Michelle Dean is New York-bases critic and journalist. She has published over a hundred articles at the Guardian, and has been a journalist there since November 2014.
A few years ago there was a half dozen or so boys who wrote books claiming to have come back from heaven after suffering a tragic, near-death accident. These books, the most famous of which, Colton Burpo’s “Heaven is for Real,” allegedly (falsely) confirm that heaven is a totally for-real place where we go after we die. All of the boys have since (with the exception of Mr. Burpo) retacted their statements, saying that either they made the book up, or someone else did for them. The article talks about Alex Malarkey, the most recent boy to renounce the book he supposedly “wrote.”
When he wrote a blogpost in 2012, complaining about the explosively popular genre of books about near-death experiences, the evangelical writer and editor Phil Johnson did not know what he was getting into. He was voicing a concern common in the evangelical community about what he called the “Burpo-Malarkey doctrine”. Johnson believed that Colton Burpo, whose story was told in the hugely popular Heaven is for Real, and Alex Malarkey, who had co-written The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, drew false pictures of heaven in their books.
“No true evangelical ought to be tempted to give such tales any credence whatsoever, no matter how popular they become,” Johnson wrote.
In Bellefontaine, Ohio, Alex Malarkey’s mother, Beth, was reading. Beth and Alex had left a trail telling the truth all over the internet, even as The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven kept selling. But nobody else was listening to her or her son any more, so she called Johnson almost immediately.
“You’re right, this whole story is fabricated,” Johnson recalled Beth Malarkey telling him. “[But] because the book was a bestseller, no one in the evangelical publishing industry wanted to kill it.”
Johnson would spend the next two years trying to help Beth get out that message – that Alex’s story wasn’t real, that a child who had almost died in a car accident in 2004 had been pushed to expand upon a fairytale he’d told when he was six.
Following the accident, Alex spent two months in a coma and woke up paralysed. But his description of what happened in between offered a compelling tale of life after death, including visions of angels and meeting Jesus. The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, published in 2010 with Alex and his father Kevin listed as co-authors, eventually became a bestseller – one billed as a description of “miracles, angels, and life beyond this world”.
But last week, following persistent rumours, Alex, now 16, revealed that the detail in the book was false. “I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention,” he wrote on his own blog.
“I did not die. I did not go to heaven. When I made the claims, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough,” Alex wrote.
Jokes playing on his surname have been made far and wide, but Alex Malarkey is not James Frey for the evangelical set. He was not, and still is not, an adult. He is dependent on the care of others. Contesting this book would mean discrediting his own father as his co-author. It would also pit Alex against an evangelical publishing industry that has made huge profits off too-good-to-be-true memoirs that demand readers take them, quite literally, on faith.
At a time when publishing is under pressure from Amazon and e-books, near-death experience books are reliable, even phenomenon-level business: the story of Burpo – which includes visions of Jesus on a horse and his miscarried baby sister during an emergency appendectomy – has reportedly sold more than 10m books, and The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven moved over 1m copies before its publisher pulled the book from shelves on Friday.
The publisher, Tyndale House, said in a statement it was “saddened to learn” that its co-author “is now saying that he made up the story of dying and going to heaven.” Since the scandal broke, the Malarkeys have not spoken publicly. According to family members, Kevin Malarkey seems to be standing by the book. The agent who sold Alex’s story to Tyndale House – who reassured them by telling them how the book money could help, his mother wrote on her blog – has also remained silent.
But a closer look at family correspondence and social media postings in the years in between reveals how a push for sales can obscure the truth when it’s easier not to listen. Since at least 2011, Alex and Beth Malarkey have been telling people, on her blog, that the memoir had substantial inaccuracies. Emails obtained by the Guardian from Phil Johnson make clear they have been telling the publisher directly since at least 2012.
When pressed to acknowledge the prior correspondence, Tyndale House admitted in a statement that: “For the past couple of years we have known that Beth Malarkey … was unhappy with the book, and believed it contained inaccuracies.”
“It is because of this new information that we are taking the book out of print,” the publisher clarified in a follow-up statement on Tuesday. “At no time did the co-authors communicate to Tyndale that the core story of the book – Alex’s self-described supernatural experience – was untrue.”
But Beth Malarkey’s complaints are all over the internet. You can find her comments cascading on the religious blogosphere, and on her Facebook wall. Usually she leaves them on pieces critical of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven. She was adamant that the book misrepresented Alex’s involvement. And theirs is not the only near-death story that has raised skeptical eyebrows – even among evangelicals.
“Alex Malarkey not only has to deal with a devastating injury, but now has to disentangle himself from this far-reaching deception,” John MacArthur, an evangelical pastor who has long criticized Christian publishers, wrote in an email. “All these supposed trips to heaven are hoaxes, and they prey on people in the most vulnerable way, because they treat death in a superficial, deceptive fashion.”
The making of a bestseller: the father, the money and the agent
A book deal wasn’t anyone’s first thought after a car accident left Alex paralyzed below the neck in November 2004. In fact, he spent the first two months after the accident in a coma. His parents were churchgoers, and the community rallied around them. In a 2009 article in their local paper, Beth Malarkey said the family had the support of more than 40 local pastors while they kept a vigil at the hospital.
