A new collection of immersive essays from the most acclaimed editor of the second half of the twentieth century
This new collection from the legendary editor Robert Gottlieb features twenty or so pieces he’s written mostly for The New York Review of Books, ranging from reconsiderations of American writers such as Dorothy Parker, Thornton Wilder, Thomas Wolfe (“genius”), and James Jones, to Leonard Bernstein, Lorenz Hart, Lady Diana Cooper (“the most beautiful girl in the world”), the actor-assassin John Wilkes Booth, the scandalous movie star Mary Astor, and not-yet president Donald Trump.
The writings compiled here are as various as they are provocative: an extended probe into the world of post-death experiences; a sharp look at the biopics of transcendent figures such as Shakespeare, Molière, and Austen; a soap opera-ish movie account of an alleged affair between Chanel and Stravinsky; and a copious sampling of the dance reviews he’s been writing for The New York Observer for close to twenty years. A worthy successor to his expansive 2011 collection, Lives and Letters, and his admired 2016 memoir, Avid Reader, Near-Death Experiences displays the same insight and intellectual curiosity that have made Gottlieb, in the words of The New York Times’s Dwight Garner, “the most acclaimed editor of the second half of the twentieth century.”
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About the Author
Robert Gottlieb has been the editor in chief of Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker. He is the author of Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhard, George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker, and Lives and Letters (FSG, 2011), and is the dance critic for The New York Observer.
Read an Excerpt
I've never had a near-death experience and don't know anyone who has, but according to a poll that's quoted throughout the NDE literature, at least five percent of Americans have returned from one and told the tale. That may be a small percentage, but it's a lot of people — given today's population, over fifteen million. Other estimates are lower, but they're still huge. And most of these people seem to be writing books.
The current front-runner is the omnipresent Heaven Is for Real, by Todd Burpo "with" Lynn Vincent — and don't underestimate that "with": Lynn Vincent has been, among other things, the ghostwriter for Sarah Palin's Going Rogue, and she knows what she's doing. (I imagine that after dealing with Palin, dealing with Colton Burpo — who, before he turned four, almost died of a ruptured appendix, went to heaven, and came back with a detailed report — must have been a piece of cake.) Actually, she's not little Colton's collaborator, she's his dad's: It's Todd, Colton's father, who tells the story.
Todd Burpo is the pastor of the Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska, population approximately two thousand. He also owns a company that installs garage doors, and is a wrestling coach for junior high and high school students and a volunteer with the Imperial fire department. His wife, Sonja, works as an office manager, has a master's in library and information science, and is a certified teacher. When Colton, their second child, suffers his burst appendix — his condition has been misdiagnosed — the family undergoes an agonizing period of suspense during the time he's close to death before making a full recovery. Lynn Vincent jerks every tear in recounting this frightening story — "Daddy! Don't let them take meeee!" — but has room for touches of humor, too. At a crucial moment: "That night might be the only time in recorded history that eighty people [Todd's parishioners] gathered and prayed for someone to pass gas!" ("Within an hour, the ... prayer was answered!")
Colton's remarkable story is really two stories. One is his account of what he sees when, under anesthesia, he looks down from the hospital room ceiling and observes the doctors working on his body, his Mommy praying and talking on the telephone in one room, and his Daddy praying in another. When, days later, he casually mentions this to his father, "Colton's words rocked me to the core. ... How could he have known?" Actually, this kind of out-of-body experience — in which the presumably unconscious person still has the faculties of sight, hearing, and memory — turns out to be a fairly common phenomenon.
The other story is what Colton experienced in heaven while he was being operated on, a story that emerges only four months later when, under Todd's gentle questioning, Colton's parents learn that their boy had met "nice" John the Baptist and the angel Gabriel, who's also nice. And because "a lot of our Catholic friends have asked whether Colton saw Mary, the mother of Jesus," the answer is yes. "He saw Mary kneeling before the throne of God and at other times, standing beside Jesus. 'She still loves him like a mom,'" Colton reports. What's more, Colton sat in Jesus's lap observing his clothes (white with a purple sash) and his "markers" — Colton's term for the stigmata. Everyone but Jesus had wings: "Jesus just went up and down like an elevator."
