For decades, journalist Leslie Kean has tackled controversial and difficult topics, from the struggle for democracy in Burma, to whether or not we’re being visited by extraterrestrials in UFOs. In her new book, Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife, Kean looks beyond this world to the next. Kean recently spoke with us about what she learned, and how it has affected her life.
SIGNATURE: How did you get involved in journalism? How did your career start?
LESLIE KEAN: It started back in the nineties. I was involved in human rights activism for Burma — the movement for democracy there — and started working with KPFA, a California public radio station, in that capacity. I worked with a very accomplished journalist who mentored me, so I learned journalism by doing it, basically. We co-authored a lot of articles about Burma. He was the experienced one, but I was the one with all of the information. Through that process, I was able to learn what it was all about to be a journalist. I never had formal training, except with this particular individual. That’s how it all evolved.
SR: You’re skeptical toward official stories. I imagine that’s necessary in your trade.
LK: I’ve always been interested in looking behind the surface of things. When I was in broadcast journalism, I tried to give a voice to people who don’t normally get a platform, and to look behind the cover of what was going on and unearth corruption and injustice. In the case of more unusual topics — UFOs and life after death — there is substantial data being ignored and dismissed by conventional science. I’m interested in challenging world views that are rigid and don’t allow for the mystery of what we don’t understand.
SR: What initially got you interested in UFOs? Did you have any opinions on the topic prior to beginning your investigation?
LK: Yes, I was curious about UFOs. I had read a couple of books about them over the years, but they weren’t a major focus for me, at all. Later, while I was working at KPFA, a friend from France sent me this extraordinary report about UFOs that was written by generals, admirals, scientists, and engineers: the COMETA report [cc]. The authors had completed a three year study into the phenomenon and come to the conclusion that the most rational explanation for the best cases was what they called the “extraterrestrial hypothesis.” These were official cases that had been studied by very credible people, and I was struck by the report, the authority of the authors, and their conclusion: We are likely being visited by extraterrestrial vehicles. They said there was no way to prove it, but for me as a journalist, that’s a huge story. Imagine if American generals said the same thing at a press conference. It would be major news. Afterwards, I did a story about the report for the Boston Globe. It was well received, and people who were interested in the UFO phenomenon were happy that a journalist was taking it seriously. This was very rewarding for me, and it became the beginning of the whole process. I started focusing on UFOs full time. I did a series of articles, and a lot of investigations. I organized press conferences. I was also a plaintiff in a Freedom of Information Act law suit against NASA. This was a whole series of events over the course of many years, but it was the COMETA report that really got me going. I would have never suspected that to happen. I wasn’t looking for this. It just arrived on my desk and changed my life.
SR: Why would you think that people would want to fight against the idea that there are actually alien visitations occurring? Did you get any blowback for writing the book?
LK: I’ve never claimed that they’re aliens. The reason that there is resistance against this topic from smart people is that there’s this whole pool of people who calls themselves “the UFO community.” They make all of these wild, unsubstantiated claims. They’re conspiracy theorists. They contaminate the subject. As a journalist, I wanted to stand apart from all that and try to present the evidence in a way that was rational and logical.
The topic is taboo, absolutely, but I think this is partly to do with the way it is presented. Were it to be presented in a more rational fashion then we would do much better. I also think that there are elements of discomfort with the idea. If there is something flying around up there that we can’t explain, then it’s quite conceivable that the authorities wouldn’t want to disclose that information for a lot of reasons that I could understand. Even though I’m fighting against it, I can understand why you would want to withhold information about something you have no control over. Certainly, the American government wouldn’t want to admit that. I also think that officials have a lot of other things on their plate, too. They don’t have enough time and they aren’t really interested in anything that won’t affect anyone’s lives directly — except for the people who may have seen them. There’s a whole host of other reasons why it hasn’t been dealt with: UFOs are difficult to study because they’re unpredictable and don’t hang around for very long. It’s hard to get data on UFOs, and it’s hard to analyze them. That’s another reason why we don’t see action on it.
SR: It seems to me that the idea of there being another intelligence in the universe would have serious existential implications for humanity. It would force us to ask a lot of potentially upsetting questions about who we think we are, where we belong, and what life is all about. Confirmation of life after death would trigger these same kinds of questions, wouldn’t it?
LK: They’re both very big questions that challenge the paradigms we currently hold in our cultures. Any kind of resolution of these questions would have a major impact on our lives. That’s partly why I’m interested in them. They’re huge questions begging to be answered.
SR: They also fit, at least in my mind, with the theme in your career of looking beyond the official story. What got you interested in studying life after death? Was there a report that landed in your lap this time?
LK: No, this is a little different. It didn’t happen quite like that. This is a question that I’ve been interested in for a long time. It’s been percolating in the background all of these years that I’ve been studying UFOs, but there wasn’t something in particular that triggered it. I’ve just been reading on it off and on. When the UFO book was done, the people at Crown approached me and asked if there was another topic that I would like to write about. It was amazing, because that was the same week that I was going to propose this book to my agent. I started focusing my time on this, and I had a lot to learn. It was very different from UFOs. As I wrote the book, I was exploring and learning things, whereas with UFOs, it was the culmination of many, many years of work: I just wrote it down. This was more of an exploratory journey for me: It involved research and personal experiences that I had along the way.
