The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven’ now wants his day in court

Beth Malarkey comforts her son, Alex, as his father Kevin watches at a Cleveland medical center in 2009. (Tony Dejak/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

On Nov. 14, 2004, as 6-year-old Alex Malarkey drove home with his father Kevin in rural Ohio, a left turn nearly took his life. As Kevin turned the car it collided with another vehicle, and the boy’s skull became completely detached from his spinal cord.

But Alex did not die — and that’s the central fact behind a long-running controversy that has now led to a lawsuit.

Two months after the crash, Alex emerged from a coma as a quadriplegic. The injured boy also began telling family and friends about traveling to heaven and meeting Jesus and Satan.

In July 2010, Kevin and Alex Malarkey penned an account of the boy’s religious experience, “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven.” The book was published by Tyndale House, a publisher of Christian books. It went on to reportedly move more than 1 million copies and spent months on the New York Times bestseller’s list. The book was part of a bumper crop of similarly geared narratives — tales of near-death experiences and brushes with the Almighty published by religious imprints.

Then it all fell apart. In January 2015, Alex, now paralyzed from the neck down, admitted he had fabricated the story.

“I did not die,” he wrote in a blog post. “I did not go to Heaven. I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention.”

The admission created a firestorm within the worlds of evangelical faith and Christian publishing. The controversy was revived this week when Alex — now 20 years old and living off Social Security — filed a lawsuit against Tyndale House in Illinois’s DuPage County, where the publisher is located. The complaint alleges Kevin Malarkey was the main actor behind the fabrication.

“Kevin Malarkey … concocted a story that, during the time Alex was in a coma, he had gone to Heaven, communicated with God the Father, Jesus, angels, and the devil, and then returned,” the complaint says. “Kevin Malarkey sold the concocted story, allegedly about Alex’s life and what Alex allegedly experienced, to one of the largest Christian publishers in the country.”

Alex has also not received any of the revenue related to his story, the lawsuit alleges.

When reached for comment, a Tyndale House representative told The Washington Post the publisher had just learned of the lawsuit on Tuesday and planned to release a response on Wednesday.

After the publication of “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven,” behind the scenes of the tremendous success, Alex’s distaste for the project was building. According to a 2015 report by the Guardian, Alex’s mother Beth had begun posting on a personal blog (now taken down) about inaccuracies in the book since at least 2011. The paper also cited emails showing the family had also told the publisher.

“Alex’s name and identity are being used against his wishes. … How can this be going on???” Beth wrote in April 2014 blog, The Washington Post reported at the time.  “Great question. … How did it get this far? … another great question.”

Following Alex’s blog post recanting his story, Tyndale House decided to “take the book and related ancillary products out of print,” a company spokesman told the Post.

“For the past couple of years we have known that Beth Malarkey, Kevin’s wife and Alex’s mother, was unhappy with the book and believed it contained inaccuracies,” another Tyndale representative told The Post. “On more than one occasion we asked for a meeting with Kevin, Beth, Alex and their agent to discuss and correct any inaccuracies, but Beth would not agree to such a meeting.”

According to his new lawsuit against the company, the legal action is a way of finally settling the matter.

“Now that he is an adult, Alex desires to have his name completely disassociated from the book and seeks a permanent injunction against Tyndale House requiring it to do everything within reason to disassociate his name from the book,” the complaint states. “Alex is not affiliated with the book. Alex is not connected to the book. Alex wants and has no association with the book.”

The lawsuit reaffirms that Alex’s holy sojourn was fantasy. “The portrayal of Alex’s near-death experience contained in the book is entirely false, because Alex remembers absolutely nothing from the time he was in a coma. The core of the story is entirely false.”

But the complaint also alleges Tyndale House has not cooperated with Alex as he tries to solve the complicated legacy behind the book. Only Kevin Malarkey signed a publishing agreement for the book. This January, Alex’s attorneys wrote to Tyndale House asking for an “accounting of all revenue earned from, all expenses associated with, and all disbursements made in association with the publication of and sale of the book.”

The publisher, however, only agreed to do so if Alex agreed the publishing agreement was “in effect and binding,” the lawsuit says.

“Alex has never been permitted to read the contract, nor to review any accountings provided under the contract, he refuses to acknowledge that the contract ‘is in effect and binding,’ now that he has reached the age of majority,” the suit states.

Alex is suing the publisher on the grounds of defamation, financial exploitation, and publicity placing a person in a false light, among others.

“Despite the fact that Tyndale House has made millions of dollars off Alex’s identity and an alleged autobiographical story of his life, Tyndale House paid Alex, a paralyzed young man, nothing,” the lawsuit states.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Kevin Malarkey was deceased. He is not.

More from Morning Mix:

‘Yodeling Walmart Boy’ thrusts 1949 Hank Williams classic to Spotify’s top charts