Past Lives

Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick. Past Lives: An Investigation into Reincarnation Memories. Headline, 1999. 

Tom Shroder. Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence for Past Lives. Simon and Schuster, 1999.
In the first of the these books, Peter Fenwick, a neuropsychiatrist, and his wife asses, not only the classic cases in the literature, but a data base of material collected as a result of an appeal in the Daily Mail, a newspaper, which for the benefit of our non-British readers I should explain, is a tabloid newspaper which in recent years has taken to intermingling its staple diet of reactionary politics and suburban golf-club barroom prejudices, with a wide variety of New Age and paranormal claims. This data-base is really just a collection of anecdotes, and it is not clear what, if any, attempts were made to verify the claims made in the letters. Past experience suggests that some, at least, of the respondents to such newspaper appeals consider them as opportunities for creative writing.

In general the Fenwicks are quite reasonably open-minded in their discussions, and do not let their evident will to believe overrule their willingness to point out the obvious flaws in some of these cases. Indeed they produce perhaps one of the most critical assessments of the Jenny Cockell story I have seen, and are also not uncritical of Ian Stevenson and his work on birth marks, quoting a dermatologist who debunks the claim that birth marks migrate as people age (a theme which crops up several times in Stevenson's cases, presumably to explain why birth marks are not exactly where they should be).

The Fenwicks also point out the puzzling absence of language skills in these cases; people recount past lives in what appears to be either standard modem language, or in mock antique style reminiscent of poor quality historical romances. And that is what many of the stories, presented here read like. Westerners tend to come up with romantic stories from stock book and film situations which often recycle popular myths about the past (indeed it is surprising that any of us are here at all, given the popularity of murder, early death and other dramas in these stories)

Some of the classic cases, such as Arthur Guidham's reincarnated Cathars, which the Fenwicks pretty well dismiss as a fraud, are indeed the veritable stuff of historical novels. The same goes for the wild historical romance told by Laurel Dilment and her 'therapist' Linda Tarazi (an amateur hypnotist), of the adventures of a Spanish Lady. The Fenwicks seem puzzled by this case, though they admit it seems to just too good (and they could have added just too dramatic) to be true, yet contains lots of details difficult to find out. However, though the Fenwicks discuss a number of explanations, they omit the obvious one: that the story has come from a historical novel, and that someone else had done all the hard graft for Dilment and Tarazi.

They tend to dismiss fraud on the grounds that it would involve an awful lot of hard work and research, but this is not true. To fake a good past life all that is involved is to go round charity shops and junk shops and buy up, dirt-cheap, the old hardback fiction books which come from house clearances and never sell. Check a few library catalogues on the Internet, and if none of them list those titles with good period stories with lots of details, you're away. There are box-loads of that sort of stuff out there that no-one had read for forty years or more; its dead easy.

What struck me about much of the material in the Fenwicks' book was how close the personality profiles of a fair proportion of the past life remembrances are to those of UFO abductees, and the similarity between some of these stories and those produced by people with Caraboo Syndrome. We are dealing with imagination here.

Do the stories told by children who remember past lives differ from the stories produced by adults? Tom Shroder, a Washington Post journalist, travelled with Ian Stevenson in his 1997 trips to Lebanon and India in search of children who remembered past lives. These stories certainly lack the obvious romanticism of the letters to the Daily Mail, and Shroder soon becomes convinced that something very strange was going on, though perhaps not reincarnation.

These are indeed mundane past lives in many ways, but violent death plays a large part in them, events which perhaps might have lead to lots of gossip and stories. The problem with so much of the material presented by Shroder is that it is old hat. The events took place years ago, and we are now dealing with stories which have been told many times. Newer cases seem to be vaguer. Sometimes there are hints that something is not quite right; the little boy, for example who seems to be rehearsing lines, even correcting a mistake at one point. There are glimpses of rather odd family dynamics. One other thing which struck me, but which Shroder doesn't explicitly comment on, is that Stevenson is either very focused or obsessed, depending on how you spin it.

On a couple of occasions they end up in pretty hairy situations, with increasingly menacing atmospheres, yet Stevenson just ploughs on with his set-piece questions. I got the distinct impression from those examples, that Stevenson may not be particularly sensitive to subtle nuances in the cases. He knows what he is looking for and is damn well going to find it. There seems little doubt also that Stevenson is a charismatic figure who is able to inspire great devotion among his staff, and to enthuse them with his hopes; a salesman for reincarnation perhaps. He certainly gains Shroder's admiration fairly quickly, though Shroder turns out not to have been the sceptic he started the book claiming to be: a synchronicity in his teenage years convincing him that "we're all connected by forces beyond our understanding".

The problem with the claims of reincarnation is that they do not come in a vacuum: they contradict all the collective knowledge of how personality is contingent on the brain. Shroder quotes someone trying to explain this with the old noise/signal adage, but neurological changes don't just render the same old personality a bit blurry round the edges, they can, on occasion, fundamentally change it. Specific damage can cause specific deficits' and changes. Against this, people's memories of the gnomic utterances of children constitute rather weak evidence. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 72, October 2000.

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