November 29, 2021

NDEs: The Early Years - A Personal History

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

I figure that before I kick the bucket, I should take the time to set down something of my personal story of how I became one of the early pioneers to study NDEs and, not long after, to co-found IANDS, the International Association for Near-Death Studies. After all, I am one of the few who  was there at the beginning and would like to take you back to those exciting days of high adventure at the outset of my life in NDEland. So, gather round, friends, sit a spell and I will tell you the tale of how it came to pass that I got involved with NDEs and how IANDS was born.

In the summer of 1976, I was mired in the waning and turbulent days of a disastrous marriage, which would soon implode in violence and mayhem, causing me untold anguish as I reeled from the centrifugal winds that blew my marriage and my life to bits. But, fortunately, that’s not the personal history that’s relevant here, though for drama and trauma, it certainly made that year a pivotal one in my life. But a few months earlier, something else happened that would prove to be even more monumental for me, a life-changing event from which I would never recover.

I remember the day it happened. It’s still vivid in my mind. I was sitting outside my house at the time, a few miles down the road from the University of Connecticut. It was summer and the weather was sunny and pleasant. I was reading a book. Hardly anyone had heard of it. Its author was a psychiatrist whose name was unfamiliar to me: Raymond A. Moody, Jr. The book, of course, as you now will have realized, was Life After Life.

As I read it with mounting excitement, and started making furious marginal notes, I remember thinking, “This is it!” I knew immediately and intuitively that I would want to do my own research on what Moody had dubbed “near-death experiences.” Moody was not a scientist (he had actually taught philosophy before turning to medicine), and his book was mainly a collection of anecdotes. But as an academic psychologist, I fancied myself a scientist, and before I had finished the book, the outlines of the research I would soon initiate were already clear in my mind. I was on fire, already thrilled at the prospect of learning more about what it was like to die and live to tell the tale.

It’s funny how sometimes things just slide into place without one’s lifting a finger, so to speak. Because what happened next, just within a day or three, is that several of my students – I had a small coterie of devoted students then – came by and in effect asked me what I was up to these days. “Funny you should ask, “I might have said, but didn’t. But when I told them what I had in mind, they picked up on my enthusiasm and asked if they could get involved. In short order, I had the makings of a research team, which would soon expand to more than a half dozen students, mostly undergraduates.

Meanwhile, I was already hard at work drafting a grant proposal. My plan was to see if I could work with a number of hospitals in the Hartford area and, with their consent, get referrals to patients who had come close to death. I was both surprised and delighted soon to learn that the University Research Foundation approved my proposal and had funded it fully. Surprised because, remember, at that time hardly anyone had heard of NDEs or if they had were not likely to give them any credence. Nevertheless, I was off and running – to Hartford.

Before long, I had made contact with the appropriate administrators and physicians at three hospitals in Hartford (as well as several other potential sources of respondents) and gave my first lecture at Hartford Hospital to discuss NDEs and my proposed research. Again, I was surprised that the response I received was so positive. People came up afterward to say they would be happy to help me. Another door opening for me with my barely touching it. I am no great scholar, God knows, but I do have – or did have – charm in those days, and I think that helped to persuade the powers that be that I would not bring disgrace to their institutions.

Soon I was striding the halls of Hartford Hospital, wearing a while lab coat, as if I were a “real doctor,” on my way to interview patients who were recovering from a serious near-death incident. Of course, I had no idea whether they had had an NDE. All I could know is that they had apparently been close to death. But with my third patient, I hit pay dirt. To this day, I remember her name – Iris Lemov – who had had a close call owing to a severe case of Crohn’s Disease. Iris confided in me that she did experience something unusual when she was very ill and went on to describe a classic Moody-type NDE. I could hardly conceal my excitement.  I was finding exactly what Moody had reported in his book, Life After Life.

Originally, I had thought I would train my students, especially my graduate students, to conduct most of these interviews, but after doing a few of them myself, I decided that I wanted to do as many as possible. In the end, I wound up interviewing about three-quarters of my sample of 102 persons who had come close to death.

Now, here’s another door that opened for me when all I had to do was to approach it. Years of subsequent research have shown that only a small percentage – usually around 15%  -- of persons who come close to death and survive report an NDE afterward. But in my study, which I described at length in my first NDE book, Life at Death, I found that almost half of my patients (or former patients) recounted an NDE. So I had gobs of data, and without going into detail here, what I found fully confirmed and extended Moody’s original anecdotal findings. Life at Death is now regarded as the first rigorous scientific study of NDEs.

Most of the people I eventually interviewed were no longer hospitalized, however. Instead, I would bomb around the state of Connecticut in my trusty Dodge Dart to conduct my interviews and then play the tape on the way home. I can’t begin to describe the profound emotions I felt doing these interviews as people recounted, not infrequently with tears streaming down their faces, what they had experienced when close to death. Often, I was the first person to hear their story. There was usually a feeling of a sacred encounter taking place between us as people shared with me what they claimed to be the most important thing that had ever happened to them. I felt both privileged and blessed to be entrusted with the story of their most treasured, if sometimes perplexing, near-death episode.

