16 Mar 2011

Parents exploit son's imaginary return trip to Heaven in book being sold to the gullible as nonfiction

New York Times   -  March 11, 2011

Celestial Sales for Boy’s Tale of Heaven


Just two months shy of his fourth birthday, Colton Burpo, the son of an evangelical pastor in Imperial, Neb., was rushed into emergency surgery with a burst appendix.

He woke up with an astonishing story: He had died and gone to heaven, where he met his great-grandfather; the biblical figure Samson; John the Baptist; and Jesus, who had eyes that “were just sort of a sea-blue and they seemed to sparkle,” Colton, now 11 years old, recalled.

Colton’s father, Todd, has turned the boy’s experience into a 163-page book, “Heaven Is for Real,” which has become a sleeper paperback hit of the winter, dominating best-seller lists and selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

Thomas Nelson, the book’s publisher, said it had broken company sales records. The publisher, based in Nashville, began with an initial print run of 40,000 copies. Since the book came out in November, it has gone back to press 22 times, with more than 1.5 million copies in print. On the New York Times best-seller list for paperback nonfiction last Sunday, “Heaven Is for Real” was No. 1. The book remains in the top spot this coming Sunday.

Much of the book’s success has been fueled by word of mouth, since it did not begin with the usual best-seller channels: there has been no elaborate book tour, big-name publisher or brand-name author. But it has gained traction with a few well-placed appearances on the morning show “Fox & Friends,” “The 700 Club” and CNN.

The book has sold just as strongly in national chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble as it has in Christian specialty shops, said Matt Baugher, the vice president and publisher of Thomas Nelson. Mass merchants like Wal-Mart have pushed the book heavily in their stores, and large orders from churches and ministry groups are growing steadily.

“We all are perhaps desperate to know what is on the other side of the veil after we die,” Mr. Baugher said, adding that his initial skepticism about the Burpo family’s story was short-lived. “This was a very down-to-earth, conservative, quote-unquote normal Midwestern family. We became fully convinced that this story was valid. And also that it was a great story that would just take off.”

The book was an instant hit in Barnes & Noble outlets and was near the top of the best-seller list on its bn.com. The chain’s religion buyer was an early advocate for the book, ordering copies for every store, said Patricia Bostelman, the vice president for marketing at Barnes & Noble.

“When you buy the religion subject, you are presented with many stories about heaven, personal experiences about near-death and the afterlife,” Ms. Bostelman said, noting that several other books with “heaven” in the title have sold well recently. “But what was unusual about this book was that it was the story of a little boy. It deactivated some of the cynicism that can go along with adults capitalizing on their experiences.”

Todd Burpo wrote the book with Lynn Vincent, who collaborated with Sarah Palin on “Going Rogue.” Mr. Burpo, the pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, a farming community in southwest Nebraska, said in an interview that he had shouldered some criticism over it.

“People say we just did this to make money, and it’s not the truth,” Mr. Burpo said, referring to anonymous online comments about the book. “We were expecting nothing. We were just hoping the publisher would break even.” (He said he planned to give away much of the royalty income and spend some of it on home improvements.)

At first, he and his wife, Sonja, were not sure if they could believe their son’s story, which came out slowly, months and years after his sudden illness and operation in 2003. The details persuaded them, Mr. Burpo said. Colton told his parents that he had met his younger sister in heaven, describing her as a dark-haired girl who resembled his older sister, Cassie. When the Burpos questioned him, he asked his mother, “You had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?” While his wife had suffered a miscarriage years before, Mr. Burpo said, they had not told Colton about it. “There’s just no way he could have known,” Mr. Burpo said.

And the Burpos said that Colton painstakingly described images that he said he saw in heaven — like the bloody wounds on Jesus’ palms — that he had not been shown before.

Eventually the Burpos decided to tell their story beyond their town. Mr. Burpo, in his Sunday sermons, had already introduced some anecdotes to his congregation. Through a pastor friend, they met Joel Kneedler, an agent with Alive Communications, a Christian literary agency in Colorado Springs. Mr. Kneedler sold the book to Thomas Nelson, a publisher known for Christian titles like “40 Days With Jesus” by Sarah Young. The advance was in the low five figures.

The book’s list price is $16.99, but that is discounted to $9.34 on amazon.com.

At the outlets of Barbara’s Bookstore, an independent chain mostly in the Chicago area, the book is No. 1 on the store’s nonfiction best-seller list. Interest in it began to perk up around mid-February, said Greg Sato, a store manager.

“Of the nonfiction books lately that seems to be the one that people are asking about the most,” Mr. Sato said. “I have pegged it in the same vein as ‘The Five People You Meet in Heaven’ or ‘The Shack.’ Like an Oprah book, but a little more religious or spiritual.”

Colton, who appears as a blond, round-faced little boy on the cover of the book, now plays the piano and trumpet, is fascinated by Greek mythology, listens to Christian rock and loves Nebraska football.

Telling his story matter-of-factly, Colton said he was pleased that people were finding the story inspirational.

“People are getting blessed, and they’re going to have healing from their hurts,” he said. “I’m happy for that.”

This article was found at:

Note by Perry Bulwer:  The following video interview of the boy and his father contains several red flags that should make any thinking person realize that the boy is merely repeating religious dogma he has been indoctrinated with his whole short life. God is so big he can fit "the whole world in his hands"! Where have you heard that before? And the Fox News anchor seems to naively believe every word, asking leading questions to get answers that conform to her own beliefs, just as the boy's parents have obviously done.

Pharyngula  -  Science Blogs         March 21, 2011

The Credulity of Americans is Unquenchable

by Juno Walker

An evangelical pastor and his wife are making money off their 11 year-old son's book about his near-death experience. If you think I sound cynical, you're correct; unfortunately, it seems there are far too few Americans who share my skepticism.

But first, a little background about the story: the son, Colton, was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery for a burst appendix. Upon coming to, the boy recounted how "he had died and gone to heaven, where he met his great-grandfather; the biblical figure Samson; John the Baptist; and Jesus." He said he even noticed that Jesus' eyes were a sparkly blue. (Now, keep in mind that Jesus was a Jew, and while it's not impossible for him to have blue eyes, the boy's description more closely mirrors the typical Anglophilic portrayal of a long-haired, pasty-white Jesus with a goatee. Also keep in mind that Colton was only about 4 years-old when he had his "vision." Do you think the images of Jesus he had seen up to that point would portray Jesus as a typical Jew of his day, or as an Anglo-Saxon hippie with blue eyes?)

Colton's 163-page book has sold astonishingly well: there are currently more than 1.5 million copies in print, and it is on the New York Times best-seller list for two weeks now. Clearly many Americans have a strong need for this type of feel-good rubbish.

What's not clear is whether he actually had a near-death experience, per se - I haven't read the book (I refuse to spend money on it), and this article in the NYT isn't clear; it merely says that he woke up from surgery and claimed he had died. Colton's parents believe him, of course. They believe him so much that they published this book for him. And although Colton's father says he was simply hoping for the publisher to break even, and that he plans on giving away most of the royalties, he is in fact keeping some of the money for "home improvements." Well, there's a nice plus. But as a Christian - and as a pastor - wouldn't that money be better spent for the poor, the homeless, the sick, or other Christian goals?

Now, every parent wants to believe their kid. No parent wants to intentionally belittle and condescend to their child. And, given the parents' religious faith, it's easy to see how they are inclined to credulity.

But isn't it more likely that something else is at work here? I mean, when you become a Christian, you make a commitment to a set of beliefs, a dogma, and the nature of a dogma is that you can't doubt it and believe it at the same time. For example, a Christian can't claim to be a Christian and doubt that Jesus was the son of God, or that he was raised from the dead. That's the essence of being a Christian - at least from an evangelical point of view. And the typical believer can't venture too far into the exegetical disputes over literal versus metaphorical interpretations; the theological ground there is too shaky - the fate of his eternal soul depends on it!

So the temptation to believe what would otherwise be met with a healthy skepticism and gentle patronization (e.g., if Colton woke up and said he died and met Alexander the Great), is so strong as to blind one from the more obvious explanation. The parents, of course, claim that Colton made reference to things that "there's just no way he could have known." The example they give is that the mother had had a miscarriage but never told Colton about it; but Colton had referenced it directly. This is a common refrain among those who have had near-death experiences.

But we know that our brains absorb a lot more stimuli via our senses than our "conscious minds" can register. I don't intend to get into a discussion of consciousness - other than to say that no one really knows how to explain it yet - but there is literature out there documenting research and experiments related to human perception and human memory - but all too few people read this stuff.

And for all you parents out there - how many times have you been surprised at something your child has repeated to you that you were convinced they never could have known? How many times have you heard them parrot something that you swore they couldn't hear or couldn't understand?

What's particularly sad is the effect this experience will have on Colton himself, as well as the effect his book will have on other credulous families with children. For his part, Colton, 7 years later, "now plays the piano and trumpet, is fascinated by Greek mythology, listens to Christian rock and loves Nebraska football." That seems innocuous enough; but listen to what he says about his book: ""People are getting blessed, and they're going to have healing from their hurts...I'm happy for that."

He's happy that people will believe a delusion as long as it makes them feel better. We are breeding generations of children who will gladly accept a lie instead of truth, so long as it makes them feel good. But one day, at some point in their lives, they will have no recourse to any real resilience in times of real crisis; they're used to digesting the superficial bromides and platitudes our culture relishes. They won't be able to digest a truly harrowing physical or psychological experience.

And don't get me started on the further dampening of scientific curiosity and thinking this type of anecdote permits - and almost encourages.

And you know that if Colton were born a Buddhist, he would have seen the Buddha; if he were born a Muslim, he would have seen Muhammad; and if he were born a Hindu, he would have seen Krishna - or any of the other myriad deities in the Indian pantheon.

Stories like this one, especially when presented uncritically in a venue such as The New York Times, makes me truly pessimistic about the future of humankind.

This article was found at:



Stairway to Heaven: Treating children in the crosshairs of trauma


  1. Boy Preacher, 11, Says Skeptics Make Him More Determined to Stay in Christ

    By DAN HARRIS and CHRIS MURPHEY, ABC News August 16, 2012

    Ezekiel Stoddard may not quite be in the sixth grade and his voice has yet to break, but grown men and women kneel down before him as a prophet.

    The 11-year-old boy from Temple Hills, Md., said he was just 7 when he realized he wanted to become a preacher.

    "I had a dream," he said. "God was telling me that he wanted me to do his will."

    Even though he can barely see over the pulpit, Ezekiel preaches most Sundays at his family's church, the Fullness of Time Church in Capitol Heights, Md., and at other churches around the state.

    He said he writes his sermons himself and that he likes that he is "bringing souls over to Christ." He even said God gave him the gift of speaking in tongues and healing the sick.

    Just a few months ago, his mother, Pastor Adrienne Smith, and stepfather had Ezekiel, whom his family nicknamed "Zeek," officially ordained as an evangelical minister, which provoked a holy uproar among people who believed his ordination was inappropriate.

    "The calling of an individual is truly between God and that individual," Smith said.

    While Ezekiel's adult critics might tell him he is just a kid who doesn't have enough life experience to provide spiritual guidance, the boy preacher said their skepticism only makes him "more determined to stay in Christ."

    But at the services "Nightline" attended, that skepticism was not evident, even from older pastors.

    "At 11 years old, you're not going to preach experience, you're going to preach the Word," said Pastor Hercules Jones. "Preaching the Word carries enough power in itself to do what it's supposed to do."

    Hop on YouTube and there appears to be an explosion of child preacher videos. There's an impression that preaching is going the way of "Toddlers and Tiaras," where parents are living out their dreams through their children.

    But child preachers have been around for a while and they have long been controversial. Marjoe Gortner, a Pentecostal evangelical preacher who was ordained at age 3, created a sensation in the 1950s, but in the 1972 documentary, "Marjoe," he claimed that his act was all a money-making scheme ginned up by his parents.

    In Ezekiel's case, it is true that his parents are making money off of his preaching, as well as the gospel music act that he and his siblings have put together. But Ezekiel denies that his parents put him up to it.

    "This is something that God called me to do and that's something that God wants me to do, and this is what I want to do," he said.

    His mother also said she did not push her son into preaching and would be fine with it if he wanted to walk away from the pulpit.

    "But he will still be taught the word of God still continually," she said.

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  2. continued from previous comment:

    In between sermons, Ezekiel's parents said they give him plenty of time to be a kid, including letting him play tennis, take a trip to the pet store and eat pancakes with his brothers and sisters. Although, a Bible quiz can happen at any time.

    When asked if he is ever tempted to act out or be bad, Ezekiel simply said, "the devil tries to step in, you know, he tries to ruin things."

