For much of this year, a book about near-death experiences has sat close to the top of the bestseller lists: Proof of Heaven, by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, which tells the story of his encounter with an afterlife realm while suffering from bacterial meningitis. It has sold, it is said, around 2 million copies. I have previously mentioned some quibbles I have with it, even moreso now that it has risen to become the ‘poster-boy’ for the NDE over the past year. But a new investigative article for Esquire by Luke Dittrich, titled “The Prophet” (*requires a small fee to read), has found much, much more to be concerned about, and is being covered by all the major news outlets: it states that Dr. Eben Alexander has had a number of malpractice suits against him over the years, alleges that he may have actively tried to modify the evidence in some of those, and that he also both fabricated parts of his book and did not mention other relevant details:
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.
I have mixed thoughts on the article. Firstly, I think there’s certainly a vibe that Dittrich tried his hardest to paint Alexander in a bad light. The malpractice stories are no doubt serious business, but in apparently ‘dredging’ these up Dittrich gives the feeling that Alexander had swept this unfortunate part of his career under the rug. But while he definitely didn’t explicitly point them out in his book, the adopted Alexander did make clear that he had issues that began around 1999, after he had slipped into depression after finding out that his biological sister had died a year before he set out to find her, and his biological parents were refusing his request for contact. He plainly states that an “ocean of sadness”, caused by the feeling of being “cut off from my source” had derailed him “both emotionally and professionally”, and that his job had suffered as a result (“My depression had ramifications in my work…it killed me that my career in academic neurosurgery was slumping…for much of the next seven years my career, and my family life, continued to suffer”). While it would be nice if all authors were plainly honest about the facts of their life, I am not exactly surprised that there were no precise details within the book’s pages about the complaints (and even if he did put it in the manuscript, I’m pretty sure his editor would have stripped that out for commercial reasons). Dittrich himself makes clear that Alexander is hardly a hack or a quack (“four different former residents of Alexander’s use the word brilliant to describe him”), so I find it unfortunate that a number of blog articles about Dittrich’s exposé have given this impression.< What is more troubling, especially when it comes to believing Alexander's account of his NDE, is the claim in the Esquire piece that in the wake of some of these complaints from patients, the neurosurgeon modified the evidence to suit his purposes:
The question was whether he had ever warned her about the possible complications. When the woman’s lawyer asked to see the two-page informed-consent form that laid out the risks, Alexander could find only the first page, the page without the woman’s signature. And that page, as the lawyer noted, had “multiple punch holes and fray marks, indicating that it had been filed in [the patient’s] chart, extracted from the file, and later refiled.” Further, he said, additional documents also had gone missing, including a letter that the patient’s primary neurosurgeon had sent to Alexander, notifying him of her postoperative facial paralysis. The woman’s attorney argued that “it is reasonable to infer that this pattern of disappearance of probative evidence was not coincidental, but was in fact deliberate.” The attorney was arguing, in other words, that when Alexander found things that didn’t fit the story he wanted to tell, he changed them, or made them disappear altogether.
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.
Dittrich notes that this ‘character trait’ has ramifications for one of the crucial pieces of ‘proof of heaven’ that Alexander includes in his book (and which I discussed in this earlier article) – his realization that the ‘girl on the butterfly wing’ during his NDE was actually his dead sister:
One morning, maybe four months after his coma, he’s in his bedroom reading one of these books, called On Life After Death, by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. He comes to a story about a little girl who has a near-death experience during which she meets a deceased brother she had never known.
Alexander, who had recently received a photo of a deceased daughter of his birth parents, a sister he had never known, puts the book down and lets his eyes wander to the photo. And then, suddenly, he recognizes her.
The girl on the butterfly wing.
Dittrich also disputes a number of the ‘facts’ recounted by Eben Alexander in Proof of Heaven, from the weather during his coma through to the claims about his coma. Most pertinent, given that much of the book revolves around the anomaly that he should not have been physically able to have his near-death experience due to being completely unconscious and with a non-functioning brain:
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 [ER doctor] 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.”
The claims made in Luke Dittrich’s Esquire article throw serious doubt on the importance of Eben Alexander’s NDE account to any scientific discussion on the topic. For his part though, Alexander has issued a short statement saying he stands by “every word in this book and have made its message the purpose of my life…Esquire’s cynical article distorts the facts of my 25-year career as a neurosurgeon and is a textbook example of how unsupported assertions and cherry-picked information can be assembled at the expense of the truth.” It will be interesting to see how Alexander responds in more detail to the various points made by Dittrich, such as those regarding his 7 day coma. Hopefully he does so soon to bring some clarity to the situation.