This story was almost never told. The group Dave was with didn’t want any publicity. And Dave himself questioned whether it would do Elisabeth Kübler-Ross any good. He finally decided it might do all of us some good. We agree.
The word was in my mind all day. Pivotal. Not my favorite word, or one I often use. Everything seemed pivotal. The hour, the fuel gauge, an oldie on the radio, a yawn, the confusing streets of High Point. The word ran along like a cork on my babbling subconscious stream, unexpectedly bobbing up in sentences, intruding in my mental flow like a bothersome note from a half-remembered tune.
I was uneasy. There was too much crammed into one day. The morning was spent fixing cars, getting kids off to school, working on advertising. The borrowed pickup truck acted difficult all the way down 85, and I got lost in High Point, a town I never liked anyway.
I had butterflies, too, about possibly interviewing this awesome person, the death lady, the world-renowned psychiatrist and author. I consider myself a journalist. I am always a little nervous, but never really uncomfortable, about talking with important people. But this was Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Lots of people are heavy, but this woman earned her weight. She had worked with dying people since the fifties. You have to be special to do that.
Frankly, her work with the dying didn’t interest me very much. What brought me here was her stand on life after death. She was in favor of it. That the world’s authority on death, a psychiatrist no less, should opine in behalf of the afterlife, was amazing. To get a psychiatrist to admit to the reality of mind is sometimes an accomplishment. The standard psycho-medical attitude is usually of the mind-as-meat variety, with consciousness treated as a path-o-prone mess of adaptive response mechanisms. At least that’s my biased outsider’s point of view. Whatever the prevailing opinions, Kübler-Ross’ new stand was momentous, maybe even historic.
Leaning against the lectern, in the middle of the stage, was a tiny lady in baggy nondescript clothes. Her short grayish hair and curved nose gave her a tough, world-hardened appearance. Her manner was firm, warm and totally at ease. She had more than presence. She had mass. Her body seemed so strangely small and her authority so immense that I was reminded of the Magritte painting with the mountain-sized rock hovering motionless over an ocean.
I could feel her importance. It seemed focussed, beamlike, in her messages. They were heart messages. It was a heart subject: Dealing with the Dying. The audience was mostly professional medical people and some clergy. She got them to suggest meanings for the symbolic messages drawn by dying children. In that two-hour lecture, two thousand people learned things they never knew about the language of the dying. She taught how to know when a dying person is ready to talk about it. She gave suggestions to nurses, who often become emotionally closest with dying patients. Her words rang true. People cried.
Part of her warmth is an easy, quick sense of humor. She admonished members of the clergy not to stop a dying person from railing against God. “God can take it,” she said.
She popped out the door quick as a chipmunk from its hole, and disarmed everybody with her charming informality. She kicked off her shoes, jumped on a double-bed, propped herself up against the wall, and lit a cigarette. She told everybody to flop on the beds and asked what she could do for us. By then I noticed something strange, something atmospheric, building.
The energy in the room grew, rising with a swell that had me floating nearly off the bed. I became aware of my boundaries. I couldn’t tell my skin from my clothes, or my clothes from the bedspread. My shoes and the rug were one. I was trying to match the borders of my consciousness with the surface of my body, as if I were matching stencils. The feeling was uncomfortably familiar.
“I have PROOF,” she said. “Beyond any doubt, I have proof, and I don’t know where to begin.” She was like an excited girl, filled with bouncy enthusiasm, spinning a story that had us spellbound.
Though reports among our group vary, her story went something like this:
Last September, she went to California at the request of a group which informed her, upon her arrival for what she thought was another lecture, that a spirit on the other side had suggested the meeting. Seventy-five people were there, chosen by the spirit to assist in a materialization. Their numbers were intended to convince the skeptical Dr. Ross of the credibility of the occurrence.
The spirit did appear — a large man who introduced himself as Anka. He greeted her warmly and held her hands, conveying, in her words, “all the warmth and love of the universe.” She was confused and excited. Anka told her she was to meet her own spirit guide, but needed to calm down first. He sent her outside to have a cigarette. She smoked three cigarettes and came back in. Another spirit, Salem, materialized. He addressed her as Isabel, his sister from 2000 years ago, when she was a physician to Jesus during the period when Jesus journeyed from Egypt back to Jerusalem.
Dr. Ross and Salem talked for a long time. He knew everything about her — things nobody but she knew. And he told her about the future, and her role in the coming world changes. He said she would be “crucified” for what she would say, but that it would all work out.
I was moved. Surely the medical community would roast her for this. Life after death is one thing. Almost every religion espouses it, but religion is forgivable, a special case. She has everything to lose, I thought.
I wanted to ask a question. I could feel the energy rise, the words back up in my throat. I wanted the words to make sense. I was afraid they might not. I spoke slowly.
