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A conversation with Patricia Pearson
The award-winning journalist talks to Toronto Standard's Amanda Lee about her new book, love and loss and near death experiences.

“I didn’t tell certain friends I was working on the book,” Patricia Pearson admits. Her recent book, Opening Heaven’s Door: What the Dying May Be Trying to Tell Us About Where They’re Going (Random House) is Pearson’s fifth novel. The Toronto-based writer is also an award-winning journalist and happens to be the granddaughter of former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson.

Like a skilled surgeon, Pearson expertly slices through the mundane of our lives to expose the issues that are only whispered about. After covering the Bernardo trials in the 1990’s, Pearson wrote her first book, When She Was Bad. “It wasn’t as if I thought, ‘I want to write a book about violent women’,” she says. After covering the trial, the writer thought the overriding assumption about women and violence in society was wrong. Pearson’s response was to pen a compelling examination at women, not as victims, but as perpetrators of violence.  So, does Pearson see herself as a contrarian? “Yes but it’s not purposeful,” she says. “I tend to be attracted to subjects where I am ambling along and I just happen to notice the take is wrong—as I see it,” Pearson explains. “That tends to trigger why I write.”

Pearson then delved into her personal life and challenged our perception of mood disorders. A friend gave me a copy of Pearson’s A Brief History of Anxiety: Yours and Mine during an especially difficult time. “I would prefer not to be afraid of the following: phone bills, ovarian cancer, black bears, climate change, walking on golf courses at night, being blundered into by winged insects; unseemly heights, running out of gas, having the mole on my back…” she writes. While her prose doesn’t flinch, I took comfort in Pearson’s admissions, in seeing aspects of myself reflected on the page.

A Brief History of Anxiety: Yours and Mine contests our belief that mood disorders are brain-based. In doing so, it examines what makes 21st-century North American culture the most anxious in the world. Pearson says the book started out as a pitch to her editor to write a history of ambition, but her editor suggested she write a history of fear instead. Pearson used her own life as the narrative structure for the book. “I didn’t even realize then that there was a distinction between fear and anxiety,” she explains.

In writing her most recent book, Opening Heaven’s Door, Pearson discovered, “a curious sort of modern underground—a world beneath the secular world, inhabited by ordinary human beings having extraordinary experiences that they aren’t, on the whole, willing to disclose.” Pearson applies her journalistic inquiry to the question of what happens to us when we die.

Opening Heaven’s Door explores the inexplicable gleanings of another world many of us experience in life, in grief and near death. It was her family’s profound experiences around the deaths of her father and her sister which prompted Pearson to pen Opening Heaven’s Door. Pearson’s sister Katharine had metastatic breast cancer. “I had always been close to her and I’d always understood where she was coming from,” says Pearson. “I was trying to understand where my sister was in the last days in the hospice.” Pearson describes Katherine as the sister with whom she had shared all that anxiety. “Here she was at deaths door and she was smiling like she was on the best ecstasy trip of her life. “

Within six months of Katherine dying, Pearson attended a conference in North Carolina on near death experiences (NDEs). “I had never heard anyone talk about it before, and it was so clear from listening to them that they had experienced something profound and radical,” she says. “So very quickly I realized that Katherine might have well encountered that same kind of ecstasy.”

Opening Heaven’s Door tenderly and beautifully honours the stories of the people Pearson interviewed, though it also raises more questions than it answers.  “It wasn’t important for me to prove things one way or another,” she says. Pearson says “the prestige of the rational” prevents our willingness to talk openly about the spiritual aspects of death and dying. “Why can’t we just talk about these experiences and compare notes without feeling shameful?” she asks. “If somebody falls in love, you can talk about it—even though you can’t prove it.”

Although Pearson wasn’t afraid of what she might encounter in her research, she had some concern for her reputation as a journalist. “It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t being credulous; there was a lot of debate.”

Pearson admits that after writing each of her books she has wandered off from their subject. However, “With this one there’s so much left to be done because there are so few people working on it.”  Pearson is interested in collaborating with other experts in parapsychology to create a language for these experiences. “In the mid-19th century mental illness was all over the map in terms of diagnosis and labelling,” she says. “Then there was an Austrian who systemized the categories we use today. And then it was easier for people to talk about.”

Pearson hopes to participate in creating an online Wikipedia, based on solid research, with the British Society of Psychical Research. The organization recently received a bequest and is applying the money to creating this site.

While we may have come a long way since the mid-nineteenth century when American doctor Duncan MacDougall tried to locate the soul by weighing it (he determined the soul weighs 21 grams), Pearson says we’re still stuck asking the same questions. “We can’t get beyond to more nuanced and interesting conversations,” she says. ”And so you can’t get into the juicy stuff.”

Photo of Pearson courtesy of Russell Monk.
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Amanda Lee is a contributor to Toronto Standard. Follow her on Twitter.

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