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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Review: Surviving Death (Series)

Netflix’s Surviving Death, a docuseries adapting the nonfiction book by Leslie Kean, presents a variety of accounts of the afterlife that will not convince skeptics but are sure to provide a genuine perspective on the varied ways in which people look for answers and assurance when facing death and the loss of loved ones.

I’ve not read Ms. Kean’s book, although her UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record is essential reading on the contemporary UFO phenomenon, not to mention her reporting on the subject. If nothing else, this new series makes me want to read what she actually wrote on the pursuit of evidence of consciousness after death, and I can only imagine it would be similarly informative. Ms. Kean does appear quite a bit throughout the series, offering her perspective on various phenomena–especially on the subject of mediums, for some reason.

Each episode of the series covers a different phenomenon: near-death experiences, a two-parter on mediums, alleged signs from the dead, ghosts and end-of-life visions, and reincarnation. While everyone might react differently based on their own biases, my own worldview made the stories about near-death experiences, end-of-life visions, and reincarnation most palatable. Even though the first two categories have many alternative explanations, they’re still interesting phenomena; conversely, the really good and verifiable examples of alleged reincarnation are very compelling, and the alternative explanations about as extraordinary as the idea of reincarnation itself. Even if you reject the (admittedly difficult to reconcile and impossible to prove) paranormal components, the universality of certain themes and narratives across generations and cultures is fascinating in and of itself. At its core, parapsychological studies of these types of stories read to me as a sort of anthropology, just focused on a type of folklore taken as true. So even if you reject them as true accounts of an afterlife out of hand, you’re still left with true accounts of belief and lived experiences that are remarkable even under the most normal of explanations.

Having two episodes devoted to mediums was hard, though. The show repeatedly acknowledges, through some of its interviewed subjects, that spiritualism and mediumship have long histories of fraud. And yet. And yet, two episodes are spent on what can only be read as an attempt to convince us that some level of mediumship must be legitimate. Nothing changed my mind, although I was rather fond of the man who went from medium to medium, attempting to communicate with his dad, celebrating the sessions that were eerily accurate and emotionally on-point, yet even then noting how they could be faked or otherwise staged. For someone to continue to engage with mediums with an open mind, yet never shutting out his critical thinking, well–that’s a man after my own heart. But most of our time is spent with a succession of mediums and true believers. They even have a physical medium, someone who claims to be able to produce physical forms of spirits through the use of ectoplasm. In 2021, a documentary is giving serious space to a woman who claims to use ectoplasm! Oh, sure, all those other physical mediums were frauds or at least highly suspect, but this one’s different? This one who leads seminars to train others to be mediums? Wild! Don’t get me wrong–if you were on the fence, or susceptible to believing in mediumship, this might push you over the edge with some of the more compelling readings, but there’s nothing here that proves mediums are real or that counteracts the obvious non-mystic explanations for all their stunts.

The episode on signs from the dead was fascinating because it really showed how desperately people look for comfort and reassurance when they lose someone. I felt for them. This episode was especially hard on my wife, because it’s basically a nearly hour-long presentation of people’s very raw grief. While it was not compelling evidence for taking signs seriously, it was a nice reminder that if you can take comfort from a perceived sign, there’s no harm in doing so, and a lot of people, even otherwise non-spiritual and rational people, can find comfort in this. In other words, it was just a very human story.

Finally, the episode on end-of-life visions also had a segment on ghosts and ghost hunters. The woman-of-color ghost hunter the series follows is more interesting than the jackass white bros we normally see; rather than pretending to be scientific (and they never are), she actually seemed almost like a shaman, someone who felt that her hobby was sacred work. She was still over-fond of tech gadgets that don’t ever detect or react in exactly the ways the ghost hunters think they do, but it was still a more sentimental and reflective segment than I was expecting given the usual ghost hunters on TV. The proposed “evidence” is all the same, though, and very non-conclusive.

While the episode quality varies, I did stay engaged throughout, even if scoffing at the people onscreen (which was rarer than I might have expected). It was compelling television, with a refreshingly human focus that showed the value in the experiences for the living, regardless of what those experiences actually said about the dead. As an intimate look at how humans respond to death and attempt to adjust to loss in the modern era, I would highly recommend this show.