After spending thirteen months tracking down and interviewing my respondents, one day I was sitting outside on the back deck of the house where I was then living, working at a picnic table, tabulating and analyzing my data. And with paper and pencil, if you can believe it. Remember, this was in the late 1970s at a time before computers were common, and when there was no Internet and when no one had ever heard of a cell phone. We were still in the typewriter age then.

But I remember that day because my then girlfriend Norma came over, and I still recall what I said to her when I looked up from my data sheets. “No one is going to believe this, Norma. I am sitting on dynamite!” I already knew that I had struck a vein of gold.

Not long afterward, one evening in 1977, I was in my kitchen, stirring some cream sauce, when the phone rang. Still stirring the pot, I reached across for the phone and heard an unfamiliar voice on the line speaking with a southern accent.

“Hello, Ken? This is Raymond Moody.”

“No shit?” I replied.

I stopped stirring my cream sauce.

Raymond wanted to invite me to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he then lived. Several researchers of whom he had heard were following up on his work, and someone had drawn his attention to me. That someone – a sociologist colleague of Moody’s named John Audette – would soon be in touch about the arrangements, but meanwhile Raymond was hoping I could come down.

Could I!

On November 19, 1977, one of my research associates, Sue Palmer, who had been of inestimable help to me in carrying out my original research, and I loaded up my car and headed down to Virginia where I would meet not only Raymond, but several other professionals who would come to play key pioneering roles in the development of the field of near-death studies – in particular, Bruce Greyson, Michael Sabom and John Audette, all of whom were to become close colleagues of mine. Everything of importance really began from that first meeting. And one of the most significant decisions to come out of that meeting was the intention to form some kind of professional association to promote the scientific study of NDEs.

Some months later, in August, 1978, Greyson, Sabom, Audette and I met at a conference where we established an organization to further the professional study of NDEs, which Audette headed for a couple of years. We gave it a stuffy, high-flalutin academic name: The Association for the Scientific Study of Near-Death Phenomena. The reason for doing this was to try to interest other professionals and academics in the study of NDEs. 

Here’s what we looked like at that time. The bespectacled guy in a suit on the left is me; above me is John Audette. Next to him is Bruce Greyson and then Mike Sabom. We had a dream….

Meanwhile, I was working furiously to complete my book, Life at Death. I was lucky enough to find an agent for it and before I knew it, I learned that there was actually a bidding war going on for my book. I was amazed because I was at the time a completely unknown author – just a professor of no particular distinction and no professional reputation at all. Nevertheless, my book seemed to be a hot commodity and I finally accepted an offer from a then well know publisher. My editor soon became the head of the publishing firm, and I was thrilled to have her to advise me. I still remember how she courted me. She took me to “her table” at the fabled Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan. I remember only one thing that happened at the outset of our lunch that day. She reached across the table, and solemnly placing her hand on mine, told me, “This is just the beginning, Ken.”

Wow, who me? But in a way, she was right. She quickly set up an extensive book tour for me, and in those days there were many television shows where authors like me would be invited to hawk their books. Before long, I was a guest on all the popular network shows of that era – Good Morning America, The Today Show, Donahue, Larry King, and so many more – dozens, probably, and radio shows, too. I was interviewed by then famous anchors, such as Tom Brokaw, and met other celebrities who were also guests on those shows. My biggest thrill was meeting some baseball heroes of my youth – Yankee pitcher, Whitey Ford, and Los Angeles catcher, Roy Campanella. I also recall being with Carol Channing (“Hello, Dolly!”) in the green room of one program where she looked – no disrespect – like a old hag. Until she went on when she was transformed into the dynamic stage star she had long been famous as. It was a heady time for me. My fifteen minutes of minor celebrity. I tried not to let it go to my head, which fortunately remained firmly attached to my neck. That wasn’t too hard because my book never became a best seller, though it did respectably. But after that, I was often “in demand” and had more offers for speaking engagements than I could accommodate.

Now back to earth.

Late in 1980, after my whirlwind book tour was over, John Audette asked me if I would take over the organization he had been heading and run it “for a year” while he devoted himself to NDE research. I agreed, but with conditions. I wanted to re-name it and call it The International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) and make it into a dues-paying membership organization. I also would establish a headquarters for it at The University of Connecticut, where I then taught, and found a scholarly NDE journal, etc. All of which I was able to do, thanks to the invaluable support of Greyson and Audette -- and a lot of help from my friends and probably a few angels as well. Anyway, after my meeting with Audette, I went to work.

I first approached my department head at the university and managed to get an old unused office (we eventually needed three) to set up shop, and then I recruited a bunch of my students to help run it. A then graduate student (who eventually became an English professor and poet) named Steve Straight was one of my main assistants, and he edited the newsletter, which I had named Vital Signs. In those days before desktop publishing, everything had to be done by hand. We would stay up all night doing paste-up to get the newsletter out on time. Then several volunteers and I would crowd into the office, affix labels, munch pizza, and cart the things over to the post office and send them out. A student of mine, Leah Andrews, with her faithful dog Pardner, ran the office then and helped me with the mountains of correspondence that soon started flooding in. A dreamy art student named Ned Kahn (who later became a world-famous environmental artist and MacArthur grant recipient) designed the original IANDS logo. 

