Eben Alexander and Me

Early on in 2012, I received a call from my then-agent, Gail Ross, about a potential ghost-writing project. Gail had been in contact with a former Harvard neurosurgeon named Eben Alexander, who wanted to tell the story of his seven-day near-death experience in a book.

The story was extraordinary. Alexander, who had been stricken with gram-negative bacterial meningitis, lay in a coma for seven days, his chances of recovery hovering around zero, and his chances of living on, even in a vegetative state, looking very slim too.

Everyone knows the rest of the story. Eben journeyed to a series of realms that he described with uncanny clarity – realms that, reading his extremely long book manuscript, struck me as having an extraordinarily archetypal quality. Strange shocks of recognition showed up all through Alexander’s story. His was, I believed, a kind of myth for our time.

It was one that I was extremely excited to have the opportunity to tell, and thanks to Pricilla Painton at Simon & Schuster, I was given the opportunity to do just that.

Fantastic as Eben’s story was, telling that story in the manner I thought it should be told wasn’t easy. In fact, over the next three months I basically drove myself, and my wife Colleen and step-daughters Evie and Lulu, crazy as I struggled, using Eben’s monster of a manuscript, to transform that manuscript into a lean, readable story that would resonate with a popular audience.

As it turned out, the most valuable tool in producing the story was not Eben’s manuscript but the series of taped conversations I had with him – conversations in which Eben’s story came to life in a way that it decidedly didn’t in Eben’s written account. Like many a Southerner, Eben was more a talker than a writer. Listening to his descriptions of the Spinning Melody that rescued him from the Realm of the Worm’s Eye View and his journey to the Core, where he spoke to a Being he was forthright enough to identify as God him/her/itself, it occurred to me that I had been entrusted with an extraordinary responsibility: to bring Eben’s story to life “on the page” (as publishers like to say) in such a way that it would genuinely mirror the vibrancy of our conversations together.

It was hard. Actually, it was really hard. I wrote the majority of Proof of Heaven lying in Colleen’s and my bed, often with the residual spaciness of the previous night’s Ambien in my head. (Once the book was done, I would often joke that the book should really have been called Proof of Ambien.) When, at last, I had isolated the core narrative and honed it down to a story that ran from A to Z, I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment. I had added nothing to Eben’s story except the ability to write somewhat clearly, and a host of metaphors and connections that weren’t present in that vast mass of typing that was Eben’s original manuscript. I was especially proud of the seven-or-so page stretch when Eben takes his first journey up and out of the Realm of the Worm’s Eye View and into the hyper-clarity of the zones above. The story was all Eben’s. The tone, however, was mine, and I was extremely proud to have managed to bring across the real magic of Eben’s journey in prose that (I hoped) did it justice rather than detracting from it.

No one was expecting particularly much from Proof of Heaven. In fact, I later learned that several publishers had passed on the original submission, containing, as it did, none of Eben’s book itself, but a simply a skeletal description of the book’s content (that I, once the story became mine to tell, abandoned completely).

All that changed when an editor at Newsweek, tiring of the endless coverage of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, decided to risk a genuine change-of-pace cover. That issue of Newsweek, with the words “Heaven is Real” on the cover, and an adaptation of the key section of the book (done by me), suddenly caught peoples’ attention. The book shot to the top of the bestseller lists and stayed there for months.

I monitored all this – and Eben’s transformation from a neurosurgeon with an interesting story into a world celebrity – with interest, and the occasional stab of irritation. Examining my feelings about it all, I realized that I didn’t really want people talking about me. It was, after all, Eben’s experience, and Eben’s story. But my total invisibility (and fairly meager financial benefit from the book’s success) ate at me all the same. I had had a lot to do with the book’s success, and a pinch of recognition would have been nice both for my ego and my bank account.

Then came news that Esquire Magazine was preparing a “take-down” piece on Eben, whose status as a kind of messianic figure was, at that point, getting out of hand in many peoples’ eyes. Well, I thought to myself, it’s too bad that Esquire is going to try and discredit Eben’s experience. But… at least everyone will know I actually wrote the book.

Imagine my surprise when, reading the Esquire piece when it finally came out, I discovered that not only was I not credited as the book’s actual writer, but key innovations of mine were attributed to other people. The title itself, which had been my idea, was attributed to someone at Simon & Schuster. Most galling of all was a stretch of the article that described my decision to begin the book with a short prologue describing a sky-diving incident that had occurred when Eben was in college.

I had spent a good bit of time selling Eben on this prologue. “Trust me,” I’d told him (or words to this effect). “It may sound counter-intuitive to start the book this way, but I think I can use it to both grab the reader’s attention and give him or her a quick picture of who you are and everything that’s going to unfold in the pages that follow.”

And there, in the pages of Esquire, was Eben, outlining how he’d struggled to figure out how to start the book, and how, after much agonizing, he’d come up with the novel strategy of using a skydiving incident back in his college days to set the stage for all that would follow.

That was kind of too much, and for a while my hard work at being an egoless, invisible worker in helping to bring a truly great story to millions of readers went up in smoke. I was, to my dismay, just kind of bitter and angry.

All that was a long time ago, however, and having not touched this website since I put it up (with the help of my able webmaster Richard Ryan) some six years ago, I decided it might be time to tell this part of the story of Proof of Heaven. For all the criticism leveled against it, I still very much believe in the value, and truth, of Eben’s story, and in the integrity of Eben himself. He’s not a perfect guy, and most likely not the messiah of the New Age that, for a while, people wanted to believe he was. But he is decent and earnest, and his story really is, I think, a kind of modern myth: one that I will always be proud to have had a hand in shaping. Eben’s descriptions on the phone to me over the months of the book’s writing are truly remarkable, and are evidence not only of the story’s strange archetypal magic, but of its core reality.