Discourse with the Dead

One pioneering doctor helps trauma victims cope with their grief by utilizing a most unusual technique.

Discourse with the Dead

Sitting in an auditorium in West Virginia, almost 2,000 miles from her Arizona home, Diane Greer knew she would be chosen.

“It was like some voice said, ‘You need to do this,’ and I knew it—it was like the universe was in charge,” Greer recalls.

It was June 8th, 2013—a few days after the 35th anniversary of her father’s sudden death from heart failure at the age of fifty-eight, an event that still haunted her decades later. A friend had told Greer about the conference on dealing with the grieving process. Greer felt she had to attend.

When a psychologist called for volunteers to demonstrate a relatively new form of grief therapy called induced after-death communication, Greer says she instinctively knew that the therapy would finally help her put the grief around the loss of her father behind her. Soon she found herself sitting on stage, wearing headphones that played something called “hemi-sync” music, which combines instrumental and wave sounds that get louder and softer, in and out from ear to ear. Then the therapist, Dr. Gregg Unterberger, used a pointer to direct her eyes back and forth repeatedly while simultaneously asking her to visualize the saddest part of her father’s death. She says it only took five minutes of this before she started crying and screaming in front of a room full of 120 strangers.

Greer, now sixty-five, lived in the same town—Warren, Pennsylvania—for the first three decades of her life. But when she was twenty-nine years old, the year before her father died, she moved away for her husband’s career. By the time she returned to her hometown after her father’s death, his body was already at the funeral home. His untimely passing remained a constant presence in the back of her thoughts—culminating when she turned fifty-eight herself. Greer became paranoid that she was going to die—and she ended up in the ER with a sudden hypertensive crisis (a rapid rise in blood pressure). Eight days later she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

“I was afraid I was going to die and I almost did,” Greer says. “I don’t think a lot of people have that reaction to a parent dying, but for some reason I did—I don’t know why.”

After the cancer diagnosis she started reading books about alternative grief therapies. As a hypnotherapist herself (mostly practicing just on her friends), she was inclined to believe in non-traditional forms of healing.

“I tried to deal with it—but then the anniversary of his death came around and I was down in the dumps again,” Greer says. When her friend, a therapist in Maryland, told her about the conference, she thought it would be worth it to travel to West Virginia if there was any chance it would help bring her out of her depression. Greer says the technique she encountered did just that.

“It got me to another state very quickly—and so you start experiencing the trauma all over again,” Greer says. “Once you start feeling that again you start crying and sobbing and screaming. To me the audience was not even there.”

On stage, Dr. Unterberger—a professional counselor trained in induced after-death communication by its pioneer, Dr. Allan Botkin—asked Greer to describe in detail all of the pain of the event. Shortly after her sobbing began, he told her to close her eyes and fully relive the worst moment of her father’s death.

Greer started yelling “I didn’t know you were going to DIE. How could you die?”

They took a break, then Dr. Unterberger brought the pointer back and returned Greer to the height of her grief. Her stomach cramped up as she sobbed again, letting out a scream. They took another break. Although she felt more and more of the raw pain associated with her father’s death, once she experienced it she started to feel a release. For about an hour and a half, the therapist brought her in and out of her grief—until she started having a hard time going back up to the previous pain level. When Dr. Unterberger asked her to find the picture of her father’s death she reported earlier, she could no longer find it.

Then the therapist proceeded to guide her through yet another set of eye movements with the pointer. Greer looked up and found what she calls “a happy space, so that you’re feeling good instead of feeling bad.” She claims he took her higher and higher into a mental space where she was meant to meet the soul of her father on the other side.

“I actually ended up seeing my father and his twin brother,” says Greer.

After her father appeared to her, she says her mother, who is still alive but has had Alzheimer’s for twenty years, also came to her and “said she was looking for a way to show me it was all okay.” Just when she thought she couldn’t have more closure or peace than meeting with her deceased father and dying mother, her three most beloved dogs “all came in and were jumping all over me.”

Although Greer knows no one else in the room could see their spirits, it didn’t just feel like a vision or hallucination to her. She’s still very certain that she literally met face-to-face with her deceased family members, right in the center of the auditorium.

It may sound like Greer is the type of person who seeks out the spiritual, the paranormal and things such as after-death communication—and that’s not an incorrect assumption.

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“I know that there are people who can talk to the dead, and I did go to an angel reader one time where my father communicated with me,” Greer says.

But the form of therapy Greer encountered has been embraced by some people perhaps less likely to believe.