What most startled the Burpos was Colton's suddenly saying, "Mommy, I have two sisters." There's not only his older sister, Cassie, but "You had a baby die in your tummy, didn't you?" As Vincent puts it, "At that moment, time stopped in the Burpo household, and Sonja's eyes grew wide." Sonja: "Who told you I had a baby die in my tummy?" "She did, Mommy. She said she had died in your tummy." "Emotions rioted across Sonja's face." "It's okay, Mommy. She's okay. God adopted her." "Don't you mean Jesus adopted her?" "No, Mommy. His Dad did!" Before returning to earth, Colton also witnessed the battle of Armageddon and saw Jesus victorious and Satan defeated and thrown into hell. His entire trip to heaven, he reports, took place in three minutes.
The tale of Colton Burpo, so slickly told and efficiently exploited, poses an immediate question, of course: Are the Burpos sincere, or is this a fraud? Despite all the commercialization, I believe that they believe; that little Colton said things he thought to be true and that were shaped into this artful narrative by an astute collaborator.
* * *
WITH EIGHT MILLION COPIES SOLD since its publication in 2010, Heaven Is for Real was number one on the trade nonfiction best-seller list for well over a year and recently opened successfully as a movie, starring Greg Kinnear as Todd Burpo. The movie is pretty, pious, and at times plausible — not as an account of a trip to a greeting-card pastel heaven but as an account of parents dealing with their faith, their child, and their bank account. (One of the themes of both the book and the movie is the Burpos' constant struggle with bills.) The film benefits from restrained performances, Kinnear never seeming embarrassed by what he's been given to do and the little boy who plays Colton not only an amazing look-alike for the real Colton but simple and unaffected. You believe the actor if not his story.
The most interesting thing about the movie is how Hollywood has modeled it after a familiar genre that has nothing to do with the book: the ordinary good guy who stands up for what he believes against the naysayers. The church elders, who have been close friends and devoted supporters of the Burpos, suddenly, without our being prepared, decide they may have to replace Todd, since all the fuss about Colton is making their church too much of a roadshow attraction. But Todd is allowed to give one last sermon to set things straight, which he proceeds to do in a montage of spoken clichés so confused and banal that it's almost impossible to follow them. No matter: The genuine all-American guy of high intentions is instantly a hero again. Mr. Deeds has come to town, Mr. Smith has come to Washington — it's Capracorn at its most virulent. And indeed there's a final image of Kinnear hugging his family while everyone brims with goodwill that's a direct steal from the famous shot of Jimmy Stewart at the end of It's a Wonderful Life. What's odd is that none of this dramatic conflict is in the book. When the chips are down, Hollywood relies on itself, not Revelation.
* * *
NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES became a subject of wide-ranging public discussion and dispute in 1975, when a doctor named Raymond Moody Jr. published Life After Life — a book that in the subsequent literature on the phenomenon more or less holds the place of the Bible, its authority constantly cited and Moody's imprimatur constantly sought. Its hold on the reading public is also remarkable: Thirteen million copies have been sold. But considering its sensational effect, the book itself is painstakingly unsensational. It's a circumspect report on what the young doctor had been hearing from some of his patients — and then from others whom he sought out, more than a thousand in all — about experiences they had when near death. In fact, it was Moody who coined the phrase "near-death experience."
What his book did was validate the subject. As he wrote in a recent memoir, Paranormal: My Life in Pursuit of the Afterlife, "People no longer had to keep it in the closet or worry about people thinking they were crazy. It gave us legitimate consolation." But in a revised edition of his Life After Life published in 2001, he writes: "Sadly, the avalanche of books on the subject includes many that, to my personal knowledge, have been fabricated by unscrupulous self-promoters cynically seeking notoriety or financial gain rather than true advancement in knowledge."
If Raymond Moody is the godfather of the near-death movement, the godmother — or grandmother — was Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who demands attention because of On Death and Dying (1969), her influential book on the five stages of grief. In a later book, On Life After Death, she turns to more speculative matters, speaking with absolute (and unsupported) authority: "What the church tells little children about guardian angels is based on fact. There is proof that every human being, from his birth until his death, is guided by a spirit entity." Among her other pronouncements: "it is a blessing to have cancer" and "a minimum of 30 percent of our population" have been sexually abused in their childhood.
When Kübler-Ross herself emerged from a self-induced out-of-body experience, she tells us, "my bowel obstruction was healed, and I was literally able to lift a hundred-pound sugar bag from the floor without any discomfort or pain. I was told that I radiated, that I looked twenty years younger." Why am I not surprised that her early ambition was to be a doctor in India the way Albert Schweitzer was in Africa, and that Mother Teresa "is one of my saints"? But she found even more important work to do than healing. "My real job," she explains, "is to tell people that death does not exist. It is very important that mankind knows this, for we are at the beginning of a very difficult time. Not only for this country, but for the whole planet earth."
