At the weekend I drove up to Northamptonshire to interview Jenny Cockell, author of Yesterday’s Children. She turned out to be a delightful lady, and very forthcoming about her experiences - as one might expect from the author of three books.
Yesterday’s Children describes her memories of having been Mary Sutton, the mother of several children in a village north of Dublin and her successful efforts to trace the family. Past Lives Future Lives describes the life of a Japanese girl in the nineteenth century, which ended aged seventeen by drowning. Journeys Through Time, which I have been reading recently, is a sort of complete retrospective of all her memories and the very considerable research she undertook to verify them, along with descriptions of other types of psychic experience.
It turns out that Cockell remembers quite a number of past lives. The Mary Sutton memories were the most detailed, perhaps because of the guilt occasioned by having to abandon several young children to fend for themselves. (It turned out that most were sent to orphanages, as the father was deemed unfit to look after them.) The Japanese girl was never identified by name, largely because of the inadequacy of record-keeping at the time. But she thinks she managed to trace the likely family, being the owners of the house and land which, after a good deal of effort, she and other researchers identified as being a good fit with her detailed memories.
Mary Sutton was not even the most recent life – she also remembers having been a small boy named Charles Savage during the Second World War, who died aged six after being run over in the street. She says she often wakes up in the morning with the feeling of her lower legs having been crushed. Relatively recent investigations led to the discovery of the boy’s younger brother, who accepts her story (as by-and-large did Mary Sutton’s children.
There were brief lives in eighteenth century France, one which involved being sold into service aged eight, another as the young son of aristocrats (the clothes were stunning, she says). There was one as a young girl who ran away from a troubled home and expired of cold and starvation in a stable, and another as a deaf boy in the middle ages. And there was a Neolithic one as a young hunter, which she says was a happy existence.
As we learned from Ian Stevenson’s research, children who have memories of a very recent life are, if not exactly common, not that rare either – especially in south and south-east Asia. But these memories almost always fade by around age seven. It’s also quite common for adults to ‘remember past lives’ under hypnosis, and while these images seem realistic - and often conform closely to historical details that the person is unlikely to have learned anywhere else - there’s seldom much in the way of verification. Cockell must be almost unique in having – and retaining throughout adulthood – spontaneous memories of past lives, many of which have been found to closely match actual circumstances.
That might be held to encourage scepticism. A common tactic is to argue that past-life memories are imagined and the matches spurious (this is the basis of Joe Nickell’s critique of Cockell). It’s said that if you search hard enough – as she did – you’re bound to turn up an exact match sooner or later. But this takes no account of the rich texture of some of the memories, as is often the case in many instances of children’s memories, and is also true here. For instance with regard to Mary Sutton, Cockell had a strong memory of standing on a wooden jetty looking out across the water and shivering in a threadbare shawl. It was an isolated fragment, and although it was persistent she had no means of understanding the circumstances. When she finally met one of Mary’s sons he explained that he had occasional employment on an island that had to be accessed by boat, and in the evenings his mother had often waited on the jetty for him to return.
I asked Cockell how she felt about the memories at first. Did she know that they were unusual? She said that as a child she assumed everyone had them and you just put up with it. No one spoke about them because you just didn’t, she supposed - it was a taboo subject. When she first started to mention them, and heard her mother referring to them in the context of ‘beliefs that some people held’, she had no idea what her mother was talking about. It was a big shock.
Although her past life memories were the ostensible reason for my visit – I shall be talking about the topic next month (see below) – I was just as interested in her general psychic experiences. Psychics are often frustratingly bad at conveying what this actually feels like, but Cockell is highly articulate in this regard.
She talked about the ‘imaginary friends’ that children sometimes describe. In her case they were two young men in Second World War army uniform. One chattered incessantly, and could be quite annoying. The other was quieter, and ‘listened’. She sat on the wall in the playground and talked with them - not out loud, it was a sort of mental thing. But the figures themselves weren’t in her head, they seemed to be actually there in the environment, she says. She found that to make them come she needed to get into a calm, meditative state of mind.
