Rhea White 1931 – 2007

rwhite.jpg One of the people I interviewed a bunch of times for this book died yesterday. Her name was Rhea White.

This whole dying business really does suck. I just had a long conversation with her a few weeks ago and she sounded better than she had sounded any other time I talked to her. It put me in such a good mood. Normally it was hard for her to breath and she always had to struggle to answer my questions (she wanted to, I wasn’t brow beating her!). But this time her voice sounded so strong. There were none of the usual pauses while she caught her breath. We had fun talking!

I asked her about having lunch with Aldous Huxley in 1954. She panicked, it turns out. She was only 23! “I read all his books and I couldn’t think of a thing to say to him,” she said. Huxley was visiting the Lab, and the task of taking him to lunch fell to young Rhea, who had just started working there. Can you imagine?? Lucky her, though. The entire lunch wasn’t spent in panic, of course.

Quotes from her are all through my book. Rhea was great at describing what people are really like, the emotional truth. I spent one interview asking her to tell me about everyone in the Lab’s sense of humor. (I think it says a lot about a person.) She was also willing to gossip, which is so, so important when trying to get a feel for what people were like (good gossip, not malicious gossip). Even though I won’t be using much of that directly, it will help me humanize people I’ve never met.

Rhea got into parapsychology because she had a near death experience in 1952. She was in a car accident, and while she lie broken on the hood of a car she heard a voice that said, “nothing that ever lived could possibly die.” She was an English major at the time, but that was that. Life changed.

She’d come back to near death experiences in 1990. From the Parapsychology Association website: “But I soon realized that they could not be viewed properly without considering them along with all the other sorts of nonordinary and anomalous experiences people have. In a vision I saw the need to study all of them as a single class of experience, which I called ‘exceptional human experience.’ I have been pursuing this aim ever since.” (There’s a website.)

That sounds kinda stiff, but that was the precise scientist talking. She was much more vivid and funny on the phone with me (even when talking science). She’d describe J.B. peering over his glasses after Louie had just teased him in a staff meeting. J.B. could be a little stiff himself and his wife would sometimes have a little fun with him to the enormous pleasure of the rest of the staff. (It’s nice to be allowed to laugh at the boss sometimes.) Rhea was a great storyteller.

I had planned to talk to her about her study of exceptional human experience, and I know it would have been the best conversation, but now that is that. Rhea helped me know other people, but we never really got to her.

It turns out, Rhea was a cat person. Did I know that? She had a bunch of cats who are going to be taken care of at a place called Angels for Animal and she asked for memorial donations to be sent there. If you decide to donate, say it’s for the Rhea White Cat Fund.

Angels for Animals
120 Croatan
New Bern, NC 28562

Thank you for all your help Rhea.

Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

View all posts by Stacy Horn →

4 thoughts on “Rhea White 1931 – 2007

  1. Stacy:

    What a wonderful reminiscence!

    We’re all reeling about the loss of Rhea, so grateful she died peacefully, with her army of friends around and especially Jean.

    Rhea was one of my muses too when I got started in the field and always a beacon. Missing her so much even though we hadn’t talked in a number of years although our news ran back and forth between us through mutual friends.

    My favorite tale that she used to tell about the old Duke Parapsychology Lab in the 1950s was that after 5 pm, when all the “old” staff members had shuffled off to dinner with their families, the young folk (like Rhea), would kick off their shoes, put rock and roll on the record player and sit in the big West Duke Building windows above the portico checking ESP record sheets. What an image!

    Thanks for your wonderful comments and the info for Angels for Animals. Can’t wait for your book to come out!


  2. Oh, that’s a great story! I’m going to use that I think, if you don’t mind! God, I hope you like the book. It’s turning out to be quite the trick writing a book that is both respectful and correct about the science AND entertaining (but of course I think I can pull it off!).

  3. Hi Stacy;

    Sure you can use it. I can just see it in my mind’s eye. I worked on the ground floor of the West Duke Building in the 1980s and whenever I walked onto campus from that entrance of East Campus and looked up, I could just “see” them up there, sitting in the windows, dancing on the tile floors, all full of excitement about the work (but glad to have the Boss well away home ).

    I don’t know if you read the reminiscences (can never spell that word) at the back of Mrs. Garrett’s Adventures in the Supernormal, but the one Rhea wrote also gives a glimpse of Rhea in the 50s.


  4. Thank you! And yes, I read all the stories in the back of Adventures in the Supernormal, as well as the whole book. But yeah, they were great.

    I was thinking of doing something along those lines for the epilogue of my book. Asking a wide range of people one question.

Comments are closed.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap