International Association for Near Death Studies

THROUGH HEAVEN’S GATE AND BACK, by Lee Thornton 2014 Lulu Publishing, pp. 167, reviewed by Suzanne Mays, CMP, for IANDS.

Lee Thornton’s book is as much an autobiography as an account of her Near-Death Experience. Her story is a powerful testimony of the working out of destiny, in addition to being a love story. The book has all the elements of a first-class novel: adventure, suspense, tragedy, sorrow, elation, transformation, reconciliation, revelation. Lee’s superb writing skills quickly draw the reader intimately into her story through her rich descriptive language as well as by her deep penetration of the dynamics of her inner life during every stage of her life. The reader can see, feel, taste, touch, smell, hear the scenes she describes of the foreign countries she lived in.

Age 5, Paris

“I was almost five and we were on our way to live in Paris. With six-foot wardrobe trunks and army lockers filled with our immediate possessions, we boarded one of the most grand and elegant of the old era ocean liners. For a week my sister Nel and I were in heaven exploring the labyrinth of passageways and decks lined with lounge chairs overlooking the enormous grey-blue waves of the Atlantic. At night we dressed for dinner in our best dresses. We dined in wood-paneled rooms with chandeliers at tables draped in fine linens with starched napkins, silver ware and crystal goblets. Served by waiters dressed in snappy white jackets who catered to our every need, we feasted on one gourmet course after another. This was my entrée into a life in the diplomatic corps – servants, beautiful official residences, exotic lands -- though these were to be only one side of the diplomatic life.

Age 9, Finland

“My memories of Finland come to me like images out of a story book: enormous yellow moons descending into summer seas; stark winter moons etched with skeletal branches brightening the frozen sea; berry-filled woodlands with mossy clearings for summer campfires. It was a stark and beautiful dreamscape. But it was also a land of nightmares. While on the surface we seemed to have a bucolic childhood, the beginning of something far more sinister was playing out, a dark undercurrent flowing beneath the purity of the land’s virgin snow.”

High School Years, Italy

“The smells of olive oil, garlic, fresh tomatoes, and pasta mingled with the musty smell of old buildings. Walls painted ochre and burnt orange surrounded the flower-filled patio garden where we sat in the shade of umbrellas under Rome’s August sun. Somewhere nearby a rich baritone had broken into song. An ambience of warmth, sensual delights and the good life abounded. We were staying in a villa while waiting to move into our new home. I was overjoyed to be back in my place of birth and felt like I belonged in its Mediterranean folds.”

Newly Married Young Woman, India (Calcutta, Madras, New Delhi)

“Having passed among the most desperate, the poorest, lowliest and lost, it was not only the immeasurable suffering that disturbed me, but an inner knowing that I had met a part of myself there. The Black Hole was to become a metaphor for my own mind’s devolution. I could no more escape it than these destitute could escape their plight, but I had no choice but to move forward and reach for something to hold on to. For however my life had appeared on the outside I realized now that this was how it had already become on the inside many years ago.”

Lee grew up living a double life, on the outside adhering to the role of a dutiful daughter and on the inside carrying a family secret that progressively was destroying her. In her youth, she was subjected to abusive secrecy, lies and manipulation from her parents. Soon after marriage, Lee and her husband were assigned to live in India where she again was thrust into a life of secrecy, lies and manipulation of a different sort because her husband worked as a secret spy for the CIA. It was at this point, at the age of 27 during a medical emergency when giving birth to her first child -- a son -- that Lee had an extraordinary experience of being transported into the presence of a Being of Light.

“I perceived this light as the essence of divine love…Released from the burden of self-punishment, embraced in the wholeness of this forgiving presence, I was enveloped in joy. I seemed to become transparent, the light of divine love flowing through me.”

The Being of Light tells Lee that her life is not completed and that she must return to her body and Earthly circumstances, despite her protestations.

“…Part of the reason I had been sent back was to discover how one retrieved and sustained this essence of one’s core spiritual identity – one’s true, essential Self – amidst the fray of ordinary existence. I had hoped my road back was going to move me ever closer towards that state of being, to incorporate it as a beacon that would guide me through life. But first I would have to continue to remove all the obstacles that prevented me from being the real me. And I had no idea how long and difficult a path that was going to be.”

Lee’s life steadily unraveled into divorce, unemployment, separation from her son, estrangement from parents until she bottomed-out into an abyss of utter despair. During this spiraling down into incapacitating depression, she bore a new secret she could tell no one, adding to her unbearable pain: her NDE. Lee had no name for her experience, no reference point to understand it from any of her life experience and education.

“Yet while I wanted to herald what I had seen and experienced, I felt I was unable to do so. I felt the experience was too private and sacred, and also that people would think I was crazy or would not believe me. I didn’t feel I could take the risk of sharing something that I perceived as the most profound, most important, and most hallowed experience of my entire life. I knew that it was as real if not more real than my life on earth and that in some way that I had yet to understand, it would play the primary role in the remainder of my life. It had told me my life was not complete and I believed it had some greater plan or purpose that would be revealed to me over time. It was to set me on a lifelong path of spiritual inquiry.”

Lee went through the crucible of her life collapsing, with no supports but the memory of the Light she had experienced in nature throughout her childhood years -- and beyond -- and the Light she had been in the presence of during her NDE.

Light – When an Adolescent

“One midsummer night in my early teens, I was walking on the country road that led in and out of the hamlet. There was a full moon which shown so brightly it reminded me of Midsummer’s Eve in Finland when daylight remained throughout the night. Under a star-studded sky, the meadow, surrounding trees, and rippling stream were suffused in the glow of the moon’s clear white light. As I walked along the road, taking in the fresh scent of pine, moss and ferns, the luminous light gathered the stars, moon, sky, trees, and land as one indivisible entity into which I too was drawn…That night I was overcome by a feeling that I was connected to everything around me. I felt like I was inside things, one and part of every tree, the meadow, the moon. I seemed to disappear and become one with them all…As I went on long walks in the woods, I kept returning to the idea that I was part of something bigger than myself.”

Light – In College, after confrontation with her father

“I was overcome by a glacial sense of utter aloneness in the world, feeling there was nobody to turn to and my world had come to an end. As these feelings overcame me, I drew away from the wheel and as I did so, I looked up and outside the window, up at the sky, and noticed there was a full moon lighting the entire grove. I had been too blinded by my dark emotions to notice the luminous light flooding the surrounding grass and trees. Etched against the enormous moon was a filigree of winter branches. I was suddenly mesmerized by the sight. It was radiant, and utterly beautiful. I sat there, gazing at the moon, its light having a hypnotic effect on me. I remember thinking: this moment, this beauty is worth going on for.”

Light – On a mountain trek in Himalayas just before dissolution of her marriage

“Mountains had always aroused in me a vogue notion of redemptive revelation, as if reaching a summit would provide a new perspective, a sense of liberation...A feeling of peace and fulfillment permeated my entire being…It came to me then that there was only one thing that could give life meaning and that was love. And that had to exist within oneself…The feeling of euphoria I was experiencing was a result of forgetting my earthly self. I was no longer in my intellect that perpetually analyzed, judged, criticized, demanded, and drove me to meet other’s expectations. I was in the heart of the divine itself, at one and complete with its attributes. I was in the Light once again.”

Saved by the Light

“And now here I was, all my resources exhausted. As I drank more wine, I imagined falling down the cliff, landing on those forbidding dark rocks where the surf was crashing over them. It was starting to darken as the sun lowered toward the horizon, and its golden glow suffused the rocks in amber light. A strip of crimson in the sky cast glints of red on the ocean waves. Mellowed by the wine, as I took in the setting sun, something happened that had happened to me before. The beauty of the light filling the sky and sea seemed to fill me, as if we were connected, and I thought: if nothing else, this scene is worth living for. And so is my son.”

Shortly after this episode of utter desperation, Lee’s life began to turn around in miraculous ways. She found herself in a bookstore and came upon a book that put a name on her transcendent experience in the Light.

“Although I had never found out exactly what had happened to me medically at the time I went unconscious during Finn’s birth or perceived that event as a clinical death, I had no doubts that I had glimpsed death in some form. And this had forever altered my view and taken away my fear of what happens when we die. Now I was learning that thousands of other people had been on similar journeys in varying degrees and documented them. For the first time I felt less alone and isolated, like I had found members of a family who would understand what I had experienced. And now I had a name for it, a way to make better sense of it.”

Lee’s story is one of courage to hold on when in the grip of her demons of fear, self-doubt, unworthiness, to not give up but be touched by the Light until she was strong enough to rebuild and literally rewrite her life. This she has done by fulfilling her childhood dreams to become a writer, a painter, a musician and therapeutic expressive artist. Lee’s life is now devoted to bringing ‘hope in the healing power of creative expression to transcend adversity.’  Her intention for writing her book is to help others heal. Many people will identify with her story not just because of her NDE but also for the challenges she faced to overcome crippling depression caused by childhood abuse, a major social issue in the world only now being spoken of openly. Lee exposes how the effects of abuse follow a specific course that steadily undermines self-esteem, leading to self-destruction. In revealing the crippling effects of abuse, Lee has served to move along the public discourse on this social illness.

For those individuals who have had an NDE, they will be encouraged to undergo the years of work on self-development necessary to fully embody their transcendent experience that came upon them unprepared and precipitous. The NDE can rightly be called a spiritual initiation and as such entails meeting the shadow side of one’s inner being -- a long and arduous undertaking after the bliss of a NDE! This is the same process of coming to terms with the light and the dark undertaken by meditants and spiritual seekers throughout human history. The goal is to find the “child within” and then become the unconditional love and light oneself. Transformation began for Lee the moment she learned how necessary it is “to forgive again and forgive again” herself and others. Her on-going practice of gratitude furthers along her process of becoming more like the Light. Lee discovered that “it is a lifelong process to become the Light” and that “Light is a guide, not a panacea.”

THROUGH HEAVEN’S GATE AND BACK is a book that takes first place in my extensive library of near-death and death-related literature. Lee Thornton’s NDE account first appeared in the posting of IANDS NDE of the month last year. My husband and I knew immediately that her story was one to pay attention to. It added significantly to the NDE research that we have been doing about the “Self-Conscious Mind”. Several quotes from her account were included in our part of a research panel at last year’s Arlington, Va. conference. We were not the only ones to recognize the value of Lee’s story and writing ability to relay the heights and depths of a soul on a path of self-discovery and liberation. Dr. Kenneth Ring, a pioneer in NDE research, also took notice of the NDE of the month posting and contacted Lee to consider writing a book. His collaboration and encouragement throughout the whole process of writing helped Lee finish the book. I, for one, am deeply grateful for Dr. Ring’s role in the book’s creation. The book comes, therefore, highly recommended and is the reason for including numerous excerpts to motivate other people to read the book. Two whole chapters of the book are devoted to Lee’s NDE event and aftermath. Excerpts from them were deliberately minimal so as not to give away everything in the story. 

©2014 Suzanne Mays