I’ve spent the past few weeks working on Ian Stevenson’s case studies of children who remember a past life. Specifically his four collections of ten or twelve cases each from India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma, and Lebanon and Turkey. These case reports are much more detailed, but also less well known than those in Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. Since they’re in the SPR library here in London I thought I’d get them out and write short summaries of as many as I can.
In the process, I’ve been reflecting on the quality of the research. How good is it really? How far can we trust it? (I’ve also been thinking about the implications, but I’ll leave that for another time.)
First one needs to understand that the matches in these cases are very exact. There’s no room for the casual notion that the memories are just childish imaginings, which match up with someone in the real world by sheer chance. (According to Jim Tucker, Richard Wiseman once tried this approach, but it fell flat – which I can believe.)
Mostly these children remember where they lived in the previous life, and names of at least one or two people, including their own. Some remember half a dozen or more, and their relation (spouse, parent, sibling, etc). They are often very specific about the house where they remember living and its immediate environment. For instance they often speak of a particular tree, or trees, that stood next to it – an olive, a bo, a pera, a guava - and which they may have climbed, picked fruit from, or planted themselves.
From the outskirts of the town or village they find their way to the house unaided. They identify people by name and/or relation, in the flesh and in photographs. They frequently point out changes to the building since they died – a veranda missing; a side door blocked; walls painted a different colour; a roof that has become ‘shiny’ (the thatch having since been replaced with corrugated metal).
The details can be very specific. One child, remembering the life of a boy who died aged seven, asked for his ‘drummer’. This meant nothing to the dead child’s mother, until she found some clay toys among his old possessions, one of which was the figure of a man with a drum. Another mentioned a brother named Nimal who was once bitten by a dog. The previous personality, traced by numerous other statements, was found to have had a brother named Nimal who had once been bitten by a dog.
There’s a clear pattern that repeats itself over and over in precisely similar ways. The memories come out the moment the child can speak, start to fade at around the age of five or seven and then disappear. The child begs piteously to be taken to visit ‘her’ family. The parents seldom show much interest, and often try to suppress the memories. When a visit does take place the child passes all kinds of tests, made by the other family to be sure they are not being taken in.
The child continues to show deep affection for key members of the previous family (a former spouse, parent, child). Also he/she maintains the behaviours of the previous personality – habits of dress, dietary preferences, religious practices – that are unfamiliar to the present parents and siblings, and often comical or irritating to them.
Seeking a natural explanation beyond coincidence, I think fraud is what most people are likely to come up with first. A phrase by British historian Ian Wilson sticks in my mind, that Stevenson was taken in by a series of clever acting performances’. Could this be true?
It occurred to me that some of these cases do provide openings for a committed sceptic. One that looks quite promising concerns Sunil Satt Suxena, an Indian village boy who remembered a life as Seth Sri Krishna, a wealthy businessman and philanthropist in a nearby town. Before his death Krishna had married for the fourth time, to a woman much younger than him, and had become the centre of professional and domestic intrigues. Sunil was taken to Krishna’s former home and his widow’s home, also to the college that Krishna had founded. There he recognised people that Krishna had known in his lifetime (as well as places and objects), convincing them of the genuineness of his claim.
However Krishna had been a public personality, so a lot of the details Sunil appeared to know paranormally would have been relatively straightforward for his father to acquire. Also, unusually, four witnesses, including Krishna’s son, debunked the claim, and insisted that Sunil’s father had tutored him to make the statements. Third, Stevenson discovered through his sleuthing that the father was employed for a while by one of Seth Sri Krishna’s associates, who independently testified that Sunil had recognised him.
By now all sorts of alarm bells are ringing. Sunil’s father might have picked Krishna’s family as a suitably affluent target, and there were channels for him to collect intimate family information. Or else we might decide that the fact of the squabbles after Krishna’s death meant someone might have been motivated to initiate a fraud. Such a person could have persuaded Sunil’s father to make the claim and given him inside information to drill into the boy. (There’s at least one candidate, a teacher whom Krishna had appointed to run his college and was bitter about having been sacked by Krishna’s son.)
Stevenson points out that Krishna’s son did in fact at first acknowledge Sunil to be his father reborn, but then did a swift about-face. Why? Because, Stevenson reasonably argues, he realised that certain things Sunil (as Krishna) was saying about his own questionable conduct were damaging his reputation. That would explain why he insisted Sunil’s family was perpetrating a fraud, and why he would have got his close associates to back him up. (Allegations of fraud within the cases themselves are quite rare, and anxiety about the child’s revelations seem to be a likely cause in most cases.)
Still, by now the case has sunk into a mire of allegation and counter-allegation, and one doesn’t feel much inclined to base any firm conclusion on it. And of course one can embellish the argument with rhetoric – this just shows that Stevenson was lamentably deficient in his judgement, etc, etc – and insist that such cases, alas, are representative of the whole canon (Paul Edwards did exactly this, as quoted in Wikipedia).