Induced after-death communication, or IADC, is derived from a well-respected therapy recognized by the American Psychiatric Association and the Department of Defense as an effective form of trauma treatment. In 1989 psychotherapist and researcher Francine Shapiro pioneered eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)—a new approach to treating PTSD. Rather than engaging only in standard talk therapy or medication, she offered patients an opportunity to allegedly work through emotional trauma in record time by accelerating their thought processing. Although EMDR is a multi-step procedure, it basically comes down to following a therapist’s hand back and forth, mimicking eye movements that are believed by some therapists to initiate processing similar to the REM sleep cycle (which happens when we dream), while simultaneously focusing verbally and mentally on the strongest image or negative thought associated with their traumatic event.

Studies on EMDR boast miracle results. The official website for the EMDR Institute cites studies published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology that show eighty to ninety percent of civilian patients indicated they were essentially cured of their PTSD in as few as four sessions of EMDR (with a few more sessions on average for patients who were veterans). While other similar studies back up these findings, some articles, like a 1997 piece authored by Ulrike Feske and published by the American Psychological Association, argue that while EMDR therapy improves symptoms temporarily, the effects are not lasting.

In the late 1990s, psychotherapist Dr. Allan Botkin, who now has his own practice based in Lincolnshire, Illinois, saw these results and thought he could make the procedure even more efficient and effective. At the time, he was primarily treating severe cases of PTSD at the North Chicago VA hospital. Botkin made five or six changes to EMDR that he believes revolutionized the treatment. Primarily, he added an extra set of eye movements to the treatment, and decided to focus only on the “core emotion” behind the trauma. He says the root cause of trauma is usually sadness or fear—and his brand of therapy ignores “secondary emotions” that Botkin says come about as a result of sadness, such as guilt. He claims that his changes make the therapy more effective.

Botkin explains that the issue with severe trauma is that patients don’t just remember what happened, they relive it. “Even if it’s forty years ago they feel like it’s happening all over again,” he says. “But after the eye movements the emotions [related to pain] fade away.” EMDR practitioners claim that the sleep-like eye movements trigger high-speed processing of emotions in order to speed up recovery from trauma. Dr. Botkin claims his IADC therapy concentrates and intensifies this treatment even more by dealing with one emotion only.

It was after he started using this modified EMDR therapy that Dr. Botkin first witnessed a patient communicate with the dead.

In 1995 Dr. Botkin was working with a Vietnam vet he calls Sam—whom he describes at length in his book, Induced After-Death Communication: A New Therapy for Healing Grief and Trauma. Sam spent a good part of his time during the war at a camp where there were orphaned Vietnamese children. He became close to one little girl, Li, eventually developing a father/daughter-like relationship so close that he planned to adopt her. One day he got word they were taking all the children to a distant orphanage. They packed the kids into a truck and Sam said goodbye to Li, promising he’d come find her. But just then a sniper attacked—and when he found Li she was laying face-down with a bullet through her torso. She was dead.

When Sam opened his eyes during an EMDR session and told Botkin that after the last round of eye movements Li had appeared to him as a grown-up woman, surrounded by white light and said, Thank you for taking care of me so well—Dr. Botkin was, frankly, concerned. He thought his patient had just had a hallucination and he was worried about Sam’s mental health.

But that was before he immersed himself in studies about similar experiences during the grieving process, and determined that after-death communication was what he calls a “normal” occurrence. Dr. Botkin says many of his EMDR patients at the VA began reporting after-death communications with deceased loved ones.

In 1996, a few months after Dr. Botkin witnessed an ADC for the first time, Bill and Judy Guggenheim published the book Hello from Heaven! The book received considerable press, including a feature on the TV show 20/20, for its collection of hundreds of occurrences of after-death communication (ADC) experiences. In the book, they described ADC as spontaneous and direct communication with the deceased. Botkin says the examples in the book matched the reports from several of his EMDR patients, and he began to accept that ADC was “natural.”

Botkin sites research showing after-death communication in general is less rare than some might think. According to one study of widowed spouses, thirty-four percent reported that they still talked with their spouse regularly.

After determining that his patients appeared to find great relief from such occurrences (based on self-reporting pain scales), Botkin expanded his use of the modified EMDR techniques. At the time, he says he was practicing these modifications in secret at the VA, but eventually published a paper (then a book) about his version of psychotherapy. Now he has a private practice built solely around it. He rebranded his version of EMDR as “induced after-death communication.”

“Additional [eye movement exercises] causes the ADC to happen,” says Botkin. He says that while a parent who has lost a child will never be happy about the loss of that child, their grief is diminished significantly. “On average, on a scale of one to ten people come in saying their grief is a ten,” Botkin says. “And when they leave they’re on a scale of one or two.”

