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« In Which We Take The Long Sleep »

What's After Life?


Before we die, it's a continual panic about things coming to an end, kind of like how all goodbyes are depressing. After we die, what a rush! We can deduce that several things occur after death just from the living world itself.

  1. The cancellation of Firefly was an egregious mistake rectified in the afterlife, where Joss Whedon's storyboards are viewed behind angel-proof glass.
  2. We can't communicate with our loved ones or use the bathroom for its proper function beyond the grave.
  3. We may return.

Are you familiar with Dr. Ian Stevenson? The McGill-educated biochemist/psychologist spent the vast majority of his life exploring the phenomenon of reincarnation. He found about 2500 children who claimed to partially retain the memories of people who had died, usually under tragic circumstances. Often he found birthmarks or defects that indicated some similarity between the child and the deceased. Although he pursued his passion project with the scientific method in tow, Stevenson's drug experiences informed his work. In a lecture to a group of similar-minded people, he expounded on parts of his process:

While I was still involved with psychoanalysis, I began experimenting with hallucinogenic (perhaps better called psychedelic) drugs. I have taken or had administered to me a number of drugs and anesthetics as part of a search for drugs that would assist psychiatrists in interviewing or in psychotherapy. However, here I shall speak only of the effects on me of mescaline and LSD.

Mescaline could not improve my vision, but it vastly bettered my appreciation of what I saw. The beauty of the colors that I inwardly saw under the influence of mescaline made me ever afterward far more sensitive to color both in nature and in art than I had been before. From my experience with mescaline I also became more aware than I had been of the subjective element in our sense of the passage of time.

With LSD I had less experience of beautiful colors and much more of memories of my early life. With one of my experiences with LSD I also had a mystical experience by which I mean a sense of unity with all beings, all things. After the second of my LSD experiences I passed three days in perfect serenity. I believe that many persons could benefit as much as I did through taking psychedelic drugs under proper medical supervision, which is the only sensible way to take them.

Unlike most evidence for life after death, Stevenson used a scientific approach to collecting the stories of the "reincarnated." He published a book that met with a lot of attention, but refused to delude himself that people were giving real credence to his ideas. He knew they bought the book because they wanted to believe. In reviewing Stevenson's findings, Carl Sagan found them to be the most convincing evidence of life after death. As Dr. Stevenson explained in an interview:

In many of our cases in northwest North America and Burma, people in the same family or village are involved. So there's a likelihood that some adult or older child has talked about a deceased person and the child has absorbed the information, as our questioning makes clear. This is not, however, an issue in most cases I cite in India, many of which involve long distances, twenty-five to fifty kilometers or more, with no contact between the villages. Often the child has quite precise details.

Stevenson's subsequent scholarship in the field was even more exacting, and some of the coincidences he finds in his fieldwork are indeed astonishing.  In one such interview, a Lebanese boy speaks of being a mechanic in his early twenties killed in a car crash near a beach. Stevenson has multiple witnesses who heard the boy give the driver's name, where the crash occurred, and names of the victim's family. This is only one of many such impossibilites Stevenson documented. Connections between the recently deceased and the recently born abound in his research.

Something less than a total skeptic, at some point Stevenson purchased a filing cabinet and inserted it in his UVa Division of Perceptual Studies office. He locked it with a combination that only he knew, and planned to trasmit the combination after he passed. It is unknown whether that combination was a word or a sentence, and since his death from pneumonia in 2007, the filing cabinet has not been opened.

The psychiatrist Harold Lief argued that Stevenson was a "methodical, careful, even cautious, investigator, whose personality is on the obsessive side." He also wrote: "Either he is making a colossal mistake, or he will be known . . . as 'the Galileo of the 20th century.'" Mystic or doctor? I'm not sure what motivated Stevenson. He wanted to convince others than reincarnation might be possible, but to what end? Did he want to influence a generation of the deceased to possess the souls of living children? He thought of himself as a scientist who had to reach his conclusion no matter its purpose. Many religions hold this life is only preparation for the life beyond, which is a lot more useful fiction than those that Stevenson could provide.