We had fun, we had a wonderful esprit de corps, though some weeks I worked a hundred hours between running IANDS, teaching at the university, editing our journal, and shooting my mouth off at lectures around the country. I was young then. We had a ball, and we didn't spend a cent on salaries. That was what IANDS was like in the early days. Nothing would have been possible, though, without the tireless and devoted help of those students. And those angels who must have guided our efforts.

But my NDE life was not confined to the university. No, it had already spilled over to my home, which I now shared with my then love, Norma, and our children (from our previous marriages). At that time, we lived in a beautiful old house on the banks of the Mt. Hope River. The house had a storied history from colonial times (guess who was rumored to have slept there?) and had once been a converted inn. We came to call it “The Near-Death Hotel,” and sometimes, as a joke, hoisted up a banner on the porch between the house’s stately pillars with that name proclaimed for all the neighbors and passersby to gawk at.

My home soon became a kind of informal center for near-death studies. Steve Straight lived there for a couple of years as did a nurse from Spain, Maria Castedo, who was passionate about NDEs. (I have remained in touch with them both.) As for Norma, who was really the heart of the near-death hotel, we lived as man and wife though we never married. (After three failed marriages, I had promised my daughter, Kathryn, I would never marry again.) But since everything was near-this and near-that, Norma became my “near-wife.” She was a woman who loved to hug and had a piquant sense of humor, too. She once suggested that if I were ever to write my autobiography, I should call it Wife After Wife

Once my book had come out, NDErs from all over sought me out and quite a few eventually arrived and stayed with us in what we came to call “the near-death room.” Some of these persons were memorable characters. There was Patrick Gallagher, who had once been a distinguished university professor of anthropology, but after his NDE, became a kind of Whitmanesque character bumming around the country.

He lived in California, but he was so taken with my book, he decided to hitchhike to Connecticut so he could tell me about his NDE, which took place (I am not making this up) in Death Valley. He stayed with us for a month and over many a dinner regaled us and my other guests with his yarns. Then there was Tom Sawyer (yes, his actual name), one of the most remarkable NDErs I ever met. I wrote about Tom in my next book, Heading Toward Omega, but he deserves a book of his own, and in fact two have been written about him. Professionals interested in NDEs came, too, such as Margot Grey from England, who eventually published an important book on NDEs. And then there was Blaine Bostock, a kind of refugee from a Swedenborgian community in Pennsylvania, which I had visited since Swedenborgians were keen on NDEs. But Blaine deserves a special introduction.

You see, one morning I woke up with a near-death ditty on my mind. I remember that day, too, because the lyrics for the song came, like Athena from Zeus’s brow, virtually fully formed without my having to do more than write them down. Sung to the tune of Gene Autry’s theme song, “Back in the Saddle Again,” it went like this:

I'm out of my body at last
Seein' my future and my past
Floating through tunnel now,
I look around say, “oh wow!”
It’s so peaceful here, 
I don’t feel no kind of fear.”
Just driftin’ and singin' my song
Oh Lord, why's this tunnel so long?

But what's that ahead of me?
Is that a golden light I see?
The face of God shines through
And I’m headin’ straight for you

(In a basso profundo, as befits God)

My son, you have much work to do
And your family and friends need you, too
So I'm sending you back
One more chance to get on track
You'll come to me later
(Ritardando) On my cosmic elevator

(In a natural but awed voice)

I'm back in my body again,
Wonderin’ what happened just then
Was that the Lord above
Did I just imagine all that love?
I reckon I'll know one day for sure
(Ritardando) I reckon I'll know one day for sure

[Da-dum (dominant-tonic) on the guitar....]

Sometimes when we would have an IANDS board meeting at my home, I would be asked to sing that song before we got to work. It always got a laugh and put us in a good mood. But I also took it on the road. Once I sang it close up to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross at her farm in Virginia. Another time, at the Omega Institute in New York, where I was doing a workshop, I had the chance to sing it to Pete Seeger, who looked completely baffled (he had no idea what I was singing about) as well as to Bobby McFerrin, who seemed amused. Somebody eventually told me that someone had brought the song to the attention of Willie Nelson who said he wanted to record it, but of course he never did.

I had no shame singing it on occasion at some of the conferences I attended at the conclusion of my lecture. I remember once, in Prague, in front of an audience of 2000, I sang it and got one of the few standing O’s I’ve ever received. I don’t know how my talk was received, but my song was a hit!

Which brings me back to Blaine, who was a musician and guitarist. Naturally, I sang it for Blaine, and it inspired him to write his own near-death songs, which he would then perform at local clubs. I remember he had one called “The Near-Death Hotel,” and another, “Tiptoe through the Tunnel.” Blaine stayed with us for a month, too.

