This is a book that will make a lot of people very uncomfortable. After all, anything with ‘After Death Communication’ in its title will automatically earn the derision of atheists and other sceptics, and might also seriously bother even those who waver somewhere on the fence between a belief in an afterlife and an assumption that death is truly the end. Yet, as taxes aren’t the only certainty in life, perhaps we all owe it to ourselves to address the extraordinary experiences outlined in this book. And if you’re expecting vague waffle about spiritualist mediums blatantly fishing for clues from bemused and grief-ridden clients, think again. If anything can be termed ‘hardcore clinical psychology’ this is surely it.
The main author here, the American psychologist Allan Botkin, spent decades as a mainstream behaviourist, mainly dealing with the post-traumatic stress fall-out from conflicts such as the Vietnam war. Like most other hard-nosed scientists, Botkin was also a sceptic about all things even vaguely connected with an afterlife.
He, and the vast majority of his fellow clinical psychologists, stuck to the accepted form of treatment for post-traumatic stress and debilitating grief – urging their patients to confront the pain. The bereaved were then expected to disengage from their deceased loved ones as part of the ‘moving on’ process. These techniques, though in widespread use, had minimal success – and even the little it enjoyed tended to diminish rapidly over time.
Then in 1995 Botkin first used Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), developed by Dr Francine Shapiro in the 1980s, to treat those still emotionally reeling from past traumas, whether in armed conflict or in close family relationships. Botkin immediately discovered that this is a truly powerful psychotherapeutic procedure – and became its champion. But he believes it also provided an answer to the greatest of all human questions: does our personality somehow survive bodily death?
Basically, the EMDR technique requires the patient to focus on the profound sadness at the core of their trauma – usually overlaid with guilt and anger – and then follow certain movements of the therapist’s hand with their eyes, without moving their heads. (Do NOT try an approximation of this at home!) Extraordinary though it might seem, this simple exercise effectively opens up a window to the lost loved one at the heart of the problem. It does so immediately, positively and – most important of all – apparently authentically. In terms of healing the patient, since 1995 EMDR has proved 98 per cent successful. And a single session is often all that is needed.
The first case Botkin experienced proved to be typical. A Vietnam veteran, Sam, had suffered nightmares and flashbacks for decades after the little local girl called Le that he intended to adopt had been blown open by enemy bullets. He couldn’t rid his mind of the devastating image of her mangled body. And he couldn’t cope with the loss. Psychologically Sam was a wreck for 28 years – until his first session of EMDR with Dr Botkin.
Concentrating as instructed on the core grief, Sam sat and cried. With more sets of eye movements his sadness began to decrease. So far so good – in fact, even that was considerably better than the usual therapy. But then Botkin administered the final set of eye movements…
Sam suddenly smiled hugely and laughed. Then he opened his eyes, actually euphoric. He reported seeing Le as a beautiful adult woman surrounded by a radiant light. She hugged him and said she loved him and thanked him for taking care of her before she died. ‘I could actually feel her arms around me,’ he said. He was utterly convinced he had literally made contact with Le’s spirit.
Botkin had no idea what to make of this. The obvious analysis was that Sam had experienced some form of hallucination. But it had apparently come out of nowhere, was entirely positive – and, he was to discover, was immediately totally healing. The agony of nearly three decades had disappeared in minutes, never to return. And the euphoria and sense of very real closeness to Le never diminished. Botkin describes Sam as having ‘flowered in an instant’, and that blossoming simply stayed with him.
This persistent certainty of contact with the deceased is a major feature of EMDR, and all his case studies to date have convinced Botkin himself that the dead can – and do – communicate with the living. And in using these exercises to help heal the patients, effectively the therapist is arguably also inducing after death communication…
One of Botkin’s patients lived day and night with the horrific image of holding his dead mother in his arms. Her eyes had rolled up and her face had lost muscle tone. He called it her ‘death face’ and nothing could shift its power to disturb and distress him years after the event. Yet in just one session of EMDR he encountered her young-looking – ‘wearing an outdated dress’ – laughing and gloriously happy. She told him she is fine. This new image was so instantly powerful that it replaced that of the ‘death face’ so completely that the patient couldn’t even summon it up in his imagination.
Others, mentally crippled by memories of fellow soldiers’ grisly deaths, find themselves in their deceased comrades’ company, sharing a joke, with the overwhelming message ‘it’s all OK’. None of the nightmare of their passing is important to them now. As one patient remarked: ‘I just remember his smiling face, not his gaping wound.’
So what is actually going on? This is not hypnosis, which can encourage the patient to create certain scenarios to please the therapist. In fact, Botkin stresses that he’s used EMDR to undo false memories created by hypnotherapy.
Perhaps it’s impossible to say for certain what lies behind this phenomenon. If it’s a function of the human unconscious alone then it’s a mighty powerful one – not to mention rather weird - wiping as it does in minutes the trauma the very same unconscious has been replaying for decades. It’s also significant that experiencers remark they can’t control the images – unlike, say, in lucid dreaming. And drug users can immediately tell the difference between a blatantly unreal LSD trip and meeting a loved one through EMDR.
The well-worn sceptical ‘explanation’ for Near Death Experiences (NDEs) – that the apparent experience of death is no more than a chemical reaction of the dying brain – certainly holds no water here as all the experiencers were in normal health. No drugs, no extreme brain chemistry. And unlike some NDEs, there are never any negative experiences. Some, especially attempted suicides, who report leaving their bodies during ‘death’ report hellish scenarios. Yet in the encounters described through EMDR even suicides are radiantly happy.
And if these experiences were just a trick of the mind, it would seem highly unlikely that their effects would remain undiminished even with the passage of many years.
Then there is the fact that everyone, no matter what their personal beliefs, experience these apparent encounters with deceased loved ones. Christians, Jews, agnostics and atheists alike report the same instant healing through meeting those whose passing had caused such enduring agony. Needless to say, it is impossible to remain sceptical about an afterlife after experiencing this phenomenon. As one man said with wonderment: ‘People don’t really die; they just take on a different form and live in a different place, which is very beautiful.’
Sometimes, there are tantalising slivers of evidence. One man encountered his old friend who had a dog with him. The deceased man said it was his sister’s pet. Although the patient had no knowledge she had a dog, it transpired she had indeed owned one – now deceased. And precisely the rather unusual breed he’d seen.
EMDR is now a growing movement among clinical psychologists in many countries, though one might reasonably guess it’s probably not going to be available on the U.K.’s National Health any time soon. As a therapeutic tool, there is no doubt at all that it has succeeded beyond its proponents’ wildest dreams. But is it also so much more?
Suspending disbelief – because if any one book begs for that, this one does – could it really be true that a simple series of eye movements can open up a portal between this world and the next? Perhaps EMDR is essentially a form of near-instant shamanism, one that we can all access almost instantly without years of training or horrific initiations. Perhaps, though, it doesn’t matter what it is or how it might operate. The important thing, surely, is that it’s not about death or dying. After all, this technique is all about giving life back to the living – even if, it seems, this can only happen via the dead. As Botkin says, ‘the dead are the best therapists’. -- Lynn Picknett