While I was in graduate school, my dissertation supervisor recommended that I read her book on trauma and psychoanalysis (no surprise there). It was a good recommendation for the direction my thesis was going, and I learned a lot about psychoanalysis from it. But, by the end of the book, I noticed something that immediately peeked my interest. In her final chapter, she wrote about her experiences as a victim of the London city bombings back in July of 2005 and the dissociation that came from it. She was traveling on one of the buses when a bomb planted by a suicide bomber detonated near her. She wrote a few months later in the closing chapter of her book about having survived the attack:
“I can talk about the bag, blown open, like the picture of the one on top of the bus, with smoke and white yellowy sick oozing out all over it. And yet, how to talk about such a near encounter with death, about you and me in the carriage? So near and yet, I was so far away. I climbed out of my body when the explosion happened and hovered somewhere above my head, looking on as the film unrolled. As I write, it is just over three months now and I am no nearer to working out what this has meant, or how I explain it, least of all what I think or feel about you” (Campbell 189).
The you in this narrative would appear to be the terrorist responsible for the bombings, and this is her way of dealing with her situation. This story reveals how she copes with the anger she feels toward her would-be attacker. She later goes on to write:
“I feel cemented to my seat alongside the crowd, bearing witness to your death drive as some kind of avant-garde, awe inspiring act. And so I reject that narrative; I don’t want you up there as some avenging angel. Who wants to live with that kind of fear or hate? Besides, I don’t want to write about, or be read into, being your victim” (189).
What immediately drew me to her story was how up-close-and-personal she was with death; and here was a woman whom I spoke with on a weekly basis for help with my dissertation. I felt empowered by her story, empowered by the fact that she lived to tell about it, so when I encounter stories like hers or Sonali Deraniyagala’s (I wrote about her memoir a while ago), I feel compelled to try to make the most of my own life because of them.
But it isn’t easy for people like Campbell or Deraniyagala to simply go on living. The trauma they experienced makes that difficult for them. The dissociation Campbell felt immediately after the bombing had a lasting impact on her body, both physically and psychologically. It will be a moment she will have to deal with for a very long time. Near-death experiences (NDE) like hers are not so uncommon, though. In fact, one could say they happen all the time. Films like Hereafter (2012), directed by Clint Eastwood, or Flatliners (1990), by Joel Schumacher, are good examples showing the ways mortality and NDEs captivate our imaginations.
A near-death experience, I imagine, is a very subjective thing when you stop to consider the circumstances involved with such an experience. Some people describe their moments with crystal-clear depictions for what happens to them, while others fail to find the words to describe theirs. A simple search online for the testimonies from people who’ve undergone NDEs will reveal one thing for certain: a lot of religious rhetoric about having “found God” or about having “spoken to Jesus” or possibly even about “Hell really existing” persists around this topic. Whether Campbell spoke with God during her out-of-body experience or if Deraniyagala saw Jesus Christ helping her out of the tsunami waters remains to be seen (they never disclosed this information in their narratives); however, no matter what way you look at such experiences, it is difficult to ascertain the universal truth to anything other than what may (or may not) be considered an overly emotional reaction to having cheated death. Unfortunately, the subjective nature of the stories that come from NDEs, in my opinion, aren’t adequate enough to prove, much less to validate the existence of a higher power, no matter what level of educational and professional experience a person on this planet may have.
Enter Eben Alexander, M.D. with his book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. I was intrigued by this title for one reason — a learned man of science experiences a near-death situation and writes a book about it. I assumed the book would hold some potential for an empirical inquiry into such a narrative, which the author moderately attempts to do, yet as most of these NDEs go, it falls short by making claims that are unsubstantiated with anything other than a feeling, however overwhelming it may be. Alexander goes through great efforts to describe different perspectives during his time in coma, using names for these unearthly realms like “Gateway,” “the Core,” or “the world of the Earthworm’s Eye-view.” It seems clear to me that this man struggled to find a concrete way to describe his situation, maybe even getting caught up in the rhetoric of a Christian dominated theme. After all, have the Christians not preached the fire and brimstone version of Hell and the splendor and magnificence of the pearly gates of Heaven for over six hundred some odd years now? It would be easy to jump on that bandwagon after coming out of a seven-day coma, especially if what happened was emotionally moving. No doubt, it was.
I must give some credit to this man’s story, though. While I personally do not buy into his visions of the afterlife, that does not mean that the tension created by his having contracted an extremely rare and severe case of E. Coli bacterial meningitis “out of thin air” (Alexander 24) is not compelling. On the contrary, his situation is a dire one, filled with dramatic moments that his family no doubt had to deal with. Being in coma is no laughing matter, and this story illustrates well the strain such situations cause a family to go through. But, like so many other critics of the book, I don’t believe his hypothesis on the afterlife, which is unarguably the sole reason he wrote the book. As one critic for Scientific American wrote, “The fact that mind and consciousness are not fully explained by natural forces… is not proof of the supernatural. In any case, there is a reason they are called near-death experiences: the people who have them are not actually dead” (Shermer). In the end, he is a neurosurgeon who went into coma due to a unique illness, experienced a NDE because of it, and seeks to lay claim to a universal truth that will undoubtedly be true only to him. Until I have my own NDE and experience similar things for myself, I remain the skeptic that I am.
Alexander, Eben. Proof of Heaven. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. Print.
Campbell, Jan. Psychoanalysis and the Time of Life. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Shermer, Michael. “Why a Near-Death Experience isn’t Proof of Heaven.” Scientific American. Scientific American, Inc., 19 Mar. 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.