brian finke

Dr Eben Alexander was a family friend. Then I investigated him.

Jul 25, 2013 · 3 min read

In 2008, a neurosurgeon named Eben Alexander slipped into a coma while being treated in ER. When he awoke, he described having visited heaven — a claim that led to a best-selling book, wealth and fame. But Dr Alexander’s account wasn’t complete: In the latest edition of Esquire, journalist Luke Dittrich describes how troubling episodes from the surgeon’s past were omitted from the book.

As Dittrich explains in the post below, it wasn’t an easy story for him to write—because Alexander is a family friend.

Dittrich’s investigation costs $1.99, but new and existing MATTER members have free access — click here to learn more.

Eben Alexander’s father and my grandfather were both prominent neurosurgeons. They were also good friends. My mother remembers a long-ago summer roadtrip, probably in the late 1940s or early 1950s, when she and her father and mother and brothers drove from New England down to North Carolina, where they stayed at the Alexanders’ house. At the beginning of my first interview with Alexander, I brought up the family connection, and his eyes sparked. We were in his study, and he got up off the couch and went to a nearby bookshelf. He scanned it for a second, then picked out a thick book with a faded blue cloth cover. It was a one-volume reference work, The New Columbia Encyclopedia.

My grandfather, Alexander said, had given that to him as a wedding present.

For the rest of our interview, the encyclopedia sat on a coffee table between us. At times, it felt to me like a silent accusation. The contours of the story I was working on were already clear. I’d already gathered more than a thousand pages of documents from four courts in two states, and had spoken with a host of Alexander’s former colleagues and friends. My reporting was beginning to make it pretty clear that Alexander’s bestselling book, Proof of Heaven, was a stew of factual innacuracies, misrepresentations, and omissions. But that wedding gift, sitting there heavy as a brick, weighed on me. It was a reminder that Eben Alexander wasn’t just a character in a story. He was real. You could almost call him a family friend. And this article I was working on, well, it didn’t look like it was going to be a friendly one.

There’s no good way to resolve that sort of tension.

I could lean on a creaky old excuse: The ends justify the means. Over the past few millenia, many people have invested much faith and money in self-styled prophets who come bearing fresh revelations from God. When a new one emerges, shouldn’t his claims be subject to a rigorous fact-check, even if my grandfather knew his father?

In the end, though, I don’t claim to be a crusader, or even a debunker. I actually have very mixed feelings when people refer to this profile of Eben Alexander as a “takedown piece.” That implies a sort of gratuitous and single-minded intent that wasn’t there. To me, this profile isn’t all that different from other profiles I’ve done. Which is to say, I piled up as much information as I could about the person I was profiling, then sifted through it, looking for the storyline hidden inside. In the case of Eben Alexander, it just happened to turn out that the most compelling storyline I found was the way the tale he’s been preaching doesn’t appear to match up with reality.

Dittrich’s story, The Prophet, is available free of charge to all new MATTER Members. That means that for just 99c each month you get all the benefits of MATTER Membership — every gripping story, our free audiobooks, the chance to put questions to our authors — and free access to a great story, published by one of the world’s best magazines, that would normally cost $1.99.

Sign up now to take advantage of this exclusive offer.

Just want to read The Prophet? Click here to purchase it from Esquire.

Image of Eben Alexander courtesy of Brian Finke. To see more of Brian’s work, visit his website, Instagram page or follow him on Twitter.

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