Raymond Moody never had much interest in IANDS as such, but of course we all were very fond of Raymond, who was a delight and has a marvelous sense of humor. He would often crack us up with his wit when he made fun of southern preachers, enacting the role of “Brother Raymond.” Sometimes we’d all troop down to his farm in Virginia to hold our board meetings there. Here’s a photograph of “the four amigos” with Raymond who loved to sit in his rocking chair during these affairs:

In those early days of IANDS, when I was serving as its President and genial dictator, I was also doing my best to raise funds for the organization since, I must confess, most of our board members didn’t do squat in that regard. I never liked having to make a pitch for IANDS with potential wealthy benefactors, but it did give me the opportunity to spend time with the moneyed crowd in Palm Beach, with politicians like the longtime senator from Rhode Island, Claiborne Pell, and with his pal, one of the princes of Lichtenstein. And then there was a wealthy man of mystical leanings in Malibu where he lived in a palatial house once owned by the Aga Khan who had been married to the actress, Rita Hayworth. When I stayed there, I slept in a vast bedroom called “The Rita Hayworth” room. This man had a large following of Hollywood types and minor celebrities, like “Miss Oil of Olay,” next to whom I sat at one lavish dinner, and a runner-up in a Miss America contest. It turned out this man was a leader of some kind of cult, but when I declined to be initiated, he booted me out. 

Well, those were the days, my friends, but they had to end, at least for me. After serving two terms as President of IANDS, I was due for a sabbatical and asked Bruce Greyson to relieve me of the responsibility of editing our NDE journal. He not only consented, but edited it for the next twenty-five years and turned it into a first-rate scholarly journal. Meanwhile I returned to my research, writing, lecturing and my day job as a professor at UCONN.

Here’s a photo of Bruce and me from those days, which was taken at one of those board meetings. Brothers, we were:

IANDS subsequently went through various existential and financial crises, and moved around a lot, but now more than forty years later, it is going strong and is more successful then ever. It still publishes The Journal of Near-Death Studies and its quarterly newsletter, now in digital form. And of course there are now probably more than a thousand articles in the professional literature on NDEs and scads of books, YouTube videos of NDErs, etc. We had a dream – and it came true. 

As for me, I’m back in the saddle again, just riding a different horse until I get to that last round-up in the sky.

Note: As I will be undergoing surgery on December second and will be out of commission for a couple of weeks afterward, I won’t be able to respond to any comments  after the 2nd for a while, though I am always happy to receive them. This will also be my last blog of the year, and I’m not sure I will continue to write more next year. So let me just take this opportunity to thank you for reading my musings over the past couple of years. I hope you found my blogs amusing and entertaining and maybe, occasionally, more than that. Best wishes to all!

November 16, 2021

Love and Death

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Those of you who are old enough may remember one of Woody Allen’s early films with the title of this blog in which he stars with his then love, Diane Keaton, as a crazy 19th century Russian. But, never fear, this blog has nothing to do with that film or with Woody Allen, though it does have a tangential relationship with his first really great film, “Annie Hall”, which came out in 1977. In that film, Woody, as the character, Alvy Singer, expresses his view of life in the form of one his quips: “I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable,” he tells her after which he recommends Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death to Annie.

During those years in one of my courses at the University of Connecticut, I used Becker’s book as a text to illustrate an existentialist view of life. In it, Becker argues that the fear of death, and our need to deny it, is fundamental to human existence: “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.” 

I mention this only to alert you to the fact that this blog will deal mainly with a man whose sensibility and view of life is quite similar to that of Woody Allen’s and Becker’s. Like them, this man throughout his life was spooked by a pervasive anxiety about death, but, perhaps surprisingly, he also had a tremendous capacity for love. It is a love story, then, that I want to relate, a story of love and death.

Irvin Yalom is a world famous psychiatrist of distinctly existentialist persuasion, the author of about twenty books, some dealing with his work as a master therapist, others, revealing his gifts as a novelist. His books have sold millions of copies, and some of them have been translated into as many as thirty languages. And even in his late eighties, he continues to receive scads of e-mail and fan letters from his grateful readers, sometimes as many as forty a day. He’s particularly well known for his novels about various philosophers, especially Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Spinoza. I’ve read a couple of these myself, but the only one I still seem to have in my library is the one about Nietzsche, which is entitled When Nietzsche Wept. All in all, Yalom is an exceptional and accomplished human being. But to me, his greatest achievement has been as a lover.

The object of his amatory devotion was his wife, Marilyn, herself a distinguished scholar of French literature and feminist thought, and the author of about a dozen books. Like her husband, Marilyn was for a long time a professor at Stanford University and also for many years conducted literary salon in the Yaloms’ home.  

Irv Yalom, as I shall refer to him, though we’ve never met, is an introverted fellow, and as a youth he was shy and awkward, even on the dance floor, apparently having, like me, two left feet. He was bookish and a self-confessed nerd. Nevertheless, one night, when he was fifteen years old, he and a friend decided to crash a neighborhood party. But there was such a crush of people inside, they couldn’t get in the front door. They had to climb through a window instead!

That night Irv experienced what the French call a coup de foudre. It occurred when he spotted the hostess, a fourteen-year old girl. He was indeed thunderstruck, like a young John Gilbert first seeing Greta Garbo emerge from a carriage. I’ll let Irv describe what happened that night:

Basically I’m not a highly social person [but] … in the midst of a packed house, there was Marilyn, holding court. I took one look at her and made my way through the crowd to introduce myself to her. This was a highly unusual act on my part: never before or after have I been so socially bold. But it was indeed love at first sight. I phoned her the very next day –- my first phone call to a girl.

