CANDID CONVERSATION WITH
WILLIAM THETFORD, Ph.D.

From New Realities Magazine, Oct. 1984

NR: As one of the two persons responsible for scribing A Course In Miracles what has been the impact of it on your life?

THETFORD: It has changed my life totally. I recall typing the first fifty principles on miracles that came through Helen Schucman in the fall of 1965, and realized that if this material was true then absolutely everything I believed would have to be challenged - that I would have to reconstruct my whole belief system.

At the time, however, I thought that would be impossible; I didn't know how I could do it. Yet I felt that was a requirement, since the material that came through Helen in the beginning phase seemed so authentic and genuine. I went into shock for a brief period, wondering how it would be possible to make such an abrupt change in my perception of life and the world.

Later I realized that God is merciful, and does not ask us to make changes so abruptly, that there would be adequate time to gradually begin to shift my perception. I think what was important was my willingness to change, not mastery of the material. And, of course, I moved from the middle of Manhattan, where I had lived for twenty-three years to Tiburon, California, something I thought would never happen. I had settled into my routine as a New Yorker, and felt that the Big Apple was the center of the Universe and the place where I belonged. That move was probably the greatest cultural shock I have ever experienced, making an abrupt transition from the turmoil of a hectic life in New York City to the tranquility of Tiburon.

Eventually, I left academia as well. First by retiring from my position as Director of the Psychology Department at the Presbyterian Hospital of the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, and several years later retiring from my position as Professor of Medical Psychology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.

NR: Was that to devote full time to the Course, or to pursue other interests?

THETFORD: A combination, I think. After 20 years at Columbia I felt that it was time to leave academia. It seemed natural to leave when the Course was published.

NR: What exactly was your role in the scribing process of the Course? Did you hear a voice too?

THETFORD: Both Helen and I knew from the beginning that this was a collaborative assignment, although I did not hear a voice. While Helen heard the inner dictation, she was incapable of transcribing the material directly herself, since she found the content of the Course too threatening. My role was to offer the considerable support and reassurance needed each day for Helen to continue her shorthand notebook recording. She would then read the material to me, and I would type it directly from her dictation.

NR: Since the Course challenged your own belief and thought system, too, why didn't you just reject it, chuck it out?

THETFORD: Well, my intellect did rebel at times. But I was the one who had asked for another way, a better way, with regard to the extremely stressful professional context in which Helen and I were trying to function. When the material in “A Course In Miracles” began coming, it was obvious to me that this was the answer to my question, very clearly the answer. So to reject it or even disregard it was never even a consideration.

NR: What specifically about it made it obvious to you that this was indeed your answer?

THETFORD: Perhaps the fact that it was so totally different from the way I had been operating throughout my life. But the authenticity of the material more than anything else struck me. I knew that Helen had not made this up, even with her fertile imagination.

NR: The authenticity. . . ?

THETFORD: Well, the material was something that transcended anything that either of us could possibly conceive of. And since the content was quite alien to our backgrounds, interests and training, it was obvious to me that it came from an inspired source. The quality of the material was very compelling, and its poetic beauty added to its impact.

NR: It seems quite unusual that you, an established psychologist holding two very prestigious positions, would even consider embracing such material, considering your training and the rigid tenets within academia to which you no doubt subscribed and adhered.

THETFORD: I think if it had not been for many of the extraordinary experiences that occurred during the summer of 1965, neither Helen nor I would have been willing to accept the material she scribed.

You have reported some of those experiences in these pages in the material from Robert Skutch’s new book, Journey Without Distance. However, our experience associated with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, was not reported. Perhaps as much as anything, that series of events crystallized the whole new direction that we would take.

NR: The Mayo Clinic event occurred in September and didn't the Course begin the next month in October?

THETFORD: Yes. I had been asked to go to the Mayo Clinic and find out why they made money on their psychological service operations, while at Columbia-Presbyterian, it seemed that we were always losing money. I thought I knew the answer to that question because we saw primarily clinic patients who couldn't afford fees, and the patients at the Mayo Clinic were middle or upper class and able to pay.

Nevertheless, it seemed this was an important trip to make and I asked Helen to accompany me. Just before we took off - I think it was the night before - Helen had this very vivid image of a church, which she described to me in great detail, she even made a sketch of it. It was an old church with a number of turrets and towers. She thought it was probably a Lutheran Church. She was convinced that somehow we would see that church from the airplane window as we were about to land in Rochester. That, of course, seemed rather unlikely, since the airports I know aren't built near churches. Anyway, we kept our attention very closely focused on the windows during landing, and much to Helen's disappointment and distress no such church was visible. In fact, Helen was so upset at not finding her church that I didn't hold out much hope of accomplishing our business the next day unless she could somehow be reassured. Rather desperately, I suggested to Helen that we hire a taxi and see if we could find her church anywhere in the Rochester metropolitan area.

So Helen and I went church hunting. At first we thought we would confine ourselves to Lutheran churches. I think there were two of those and neither one was remotely like Helen's image. Then we decided that we might as well see all the other churches while we were at it. I think there were twenty-seven altogether in the environs of Rochester. And not one of them bore any resemblance to Helen's image. Obviously, she was pretty crushed, but we pulled ourselves together in preparation for the following days business.

