Sitting at Napeague Beach on a recent windy and warm day, author Annie Kagan of Northwest Woods in East Hampton wore a look of shock as she described going from not even wanting a Facebook page to having one with almost 40,000 followers in just a few months.
Kagan says she frequents this particular beach on the East End because she loves watching “kite surfers in their cool outfits, looking like friendly aliens flying through the air on colorful domes.”
In a way, Kagan is a “friendly alien” herself. Her book, The Afterlife of Billy Fingers: How My Bad-Boy Brother Proved to Me There’s Life After Death, published in March by Hampton Roads, deals forthrightly with an experience Kagan had that may sound alien to some, and unbelievable to others.
You could say that the book is a spiritual thriller “about the greatest mystery of all,” Kagan says: “What happens when we die.”
A few weeks after her older brother, William Cohen (aka “Billy Fingers”) died in 2005, Kagan woke up to his voice filling her room: “Annie! Annie! It’s me! It’s me! It’s Billy!”
“I thought I might be having delusions,” shares Kagan, “I thought his death had just pushed me over the edge, and I was crazy.”
Kagan and her brother grew up in Queens. Her father owned a car service company, and her mother worked in a beauty salon. By the age of 14, Kagan began writing songs and was signed by a producer at Columbia Records when she turned 15. By 16, she was performing regularly at New York City cafes and clubs.
“Carol King lived around the corner when I was growing up and she had a big crush on Billy. She often came to our house and played the piano in our basement and sang.”
Kagan also found inspiration in singer-songwriters “who were truly original. My favorite was Joni Mitchell. I loved the album ‘Blue.’”
One of Kagan’s first songs was called “Sweet William,” which she wrote for Billy and for a young man she had a crush on who was also named Billy.
After 10 years as a singer-songwriter, Kagan decided to return to college. “I was really frustrated with the music business…always being on the verge of great success and being broke at the same time,” she said.
Her plan was to become a psychologist, but a class in neurology shifted her focus to the body. “The magnificence of the nervous system knocked me out,” she says.
After graduating with honors and becoming a Doctor of Chiropractic, she opened a practice on the Upper East Side. In addition to work, she practiced yoga and meditation.
Her brother took a decidedly different path. He lost himself to drug and alcohol dependence, and he struggled all of his adult life battling his addictions. There would be long stretches of time when he would disappear, leaving Kagan and her parents frantic. He had run-ins with the law, tried several rehabs and would manage to put together a stretch of sobriety here and there. At one point, she and her husband, Steve, organized a rescue mission of sorts, and freed Billy from a dangerous situation in Venezuela.
After several years of serious meditation, the pace of city life, running a business, and the pressures of being a doctor took a toll. She separated from her husband and decided to seek solace and comfort by moving to the East End.
“I felt out of sync with city life, and had a deep longing for solitude and nature. I just sold my practice, packed up my things, and found a small house in the Northwest Woods, very close to Gardiner’s Bay.”
Once here, she went back to songwriting, collaborating with Emmy and Grammy Award-winning producer and musician Brian Keane.
In 2005, Kagan received a phone call from a Miami-Dade police officer. She assumed that Billy had landed in jail—again. The officer told her that Billy had run into traffic on a busy highway and was hit by a car and died instantly.
A few weeks later, Kagan’s grief turned to serenity as Billy began to communicate with her on a regular basis. “Of course, at first I was skeptical. How could anyone be speaking to me from another dimension? My mind wasn’t prepared to accept this reality. And Billy, my bad-boy brother, was the last person one would expect to offer an expanded spiritual vision. It seemed impossible.”
However impossible it seemed, Kagan wrote down every word he said. “Aside from sharing what it’s like in the afterlife, Billy proved to me he was real by giving me information I had no way of knowing that proved to be correct every time. He involved my friends by insisting I tell them things, and in every case their reaction was, how did you know that?”
Kagan’s book, which climbed quickly to bestseller status, entered the market with other bestsellers about the afterlife, such as Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander, and Waking Up in Heaven: A True Story of Brokenness, Heaven, and Life Again by Crystal McVea and Alex Tresniowski.
“One of the thrilling things for me,” Kagan says, “is when people tell me the book is an experience for them. When I was writing the book and communicating with Billy on the other side, I was having the experiences as Billy described them, experiences of the different realms of the afterlife. I felt I was there with him, and people are telling me they feel like they are also taking a journey.”
Kagan is able to manage most of her book-related activities, such as a slew of radio and press interviews, from home, and every day she finds the peace and serenity living in the Hamptons that she came here for.
“People usually think of the Hamptons as a very sociable place, but for me, the beauty of nature, the sea and the sky and the beach grass and the quiet that is found, especially in the off-season, is a wonderful secret. I love to walk by the ocean at sunrise when the world is quiet or grab a smoothie at Juicy Naam in Sag Harbor and have a picnic by the harbor at sunset.”
Kagan is now less worried about life and living. “Billy has reminded me that we are literally made of stars, that the intelligence that runs the Universe is available to us. The same intelligence that breathes our breath and heals our wounds and beats in our hearts also gives birth to stars and galaxies. As Billy says, when you imagine the infinite, you’re touched by the infinite self.”