Actually, it seems almost fated that they would meet and fall in love. Consider the following uncanny “coincidences” in their lives.

First, both Marilyn’s father and Irv’s emigrated to the United States after World War II, each coming from small Jewish shtetls (market towns) in Russia. Both happened to settle in Washington D.C., where they both soon opened grocery stores. And, though Irv and Marilyn only discovered this later, the stores were only one block apart. Talk about propinquity! Irv muses about this in the book:

As a child and adolescent, I must have walked or biked past my future father-in-law’s store literally a thousand times! Our fathers, though, never laid eyes on one another until years after they retired and met at our engagement party.

Hence, from a distance, our early lives seem similar: parents who emigrated from Eastern Europe, fathers who had grocery stores only a block from one another.

If any of you happen to be familiar with the writings of the famous novelist, Vladimir Nabokov, this story may ring a bell. Here’s why: Nabokov developed a theory of fate based on his own experience with his wife, Véra, with whom he had a long and fruitful marriage. They both grew up in privileged circumstances in pre-revolutionary Russia. After the revolution, both families fled, first, to Crimea, as I recall, and after that, to Paris, and then to Berlin (I may have the order of these places confused, but that doesn’t really matter). In any event, Nabokov eventually discovered that their families had moved in the same circles in each location, but somehow Vladimir and Véra never chanced to meet each other. Finally, in Berlin, they found themselves at a masked ball and guess what? Kismet!

From this experience, Nabokov formulated his theory of fate. In essence, it says that “the powers of Eros” meant for these two to meet and kept arranging circumstances so that eventually what was destined to happen, would. Like God, love works in mysterious ways.

In any case, like the Nabokovs, the Yaloms have been together ever since the night of that party. She was in his one and only. After they both completed their professional training, they got married and went on to enjoy a sixty-five-year-long love affair. Eventually, they had four very talented children (and eight grandchildren), and both of them had very successful professional careers and gobs of wonderful friends and colleagues. Their house, thanks largely to Marilyn’s outgoing nature and grace, became the center for years of lively gatherings and parties. In many ways, the Yaloms were blessed with the best of everything a couple could wish for.

Until 2019 when Marilyn turned out to have developed multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells. Chemotherapy followed, but it led to a stroke, and more time in the hospital. Marilyn recovered pretty well from the stroke, but she would never recover from her cancer.

Obviously, this was devastating to them both, but Marilyn had an idea that she thought would help them cope with it. She did not merely propose, but insisted, that they finally write a book together about how they both would deal with her illness. They would each write alternate chapters. And so they did. The book is called A Matter of Death and Life, and I’ve just finished reading it.

Marilyn didn’t live long enough to complete it. She lived only about six months before dying shortly before Thanksgiving in 2019. The book is really divided in another way, not just in having two authors. The first and longest part of the book is really a love story, one of the most moving I have ever read. The last third of the book is Irv’s alone where he writes about his anguished bereavement following Marilyn’s death. That part was almost unbearable for me to read. But what I want to write about in this blog is mostly their love story. It’s Irv’s love for and devotion to his wife that makes this book so immensely emotionally powerful.

Listen to how Irv writes about her in August when Marilyn has only a few months left to live (though neither of them knows that yet):

Marilyn and I spend the rest of the day close together: my first impulse is not to let her out of my sight, to stay near, to hold her hand and not let it go. I fell in love with her seventy-three years ago, and we have just celebrated our sixty-fifth wedding anniversary. I know it is unusual to adore another person so much and for so long. But, even now, whenever she enters the room, I light up. I admire everything about her – her grace, her beauty, her kindness, and her wisdom. 

Later, after Marilyn dies, he reiterates how strong his love was for her: “I never doubt the depth of my love for Marilyn. I feel certain that no man has ever loved a woman more.” And reading this book, you don’t doubt it either. He spends endless time with her – hour after hour – while she gets her chemo or other forms of treatment. They hold hands constantly – they always have – and remain as physically close as possible. He takes incredibly good and loving care of her. His every gesture toward her bespeaks his ardent love. And he desperately doesn’t want her to die. He can’t stand the thought of being without her.  

And here we have to change the focus from the terrible suffering that Marilyn is to undergo during the course of her illness with which much of the first part of the book is concerned to Irv’s own problems, which are considerable.

For one thing, he has recently had to deal with a pacemaker. But worse, he has serious problems with his balance and has to use a cane and a walker in order to avoid the possible calamity of a fall. He no longer feels comfortable driving either. But most troubling of all is that his memory is starting to fail. He can no longer remember some of the books he’s written or call up the faces of some of his patients he treated for years or recognize the actors in the television series that he and Marilyn love watching together. Throughout the book, he worries about this because Marilyn, whose memory is excellent, has become the repository of many of Irv’s memories. When she dies, those memories, which help to structure his sense of identity, will be lost forever. Her death will be like a partial amputation of his self. In a sense, that part of him will die with her. And because he has a dread of dementia, too, this is terrifying to him.

