You must be living on another planet if you haven’t heard of neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s 2012 book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife, which recounts his goddy experience while in a coma after a bout of bacterial meningitis. It’s sold over two million copies, has been translated into dozens of languages, and has topped the New York Times bestseller list for over a year (here’s today’s listing):
This post will, I hope, show that Alexander’s book doesn’t belong in the “nonfiction” category.
Why is the book so popular? The answer is obvious: it gives people confidence that there really is a heaven. For during Alexander’s “coma,” he claims he visited that heaven: a place of angels, lost relatives, beautiful music, butterflies, and eternal happiness. And he is a neurosurgeon who argued that his “near death experience” (NDE) could not have been a dream or hallucination since his coma made his cortex nonfunctional; that is, his brain wasn’t working. His credentials thus give the book special cachet.
Perhaps this is old news, but Alexander’s claims have not only been seriously questioned in the past year (how, for example, does he know that his NDE didn’t occur during the period when his brain was rebooting while he was waking up?), but an article in the August Esquire by Luke Dittrich,”The Prophet,” suggests that Alexander has been duplicitous about his story, and in fact made much of it up.
The article is long (10,000 words) but is well worth reading as an example of investigative journalism at its best: it manages to shred Alexander’s story not in a vindictive way, but by simply quoting the facts. Here are some of those facts:
- Alexander was let go from at least two of his jobs as a neurosurgeon after repeated malpractice lawsuits. For example, Dittrich notes that “In August 2003, UMass Memorial suspended Alexander’s surgical privileges ‘on the basis or allegation of improper performance of surgery.’”
- In two of those lawsuits, Alexander appears to have altered or falsified medical records to cover his incompetence. He settled those suits, and still retains his medical license, but no longer practices as a doctor.
- Alexander appears to have made up the story that begins the book: how he managed to avoid a collision while parachute-jumping by some mechanism that was too quick to have been activated by his brain. This was, in effect, his first NDE: his first “proof of heaven.” As Alexander notes:
“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.”
Dittrich could find no record of this happening, and the only “Chuck” in Alexander’s parachute club denies that this happened. In response, Alexander says he changed “Chuck’s” name for legal reasons, though there are no legal reasons to change the name.
- Alexander appears to have falsified even the weather that occurred at the time of his coma. Dittrich notes:
“As he [Alexander] 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.”
But a meteorologist consulted by Dittrich asserts vehemently that there was no rain on the 10th or 11th of November, and there could have been no rainbow on the 16th, the day Alexander “woke up.”
- The coma that Alexander experienced was not caused by bacterial meningitis, but, according to Alexander’s doctors (whom he unwisely gave permission to talk!), was medically induced. That undermines his key claim that his brain was not working during his coma. Alexander does not mention this in his book. Here is a passage from Dittrich’s article:
“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.’”
- Finally, Alexander appears to have made up an important part in his tale, one in which he calls upon God for help before he goes under. As Dittrich reports:
“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 [Alexander's physician] 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. Could she imagine her intubated patient being able to speak at all, let alone in a crystal-clear way?
‘No,’ she says.”
In sum, the story looks like a sham, confected by a once-brilliant but now failed neurosurgeon who reclaims his time in the spotlight by pretending that he saw heaven. He may indeed have had such visions, but the story around them—about his parachute episode, the weather, his call to God, and the fact that his brain wasn’t working—are crucial to his story, and they don’t stand up to Dittrich’s examination.
When Dittrich confronted Alexander with what he found, and why the neurosurgeon omitted his professional mistakes and vagaries, Alexander waffles and then begs the journalist for mercy:
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.”
. . . 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…”
That’s pathetic. For one thing, never assume that a journalist is your “friend.” Their job is to tell a story, not to be your pal.
Now Dittrich’s piece was published last August, but I think it’s been behind a paywall until recently, and, even so, it’s important to highlight the inconsistencies of Alexander’s story, for people have been buying this book in droves as “proof of heaven.” (You can see other criticisms of Alexander’s tale on his Wikipedia page.) It is no such thing, for the “proof of heaven” depends critically not only on Alexander’s probity, which is not high, and especially on his contention that his brain was “shut down” when he had his NDE, for which there’s no proof at all.
But of course none of that matters. If the public were thinking critically and scientifically about his story, and were aware of its problems, the book would be just another fairy tale. But so eager are people to get confirmation of God and heaven that they’ll believe anything, no matter how dubious. Alexander may no longer be practicing as a doctor, but he’s raking it in on the lecture circuit, and his book has made him a millionaire.
Oh, and did I mention that it’s being made into a major motion picture? Do you suppose the producers might halt production given all the questions about Alexander’s story? Not a chance.