Cathie Anderson

Paranormal memoir earns seven-figure advance for former Bee publisher

Janis Heaphy Durham, former Sacramento Bee publisher and author of a new book, “The Hand on the Mirror: A True Story of Life Beyond Death.”
Janis Heaphy Durham, former Sacramento Bee publisher and author of a new book, “The Hand on the Mirror: A True Story of Life Beyond Death.”

As a newspaper publisher, Janis Heaphy Durham didn’t draw outside the lines of convention. She lived the type of normal, rational life that befitted the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, which she is.

Heaphy Durham is better known to Sacramento Bee readers as Janis Besler Heaphy, her name when she was the paper’s publisher from 1998 to 2008. Her husband, political consultant Max Besler, died of cancer in 2004.

Following his demise, Heaphy Durham began to encounter otherworldly phenomena that mystified her. She has chronicled her experiences and her search for answers in a book titled “The Hand on the Mirror: A True Story of Life Beyond Death” (Grand Central Publishing, $26, 263 pages) that will hit store shelves on Tuesday.

Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette, paid Heaphy Durham a seven-figure advance, she told me, for a book she never would have considered writing as a newspaper executive.

Heaphy Durham didn’t even share what she was experiencing with business associates, fearing they would think that her profound grief had affected her judgment. “I worked in an industry that was a breeding ground for skepticism about almost anything. The business of publishing required a mainstream professional demeanor and lifestyle. ... Journalists can be eccentric; the business side of newspaper management isn’t.”

Heaphy Durham also was skeptical at first, but after one unusual event after another, she began to feel that her late husband’s consciousness had survived his physical death. He died on a calm day in May, she wrote in her book, but friends remarked upon the ringing of wind chimes that the couple had hung in their backyard.

Heaphy wrote that she rationalized this and other incidents, until the one-year anniversary of Besler’s death, when something happened that she couldn’t ignore. She spotted a powdery handprint, about the size of a man’s hand, on the bathroom mirror in her then-Sacramento home.

Not only did Heaphy Durham see it, but so did her teenage son Tanner Heaphy and housekeeper Helen Dennis. Heaphy Durham photographed the handprint; those who read the book will see it and other images she captured.

Eventually, Heaphy Durham found love again, retired from The Bee and remarried, but the odd experiences did not stop. Instead, her new husband, engineer and businessman Jim Durham, became a second bewildered observer.

When she left The Bee, Heaphy Durham had no plans to write a book, but she did begin researching the paranormal. When people asked what she was up to in retirement, she told them, she said, and nearly every time, the listener would confide a paranormal event they had encountered. One woman told Heaphy Durham that she had an out-of-body experience after learning she had late-stage breast cancer, but fearing her story would meet with incredulity, she never told anyone, even her husband.

“That was the moment when I said, ‘I have to write the book,’” Heaphy Durham told me, talking from her home in Tiburon. “People cannot feel so inhibited. Why is it that we rush to judgment as a society, as a culture, when someone has an experience that isn’t the ordinary experience?”

By then, Heaphy Durham had met with quantum physicists, parapsychologists and neurobehavioral psychiatrists, all with impeccable educations and all researching human consciousness, its impact on energy and matter, and whether it can exist outside the body. Often, they had left more lucrative areas of research and were risking professional ridicule.

Heaphy Durham said that her story likely appealed to Grand Central because of her credentials as a former newspaper executive for the Los Angeles Times and The Bee. During her tenure as publisher in Sacramento, the paper won two Pulitzer Prizes.

“I am not the journalist, but I am the person who believes in the core qualities and attributes of both the L.A. Times and The McClatchy Co.,” Heaphy Durham said. “I knew that I had to write the truth, and I knew that I wanted to tell my story. And as a result, I knew that there were some people who might be put off or miffed by it.”

She submitted a rough manuscript to literary agent Mary Evans at the suggestion of author Abraham Verghese, whom she met at a writers’ conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. Within a week, Evans had agreed to mentor, coach and represent her.

Once they completed a book proposal, Evans shared it with Deb Futter, the editor-in-chief for hardcovers at Grand Central, and negotiated a deal within 24 hours. The publisher is issuing a first printing of 250,000 copies. Similar memoirs – “Proof of Heaven” and “To Heaven and Back” – have become bestsellers.

“There’s something like 100 million Americans living today that are 50-plus. Those are the people who are thinking about their own mortality,” Heaphy Durham said, “and they’re probably also the people who will buy this book because they will have lost a parent or another loved one.”

Heaphy Durham is about to embark on a 12-city U.S. book tour. Its closest stop to Sacramento is at Book Passage bookstore in Corte Madera on May 16. Can’t make that trip? An interview with Heaphy Durham will air on the news magazine “CBS Sunday Morning” tomorrow.

Call The Bee’s Cathie Anderson, (916) 321-1193. Follow her on Twitter @CathieA_SacBee.