But actually they aren’t representative. Only a minority of the 64 cases in these four volumes involve a significantly better-off previous life (about 10-15%, I guess). So how do we explain the cases where there is no change, or where the previous life was considerably more wretched? What is the motive for fraud there?
I’m thinking of the Sri Lankan case of Sujith Lakmal Jayaratne, who having just learned to speak wanted to be called ‘Sammy’ and demanded to be given cigarettes and arrack (the local spirits made from coconut). Sujith later described how he went into a shop to buy cigarettes, then stepped out into the street and was flattened by a speeding lorry. He supplied other names: the village where he had lived, Gorakana (eight miles away), a father named Jamis, a wife named Maggie, a niece named Kusama, a teacher named Francis. He said he had worked on the railway and manufactured arrack. All of this was found to be precisely true of an individual named Sammy Fernando, who had lived in Gorokana, and died after being run over by a lorry.
If it was a hoax, why pick a bum with an alcohol problem? What would anyone gain from it? And how is it possible to get a child to act the part so convincingly that numerous of his relatives, friends, neighbours, and the relatives, friends and associates of Sammy and his family, were all convinced by it? The really striking thing about this case was the way an infant so convincingly acted the part of a jovial drunk, as if that was the person he still felt himself to be.
This is another strong characteristic of these cases, that the child acts continuously in the character of the previous personality (as later traced from the child’s statements). One may demand meat or fish to eat. Another, if remembering the life of a Brahmin, insists on being served first. A little girl who remembers a life as a devout Buddhist shows a detailed knowledge of prayer rituals she could not have learned anywhere.
Several that remember having been wealthy show disgust at their present impoverishment. One little boy kept demanding his father buy a car (a huge rarity in rural India in the 1960s). The previous personality, when traced, was found to have been a pampered little chap whose doting father had him driven around town whenever he felt like it.
It’s the depth and scope of the research that convinces me that this is a genuine phenomenon. Stevenson is obsessively thorough. He talks to everybody - the child, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbours, teachers. Then he goes to the locality of the previous personality and talks to any and all of his/her close family members, relatives, friends, neighbours, associates, teachers – anyone who has testimony to offer. It’s usual for him to talk to twenty people, sometimes as many as forty. He also talks to previous investigators.
The interviews are compared for discrepancies, against each other and against their own testimony on separate occasions years apart. For Stevenson doesn’t just do this once, he may go back four years later and talk to everyone he can find again. And two years after that. And again three years later. He devotes a lot of time talking to the child, especially on later visits, observing the extent to which he/she still remembers the previous life, or is still following the behaviours that match that of the previous personality.
Stevenson is extremely frank about difficulties and discrepancies in the gathering of testimony. He will point out that the child’s uncle said one thing when he interviewed him on his first visit in 1964, but then changed a detail when they spoke again in 1969, and agonise for several paragraphs about what this means, and how much significance should be attached to it.
When a member of the previous personality’s family claims to have been recognised by the child, he will reconstruct the circumstances and decide how reliable this recognition really is. If there was a chance the child might have been given hints by anyone present, he says so. If he thinks a witness is generally unreliable, ditto. If the cause of this phenomenon really is fraud, then you’d expect that to emerge in an investigation as deep and detailed as this. But there really is no hint of it.
All this also counts against the other main explanation, that such cases are artefactual, a product of wishful thinking by both families. According to this idea, the detailed information has been picked up at some point – in conversations, or perhaps from published sources like newspapers – and then unconsciously mingled with otherwise meaningless statements made by the child. When contact is made with the other family, their eagerness to be reunited with a lost loved one makes them find correspondences where none actually exist.
Stevenson gives detailed consideration to this possibility, and points out where it might exist. But it occurs with nothing like the frequency that would needed to explain the phenomenon as a whole. He spends a lot of time examining the geography of the case, the distance between the two locations and the level of ease or difficulty of communications between them – all in order to establish how likely it might have been that information could have been unconsciously transmitted by one to the other. It’s the difficulty of understanding how this might ever have happened that encourages the view of a paranormal process.
The feeling I came away with is that this is complex field work, and that one would need to have particular talents to do it well. I felt a lot of respect for Stevenson - for his commitment and attention to detail, and also for the empathy that must have been required to draw so much out of so many people.
So the answer to my original question would be, yes, this research is robust and trustworthy.
As I say, it is possible to pick aspects of it on which to build a naturalistic non-paranormal interpretation. That’s true in all sorts of other contexts, notably poltergeist-type cases, which also involve families in complex domestic situations. Materialism is in the dock; the determined sceptic has put on his wig and is furiously defending his client from the charges, seeking to undermine the prosecution’s testimony.
Fair enough. But this is about creating doubt, not constructing a coherent alternative. It’s impossible seriously to maintain that an investigator with a more ‘acute’ understanding, or a more aggressive questioning technique, might have got the truth out of these people, where Stevenson failed.
But to understand that you have to read the original research. The point of my summaries – if and when I get them finished – can only be to give readers an idea of the phenomenon. I just hope that some people will be encouraged to dig deeper - if my experience is any guide they will get a powerful sense of something rather shocking.
More about that later.