“The Third Man Factor”

“The Third Man Factor”, by John Geiger

It’s not the sort of thing that people usually talk about, and in my case, it’s something that – at the risk of ridicule – I’ve confessed to very few, apart from my wife when I returned home on that particular occasion.

But having since read T.S. Elliot’s, ‘The Waste Land’ ( and the stanza posing the question, “Who is this third man … “) and *Shackleton’s account of his epic crossing of South Georgia island – as well as a book by John Geiger, in which he describes the experiences of a number of people who, in extreme circumstances, feel the presence of an external force watching over them – I do feel more relaxed in talking about my own experience.

Having survived an emergency ascent from depth while working on a North Sea oil rig in the very early 1970’s – and drifting, exhausted, as my face continued to drop into the water – I gave myself up to what I then thought of as inevitable death when, of a sudden, I felt a tight hand grasp my shoulder and physically lift my upper body and face out of the water until, probably 10-15-minutes later, I was hauled from the ocean by a stand-by trawler.

I asked the trawler crew who it was that had assisted me? I was greeted with questioning stares. Since when, and, possibly like many others in a similar situation, I kept the experience to myself.

( *Shackleton in his book South, described his belief that an incorporeal being joined him and two others during the final leg of their journey. Shackleton wrote, “during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”  His admission resulted in other survivors of extreme hardship coming forward and sharing similar experiences. )

In recent years a number of well-known adventurers and polar explorers have reported the experience. One study of cases involving adventurers reported that the largest group involved climbers, with solo sailors and shipwreck survivors being the second most common group, followed by polar explorers.

Modern psychologists have used the ‘Third Man Factor’ to treat victims of trauma, the ‘cultivated inner character’ lending imagined support and comfort to those in distress.  Whatever its origin, it was – and remains – a very spiritual experience.

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Categories: Book Reviews

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