“The consistent message we heard was: ‘Your son will be healed,’” she was quoted as saying. “We believed that hope was there; with God there is no impossibility.”
That is the environment in which Alex woke up: high on emotion, high on faith-based messages. As described in the now-discredited book, his stories about heaven recite certain familiar elements of religious myth. For example, Alex said he saw angels that were “big and muscular”, with “wings on their backs from their waists to their shoulders”. He also said he saw the devil, beheld white tunnels of light, had an out-of-body experience, and spoke to Jesus.
At first, his parents seem to have been dubious. They mentioned the stories in posts to a now-defunct site they’d set up to document Alex’s recovery. But no one, then, seems to have thought Alex’s stories were worthy of a book.
For five years, the Malarkeys were not looking for a wider audience. “I felt no urge, really, to share the story,” Kevin Malarkey actually told the Coast to Coast AM radio show in 2011. “I think, for one, we were busy with our own lives. I mean, my wife – she doesn’t like when I say it – kind of became a full-time nurse at that point.”
But then, in January 2009, Alex attracted media attention when he became the youngest person ever to have a “diaphragm pacing system” installed. Christopher Reeve, who played Superman, famously had one, after his injury in a horse-riding accident. Alex’s was installed by the same surgeon.
On her blog, Beth Malarkey that her husband was seduced by the press there and then. Kevin has openly said that an Associated Press reporter covering the surgery told him to write the book. “I kid you not,” Kevin said in that 2011 radio interview. “My response was: ‘About what?’”
Within four months, Kevin Malarkey had brought an agent named Matt Jacobson to the house to meet his son. Beth wrote on her blog that she was against the idea of any meeting, because she felt Alex was too ill. (The health of a quadriplegic can be very delicate, and Alex was in and out of the hospital with various ailments throughout 2010 and 2011.) Beth was overruled. And she also has bad memories of the encounter:
I remember the man talking to Alex and to me, but not by myself. He never really asked me what I thought, but instead told me what monies could possibly be made from not only doing a book, but a series of books and possibly a movie. He reassured me how much that money could help with Alex’s needs. What stuck out was money!
Jacobson, the agent, did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article. In the book’s acknowledgements, Kevin Malarkey writes: “Thank you, Matt Jacobson, for – what haven’t you done? – praying, writing, editing, and serving us as our agent and, most importantly, as our friend.”
‘From Alex’: a deal, a video shoot and a contract
Kevin Malarkey got his book deal by late 2009. The publisher would be Tyndale House, a major Christian publishing company with annual revenues of about $175m. Tyndale publishes a popular version of the Bible (the New Living Translation, with some 26m sold) and the Left Behind series (about 63m copies). And like every Christian publisher, Tyndale was aware of the public appetite for been-to-heaven-and-back stories. Popular accounts of near-death experiences have been commercial bestsellers since at least 1975, as Robert Gottlieb pointed out in a recent article for the New York Review of Books.
But Beth Malarkey recounts on her blog that Tyndale House employees came to the Bellefontaine home for visits and interviewed Alex repeatedly as the book was prepared. Promotional spots were filmed inside the Malarkey home.
At that time, Alex was still repeating the stories he had told about his spiritual experiences. But Beth writes that it was obvious to her that the focus of the Tyndale House employees’ questions made Alex uncomfortable. They kept asking about heaven and angels, and he was growing unhappy about having to talk about them.
Even a Tyndale House executive seemed to acknowledge this, in an April 2012 email to Beth about the film crew obtained by the Guardian: “I wasn’t there, but was told by my colleagues that Alex didn’t want to be interviewed on video. I wasn’t aware that Alex didn’t want anything in the book about heaven and angels.”
Beth adds that when consulted on the cover and title of the book, Alex was strongly against the ones that were eventually chosen. The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven was nonetheless published – with Alex’s name on the cover – in July 2010. Some parts of the book are presented so as to suggest that they are in Alex’s voice. They are titled “from Alex”. But all parties seem to agree that Alex did not write them, and he never signed a contract with Tyndale and on the copyright register. While Alex is listed as a co-author of the book, Kevin Malarkey is listed as the only claimant of the copyright. On the form, Alex’s father indicated he had acquired his sole copyright “by written agreement”.
The copyright, as it turns out, was lucrative. The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven spent much of 2011 on the New York Times bestseller list. Kevin Malarkey built a speaking career on it, traveling and giving interviews – alone. He could not be reached for comment for this article.
‘Giving Alex a voice’: emails, inaccuracies and the meeting that never happened
The dam began to break in August 2011. Early that month, Alex logged on to Facebook and went on to the fan page for the book. (He can access the internet himself, with a computer he controls with his mouth.) There, he left a cryptic comment under his own name: “1 of the most deceptive books ever.”
Fans began to reply angrily, questioning whether this could possibly be the real Alex. Whoever controlled the fan page deleted the comment.
Beth Malarkey later posted a copy of the Facebook comment thread to her blog. From there on out, she began to write – on evangelical blogs and in private emails to the publisher, obtained by the Guardian – about how her “child is being exploited and that is truth”.