After she dies, he writes a letter to his wife in which he gives voice to these fears:

So many times, Marilyn, I search my memory in vain – I think of someone we met, some trip we took, some play we saw, some restaurant we dined at – but all these happenings have vanished from my memory. Not only have I lost you, the most precious person to me in the world, but so much of my past has vanished with you. My prediction that, when you left me, you would be taking with you a good part of my past has proved to be true.

As you read through this book, you come to understand that because of the very strength of Irv’s love for Marilyn, there develops a terrible struggle between them. Marilyn feels so wretched so much of the time, she longs to die, but Irv just longs for her – longs for her to remain alive, not to leave him. There are several passages in the book where she begs him to let her go while we entreats her not to die. “How much longer must I live before I am allowed to die,” she cries. “If I could place you inside my body for just a few moments, you would understand.” But Irv, after a long moment of silence, is immune to Marilyn’s plea to be released. He counters: “Isn’t it enough that you are still alive? That when you go, there will be nothing afterward.  And I’m not ready to let you go.”

Later, Irv is sobbing and says, “I cannot bear the thought of your dying. I cannot cope with the thought of living in a world without you.” To which Marilyn replies:

Irv, don’t forget I’ve been living in pain and misery for ten months now. I’ve said to you again and again that I cannot bear the thought of living like this any longer. I welcome death … Irv, it’s time. Please you’ve got to let me go.


Their battle over who is in control of Marilyn’s life reveals the dark side of love, which is attachment. Marilyn is ready to let go, Irv cannot. He is too attached to her, too entwined. He feels he will die without her or at least will not want to live. Attachment is a killer. But if you live long enough, you will eventually lose everything and everyone you have loved. And ultimately yourself. Letting go is the great lesson in life. Marilyn understands this; Irv is too attached to Marilyn even to hear it much less to heed this dictum.

But there’s something else that impedes Irv’s acceptance of Marilyn’s entreaties. As he confesses at many points in the book, he has suffered for much of his life from death anxiety. He even spent a couple of years working with the celebrated existential psychologist, Rollo May, to deal with this issue. But it was unsuccessful – he was still fearful of death. Another instance of his inability to let go. Clinging to life is not a recipe for well being for anyone facing death, his own or that of a loved one.

Both Marilyn and Irv were atheists, but Marilyn herself was not afraid of death.

The idea of death does not frighten me. I do not believe in an afterlife beyond a “reintegration into the cosmos,” and I can accept the idea that I shall no longer exist.

Irv’s atheism, however, was more militant. He became an atheist at the age of thirteen, he remarks, and like many Jewish intellectuals, the idea of an afterlife for him was both irrational and preposterous.

I’ve always scoffed at irrational thinking, at all the mystical notions about heaven and hell and what happens after death … Rationality and clarity are major reasons why my books are used in classrooms around the world.

I wonder whether Irv had even heard of NDEs. If he did, he surely wouldn’t have given them any credence.

In the end, it didn’t matter what either Marilyn and Irv believed. Marilyn’s situation became increasingly unbearable to her and ultimately she chose hospice care and elected to have physician-assisted suicide. Irv stayed with her to the last, holding her hand and weeping.

My head is next to Marilyn’s head, and my attention riveted on her breathing. I watch her every movement and silently count her breaths. After her fourteenth feeble breath, she breathes no more.

I lean over to kiss her forehead. Her flesh is already cool:  death has arrived.

My Marilyn, my darling Marilyn, was no more.

Love and death.


There is so much more in this book than I have had the space to describe. Indeed, I have only sketched the barest outlines of the love story of Irv and Marilyn. It is so much more richly textured and nuanced than my account will have suggested. Plus, their lives, interests and accomplishments are fascinating in themselves. And of course, as I earlier indicated, I have said almost nothing about the very heartrending grief that Irv describes following Marilyn’s death. 

Also, a fuller narrative would have included a discussion of issues having to do with the right to die movement, but I elided those in part because I discussed this topic in a previous blog. At least Marilyn was able to avail herself of physician assisted suicide, which is legal in California, but still difficult because of its strict requirements.

I can only urge my readers to get ahold of this beautiful book. It is a love story as deeply affecting as anything I have read in a long time.

After reading the book, I checked the Internet and discovered to my surprise that Irvin Yalom is still alive at 90, which makes him the longest lived member of his family. He did not think he would long survive Marilyn’s death, but, obviously, he has. 

In the book, he tells her that he wished that after she was buried he could be buried with her in the same coffin when his time came. He knew that was impossible, but he couldn’t stand the thought of being separated from her.

But if I could speak to Irv, I think I would want to say something like this. 

Dear Irv,

Death is not a wall, it’s a curtain. When your time comes, just pull back that curtain and jump through the window. She’ll be there waiting for you.

We are never really separated from those to whom we truly belong. Their absence is only apparent and temporary. When you leave the temporal world behind to enter eternity, Marilyn will be there to greet you and you will be able hold her hand once again.

November 3, 2021

Where Have All The Insects Gone?

