Coming Back to Life – Review
Publisher: Ballantine Books
reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 3/5/1995
Summary: Old ideas in new package: the near death experience.
Republished from Crushies Book Reviews – Volume II Issue No. 3 – March 1995 – Copyright 1995.
There is so much to dislike about this book. Yet, the content and intent are of the highest aspirations. People who have been near-death do have something to offer us, if only of pedestrian interest. But somewhere between intent and final product, the author, Phyllis M. H. Atwater, took a decisively wrong turn in Coming Back to Life.
Atwater’s own near-death experience is most interesting. The first, more like a prelude to a near-death experience than an actual experience, occurred when she was alone in her house and suffered a miscarriage. She hemorrhaged, became unconscious but was able to revive after a couple of minutes. Her second experience was also brought about due to pain. It is this second experience that is the most interesting. She reports leaving her body and becoming aware of her consciousness; her life “flashed” before her eyes. And she came to a realization. In her words, “I had no idea, no idea at all, not even the slightest hint of an idea, that every thought, word, and deed was remembered, accounted for, and went out and had a life of its own once released; nor did I know that the energy of that life directly affected all it touched or came near . . .”
It is Atwater’s reported reaction to her second near-death experience that makes the book credible. It is as if she has been allowed to step back from herself and objectively observe her value as a person. What she finds, she says, is disappointing. Realizing that you are not the perfect you can be a humbling experience. So much so in fact that, if you value life or yourself, you constantly seek ways to make yourself better–not so much materially as spiritually. This is the theme running through the words of practically all people who have experienced “near-death”. They develop an almost insatiable desire to learn, to acquire knowledge and with that knowledge, move beyond the barriers of ego. Therein lies the trouble with this book. It achieves the unenviable feat of stepping on its own conclusion.
In case the reader misses the point, Atwater discusses at some length the work of Richard Maurice Bucke. Bucke, in his book Cosmic Consciousness published in 1901, set out to show how an assortment of fifty people attained spiritual enlightenment. He, like Atwater, codified the various levels of spiritual development in the people he examined. What Atwater describes as the after-effects of the near death experience, Bucke called the aftermath of illumination. The problem with Bucke’s work is that it provides more answers than there are questions. The same holds for Atwater’s work: she answers more questions than there are questions. This is usually a pretty good indication that something else is going on than the mere giving of knowledge. We’re working on a religion here. “Us” the enlightened against “them” the un-enlightened.
If you can wade your way through the elitist undertones–which are probably un-intentionally present but no less bothersome–you may pick-up a few insights into the universal themes of people and religion. Nothing new is said, which is a good thing. It is old thought in a new package–wrapped in a study of the near-death experience. The book would have been better perhaps if the packaging was not used.