Bubba Does the Afterlife
"After you've been dead, everything else is just . . . something to do," said Dannion Brinkley.
Brinkley said that in September on the phone from his hospital bed in Charleston, South Carolina. He was explaining his nonchalance about the brain surgery he would undergo two days later that had called off his scheduled speaking date in Scottsdale. A blood clot would be removed from behind his right ear, a side effect of the blood thinner he takes to treat heart damage, a complication of the 1975 lightning strike that left him dead for close to half an hour.
Brinkley's version of "something to do" is more than just killing time. In the years since his lightning mishap, he's become a hospice volunteer, best-selling author, psychic, alternative-medicine advocate and popular lecturer. He's scheduled to speak in Scottsdale this Sunday afternoon, February 15, less than six months after his brain surgery.
Brinkley, 48, likes to talk, and talking, if little else about his post-lightning-bolt term in this world, has been good to him. Even weak and in pain and on the verge of getting his skull drilled open, he rambled on intently for nearly an hour, in his pleasing Carolina drawl, about everything from health-care issues to Iranian politics. At the time, his particular fascination was the alignment of coincidences he perceived around his imminent operation.
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsTue., Nov. 1, 7:00pm
Phoenix Suns vs. Portland Trail Blazers
TicketsWed., Nov. 2, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators
TicketsThu., Nov. 3, 7:00pm
Arizona State University Sun Devils Hockey vs. University of Michigan
TicketsFri., Nov. 4, 7:05pm
"I'm trying to figure out the cosmics of it. You wanna hear how cosmic it gets? September the 17th--the 22nd year from the lightning strike to the day--I go into brain surgery. Now try this one: I got struck in the left side of my head, right behind my ear. Guess where the clot is: right behind my ear. The identical place, on the opposite side of my head. Guess when the time of the operation is? Twelve hours earlier. And there was a thunderstorm this morning when they came in to tell me. This is a lot more cosmic than I am.
"Everything I went through after the lightning, the blacking out, severe pain in my head, loss of motor senses, I've been going through for the past 10 days. So I'm just going backwards through my history. And there's a full moon and a full lunar eclipse at the same time. Where will I go? I hope I go back to the Crystal City, to learn more about how to help people."
By his own admission, Brinkley spent the first half of his life to date as a fighter. The Aiken, South Carolina, native was a bully and a brawler in his school years. "He would beat your ass, steal your girlfriend, or do both," somebody told his date at a high school reunion. Later, Brinkley claims, he did the same sort of work in Southeast Asia for the U.S. government, first as a Marine and later as a covert intelligence operative. He claims to have participated in the killing of North Vietnamese officers and weapons-running to other countries.
It was a few years after his military service that lightning shot through his telephone while he was talking to a business partner from his home in Aiken. He says he spent the 28 minutes before he revived--in the hospital hallway where he lay waiting to be taken to the morgue--in a Crystal City, where he received instruction and prophecies from "beings of light" and was shown a "panoramic life review." This is a key to his philosophy: "You not only see your life pass before you, you literally become every person you've ever encountered, and you will feel the direct results of your interactions with them."
After a long, grueling recovery, Brinkley turned to hospice work to make up for the horrors he was responsible for. His postlightning trauma cost him his marriage. In 1989, heart problems caused by the lightning strike gave him a second near-death experience and, he says, a second visit to the Crystal City and a second life review--this one much less horrifying.
"It's a lot more cosmic than I'm capable of understanding," he said in September, of the third return trip he was sure he was about to take. "But I'll step up to the plate. Somewhere in the cosmos, I have a destiny to meet. It's all to help us better understand that we are loved. I'll come through it. I'll do a live remote from somewhere in the universe."
Was the experience all he expected? With showman's caginess, the now-postsurgery Brinkley says simply, "Whoo, wait'll I tell you about this one." He's saving that for the lecture.
Paradise Valley writer Paul Perry met Brinkley in Alabama in 1993, while interviewing Brinkley's friend, Dr. Raymond Moody, for a book on near-death experiences. "Dannion comes blasting up in a 1975 Ford Galaxy, I think, and starts talking Southern," Perry recalls. "At first, I found him to be one of the most obnoxious people I'd ever met. He was the yin and yang of spirituality--everything that's good about it and everything that's bad about it. He's like a big kid with ADD. But the more I talked to him, the more compelling I found him."
