Should near-death experience researchers be held accountable for living to the standards envisioned in the experiences they write about?
On February 14, 2014, a Delaware jury convicted a man of waterboarding his companion’s daughter by holding her head under a faucet.
The man, as many of you will recognize, was the well-known near-death experience researcher and former pediatrician Melvin Morse (his license to practice was revoked following his arrest in 2012). He had been charged with three felonies, two for alleged waterboarding and one for alleged suffocation by hand, but was convicted of one felony — waterboarding in the bathtub — and five misdemeanors. His conviction could draw several years in prison. Sentencing is set for April 11.
The assaults on the child were the more horrifying because Morse is the author of Closer to the Light, the primary study of NDEs in children, as well as three other books about near-death experience. (One entirely false speculation, which continues to circulate widely, is that the waterboarding might have been an attempt to induce an NDE. This was the crack made by a police officer after the arrest, based solely on the topic of Morse’s 20-year-old book; but like most smart-alec humor it has no basis in likelihood.)
Within days of Morse’s arrest, commenters on his generally acclaimed books had hit the Amazon reviews, warning readers away. Closer to the Light, which until then had 33 five-star reviews and a smattering of lower ratings, erupted with one-star comments, now numbering 18.
- “Do not buy this book. The author is a psychopath who had everyone fooled for a while…”
- “… in light of these recent events, I feel that I should pull this and his other books from my shelves…”
- “It’s horrific. Please don’t buy this monster’s book.”
Should the only book specifically about children’s near-death experiences—a book which, despite known flaws, has been enormously helpful to parents and once-child experiencers—be boycotted because of the criminal behavior of its deeply disturbed author? It is, of course, not a new question. Almost simultaneously with the Morse conviction, similar questions were being asked in other places, about other abuse.
Over at the Religion Dispatches site, Stephanie Krehbiel was posting “The Woody Allen Problem: How Do We Read Pacifist Theologian (and Sexual Abuser) John Howard Yoder?” She quotes Mark Oppenheimer of the New York Times: “Can a bad person be a good theologian?”
Of Yoder, she says, “He drew people to religious nonviolence, and inspired legions of Christian intellectuals. Mennonites were proud to claim him.” And yet, female seminarians were being quietly warned, “Don’t ever be alone with John Howard Yoder behind a closed door—not in his office, not in a conference room, and not even in a classroom. It is not safe for women to be alone with him.”
Whenever these cases surface, they’re accompanied by a discussion about whether or not we can or should appreciate the work of artists and writers who are accused of doing terrible things. It’s a question without any satisfying categorical answer, which I suppose is why it generates so much copy. The nuances are endless: does it matter if the artist in question is alive or not? If he or she is dead, does it matter how long? Is there a difference between music that has words and music that doesn’t? Between loving a movie made by an alleged sex offender and loving a work of theology written by one? How on earth do we weigh all of this?
In the March 3 issue of The New Republic, senior editor Adam Kirsch tackles the same question with “Like It or Not, Movie Lovers Are Going to Forgive Woody Allen.”
“We knew as much about Allen’s alleged crimes in the early ‘90s…as we do today. But in the intervening years, the accusations have been draped in polite silence, so that people in Hollywood can continue to work with Allen and the public can continue to enjoy his films.”
But if the public continues to enjoy Allen despite the claims about him, why are reviewers boycotting Morse’s work? In a curious echo of Krehbiel’s comment about theology, Kirsch may hand us a clue: “An artist is not like a priest, who claims to live his truth; the artist’s job is only to find a form for his truth.”
Interesting! Near-death experiences occupy a territory quite close to and perhaps overlapping with the sacred; their messages routinely speak of peace and love and service—messages taught by the enduring religious traditions. I wonder if readers assume that near-death researchers, like priests, take as their own the truth of the experiences they write about. Could the rage at Morse be intensified by a belief that he should be held accountable for living out the peace and love and service of his book’s children and their angels? What do you think?
Adam Kirsch, “Like It or Not, Movie Lovers Are Going to Forgive Woody Allen.” The New Republic, March 3, 2014, 9-11.
David Sunfellow says
Great post, Nancy. You, and your discerning readers, might find a related discussion on NHNE’s main NDE network worthwhile:
Using NDEs To Understand & Heal Woody-Allen-Like Train Wrecks
Nan Bush says
Thank you, and as always, thanks for the Tweet. Everyone, check out the link for an interesting perspective. Good work, David, as usual.
Sheila Joshi says
Ach, a heavy, very complicated topic. Take Jung, for instance. Brilliant ideas, profound contributions to our thinking. But, involved in multiple sexual boundary violations that were unhealthy and harmful to others…and to himself.