    But where the boy's pre-pubescent precociousness can really get him in trouble, though, is with other kids. Ezekiel said he was bullied "a couple of times" in elementary school, and kids called him names or told him he was "weird" or "freaky."

    "A lot of them will say, what happened to you? Are you still Ezekiel in there? Are you still 'Zeek' in there?" he said. "And I say, 'yes, I am. But I'm different in my spirit.'"

    Ezekiel said his defense was to ignore them, but his mother said the bullying got so bad that she pulled him out of school and now homeschools him and his siblings.

    It may be a lonely road at times, but as Ezekiel says from the pulpit, being a Christian is not supposed to be easy.

    "I'm blessed where I am," he said. "I know if I stick in the Word, God will bless me for it."


    The following document exposes the Christian evangelical movement's targeting of children for evangelizing and indoctrinating, and the tactic of using children to evangelize other children.

    2004 Forum for World Evangelization - Evangelization of Children


  3. Science on the Brink of Death

    by Sam Harris November 11, 2012


    One cannot travel far in spiritual circles without meeting people who are fascinated by the “near-death experience” (NDE). The phenomenon has been described as follows:

    Frequently recurring features include feelings of peace and joy; a sense of being out of one’s body and watching events going on around one’s body and, occasionally, at some distant physical location; a cessation of pain; seeing a dark tunnel or void; seeing an unusually bright light, sometimes experienced as a “Being of Light” that radiates love and may speak or otherwise communicate with the person; encountering other beings, often deceased persons whom the experiencer recognizes; experiencing a revival of memories or even a full life review, sometimes accompanied by feelings of judgment; seeing some “other realm,” often of great beauty; sensing a barrier or border beyond which the person cannot go; and returning to the body, often reluctantly. (E.F. Kelly et al., Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007, p. 372)

    Such accounts have led many people to believe that consciousness must be independent of the brain. Unfortunately, these experiences vary across cultures, and no single feature is common to them all. One would think that if a nonphysical domain were truly being explored, some universal characteristics would stand out. Hindus and Christians would not substantially disagree—and one certainly wouldn’t expect the after-death state of South Indians to diverge from that of North Indians, as has been reported.⁠ It should also trouble NDE enthusiasts that only 10−20 percent of people who approach clinical death recall having any experience at all.⁠

    However, the deepest problem with drawing sweeping conclusions from the NDE is that those who have had one and subsequently talked about it did not actually die. In fact, many appear to have been in no real danger of dying. And those who have reported leaving their bodies during a true medical emergency—after cardiac arrest, for instance—did not suffer the complete loss of brain activity. Even in cases where the brain is alleged to have shut down, its activity must return if the subject is to survive and describe the experience. In such cases, there is generally no way to establish that the NDE occurred while the brain was offline.

    Many students of the NDE claim that certain people have left their bodies and perceived the commotion surrounding their near death—the efforts of hospital staff to resuscitate them, details of surgery, the behavior of family members, etc. Certain subjects even say that they have learned facts while traveling beyond their bodies that would otherwise have been impossible to know—for instance, a secret told by a dead relative, the truth of which was later confirmed. Of course, reports of this kind seem especially vulnerable to self-deception, if not conscious fraud. There is another problem, however: Even if true, such phenomena might suggest only that the human mind possesses powers of extrasensory perception (e.g. clairvoyance or telepathy). This would be a very important discovery, but it wouldn’t demonstrate the survival of death. Why? Because unless we could know that a subject’s brain was not functioning when these impressions were formed, the involvement of the brain must be presumed.⁠

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  4. What is needed to establish the mind’s independence from the brain is a case in which a person has an experience—of anything—without associated brain activity. From time to time, someone will claim that a specific NDE meets this criterion. One of the most celebrated cases in the literature involves a woman, Pam Reynolds, who underwent a procedure known as “hypothermic cardiac arrest,” in which her core body temperature was brought down to 60 degrees, her heart was stopped, and blood flow to her brain was suspended so that a large aneurysm in her basilar artery could be surgically repaired. Reynolds reports having had a classic NDE, complete with an awareness of the details of her surgery. Her story has several problems, however. The events in the world that Reynolds reports having perceived during her NDE occurred either before she was “clinically dead” or after blood circulation had been restored to her brain. In other words, despite the extraordinary details of the procedure, we have every reason to believe that Reynolds’s brain was functioning when she had her experiences. The case also wasn’t published until several years after it occurred, and its author, Dr. Michael Sabom, is a born-again Christian who had been working for decades to substantiate the otherworldly significance of the NDE. The possibility that experimenter bias, witness tampering, and false memories intruded into this best-of-all-recorded cases is excruciatingly obvious.

    The latest NDE to receive wide acclaim was featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine. The great novelty of this case is that its subject, Dr. Eben Alexander, is a neurosurgeon who we might presume is competent to judge the scientific significance of his experience. His book on the subject, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, has landed atop the New York Times paperback best-seller list. As it happens, it displaced one of the best-selling books of the past decade, Heaven Is for Real—which is yet another account of the afterlife, based on the near-death adventures of a 4-year-old boy. Unsurprisingly, the two books offer incompatible views of what life is like beyond the prison of the brain. (As colorful as his account is, Alexander neglects to tell us that Jesus rides a rainbow-colored horse or that the souls of dead children must still do homework in heaven.)

    Having now read Alexander’s book, I can say that it is every bit as remarkable as his Newsweek cover article suggested it would be. Unfortunately, it is not remarkable in the way that its author believes. I find that my original criticism of Alexander’s thinking can stand without revision.[1] However, as he provides further “proof” of heaven in his book, there is more to say about the man’s mischief here on earth. There is also a rumor circulating online that, after attacking Alexander from the safety of my blog, I have refused to debate him in public. This is untrue. I merely declined the privilege of appearing with him on a parapsychology podcast, in the company of an irritating and unscrupulous host. I would be happy to have a public discussion with Alexander, should it ever seem worth doing.

    As I wrote in my original article, the enthusiastic reception that Alexander is now enjoying suggests a general confusion about the nature of scientific authority. And much of the criticism I’ve received for dismissing his account has predictably focused on what appear to be the man’s impeccable scientific credentials. Certain readers feel that I have moved the goalposts: You see, even the testimony of a Harvard neurosurgeon isn’t good enough for a dogmatic, materialistic, fundamentalist atheist like Harris! And many people found the invidious distinction between a “neurosurgeon” and a “neuroscientist” (drawn in a comment by Mark Cohen in my last article) to be somewhat flabbergasting.

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  5. When debating the validity of evidence and arguments, the point is never that one person’s credentials trump another’s. Credentials just offer a rough indication of what a person is likely to know—or should know. If Alexander were drawing reasonable scientific conclusions from his experience, he wouldn’t need to be a neuroscientist to be taken seriously; he could be a philosopher—or a coal miner. But he simply isn’t thinking like a scientist—and so not even a string of Nobel prizes would shield him from criticism.

    However, there are general differences between neurosurgeons and neuroscientists that might explain some of Alexander’s errors. The distinction in expertise is very easy to see when viewed from the other side: If the average neuroscientist were handed a drill and a scalpel and told to operate on a living person’s brain, the result would be horrific. From a scientific point of view, Alexander’s performance has been no prettier. He has surely killed the patient (in fact, he may have helped kill Newsweek, which announced that it would no longer publish a print edition immediately after his article ran), but the man won’t stop drilling. Many of his errors are glaring but immaterial: In his book, for instance, he understates the number of neurons in the human brain by a factor of 10. But others are absolutely damning to his case. Whatever his qualifications on paper, Alexander’s evangelizing about his experience in coma is so devoid of intellectual sobriety, not to mention rigor, that I would see no reason to engage with it—apart from the fact that his book seems destined to be read and believed by millions of people.

    There are two paths toward establishing the scientific significance of the NDE: The first would be to show that a person’s brain was dead or otherwise inactive during the time he had an experience (whether veridical or not). The second would be to demonstrate that the subject had acquired knowledge about the world that could be explained only by the mind’s being independent of the brain (but again, it is hard to see how this can be convincingly done in the presence of brain activity).

    In his Newsweek article, Alexander sought to travel the first path. Hence, his entire account hinged on the assertion that his cortex was “completely shut down” while he was seeing angels in heaven. Unfortunately, the evidence he has offered in support of this claim—in the article, in a subsequent response to my criticism of it, in his book, and in multiple interviews—suggests that he doesn’t understand what would constitute compelling evidence of cortical inactivity. The proof he offers is either fallacious (CT scans do not detect brain activity) or irrelevant (it does not matter, even slightly, that his form of meningitis was “astronomically rare”)—and no combination of fallacy and irrelevancy adds up to sound science. The impediment to taking Alexander’s claims seriously can be simply stated: There is absolutely no reason to believe that his cerebral cortex was inactive at the time he had his experience of the afterlife. The fact that Alexander thinks he has demonstrated otherwise—by continually emphasizing how sick he was, the infrequency of E. coli meningitis, and the ugliness of his initial CT scan—suggests a deliberate disregard of the most plausible interpretation of his experience. It is far more likely that some of his cortex was functioning, despite the profundity of his illness, than that he is justified in making the following claim:

    My experience showed me that the death of the body and the brain are not the end of consciousness, that human experience continues beyond the grave. More important, it continues under the gaze of a God who loves and cares about each one of us, about where the universe itself and all the beings within it are ultimately going.

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  6. The very fact that Alexander remembers his NDE suggests that the cortical and subcortical structures necessary for memory formation were active at the time. How else could he recall the experience?

    It would not surprise me, in fact, if Alexander were to claim that his memories are stored outside his brain—presumably somewhere between Lynchburg, Virginia, and heaven. Given that he is committed to proving the mind’s nonphysical basis, he holds a peculiar view of the brain’s operation:

    [The brain] is a reducing valve or filter, shifting the larger, nonphysical consciousness that we possess in the nonphysical worlds down into a more limited capacity for the duration of our mortal lives.

    There are some obvious problems with this—which anyone disposed to think like a neuroscientist would see. If the brain merely serves to limit human experience and understanding, one would expect most forms of brain damage to unmask extraordinary scientific, artistic, and spiritual insights—and, provided that a person’s language centers could be spared, the graver the injury the better. A few hammer blows or a well-placed bullet should render a person of even the shallowest intellect a spiritual genius. Is this the world we are living in?[2]

    In his book, Alexander also attempts to take the second path of proof—alleging that his NDE disclosed facts that could be explained only by the reality of life beyond the body. Most of these truths must be left to scientists of some future century to explore—for although his collision with the Mind of God seems to have fully slaked Alexander’s scientific curiosity, it apparently produced few insights that can be rendered in human speech. This puts the man in a difficult position as an educator:

    I saw the abundance of life throughout countless universes, including some whose intelligence was advanced far beyond that of humanity. I saw that there are countless higher dimensions, but that the only way to know these dimensions is to enter and experience them directly. They cannot be known, or understood, from lower dimensional space. Cause and effect exist in these higher realms, but outside our earthly conception of them. The world of time and space in which we move in this terrestrial realm is tightly and intricately meshed within these higher worlds…. The knowledge given to me was not “taught” in the way that a history lesson or math theorem would be. Insights happened directly, rather than needing to be coaxed and absorbed. Knowledge was stored without memorization, instantly and for good. It didn’t fade, like ordinary information does, and to this day I still possess all of it, much more clearly than I possess the information that I gained over all my years in school.

    Alexander claims undiminished knowledge of all this, and yet the only specifics he can produce on the page are as vapid as any ever published. And I suspect it is no accident that they have a distinctly Christian flavor. Here, according to Alexander, are the deepest truths he brought back to our world:

    You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.

    Not only will scientists be underwhelmed by these revelations, but Buddhists and students of Advaita Vedanta will find them astonishingly puerile. And the fact that Alexander returned from “the Core” of a loving cosmos only to piously assert the Christian line on evil and free will (“Evil was necessary because without it free will was impossible…”) renders the overall picture of his religious provincialism fairly indelible.

    Happily, you do not need to read Alexander’s book to see him present what he considers the most compelling part of his case. You need only spend six minutes of your life in this world watching the following video:


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  7. Watch the video to the end. True, it will bring you six minutes closer to meeting your maker, but it will also teach you something about the limits of intellectual honesty. The footage shows Alexander responding to a question from Raymond Moody (the man who coined the term “near-death experience”). I am quite sure that I’ve never seen a scientist speak in a manner more suggestive of wishful thinking. If self-deception were an Olympic sport, this is how our most gifted athletes would appear when they were in peak condition.

