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Weekly Alibi Little Johnny Just Isn't Himself Today

By Thane Kenny

JANUARY 10, 2000: 

Tom Shroder's Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence of Past Lives

Imagine for a moment that your baby daughter picks up the telephone and says her first words -- "Hello, Leila" -- over and over into the receiver. A bit strange, but hey, kids will be kids. Then she reaches the age of two and begins to recite the names of people she says are her husband and children, her parents, her brothers -- all unfamiliar to you. She says, "My house is much larger and prettier than this house," insists she be called by her "real" name, and tells you, "You're kind to me, as my father used to be. That is why I accept you." For most people it would be time to get the net, but for Dr. Ian Stevenson such statements are sources of fascination and serious research.

For over 40 years, Dr. Stevenson, a professor at the University of Virginia, has been documenting cases of past life re-collection -- over 2,000 cases to date. Old Souls is a firsthand account of his work, as Washington Post editor Tom Shroder accompanies Dr. Stevenson to Lebanon, India and the American South. Though the author's writing style belies his journalistic background, the narrative style and fascinating topic are enough to keep the pages turning quickly. At the outset, Shroder sees his role not only as observer, but also as skeptic. But as their journey together continues, Shroder finds it increasingly difficult to reject the possibility of past lives and to propose alternative explanations.

Unlike the "Western/hypnotic-regression idea of people remembering lives at Waterloo or in ancient Babylon," Dr. Stevenson's cases almost always reveal very recent and very normal past lives, and deal nearly exclusively with children. Though many adults retain their recollections, Dr. Stevenson prefers cases involving children, having found their memories stronger and their innocence a powerful factor in establishing a sense of validity.

In the case described above, the young girl -- a resident of Beirut named Suzanne Ghanem -- claimed to be Hanan Mansour, the wife of Farouk Mansour. Hanan died in a Virginia hospital while trying to reach her daughter Leila by telephone. Suzanne not only made these astonishing statements, but after a mutual acquaintance recognized the names and put Suzanne's family in touch with the Mansour family in a nearby town, she began to telephone Farouk Mansour up to three times a day. Though skeptical at first, the Mansours were soon convinced following Suzanne's ability to name each of the Mansour family members at first sight, identify faces in photographs, and recall events and details known only to close family. Hanan's sister, Helene, was so convinced that she sat for hours having conversations with five-year-old Suzanne as though they had never been separated. Twenty-five years later, Suzanne still talks with Farouk every week, and Farouk remains convinced that this girl is the reincarnation of his dead wife.

Situations like these are common to many of Dr. Stevenson's cases. Another subject described in the book, Daniel Jirdi, claimed to be a 25-year-old mechanic who died in a car wreck before Daniel was born. He named the dead man's hometown and the friend who had been behind the wheel during the crash. The mechanic's family heard about young Daniel's claims and made an unannounced visit. They say the boy instantly recognized and named his "sister."

A number of fascinating side issues arise as well. Many of Dr. Stevenson's cases have suggested that birthmarks and certain phobias in this life may be the result of physical injuries or emotional events in the last. And one pattern that struck me -- though it isn't mentioned in the text -- is the apparent proximity in both space and time from one life to the next. Since so many of Dr. Stevenson's subjects locate their past-life families within a very short distance, does that imply that the laws of physics continue to apply in the spiritual realm?

Whatever the ultimate conclusions of Dr. Stevenson's research (if any are ever reached), one thing is undeniable: The results may not yet qualify as proof, but they do provide compelling testimony. Skeptics of his research have found themselves proposing alternative explanations that nearly surpass his suggestions in their believability. With each new case he adds to the weight of his argument, but in true scientific fashion he refrains from making premature conclusions, stating, "My beliefs should make no difference to anyone. Everyone should examine the evidence and judge it for himself."

(Simon & Schuster, hardcover, $24).

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