The Watch Hill (RI) Chapel’s wooden ceiling vaults heavenward in an arch with the words “The Church is Many–as the Waves–But One as the Sea” emblazoned in gold leaf. Dr. Eben Alexander, the epitome of preppy charm in a white linen jacket, sits in a chair on the altar sipping from a bottle of water as he is introduced. Striding to the pulpit, appropriately, he speaks articulately and with passion for nearly one and a half hours without one note. At times he gestures effectively with those surgeon’s hands. Never does he skip a beat as he, well, preaches about his book, Proof of Heaven, A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.
Alexander begins, in a faint Southern accent, by explaining that “who I was before” is important to know since he came from a scientific background, having graduated from the Duke Medical School and then having worked as an academic neurosurgeon at Harvard for many years. The man has done his medical research, authoring numerous academic papers and articles. He sees his life in terms of before and after “Coma.” He refers often to his sons and his adopted family, who have important roles during his “journey.”
Nearly five years ago, Alexander was stricken with a rare form of meningitis and fell into a coma for seven days. He explains how dire his situation became as each frightening day swept into another. He cites the statistics concerning how seriously ill he was. Check out my review of the book for The Elizabeth Taber Library in Marion, MA.
During these long seven days, as his family takes turns holding his hands, his consciousness, as opposed to his brain, rendered useless by the infection, travels into an Afterlife that sounds a lot like where other patients who have had a NDE, (Near Death Experience) have gone. There are three levels on Alexander’s journey:
- Realm of The Earth worm’s Eye View, or mucky first stage.
- The Gateway stage where he is guided by a beautiful angel on a butterfly’s wing.
- Lastly, the Core, the pinnacle or “Om” level, where he experiences a universal god whose message for all of us is “You are loved,” and “Love is the basis of everything.”
That’s the message, and it is a good one. Love is the answer, the eternal message, and it is where Dr. Alexander becomes the most animated and passionate. He is committed the way a convert becomes once he has found the Way. His voice becomes more persuasive and his body language more pronounced. Alexander’s personal charm and outstanding speaking abilities help the cause. By the time he hits the final Om stage, the audience, a well-educated and sophisticated group, is riveted. When he concludes the talk with, (spoiler alert), the incident when he recognizes his dead sister as the guiding angel in Gateway, he gets a standing ovation, which he accepts with a modest, nearly whispered series of ‘thanks you’s” and head bows.
There are detractors, namely the August 2013 issue of Esquire magazine. Here Luke Dittrich’s article, “The Prophet,” which you can read Online for $1.99 even if you are a subscriber, describes Dr. Alexander as a “man in need of reinvention.” (I find it quite irritating that Esquire tries to charge its own subscribers for a look at this article.) Other detractors, naturally, include professionals in the scientific and medical communities.
Because I attended this reading with a physicist and a neurologist, it is interesting to share their perspectives. The physicist was reminded of the 1960 film, “Elmer Gantry” in which Burt Lancaster plays an evangelistic con man. Our physicist especially noted “the spell he weaves” on his audience. The neurologist had problems with Alexander’s errors regarding neurology, (“He is primarily a surgeon.”), and with what she saw as his too slick, practiced performance.
Several close relatives of mine spent the better part of two days with the good doctor when he came to Watch Hill for the reading. They viewed him as modest, sincere, passionate, “the real deal.”
Those of you who have read the book and/or have gone to one of the talks are invited to comment here.
Photo Credit: I took this photo of the program for the Joyce S. Ahern Authors’ Series to benefit the Literacy Volunteers of Washington County, RI.