    It should also be clear that the knowledge of the afterlife that Alexander claims to possess depends upon some extraordinarily dubious methods of verification. While in his coma, he saw a beautiful girl riding beside him on the wing of a butterfly. We learn in his book that he developed his recollection of this experience over a period of months—writing, thinking about it, and mining it for new details. It would be hard to think of a better way to engineer a distortion of memory.

    As you will know from watching the video, Alexander had a biological sister he never met, who died some years before his coma. Seeing her picture for the first time after his recovery, he judged this woman to be the girl who had joined him for the butterfly ride. He sought further confirmation of this by speaking with his biological family, from whom he learned that his dead sister had, indeed, always been “very loving.” QED.

    As I said in my original response to his Newsweek article, I have spent much of my life studying and even seeking experiences of the kind Alexander describes. I haven’t contracted meningitis, thankfully, nor have I had an NDE, but I have experienced many phenomena that traditionally lead people to believe in the supernatural.

    For instance, I once had an opportunity to study with the great Tibetan lama Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in Nepal. Before making the trip, I had a dream in which he seemed to give me teachings about the nature of the mind. This dream struck me as interesting for two reasons: (1) The teachings I received were novel, useful, and convergent with what I later understood to be true; and (2) I had never met Khyentse Rinpoche, nor was I aware of having seen a photograph of him. This preceded my access to the Internet by at least five years, so the belief that I had never seen his picture was more plausible than it would be now. I also recall that I had no easy way of finding a picture of him for the sake of comparison. But because I was about to meet the man himself, it seemed that I would be able to confirm whether it had really been him in my dream.

    First, the teachings: The lama in my dream began by asking who I was. I responded by telling him my name. Apparently, this wasn’t the answer he was looking for.

    “Who are you?” he said again. He was now staring fixedly into my eyes and pointing at my face with an outstretched finger. I did not know what to say.

    “Who are you?” he said again, continuing to point.

    “Who are you?” he said a final time, but here he suddenly shifted his gaze and pointing finger, as though he were now addressing someone just to my left. The effect was quite startling, because I knew (insofar as one can be said to know anything in a dream) that we were alone. The lama was obviously pointing to someone who wasn’t there, and I suddenly noticed what I would later come to consider an important truth about the nature of the mind: Subjectively speaking, there is only consciousness and its contents; there is no inner self who is conscious. The feeling of being the experiencer of your experience, rather than identical to the totality of experience, is an illusion. The lama in my dream seemed to dissect this very feeling of being a self and, for a brief moment, removed it from my mind. I awoke convinced that I had glimpsed something quite profound.

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  8. After traveling to Nepal and encountering the arresting figure of Khyentse Rinpoche instructing hundreds of monks from atop a brocade throne, I was struck by the sense that he really did resemble the man in my dream. Even more apparent, however, was the fact that I couldn’t know whether this impression was accurate. Clearly, it would have been more fun to believe that something magical had occurred and that I had been singled out for some sort of transpersonal initiation—but the allure of this belief suggested only that the bar for proof should be raised rather than lowered. And even though I had no formal scientific training at that point, I knew that human memory is unreliable under conditions of this kind. How much stock could I put in the feeling of familiarity? Was I accurately recalling the face of a man I had met in a dream, or was I engaged in a creative reconstruction of it? If nothing else, the experience of déjà vu proves that one’s sense of having experienced something previously can jump the tracks of genuine recollection. My travels in spiritual circles had also brought me into contact with many people who seemed all too eager to deceive themselves about experiences of this kind, and I did not wish to emulate them. Given these considerations, I did not believe that Khyentse Rinpoche had really appeared in my dream. And I certainly would never have been tempted to use this experience as conclusive proof of the supernatural.⁠

    I invite the reader to compare this attitude to the one that Dr. Eben Alexander will likely exhibit before crowds of credulous people for the rest of his life. The structure of our experiences was similar—we were each given an opportunity to compare a face remembered from a dream/vision with a person (or photo) in the physical world. I realized that the task was hopeless. Alexander believes that he has made the greatest discovery in the history of science.

    1. Everything of substance in Alexander’s account hinges on his assertion that his cortex was shut down while he enjoyed a “hyper-real” experience of the afterlife. It seems, however, that it is easy for many readers to miss this. For instance, I’ve heard from several people who think that Alexander successfully ruled out the hypothesis that a spike in the neurotransmitter DMT could explain his NDE. But he did so only by observing that DMT would require a functioning cortex upon which to act, whereas his cortex “wasn’t available to be affected.” But no neurophysiological account of his experience could survive this treatment—because Alexander is asking us to stipulate that his cortex was functionally dead. As I have said, this is an incredible claim, rendered even less plausible by the fact that he does not appear to understand what sort of evidence would make it plausible.↩

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  9. continued from previous comment...

    2. (Added 11/16/12) The phrase “reducing valve” appears to come from Aldous Huxley in his Doors of Perception, but the idea that the brain is a filter (rather than the origin) of mind goes back at least as far as Henri Bergson and William James. Both Bergson and James suggested that the purpose of the brain might be to limit conscious experience to a range of perceptions and mental states compatible with survival in this world. When the barrier of the brain is breached—whether partially, through mystical experience, or fully, upon the death of the body—a wider range of conscious states and cosmic understandings become available.

    However, as I said above, if the brain were merely a filter, damaging it should reliably increase cognition. Some readers objected to this, suggesting that the brain could be a filter that functions like a radio—a receiver of conscious states, rather than a mere barrier to them. At first glance, this would appear to account for the deleterious effects of neurological injury and disease: If one smashes a radio with a hammer, it no longer functions properly.

    There is problem with this metaphor, however: Those who employ it forget that we are the music, not the radio. If the brain is truly a receiver of conscious states, it should be impossible to diminish a person’s experience of the cosmos by damaging his brain. He may seem unconscious from the outside—like a broken radio—but, subjectively speaking, the music plays on.

    This is not how the mind works. Specific reductions in brain activity might benefit people in certain ways, but there is no reason to think that the pervasive destruction of the cortex can leave the mind unaffected (much less improved). For instance, medications that reduce anxiety generally work by increasing the effect of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, thereby diminishing neuronal activity in various parts of the brain. But the fact that dampening arousal in this way can make people feel better does not suggest that they would feel better still if they were drugged into a coma. Similarly, the psychedelic drug psilocybin seems to reduce activity in brain areas responsible self-representation. It would be unsurprising if this accounted for the experience of self-transcendence that is often associated with this drug. But this does not give us any reason to believe that turning off the brain entirely would yield increased awareness of spiritual realities.

    If Alexander’s account is correct, strategically damaging the brain should be the most reliable method of personal empowerment and spiritual practice available to us. In almost every case, loss of brain should yield more mind. Surely there must be a way of enjoying the benefits of this brain-reduction therapy while maintaining an ability to function in the physical world. He’s the neurosurgeon: I wonder which regions of his brain Alexander would remove first.↩


  10. The Proof of Heaven Author Has Now Been Thoroughly Debunked by Science

    ESTHER ZUCKERMAN The Atlantic Wire July 2, 2013

    A book called Proof of Heaven is bound to provoke eye rolls, but its author, Eben Alexander, had space in a Newsweek story and on shows like of Fox & Friends to detail his claims. Read into those endorsements — and nearly 15 million 2 million copies sold — whatever you will, but in a big new Esquire feature, Luke Dittrich pokes large holes in Alexander's story, bringing into question the author's qualification as a neurosurgeon (which is supposed to legitimize his claim) and the accuracy of his best-selling journey.

    In his book, Alexander claims that when he was in a coma caused by E. coli bacterial meningitis, he went to heaven. Of course, Dittrich's piece is not the first time that Alexander's text has come into question. In April, Michael Shermer at Scientific American explained how the author's "evidence is proof of hallucination, not heaven." But Dittrich calls into question not what Alexander experienced so much how he did. While Dittrich looks at legal troubles Alexander had during his time practicing neurosurgery, perhaps the most damning piece of testimony comes from a doctor who was on duty in the ER when Alexander arrived in 2008. Dr. Laura Potter explains that she "had to make the decision to just place him in a chemically induced coma." But that's not how Alexander tells it, according to the Esquire investigation:

    In Proof of Heaven, Alexander writes that he spent seven days in "a coma caused by a rare case of E. coli bacterial meningitis." There is no indication in the book that it was Laura Potter, and not bacterial meningitis, that induced his coma, or that the physicians in the ICU maintained his coma in the days that followed through the use of anesthetics. Alexander also writes that during his week in the ICU he was present "in body alone," that the bacterial assault had left him with an "all-but-destroyed brain." He notes that by conventional scientific understanding, "if you don't have a working brain, you can't be conscious," and a key point of his argument for the reality of the realms he claims to have visited is that his memories could not have been hallucinations, since he didn't possess a brain capable of creating even a hallucinatory conscious experience.

    I ask Potter whether the manic, agitated state that Alexander exhibited whenever they weaned him off his anesthetics during his first days of coma would meet her definition of conscious.

    "Yes," she says. "Conscious but delirious."

    In interviews in the piece, Alexander asks Esquire's Dittrich not to bring up the discrepancies in his story. The neurosurgeon-turned-author's Twitter account has been silent this morning, but he told the Today show that he stood by "every word" in the book and denounced the magazine story as "cynical" and "cherry-picked."

    Read the rest of Dittrich's story at: http://www.esquire.com/features/the-prophet


  11. The Prophet

    Before Proof of Heaven made Dr. Eben Alexander rich and famous as a "man of science" who'd experienced the afterlife, he was something else: a neurosurgeon with a troubled history and a man in need of reinvention


    On December 18, 2012, the set of Fox & Friends was both festive and somber. Festive because it was the Christmas season. The three hosts, two men in dark suits flanking a woman in a blue dress, sat on a mustard-colored couch in front of a cheery seasonal backdrop: a lit-up tree, silver-painted twigs, mounds of tinsel, blue and red swatches of fabric, and, here and there, multicolored towers of blown glass with tapering points that made them look surprisingly like minarets. Somber because a terrible thing had happened just four days earlier, in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. All three hosts looked sad, but the woman, Gretchen Carlson, looked the saddest.

    When Alexander got sick in late 2008, he hadn't practiced surgery in a year and faced a $3 million malpractice lawsuit. He now has a best-selling book and a movie deal.

    The shot of the three hosts occupied most of the right three quarters of the screen. A guest was joining them by satellite from another location, and a shot of his head and shoulders occupied most of the rest of the screen. This was his third appearance on the program in the last few months. He wore a dark blazer and a button-down shirt with blue stripes. He was middle-aged and handsome in an old-fashioned way, with tanned skin and thick hair parted on the right. The banner below the video feeds read, HOPE IS NOT LOST: NEUROSURGEON SAYS HEAVEN IS REAL.

    "Dr. Alexander," Carlson said, "if people don't know your story, you, you were ill, you were in a coma, you left this earth for a week, you were in heaven, and then you wrote about your experiences there, and you were told that you were supposed to come back to the earth."

    She paused. She looked into the camera and then looked up toward the studio ceiling and rocked slightly forward.

    "As people are grappling with the horrible nature of this tragedy," she said, her voice cracking, her lower lip trembling, "will these children forget, when they are in heaven, what happened to them?"

    It was, let's be clear, an unusual question. One imagines the host of a national news program would feel comfortable posing this question to only a very few guests. A priest? A bishop? The pope? But let's be clear about something else: Dr. Eben Alexander was presented as more qualified to answer this question than all of them. His authority on heaven hadn't come from prayer or contemplation or a vote taken at some conclave. He had been there. And although a lot of people might make similar claims concerning visits to heaven and the receipt of personal revelations from God and be roundly dismissed, Dr. Alexander was different. He was, as the Fox News Web site declared, a "renowned neurosurgeon." A man of science at the summit of the secular world. And when he answered the unusual question, he did so without hesitation, without hedging, and with the same fluency and authority he might exhibit when comforting a patient about an upcoming operation.

    "Well, they will know what happened," Alexander said, and a hint of sadness swirled in his own eyes for a moment. "But they will not feel the pain." His voice was southern and smooth, soft and warm. The shots of the studio and of the satellite feed faded away, and a heartbreaking tableau faded in, a grid of photographs.

    Fourteen children, each just six or seven years old, each smiling, each now, the viewer knew, dead. Alexander's voice, soothing, heartfelt, poured on. "They will feel the love and cherishing of their being back there. And they will know that they have changed this world."

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  12. Now the views of the studio and of Dr. Alexander faded back in, and the host to the left of Carlson, Brian Kilmeade, a compact and gruff guy with a sheaf of papers stacked on the table in front of him like a prosecuting attorney, asked a question. It was another unusual question and perhaps that's why Kilmeade prefaced it with a reiteration of what made their guest uniquely qualified to answer it.

