Sonali Deraniyagala

Review of “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife” by Eben Alexander, M.D.

Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey Into the AfterlifeWhile 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.

Works Cited

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.

Review of “Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala [Audio]

WaveI don’t know what compelled me to download this book to read it.  I remember how shocking it was to learn about Sri Lanka and many of the other islands devastated by a tsunami caused by the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake on 26 December, 2004.  I remember the shock and awe from watching  the news that Christmas holiday, as footage revealed beach-front homes being washed away in a matter of minutes.  One video that I remember was taken from the vantage point of a two-story building in the center of some town, where survivors of the rapidly advancing flood waters took cover in elevated places, watching and filming the street below as it channeled this massive and forceful current of muddy, oceanic water — cars and felled trees floating through the street with the slightest of resistance.  The vehement water took no notice to obstacles, destroying virtually everything in its path.  Those people caught in the aftermath, who weren’t drowned or killed by the suddenness of the tsunami, were displaced from their homes, traumatized by the experience of the Indian ocean assaulting the beachfront like an angry god, a conqueror, laying claim to the island for itself.

I think this is what intrigued me, lured me even, to Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir of those events.  I remember watching in disbelief as that force of nature devastated most of the coastal regions throughout that part of the Indian ocean and Indonesia.   Knowing this, and finding this book available at the library for download only set my curiosity in motion.  I had to read this book.  I wanted to know about this survivor, about what she endured, what she went through.  Reading the plot synopsis could have never prepared me for the vivid imagery of her experiences there in that beachfront hotel as the tsunami struck.  Nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming account she tells of the ocean yanking her free of the jeep she rode to escape in with her family.  No — nothing could have warned me of the deep and awful pain of her loss, as she realizes that both of her parents, her two sons, and her husband — all of whom she was on vacation with for the holidays — would be lost to her forever.  This book, this memoir, has revealed something to me that no Gothic story could ever do:  ghosts do exist. They haunt through the memories of those who have suffered terrible and tragic loss from sudden and traumatic experiences.

I can understand why this heart-wrenching book was disliked by some readers, as this book is not for the faint of heart.  It is emotionally draining to think about her loss, and I feel this has a lot to do with the way the book has been seen by some readers.  To date, the social media website, Goodreads, reveals that this book was rated with 3-stars or less by 26 percent of readers within its community, from a pool totaling 4,917 people.  When singling out a few of those negative reviews, one reader saw it difficult to relate to the author, in saying that, “Wave is compelling, and extremely well written, but is just page after page of pain” (Greg).   Another reader confessed that “it’s hard to make a negative comment about this book without coming across as hard hearted…but I found it really hard to empathise with the author as she came across as cold, selfish and spoilt [sic]… I would hope that most people wouldn’t be as callous as she” (Avidreader).  Another commenter agreed with this reader, stating how, “I kept wondering throughout this admittedly well-written memoir how the thousands of others who lost families with less means made it through their grief…. I really liked and enjoyed the writing, but didn’t have much sympathy for the author because of this” (Lisa).  Some even go so far as to attribute Deraniyagala’s lack of empathy for those around her in the earlier parts of her memoir, when she was clearly in shock from her experiences, as a sign of her stature and wealthy status, what with her being a learned economics scholar from Cambridge and Oxford universities.  While I cannot attest to how this book will affect you, good reader, should you decide to pick it up and read it for yourself, I can say that the brutal honesty Deraniyagala writes in this book is not to appeal to you, as readers, in some way, but it is more for herself.   This memoir is about healing; it is about coming to terms with grief and living with those ghosts that haunt her.

Compound the loss of her entire family to that fateful Sunday morning with the traumatic experience of facing near death, herself, and you find this book is about expressing that which she cannot bring herself to express.  Throughout much of the memoir, she is reluctant to tell anyone of her experience, of her loss, for fear of letting too much reveal itself.  She doesn’t want to recall those painful memories, doesn’t want people to get too close to her, to pity her.  As Deraniyagala writes, “I am in the unthinkable situation that people cannot bear to contemplate.”  And she is right.  How can anyone imagine such a surreal tragedy?  How could anyone possibly endure such  terrible loss and still remain a sane person?  How can we as readers relate to her experience and say we truly understand her situation?  Unless you have personally suffered too, there is no way to do this.  If you read this book, you are merely along for the ride.  This is her struggle with grief and the trauma of her survival when all others failed to do so; you might even add a dash of survivor’s guilt because of this, as a few points in the book tend to reveal.