Then one day they said they wouldn’t come any more, as she needed to grow, and focus on this world. Today she finds it rather sad that these companions disappear as you grow older.
How is one to say that these invisible people aren’t really imaginary? She reckons there are two types. If the child says the friend sits on her arm and talks to her, it’s probably made-up, performing the same function as a doll. If the child says, ‘He’s a very old man, and he’s quiet, and sits in that armchair over there in the corner’, then he’s likely to exist on some objective level. (A young grandson once complained about ‘the man in your garden’. Asked for more detail, he said the man was old and grumpy. Cockell told him not to worry about it, as she’d seen him too when she first moved in.)
I was curious about her experiences of seeing the future. She said it happens a lot, but she tends to lack the confidence to accept that’s what it is, a presentiment of something that will happen later, and only accepts it when it happens.
She also talked about time-slips. On a visit to the Blue John Cavern in the Peak District she watched men on high ladders chipping away at the rock face. It looked dangerous, and she wondered vaguely how they managed to square that with the health-and-safety regulations. When she mentioned the scene to the tour guides they said there were no men on ladders. Nothing of the kind. No one else was aware of them either. She'd seen pictures of this activity in the tour literature, and found it interesting that the old ways were still being followed.
I asked about her descriptions of the state between death and rebirth. She has a seemingly vivid memory of dying as Mary Sutton, which she described as a very sudden separation, like someone cutting the elastic. What happened then? I’ll end with the description she gives in Journeys Through Time, which is rather good:
I was still looking back at my now vacant body when I seemed to be drawn from behind - almost sucked - into a long narrow tube, like a fold in space, a dark vortex that wrapped round me and drew me into another dimension. Through it I travelled backwards, feeling somehow folded as though in a loose foetal position. Slowly the hospital room drifted away from me, growing smaller and smaller until finally it faded completely.
Now, intensely bright beams of light began to emerge on either side of me, like the shafts of a rainbow, though much, much brighter. To describe them as light seems somehow insufficient: the rainbow colours were much more vibrant than normal light, just as a real rainbow is much more vibrant than one drawn in crayons. The shafts of light passed by me at different angles, then spread out as though radiating from the central focus.
I don't remember the actual moment when I emerged into a different place, but I know that I did emerge into somewhere very gentle and peaceful, far beyond any normal understanding of the words. This part is not clear in my memory, although it seems to be the stage remembered most clearly by people who have had near death experiences... All I can remember at this time is that for a while there was a lot going on, some of which was perhaps to do with other people and some to my adjustment to my new state of being. What remains most clearly with me is the stage that followed: it is still crystal clear.
I found myself floating inside something like a soap bubble. Above, below and all around me were other bubbles that I knew to be people. I was bodyless, and this didn't matter at all, since there was no need for a body. The other bubbles seemed to have the peaceful energies of other people, also without bodies yet seemingly complete, and I felt a total, peaceful empathy with them.
The sensation was of being almost like a single cell within a whole constellation of cells, yet also of being far too much of an individual entity to be contained in one small unit. I was still aware of being myself, an individual soul. Every bubble glowed brightly with an energy that I took to be the basic life force that is ourselves, and they pulsated at rhythms that varied from slow heartbeat to a steady vibration.
There was a great deal of background light all around, as though the whole life energy was expressed as light. It was difficult to see beyond it – it seemed to be reflected a little like the reflection of headlights in fog. Some of it took the forms of strands like energy bands, mainly white through to blue in colour. The overall feeling was of white light energy.
Enveloping everything was a feeling of calm in which nothing seemed to matter or hurt or cause anxiety. Here the existence I had left behind seemed no more than a vague memory. Perhaps it simply became less important as time passed – though the notion of time itself had almost no meaning. There was no demarcation between day and night, just constant, peaceful light.
I shall be talking more about Jenny Cockell during the SPR’s Study Day ‘Reincarnation in the Western World’, in central London on October 25. (I’ll also describe two children’s cases: James Leininger and Cameron Macauley. The other speakers are Erlendur Haraldsson, Guy Playfair and Matthew Colborn.)
When I get round to it I’ll post an edited video of the interview here.