    "So Dr. Alexander," he said, "your book, your book—and you're a neurosurgeon, you never believed in this until it happened to you, and you were brain-dead for a week, and your friends who work in your business say that there's no way you could have possibly come back, there was no activity there. Where is the shooter?"

    Alexander nodded along as the man posed the question and again answered without pausing. "The shooter is in a place of reviewing his own life," he said while the camera showed Gretchen Carlson wiping the tears from her eyes. "It's a very real phenomenon, of reliving all of the events of one's life and reliving the pain and suffering that we've handed out to others. But from their point of view."

    This is a story about points of view.

    He meets me at the door of his home and invites me in. He and his wife purchased the house in 2006, and it sits on a half acre of land in Lynchburg, Virginia, near a hospital where he used to work. Its exterior is red brick, and there are eleven windows along the front, each with white trim and black shutters, making the house look sort of Jeffersonian, sort of Monticelloesque, though it's actually only forty-nine years old, which makes it ten years younger than Alexander himself. He's wearing jeans and a button-down shirt and a sweater vest, and he leads me through a wood-paneled study to the kitchen, where he asks if I'd like a cup of coffee. While the coffee brews, he explains how caffeine works. "It kind of affects the second transmitter system, part of the fight-or-flight mode.

    UNC yearbook, 1976. And it gets you more into kind of an active state. It bypasses some of the primary transmitters there, kind of activates the whole system, so it revs you up. It works very effectively. So, you do not take sugar?" Once the coffee's ready, we return to the study.

    The room is homey and filled with family pictures and some paintings by friends of his wife, Holley, who's an artist and art teacher.

    Alexander met her in college when she was dating his roommate, and now they have two sons. She comes into the study and sets a plate of cookies and apple slices down on a coffee table for us to pick at.

    "I'm starting to get a little more practice with these interviews," Alexander says. "It might not show, but I should be learning from it all. It's been quite a journey."

    We talk for hours. We talk about his past life and his present one, and about the strange voyage that divided the two. We talk about some of the stories he tells in Proof of Heaven, which has sold nearly two million copies and remains near the top of the New York Times best-seller list nearly a year after its release. We also talk about some of the stories you won't find in the book, stories I've heard from current and former friends and colleagues, and stories I've pulled from court documents and medical-board complaints, stories that in some cases give an entirely new context to the stories in the book, and in other cases simply contradict them.

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  13. From one point of view, the point of view that Fox & Friends and Newsweek and Oprah and Dr. Oz and Larry King and all of his other gentle interrogators have helped perpetuate, Dr. Eben Alexander is a living miracle, literally heaven sent, a man capable of finally bridging the chasm between the world of spirituality and the world of science. From this point of view, he is, let's not mince words, a prophet, because after all, what else do you call a man who comes bearing fresh revelations from God? This point of view has been massively profitable for Dr. Eben Alexander, has spawned not just a book sold in thirty-five countries around the globe but a whole cascade of ancillary products, including a forthcoming major motion picture from Universal.

    But there is another point of view. And from this point of view, Dr. Eben Alexander looks less like a messenger from heaven and more like a true son of America, a country where men have always found ways to escape the rubble of their old lives through audacious acts of reinvention.
    By the end of our interview, there's a note of unease in Alexander's voice. He pulls out his iPhone and puts on the voice recorder. He tells me he is concerned that some of the stories I've brought up could be taken the wrong way by readers.

    "People could definitely go way off the deep end about irrelevant stuff as opposed to focusing on what matters," he says.

    Before he was Eben, he was, briefly, Richard.

    His biological parents, young, unready, created him, named him, and then gave him away. The Alexander family of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, adopted him and gifted him with a new name, one with an illustrious pedigree. The first Eben Alexander, his great-grandfather, was the U. S. ambassador to Greece in the 1890s, helped create the modern Olympic Games, carried on an occasional correspondence with Mark Twain.

    His father, Eben Alexander Jr., a great neurosurgeon, was permanent president of his class at Harvard Medical School.

    Eben Alexander III attended Phillips Exeter Academy, where he read lots of science fiction, grew a shaggy mop of hair, learned how to pole-vault—he loved the feeling of propelling himself skyward with physics and muscle. While his high school classmates saved up for cars, he bought himself sailplane lessons.

    He went to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He studied chemistry.
    He contemplated astrophysics. He joined the Sport Parachute Club and spent his weekends flying to great heights in perfectly good Cessna 185's and jumping out of them. He felt drawn to medicine but worried that if he became a doctor, he'd never escape his father's shadow. He agonized.

    He graduated from UNC in 1975 and enrolled in Duke medical school. He was still worried about not living up to the standards set by his father. Even after he began his neurosurgery residency, he almost jumped ship, changed careers. He sent in a job application to NASA. He dreamt of flying on the space shuttle, of helping to build the International Space Station. But when he told his father, his father convinced him to withdraw the application. Wait till you've finished your residency, he told him. Then, if you're still interested in the whole NASA thing, by all means. By the time he'd finished his residency, the Challenger had exploded and the shuttle program was on hold. He chose not to reapply.

    His path seemed set.

    A headache. November 10, 2008.

    He has a headache. Not a bad one at first, but it gets steadily, rapidly worse. He tells Holley that he just needs to rest, that he'll be fine.

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  14. Escherichia coli bacteria have insinuated themselves into the lining of his central nervous system, the membranes that protect his brain and spinal cord, he writes in Proof of Heaven. It is unclear how they got there. Spontaneous cases of bacterial meningitis are rare but not unheard of, and the transmission vectors are the same as those of other common infectious diseases: tainted water supplies, poor hygiene, dirty cooking conditions.

    Regardless of where these particular E. coli came from, now that they're here, they proliferate. E. coli populations are incredibly fertile, and under ideal circumstances will grow exponentially, doubling in size every twenty minutes. Theoretically, given limitless food and zero resistance, a single 0.000000000000665-gram E. coli bacterium could in nineteen hours spawn a megacolony weighing as much as a man.

    But our bodies are not defenseless. Alexander's immune response kicks in immediately, deploying fleets of white blood cells to kill the invaders. His cerebrospinal fluid, the fluid that supports his brain in every sense, buoying it and nourishing it, becomes a terrifying battlefield. While the invaders consume his CSF's brain-sustaining sugars, the defensive onslaught of white blood cells causes the volume of fluid to swell, raising the pressure inside his skull.

    By the time the EMTs wheel him into the ER at Lynchburg General Hospital, his besieged brain, choked and starving, is severely dysfunctional. He is raving, thrashing, incoherent.

    Then he slips into a coma.

    His path seemed set.

    He finished his neurosurgical residency and, in 1988, was hired at one of the most prestigious hospitals in the country, Brigham and Women's, in Boston. While practicing there, he taught at his father's alma mater, Harvard Medical School. The prestige of these institutions gave him access to some of the most remarkable new medical technology in the world. He became an expert at something called stereotactic radiosurgery, a type of treatment that burned away the problems inside a patient's brain, cauterizing aneurysms, cooking tumors, without the skull even needing to be opened.

    He was on the rise. His father's shadow no longer seemed so long. And he was charming. Larger than life, that's how his residents viewed him. A charismatic barrel of energy, with an endearing habit of always wearing a bow tie.

    He would play rock music in the operating room: classics like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and the Doors, newer stuff like Massive Attack, Five for Fighting, Goo Goo Dolls. And no, he'd never quite gotten over his obsession with space, with flight. Sometimes, when he wasn't around, the residents would even crack that he would have made a better astronaut than a brain surgeon.

    They'd noticed that some of the attending surgeons could completely lose themselves in an operation, standing there for hours, peering into a tiny little hole and meticulously extracting bits of tumor. But Dr. Alexander wasn't like that. He'd come rushing into the OR, talking to the nurses and the residents and anyone else who'd listen, rambling about near-earth asteroids or dark matter or whatever other topic in astrophysics he'd been reading about in his spare time. It would take him a while to get down to business, to focus on the matter at hand.

    It wasn't that he wasn't smart. Four different former residents of Alexander's use the word brilliant to describe him.

    But he often just seemed to be somewhere else.

    He is somewhere else.

    Where, he doesn't know. He doesn't know, really, anything. Not where he is, not even who or what he is. He is pure awareness, pure present, no past, no future. Just this little speck of consciousness adrift in a vast and mysterious place. It is an unpleasant place, brown and rank and suffocating, but he doesn't even know enough to define a term as advanced as "unpleasant."

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  15. And then he sees the light.

    A bright light, swirling above him, accompanied by the most beautiful music. He is rising up toward it. Up through it. The unpleasant place is gone, somewhere below him, and now he is in a place that even if he had the power of vocabulary, of words, he would find almost indescribably beautiful. It is a green and verdant place. A green, idyllic place filled but not crowded with men and women in peasant garb.

    Here and there a dog cavorts among them. And he, he is flying! He is on the wing of a butterfly. Perhaps it is an enormous butterfly or perhaps he is really tiny, but size and scale don't really mean anything. There are other butterflies all around him, millions of them, perhaps an infinite number of them, colorful and iridescent, all flying in loose formation over this impossibly beautiful place.

    And he is not alone. Beside him on the butterfly, a beautiful girl!

    Like the green countryside, her beauty is so intense, so overpowering, that the word beauty itself seems insufficient. He becomes aware that she is speaking to him, saying something, though she doesn't even need to move her lips to speak.

    You are loved and cherished, she tells him.
    You have nothing to fear.

    There is nothing you can do wrong.

    He didn't do anything wrong.

    He destroyed the woman's acoustic neuroma, a benign brain tumor, burned it to oblivion with focused beams of radiation. That's what he set out to do, and that's what he did. And yes, there had been postoperative inflammation, and yes, the surgery had left the woman with permanent paralysis on the left side of her face, but remember we're talking about brain surgery here, not splinter removal. Bad things can happen that are completely out of your control.

    The woman's lawsuit, however, didn't accuse him of doing something he shouldn't have done. It accused him instead of not doing something he should have done. Specifically, it accused him of not informing the woman that permanent facial paralysis might result from the operation.

    And so, because exactly what he had told her prior to the operation was at the heart of the case, that's what the lawyers asked her about during the deposition a few years later. She was an elderly woman from Arizona. She had initially consulted with Dr. Alexander by telephone after seeing an episode of a PBS television program called Scientific American Frontiers that was narrated by Alan Alda and had highlighted Dr. Alexander and his remarkable stereotactic radiosurgery operations.

    While in heaven, Alexander rode a butterfly with a beautiful girl. He realized later that she was the biological sister he'd never met.She sent him her medical records, scheduled a time for the operation, and then flew with her husband and her son to Boston.

    Patient: I was in a wheelchair, and we went down to this room and waited. At 8:30, approximately four or five men came into the room, and they didn't say not one word to me. They just came over and started sticking me with a needle for anesthesia. And then they started screwing this thing in my head. And I was bleeding and I was scared and I was shaking. I went into shock, and nobody said one word....

    Lawyer: What happened next?

    A: Then they put that bell on my—they tried to, and it was—they had to get a different one, because the one they had went clear down on my shoulder. I have a very short neck and they—maybe they had it with them. I don't know. I don't remember that. All I remember is the excruciating pain when they started screwing that into my head. I had four screws, two in the back and two in the front.

    Q: Okay.

    A: And I suppose it was an aide came in, and she knew that I was in shock, evidently, because she got a blanket and wrapped it around me, and she kind of held me. I was still in the wheelchair....

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  16. Q: During that whole time, none of these four or five men said anything to you, is that right?

    A: Yes. When they started putting the novocaine or whatever it was in my head, I said, "Is one of you Dr. Alexander?" and this voice in back of me said, "Yes, I am." And I said, "Please come around so I can see you. I would like to see what you look like." And so he did. And we might have shaken hands. I don't remember that. And then he went back to doing whatever they were doing, screwing this thing into my head.

    But none of this, again, is an indication of wrongdoing. A cold or distracted bedside manner is not criminal. The question was whether he had ever warned her about the possible complications. When the woman's lawyer asked to see the two-page informed-consent form that laid out the risks, Alexander could find only the first page, the page without the woman's signature. And that page, as the lawyer noted, had "multiple punch holes and fray marks, indicating that it had been filed in [the patient's] chart, extracted from the file, and later refiled." Further, he said, additional documents also had gone missing, including a letter that the patient's primary neurosurgeon had sent to Alexander, notifying him of her postoperative facial paralysis. The woman's attorney argued that "it is reasonable to infer that this pattern of disappearance of probative evidence was not coincidental, but was in fact deliberate." The attorney was arguing, in other words, that when Alexander found things that didn't fit the story he wanted to tell, he changed them, or made them disappear altogether.
    Alexander settled.

