The woman at the lectern is Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the pioneering researcher who wrote the controversial best-seller On Death and Dying. Ten years after publication it is still selling briskly. Her extraordinary views on the subject made her the center of a scientific and theological storm.
Now, Kübler-Ross, 53, is again embroiled in controversy, in part because she claims to have talked to the dead, in part because of her association with a self-ordained minister accused of having sex with members of his flock.
The Swiss-born psychiatrist admits she is vulnerable to criticism. "Poor Kübler-Ross is slipping, has lost her marbles," she mocks herself. "But I'm convinced that what I am sharing is verifiable. I would not risk my reputation if I were not 100 percent sure."
The most bizarre charges stem from Kübler-Ross' association with Jay Barham, 50, a former sharecropper and aircraft worker who founded the Church of the Facet of Divinity four years ago. After meeting Barham in 1976, Kübler-Ross persuaded her husband to buy 40 acres near Barham's small ranch in the wooded hills northeast of San Diego. There she established a headquarters called Shanti Nilaya—"ultimate home of peace" in Sanskrit. Its purpose is to investigate psychic healing and administer "life, death and transition" workshops that involve psychodrama and such purging acts as beating a telephone book with a rubber hose. Barham and his wife, Martha, help conduct the five-day sessions (which are technically free, but a contribution of $285 is strongly suggested). Kübler-Ross says there is a waiting list of 1,500. She has also enthusiastically endorsed Barham's supposed ability to heal the sick and conjure up materialized spirits, which he calls "entities."
Appearing at sessions in darkened rooms at the Barham ranch, these "entities" have assumed human form and according to some reports engaged in sexual relations with church members. At first the entities were male, but later included women. Last week the Los Angeles Times asserted that several women were encouraged to pretend they were entities in order to provide sex to other members. People who have attended sessions said the entity in the room with them resembled Barham. "How is it," one asked, "that an entity, a pure spirit, has cigarette breath?" Once, when the lights were snapped on, they claim to have seen him clearly, naked except for a turban.
Barham denies having had sex with any of the women involved or ever masquerading as an entity. The San Diego district attorney's office investigated the reports, including one that a 10-year-old girl was molested, but dropped the case last month for lack of evidence. Never a target of the investigation herself, Kübler-Ross has been unshakable in her support of Barham. "He has so much integrity," she says. "The truth does not need to be defended."
Kübler-Ross is equally unswerving in her belief in an afterlife. Until meeting Barham, she says, she had encountered only one entity, named Willie, but has since met three others—Aenka, Salem and Mario. She sometimes plays a tape recording to audiences of a male voice talking and singing, and identifies it as Willie's. She also maintains she lived during the time of Christ as "Isabel," one of his teachers.
Kübler-Ross first became fascinated with the afterlife through interviews with patients who were revived after being pronounced dead. She says they all reported out-of-body experiences that were free of pain and anxiety. Last year she revealed she had undergone an out-of-body experience herself, with the aid of artificial sound pulses. "I'm a very skeptical scientist," she says, "but as far as I was concerned, it was true beyond a shadow of a doubt."
Kübler-Ross keeps up a hectic pace on the lecture circuit. Flying up to 250,-000 miles a year, she says she can accept only one of every 30 speaking invitations. She donates her $3,000 fees to Shanti Nilaya, which has set up branches in Rhode Island, Hawaii, New Jersey and Australia. At San Diego headquarters, she claims success in psychic treatment of victims of epilepsy and severe emotional problems. Here, too, she credits Barham. "He has done more healing in the last six months than in my wildest dreams," she says. "If people would get in touch with their spirits, they would be able to heal, emotionally and physically."
One apparent casualty of the past year or so has been Kübler-Ross' 20-year marriage to Dr. Emanuel Ross, a neuropathologist. She hopes to get Shanti Nilaya in the divorce settlement. Aware of the furor around her, she is almost blissfully confident. "Most people, especially those who have seen our work, have not only stuck it out with us," she says, "but have been strengthened by the storms." Among the messages she has received, Kübler-Ross told a colleague, is one from her four afterlife entities—a forecast of her future. A crucifixion—metaphorically speaking—awaits her, she said, but triumph lies beyond. Does she believe it, the colleague asked? "I don't think so," Kübler-Ross said firmly. "I know so."
"Death is not painful," says the slight, graying figure, addressing an attentive audience of doctors, nurses, priests and nuns. "It is the most beautiful experience you will have."