After publishing his book, Dr. Botkin says he expected a lot of outrage at his experimental therapy—but so far no one has challenged his methods directly. While he encounters skeptics regularly, he says he never got any sort of official response from researchers. Botkin claims the only feedback he has heard has been from other psychologists who appreciate the work he does and in some cases are interested in learning how to perform IADC therapy themselves. The therapy he designed is practiced all over the U.S. and in ten other countries. His book has been translated into German, with French and Italian translations to come out next year.

Although EMDR is well-known, representatives of the American Psychological Association didn’t have much to say about IADC. In an emailed statement, APA representative Lisa Bowen said the “American Psychological Association does not endorse specific therapies,” and that she does not know “of any psychologists who have expertise in the area you mention.”

While plenty of skeptics have called IADC “pseudoscientific psychotherapy” greatly lacking in scientific evidence to back up Botkin’s claims of success, for the most part, the psychological establishment seems to have ignored Botkin’s methods rather than attempting to debunk them.

Botkin argues part of IADC’s credibility stems from experiences he says shows it has helped not only patients who are “believers” in a spiritual world, like Greer, but also others who are more skeptical.

“People who don’t believe in this stuff are just as easy to induce,” Botkin insists.

Take Yusef, a retired sixty-five-year-old Vietnam vet who grew up on the West Side of Chicago. Like many Vietnam veterans, Yusef came back from war with severe PTSD. He felt isolated by his illness, distancing himself from former friends and developing an addiction to crack cocaine. Yusef says he became detached from reality. It wasn’t until he was told by doctors in a psych ward that he’d had a heart attack—which he didn’t remember having—that he decided to make a real effort to change. In the spring of 1998 he transferred to the North Chicago VA, where Dr. Botkin was practicing psychology and just beginning to experiment with IADC.

Before experiencing Botkin’s brand of psychotherapy, Yusef didn’t believe in anything spiritual, but he soon found himself experiencing something similar to what Sam reported.

“Dr. Botkin asked me where am I, and I said ‘I’m at the ambush site and I can smell the vegetation just like I’m in the jungle,” Yusef recalls. He went on to relive a scarring experience from the war.

Walking up to two men he had shot in the ambush, he discovered there was a third victim—a child—who wasn’t in uniform but also was carrying a gun. He shot the two soldiers a second and third time. Yusef hesitated in front of the dying child, but ultimately decided to execute him as well.

Reliving the incident three decades later, “I looked at the child’s face and it’s as if he was talking to me,” Yusef says. “I told the kid I was sorry.”

Although physically still in the VA hospital, Yusef swears he saw the child’s eyes open and look directly at him. He insists it wasn’t just a vision—he could see the boy’s face just as clearly as he did on June 22nd, 1967. When he told the child how sorry he was for killing him, Yusef says the boy spoke back to him.

“He communicated to me that he forgave me and he wanted me to go on with my life,” Yusef says. While he had been through years of therapy at various VA facilities, he says it was only after IADC that he was able to cope with his traumas, stop hating himself and develop the emotionally healthy suburban life he now shares with his wife.

Dr. Abigail Brenner—a New York-based psychiatrist, fellow at the American Psychiatric Association, Interfaith minister and author of books about grief—had never heard of induced after-death communication. Based in New York, she says that EMDR (which she’s very familiar with) is extremely effective for certain types of trauma, but that it’s not a catch-all for grief. “Talk therapy can [also] be an important piece, depending on the person and the trauma,” Brenner says.

But Botkin doesn’t believe in normal talk therapy. He thinks that while it may eventually help some people, they’ll waste a lot of time in the process wading through various emotions that only result because of their core grief. He puts grieving patients who come to see him in two categories, with few exceptions. Either they are suffering from the trauma of their loss, or they’re depressed. If they’re depressed, he recommends they go straight on anti-depressant medication. If the loss was mostly a traumatic experience, he will likely set up a time for them to come see him for an IADC session.

Dr. Brenner says that’s the wrong way to approach depression. “We’re not living in a laboratory,” she says. Unless there’s a very strong family history of depression or bipolar disorder, she says doctors who jump straight to medication or a specific treatment are not accounting for the varied causes of depression-like symptoms from person to person. “You may not give people the chance to learn from their anxiety or depression,” Dr. Brenner says. “Sometimes these are the best teaching tools of all.”

Conversely, Dr. Botkin takes an almost business-like approach to patient’s emotions. “I process the sadness,” Botkin says of his brand of therapy. “That’s the first ninety percent of IADC.”

Botkin believes his IADC eye movement procedure puts patients in the psychological state that allows what he calls the “natural” after-death communication experience to happen. In yet-to-be-published research he co-submitted to the Journal of Near-Death Studies with Professor of Psychology Mo Hannah at Sienna College, Botkin claims “75% of people who see me have an ADC experience” based off of pre-, post- and six month follow-up questionnaires from seventy-one cases over several years. And Botkin says that even those who don’t have an ADC feel better because “we process their sadness.”