Perry, who calls himself a skeptic, has nonetheless been impressed more than once by Brinkley's seemingly Dead Zone-like psychic abilities. "I was talking to Dannion on the phone one afternoon, and I remembered I had to go take my daughter to the dermatologist; she had a weird little skin mark, like a caterpillar, on her hand. So I said to Dannion, 'I gotta go, I gotta take my daughter to the doctor.' All of a sudden he said, 'You're taking her to the dermatologist, because she's got a growth on her left foot.' I said, 'You're right, except it's her hand.' He said, 'Damn, I keep getting hands and feet mixed up.'"
Eventually, the two men collaborated on Brinkley's best-selling 1994 memoir Saved by the Light and its sequel, At Peace in the Light. A Fox TV movie of the story, with Eric Roberts as Brinkley, was that network's highest-rated TV film ever.
Despite the fame--and considerable fortune, no doubt--brought by these ventures, Brinkley is at some level a reluctant prophet. Perry recounts the story of a speaking gig in Las Vegas: "Dannion describes how, after the lightning strike, his whole life physically got really bad. He'd described all the recovery required, how he couldn't see, he couldn't get up off the couch, and he'd pee his pants. At the end of the Q&A, a woman stood up and said, 'You know, I really wish I could be just like you, Dannion, right down to the lightning strike.' He looks at her and says, 'Yeah, that's because you didn't hear a goddamn word I said.'"
This combination of spiritualist zeal, good-old-boy bluntness and mischievous humor is what makes Brinkley stand out from the pack of New Age celebrities. One minute he's speaking in soaring metaphysical rhetoric--"We are all in a cosmic order. We choose to come here, and we are chosen to come here. We are great, powerful spiritual beings, with great destiny and purpose."
The next minute, he's drawling through a description of his impending surgery that sounds like a Jeff Foxworthy routine--"Little brain surg'ry ain't nothin'. They'll shave m' head and crack m' skull open, and I'll jus' get some duct tape 'n' tape it all back t'gether and I'll come t' Scottsdale an' give a live update on wherever in the universe Ah've been."
He's a corn-pone guru, and his biggest appeal--even to skeptics and semiskeptics--is that his message isn't one of navel-gazing self-absorption but of personal growth through service to others. He's intensely devoted to hospice volunteer work; he considers it "my religion."
"I don't mess with people's beliefs," he says. "If you want to be an agnostic or an atheist, that's your business. What I'm here for is closure." Liz Dawn of Mishka Productions, which is presenting the Scottsdale appearance, puts it this way: "He comes in and says to get off your butt and do something for people." It makes the question of whether he's a charlatan or a visionary seem irrelevant.
Nor is his message all sweetness and light. He has hard words for the modern health-care system, especially terminal care: "One of the greatest evils," he says, "is that we leave [dying people] alone. We let doctors isolate 'em in rooms, and fill 'em with tubes, and they make you stand in the halls and wait for them to come out and go through the next procedure to torture 'em a little more. I hate it, when so many people just need to be hugged."
For this reason, the Access to Medical Treatment Bill is the piece of federal legislation closest to Brinkley's heart. It's "the most important piece of legislation we--the baby boomers--can pass, 'cause if we don't, our choices will be taken. You won't have a chance to smell lavender or have a color chart.
"If we turn our back on it, the business of medicine rules, and the art of healing is lost. Once we lose that art, that safe place of respite of going into a hospital that's a sanctuary for healing instead of better living through chemistry, we've lost.
"Think about this: The largest HMO in America has declared that a radical mastectomy is an outpatient procedure, with no funding for therapy or reconstructive surgery. That man who runs that HMO made $600,000 last year. That's evil. That is evil. If there's a place where a condemned soul can go, he should be the first one there." (I can make no claims either way for the accuracy of any of these assertions; I quote them only to give a sense of Brinkley's hard edge among New Age thinkers.)
While Brinkley is an alternative-medicine enthusiast, he doesn't discount the value of conventional medicine such as pain relief. Indeed, he has hard words for the medical establishment's failure to treat pain in terminal patients: "I've seen people with cancer so bad, and the doctors are not allowed to give them sufficient pain chemicals 'cause they say they're gonna get addicted. And they're gonna live what, a week? That is bullshit. I am a believer in sufficient pain medication--there'll be fewer Kevorkians around. I just don't believe in chemistry as a replacement for spirituality and the human touch."
There's one other indication that Brinkley may have more than natural powers of perception: "I look forward to coming to Scottsdale," he asserts. "It's a place with a spiritual wonderment to it." Surely the man who can say this must have some sort of otherworldly vision.
Dannion Brinkley is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. Sunday, February 15, at the Radisson Resort Scottsdale, 7171 North Scottsdale Road. Tickets are $25. For details call 970-8543.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.