I’ve been contacted by a US television company making films about children who remember a past life. The series is called The Ghost Inside My Child. Three episodes aired on the Bio Channel last autumn, and now they’re looking for more families to interview. If anyone out there has a story to tell, and would like to take part, the address to contact is firstname.lastname@example.org
American readers may be familiar with this series. I didn’t know about it, and I don’t think it has aired in the UK. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen anything of the kind on television, although I rarely watch paranormal shows anyway. But it seems absolutely the kind of thing that could become more common.
I watched one of the episodes which follows the stories of two families. A young boy from a white family remembered being ‘Pam’, who fell to her death in a Chicago hotel fire. An eighteen year old girl had traumatic memories of an ‘orphan train’. The other episodes, which I don’t think are available online, include children killed in 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing.
The film was slick, and squeezed a lot of drama out of few details. There was little in the way of actual investigation. The 18-year-old girl was delighted to learn one day in school that there really were such things as ‘orphan trains’ – in which orphans from the East Coast were shipped off to live with families in other parts of the country. It reassured her that her weird obsession had some basis in fact. When the film-makers caught up with her she was embarking on research of her own.
The mother of the small boy did an Internet search and found a record of a major hotel fire in Chicago in which a black woman named Pamela jumped to her death. She then casually asked him what colour his skin had been when he was ‘Pam’ . He answered ‘black’. On camera he correctly identified a picture of the woman.
Coincidentally I’ve been re-reading Stevenson’s books: first Twenty Cases and now Twelve Cases in Thailand and Burma (the last of a 4-volume series). They offer an incredible amount of detail, which was sometimes hard to follow for me, given the large extended families with unfamiliar names (eg. Samnuan Wongsombat, Mae Chee Chan Suthipat, Daw Aye Tin, etc). But one gets a real sense of depth, with a conscientious researcher determined to leave no stone unturned and every aspect closely scrutinised. There’s also the fact that most of the cases are ‘resolved’, as Stevenson says, with the (deceased) previous personality having been identified and his/her family being convinced the claim is true.
This is right at the other end of the spectrum, bare bones cases with little or no actual resolution. The films will have shocked viewers who have never heard of the phenomenon but hardly add to the academic literature. I can imagine serious researchers being sniffy about them. I myself wasn’t particularly convinced by the discovery of the previous ‘Pamela’.
That doesn’t mean the cases weren’t genuine, and I actually thought the film had real value. Reading Stevenson’s work one constantly feels the lack of ordinary emotion in his accounts. One knows, in a general way, that having a child suddenly announce she used to be your sister, or constantly begs to be allowed to visit her ‘other mother’ must be shocking for a parent, but that hardly comes through a narrative made up of dry facts. One has to sort of add it in for oneself.
This film filled the gap. For me, it wasn’t about the children, it was about the parents, and how they deal with an extraordinary event. The emotion was intense. The gender thing was extremely striking. The mothers were unsettled, but since it was their child making these statements were bound to be open-minded. The fathers were clearly struggling. One, even after having fifteen years to get used to it, was still obviously conflicted. The younger one, having to deal with it in real time, so to speak, was left agitated and speechless.
This says so much. It’s the stark difference between a Buddhist society like Thailand where everyone pretty much accepts that rebirth happens (although they mostly don’t like it when it does), and a Christian or post-Christian secular society like the US or Europe, which has had little serious exposure to the notion. If you don’t have a framework for understanding something that happens to you, how do you make sense of it?
But then on the other hand, how do you explain it away? My impression is that the sceptical literature is quite thin. Ian Wilson, a British historian, suggested that Stevenson had been taken in by greedy Asian villagers telling tall tales, a manifestly silly approach to anyone who has actually read his work. I’ve seen some more serious efforts to undermine Stevenson’s credibility by finding fault with his methods and judgements, and while I think they land some blows they fall far short of a complete demolition. Nobody claims he’s perfect, and anyway, he’s far from being the only authority on the subject.
What little sceptical response I could find to this series was along the lines of, it’s just greedy television people making stuff up for the sake of ratings. I somehow doubt that will fly with agnostic viewers. One can tell when people are being sincere about their experiences, and it would be beyond cynical for programme-makers to hire actors to put on a show. There are no mediums involved here, so no one to demonise.
So I see this documentary film-making as a promising development. The public is starting to grasp that Westerners have these experiences as well as Asians. And if they start coming forward with their stories, then who knows, perhaps it will eventually change people's ideas about what is and is not possible.