A comeback kid?
Patrick, a cute little boy with long dark hair and an impish smile, was my first case. He had just turned five when I met him and his family in their home, a compact house in a small Midwestern suburb. I was there accompanying Dr. Ian Stevenson. Once “a young man in a hurry,” becoming the head of a psychiatry department in his late thirties, Ian had walked away from the ladder of academic success for an interest he would doggedly pursue for forty years—children who report memories of previous lives. Nearly eighty but with curiosity still unabated, Ian was meeting the family because Patrick’s mother had become convinced her son was his deceased half brother returned to life.
Ian viewed Patrick’s case as potentially important. Though he had published many articles and books about children who had made numerous statements that matched details of someone who had died, Ian’s best cases were all from other countries, mostly in Asia, where a general belief in reincarnation existed. His American cases tended to be weaker. They included two basic types: children who seemed to remember being a deceased family member, and children who talked about a past life but did not give enough details for a previous person to be identified. The same-family cases had the inherent weakness that the child might have overheard others discussing the deceased. While Patrick’s case was a same-family one, it had another critical feature: he had three birthmarks that appeared to match lesions on his deceased half brother, marks that had nothing to do with what he might have heard people say.
Ian arranged a three-day trip with a plan to be thorough. We would have a long interview with the family on the first day, a second one the next day to cover items we had overlooked or that we needed to clarify, and interviews on the second and third days with other people involved in Patrick’s life. We hoped the extended time with Patrick would help him become comfortable enough to talk to us about any memories he had.
We arrived at the home and sat down in the living room with Patrick’s mother, Lisa. Ian took a clipboard and a tape recorder out of his satchel, well-worn from his trips around the world. He tested the recorder and placed it on the coffee table. He began by asking Lisa about her deceased son, the one whose life Patrick seemed to be remembering. Ian asked, “That’s not troublesome to you, is it, to talk about that?” Lisa said, “No. I mean it is, but no. Where do you want me to start?” Ian asked her to begin when her son first became ill, and with an even voice, she began the story.
Kevin had been born twenty years before. Lisa, a young mother, and Kevin, her first child, were doing well despite her split from his father, until Kevin began limping at sixteen months of age. This was intermittent at first, but after about three weeks he was limping all the time, and Lisa took him to his doctor. He was admitted to the hospital for three days and underwent various tests. A bone scan appeared to be normal, but x-rays showed extra fluid in his left hip joint. The doctor thought it might be infected.
Kevin was still limping when he was discharged. He fell two days later, and doctors at another hospital found he had a broken leg. They put his leg in a cast, but it caused the little boy so much pain they took it off after three days. At that point, he couldn’t bear weight on the leg and refused to walk. Lisa took him to another doctor, an orthopedic surgeon. He ordered more x-rays, and these showed some destruction in two of the bones in his left leg. Kevin was again hospitalized. The doctor told Lisa he had a tumor in his leg. This difficult time was made even worse by the uncertainty of the situation. As Lisa said, they went through “probably a two-week period of being told he had leukemia, that he didn’t have leukemia, it went back and forth.” But the upcoming news would only be worse.
Kevin was transferred to a tertiary children’s hospital to continue the workup. Along with his swollen leg, the doctors noted his left eye was bulging and bruised and he had a nodule above his right ear that might be a tumor. They suspected a neuroblastoma, a cancer that begins in nerve tissue somewhere in the body, often in the adrenal gland above one of the kidneys, and then spreads to other places. An x-ray of Kevin’s kidneys showed a mass at the top of his left one. A skeletal survey found various lesions and an opaque area over his bulging left eye. On his fourth day in the hospital, Kevin was taken to the operating room. The doctors took a biopsy of the nodule above his right ear and inserted a central line, a large Iv, in the right side of his neck.
The biopsy confirmed the diagnosis of metastatic neuroblastoma. At least a definite diagnosis had finally been made, but it was not a good one. Kevin began treatment, getting chemotherapy through the central line. The site where the chemotherapy entered his neck became inflamed at times, but overall, he tolerated the treatment well. He also started radiation therapy that would continue after he left the hospital, including to his left eye and his left leg. After ten days, he got to go home.
Kevin seemed okay for a while. Lisa showed us pictures of him. The first one was taken before he got sick, and he is laughing, a plump baby with lots of light, curly hair. The other two are from later. They reveal a thinner, bald little boy with bruising around his left eye, which looks displaced. Too young to understand he was dying, he appears happy in both pictures, beaming in one and exploring a toy fire station in the other. They are heartbreaking.
Kevin returned to the hospital six months after his first admission. He was bleeding from his gums because the cancer had infiltrated his bone marrow and it couldn’t make enough platelets. He had also developed bruising around his right eye along with the faded bruising around his left. Lisa said he was blind in the left eye at that point. His disease was considered end stage by then, meaning the little boy would die soon, but along with a platelet transfusion, he did receive one day of chemotherapy and one day of radiation to his right eye socket. He was discharged and died two days later.
Lisa talked about all of this in a calm, unemotional manner. This may have been because Ian and I focused more on the facts than any emotions. Ian did comment that she must have been very affected by Kevin’s death, but when she gave little response, we moved on to other matters. We were not expecting her to pour out her heart to us, and we were asking a lot just to have her recount the events of his illness and death.