    He soars on the butterfly's wing for who knows how long.

    Time is different. Space, time, self, everything: different. Above the butterflies, sentient orbs of light float. Angels? Who knows.
    But eventually he rises, even higher. Or deeper. Further.

    He enters a new realm, one of infinite depth and infinite blackness. And at the center of it all, a light. Bright, pulsating, warm, loving, wise. The embodiment, the definition, the source of all of those things and everything else.

    The all-knowing and all-loving creator at the center of all existence.

    He approaches God. God approaches him. God is everywhere. Above. Below. Beside. Inside.
    He and God are One.

    And although he still doesn't know who he is or where he is, though he still has no concept of language itself, of present, of past, none of that matters.

    He knows. He knows...everything.

    He knows the unknowable, the great mysteries, the answers to the ultimate whys and wheres and whats.

    Why are we here? Where did we come from? What do we do now?

    He knows it all.

    And then he falls away. Down through the valley of swirling butterflies. Back into the ageless muck where his journey began.

    So he settled that suit.

    But these things happen. You're trying to fix people who would otherwise be hopelessly broken, and sometimes you don't succeed, or things just go a little awry. And too often there are lawyers waiting in the wings.

    It didn't really affect him. He was still teaching at Harvard, still practicing at the Brigham. He was still on the rise. There were some tensions at work, though. He and the man he worked for, Dr. Peter Black, the Brigham's chair of neurosurgery, weren't getting along. Why that is depends on whom you ask. Alexander thinks it's because Black had assigned him to head up the hospital's stereotactic-radiosurgery program, and initially that technology was used only to treat aneurysms. The technology had developed quickly, though, and soon Alexander was using it on tumors, too.

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  17. He'd also begun using the hospital's new intraoperative MRI machine to do tumor work. Problem was, Black was known worldwide as the tumor guy. For instance, when Ringo Starr's daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor, her doctors sent her across the Atlantic, because only Black would do. Alexander thought Black was maybe worried that Alexander was encroaching on his turf, and this was straining their relationship. Black, for his part, has no comment.

    But all in all, more than a decade into his career at the Brigham, things were looking great. He coauthored a lot of journal articles and two academic textbooks, one about stereotactic radiosurgery and the other focusing on the intraoperative MRI machine. And then, in 2000, he served as the inspiration for a best-selling novel.

    His friend wrote it. The Patient, by Michael Palmer. A medical thriller, the kind travelers snatch up in airports and devour on airplanes. A French terrorist dying from a brain tumor takes a prestigious Boston hospital hostage in order to force the staff to save his life. Initially, the terrorist wants the operation performed by the chief of the neurosurgery department, Carl Gilbride, but Gilbride soon reveals himself to be a venal and incompetent blowhard whose "true forte was self-promotion." The real star of the neurosurgery department, the terrorist deduces, is a young firebrand named Jessie Copeland, who is everything a patient could hope for: brilliant, selfless, compassionate, fiercely devoted to her charges, and a wizard with a scalpel. When the terrorist chooses Copeland to perform his operation, it rankles Gilbride so much that he begins trying to thwart and sabotage her at every turn.


    Palmer had learned everything he could about neurosurgery from Alexander and channeled it into the book, into Copeland. Alexander had even passed along to Palmer the idea for ARTIE, the robotic assistant that could crawl straight up someone's nose and into their brain and, when combined with an intraoperative MRI machine, resect even the most stubbornly embedded tumors.

    When folks at the Brigham read The Patient, it took them about a half second to realize that Copeland was a stand-in for Eben Alexander (albeit under the diaphanous disguise of a sex change). And it didn't take much longer than that for them to realize that the vile, venal chief of neurosurgery, the fictional Carl Gilbride, was supposed to be the Brigham's real-life chair of neurosurgery, Eben Alexander's boss, Peter Black. As one former resident of Alexander's puts it, the "animosity and dynamic is eerily identical." Alexander, he says, "poured all his frustration in there through Palmer," though he cautions the resulting portraits of Alexander and Black are "open to interpretation and tinted with jealousy."

    In the fictional world of the book, Carl Gilbride gets what's coming to him. He is pistol-whipped and roundly humiliated, and by the end is so entirely emasculated and subservient to Copeland that he seeks praise from her "like a four-year-old announcing he had picked up all his toys."

    In the real world, things turned out differently.

    On April 13, 2001, almost exactly a year after the publication of The Patient, Dr. Eben Alexander's employment as a surgeon at the Brigham was terminated. Rumors flooded the hospital hallways and break areas—a problem with a patient? simply too much ego in one place?—but none were ever substantiated. The administrators, as is their bureaucratic wont, stayed silent. Only one fact was indisputable: Dr. Eben Alexander III was moving on.

    He falls and rises and falls and rises.

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  18. Back in the muck and murk of the realm below the verdant place, below God, he eventually, after seconds or hours or days or years or millennia, discovers that he is in control. That he can ascend again. All he needs to do is summon the melody, the one that accompanied the initial portal, and then he'll float up and through it and be back on the butterfly again, with the beautiful girl, ready for another encounter with God. He repeats the pattern, falling down, rising up, countless times.

    But eventually the melody stops working.

    Eventually the melody no longer summons the glowing gateway. It doesn't bother him, really. Even there, in the writhing brown and grime, he knows that he is loved, eternally, that he can do nothing wrong, that nothing truly bad can ever happen to him.

    Secure in this knowledge, and in all his other newfound wisdom as well, he slowly becomes aware of another realm. Faces emerge from the murk and present themselves to him, and although he doesn't recognize them, although he doesn't know who they are, he senses their concern for him. Their love. They come from where he comes from.
    He begins to wake up.

    It's time to go back.

    It was time to go back, to head back home to the South. New England hadn't quite worked out.

    After the Brigham, he'd taken a job at the UMass Memorial Medical Center, in Worcester, thirty-five miles west of Boston. He'd run its deep-brain-stimulation program, implanting electrodes into patients, helping alleviate their Parkinsonian tremors by means of corrective shocks. But there had been more lawsuits—in one case, a bit of plastic was left behind in a woman's neck—and there had been another boss he didn't get along with.

    In August 2003, UMass Memorial suspended Alexander's surgical privileges "on the basis or allegation of improper performance of surgery."
    (The specifics of the case leading to the suspension are confidential, though Alexander claims it resulted from "a very complex repeat operation I did around the brain stem of a patient in which the patient had more difficulty recovering after the operation I would say than I anticipated and than I led them to believe.")

    His suspension technically ended in November of that same year, but he never went back to work at UMass Memorial. He resigned. The following year he did a little freelance consulting for the Gerson Lehrman Group, a company that matches corporations with experts in various fields, and also filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Brigham and Women's Hospital, claiming it improperly withheld more than $400,000 of his retirement and deferred-compensation plans. He had been more or less out of work for fifteen months when, in March 2005, he received a letter from the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine asking him to respond to a complaint form they'd received from a former patient who was upset that Alexander had stopped responding to phone calls. Alexander wrote a letter back, explaining that the complaint was invalid because he was no longer practicing and that, furthermore, he would soon be leaving the state altogether.

    "I wanted to stay in Massachusetts, but [the UMass chair of surgery's] campaign against me has made that impossible," he wrote. He added that he was a very good neurosurgeon, and that "Massachusetts would be most fortunate to have the benefit of my skills as a physician and surgeon over the next fifteen years, but they won't have it, because I am leaving this state for a more hospitable and welcoming environment. It will be nice to be appreciated for all that I have to offer."

    The board ultimately took no disciplinary action. Still, one year later, he moved his family back south, into a big redbrick colonial house in Lynchburg, Virginia, not far from where he grew up, and Lynchburg General Hospital hired him as a staff neurosurgeon. He got back to work.

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  19. When he comes back, when he opens his eyes, when the new-old realm with all its fresh-familiar sensations comes washing over him, he is at first very confused. For the better part of the next week, he experiences what is known as ICU psychosis. He hallucinates. Some of the hallucinations are very strange. At one point he believes he is running through a cancer clinic in south Florida, being pursued by his wife, a pair of policemen, and two Asian ninja photographers. His vocabulary is incomplete.

    Parts of his brain are still dysfunctional.
    But slowly his brain comes back online. Reality imposes itself. He becomes aware of who the people around him are. His family, his friends. He becomes aware of exactly where he is. He remembers this place.

    The sorts of operations Alexander performed at Lynchburg General Hospital were old-fashioned, as far as neurosurgery goes. But that doesn't mean they were unimportant.

    For example, on March 1, 2007, a fifty-four-year-old tobacco farmer from a small town outside of Lynchburg visited Dr. Alexander, complaining of pain in his neck and trapezius and upper arm. Alexander conducted a physical examination and inspected some MRI imagery and told the patient that he recommended a spinal decompression surgery that would involve fusing his fifth and sixth vertebrae. The patient agreed to the surgery, and several months later, on June 27, 2007, Alexander performed it.

    He did something wrong. Instead of fusing the farmer's fifth and sixth vertebrae, he fused his fourth and fifth. He did not realize his mistake at first. When he dictated the operative report, he recorded that the "MRI scan showed significant disk bulge and disk osteophyte complex compression at C5-6 mainly the left side," and then described an operation on those vertebrae, instead of the vertebrae he had actually operated on.

    On July 12, he had his first follow-up appointment with the farmer. He reviewed the postoperative X-rays. He noticed his mistake. He didn't tell his patient. Instead, after his patient went home, he pulled the operative report up on his computer and edited it. Now the report read that the MRI scan had showed disk bulge at both C4-5 and C5-6, and that "we had discussed possible C5-6 as well as C4-5 decompression, finally deciding on C4-5 decompression." Then he simply found every subsequent reference in the report to C5-6 and changed it to C4-5.

    After he finished editing the report, it read as though he hadn't done anything wrong at all.
    During a third follow-up meeting, in October, Alexander finally confessed, and told the patient that if he wanted another operation he could have it for free. It is unclear exactly when Lynchburg General Hospital learned of Alexander's mistake, but by the end of October he no longer had surgical privileges at the hospital.

    On August 6, 2008, the patient filed a $3 million lawsuit against Alexander, accusing him of negligence, battery, spoliation, and fraud. The purported cover-up, the changes Alexander had made to the surgical report, was a major aspect of the suit. Once again, a lawyer was accusing Alexander of altering the historical record when the historical record didn't fit the story he wanted to tell.

    By the time the lawsuit was filed, Alexander had found another job, with a nonprofit called the Focused Ultrasound Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia, an hour-and-a-half drive from Lynchburg. His new job did not involve the practice of neurosurgery. His boss, the neurosurgeon Dr. Neal Kassell, who was also a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Virginia medical school, had known Alexander for many years. He had high respect for Alexander's intelligence—like Alexander's former residents, he described Alexander as brilliant. He had less esteem for Alexander's surgical abilities.

    "Neurosurgery requires the ability to intensely concentrate on one thing for a long period of time," he says. "And that's not Eben's MO."

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  20. The tobacco farmer's lawsuit was still in its preliminary stages, hanging over Alexander's head like a $3 million hammer, when the E. coli started their terrible multiplication.

    He goes home from the hospital just before Thanksgiving.

    He is sixteen pounds lighter and still foggy, but getting stronger and sharper every day. He had been scheduled to give a deposition in the case of the tobacco farmer in December, but the court allows it to be pushed back. He keeps himself busy. He writes thank-you postcards to some of the medical staff that took care of him.

    He takes notes about his memories of his strange comatose journey, the murky place and the butterflies and the countryside and the dazzling epiphanic light at the center of it all. He imagines there is probably a neurological explanation for what he experienced. Eventually he starts going back to work at the Focused Ultrasound Foundation.

    On March 18, 2009, Alexander gives his deposition in the tobacco-farmer case. He testifies that when he learned of his error, he "felt like [he'd] been hit by a truck," but that he refrained from telling the patient because he was intrigued by postoperative improvements he claims the patient had made despite the botched operation.

    "I thought that I would end up telling him about it," he says, "and I think my overwhelming curiosity about why he had gotten better—I wanted to see if his symptoms came back quickly because people sometimes will have a placebo effect to surgery."

    Soon after his deposition, Alexander's lawyers urge him to settle, and he does. They also urge him to settle another case, stemming from an operation he performed only two weeks after the farmer's, when he again operated on the wrong vertebra of a patient. He settles that case, too. The Virginia Board of Medicine allows him to keep his license, but levies a modest fine and orders him to take continuing education classes in ethics and professionalism. By the time all his pending cases are resolved, Alexander will have settled five malpractice cases in the last ten years. Only one other Virginia-licensed neurosurgeon has settled as many cases in that time period, and none have settled more.

