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Blinded by the Light? : Tales of near-death experiences--from visions of God to meeting Elvis--fascinate millions of us. But as the stories increase, so does the criticism.

March 24, 1995|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lightning shot through the telephone and into Dannion Brinkley's body, welding the nails in his shoes to the nails in the floor--and sending his soul on one of the most bizarre near-death sojourns ever recounted.

According to his best-selling book, "Saved by the Light," Brinkley traveled to a luminous crystal city where he met 13 silver-blue spirit beings, learned of calamities in store for the Earth and saw his entire life flash before him.

Or so the story goes.

For decades, Americans have been mesmerized by the tales of modern-day Lazaruses like Brinkley. They've bought millions of books about the afterlife, watched a litany of the ex-dead on talk shows, and devoured countless back-from-beyond tales in the media.

Some are so eager to hear about the hereafter that they seem to be blinded by the light. Despite the best shots from critics, they still give the benefit of the doubt. Even when things seem doubtful indeed.

Brinkley says his life review covered "at least 6,000 fistfights" that he had between fifth and 12th grades. That averages out to two brawls a day, nonstop for eight years, making Brinkley the Wilt Chamberlain of schoolyard pugilism.

He also says he was a Marine Corps sniper during the Vietnam War, dispatched to Cambodia and Laos to assassinate enemy officers and politicians. But military records show that Pfc. Brinkley was never a sniper, never saw combat, indeed never left the United States during his 18 months in the service.

He was a truck driver stationed in Atlanta.

Brinkley declines to offer any evidence of overseas duty, saying the government is covering up his record because it is classified. But several sources inside and outside the military (including ex-Marines involved in the same covert operations Brinkley claims a role in) say his tale is full of holes and that the so-called secret files are all public.

But his story isn't the first to be challenged.

Ever since Dr. Raymond Moody, a psychiatrist, coined the term "near-death experience" in 1975, the popular assumption has been that all such reports are remarkably similar and provide startling evidence for a hereafter.

Scratch beneath those flat EKG lines, however, and the stories are a veritable twilight zone of inconsistencies. Some near-death voyagers claim to have met God--but a few saw Elvis or Groucho Marx, researchers say. Others get to heaven not through the famous "tunnel" but aboard ghostly taxicabs, ferries that cross the River Styx, or spangled cows.

Even children--often touted as the best source of unbiased information--commonly return from "death" claiming they were greeted in the other world by \o7 living \f7 teachers and Nintendo characters instead of deceased relatives.

There also have been psychic slip-ups. In the late 1970s and early '80s, for instance, re-mortalized adults around the globe kept telling researchers of divinely inspired forecasts of a coming apocalypse. The near-unanimous date: 1988.

Adding to the uncertainty are credibility problems with some of the near-death experts themselves.

Moody, whose "Life After Life" book launched the phenomenon, now holds seances using mirrors and 15-watt light bulbs. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, another pioneer, has said she is a reincarnated disciple of Jesus and can travel out of her body. And "Embraced by the Light" author Betty J. Eadie, who is Mormon, raised eyebrows by printing one version of God's comments about abortion for readers in Utah, then revising the passage when her book began circulating elsewhere.

Meanwhile, scientists and other critics continue to hammer away at near-death evidence, offering down-to-earth medical explanations for the mystifying visions. And even some prominent near-death believers are reluctantly beginning to agree that these trips are just vivid tricks of the mind.

*

No one disputes that unusual things transpire at the border between life and death.

Plato recorded one of history's earliest resurrection episodes: a slain soldier who came back to life after leaving his body and ascending toward heaven. And Pope Gregory the Great compiled resuscitation reports in the 6th Century.

Modern near-death visionaries include Ernest Hemingway, polar explorer Richard Byrd, Carl Jung and Elizabeth Taylor, who told her tale to Oprah.

"I used to think that when you died, you just checked out into the darkness," says Dr. Melvin Morse, a Seattle pediatrician who writes books and scholarly papers about children's near-death reports. "Now I'm not sure."

The question, of course, is whether the visions are real.

If people actually are entering another dimension, write parapsychology researchers Karlis Osis and Erlandur Haraldsson, "we should expect all patients to see essentially the same thing."

To be sure, there are some striking similarities. Beings of white light, feelings of peace, and indescribable colors and sights ("the world split . . . (and) everything was silver . . . like diamonds and stars") turn up repeatedly.

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