* * *
WHAT EXACTLY CONSTITUTES A NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE? Jeffrey Long, in Evidence of the Afterlife, sums up:
Researchers have concluded that NDEs may include some or all of the following twelve elements:
1. Out-of-body experience (OBE): Separation of consciousness from the physical body
2. Heightened senses
3. Intense and generally positive emotions or feelings
4. Passing into or through a tunnel
5. Encountering a mystical or brilliant light
6. Encountering other beings, either mystical beings or deceased relatives or friends
7. A sense of alteration of time or space
8. Life review
9. Encountering unworldly ("heavenly") realms
10. Encountering or learning special knowledge
11. Encountering a boundary or barrier
12. A return to the body, either voluntary or involuntary
And indeed, as you trawl through the personal narratives of those who report their NDEs, these are the notes that are sounded again and again.
Such experiences are hardly new — there are numerous examples of them, or something similar to them, throughout history. Like many others, Moody cites the story of Er, as told in The Republic (Plato "was one of the greatest thinkers of all time"). Er (an ancient Greek cousin to Lazarus) was a warrior who rose from his funeral pyre and described what he had experienced while "dead." It does sound as if Er had undergone a genuine NDE, but because the NDE vocabulary is so fluid, it's sometimes hard to distinguish one particular experience from other, related ones — visions, hallucinations, dreams.
A very detailed report of an NDE was left us in a memoir by General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, who, when a young man, was seized by a sudden fever and in just a few hours "was brought to the very brink of death. ... A strange faintness seized me. I lost consciousness. My next sensation was altogether beyond description. It was the thrill of a new and celestial existence. I was in heaven."
Many of today's familiar tropes are present: the flashback through his past life, the angelic spirits, the glorious music. Jesus appears to Booth, a radiant yet stern presence, and speaks:
Go back to earth. I will give thee another opportunity. Prove thyself worthy of My name. Show to the world that thou possessest My spirit by doing My works, and becoming, on My behalf, a savior of men. Thou shalt return hither when thou hast finished the battle, and I will give thee a place in My conquering train, and a share in My glory.
And so the Salvation Army.
Many other great names are cited throughout the literature: Plotinus, Meister Eckhart, Blake, Swedenborg, Dostoevsky. Did they have visions? Out-of-body experiences? NDEs? More recent witnesses include Carl Jung, who in his Memories, Dreams, Reflections reports what was clearly an NDE. At the age of sixty-eight, while suffering a long, life-threatening illness, he found himself floating in space, which was "bathed in a gloriously blue light." And then his physician, "or, rather, his likeness" — "in his primal form" — floated up from Europe, where Jung's physical body lay. "He had been delegated by the earth to deliver a message to me, to tell me that there was a protest against my going away. I had no right to leave the earth and must return" — proof of, if nothing else, Jung's monumental ego. His visions and experiences, he reports, "were utterly real; there was nothing subjective about them; they all had a quality of absolute objectivity."
And would Elizabeth Taylor lie? After the death of her husband Mike Todd, she "went to that tunnel, saw the white light, and Mike. I said, 'Oh Mike, you're where I want to be.' And he said, 'No, Baby. You have to turn around and go back because there is something very important for you to do.'" No doubt he was thinking of the important things she would go on to achieve for AIDS relief and other causes, not the making of Cleopatra. Among the other stars who have reported NDEs are Peter Sellers, Donald Sutherland, Chevy Chase, Burt Reynolds, and Lou Gossett Jr., who has had five of them. (He also recalls a previous incarnation as a pirate with a harem off the coast of Morocco.)
* * *
THE NUMBER-TWO BOOK in the heaven genre, as I write, is considerably more sophisticated, tendentious, and disagreeable than Heaven Is forReal. It's Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife, by Eben Alexander, the work of a doctor who tells us that his "conclusions are based on a medical analysis of my experience, and on my familiarity with the most advanced concepts in brain studies and consciousness studies." In other words, he's his own expert witness. What happened to Dr. Alexander? One night when he was fifty-four, he reports, "a rare illness" threw him into a seven-day coma, during which time his "entire neocortex — the outer surface of the brain, the part that makes us human — was shut down." His twenty-year-old son "was looking at what he knew was, essentially, a corpse. My physical body was there in front of him, but the dad he knew was gone."