    But really, in the wake of his coma, his perspective on his legal troubles has shifted. He's just lucky to be alive. The mere fact of it, the mere fact that his brain survived that vicious bacterial assault, well...some might even call it a miracle. He starts reading a lot about near-death experiences, books like Life After Death, by Dinesh D'Souza; Embraced by the Light, by Betty J. Eadie; and Evidence of the Afterlife,by Jeffrey Long. These books all argue that experiences such as the one he had were not hallucinatory quirks of a brain under siege. They were real. One morning, maybe four months after his coma, he's in his bedroom reading one of these books, called On Life After Death, by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. He comes to a story about a little girl who has a near-death experience during which she meets a deceased brother she had never known.

    Alexander, who had recently received a photo of a deceased daughter of his birth parents, a sister he had never known, puts the book down and lets his eyes wander to the photo. And then, suddenly, he recognizes her.

    The girl on the butterfly wing.

    He can't sleep.

    For days and weeks and months in a row, he wakes at two in the morning and can't fall back asleep, so he goes to the den long before he needs to start his long commute to work, and he writes and reads and thinks.

    He knows he has a story to tell, but the question is how to tell it.

    He eventually decides to start with the story of his first near-death experience.

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  21. It's a story from his skydiving days back in college. He logged more than three hundred jumps during his college career, and most of them were thrilling but otherwise uneventful. On one autumn day in 1975, however, something went wrong. On that particular day, he was the last of a group of six jumpers to exit the airplane. The group had intended to form a six-man star formation, but one flew in too fast and knocked the formation apart before Alexander could come in to complete it. After recovering their bearings, the briefly discombobulated jumpers tracked away from one another, preparing to deploy their chutes. Alexander did the same, rocketing off to stake out his own untrammeled patch of sky. He was about to pull his rip cord when he noticed with a start that a jumper named Chuck had tracked to a spot directly below him. He describes the moment:

    He must not see me. The thought barely had time to go through my head before Chuck's colorful pilot chute blossomed out of his backpack. His pilot chute caught the 120-mph breeze coming around him and shot straight toward me, pulling his main parachute in its sleeve right behind it.

    From the instant I saw Chuck's pilot chute emerge, I had a fraction of a second to react. For it would take less than a second to tumble through his deploying main parachute, and—quite likely—right into Chuck himself. At that speed, if I hit his arm or his leg I would take it right off, dealing myself a fatal blow in the process. If I hit him directly, both our bodies would essentially explode.

    Instead, Alexander managed to react in the most perfect way possible to the scenario, instantaneously and without conscious effort angling his body so that it rocketed away from Chuck, avoiding disaster by microseconds. At the time, he marveled at what he believed must have been his brain's untapped capacity for preternaturally quick thinking. Now he interprets this incident differently.
    This book is about the events that changed my mind on the matter. They convinced me that, as marvelous a mechanism as the brain is, it was not my brain that saved my life that day at all.

    What sprang into action the second Chuck's chute started to open was another, much deeper part of me. A part that could move so fast because it was not stuck in time at all, the way the brain and body are.

    He has his beginning.

    There was a man named Chuck in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Sport Parachute Club. He won't return phone calls. But his sister-in-law does.

    She's read Proof of Heaven. She immediately thought to herself that the Chuck in the book must have been her brother-in-law. She sends Chuck a few e-mails. Finally he responds. He remembers Alexander. He says he doesn't remember anything like the incident Alexander describes.
    Alexander can understand the confusion.

    "It's not Chuck," he says today. "I probably should have put a disclaimer in the front of the book saying that Chuck is not Chuck. It is actually somebody not named Chuck. Because I cannot give the name of the person it was.

    Because the attorneys at Simon & Schuster would be mad at me. Because potentially they did something wrong. Potentially they were liable for causing trouble, etc., etc. So I am under very strict advice from the Simon & Schuster attorneys not to divulge who that was."

    But if the man who'd opened the chute below him had done something wrong, it was something wrong that hadn't caused any personal injury. There wouldn't have been any legal liability there, right?

    "Right," he says. "Well, that was my argument, but these attorneys, it was kind of surprising to me, that was one of the few things they focused on. They said, 'Do not, under any circumstances, divulge who that was!' "

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  22. So he had changed the character's name to Chuck, which happened to be the real name of someone he did skydive with?

    "It's not Chuck," he repeats. "It's not Chuck."
    Is he still in touch with Chuck?


    And fake Chuck?

    "No, I don't know what happened to fake Chuck."

    Is there anyone else who was part of the jump that day who might be able to verify his story?

    "You know, there's not. Because I can't tell you exactly which day it was. And my logbook—those pages in my logbook I don't have right now."

    The book progresses. He starts to hone his argument and to shape its presentation.

    He is, he writes, "a practicing neurosurgeon" and is familiar with "the most advanced concepts in brain science and consciousness studies." His "decades of research and hands-on work in the operating room" put him "in a better-than-average position to judge not only the reality but also the implications of what happened to me."

    He introduces his central thesis.

    "During my coma," he writes, "my brain wasn't working improperly—it wasn't working at all." This is the key. His brain wasn't working, and yet he had these vivid memories of voyaging through these other realms: the murky dark, the butterflies, the vast darkness, and the luminous, all-knowing creator. How could he have memories from a time when his brain wasn't working at all? From a time when, as he writes, "my mind, my spirit—whatever you may choose to call the central, human part of me—was gone."

    The answer is simple and logical. It is also, he writes, "of stunning importance. Not just to me, but to all of us."

    Alexander writes, "The place I went was real, real in a way that makes the life we're living here and now completely dreamlike by comparison."

    As he nears the end of his tale, every part of his story seems to be connected to every other part in mysterious ways. For instance, his coma began on Monday, November 10, and by Saturday, "it had been raining for five days straight, ever since the afternoon of my entrance into the ICU." Then, on Sunday, after six days of torrents, just before he woke up, the rain stopped:

    To the east, the sun was shooting its rays through a chink in the cloud cover, lighting up the lovely ancient mountains to the west and the layer of cloud above as well, giving the gray clouds a golden tinge.

    Then, looking toward the distant peaks, opposite to where the mid-November sun was starting its ascent, there it was.

    A perfect rainbow.

    It was as though heaven itself was cheering Alexander's return.

    Dave Wert, meteorologist in charge at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office that encompasses Lynchburg, reviews the weather records for the week of November 10 through 16. "There was nothing on the tenth," he says. "Nothing on the eleventh...two hundredths of an inch on the twelfth." The next three days, he says, were rainy and miserable. Then the storm appeared to break on the evening of the fifteenth. The sixteenth was another clear day.
    Could there have been a rainbow on the morning of the sixteenth?

    "No," he says.

    Unlike weather records, Alexander's medical records are all confidential. Alexander does not plan to make them public, though he did offer to allow three of the doctors who treated him to speak about his case. Two of them declined the opportunity. The other, Dr. Laura Potter, was on duty in the ER of Lynchburg General Hospital on the morning of November 10, 2008, when the EMTs brought him in.

    Both Alexander in his book and Potter in her recollections describe Alexander arriving in the ER groaning and flailing and raving and having to be physically restrained. In Proof of Heaven, Alexander describes Dr. Potter then administering him "sedatives" to calm him down.

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  23. Here's how Dr. Potter remembers it:

    "We couldn't work with Eben at all, we couldn't get vital signs, he just was not able to comply.

    So I had to make the decision to just place him in a chemically induced coma. Really for his own safety, until we could treat him. And so I did.... I put him to sleep, if you will, and put him on life support."

    After Alexander was taken from the ER to the ICU, Potter says, the doctors there administered anesthetics that kept him in the coma. The next day, she went to visit him.

    "And of course he was still in an induced coma," she says. "On ventilator support. They tried to let him wake up and see what he would do, but he was in exactly the same agitated state. Even if they tried to ease up, a little bit even, on the sedation. In fact, for days, every time they would try to wean his sedation—just thrashing, trying to scream, and grabbing at his tube."

    In Proof of Heaven, Alexander writes that he spent seven days in "a coma caused by a rare case of E. coli bacterial meningitis." There is no indication in the book that it was Laura Potter, and not bacterial meningitis, that induced his coma, or that the physicians in the ICU maintained his coma in the days that followed through the use of anesthetics.

    Alexander also writes that during his week in the ICU he was present "in body alone," that the bacterial assault had left him with an "all-but-destroyed brain." He notes that by conventional scientific understanding, "if you don't have a working brain, you can't be conscious," and a key point of his argument for the reality of the realms he claims to have visited is that his memories could not have been hallucinations, since he didn't possess a brain capable of creating even a hallucinatory conscious experience.

    I ask Potter whether the manic, agitated state that Alexander exhibited whenever they weaned him off his anesthetics during his first days of coma would meet her definition of conscious.

    "Yes," she says. "Conscious but delirious."

    Potter hasn't read Proof of Heaven, although she did get an advance look at a few passages. About a year after his recovery, Alexander approached Potter at a track meet that both of their sons were competing in and told her that he'd started writing a book, and that he wanted her to take a look at some parts in which he described her thought processes in the emergency room. He wanted, he said, to "make sure that you're okay with what I've done." He later e-mailed the passages to her, and when she read them, she found that they were "sort of what a doctor would think, but not exactly what was going through my head." She told him so, and according to Potter he responded that it was a matter of "artistic license," and that aspects of his book were "dramatized, so it may not be exactly how it went, but it's supposed to be interesting for readers."

    One of the book's most dramatic scenes takes place just before she sends him from the ER to the ICU:

    In the final moments before leaving the emergency room, and after two straight hours of guttural animal wails and groaning, I became quiet. Then, out of nowhere, I shouted three words. They were crystal clear, and heard by all the doctors and nurses present, as well as by Holley, who stood a few paces away, just on the other side of the curtain.

    "God, help me!"

    Everyone rushed over to the stretcher. By the time they got to me, I was completely unresponsive.

    Potter has no recollection of this incident, or of that shouted plea. What she does remember is that she had intubated Alexander more than an hour prior to his departure from the emergency room, snaking a plastic tube down his throat, through his vocal cords, and into his trachea.

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  24. Could she imagine her intubated patient being able to speak at all, let alone in a crystal-clear way?

    "No," she says.

    He finds an agent, and the agent shops his book proposal around, and soon Simon & Schuster offers him a book deal. They put it on the fast track for publishing, want to get it out that same year. A writer named Ptolemy Tompkins, who has written other books about near-death experiences, is brought in to help chop down the manuscript by more than half. Alexander meets in New York with the publishers and his editor, but once the deal is struck, the gears of the publishing world grind on even when he's back down south.

    The title of the book, according to Alexander, is generated during a meeting he doesn't attend, a meeting between executives at Simon & Schuster and, according to him, executives at various ABC television programs, including Good Morning America, 20/20, and Nightline. During the meeting, the Simon & Schuster executives, who are trying to line up coverage for the book, are making their pitch—this renowned neurosurgeon visits the afterlife, comes back with wondrous stories to tell—and toward the end of the meeting an ABC executive asks if the Simon & Schuster execs can summarize what makes the book important.

    "It's proof of heaven!" someone blurts.

    In his study, toward the end of our conversation, Alexander distances himself from the title.

    "When they first came to me with that title I didn't like it at all," he says. "Because I knew from my journey that it was very clear to me that no human brain or mind, no kind of scientific philosophical entity will ever be able to know enough to say yes or no to the existence of that realm or deity, because it's so far beyond our human understanding."

    It is, he says, "laughable" and "the highest form of folly, of hubris" to think that anyone could ever "prove" heaven. "I knew," he says, "that proof in a scientific sense was ridiculous. I mean, no one could have that."

    We talk five weeks later by Skype. He's in a hotel in Vancouver, at the beginning of a one-and-a-half-week stint of speaking engagements and book signings. He looks relaxed, serene, wearing another button-down shirt, smiling into the Internet. He's excited to be on the road, he says, eager to spread his message of hope. He hasn't had surgical privileges since October 2007, but he still views himself as a healer.

    I remind him of what he said about his book's title during our previous meeting, and ask whether there were any parts of the book's contents he would concede are similarly hyperbolic. He says no, there are not. And he now says that not even the title is, strictly speaking, inaccurate. It just doesn't go far enough. "This is so much more than a proof of heaven," he says. "Proof of heaven is kind of a minuscule little claim compared to what is really there."

    We talk about rainstorms and intubations and chemically induced comas, and I can see it in his face, the moment he knows for sure that the story I've been working on is not the one he wanted me to tell.

    "What I'm worried about," he says, "is that you're going to be so busy trying to smash out these little tiny fires that you're going to miss the big point of the book."