The best film about death ever made is Defending Your Life. Albert Brooks plays Daniel, an advertising executive who runs into a truck as he's adjusting some papers in his new BMW convertible. Rather than being an evil man, or a virtuous man, Daniel is just another guy. When he wakes up, he finds himself on a tram entering Judgment City, a place that resembles Los Angeles so the dead from the Western half of the United States feel at home. In Defending Your Life, reincarnation is a punishment meted out to those who haven't conquered their fear of life and thus aren't worthy of entering the afterlife.

In Judgment City you can eat anything you want and you never gain a pound. Daniel meets Meryl Streep of twenty years ago. She's a very nice person who adopted two children and saved a cat from dying when her house was on fire. (The character appears to have been modeled after Angelina Jolie.) She immediately falls in love with Daniel. It's really easy and fun. All they do is make out and binge eat. Who couldn't close with those givens? The cinematic idea of the afterlife usually involves some fantasy of the actual life.

Tormenting the ones we love while they still exist doesn't exactly seem like a great use of our time, although it does make widows a lot more susceptible to practical jokes. Most of us would find the involvement of the dead in our personal affairs and hobbies more disconcerting than reassuring. That is why reincarnation is such an appealing idea. We do come back — but we come back not as ourselves. Given our lives to do over again, we are able to correct some serious imbalance. For example, I would be able to pick up on the 467 times a girl was interested in me and I did nothing about it.

When I was young I harbored a sneaking suspicion that while I was doing this for the first time, everyone else was faking that this was new to them. I was also convinced my 2nd grade friend Tim was a robot, a possibility only enhanced by the fact that he moved to Japan with his mom. I watched him wave at me from a bus and I never saw him again.

In Defending Your Life, such important moments are played before Albert Brooks, and he finds himself explaining his behavior; why he lied to save a boy from being expelled, and why he recanted when his father threatened to take away television. He realizes that while his ideas about the past haven't changed, their relative importance to him has.

Part of why Defending Your Life is so perfect is because unlike the traditional Hollywood representation of the afterlife, acceptance of the world beyond is immediate and natural. "They make it easier for us," Meryl Streep says as a way of explaining that once you're dead, your old life might as well be a book you've once read. We can intuit a hint of truth in this no matter what we think lies beyond Earth.

I actually think Defending Your Life ruined Albert Brooks' career. It did not do very well at the box office, even though it was beloved by both critics and audiences and became a television staple. But really, who wants to see a movie about death in the theaters? It was difficult to get over that this is going to be hysterical, and as funny as Defending Your Life is, ultimately the movie is  a depressing fiction. Whenever a studio executive endured Brooks' pitch meetings in the ensuing years, they must have only thought of their own mortality. There is really no other reason that his masterpiece with Debbie Reynolds, Mother, is not shown to schoolchildren along with To Kill A Mockingbird.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the same sort of thing happened to Howard Storm, whose near death experience, as chronicled in his account My Descent Into Death, changed him from an atheist to a proselytizer. Storm's NDE attracted the attention of such serious outlets as The Oprah Winfrey Show and 48 Hours. Storm endured a terrifying ordeal in a Paris hospital, after which he became a  much better person, a transformation partly due to what a dick he was before his incident.

Storm's description of the afterlife, on the other hand, is ludicrous. It is crazy not because it can't be verified, or because it doesn't have a ring of truth. Storm's story is silly because it has all the logic of a dream, and is familiar to anyone who does dream. Since he was basically delirious from pain, his lengthy description of the afterlife was nothing more than a nightmare. Storm saw scenes from his life, and he turned away from them. Presumably Jesus showed him how much of a dick he was. (Some people are so stubborn they only listen to Jesus or his counterpart Paul Krugman.)

After his surgery, Storm refused doctor's advice to recuperate and he became beset by complications suffered when he travelled back to the United States. He spent most of his time weeping and praying and his wife threatened to leave him. He gained some distance from his experience, and the fact that he was able to talk to hospital staff before his surgery indicates that despite his severe condition, he was never dead, only dying.