Tyndale House maintains that it only learned of Alex’s retraction recently. But as early as April 2012, Beth was in touch with the publisher, complaining of what she called the book’s inaccuracies. Her emails are long and complicated, quoting passages from the book and then explaining what is wrong with them.
“I know it is not all that I know to be ‘off’ but it is at least some,” she writes in the first such email, dated 22 April 2012. Almost all of the inaccuracies, she say, relate back to a single theme: that this is not Alex’s story, but Kevin’s, and that it is inaccurate. (Kevin and Beth Malarkey are still legally married, but do not speak to each other, and have not for some time.)
Jan Long Harris, a publisher with Tyndale House, was Beth Malarkey’s primary correspondent. She offered to correct inaccuracies in consultation with Kevin, “since our contract is with him”. According to the emails newly obtained by the Guardian, Harris acknowledged that Beth had presented larger issued with the book, writing: “I realize that your concern about what you feel are inaccuracies is not the only issue you have with the book, but it is the issue that could be most easily addressed.”
Beth replied: “Revisions are not what will restore what has been stolen from my son, who continues to suffer.” She asked if Tyndale House could break its contract with Kevin Malarkey.
Harris, evidently exasperated, replied:
Even if we could make a case for breaking our contract, the book could (and probably would) be back in print with another publisher within a few weeks. So I don’t think that would achieve your goal.
Also, I’m sure you can understand that we can’t break a contract with an author just because someone else – even if the someone else is the author’s spouse – makes accusations about him. We have to give the author, in this case Kevin, a chance to respond.
As far as giving Alex a voice, we would be glad to talk with Alex and hear what he has to say about the book. I offer again to come to your home to talk with you, Kevin and Alex, for the purpose of giving all three of you a voice. I know you are concerned that there might be repercussions after such a meeting, but would they be worse than the current situation? At the very least, I think a phone call with you and Kevin is essential.
When the Guardian contacted Tyndale House for comment about the email correspondence, the publisher wrote back with a more detailed statement: “On more than one occasion we asked for a meeting with Kevin, Beth, Alex and their agent to discuss and correct any inaccuracies,” the publisher said, “but Beth would not agree to such a meeting.”
In its Tuesday statement to the Guardian, Tyndale House clarified:
“After originally agreeing to a meeting, Mrs Malarkey sent us an email on May 22 2012, saying that out of concern for her son she no longer wished to meet. When we learned of Alex’s recent public statement, we responded by taking the book out of print.”
According to Phil Johnson, who keeps in regular touch with Beth and provided her emails with Tyndale House to the Guardian, the reason Beth did not agree to a meeting was that the situation seemed adversarial to her.
“The thread that runs through all their correspondence with Beth is that they wanted to corner her before they would be willing to investigate her concerns,” he wrote to the Guardian. “They kept pressing her to agree to a meeting where she and Alex would have to face Kevin and a phalanx of editors who were determined to press ahead with the project, no matter what objections Alex and she might have.”
Beth Malarkey simply kept complaining on the internet. Tyndale House kept publishing a book with a quadriplegic boy’s name on the cover, even though it knew he had substantial objections to the book. And for years, nothing changed. Until Alex posted that open letter.
‘I still remember’: the anger of the duped and the persistence of believers
On Friday, as the headlines and Malarkey puns were still flying, Johnson spoke to Beth Malarkey on the phone, gauging her mood. (She has declined all press interview requests, citing childcare obligations.) Her feelings, he told the Guardian, are mixed.
“She’s glad on one level that the truth is finally out there,” he said. “I also think she’s scared, a little bit cautious about what is yet to come. She doesn’t have any source of income. Her life is not easy.”
There will be consequences for the Malarkeys. They cannot continue as they have. The evangelical publishers once so eager to pick up her son’s story are bound to stay away now. This disgusts people like MacArthur, the pastor and critic of the niche publishers, who commented: “The word exploitation is very appropriate. The children are exploited. The Christian public is exploited. The buyers are exploited.”
And any other way for the Malarkeys to make money seems to be foreclosed. The second book Kevin Malarkey published with Matt Jacobson, entitled A Beautiful Defeat: Find True Freedom and Purpose in Total Surrender to God, did not sell quite as well. It lacked the emotional pull of the near-death hook. Already, it has garnered one angry anonymous Amazon review: “So basically the same guy who lied about the accounts in his first book, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven (notice he doesn’t even mention the title in the About the Author – strange, huh?) has written another one,” the reviewer writes. “He shouldn’t be allowed to author any more books unless it’s about telling the truth and apologizing to the public for the first dupe.”
If such anger seems out of proportion, the anger of the duped often is. There is something profoundly enraging about having a story you truly believe, as many truly believe such near-death narratives, exposed as false. Colton Burpo, the subject of Heaven Is For Real, seems desperate himself to avoid the blowback. Since Alex Malarkey’s letter broke, Burpo’s been making the rounds of television shows proclaiming that he still believes he saw heaven. “I still remember my experience my heaven,” he insisted to Christian outlets.
Phil Johnson explains the continuing faith in these stories by reference to scripture: “The Bible says people like fables.”