The treacly legacy of Kübler-Ross.

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Sept. 23 2004 9:49 AM

Dead Like Her

How Elisabeth Kübler-Ross went around the bend.

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What prompted my examination was a small—but stunning—news clipping I came across in the early '80s describing the completely bizarre sexual scandal at Kübler-Ross' retreat in Escondido, Calif., the mountaintop center she called Shanti Nilaya. The scandal concernedthe involvement of Kübler-Ross—and some of the grieving widows visiting her retreat—with a self-proclaimed spirit medium who conned them all into believing he had the ability to channel "afterlife entities." Not only channel them but facilitate their having sex with the grieving widows.

It was, if you ask me, not an aberration but a culmination of Kübler-Ross' love affair with death; love affairs with the dead. But by then her growing belief that "death does not exist" had made her fall prey to a host of spirit mediums and charlatans who claimed they could make contact with the beautiful beings on the Other side.

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She herselffirst encountered the "afterlife entities" during an "out of body" experience after one of her "workshops." She wrote that "I saw myself lifted out of my physical body. ... [I]t was as if a whole lot of loving beings were taking all the tired parts out of me, similar to car mechanics in a car repair shop. ... I had an incredible sense that once all the parts were replaced I would be a young and fresh and energetic as I had been prior to the rather exhausting, draining workshop."

After several trips to the auto repair shop and a lot of heart to hearts with the heavenly mechanics, she began to speak about death as the fountain of youth: "People after death become complete again. The blind can see, the deaf can hear, cripples are no longer crippled after all their vital signs have ceased to exist." The emphasis had shifted from a spiritual renewal while still alive, albeit dying, to the physical renewal awaiting one after death. It made death seem all too sweetly attractive (especially at a time when there were deep-rooted problems in the medical establishment's handling of dying patients). Some might say it made suicide seductive to the physically and mentally troubled. Death, in her new view, was a kind of Lourdes-cum-plastic-surgery spa.

But few challenged the escalating nonsense because—after all—she had "discovered" the five stages of death and grieving. She got to people when they were most wounded, scared, and vulnerable, and gave them a secular religion of death.

Enter the spirit medium of Escondido—a guy she had invited to her workshops, who somehow facilitated intercourse between the grieving widows and the"afterlife entities." The scandal erupted when several of the widows came down with similar vaginal infections, and one turned on the light during a session with an "afterlife entity" and discovered the opportunistic spirit medium himself, naked except for a turban. (He offered the completely plausible explanation that the afterlife entities had "cloned" him—and the turban, too, I guess—to help enable the afterlife entities to engage in the pleasures of the flesh.)

I'm not making this up. It's just sort of conveniently been forgotten that the founder of the so called "scientific" "five stages" encouraged and at first defended these practices. "There are those who might say this has damaged my credibility," Kübler-Ross said, when she finally conceded that the spirit medium's behavior "did not meet the standards" of her retreat. But it's not important "whether people believe what I say ... I'm a doctor and a scientist, who simply reports what she sees, hears, and experiences."

Right. Science. It's probably too late to disengage our culture from the unexamined assumptions in the Kübler-Ross death and dying ideology/movement, but we can at least examine them now from a distance. When I first wrote about it I saw it as a kind of confidence trick: In the guise of telling people that they were fearlessly investigating the realm of death, staring death in the face, etc., etc., it was offering people a way of distancing themselves from dread. Turning something scary like death into a "process" with nothing unpredictable to fear. Disguising it with a familiarizing scaffolding of "stages," swathing it in a gauzy romanticism of self-examination, self-expression. Death: the highest point of life, the "final stage of growth."

I also suggested thatits popular success was due in large part to the behavior control function of the five stages and its appeal to hospital and hospice caregivers, who all took D 'n' D workshops. It made the five stages into a kind of moral progress: Potentially disruptive and annoying anger would give way to the more quiet stages of "depression" and "acceptance." Easier on the night nurses.

But now, looking back I think it can be seen as part of the Me-Decade ideology that denial is always bad. We must constantly be staring death in the face and rubbing everybody's nose in it, or we're really not living life. (Although if we spend all our time staring death in the face we have little time left to live life.)

Part of this ideology was rooted in the overheated overrated polemic by the Freudian Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, in which he blamed all of civilization's problems on its unwillingness to stare death in the face. (One could argue that all civilization's achievements were accomplished by those who didn't have time to dwell on the obvious fact that they were going to die.)

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