He seems sensitive to people who may think the Journal of Near Death Studies is not a legitimate publication. “It’s a peer-reviewed publication,” he assures me, read by other legitimate psychologists and psychiatrists. However, it also seems to be the only journal publishing anything about IADC. Aside from blogs and some newspaper articles, Botkin says, “no one else has done any journal studies, any formal things.”

Botkin says it’s unimportant to him whether or not the communications are real or imagined—and that the scientific community shouldn’t get hung up on what that would mean about the existence of the afterlife, either.

“As a psychologist, my interest is in healing people. I’m not interested in the war being waged between believers and non-believers,” Botkin says. “I let my patients decide if it’s real or not real—but nearly all people believe the experience was real.”

Botkin believes his work effectively targets core debilitating emotions, thus putting patients in the proper head space for after-death communication. He does not believe he directly induces those communications.

“Some people can spend years in talk therapy talking about anger and guilt and they never get to their sadness,” Botkin says. With IADC, as opposed to traditional EMDR, he ignores anger, guilt and other “irrational cognitions,” and skips straight to the sadness. Rather than talking through all the patients’ thoughts as EMDR requires, Botkin believes those thoughts are “irrelevant.”

“Once the emotions were processed, the thoughts straightened out on their own,” Botkin says. “The anger and the guilt vanish—they’re gone.” Botkin is quick to add that IADC isn’t an “easy out for grief.” Patients have to allow themselves to fully feel their grief, and during the treatment the painfulness is supposed to be brought up to its highest intensity before the emotions fade.

For Botkin, after-death communication is only valuable in that it seems to bring great peace to his patients, and he considers it more a sign of a job well done on the therapeutic side than some special talent he has. His proof is in the growing number of therapists who he has taught to perform IADC. From South Korea to South Africa to Germany—where there’s even a Dr. Allan Botkin Institute—he claims his trainees and those they have trained are equally effective at inducing ADC and relieving sadness.

Dr. Juliane Grodhues, a therapist who lives in a small German village near the French border, brought Dr. Botkin’s therapy to Europe after reading his book. Grodhues has had significant experience with PTSD patients—particularly groups of refugees from Yugoslavia. She says she often heard her patients speak of after-death communications, and considers them to be positive, healing experiences. She credits Dr. Botkin less with founding a method than with spreading the word about experiences that people already knew were happening, and using it to help patients deal with trauma.

“Nobody talks about it, nobody!” exclaims Dr. Grodhues. “They say, ‘maybe it’s a fantasy, this can’t happen.’ He’s the man who gave it a name and talked about what he saw.”

Sadness is an essential part of the human experience, Botkin argues. He says it’s important that patients still fully remember their traumatic experience and remember their former sadness—just that they no longer relive it. IADC, he says, is a way to move on from that sadness, not remove it.

Ever since New York-based psychotherapist Cynthia Davidson-Reid trained in IADC under Dr. Botkin, she started receiving most of her new patients through his website. But she cautions patients against just going into IADC therapy in order to communicate with the deceased.

“The expectation unfortunately gets in the way of them having an ADC experience,” Davidson-Reid says. While she understands why people seek out the after-death experiences, she says she often turns away patients who are only seeking the communication, and don’t have healing in general as their overall goal.

Dr. Davidson-Reid says many patients don’t think that they can heal without the connection—but she believes the after-death communication is a result of the healing brought about by the modified eye movements, rather than healing in and of itself. “I try to tell them the connection is there anyway and it will happen sometime,” Davidson-Reid says.

It’s perhaps surprising that Botkin, Grodhues and Davidson-Reid all say they can not offer any instances in which their techniques have led to negative communications with the dead.

“I’ve never heard any report from any IADC therapist anywhere that there has been any negative ADC experience anywhere. None. Zero,” Dr. Botkin says. “This is out of thousands of reports.”

Dr. Davidson-Reid says she believes this is because worldly negativity must disappear “on the other side.”

“On the other side there’s lots of love—or perhaps the people who come through are loving vibrations,” Davidson-Reid says.

While she believes the experiences are real—not just hallucinations—she, like Dr. Botkin, expresses that the “reality” of the experiences shouldn’t be of concern, because the healing effects of the treatment are worth any skepticism a person has to wade through to escape a life overwhelmed by grief.

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Brendan Leach is a Brooklyn based cartoonist and illustrator. He used to drive a Zamboni in New Jersey, but now he writes and draws comics. His graphic novel “Iron Bound” will be published by Secret Acres Books in September 2013.