The imagery she weaves all throughout the memoir is haunting; the memories of her boys, of her husband, resonate all throughout the book, intermingling with her attempts to reminisce the life she once had.  Yet, she can never return to those moments before the tsunami.  As one critic for the New Yorker wrote: “‘Wave’ is really two stories in one.  The second story is about remembering the life of a family when they were happy.  The first is about the stunned horror of a woman who lost, in one moment, her past, present, and future” (Cole).  We get both experiences running parallel throughout the story as Deraniyagala asks herself questions like “Was I their mother?”  She tells us about other moments — intensely, emotionally rich moments, where she reveals insights into her previous life and what it was like to return to it:

I’ve pushed away thoughts of my children’s everyday hurts and fears, suggestions of their frailty and tenderness.  It’s easier to remember my boys with humor or to recall their cheek.  But now as I dare to peer more closely at them, they emerge more whole.

For years I’ve told myself it’s pointless to cherish my children’s personalities and their passions, for they are now dead.  But here in our home I am surrounded by proof of it all.  I unlock my mind a little and allow myself to know the wonder of them.

Deraniyagala repeatedly confides in her memorial to her family such revealing moments, where she seeks to come to terms with herself and the past she once had with her family.  The details she includes, ranging from the mud still on the doormat that would have been from her husband’s boots to the sounds of distant laughter resonating throughout a room, sounds from a time before the wave changed everything, seems to suggest what Cathy Caruth reveal as the enigmatic and confounding nature of trauma, in that we have not only confronted death, but we “hav[e] survived, precisely, without knowing it” (original emphasis, 64). Flashbacks from moments in the past return to haunt a survivor, often repeatedly, making it incomprehensible, she argues, to understand one’s own survival.  Linking this to Freud’s theory on the life and death drive, Caruth tells us that it is not the incomprehensibility of survival that creates an imposition for death, but a traumatic ‘awakening’ to life (64).  As a survivor, realizing one’s near-death experiences often leaves a person with little to no preparations for such moments, and the impact of this, the “failing to return to the moment of a [person’s] act of living” changes the future for that individual.  For Deraniyagala, her grief for the loss of family is what keeps her from moving on; it is the source of her personal trauma.  Her memories frequently haunt her, and the fact that she wrote this book nearly 9 years after-the-fact is a sign that she is still coming to terms with her loss but is nevertheless learning to live again.

There are moments in her writing where Deraniyagala tells us about shying away from or  utterly avoiding people who inquire about her family.  Only her closest friends know about her situation, and through them, she sees her boys grow older, the daughters of her London friends, an example of this.  She dreads their birthdays because the pain of knowing they’re no longer alive is too tormenting, always referring to each in the tense “would be.”  Whenever she is placed on the spot and someone asks about her family or her parents, she attempts to get out of answering their questions, a point she motions in the book as having caused a “pickle” when seeing the person a second time around.  “How are your parents?”  She would be asked, to which her response was “they’re fine,” always afraid to go into anymore detail than this.  But, this changes by the end of the book.  She confesses that it may have been the mojitos that loosened her up to reveal what she does, but she confides in a stranger, an inquisitive old Jewish man, asking about her family life, and this moment, much like the writing of this very book, is what reveals to us that she has found peace within herself and can move on with her life.  She tells us that it is becoming easier for her to live with the memories of her two boys and her husband, and that there is life beyond suffering.  One only has to endure to learn it.

I will be thinking about this woman’s story for a long time to come.  The use of the personal pronoun I not only makes it Deraniyagala’s story, but it makes it my own, and I cannot help but mourn the loss of her family with her, while celebrating the time I have now with my own.

Works Cited

Avidreader. Community Reviews [Comment]. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala.” Goodreads.  Goodreads, Inc., 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1996. Print.

Cole, Teju. “A Better Quality of Agony.”  The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Deraniyagala, Sonali. Wave. New York: A.A Knopf, division of Random House, Inc., 2013. Digital Media Library. Audiobook. 17 Mar. 2014.

Lisa. Community Reviews [Comment]. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala.” Goodreads.  Goodreads, Inc., 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.