Some time after my father died I held an estate sale. This was last summer, in 2014. Some people will tell you to not attend your own estate sale, but I chose to stay at home and sort of seclude myself in my room. A woman whom I had not seen in many years showed up, and we spent time catching up. Though I’d been in Montana taking care of my father since 2012, I had no contact with this woman, as I didn’t find her on Facebook, Twitter, or the internet at large. I didn’t even know if she lived in Missoula.
After the estate sale I stayed in Missoula taking care of things until early September. I quite enjoyed spending time with my friend, whom I’ll call “C” just as much as I had back in the 80’s. Back then I’d discovered that C was quite a fan of astrology. This was before the internet enabled easy access to skeptical resources, and I had no quick rejoinder to her claims. This time around, she didn’t promote astrology as much as “electromagnetic sensitivity.” She made interesting claims, including that cell phone or wi-fi antennae installed on top of one of the large dormitory buildings on the University of Montana campus were adversely affecting the mental health of University district residents. This was the primary reason I had not re-connected with C during my time in Missoula: She was essentially frightened of electronic devices such as computers and cell phones. She spent very little time online. At one point she showed me a small black plastic box with two small metal plates that were perhaps 5mm in diameter. She asked me to guess what it was. I thought it might be a sensor of some kind, perhaps for galvanic skin response, like a “lie detector.” Yet there was no output, no speaker, light, or gauge that would display information. My guess was wrong, and she told me it was a “healing” device of some sort, that it was powered by a battery and produced a small current. She would hold it against her skin for a “healing” effect.
While she and I had various even-tempered disagreements about Catholicism and mysticism, I really didn’t argue the point about “electromagnetic sensitivity” simply because I knew virtually nothing about it. But things came to a weird climax on this issue one summer night.
We were walking through a field in Missoula, discussing weird stuff. Evidently she had not heard of the vaguely Fortean case of the severed human feet that had washed up on ocean shores of the Pacific Northwest. As I was telling her about this I remembered there was a Wikipedia page about this. I realized I could simply ~show~ her that this was a real thing, using my Samsung S4 mini smart phone. I pulled my cell phone out and started to look up the page on Wikipedia. We had been walking through a field between a street and an athletic field. The field was not planted grass, but it appeared to have been mowed, as it looked to be short wild grass stubble. C stood next to me looking at my cell phone, which was inside an Otterbox two part plastic shell. She may or may not have been lightly touching me as she stood beside me. I can’t remember. Suddenly she recoiled violently from me, and told me she had been “shocked.”
Several thoughts went quickly through my mind. My first reaction was to consider she had picked up a “static” charge by walking on the dry grass stubble. I also noted that I did not get “shocked” as I would if she picked up a static charge and touched me. I thought that maybe she picked up a small burr in her shoe, or her clothing pinched her. Perhaps she contacted something on my belt…
I said nothing, as I was still taking in this weird encounter. Perhaps I failed to be empathetic at that moment, as I suppose I could have honestly told her “I believe you.” But she launched into a defense of her behavior on the grounds that it was rational. “You just don’t know about electromagnetic sensitivity.” “There really are people who suffer from this.” I simply listened to what she was saying, as she had positively concluded that my cell phone “shocked” her.
Ultimately, I don’t know what caused her reaction. Perhaps she experienced a sudden nerve pinch or contacted a foreign object that had stuck to our clothing. But it wasn’t my cell phone. The attribution of her reaction to being “shocked” by my cell phone is pure delusion.
This was an epiphany of sorts for me, as it was one of those moments in life when you realize that this was not some prosaic interest in a woo subject but a LIFE DEFINING DELUSION. Her own irrational fear of electromagnetic radiation created a limitation on her freedom and power to thrive socially in the 21st century.
As I say, I never did argue the issue of “electromagnetic sensitivity” with her. With something like that, where does one even start?