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.



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A genetic determinant for encountering the paranormal?

I would highly recommend Phenomena, which I reviewed in my last post, but I also wanted to quote at length from one of the passages toward the end of the book. It’s speculative, and does not reflect Jacobsen’s personal opinion. It’s not verified. But it really tickled me. I’m intrigued. Consider it an incentive to read the whole book. Here you go:

“We are also mapping [DNA and immune systems of] people and their families who claim to be remote viewers or have anomalous perception,” [Garry] Nolan [of the Nolan Lab at Stanford University] confirms . . . . “Whether real, perceived, or illusion, there appears to be a genetic determinant.” And while Dr. Green maintains that his patients’ injuries may have come from high energy devices or their components, both Green and Nolan think there is more to it than that. “Some people [seem to] repeatedly attract the phenomena or the experiences,” Nolan says. “They act like an antenna or are like lighthouses in the dark.”

Review: Phenomena

Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government's Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and PsychokinesisPhenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis by Annie Jacobsen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Phenomena is an improvement by leaps and bounds over Annie Jacobsen’s earlier Area 51. Both books detail histories of covert government projects that have otherwise been awash in misinformation, classified projects, and the whiff of the paranormal. Both books are heavily researched and well-cited, benefiting from substantial FOIA requests and interviews conducted by the author herself. But I found a reliance on an off-the-wall account of the Roswell crash harmed the overall credibility and plausibility of the otherwise well-worth-reading Area 51. In contrast, Phenomena avoids overextending into speculation.

Jacobsen has quite the niche, writing meaty tomes about formerly classified military subject matter. At this point, I trust her as a writer and researcher. But even if you had no knowledge of the author, Jacobsen keeps to an open-minded yet grounded approach in recounting the military and intelligence community’s adventures in psychic research; she builds the needed trust in her relative objectivity throughout. This leads to the sort of writing about paranormal subjects that I love: fact-focused, invested in its human subjects but unwilling to blindly accept their claims, and comfortably probing the edges of unusual fields of study. She competently writes about the history of research into extrasensory perception and telekinesis without ever jumping onto the bandwagon of critics or true believers. And the accounts she produces, pulled from formerly confidential reports and verified in a variety of interviews, indicate that something unusual is certainly happening, that there might actually be some form of ESP and TK, even if it’s an unreliable ability that can’t be consistently trained to manifest in just anyone. Jacobsen does not shy away from discussing instances of fraud and failed scientific controls, especially in the civilian side of research, and yet there are moments that defy rational explanation–especially some of the stories revolving around characters like Ingo Swann, Pat Price, and Angela Dellafiora. I’d often read aloud to my wife a shocking story about how one of these remote viewers could, for instance, accurately detail a covert military installation that was so classified even the observer was not initially aware of it. Of course, I’m not observing these events myself, and I think it would be easy for a skeptical reader to suggest that perhaps some of this represents government disinformation efforts past or present, but there are still some wild accounts in here that can’t be confidently explained away. I enjoy reading about paranormal subjects, it’s true, but ESP has always seemed somewhat boring and inconsequential even if it could be determined real; so what if someone can apparently bend spoons when rubbing a finger over them or can sometimes guess a basic shape on a card more often than the standard rate for blind guessing? Furthermore, skeptics have so firmly branded the subject with stigma that I’d accepted hand-waving dismissals of the subject matter as absolute truth without bothering to take a second glance until now. But this book made me interested, both because sometimes these powers produce more fascinating results than would otherwise be expected (some might even say that some of the results appear “miraculous”) and because so many of the characters involved in this research are interesting in and of themselves.

I don’t think this book will get a true believer to question their cobbled-together paranormal beliefs, and I don’t think it will convince a hard-nosed skeptic that ESP (whatever that really represents) might be real, but it’s an engaging text about an unusual field of military study, and if you can set paranormal stigma aside and approach the book with an open mind, I suspect you too will be thrilled, amazed, and curious to know what this all might signify and why exactly the military remained interested in it for so long.

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Technopath Twosome

My free time has been a bit scattershot in its uses, and I haven’t had quite as much of it lately as usual, so here’s another week with a meandering post. I’m still primarily reading Phenomena and still primarily playing Prey, but I didn’t engage with either much the past week. I watched more TV and movies in my downtime; that’s included making a good run through much of the first season of The Umbrella Academy, which I’d petered out on only a couple episodes in when it first released, and watching the adorable and funny Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, although while I adored it, I think you have to have a baseline fondness of Will Ferrell’s typical comic characters and plots.

While my time with Prey was reduced this past week, with no play at all on any weeknights or most of the weekend, I still remain thoroughly engaged with it. I made it a point to load up my last save last night, just to make sure I didn’t lose track of what I was doing and how to play with so much distance from it, and even with a week of the game going untouched, it felt like I’d never left it at all. I meant to be in for 10 or 15 minutes and stayed in for a little over an hour. I only stopped as my usual bed time drew near because I’d reset the reactor of the space station and just watched two technopaths drop into the reactor room outside of my shielded control room and promptly hijack my arrangement of turrets. Foiled by my attempt to prepare! I’m eager to see how I’ll get out of this–whether I’ll be able to sneak away, or if it’ll have to turn into a resource-draining brawl.

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I love how the gameplay in Prey evolved from a white-knuckle survival horror experience to a game of open-level experimentation, alternating between combat, stealth, exploration, and special abilities. It definitely owes a lot to games like Bioshock in structure, but it’s hard not to keep coming back to film; the game’s first few hours play out more like Alien, but by the later game, even while the difficulty and variety of challenges continue to ramp up, it’s more like Aliens–which was no walk in the park for its characters either, but definitely more of an action-adventure experience. But there are plenty of other sci-fi ideas packed in. Just as one example, its core wrangling with identity and memory, and the uncertainty about what is really happening, all feel rather Total Recall.

