Looking Beyond

Book review: Surviving Death, by Leslie Kean

“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?” This Edgar Allan Poe quote, a chapter opener in Surviving Death, is fitting for the book as a whole. It’s a question many wonder about their entire lives, and one that isn’t easily resolved for a plethora of reasons.

Author and journalist Leslie Kean ostensibly sets out to look at the hard, scientific evidence for an afterlife – “survival” beyond death, in her words, which I thought was an interesting way to say it, one I hadn’t thought of before. She believes the evidence across various disciplines of medicine, metaphysics, psychic channeling and parapsychology proves that some essence of the spirit does survive beyond the physical death of the body.

Using research from specialists in their fields, told in their own words, sometimes through contributed essays, she collects this “evidence” here. We learn about near death experiences, hear the testimony of those who’ve allegedly peeked beyond the veil (often by leaving their bodies during surgery), children who clearly aren’t making their way through this world for the first time, and about the art of seances (both modern and historical), among many other cases and evidentiary situations or phenomena. From a historical aspect, the chapters about how seances used to be done, like in Warsaw when visiting spirits dipped their hands into wax to form gloves, some tangible proof they were there, were fascinating.

I particularly liked the chapters about children who come fully equipped with impossibly detailed and mature knowledge of past lives and the people they once seemed to be, and the child psychologists who specialize in working with such children. I’ll admit that in these cases, it does seem very difficult for the material to be faked; although to be fair, it wouldn’t be the first time adults have colluded with children to perpetrate a hoax of this nature. That’s the problem with so much of this – if there’s even a seed of doubt in your mind, you’ll find the counterarguments to break down the evidence.

It was also helpful and fair to hear some voiced of dissent or devil’s advocates, however flawed their own arguments might be. Like one from the chair of the Dutch Association Against Quackery (a fantastically-named organization that really exists), who lumped studies done by a medical colleague on near death experiences in with “multiple personality disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and alien abduction syndrome.” For what it’s worth, the author of this book also wrote one on UFOs. That certainly heightened my own skepticism, maybe unfairly.

Despite journalistic intentions, the investigative methods employed aren’t up to scratch, as would be expected to silence the skeptics that inevitably accompany anything written on the afterlife. Journalistic integrity is shaky; Kean makes several statements like, “I trust myself as the most reliable source I know!” No, that’s not enough. When that’s her reasoning several times over as part of the “investigation”, it’s frustrating. I want to give her the benefit of the doubt, but not when that’s her justification.

This isn’t normally the type of book I’d read. I love occasionally watching trashy ‘true’ TV about ghost stories and the paranormal, but I don’t read about it. So maybe I went in too skeptical, as much as I’m admittedly curious about this topic. I’m not religious, but I’m easily spooked – which makes for a lot of curiosity.

So I’m the type of person who’s receptive, and that creates confirmation bias. And unfortunately, the evidence presented here is weakened by confirmation bias. The problem is that if you’re looking, if you’re poking around in this area, you already have a reason to be there. Mine, for example, is that my grandmother died last year and I missed out on much of her last few years and I’m not over it. So am I curious about what potentially lies beyond the veil? Sadly, yes. Because what other hope for peace of mind is there?

The author herself has similar reasoning, having lost her brother and mourned him deeply, then experienced strange situations that seemed connected to or orchestrated by him. She was also searching, also open to whatever evidence could be collected to prove something, anything.

Even for the non-religious, I don’t think it’s unusual to be curious about or open to hearing what alternatives might exist, especially if they’re scientifically documented or backed up with unimpeachable evidence. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wanted to learn something.

It is an entertaining book, no argument there, even if some of the breathless recitations of examples of spirits doing things to get the living’s attention seem a bit underwhelming (don’t stories like that always seem more exciting when you’re hearing them from someone you know?) But too much pseudoscience and shying away from true journalistic effort undo any potential for proof. She includes case studies, and at least some attempt at scientific or medical justification, but it didn’t quash my doubts.

It presents some interesting arguments and gives you plenty to think about, but real answers aren’t there. Maybe the joke’s on us for expecting them to be. Maybe Colin Dickey’s patiently skeptical, carefully, thoroughly debunking Ghostland is still too fresh in my mind.

As Kean summarizes it herself, What we know stands in proportion to what we do not know as a bucketful does to the ocean.”

Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for the Afterlife
by Leslie Kean

published March 7, 2017 by Crown Archetype

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

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