“I get the feeling that somehow you may be the pivotal person in a changing popular awareness . . .”
“What was that word?” she cut in, her face twisted with concentration.
“I asked if you were the pivotal person . . .”
“What is this word ‘pivotal’? I don’t know what that means.”
I didn’t know what to say. This woman’s vocabulary exceeds mine by half a dictionary and several languages. Why does she ask me what a word like “pivotal” means? I pressed on.
“If you are the impor . . .”
“aaAAH!” she interrupted, slapping her forehead with the heel of her hand. “That’s just Salem.” She looks up, as though in sudden realization. “That’s Salem.”
I felt both relieved and annoyed — relieved that I said something I somehow needed to say, and annoyed that I didn’t get an understandable answer.
What did she mean? The feeling, the warm energy, was almost gone. I felt as though I unloaded something. I felt I unloaded a word. I wondered why I had to phrase the question so strangely. I could have shot her a simple, easy-to-answer, quotable question. But I had to get that damn word in there. Pivotal. It wasn’t even my word.
What was going on? If someone else told me this story, I’d dismiss it as the kind of specious psychic testimonial usually found in grocery store tabloids. But that feeling, so much like before . . .
Before, a time my carefully nurtured intellectual certitude hastens to forget, was in 1966, my freshman year in college. I was an impressionable 18-year old, investigating religion. I became caught up in a small Pentecostal group which met weekly to praise the Lord in pentecostal ways, which meant exercising the pentecostal gifts, most notably speaking in tongues. I was fascinated by seeing dirt farmers and bankers and teen queens and fellow college students kneeling on the floor with arms stretched to the ceiling, babbling praise to Jesus in anything but English. Convincingly. Anybody speaking in tongues can imitate a language better than Sid Caesar. Without the laughs. They sound real. Before I was through with Pentecostals (on social-political grounds; many were racist) I managed to speak in tongues myself. I’ll never forget it. Something else took over. Praise, literally, swelled up in me and spewed out my mouth like a geyser of unintelligible (but carefully formed) words. It was an experience, the only experience of my life, that I could not reconcile intellectually. It stood on its own, with its own internal values, never understood and never repeated.
I hadn’t forgotten that I once spoke in tongues, but I had forgotten the feeling — until that day with Kübler-Ross. The situation was different. The feeling was the same. The release I felt at unburdening myself of that word, of the sentence which surrounded it, was nearly identical to the feeling I had after speaking in tongues.
She played a tape for us. People singing “You Are My Sunshine.” I tried to pick out different voices. One was obviously Kübler-Ross, her thick Swiss accent unerringly off key. The main voice — a deep, male voice — was right on tune. This was Salem, she said. We sang along.
Before we returned to the auditorium for the second lecture, she asked us, was the audience ready for this? Some of us said yes, others, no. She asked us to distribute ourselves throughout the audience so she could see us and draw energy from us.
Well, she may have felt our energy, but she didn’t bring IT up. She spoke instead about the irrefutable evidence for life after death found in people who survive near-death experiences. These people usually leave their bodies when clinical death occurs and have transcendent experiences before physical life is somehow restored. They meet people who have already died. Some meet Jesus, or a Being of Light. Some go down long tunnels. Some simply hover in the air and watch the doctors labor over their near corpses. All decide to return, of course, or they wouldn’t tell about it. Some were so dead their EEGs were flat.
She heaped on the Evidence. The skeptics in the audience fired questions. She answered them with crisp authority. The Evidence was irrefutable. You could see they agreed.
I kept wondering. What if she tells them about the spirit thing, about her materialized guide and all that? What would they think then?
From what I’ve heard, Dr. Kübler-Ross is already catching hell. Some say she’s hallucinating, others that she’s out of her range of authority. She’s getting death threats. Members of the clergy accuse her of “selling cheap grace” (“whatever that is,” she says).
I don’t know what to think. On the one hand (or cerebral hemisphere), I tend to dismiss it all as a sad kind of fraud; by her, by the people in California, maybe. On the other hand, I can’t explain away profound experiences. The feeling in that room that day was profound. Can I trivialize that experience by calling it fraud?
As usual these days, we are stuck between things, between cultures, between attitudes, between truths, between viewpoints. The discontinuity between Dr. Ross’s public image and her private psychic reality is boggling. Even stranger is that this discontinuity has been going on since September and it hasn’t showed up in the straight press yet. A few people know about it. There was an article in the Yoga Journal about a presentation given by Dr. Ross the day after IT happened. As far as I know, nobody in the big media has picked up on it and taken her to task.
But they will. And she will be “crucified” for it. Salem is right. That’s my intellectual opinion. Here are my feelings: a Change is happening. All that credibility stuff doesn’t matter. The standards will be altered, maybe abolished. And it will turn out all right.