Gone, but not gone. That dad was undergoing a rich yet not atypical NDE experience: "I was flying, passing over trees and fields, streams and waterfalls, and here and there, people. There were children, too, laughing and playing. The people sang and danced around in circles, and sometimes I'd see a dog, running and jumping among them, as full of joy as the people were." There's a beautiful girl: "Golden-brown tresses framed her lovely face." There are millions of butterflies all around. He reaches the Core, where everything "came instantly in an explosion of light, color, love, and beauty that blew through me like a crashing wave ... in a way that bypassed language." "I understood that I was part of the Divine and that nothing — absolutely nothing — could ever take that away," and so "was granted full access to the cosmic being I really am (and we all are)."
In heaven Alexander learned that we are eternal. And he brings back important tidings: "Each and every one of us is deeply known and cared for by a Creator who cherishes us beyond any ability we have to comprehend. That knowledge must no longer remain a secret." And: "I see it as my duty — both as a scientist and hence a seeker of truth, and as a doctor devoted to helping people — to make known to as many people as I can that what I underwent is true, and real, and of stunning importance. Not just to me, but to all of us." He's a prophet as well as a surgeon.
He's also a man who's had a troubled life, tormented by the knowledge that he'd been adopted as an infant, giving way to profound depression, alcoholism, despair. Only when he eventually meets the teenage couple who had had to give him away, and discovers that he had been loved by them, does he recover from the feeling that "subconsciously, I had believed that I didn't deserve to be loved, or even to exist." No wonder the crucial message he receives in heaven is "You are loved and cherished." And no wonder he encountered that golden-brown-tressed girl: A snapshot proves that she's a birth sister who had died before he was reunited with his birth family.
On first reading this narrative I was struck by both its grandiosity and its obvious elements of wish fulfillment, but I took for granted the lofty medical credentials Alexander stresses. However, as a lethal exposé by Luke Dittrich in Esquire recently revealed, Alexander's successful career has been stained by an extraordinary chain of unpleasant departures from prestigious institutions, by malpractice suits (five in one ten-year stretch — all settled out of court), and by loss of surgical privileges — he's been without official credentials since 2007. (The Virginia Board of Medicine once ordered him to take continuing education classes in ethics and professionalism.) None of this, needless to say, is alluded to in Proof of Heaven.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Near-Death Experiences ... and Others"
Copyright © 2018 Robert Gottlieb.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
Near-Death Experiences 3
A Trio of Go-Getter Trumps 25
"The Most Beautiful Girl in the World": Diana Cooper 31
Showing Off: John Wilkes Booth and His Brother Edwin 47
The Lyricist: Lorenz Hart 60
The Belter: Ethel Merman 77
The Wit Dorothy Parker 84
The Genius: Thomas Wolfe 97
The Sensationalist: Wilkie Collins 111
A Russian Classic Revisited 124
Just for the Fun of It: Fifty Books of the Twentieth Century 127
In the Mood for Love: Romance Novels Today 132
The Book of Books: American Musicals 141
The Writer: Sebastian Barry 146
Anatomy of a Publisher: The Story of Farrar, Straus and Giroux 157
The Maestro: Arturo Toscanini 171
Lenny! Leonard Bernstein 182
At the Top of Pop: Clive Davis 195
Sizing Up Sinatra 207
American Ballerina: Maria Tallchief 213
Russian Ballerina: Maya Plisetskaya 218
The Coach: Elena Tchernichova 223
Dancing in the Dark: Flesh and Bone 234
A Star on Pointe: Black Swan 240
Brilliant, Touching, Tough: Mary Astor 243
Liquid Asset: Esther Williams 254
Tame Jane: Jane Eyre in the Movies 259
Monstres Sacrés in Love: Stravinsky and Chanel 263
An Actress Like No Other Setsuko Hara 267
The Magic of Ashton 273
The Triumph of the Trocks 277
Twyla Tharp Takes Over Broadway 279
Robert Altman at the Ballet 283
The Disgrace of New York City Ballet 286
Farrell and Don Q 289
Cunningham's Boundless Ocean 294
The Bolshoi Wows Its Fans 296
The French on a Vivaldi Spree 301
Peter Martins's Efficient Swan Lake 305
A New Sleeping Beauty, a Great Aurora 308
Romeo + Juliet Stripped Clean 312
Can Martha Graham Be Kept Alive? 314
Bourne's Male Swans Are Back at the Lake 318
A New Nutcracker Hits BAM 320
The Glory of the Young Paul Taylor 324
Thirty Years of Peter Martins 326
One Big Bug 329
Paul Taylor's Diamond Jubilee 330
The Mariinsky-a Giant Question Mark 332
Alice in Love 335
The Red Army Assaults Lincoln Center 339
Michelle Dorrance: Tapping for Joy 341
City Ballet: Act III 343