Review: Surviving Death (Book)

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Just like Leslie Kean’s UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record was for the UFO phenomenon, her Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife is a great introductory text about contemporary evidence for the afterlife geared at a mainstream audience. It’s not an examination of religious belief, and Kean presents herself as agnostic on the subject although inclined to believe that consciousness continues beyond death. She tries to maintain objectivity while also being explicit about her subjective perspective and personal biases; she weaves her own personal experiences into her reporting in a way that makes the book more intimate, more personally authentic, and yet more troubled. I’ll get to that more later.

The first thing you have to get past when reading this book is that Kean is not at all agnostic on the subject of psychic abilities. Quoting British psychologist David Fontana, she writes in the introduction, “Psychic abilities are a matter of fact, not of belief.” She then insists, “The reader will encounter the reality of the most refined psychic functioning throughout this book, and by the end will have no questions as to its existence.” I doubt that many readers, not previously inclined to believe in psychic abilities, will have shifted the needle on their views at all by the end. I certainly still have plenty of questions, having only been primed to accept that there may be some form of psychic ability in some humans thanks to having read Annie Jacobsen’s Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis. Nonetheless, you have to at least be willing to accept that parapsychologists and other paranormal researchers typically accept psychic abilities as existing to some degree or other, as this forms the big debate for many of these researchers in the narrative: is the evidence we have of some continuation of consciousness beyond death actually supportive of that hypothesis, or is it only reflective of the immense psychic abilities that some living agents may possess to access and synthesize otherwise hidden or unknown information sources that would often be separated without any clear connection? By the end of the book, I do believe that an objective and fair-minded reader will have to acknowledge that if at least some of the phenomena reported are genuine, then one of these possibilities must be true, and the living-agent hypothesis feels like a remarkably conservative position, a recognition that it’s at least as outlandish, if not more so, to make the great number of assumptions needed to reach a hypothesis in which consciousness somehow survives death. Either way, you should be prepared for some rather interesting discussion regarding the concept of non-local consciousness and how it might interact with one’s physical brain–something not presented as fact but as informed speculation in an attempt to explain some of the things described.

So what is described? Kean slowly constructs a narrative of the potential afterlife by building on one section of study after another, starting with reincarnation accounts, moving on to near-death experiences and “actual-death” experiences, providing connective tissue with overlapping accounts between those with NDEs and some of the details children provide about what happens between reincarnations, then steaming on to the end with mental mediumship, trance mediumship, apparitions, and physical mediumship. The plausibility of the experiences started off high for me and gradually decreased over time. (In fact, I’m already rather partial to reincarnation narratives because the best ones seem, to me at least, to be rather difficult to fake without the active involvement of the researcher in the fraud, and the accounts can’t really be brushed away as merely coincidental or absorbed through environment; Old Souls by Tom Shroder, which is referenced by Kean in Surviving Death, turned me onto the parapsychological research into this field, which at its very least is compelling as a form of oral history/folklore collection.)

Kean is quite aware of the decreasing-plausibility concern, and I think she spends an unusual amount of time and space on mediumship and mental mediumship in particular because the field has such a strong history of fraud and resultant public skepticism. She is convinced, along with some other paranormal researchers, that there are legitimate mediums, and I have to say that what she shares of the readings by the exceptional mental mediums she has seen certainly suggests access to knowledge they could not otherwise possess that probably wouldn’t be possible with advance research or cold reading. But physical mediumship has always seemed too razzle-dazzle to be credible, seemingly set up with the intent to deceive, with the closet behind the medium and the darkness or low red light required for anything to happen. Plus, everything else works within an understanding that perhaps consciousness is non-local and can survive death, but it does not have many mechanisms to interact with our material plane, in the dimensions our physical bodies inhabit, and it may fundamentally be something unverifiable, but it doesn’t require a rethinking of our physical reality. However, physical mediumship, with its ectoplasm and conjurations of hands and feet and sometimes whole forms, with its vanishing and materialization of objects, with its projection of strange voices, reads like a bizarre stage show and would require reexamination of how we think the world works in pretty significant ways. It’s a bridge too far for me, and I suspect that will be the case for many people. Kean’s fighting a losing battle there, and her narration of sessions she has attended doesn’t do much for me. Surely she is convinced, and I truly believe she experienced what she writes, but I think that this is just evidence that she was sufficiently fooled by the performers. Many intelligent, educated, skeptical people can be fooled by an especially convincing hustle, so she would hardly be in bad company, but I just can’t accept the extraordinary claims invited by physical mediums without extraordinary evidence that will never be forthcoming. I suppose nothing’s impossible, but I’m not willing to let down my guard and believe just about anything simply because it could possibly be true. I think that’s the very path to the really whacky, far-out-there High Strangeness crowd.

While I think it was a mistake to devote so much time to physical mediumship, it is nonetheless the case that Kean has probably written the most persuasive argument possible to take the practice seriously. And in doing so, her interweaving of her personal experiences in the wake of her grief over losing her brother and a close friend makes the book something far more personal and emotional than I would have expected, even as she often keeps a rather clinical, dry, and objective writing style. It’s certainly a far more revealing book about the author as a person than UFOs was, and I appreciate the vulnerability, even though I can’t reward it with full belief.

Surviving Death presents a series of fascinating narratives, and I’ve barely touched on all that is covered for such a relatively small volume. Much like UFOs, it has its flaws, but it’s essential reading for its paranormal subject matter.



View all my reviews

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s