Updated Jan. 26, 2018
Joshua Slocum, on his way to becoming the first man to sail around the world alone, encountered one in 1895, an inexplicable presence that steered Slocum’s ship through a 48-hour gale while the Nova Scotian lay prostrate with food poisoning. Reinhold Messner, the great Italian mountain climber, felt its comforting nearness in 1970, during the nightmarish descent from Kashmir’s Nanga Parbat mountain that killed his younger brother. And on 9/11 one called Ron DiFrancesco by name and convinced the broker that the route to safety in the stairwells of the World Trade Center’s south tower meant running though flames.
Once you start looking for accounts of a “third man,” a mysterious, saving—and literally impossible—presence who appears to people at times of extreme stress and danger, you can find them by the dozen, says John Geiger, who presents an array of them in his 2009 book The Third Man Factor. They’re fascinating to read, but this deeply humane book is far more than the sum of its parts: Geiger elegantly demonstrates how these divergent and very personal experiences reveal our profoundly social nature.
The sensed presence takes its name from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922), perhaps the most famous modern poem in English: “Who is the third who walks always beside you? / When I count, there are only you and I together.” (That’s despite the fact Eliot was inspired by Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, who described a fourth presence he had detected in his party of three, and even though he—or, just as likely, she—most often appears to a single soul in deep physical distress.)
Certainty about the sex of the “third man” is one of the intriguing common features of the experience. Sometimes the presence is behind the sufferer, urging him on, or far ahead, showing the way to safety, or glimpsed from the corner of an eye. “But even if they don’t know anything else, everyone knows whether it was a man or a woman,” notes Geiger. That’s a detail utterly fundamental to human interaction—the first question that we ask about a newborn baby.
Sometimes, though, the presence is recognizable. Slocum, who had Christopher Columbus much on his mind when he set out on his epic voyage, was powerfully reassured after he concluded that the pilot of the Pinta, one of Columbus’s three ships—a man who had successfully sailed a tiny vessel into the unknown—had taken over his helm. A female polar explorer saw and heard her paternal grandmother. For DiFrancesco, a devout Roman Catholic, the voice urging him through the flames was indisputably a guardian angel’s. What social scientists call an individual’s cultural narrative is key to how they visualize the third man. “If you’re religious,” says Geiger, “you’ll know this was an angel—it’s the only possible explanation. If not, you will see or conclude something else. Interestingly, I’ve not encountered any conversion experiences, where a non-believer concludes he is in the presence of an angel or God himself.”
But angel, grandmother or grizzled Spanish navigator, seen or unseen, the presence is always trusted and always authoritative. The third man does not only offer sympathy and consolation—those who experienced that on a frozen mountaintop might well lie down and give up. No, the presence takes over, and tells the nearly dead how to save themselves. James Sevigny—bleeding internally, his back and arms broken, his face smashed by a Rocky Mountain avalanche that killed his companion—was about to slip into unconsciousness and death when a female presence told him exactly what to do: get up, go back to camp, follow the blood dripping from the tip of his nose, to avoid travelling in circles. She stayed with Sevigny, just behind his right shoulder, for the entire, agonizing, day-long journey, not leaving until three skiers found him.
Geiger is relentless and persuasive in investigating the science behind the experiences, and describing the cascade of factors involved, starting with monotony (humans don’t cope well with sensory deprivation) and multiple triggers (deadly combinations of hunger, thirst, fear, isolation, loss). But what he keeps coming back to, rightly, is the social nature of the phenomenon. Whether it is our brains or our guardian angels providing the solution, they do not proffer it as the fruits of our own wisdom. “We’re hardwired for companionship,” Geiger concludes. “What’s more natural for us in dire situations, that when we’re most in need of a helping hand from another human, that is what we have.” M