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

I hate bugs. At the risk of losing favor with all entomologists and every insectophiliac, I have to say that I find almost all insects to be repellent, repulsive and hideous. When, for example, I spot a spider scuttling across my bathroom floor, when I am in my bare feet, my first impulse after my frisson of fright is to look for something to smash the beast before it disappears. If I should find one crawling around my bathtub, it will soon be dead meat. If there is one slithering around my bathroom sink, I have no compunction about drowning it. I am a ruthless and unrepentant slayer of arthropods. [Note: strictly speaking, spiders are not insects, but as far as I’m concerned, I can’t see that it makes any difference – they still cause immediate and intense feelings of revulsion in me.]

Oh, I admit that if I should see one climbing the wall of my office, unless it is large and menacing, I tend to leave it be, but I continue to cast my cold glaucomic eyes warily upon it until it disappears from my sight. I am not altogether without mercy, but if I were Lord of the Universe (and not just Lord of the Rings, as I used to be called when my children were living with me), I would unhesitatingly use my omnipotence to extirpate all these loathsome creatures from the face of the earth.

I know that, while there are those who share my hatred and fear of these small black pests, there are many people who feel quite the opposite. Take my girlfriend Lauren for example. She would sooner immolate herself than step on a worm; instead, if she espies one while walking on a nearby bike path, she will lovingly remove it to a grassy area. Likewise with spiders. If she happens to see me about to murder one, she will find a way to capture it and then take it outside and release it. Honestly, the woman was probably a Jain in past life. She not only would literally “not hurt a fly,” but seems to love all creatures, great and small. At her home she regularly cares for and feeds the neighborhood birds, raccoons and even skunks. If she sees a dead animal on the road, she stops her car, heedless of her own danger from other vehicles, and, with her gloves, will pick up the animal and find a way to bury it. She is an exemplary human being totally in tune with nature whereas I like to quote Woody Allen’s quip, “nature and I are two.”

Of course, I am not altogether a cur when it comes to animals. If you’ve read any of my past blogs, you know how fond I am of cats, for example, and how fascinated I have been to learn about the ways of many animals and how marvelous they are. In my own peculiar way, I would even go so far as to claim I am “an animal lover.” I am completely in support of the animal rights movement and hate to read about how badly they are often treated or exploited and killed by us human beings. All that makes me heartsick.

But I draw the line at insects. To me, they are still the vile vermin from hell on earth.

And yet.

And yet, I am well aware of how vital insects are to life on earth. Without them, we human beings would perish. As the famous founder of sociobiology, E. O. Wilson, who spent most of his career studying ants, has remarked, “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”

And that’s just it. They are beginning to vanish. Many studies are now available that show declines, often precipitous declines, in many species of arthropods. (There are about a million of them that have been identified, but it is believed that the number of insect species is likely to be four times that number.) According to the New Yorker writer, Elizabeth Kolbert, who specializes in environmental studies, we are in the midst of a sixth extinction, and if the insects go the way more than 99% of all once extant species have, to full extinction, we are likely to be doomed to a similar fate. Without a thriving insect world, you could kiss this sweet earth goodbye.

Dave Goulson is a distinguished Oxford-educated entomologist, currently a professor of biology at the University of Sussex, and the author of the recent book, Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse. As you can tell from his book’s sub-title, Goulson is one very concerned entomologist. We are all familiar with the various threats to life on this planet, especially now when we are in the beginning throes of the disaster of climate change, but how many of us have given any thought that the fate of the earth also depends on the health of “these little beasts” that people like me scorn and fear?

His book, I note with a slight shiver of dismay, seems to be written for people like me. He wants us insect haters to realize that these critters are not only actually beautiful and smart, but are vital to the earth’s welfare. Here’s what he has written with people like me in mind:

I fear the majority of people don’t much like insects. In fact, I would go further: I think many people loathe insects, or are terrified of them, or both. They are often referred to as “creepy-crawlers,” or “bugs,” the latter a term we also use for disease-causing organisms. For many of us, these terms are associated with unpleasant, scuttling, dirty creatures, living in filth and spreading disease. Increasingly, most of us live in cities, and grow up seeing few insects other than house flies, mosquitoes and cockroaches, so perhaps we should not be surprised that insects often inspire fear….

Few therefore appreciate how vitally important insects are to our own survival, and fewer still how beautiful, clever, fascinating, mysterious and wonderful insects are. My mission is to persuade people to love insects, or at least to respect them for all they do….[and] why they matter.

Goulson seems to be the ant-i-Ring (a bad pun, I know; you don’t have to tell me).

As a child, Goulson was fascinated by butterflies and especially by bumblebees, which he calls “the intellectual giants of the insect world.” They are, he writes, “able to navigate and memorize the locations of landmarks and flower patches, efficiently extract rewards hidden in elaborate flowers, and live in complex social colonies where plots are hatched and regicide is common.”

But fifty years after Goulson began studying caterpillars as a kid, he is worried because:

Every year that has passed since there have been slightly fewer butterflies, fewer bumblebees – fewer of almost all the myriad little beasts that make the world go round. These fascinating and beautiful creatures are disappearing, ant by ant, bee by bee, day by day. Estimates vary and are imprecise, but it seems likely that insects have declined in abundance by 75 per cent of more [! – KR] since I was five years old.