People need a reason to change their lives, and if they don't have one, they'll make it up. Before his NDE, Storm was an atheist, and by all accounts a horror to friends, family, and students. Afterward, he turned into a nicer man who believed in God. Perhaps he couldn't handle the idea that he had made the change himself, so he had to attribute it to a man who lived and died so long ago.

Many saints lived an ignominious existence before coming to Jesus. The sight of Christopher Hitchens in a prayer group is avant-garde indeed. The guy smoked 450,000 cigarettes, what did he think was going to happen? This is not to say that there isn't something very noble about putting your faith in something larger than yourself. But that's not what Storm, or Hitchens, or Anne Rice is doing.

The scientist puts the evidence before himself — he knows he is small in comparison to everything, even God. The proselytizer puts himself before the evidence, and it is because he is afraid of one of those things: the evidence, or himself. A rabbi once told me that if you need God, he is there. And if you don't, he is there. I remember thinking that struck me as sexist.

There is a vexing curiosity to find out what will happen, something along the lines of what dooms Inception's Mal. It is potentially the source of all madness. Stevenson's cabinet remains locked.

Recently I mastered the art of lucid dreaming, which is something like what Howard Storm went through in that hospital in Paris. In the dream world, I control all of my behavior, but others still act of their own volition. Despite the illusion of dream control, I am less and less excited to descend into the dream world. The imagined projections in my mind move nearer to reality, instead of the real world inching closer to my fantasy. It may be this is only a consequence of getting older. We find, like Howard Storm, that we do want to make a transformation, even if we like the person we were. Even though I am already someone worthwhile, I long to be someone else.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about Todd Haynes' HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce.

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Reader Comments (8)

nice work

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermagicsteven

"The sight of Christopher Hitchens in a prayer group is avant-garde indeed."

When has Hitchens ever attended a prayer group? Although it may fit cutely into your article, the insinuation that Hitchens has somehow come to spirituality as a result of his illness is baseless.

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteryellowplush

I love you Alex.

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarta

Thanks for the article - I've been an avid reader of all y'all for a bit now, and I really appreciate the balance of humor and informed critique you apply to your writing. "Defending Your Life," for myself, a staple after-school movie (it always seemed to be on TBS or some such on those groggy, homeworky afternoons, along with similar angelically themed 'A Million To Juan.' Oh and 'Twister' too.

In regards to lucid dreaming and reincarnation...I've practiced lucid dreaming since childhood, originally to cope with a nasty recurring nightmare (nazis, gas chambers, general SCHNELL, you get the picture) and have kept a dream journal for many years. I have to say, that as much of a believer and spiritualist as I am, I am consistently torn when analyzing my dream journals. Is my brain simply processing the days events in a shuffled up, imagistic patchwork - or is there some past life hangover woven in there? Especially in regards to the Nazi dream - which has the same course of events and details, never a change. I've often wondered, is it subconscious leftovers from a traumatic death in my past incarnation? I have had the dreams since mini-childhood, way before our teachers read us Elie Wiesel or Anne Frank. I lean towards believing. Maybe LSD would help me sort it out, a la Stevenson. Thanks for the post, as always!

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMeg S.

He references prayer groups at the end of his Vanity Fair article.


April 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterAlex

I think you may be mistaken. He's referring to the fact that there are prayer groups praying for him, not that he's attending them or that he's in any way converted to their belief system. He calls their number "astonishing" because he quite vocally doesn't share their beliefs, and continues not to despite Stage Four cancer. I'm not especially a Hitchens fan, but Hitchens has not "come to Jesus"-- from March of this year:

"Hitchens has said that he will not convert on his deathbed unless he is 'very ill' or 'half demented, either by drugs or pain where I wouldn’t have control over what I say.'" http://www.christianpost.com/news/atheist-hitchens-credits-evangelical-francis-collins-for-cancer-hope-49615/.

Defending Your Life is a great movie, though.

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAbhay

Clicked through because, hey, that is Severian from the "Book of the New Sun," & I always click through for the Guild!

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermordicai
"'With LSD I had less experience of beautiful colors and much more of memories of my early life." So voracious a turn of science, even the best hallucinogens become rational again.
February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Hayes

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