Well, it turns out that my skepticism about Eben Alexander's so-called "proof of heaven" (title of the book he wrote) was well-founded.
An investigation by Esquire magazine found all kinds of problems with Alexander's tale, including his credibility. The resulting article, The Prophet, costs $1.99 to read if you're not an Esquire subscriber.
I paid up. After reading the well-written piece, I feel like I got my money's worth.
The four "don't believe him!" posts I've written about Alexander, here, here, here, and here, now are shown to have been valid, while Alexander's claims are either deusional or worse -- a con job aimed at making money from gullible people who want desperately for heaven to be real.
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.
Alexander wasn't a very good neurosurgeon. Quite a few malpractice lawsuits were filed against him. Here's one of them. We learn what a dishonest, deceptive guy Alexander is.
...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 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.
Because he is a neurosurgeon, Alexander was good at convincing people that his bout of bacterial meningitis left his brain completely non-functional. So his experiences of heaven must have been via some sort of non-bodily soulful state.
...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."
...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.
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.
...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."
Belatedly, Alexander seems to be backing away from his "heaven is really real" claims. Being found out will have that sort of effect.
...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."
The Dalai Lama is a skeptic also. Here's part of a description of a joint appearance with Alexander.
..."Now, for example," the Dalai Lama says, "his sort of experience."
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."
...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.
A richer place, given that his book is a best-seller. He's still in his morally dubious place, though. Which has paid off financially for Alexander.
Being caught in lies likely won't affect book sales much. For lots of people the urge to believe is stronger than the urge to pursue truth.