    I ask whether an account of his professional struggles should have been included in a book that rests its authority on his professional credentials.

    He says no, because medical boards in various states investigated the malpractice allegations and concluded he could retain his license. And besides, that's all in the past. "The fact of the matter," he says of the suits, "is they don't matter at all to me.... You cannot imagine how minuscule they appear in comparison to what I saw, where I went, and the message that I bring back."

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  25. His survival is a miracle, he says. His doctors told him that he is alive when he should be dead, and he believes intensely that he is alive for a reason, to spread the word about the love awaiting us all in heaven. To heal.

    By focusing on the inconsistencies in his story, on recollections that don't seem to add up, on a court-documented history of revising facts, on the distinctions between natural and medically induced comas, he says, is to miss the forest for the trees. That's all misleading stuff, irrelevant to his journey and story.

    Toward the end, there's a note of pleading in his voice.

    "I just think that you're doing a grave disservice to your readers to lead them down a pathway of thinking that any of that is, is relevant. And I just, I really ask, as a friend, don't..."

    The walls are light blue at the bottom and darker blue toward the top, like the May sky. There are flowers everywhere, purple and pink and white, sprouting from pots and floating in clear glass bowls. On a bright orange altar at the rear of the room, multiple swatches of cloth, yellow and red and green, hang from a life-sized golden statue of Buddha. The Dalai Lama reclines in a cushioned throne in front of the altar, under the Buddha. He's wearing a red robe with a yellow shoulder band that loops around and drapes over one of his arms, leaving the other arm, which is as smooth and hairless as a child's, exposed. Alexander is wearing a robe, too, but it's a standard black convocation robe. He's sitting a few feet to the left of the Dalai Lama, in a smaller chair. Both are here to speak at the graduation ceremony of Maitripa College, a Buddhist college in Portland, Oregon.

    Alexander is slated to speak first, and when he begins, the Dalai Lama cocks his head in a quizzical way and peers at him through his thick glasses.

    Alexander tells his story like he's told it so many times before, in his soft, southern, confident burr. He tells the audience about the wondrous realm he visited, about the all-powerful and all-loving God he encountered there, and about some of the lessons he's brought back to earth. He says that among those lessons is the fact that reincarnation is real, and that knowing death is only ever temporary has helped him understand how a loving God can permit so many "tragedies and hardships and hurdles in the physical realm." As he did a few months ago, when Gretchen Carlson asked him whether the dead schoolchildren from Newtown remembered their slaughter, he offers comfort and hope. "I came to see all of those hardships as gifts," he says, "as beautiful opportunities for growth."

    The Dalai Lama is not a native English speaker, and when it's his turn to speak, he does so much less smoothly than Alexander, sometimes stopping and snapping his fingers when a word escapes him, or turning to his interpreter for help when he's really stuck. He is not using notes, and the impression he gives is that of a man speaking off the cuff. He opens with a brief discourse about the parallels between the Buddhist and Shinto conceptions of the afterlife, and then, after glancing over at Alexander, changes the subject. He explains that Buddhists categorize phenomena in three ways.

    The first category are "evident phenomena," which can be observed and measured empirically and directly. The second category are "hidden phenomena," such as gravity, phenomena that can't be seen or touched but can be inferred to exist on the basis of the first category of phenomena. The third category, he says, are "extremely hidden phenomena," which cannot be measured at all, directly or indirectly. The only access we can ever have to that third category of phenomena is through our own first-person experience, or through the first-person testimony of others.

    "Now, for example," the Dalai Lama says, "his sort of experience."

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  26. He points at Alexander.

    "For him, it's something reality. Real. But those people who never sort of experienced that, still, his mind is a little bit sort of..." He taps his fingers against the side of his head. "Different!" he says, and laughs a belly laugh, his robes shaking. The audience laughs with him. Alexander smiles a tight smile.

    "For that also, we must investigate," the Dalai Lama says. "Through investigation we must get sure that person is truly reliable." He wags a finger in Alexander's direction. When a man makes extraordinary claims, a "thorough investigation" is required, to ensure "that person reliable, never telling lie," and has "no reason to lie."

    Then he changes the subject, starts talking about a massive project to translate ancient Tibetan texts.

    Alexander listens quietly, occasionally fidgeting with the program in his hands. He's a long way from home, and even further from the man he once was. It's been a dizzying journey, but his path forward seems set. He's told people that God granted him so much knowledge, so much wisdom, so many secrets, that he will have to spend his entire life unpacking it all, doling it out bit by bit. He's already working on the follow-up to Proof of Heaven. In the meantime, anyone can pay sixty dollars to access his webinar guided-meditation series, "Discover Your Own Proof of Heaven," and he's been consulting with a pair of experts in "archaeoacoustics" to re-create some of the music that he heard while on his journey. You can even pay to join him on a "healing journey" through Greece.

    In his past life, Alexander went through some hard times, but those hard times are far behind him now.

    He is in a better place.

    Luke Dittrich has been a contributing editor at Esquire since 2008. His work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Best American Crime Writing, The Best American Travel Writing, and The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and his article about a group of strangers who sheltered together during a devastating tornado won the 2012 National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. He is currently writing a book for Random House about his neurosurgeon grandfather's most famous patient, Henry Molaison, an amnesiac from whom medical science learned most of what it knows about how memory works.


  27. Near-death experiences are electrical surge in dying brain

    By Rebecca Morelle Science reporter, BBC World Service August 12, 2013

    A surge of electrical activity in the brain could be responsible for the vivid experiences described by near-death survivors, scientists report.

    A study carried out on dying rats found high levels of brainwaves at the point of the animals' demise.

    US researchers said that in humans this could give rise to a heightened state of consciousness.

    The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    The lead author of the study, Dr Jimo Borjigin, of the University of Michigan, said: "A lot of people thought that the brain after clinical death was inactive or hypoactive, with less activity than the waking state, and we show that is definitely not the case.

    "If anything, it is much more active during the dying process than even the waking state."


    From bright white lights to out-of-body sensations and feelings of life flashing before their eyes, the experiences reported by people who have come close to death but survived are common the world over.

    However, studying this in humans is a challenge, and these visions are little understood.

    To find out more, scientists at the University of Michigan monitored nine rats as they were dying.

    In the 30-second period after the animal's hearts stopped beating, they measured a sharp increase in high-frequency brainwaves called gamma oscillations.

    These pulses are one of the neuronal features that are thought to underpin consciousness in humans, especially when they help to "link" information from different parts of the brain.

    In the rats, these electrical pulses were found at even higher levels just after the cardiac arrest than when animals were awake and well.

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  28. Dr Borjigin said it was feasible that the same thing would happen in the human brain, and that an elevated level of brain activity and consciousness could give rise to near-death visions.

    "This can give us a framework to begin to explain these. The fact they see light perhaps indicates the visual cortex in the brain is highly activated - and we have evidence to suggest this might be the case, because we have seen increased gamma in area of the brain that is right on top of the visual cortex," she said.

    "We have seen increased coupling between the lower-frequency waves and the gamma that has been shown to be a feature of visual awareness and visual sensation."

    However, she said that to confirm the findings a study would have to be carried out on humans who have experienced clinical death and have been revived.

    Commenting on the research, Dr Jason Braithwaite, of the University of Birmingham, said the phenomenon appeared to be the brain's "last hurrah".

    "This is a very neat demonstration of an idea that's been around for a long time: that under certain unfamiliar and confusing circumstances - like near-death - the brain becomes overstimulated and hyperexcited," he said.

    "Like 'fire raging through the brain', activity can surge through brain areas involved in conscious experience, furnishing all resultant perceptions with realer-than-real feelings and emotions."

    But he added: "One limitation is that we do not know when, in time, the near-death experience really occurs. Perhaps it was before patients had anaesthesia, or at some safe point during an operation long before cardiac arrest.

    "However, for those instances where experiences may occur around the time of cardiac arrest - or beyond it - these new findings provide further meat to the bones of the idea that the brain drives these fascinating and striking experiences"

    Dr Chris Chambers, of Cardiff University, said: "This is an interesting and well-conducted piece of research. We know precious little about brain activity during death, let alone conscious brain activity. These findings open the door to further studies in humans.

    "[But] we should be extremely cautious before drawing any conclusions about human near-death experiences: it is one thing to measure brain activity in rats during cardiac arrest, and quite another to relate that to human experience."


  29. Boy Says He Didnt Go To Heaven; Publisher Says It Will Pull Book

    National Public Radio, JANUARY 15, 2015

    Nearly five years after it hit best-seller lists, a book that purported to be a 6-year-old boy's story of visiting angels and heaven after being injured in a bad car crash is being pulled from shelves. The young man at the center of The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, Alex Malarkey, said this week that the story was all made up.

    The book's publisher, Tyndale House, had promoted it as "a supernatural encounter that will give you new insights on Heaven, angels, and hearing the voice of God."

    But Thursday, Tyndale House confirmed to NPR that it is taking "the book and all ancillary products out of print."

    The decision to pull the book comes after Alex Malarkey wrote an open letter to retailer LifeWay and others who sell Christian books and religious materials. It was published this week on the Pulpit and Pen website.

    "I did not die. I did not go to Heaven," Alex wrote. He continued, "I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible."

    He concluded, "Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough."

    Here are a few key background details of the story: Alex Malarkey was paralyzed at the age of 6 when he was in a car wreck. He then spent two months in a coma. He's now a teenager. The book lists him as a co-author along with his father, Kevin Malarkey.

    Calling the book a "spiritual memoir," The Washington Post notes that it "became part of a popular genre of 'heavenly tourism,' which has been controversial among orthodox Christians."

    Alex's parents are now divorced; he and his siblings live with his mother, Beth Malarkey, who has previously spoken out against the book featuring her son. She has also said that profits from the book haven't been going to Alex. Another book about a boy who said he had gone to heaven, Heaven Is For Real, has been turned into a movie.

    Last spring, Beth Malarkey wrote a blog post stating, "Alex's name and identity are being used against his wishes (I have spoken before and posted about it that Alex has tried to publicly speak out against the book), on something that he is opposed to and knows to be in error according to the Bible."

    She added, "I am fully aware of what it feels like to be pulled in. There are many who are scamming and using the Word of God to do it. They are good, especially if you are not digging into your Bible and truly studying it. They study their audience and even read 'success' books to try to build better and bigger ... 'ministries/businesses.' "


  30. The boy who didn't come back from heaven: inside a bestseller's 'deception'

    Alex Malarkey co-wrote a bestselling book about a near-death experience – and then last week admitted he made it up. So why wasn’t anyone listening to a quadriplegic boy and a mother who simply wanted the truth to be heard?

    by Michelle Dean The Guardian January 21, 2015

    When he wrote a blogpost in 2012, complaining about the explosively popular genre of books about near-death experiences, the evangelical writer and editor Phil Johnson did not know what he was getting into. He was voicing a concern common in the evangelical community about what he called the “Burpo-Malarkey doctrine”. Johnson believed that Colton Burpo, whose story was told in the hugely popular Heaven is for Real, and Alex Malarkey, who had co-written The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, drew false pictures of heaven in their books.

    “No true evangelical ought to be tempted to give such tales any credence whatsoever, no matter how popular they become,” Johnson wrote.

    In Bellefontaine, Ohio, Alex Malarkey’s mother, Beth, was reading. Beth and Alex had left a trail telling the truth all over the internet, even as The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven kept selling. But nobody else was listening to her or her son any more, so she called Johnson almost immediately.

    “You’re right, this whole story is fabricated,” Johnson recalled Beth Malarkey telling him. “[But] because the book was a bestseller, no one in the evangelical publishing industry wanted to kill it.”

    Johnson would spend the next two years trying to help Beth get out that message – that Alex’s story wasn’t real, that a child who had almost died in a car accident in 2004 had been pushed to expand upon a fairytale he’d told when he was six.

    Following the accident, Alex spent two months in a coma and woke up paralysed. But his description of what happened in between offered a compelling tale of life after death, including visions of angels and meeting Jesus. The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, published in 2010 with Alex and his father Kevin listed as co-authors, eventually became a bestseller – one billed as a description of “miracles, angels, and life beyond this world”.

    But last week, following persistent rumours, Alex, now 16, revealed that the detail in the book was false. “I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention,” he wrote on his own blog.

    “I did not die. I did not go to heaven. When I made the claims, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough,” Alex wrote.

    Jokes playing on his surname have been made far and wide, but Alex Malarkey is not James Frey for the evangelical set. He was not, and still is not, an adult. He is dependent on the care of others. Contesting this book would mean discrediting his own father as his co-author. It would also pit Alex against an evangelical publishing industry that has made huge profits off too-good-to-be-true memoirs that demand readers take them, quite literally, on faith.