SR: You examine the idea of life after death in a lot of different ways. You don’t tackle the subject with one particular angle. What did you find most intriguing about your research?
LK: You’re right, there were many different areas that I drew from to weave this tapestry together. Most books on the topic just deal with one of them, but I was trying to show how they interconnect: that each has something to say about the other. There’s so much fantastic material here, but the stuff that always affects you most — and I mean for anyone — is when you witness it for yourself. That may not be the most objectively compelling research, but when you research this these are the things that stand out.
I had some experiences with physical mediumship, which I found to be absolutely phenomenal, and I also had some experiences that appeared to be communications from my brother who died in 2013. Those areas really stand out to me. In terms of research, there are many cases of young children who remember specific events from past lives. They say they’re from past lives, and we’re talking about two- or three-year-olds who will provide enough specific details about what they say were their past lives that the investigators are able to locate who that person was, identify his or her family members, and confirm that the memories the child had are accurate. To me, these cases are very compelling, and I opened the book with that particular topic because it is so hard to explain away. The stories behind these cases are so fascinating, and I think they present good opportunities for people to find a way into the topic.
We’ve got one case of a child who had fifty-five memories that were accurate about a person who died forty years before his birth and had no connections to his family. He remembered all these things. He had nightmares, and very emotional memories of missing his prior family. It’s very interesting, and hard to explain as anything other than what the child says it was: that he is remembering who he was before.
SR: Were these memories of past lives that were more everyday than the ones you usually hear about in cases of life after death? It seems like people always want to claim to have been some sort of exalted person.
LK: These were regular people. This child was five years old at the time. The past life he remembered was one of a Hollywood actor, but one who wasn’t famous at all. I think when you have adults dealing with reincarnation memories, they are less evidential. What’s key about these children is that they’re so young: They haven’t been exposed to anything yet. The other thing is that records are kept of the memories before there’s any effort made to find the deceased person, so that they can compare that person’s life to what the child said. A skeptic can’t claim that the family wrote the list afterward, or changed it to make it match the person. That’s why it’s important that a record be kept. To me, it’s more evidential than anything an adult might remember.
SR: It would seem there would be only so many Cleopatras to go around, but you meet plenty of them.
LK: Exactly, Joan of Arc is another popular one.
SR: The case of Bridey Murphy comes to mind when it comes to studying memories of past lives, particularly those of adults. What did you do to avoid another incident like that?
LK: I didn’t look at any cases other than child cases. There’s a unit at the University of Virginia, the Department of Perceptual Studies, that has been studying these cases for decades and has many, many files of them. I was interested in them because they’ve been so well studied, and because this was really only a fourth or fifth of the book, I focused entirely on the children.
SR: Let’s talk about another section, then.
LK: The book goes through an evolution starting with the children. If these children have survived from one life to the next, then it means that consciousness has to be sustained in order to be reborn. In the next section, I look at whether consciousness exists independently of the brain. There are very interesting cases of what we call veridical out-of-body experiences, or OBEs: These are instances in which a person’s heart has stopped and there’s no brain activity, and the person is revived with memories of looking down from the ceiling and seeing and hearing things that are later shown to be accurate. These are people with absolutely no brain function. There are a bunch of cases like these that suggest that consciousness can function independently of the brain. They don’t prove that we survive death, by any means, but they allow us to consider that possibility. If consciousness can exist separately, then maybe it goes on when we die. Then there are near-death experiences, end of life experiences, and what we call intermission memories in which children remember what it was like before they were born. These various experiences in which people seem to be having glimpses of another world are all mutually supportive. There are a lot of similar reports that come back from lots of different kinds of stories.
SR: Did you discover some kind of narrative thread within all of these cases that might suggest what our role as living people should be? Is there something we do in this life that plays into the next, or is it all a mystery?
LK: Those are the kinds of questions I don’t really take on in this book due to my role as a journalist. Those are philosophical or speculative questions. What I’m trying to do is to say that these different phenomena are highly suggestive that we survive death. I don’t really go into questions about why we’re here or what the afterworld is like. These questions are fascinating, but as a journalist, I don’t go into these kinds of areas. In terms of why we’re here, a lot of people would say that it is because we have a lesson to learn; that there’s a reason why we chose the kind of life that we’re living. That’s not something a journalist could ever deal with or prove.
SR: How have these experiences changed the way you lived? Have you had cause to reconsider your own life?
LK: Yes, when I began this investigation, I didn’t expect that I would uncover as much suggestive evidence as I did. That includes my own experiences, and not just academic or journalistic research. It has really expanded me to be more in touch with a greater mystery. Even if we can’t prove that we survive death, just being exposed to the material expands your mind. My curiosity is only growing because I want to keep learning more. This is a journey that has not ended for me. It is humbling, expansive, and exciting to come up against the mystery of who we are and why we exist. Do we live in a material world, or are there other realities beneath the surface? What are they and how do they affect us? These questions have enhanced my life, giving it a greater context and more of a purpose, too. It has been very positive for me, personally.