Hospital, a county 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 would go on to die there.

Alongside his modernity, though, Barker was also interested in a phenomenon many saw (and still see) as entirely unscientific and superstitious: precognition. His opportunity to investigate it came in a roundabout way. In 1966, when he was working on a book about people who die of fright — yes, that's really a thing — Barker heard of a tragedy in Aberfan, Wales, where a huge pile of mining waste dislodged from the mountain it sat on and slid down to the town below, burying a school and killing many. There were 144 people who died, most of them young children; among them was one boy who managed to escape the school uninjured but died later of shock. When Barker went to Aberfan to find out more about this child, he began to hear stories of how "inane, unthinking decisions in the moments before the waste came down — a cup of tea before starting work, looking the wrong way, resting on a wall — spared lives and ended others."

In the aftermath of the Aberfan disaster, Barker teamed up with the Evening Standard's science journalist, Peter Fairley, and they put out a call to the British public asking whether anyone had "a genuine premonition before the coal tip fell on Aberfan." They received replies, of course, some more credible than others, and decided by the end of the same year to pursue the experiment further by founding the Premonitions Bureau: "For a year, readers of the newspaper would be invited to send in their dreams and forebodings, which would be collated and then compared with actual happenings around the world." Among those who'd written in after the Aberfan disaster were two ordinary people who continued contributing their visions and sensations to the Premonitions Bureau and whose premonitions seemed oddly reliable, and whose predictions eventually took a more personal turn in relation 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 neat definition of madness... But making connections, in what we see, or hear, or dream, is also a definition of thought itself," he writes, and later adds that we "confer meaning as a way to control our existence. It makes life livable. The alternative is frightening. Randomness is banal."

The Premonitions Bureau, which oddly doesn't include a notes section so that it's 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 little bit baffled. But ultimately, it's a thought-provoking and deeply researched book that presents readers with the oddity of realized premonitions but allows us to come to our own conclusions about what to believe.

Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book critic, and author of the novel All My Mother's Lovers.

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