The decline of insects is terribly sad for those of us who love these little creatures and value them for themselves, but it also threatens human well-being, for we need insects to pollinate our crops, recycle dung, leaves and corpses, keep the soil healthy, control pests, and much, much more. Many larger animals such as birds, fish and frogs rely on insects for food. Wildflowers rely on them for pollination. As insects become more scarce, our world will slowly grind to a halt, for it cannot function without them.

Kolbert, who cites some of the same research mentioned by Goulson, is also worried. And she fears that the rate of decline in insect populations may be even worse than Goulson has indicated.

In 2019, a second group of researchers published a more rigorous and extensive study, and its findings were even more dire. In the course of just the previous decade, grasslands in Germany had, on average, lost a third of their arthropod species and two-thirds of their arthropod biomass. (Terrestrial arthropods include spiders and centipedes in addition to insects.) In woodlands, the number of arthropod species had dropped by more than a third, and biomass by forty per cent. “This is frightening” is how one of the paper’s authors, Wolfgang Weisser, a biologist at the Technical University of Munich, put it.

And there is more bad news from still other research as Kolbert notes:

In the years since, many more papers have appeared with comparable findings. Significant drops have been found in mayfly populations in the American Midwest, butterfly numbers in the Sierra Nevadas, and caterpillar diversity in northern Costa Rica…. A recent special issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences devoted to the state of the insect world [expressed] “ample cause for concern.”

What has caused this precipitous worldwide drop in insect populations?

There are several factors at play here.

One of them is simply habitat loss. For example, hedgerows and weedy patches, which have been critical to insect life, are disappearing because of modern agricultural practices. The over-use of fertilizers also contributes to habitat destruction. Fertilizers often destroy the very plants that many insects depend on.

And then there is climate change itself, of course. Climate change has already devastated many animal species, and insects have not been spared. Kolbert spends some time documenting the effects of climate change on honeybees, for example, which has caused the collapse of many of their colonies. The story is similar for other insect populations. Living in California where almonds and blueberries (long a valued accessory to my breakfast cereals) have been abundant, I have had to wonder how long I can expect to enjoy these foods if they lack the pollinators to keep them flourishing in our orchards.

But worst of all is the havoc that pesticides and other poisons are now causing in our ecosystems. Here, however, we must pause for a little historical perspective. In 1963, Rachel Carson published her famous book, Silent Spring, warning us of the damage we were already doing to the earth by poisoning it. Goulson comments ruefully that she would weep to know how much worse it has become in the years since her book was published. 

I know I’ve been quoting a lot, but I can’t resist one more indictment from Goulson:

Insect-rich wildlife habitats such as hay meadows, marshes, healthland and tropical rainforests have been bulldozed, burnt or ploughed to destruction on a vast scale. The problems with pesticides and fertilizers [Carson] highlighted have become far more acute, with an estimated three million tons of pesticides now going into the global environment every year. Some of these new pesticides are thousands of times more toxic to insects than any that existed in Carson’s day. Soils have been degraded, rivers choked with silt and polluted with chemicals.  


You get the picture. The world of insects – and our world which can’t survive without them – is under extreme threat and the consequences of a deepening of this ecological crisis are dire.

What are we humans doing?

If, for a moment, we expand our focus from insects to all of life, we can easily see that life on this beautiful planet of ours is imperiled. Of course, this is not news. But we must face the fact that we humans are slowly committing ecocide. All around us, we see signs that nature itself is dying. Examples are not hard to find. For instance, bird populations in America have declined by about 30% since 1970. We have already killed off almost all of our megafauna that were still roaming the earth when the last ice age ended about 11,000 years ago, permitting civilized life to emerge and finally dominate our planet. And by the end of this century, it is likely that we will see the elephants disappear from the earth, and the rhinos, too. The last mammal standing will be Homo sapiens sapiens, the planet’s unstoppable ultra predator, which we should perhaps now start calling Homo stupidous, given what a good job we have done, especially in recent years, of fouling our waters, polluting the air and poisoning our land. 

For all the greatness of human civilization and its colossal achievements and despite our unique capacity to create stupendous monuments to our own glory, it is also true that we are a lethal species of unparalleled danger to the very earth on which we depend. We are clearly on a headlong course of turning the earth into its own Easter Island where only the monuments will survive.

The aliens won’t save us and there is no geo-engineered deus ex machina waiting in the wings to deliver us from our collective folly of having turned the earth and its waters into a garbage dump of life-killing pestilence. And climate change will continue to grow worse. As of today, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was 413.88 ppm, and it ain’t gonna go down. (Remember when we wanted to keep it at 350? Another pipe dream up, literally, in smoke.)

I hate to end this blog on such a downer! You know I am not a morbid cuss. I am merely old and sad about the way the human story is apparently turning out. But I won’t be here much longer. Most of you will. I just hope for your sake and that of your children you and they will somehow be able to make it through the dark times I foresee.

But getting back to our insects, we can live – and will need to do so – in a world without elephants or rhinos but we cannot live without our insects. Goulson wants to educate us about how important they are and what we must do to preserve them and keep them healthy.

As for me, after finishing this blog, I plan to delve further into Goulson’s book and learn how to love insects now that I know my very life, and yours, absolutely depends on them.