Matthew D. Dovel,
My Last Breath
(Publish America, 2003)

Matthew Dovel has the inside track on answers to the BIG questions. He should. He's died twice and verified the afterlife extremes -- heaven when in the innocence of youth, hell in the throes of debauchery and chemical dependence. Yes, Virginia, heaven and hell are real.

Or are they? It's difficult to know just how literally to take Dovel. His website and his publicist call the book an autobiography, yet the back cover blurb begins with, "I have written this fiction based on my true story...." So which is it, autobiography or novel based on fact?

OK, if there are two possibilities, I'll write two reviews.

The book misses as a short novel. The plot is weak, character development is almost non-existent, the setting is sketchily drawn and the style is on the amateur side. End of review one.

Taken as a true story, on the other hand, it's like a series of intimate diary excerpts, oddly fascinating in a Jerry Springer, Reality TV, fire and brimstone sort of way.

When Matthew Dovel drowned at the age of 12, a white light was only the beginning. More importantly he felt he'd been transported to heaven. There was a tremendous sense of well-being and contentment that he didn't want to end. But Jesus himself told him, "You have to go back. You have work to do." And so he woke coughing water and seeing a bright light that now was only the sun.

Dovel believes this experience changed him and invested him with special abilities. Math suddenly came so easily, a teacher thought he must be cheating. Although he felt different and blessed, he didn't yet know what more important work Jesus intended for him. This uncertainty and the loss of a glimpsed heaven depressed him. His life began spiraling downward. Overly willing girls were followed by drugs and drink that eventually came to dominate his life. At his lowest point, disgusted, he decided to kill himself, hoping to return permanently to the bliss of his earlier Near Death Experience. Unfortunately many sins had intervened and now propelled him in the opposite direction. At greater length and in more detail Dovel instead experienced hell. He doesn't recommend it.

Yet fear was more effective than bliss. It shocked him into a better life, and he's convinced at least a part of what Jesus intended is that he share his experiences with others so they too will understand the consequences of the way they choose to live.

Read Soren Kierkegaard to reinforce how difficult it can be to have faith. It never seemed fair to me that the gods would convince a few through miraculous events while the rest of us just have to believe a messenger. Doesn't it take an equivalent or even greater leap of faith to accept a messenger's description of the supernatural? And even if we take Dovel's account at face value, there are plausible competing explanations.

During his first near-death experience he saw the famous white light common to so many NDEs. One scientific team recently claimed that oxygen deprivation and brain structure can explain this phenomenon and accompanying visions.

Dovel's second NDE was the result of a suicide attempt brought on by uncontrollable addiction to alcohol and drugs. Here the word "hallucination" comes to mind. The thought is reinforced when Dovel later tells us that he sees demons and is sometimes reminded of his experience of hell when otherwise unexplained whiffs of smoke appear in his general vicinity.

I can't be certain he didn't experience heaven and hell, and since he has been using his experiences, real or imagined, on the talk-show circuit to try to save others who have lost their way, I wish him success. The book may cause some to re-examine their lives. The rest of us will be more interested in one man's attempt to cope with bizarre mental demons. Our answers to the BIG questions will continue to depend on faith until we see our own burning bush.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 19 March 2005

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