Our Longreads Member Pick:
The Prophet, by Luke Dittrich

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For this week’s Member Pick, we’re excited to share “The Prophet,” a new story from Luke Dittrich and Esquire magazine investigating the claims made by Dr. Eben Alexander in the best-selling book Proof of Heaven, about Alexander’s own near-death experience.

Dittrich, a contributing editor at Esquire since 2008, has been featured on Longreads many times in the past and his work has appeared in anthologies including The Best American Crime Writing, The Best American Travel Writing, and The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and his article about a group of strangers who sheltered together during a devastating tornado won the 2012 National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. He is currently writing a book for Random House about his neurosurgeon grandfather's most famous patient, Henry Molaison, an amnesiac from whom medical science learned most of what it knows about how memory works.

For more from Esquire, you can subscribe to the magazine here.

The ProphetLuke Dittrich | Esquire | August 2013 | 42 minutes (10,525 words)

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

On December 18, 2012, the set of Fox & Friends was both festive and somber. Festive because it was the Christmas season. The three hosts, two men in dark suits flanking a woman in a blue dress, sat on a mustard-colored couch in front of a cheery seasonal backdrop: a lit-up tree, silver-painted twigs, mounds of tinsel, blue and red swatches of fabric, and, here and there, multicolored towers of blown glass with tapering points that made them look surprisingly like minarets. Somber because a terrible thing had happened just four days earlier, in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. All three hosts looked sad, but the woman, Gretchen Carlson, looked the saddest.

The shot of the three hosts occupied most of the right three quarters of the screen. A guest was joining them by satellite from another location, and a shot of his head and shoulders occupied most of the rest of the screen. This was his third appearance on the program in the last few months. He wore a dark blazer and a button-down shirt with blue stripes. He was middle-aged and handsome in an old-fashioned way, with tanned skin and thick hair parted on the right. The banner below the video feeds read, Hope is Not Lost: Neurosurgeon Says Heaven is Real.

"Dr. Alexander," Carlson said, "if people don’t know your story, you, you were ill, you were in a coma, you left this earth for a week, you were in heaven, and then you wrote about your experiences there, and you were told that you were supposed to come back to the earth."

She paused. She looked into the camera and then looked up toward the studio ceiling and rocked slightly forward.

"As people are grappling with the horrible nature of this tragedy," she said, her voice cracking, her lower lip trembling, "will these children forget, when they are in heaven, what happened to them?"

It was, let’s be clear, an unusual question. One imagines the host of a national news program would feel comfortable posing this question to only a very few guests. A priest? A bishop? The pope? But let’s be clear about something else: Dr. Eben Alexander was presented as more qualified to answer this question than all of them. His authority on heaven hadn’t come from prayer or contemplation or a vote taken at some conclave. He had been there. And although a lot of people might make similar claims concerning visits to heaven and the receipt of personal revelations from God and be roundly dismissed, Dr. Alexander was different. He was, as the Fox News Web site declared, a "renowned neurosurgeon." A man of science at the summit of the secular world. And when he answered the unusual question, he did so without hesitation, without hedging, and with the same fluency and authority he might exhibit when comforting a patient about an upcoming operation.

"Well, they will know what happened," Alexander said, and a hint of sadness swirled in his own eyes for a moment. "But they will not feel the pain." His voice was southern and smooth, soft and warm. The shots of the studio and of the satellite feed faded away, and a heartbreaking tableau faded in, a grid of photographs. Fourteen children, each just six or seven years old, each smiling, each now, the viewer knew, dead. Alexander’s voice, soothing, heartfelt, poured on. "They will feel the love and cherishing of their being back there. And they will know that they have changed this world."

Now the views of the studio and of Dr. Alexander faded back in, and the host to the left of Carlson, Brian Kilmeade, a compact and gruff guy with a sheaf of papers stacked on the table in front of him like a prosecuting attorney, asked a question. It was another unusual question and perhaps that’s why Kilmeade prefaced it with a reiteration of what made their guest uniquely qualified to answer it.

"So Dr. Alexander," he said, "your book, your book—and you’re a neurosurgeon, you never believed in this until it happened to you, and you were brain-dead for a week, and your friends who work in your business say that there’s no way you could have possibly come back, there was no activity there. Where is the shooter?"

Alexander nodded along as the man posed the question and again answered without pausing. "The shooter is in a place of reviewing his own life," he said while the camera showed Gretchen Carlson wiping the tears from her eyes. "It’s a very real phenomenon, of reliving all of the events of one’s life and reliving the pain and suffering that we’ve handed out to others. But from their point of view."

This is a story about points of view.

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