Last October, I took Newsweek to task for its cover story "Heaven is Real," which purported to be a work of journalism. This was an excerpt from a book called Proof of Heaven, which, I predicted, would sell an enormous number of copies and make a lot of money for its author, a neurosurgeon named Eben Alexander, and for Simon & Schuster, which shamelessly bought and promoted the thing. Less than a year after its publication, it has sold nearly two million copies.
I gathered that fact from a fascinating story in the August Esquire by Luke Dittrich, in which Dittrich comes as close as one could, without access to Alexander's private thoughts, to showing that the book was a cynical effort to provide a new career -- as a prophet! -- for a neurosurgeon whose career was being consumed by malpractice suits. He was, Esquire's editors write in the deck, "a neurosurgeon with a troubled history and a man in need of reinvention."
Dittrich begins with an appearance by Alexander on a Fox & Friendsin which he is asked about the fate of the children killed in Newtown, Connecticut. A host asks him, with lip trembling, whether the children will forget what happened to them when they are in heaven. This is an appeal to Alexander's expertise because, of course, he's been there. His response, as Dittrich records it: "Well, they will know what happened. But they will not feel the pain." And what about the shooter, Fox and Friends asked him. "The shooter is in a place of reviewing his own life. 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."
The matter-of-fact nature of this exchange, with adults treating him as an expert on heaven the same way they would treat a lawyer as an expert on evidence, is even more breathtaking than what Alexander wrote. He no longer must claim that he's been to heaven; Fox & Friends takes that for granted and moves on to mining his expertise. When, one wonders, will Alexander respond to a question like this by saying that he doesn't know the answer? Does he really know everything about heaven and its people on the basis of one brief visit? And while in a coma, to boot?
Dittrich reviews Alexander's career, showing that his quick rise as a neurosurgeon soon stalled. He lost a job at the prestigious, Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, where some colleagues told Dittrich that Alexander did not seem to have the concentration that was a key characteristic of successful neurosurgeons. He was sued by a woman who said he hadn't warned her that her facial paralysis was a possible consequence of surgery to destroy a brain tumor. He settled the case. Not long afterwards, he lost his job. Dittrich was not able to find out why.
Alexander moved to the UMass Medical Center in Worcester, where his surgical privileges were suspended. He then moved to Virginia, where he was sued again. Over a ten-year period, he settled five malpractice cases, Dittrich reports.
He then has the coma during which he claims he went to heaven. And then this:
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.
Dittrich does his best to verify the circumstances of Alexander's coma, and he does find inconsistencies. One doctor says Alexander could not have called out "God help me," as he says he did, because he had a tube down his throat at that time. A meteorologist says a rainbow that Alexander said he saw could not have been there that day.
Dittrich has done journalism, and science reporting, a huge service by looking dispassionately at Alexander's claims. Dittrich's story is behind a paywall but available as a single purchase for $1.99. I suggest you put your money down and read it.
This post originally appeared at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.