Some people will feel the need to ignore his body of work because of these transgressions. I respect and really understand that. I will take what’s useful from his work, but keep his Shadow in mind. OTOH, I have always felt Woody Allen’s work was unhealthy, and I will be continuing to avoid it. It depends on what your own life experience has been – how have you been hurt, how have you been helped.
This discussion is very important – just talking about it raises our consciousness.
Maybe we are at a certain point in our collective development. The good news is that there is far more accountability for wrong-doing by people with authority and power than there was in the past.
Maybe we have to stop looking to celebrities so much, and get our inspiration more from the hidden gems that are all around us. People who become celebrities tend to have out-sized personalities, tend to feel they are above the rules.
I have no difficulty forgiving people who have acknowledged their harmfulness. The problem for me is when there is lack of remorse, or recognition, or reparation. I think this can be even more harmful than the original injury.
I don’t know how the Truth and Reconciliation commissions handled this. Did the perpetrators have to make an acknowledgment?
I always pray for perpetrators as well as survivors. We all have Shadowy parts to us. Many people do terrible things and then wonderful things – especially in war. We just have to keep talking about it, and pushing for greater consciousness, greater integration of the Shadow.
Nan Bush says
For Truth and Reconciliation, I believe it had to be two-sided–confession and apology followed by reconciliation. Not “forgive and forget” but
“get past it and live peacefully.”
Full disclosure on the post: Like you, I have found Woody Allen unappealing almost from the outset. His neuroticism was amusing at first, mostly because it was so different from what anyone else was doing, but boredom followed quickly, and after that his self-absorption seemed “off,” then creepy. I’ve never seen any of his major films.
Thanks for the thoughtful comment. So many illustrious names we could list! Power and passion and chaos–such a common tangle. And every time, it’s a new situation and we have to rework our thinking all over again.
David Sunfellow says
Great post, Sheila. My favorite lines:
“This discussion is very important – just talking about it raises our consciousness.”
“I have no difficulty forgiving people who have acknowledged their harmfulness. The problem for me is when there is lack of remorse, or recognition, or reparation. I think this can be even more harmful than the original injury.”
“I always pray for perpetrators as well as survivors.”
“We all have Shadowy parts to us.”
All these thoughts are worth repeating, and pondering, many times, I think…
Nan Bush says
Isn’t all that the truth! Amen, I say.
Dear Ms Joshi, thank you for your illuminating post. The reminder about Jung’s peccadillos is particularly apt. I agree, an acknowledgement of the harm an offender does, which demonstrates sincere contrition, can bring closure and healing.
I also agree that difficult as it is, we can and do, whether we want to or not, utilise what gives us insight from a body of work, regardless of the nature and sins of its progenitor.
I feel for the victims of Mr Morse, for Morse himself and for his sake and others, he’ll find a way to resolve his behaviour and make reparation to his victims.
Ken Vincent says
This was a very thoughtful posting about a very difficult topic, and it has prompted a number of very thoughtful responses.
When I taught students about Mazlow’s theory of self-actualization, I would conclude the lecture by pointing out major character flaws in some of his self-actualized examples. In short, there are no perfect people.
Melvin Morse’ research is ground-breaking and stands on its own merit. Melvin Morse’ personal life does not detract from that. But assuming this accusation is true, it does effect my own personal opinion of him.
Nan Bush says
Ken, no perfect people, indeed! And as a nation, we are still struggling to find our balance between morality, criminality, and the guilt or innocence of mental illness. Such very complex issues, and no simple resolution. Thanks for your observation about the limits of Mazlow’s self-actualization theory.
Great article again, Nan! I love this blog.
This is certainly an area I struggle with in my own life. When i was under religious indoctrination there was a whole world full of people I had to hate or distance myself from because they believed differently, didn’t acknowledge the truth as I was taught.
Now that I am away from that I find myself shying away and not wanting anything to do with those who believe the opposite of the right way I now see. In my heart i know this is wrong, but I struggle with not following along with “my people and my group”.
I know this isn’t really the same as whether or not we should boycott the work of someone who abuses children, but I feel like it’s related. In that we or I want to follow and respect those who share our values and when someone steps outside of those, whether it be something small and truly superficial or something huge and very damaging to others it’s really hard to know how to react or respond.
I feel like throwing the entire person away and anything that they have ever touched because it is not contaminated is the extremist way and is a reaction that stems from fear. So much of my own actions in life stem from that place.
I think it shows a higher consciousness, and stronger sense of self to be able to see the truth and take the light offered from everyone around us even when they show such darkness and cruelty otherwise.
What everyone else has said was really wise and I learned from it too. 🙂
Nan Bush says
K’Sennia, thank you for the straightforward honesty of your comment! It’s perceptive to put your two issues together, because of course they are related. We all know that “feel like throwing the entire person away” when any serious disagreement comes up. I like your phrase, “take the light offered from everyone.”
Thanks Nan 🙂
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