Betty Shine has a curious problem at dinner parties. Invariably, some guests are reluctant to be seated next to her, because they think she will read their minds.
'Well, first of all, I'm not interested in reading their bloody minds,' says Mrs Shine, renowned clairvoyant, medium and spiritual healer, with a hearty chuckle. 'The other thing is, I can't do it.'
Betty Shine's books Mind to Mind, published in 1989, and Mind Magic, in 1991, became instant bestsellers, lasting a combined total of 19 weeks in the Sunday Times Top 10 list. They have now been followed by the final volume of her 'Mind' trilogy, Mind Waves, published by Bantam Press.
Mrs Shine, a lively, down-to- earth, markedly uneccentric former opera singer, believes she is misrepresented. She complains that most journalists write about people like her as 'fairground mediums . . . repeating the same old things, the same scepticism', the same comments, she says, about scientists not being able to prove that she actually does what she purports to do.
When I mention that readers of this newspaper would probably also be among the sceptics, she points out that her last two books on the subject evoked an avalanche of positive letters, adding with a wry smile: 'I would hate to think, out of all those tens of thousands of people who have written to me, that none of them reads the Independent.'
Scepticism is the starting point for an illustrative case that Mrs Shine recounts in her latest book, concerning a successful, well-educated London couple and their young son, Alex. Once an extremely intelligent and healthy boy, three years ago he was struck down, at the age of nine by a severe form of encephalitis - inflammation of the brain, or 'sleepy sickness' - that left him in a coma-like state. The doctors had expressed no hope for his survival and had given the grim prognosis of three months to live.
In despair, Felicity, a publicist, and her husband, Jeremy, an architect, did something out of character. They had been told of Betty Shine and her reputation as a spiritual healer, and despite their deep scepticism they wrote to her about their son.
The couple were clutching at straws. 'I defy any parent in that situation not to try absolutely anything,' says Felicity. 'All you are interested in is keeping your child alive. We were desperate.'
While Felicity was among those willing to talk with me about their experiences with Mrs Shine, she did so reluctantly. Being professional people, both Felicity and Jeremy are concerned, quite understandably, about what their clients and colleagues might think. They themselves are still shaken by the events that followed their contact with Betty Shine.
Upon reading their letter, Mrs Shine meditated for a few minutes and received an 'instruction', as she describes it, to reach out telepathically to Alex, who lay in a hospital 50 miles away. Within seconds, she claims, the boy revealed to her an incident concerning his goldfish before he had gone into hospital.
His mother had temporarily put the fish into a small bowl while she was disinfecting the tank with boiling water. Jeremy, not knowing what was happening, walked in, saw the fish, felt sorry for them swimming in the bowl, and poured them back into the tank, killing them instantly. Alex was deeply upset about this.
Mrs Shine telephoned the number she was given in the letter and Felicity answered. She told Felicity the story she had just picked up telepathically from the inert Alex. Felicity could not believe what she was hearing. 'We're pretty rational people, and we'd never been involved in anything like that.'
She tried to rationalise what she had heard. Most children of Alex's age have fish, she thought - could Mrs Shine have simply made a good guess? No, the details were too specific.
With guarded intrigue and still much scepticism, they embarked with Mrs Shine on a year of spiritual healing for their son.
A constant stream of chat from Alex to his parents relayed via Mrs Shine was an unexpected bonus. Mrs Shine says that although 'mind-reading' as such is not part of a medium's repertoire, she was able to communicate with Alex telepathically because her special abilities do include receiving messages 'from another dimension'. (Or, put simply, she can talk with the dead. She also, at times, sees them, jokes with them and follows their instructions when they are helping her with healing.) In Alex's comatose state, she explains, his 'mind energy (was) about 95 per cent out of the body' and would be 'linking up' with minds in the other dimension.
Alex would have known that he had to give Mrs Shine plenty of specific, factual information that could be verified - the kind of things, remarks Felicity, that Mrs Shine could not possibly have known about and which were always eerily accurate - to convince his parents that he was indeed communicating with Mrs Shine.
According to Mrs Shine, 'minds from another dimension', which, she says, are what survive after we die, are available to help us when we require them most. As for the spiritual healing, she claims to have the ability to diagnose the source of a problem - sometimes in conflict with medical opinion - by merely looking at a person, as well as the facility to effect, in many instances, a great deal of healing, if severe deterioration has not yet set in.
Mrs Shine explains that if a body has deteriorated too far, as in Alex's case, there is a limit to what she can do. Nevertheless, she is confident that she can invariably do something to help.