    At a time when publishing is under pressure from Amazon and e-books, near-death experience books are reliable, even phenomenon-level business: the story of Burpo – which includes visions of Jesus on a horse and his miscarried baby sister during an emergency appendectomy – has reportedly sold more than 10m books, and The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven moved over 1m copies before its publisher pulled the book from shelves on Friday.

    continued below

  31. The publisher Tyndale House said in a statement it was “saddened to learn” that its co-author “is now saying that he made up the story of dying and going to heaven.” Since the scandal broke, the Malarkeys have not spoken publicly. According to family members, Kevin Malarkey seems to be standing by the book. The agent who sold Alex’s story to Tyndale House – who reassured them by telling them how the book money could help, his mother wrote on her blog – has also remained silent.

    But a closer look at family correspondence and social media postings in the years in between reveals how a push for sales can obscure the truth when it’s easier not to listen. Since at least 2011, Alex and Beth Malarkey have been telling people, on her blog, that the memoir had substantial inaccuracies. Emails obtained by the Guardian from Phil Johnson make clear they have been telling the publisher directly since at least 2012.

    When pressed to acknowledge the prior correspondence, Tyndale House admitted in a statement that: “For the past couple of years we have known that Beth Malarkey … was unhappy with the book, and believed it contained inaccuracies.”

    “It is because of this new information that we are taking the book out of print,” the publisher clarified in a follow-up statement on Tuesday. “At no time did the co-authors communicate to Tyndale that the core story of the book – Alex’s self-described supernatural experience – was untrue.”

    But Beth Malarkey’s complaints are all over the internet. You can find her comments cascading on the religious blogosphere, and on her Facebook wall. Usually she leaves them on pieces critical of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven. She was adamant that the book misrepresented Alex’s involvement. And theirs is not the only near-death story that has raised skeptical eyebrows – even among evangelicals.

    “Alex Malarkey not only has to deal with a devastating injury, but now has to disentangle himself from this far-reaching deception,” John MacArthur, an evangelical pastor who has long criticized Christian publishers, wrote in an email. “All these supposed trips to heaven are hoaxes, and they prey on people in the most vulnerable way, because they treat death in a superficial, deceptive fashion.”

    The making of a bestseller: the father, the money and the agent

    A book deal wasn’t anyone’s first thought after a car accident left Alex paralyzed below the neck in November 2004. In fact, he spent the first two months after the accident in a coma. His parents were churchgoers, and the community rallied around them. In a 2009 article in their local paper, Beth Malarkey said the family had the support of more than 40 local pastors while they kept a vigil at the hospital.

    “The consistent message we heard was: ‘Your son will be healed,’” she was quoted as saying. “We believed that hope was there; with God there is no impossibility.”

    That is the environment in which Alex woke up: high on emotion, high on faith-based messages. As described in the now-discredited book, his stories about heaven recite certain familiar elements of religious myth. For example, Alex said he saw angels that were “big and muscular”, with “wings on their backs from their waists to their shoulders”. He also said he saw the devil, beheld white tunnels of light, had an out-of-body experience, and spoke to Jesus.

    At first, his parents seem to have been dubious. They mentioned the stories in posts to a now-defunct site they’d set up to document Alex’s recovery. But no one, then, seems to have thought Alex’s stories were worthy of a book.

    continued below

  32. For five years the Malarkeys were not looking for a wider audience. “I felt no urge, really, to share the story,” Kevin Malarkey actually told the Coast to Coast AM radio show in 2011. “I think, for one, we were busy with our own lives. I mean, my wife – she doesn’t like when I say it – kind of became a full-time nurse at that point.”

    But then, in January 2009, Alex attracted media attention when he became the youngest person ever to have a “diaphragm pacing system” installed. Christopher Reeve, who played Superman, famously had one, after his injury in a horse-riding accident. Alex’s was installed by the same surgeon.

    On her blog, Beth Malarkey that her husband was seduced by the press there and then. Kevin has openly said that an Associated Press reporter covering the surgery told him to write the book. “I kid you not,” Kevin said in that 2011 radio interview. “My response was: ‘About what?’”

    Within four months, Kevin Malarkey had brought an agent named Matt Jacobson to the house to meet his son. Beth wrote on her blog that she was against the idea of any meeting, because she felt Alex was too ill. (The health of a quadriplegic can be very delicate, and Alex was in and out of the hospital with various ailments throughout 2010 and 2011.) Beth was overruled. And she also has bad memories of the encounter:

    I remember the man talking to Alex and to me, but not by myself. He never really asked me what I thought, but instead told me what monies could possibly be made from not only doing a book, but a series of books and possibly a movie. He reassured me how much that money could help with Alex’s needs. What stuck out was money!

    Jacobson, the agent, did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article. In the book’s acknowledgements, Kevin Malarkey writes: “Thank you, Matt Jacobson, for – what haven’t you done? – praying, writing, editing, and serving us as our agent and, most importantly, as our friend.”

    ‘From Alex’: a deal, a video shoot and a contract

    Kevin Malarkey got his book deal by late 2009. The publisher would be Tyndale House, a major Christian publishing company with annual revenues of about $175m. Tyndale publishes a popular version of the Bible (the New Living Translation, with some 26m sold) and the Left Behind series (about 63m copies). And like every Christian publisher, Tyndale was aware of the public appetite for been-to-heaven-and-back stories. Popular accounts of near-death experiences have been commercial bestsellers since at least 1975, as Robert Gottlieb pointed out in a recent article for the New York Review of Books.

    But Beth Malarkey recounts on her blog that Tyndale House employees came to the Bellefontaine home for visits and interviewed Alex repeatedly as the book was prepared. Promotional spots were filmed inside the Malarkey home.

    At that time, Alex was still repeating the stories he had told about his spiritual experiences. But Beth writes that it was obvious to her that the focus of the Tyndale House employees’ questions made Alex uncomfortable. They kept asking about heaven and angels, and he was growing unhappy about having to talk about them.

    Even a Tyndale House executive seemed to acknowledge this, in an April 2012 email to Beth about the film crew obtained by the Guardian: “I wasn’t there, but was told by my colleagues that Alex didn’t want to be interviewed on video. I wasn’t aware that Alex didn’t want anything in the book about heaven and angels.”

    Beth adds that when consulted on the cover and title of the book, Alex was strongly against the ones that were eventually chosen. The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven was nonetheless published – with Alex’s name on the cover – in July 2010. Some parts of the book are presented so as to suggest that they are in Alex’s voice. They are titled “from Alex”.

  33. But all parties seem to agree that Alex did not write them, and he never signed a contract with Tyndale and on the copyright register. While Alex is listed as a co-author of the book, Kevin Malarkey is listed as the only claimant of the copyright. On the form, Alex’s father indicated he had acquired his sole copyright “by written agreement”.

    The copyright, as it turns out, was lucrative. The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven spent much of 2011 on the New York Times bestseller list. Kevin Malarkey built a speaking career on it, traveling and giving interviews – alone. He could not be reached for comment for this article.

    ‘Giving Alex a voice’: emails, inaccuracies and the meeting that never happened

    The dam began to break in August 2011. Early that month, Alex logged on to Facebook and went on to the fan page for the book. (He can access the internet himself, with a computer he controls with his mouth.) There, he left a cryptic comment under his own name: “1 of the most deceptive books ever.”

    Fans began to reply angrily, questioning whether this could possibly be the real Alex. Whoever controlled the fan page deleted the comment.

    Beth Malarkey later posted a copy of the Facebook comment thread to her blog. From there on out, she began to write – on evangelical blogs and in private emails to the publisher, obtained by the Guardian – about how her “child is being exploited and that is truth”.

    Tyndale House maintains that it only learned of Alex’s retraction recently. But as early as April 2012, Beth was in touch with the publisher, complaining of what she called the book’s inaccuracies. Her emails are long and complicated, quoting passages from the book and then explaining what is wrong with them.

    “I know it is not all that I know to be ‘off’ but it is at least some,” she writes in the first such email, dated 22 April 2012. Almost all of the inaccuracies, she say, relate back to a single theme: that this is not Alex’s story, but Kevin’s, and that it is inaccurate. (Kevin and Beth Malarkey are still legally married, but do not speak to each other, and have not for some time.)

    Jan Long Harris, a publisher with Tyndale House, was Beth Malarkey’s primary correspondent. She offered to correct inaccuracies in consultation with Kevin, “since our contract is with him”. According to the emails newly obtained by the Guardian, Harris acknowledged that Beth had presented larger issued with the book, writing: “I realize that your concern about what you feel are inaccuracies is not the only issue you have with the book, but it is the issue that could be most easily addressed.”

    Beth replied: “Revisions are not what will restore what has been stolen from my son, who continues to suffer.” She asked if Tyndale House could break its contract with Kevin Malarkey.

    Harris, evidently exasperated, replied:

    Even if we could make a case for breaking our contract, the book could (and probably would) be back in print with another publisher within a few weeks. So I don’t think that would achieve your goal.

    Also, I’m sure you can understand that we can’t break a contract with an author just because someone else – even if the someone else is the author’s spouse – makes accusations about him. We have to give the author, in this case Kevin, a chance to respond.

    As far as giving Alex a voice, we would be glad to talk with Alex and hear what he has to say about the book. I offer again to come to your home to talk with you, Kevin and Alex, for the purpose of giving all three of you a voice. I know you are concerned that there might be repercussions after such a meeting, but would they be worse than the current situation? At the very least, I think a phone call with you and Kevin is essential.

    When the Guardian contacted Tyndale House for comment about the email correspondence, the publisher wrote back with a more detailed statement:

  34. “On more than one occasion we asked for a meeting with Kevin, Beth, Alex and their agent to discuss and correct any inaccuracies,” the publisher said, “but Beth would not agree to such a meeting.”

    In its Tuesday statement to the Guardian, Tyndale House clarified:

    “After originally agreeing to a meeting, Mrs Malarkey sent us an email on May 22 2012, saying that out of concern for her son she no longer wished to meet. When we learned of Alex’s recent public statement, we responded by taking the book out of print.”

    According to Phil Johnson, who keeps in regular touch with Beth and provided her emails with Tyndale House to the Guardian, the reason Beth did not agree to a meeting was that the situation seemed adversarial to her.

    “The thread that runs through all their correspondence with Beth is that they wanted to corner her before they would be willing to investigate her concerns,” he wrote to the Guardian. “They kept pressing her to agree to a meeting where she and Alex would have to face Kevin and a phalanx of editors who were determined to press ahead with the project, no matter what objections Alex and she might have.”

    Beth Malarkey simply kept complaining on the internet. Tyndale House kept publishing a book with a quadriplegic boy’s name on the cover, even though it knew he had substantial objections to the book. And for years, nothing changed. Until Alex posted that open letter.

    ‘I still remember’: the anger of the duped and the persistence of believers

    On Friday, as the headlines and Malarkey puns were still flying, Johnson spoke to Beth Malarkey on the phone, gauging her mood. (She has declined all press interview requests, citing childcare obligations.) Her feelings, he told the Guardian, are mixed.

    “She’s glad on one level that the truth is finally out there,” he said. “I also think she’s scared, a little bit cautious about what is yet to come. She doesn’t have any source of income. Her life is not easy.”

    There will be consequences for the Malarkeys. They cannot continue as they have. The evangelical publishers once so eager to pick up her son’s story are bound to stay away now. This disgusts people like MacArthur, the pastor and critic of the niche publishers, who commented: “The word exploitation is very appropriate. The children are exploited. The Christian public is exploited. The buyers are exploited.”

    And any other way for the Malarkeys to make money seems to be foreclosed. The second book Kevin Malarkey published with Matt Jacobson, entitled A Beautiful Defeat: Find True Freedom and Purpose in Total Surrender to God, did not sell quite as well. It lacked the emotional pull of the near-death hook. Already, it has garnered one angry anonymous Amazon review: “So basically the same guy who lied about the accounts in his first book, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven (notice he doesn’t even mention the title in the About the Author – strange, huh?) has written another one,” the reviewer writes. “He shouldn’t be allowed to author any more books unless it’s about telling the truth and apologizing to the public for the first dupe.”

    If such anger seems out of proportion, the anger of the duped often is. There is something profoundly enraging about having a story you truly believe, as many truly believe such near-death narratives, exposed as false. Colton Burpo, the subject of Heaven Is For Real, seems desperate himself to avoid the blowback. Since Alex Malarkey’s letter broke, Burpo’s been making the rounds of television shows proclaiming that he still believes he saw heaven. “I still remember my experience my heaven,” he insisted to Christian outlets.

    Phil Johnson explains the continuing faith in these stories by reference to scripture: “The Bible says people like fables.”

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