PHENOMENA: a review of the new nonfiction book by Annie Jacobsen

Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations Into Extrasensory Perception And Psychokinesis by Annie Jacobson.  Nonfiction, 527 pages published in 2017 by Little, Brown and Company.

Although the term “paranormal” can represent an incredibly diverse spectrum of unexplainable events, remarkable human sensory abilities or the like, I could sum it up to “one or a series of observations that cannot be explained using current technology and the scientific method.” Notice I said ‘and’ the scientific method.  Being a former science educator, I hold the scientific method in high regard.  However, being a Christian (albeit not at all a model representative) I also have faith in God.  This puts me in a particularly awkward position between the seemingly dichotomous views of theology and science. It’s hard to explain why I support to the theory of The Big Bang including stellar and cosmic evolution while at the same time holding to the belief that God created the universe.

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The much abbreviated generalization of the concept of the paranormal above brings me to Annie Jacobsen’s book, Phenomena. Phenomena’s content is exquisitely described by it’s subtitle. What Jacobsen presents are the chronological events from World War II to the present day of the United States Government’s interest and active research into the capability of human beings to perceive or influence objects, events and other individuals outside the accepted norms of modern science.

“Although Phenomena is a nonfiction book, the subject matter is so fascinating and absorbing; you’ll feel as if you are reading a spy novel.”

In a methodical and matter-of-fact fashion, Jacobsen uses interviews, first-hand accounts and declassified government documentation to reveal the known extent of state-funded research into paranormal abilities. Annie Jacobson summarizes in one book what several have worked their whole lives to do: shed light on the United States Government’s (especially the Central Intelligence Agency) interest, participation and funding of projects and operations involving what we as a society consider “paranormal phenomena.”

The scope and depth of the government’s involvement in paranormal research is staggering.  Being an investigative reporter by trade, Annie Jacobson doesn’t rely on embellishment or exaggeration in order to make the account more compelling because the story in and of itself is gripping enough. The story.  I shouldn’t call it that; but it is counterintuitive not to.  When I allow myself to call this assemblage of historical reports, testimonies and documentation a “story,” it takes away some of the importance of this work.  However, the descriptions and details of secret organizations, fringe scientific experiments, and cold war espionage are so fascinating that it made me feel as if I was reading an action-packed novel from Lincoln Child or James Rollins.

Conversely, Phenomena is not in any sense of the word a fictional book. That’s the most attractive, entertaining and terrifying aspect of reading Phenomena, that the story is so incredibly unbelievable but at the same it’s totally believable and changes a person’s own perception of reality.  While I read the book I began to question what other secret projects are currently underway experimenting with extrasensory perception, telekinesis, or any manner of paranormal abilities.  If I know one thing to be true it is this:  the government reveals only what it wants to.

What we think of as our normal lives is protected by a wall of standards and beliefs consisting of things that we perceive to be true, and then comes Annie Jacobson with the sharp object that is her research which destroys our preconceived notions that bursts our protective bubbles of normalcy.

Annie Jacobsen has written several books about the various formerly secret projects that the United States Government has undertaken, as well as some projects that have great numbers of documents and files that remain classified.  These include Inside the Pentagon’s Brain, Operation Paperclip, and her controversial book Area 51, the latter which caused a media firestorm in 2011.  Phenomena is the latest in her series of books where the strong ties with the formerly mentioned titles lies in the operations conducted by the United States and Russia before, during and after the Cold War (after… assuming that the Cold War ever really ended).  In an interview on C-SPAN’s BookTV Jacobsen stated that the Cold War was key to this series of books and when reading these accounts the Cold War looms over the story as the driving force for the government’s involvement with research on the fringes of science.  It give credence to the accounts as well, that military and intelligence departments within the government would take great risks in order discover new technology in order to bolster national security (I am not limiting that statement to the United States).

I recommend this book because I am genuinely interested by the subject and I thoroughly enjoyed it as both an informational book and an entertaining read. If you are interested at all in the paranormal, this book is for you.  If you enjoy reading war or espionage stories, this book is for you.  If you are a student of history, this book is for you. Although Phenomena is a nonfiction book, the subject matter is so fascinating and absorbing; you’ll feel as if you are reading a spy novel.

“The scope and depth of the government’s involvement in paranormal research is staggering.”

Jacobson is a Pulitzer Prize nominee and her skill shines through in the quality of her writing. The hard cover version of Phenomena includes 16 pages of photographs of many of the individuals that are key to the chronological history that unfolds in the book and puts a face to the names of those involved.  You can find all of Annie Jacobsen’s books at

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