A contributing factor to Alex's difficulties had been large amounts of mucus in his lungs that was responding poorly to treatment. For months Felicity and Jeremy had listened to their son's rasping breathing, and regularly used a portable pump to help to clear his passages, with only limited success.
Mrs Shine says she performed a 'psychic operation', during which she stepped back and watched 'two pairs of spirit hands' take over and put tubes down Alex's throat to pump out the mucus. Felicity and Jeremy were standing by. After a few minutes they heard Alex's breathing becoming more restful.
That was in April 1990 and his lungs have remained free of mucus to this day. More to the point, Alex, although paralysed, is now not only no longer comatose, but inexplicably physically fit and healthy, despite all medical reckoning.
Alex's doctors have offered no explanation for his turnaround. Felicity and Jeremy have not told them about Mrs Shine and the spiritual healing.
Felicity's and her husband's views have now radically altered. 'You do still fight against believing in all this to a large degree,' she says, 'because it just can't be right. Yet so many things have happened that you just can't dispute, really. My husband, for example, finds it very difficult to accept what has happened. But, on the other hand, he cannot deny it.'
At one point during a healing session, Jeremy witnessed a bright light around Mrs Shine and Alex. Jeremy was so disturbed by what he saw that he had difficulty telling anyone about it.
'He was confused and obviously upset with himself,' says Felicity. 'He thought he was hallucinating or something. It just was totally alien to him to be able to admit what he'd seen to himself - and certainly to talk about it to other people. Even me.'
Martin O'Collins, a television documentary producer, has closely observed Mrs Shine. After making a programme on psychic powers several years ago, which included a segment on Mrs Shine, Mr O'Collins came away as sceptical in general about the so-called 'practitioners' as when he embarked on the programme. But Mrs Shine, he says, is in a wholly different category. 'She is as solid and reliable as anybody I have met,' he says.
In the light of the considerable evidence that he and his team rigorously investigated and double- checked, he concludes that 'she has clearly done some quite remarkable stuff'.
Many well-known personalities have sought Mrs Shine's help; among those who have endorsed her publicly is Michael Bentine. It was Bentine who first encouraged Mrs Shine to write her 'mind' trilogy and introduced her to his publisher.
Bentine has absolutely no doubts about her powers. 'I've met an enormous number of phonies in this field who are self-deluded,' he says. 'I can spot a phoney from 14 miles off. Genuine healers are about as rare as hens' teeth. Betty is genuine.'
In person, Mrs Shine is certainly credible. Even so, the startling stories she writes and talks about so matter-of-factly - of her conversations with dead folk, of visiting 'other dimensions', of seeing 'spirit people' - could in fact be merely the work of a vivid imagination and persuasive gift of the gab or, at worst, a seriously unbalanced mind.
It really boils down to three choices. She is lying. She is crazy. She is telling the truth.
Still sceptical, I played some of my lengthy taped interview with Mrs Shine to a senior psychiatrist at a London teaching hospital. He also read passages from her books. His assessment? 'She is certainly not a crazy lady, from hearing her speak,' he says, 'nor does she have the ring of a charlatan. She may well be in touch with the spiritual dimension; some of the things she describes would be difficult to explain unless you accepted her explanations.
'I don't think most psychiatrists deny that side of life. After all, Jung said much the same thing with the 'collective unconscious'. So it is not something that is unknown to psychiatry and medical science, although it's not an issue we generally address.
'My personal opinion is that it is possible for human souls, if you like, to continue to be around and possibly manifest to certain people, at certain times. This kind of phenomenon is not incompatible with science or with medicine.'
Mrs Shine would be the first to admit there is nothing 'other worldly' or superhuman about her. She is not especially careful or prudent in what she says or does: her often earthy language, for instance, and occasional sweeping or contradictory statements suggest an all-too-human emotionalism and fallibility. But essentially she comes across as someone with endearing ebullience, conviction, commonsense wisdom and, above all, a genuinely kind heart.
She has written her trilogy, she explains, because she was repeatedly told through 'spiritual messages' to write them, to convey the possibilities of spiritual healing, but most of all, to reassure others that there is no such thing as death and to dispel that fear so we may live more fully.
'The mind and personality do not die,' Mrs Shine says. 'There is not a shadow of doubt about that. We come here for a purpose. And what we don't learn or fulfil in this life, we carry on to the next.'
In response to the notion that her motive in writing the books might be simply to try to capitalise, both personally and financially, on the popular interest in psychic and astrological matters, she replies: 'I am absolutely, totally, utterly truthful in everything I've ever done in my life.
'Everything I've written about can be proved by other people - not by me, but by the people to whom they've happened. The honest answer is I felt that all the experiences I've had - and I was told this through spiritual messages - weren't mine to keep.'
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