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The video games, films, and literature pulled from are from a wide array of sources. It might be fun to revisit some of these references and influences when I’ve finished the game.

For now, I guess I have to figure out how to deal with those technopaths!

Just a little ESP

The book I’m primarily reading right now is Phenomena by Annie Jacobsen (who also wrote Area 51, which I found to be well-researched and quite interesting though too much space was devoted to a rather bizarre Roswell theory), and the game I’m primarily playing is the 2017 version of Prey developed by Arkane Studios. Naturally, paranormal phenomena and ESP are on my mind a lot at the moment.

I’ve always really enjoyed reading books and articles or watching shows and movies that involve the paranormal, whether fiction or nonfiction or that in-between spot of heavily produced, heavily spun “documentary” that follows real people and real events while offering very little truth–like your typical ghost investigator show. Like Mulder, I want to believe, but since my teen years I’ve become quite the skeptic, far more a Scully (although as seen recently on this site, some think I’m ignorantly bullheaded about my skepticism, so they might see me as more of a Doggett). Still, while I take it all with a grain of salt, I’ve never stopped casually exploring the subject. Not a hobby or a passion, just a casual interest. I like when I find sources that also seem to love the collection of subjects that fall into the general category of “paranormal” but approach it with skepticism, like Jacobsen or the ever-delightful folks behind The Spooktator (which I am quite far behind on at this point).

All that said, it’s kind of funny that my attention is currently focused on ESP. I’ve never been that interested in this particular topic. I’ve never looked that closely; the most intriguing claims of lab results never seem that remarkable to me, even if I were to accept them outright. But I don’t know enough about the subject to really have that strong of an opinion. I do know that I have no time or patience for mediums and the like that grew out of the spiritualism movement; so many have been proven charlatans, and even those who genuinely believe what they are doing can’t offer anything all that convincing to me.

Set all that aside, though. The big reason that I don’t really care about ESP one way or the other is that it’s one of those things that doesn’t seem to make much of a big impact on the world. Let’s say that people can exhibit extrasensory perception, and that this means that they can sometimes correctly identify what someone else is thinking. What does this mean? Not a whole lot. It doesn’t seem like a very consistent or reliable ability. The over-the-top telekinetic powers of movies or games are obviously not realistic. So what if you can sometimes correctly intuit the symbol on a card at a rate that is slightly higher than expected for someone purely guessing? It doesn’t reshape how anyone thinks about the world. And I imagine that we’d eventually be able to come up with a theory for how ESP operates, if it were seriously documented, and I’m not sure that theory would require a radical reconception of our understanding of the natural world.

In contrast, what if extraterrestrial life not only existed, but it had evolved into intelligent, technologically advanced cultures that surreptitiously visited and monitored Earth? That could require a radical new understanding of our place in the universe and of our own limitations as humans. Perhaps an anthropocentric view of the world just couldn’t be preserved any further. Perhaps, to understand how the aliens could travel such vast distances and maneuver and hide their craft in such unique ways, we would see dramatic shifts in physics. It seems like a big deal, in a way that correctly predicting card faces isn’t.

Similarly, if ghosts are real, or if near-death experiences actually show glimpses of an afterlife, or if reincarnation accounts were verified beyond any doubt, then that would be proof of life after death. That would be a remarkable thing! We might never understand anything about what consciousness is like after death. But we would have an assurance that there is more than what happens in this life, and that we continue on somehow. I think this would be an amazing reassurance to the vast majority of people. In my experience, even religious people have moments of doubt, so even for those with an established faith, this could give peace of mind. It could also upturn some religious beliefs–what are Christians supposed to do if reincarnation was an undeniable reality? For that matter, for those who tend to focus on the material, provable nature of reality, how do you react to that? That there is something larger and perhaps unobservable or immeasurable that we will all some day experience but that can’t be objectively analyzed? If you’ve spent your life as a hardened atheist, what does this news mean to you? At the least, it would seem like more people would have to seriously concede the limits of what the scientific method can reveal about our world, even as those who are fervently religious might face another challenge to their literalist adherence to a particular faith tradition.

Even the capture and display of a cryptid could be more interesting, if only because you’ve presented an animal that might not really fit in with a particular ecology, or that might seem impossible to exist in a particular habitat without detection for so long. I like animals. A new, strange animal would just be cool. And it would be something that you could reach out and touch, so to speak.

So that’s why I’ve never been overly interested in ESP, psychic precognition or retrocognition, telepathy, psychokinetics, or anything else like that. Even if some of these things could be established as undeniably real, they would seem mere oddities to me, rather than signifiers of something world-shattering. That said, psionic powers in video games are another thing entirely. PreyBioshockMass Effect, and Deus Ex have all delighted me with the powers on display. And while the Force comes with its own mythology and fantasy science source, the central unseen power of the Star Wars universe has resulted in entertaining and intriguing abilities in movies, shows, games, books, comics, and more. These over-the-top powers, and their sci-fi explanations, certainly would leave more of an impression.

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Anyway, I’m sure I’ll post reviews of Phenomena and Prey on this site when I’m done with them. For what it’s worth, I’m enjoying them both rather a lot so far! And as a final thought, if you have any suggestions on books or documentaries that explore ESP with a skeptical bent (or that at least show something more restrained than breathless credulity), consider sending them my way. I wouldn’t mind taking a more serious look at the history of parapsychological study of this field.