The next day, after we had successfully completed our survey, Helen and I prepared to leave our hotel. I went down to the lobby to wait for her with the luggage, and noticing a newsstand I decided to get a paper. Instead, I saw a little booklet entitled, “The History of the Mayo Clinic”. Thinking it would be nice to have a souvenir of our visit, I purchased it for a dollar. As I leafed through it very quickly, I saw a picture of Helen's old church, exactly as she had described it with all the turrets and towers. It was even a Lutheran church. The only problem was that it had been razed and the Mayo Clinic was actually built on the former site of this Lutheran church. It was a very dramatic moment, and I was eager to share it with Helen. When she came down, I said quickly, “Helen you really weren't out of your mind after all. Your church was there but its no longer around. When you thought you were looking down on it as from an airplane, you were really looking back through time.” Helen displayed a peculiar mixture of emotions. On the one hand, relief that she wasn't totally crazy, on the other hand, it was clear that she was doing something which she regarded as highly paranormal, and this was an area that made her very uncomfortable.

On our way back to New York, we had to change planes in Chicago. While we were sitting in the waiting room, Helen spied a young woman in the corner reading a magazine and looking vaguely unhappy in the way people frequently do when they are waiting for planes in airports, I was surprised when Helen said to me, “See that young woman over there, she's really in serious trouble - she's got a lot of problems.” Helen insisted that she would go over and speak to this woman. As it turned out the woman whose name was Charlotte, had never been on an airplane before. She had flown on Ozark Airlines to Chicago en route to New York and was in a state of panic. She knew nothing about New York. We later found out that she was leaving her husband and two young children, and was in a state of great distress.

Charlotte was booked on the same plane as we. During the flight, we sat on either side of her, holding her hand, and trying to calm and soothe her. We asked where she was going to stay in New York since she didn't know anyone. She said that since she was Lutheran, she though she would contact a Lutheran Church and somehow they would find a place for her in the city.

It was at this point that Helen and I exchanged glances. The message was clear to both of us. Helen heard her inner voice saying, “And this is my true church, helping your brother who is in need; not the edifice you saw before”. The authority of this inner voice became increasingly familiar to both of us when the Course began a few weeks later in October.

NR: It must have been somewhat trying during that period, living a dual life in receiving and dealing with the miracles’ material coming through and continuing your normal academic life.

THETFORD: Yes, in a way it was like living in two different worlds. My feelings were so complex it's hard to put it very simply. Obviously, Helen had not flipped, nor had she lost her mind. The material made perfect sense, but there was a feeling of having plunged into something that was way over our heads and for which we were unprepared.

Naturally, we did not discuss this with our colleagues, and none of the professional associates were aware that this was going on as an additional dimension in Helen's life and mine. At the same time, we could not completely separate the Course from our academic responsibilities, and a good deal of the actual typing of the material did take place at the Medical Center. Helen dictated her notes to me during our lunch hour or at odd moments, but this did not interrupt the flow of our professional commitments which included giving lectures, writing research grants and papers for publication, as well as a multitude of administrative chores - all those things that make up very busy professional lives. So the experience that we underwent during that period was indeed a highly unusual one.

NR: Weren't there times when Helen seriously considered seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist about this? this? Or maybe consider obtaining some medication that might take away the voice dictating to her?

THETFORD: It wasn't a voice in that sense at all. Helen was not pursued by voices; it was a very specific sense of channeled communication that would come to her from time to time. She would be aware that there was material to be transcribed, and she could do it when we chose. There was no pressure to immediately drop anything she was doing in order to take notes. Rather, the material was there almost as if it had been pre-recorded, and was waiting for her attention. It presented itself to her in a very separate and distinct part of her mind; she did not experience it as an external voice at all.

NR: Yet given the nature of someone hearing a voice - in the traditional psychotherapeutic sense - what do you think might have been the diagnosis or prognosis of Helen, without understanding the dynamics involved?

THETFORD: I think people who do unusual things of that type are probably considered somewhat dissociated or possibly schizophrenic. However, the fact that Helen's ability to function as a psychologist was not impaired in any way during this period was a clear indication that she did not suffer from a delusional system. If anything, I would say that her ability to function professionally was enhanced as we continued with this work. During the time we were working on the Course we seemed to actually increase our professional productivity and quality.

One confirmation of this is that when we completed the manuscript we were both awarded tenure as professors.

INTERVIEW PART 2 >>

 

 

(Interview conducted by James Bolen)

Once a professed agnostic, Dr. Thetford now openly discusses his role in scribing A Course in Miracles and how it personally affected him and his work in psychology, as well as the prestigious positions he held as Professor of Medical Psychology at Colombia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, and as Director of the Psychology Department at the Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

 

 

Briefly, what do you think the Course’s purpose is?

THETFORD: To help us change our minds about who we are and what God is, and to help us let go, through forgiveness, our belief in the reality of our separation from God. The Course teaches us how to know ourselves and how to unlearn all of those things which interfere with our recognition of who we are and always have been.

 

 

"I think a miracle is the love that sustains the universe. It’s the shift in perception that removes the barriers or obstacles to our awareness of love’s presence in our lives."

 
 

Home | Download | About ACIM | About Us | Video | Recommended