Lisa carried on after Kevin died. Long separated from his father, she had started dating a new man before Kevin got sick. They married following Kevin’s death, and Lisa soon gave birth to a daughter, Sarah. The couple divorced after four years, and Lisa later remarried again. She had a second son, Jason, and then, twelve years after Kevin died, gave birth to Patrick by C-section. She said that as soon as the nurses handed Patrick to her, she knew that he was connected to Kevin in some way. She didn’t have that feeling when her other children were born, but this birth was different somehow. Lisa said she felt empty after Kevin died, wanting him back every day. When Patrick, her new son, was brought to her, she imagined a weight being lifted as her grief for Kevin was released. While Lisa saw a physical resemblance between the two boys, there was a link that went beyond that.
She soon noticed a white opacity covering Patrick’s left eye. The doctors diagnosed it as a corneal leukoma. Patrick was seen by an ophthalmologist and examined periodically. The opacity shrunk after several weeks but did not completely disappear. While his vision was hard to assess with any precision when he was very young, he was essentially blind in his left eye just as Kevin had been blind in that eye at the end of his life.
Lisa also felt a lump on Patrick’s head above his right ear at the same location where Kevin’s tumor had been biopsied. When we examined Patrick, we felt the nodule above his ear. It had migrated slightly behind his ear by the time he was five, but Lisa said it was directly above the ear when he was born. It was hard, elevated, and more or less round. We measured it at about one centimeter in diameter. It was not tender at all, and Patrick let us press on it as much as we wanted.
Patrick was also born with an unusual mark on his neck. A dark slanted line that was about four millimeters long when we met him, it looked like a small cut. It was on the front of his neck on the right. This was the area where Kevin’s central line had been inserted, though we had trouble confirming which side of his neck had been used for it. When we reviewed Kevin’s medical records, we searched to find documentation of the central line’s location. We finally found one mention in an operative note that was fortunately one of the more legible handwritten notes. It listed the procedures, including “Insertion of central line (Ext. Jugular), tip in SvC or Rt. Subcl.” Translated into English, that meant the IV had been placed in the external jugular vein, which is a vein on each side of the front of the neck. As it was snaked in, the tip of the Iv had ended up either in the right subclavian vein running below the collarbone, which the external jugular feeds into, or all the way to the superior vena cava, which carries the blood from those other veins into the heart. The keys for us were that it was the external jugular, meaning the Iv was inserted into the neck, and that it was the right subclavian, meaning it was on the right side of his neck, where Patrick’s birthmark was.
One of the most inexplicable features of the case was that Patrick limped once he got old enough to walk. He had an unusual gait in which he would swing out his left leg. This matched the way Kevin had walked, since he had to wear a brace after breaking his leg. We asked Patrick to walk across the room several times, and he was still limping slightly at age five, even though he seemed to have no medical reason to do so.
When Patrick was four years old, he began talking about Kevin’s life. The first thing he said was that he wanted to go to the other house. Patrick talked about it for a while and seemed desperate at times to go there. Lisa asked him why he needed to return; was there a certain toy or clothes he wanted? He answered, “Don’t you remember, I left you there.” She answered, “Yeah, but you have me here now.” Lisa asked Patrick what their home looked like, and he said it was “chocolate and orange.” Lisa and Kevin’s home, actually an apartment rather than a house, was indeed a brown and orange building.
Patrick began talking about events from Kevin’s life, coming out with statements at unpredictable times. If Lisa tried to get him to talk about Kevin, he usually wanted no part of it. Later he might mention him out of the blue. Lisa was getting ready for work one day when Patrick asked if she remembered when he had surgery. After she told him he had never had surgery, he said, “Sure I did, right here on my ear” and pointed to the spot above his right ear where Kevin’s tumor was biopsied. Lisa asked him to describe the surgery, but he said he didn’t remember it because he had been asleep.
Another time, Patrick became excited when he saw a picture of Kevin. He had never seen it before because Lisa didn’t keep pictures of Kevin up in the house. His hands shaking, Patrick said, “Here is my picture. I’ve been looking for that.” He was definite as he said, “That’s me.” He also talked once about the small, brown puppy that stayed with the family. Lisa and Kevin had indeed kept a dog like that, one belonging to Lisa’s mother when she moved into an apartment complex that didn’t allow pets.
The week before we visited, Patrick was sitting back on the couch and asked, “Do you remember when we went swimming?” Patrick had never actually been swimming but described a day when Kevin swam in the pool at his grandmother’s apartment complex. He said his grandmother was there along with his sister’s father. He recalled how they had dunked the man’s head underwater and mimicked the sound he had made as he came up for air.
Lisa also told us that Patrick had talked with his brother Jason about heaven. When we asked Jason, he told us about a couple of instances, with Patrick once saying he wanted to take the family to heaven, especially his mother. The next morning, we visited Lisa’s sister. She also spoke about comments Patrick made about heaven. She described similarities between Kevin and Patrick, their tendencies to be soft-spoken, timid, even tremulous at times.
After that, what we hoped would be a great opportunity ended up falling flat. We took Patrick and Lisa to the apartment building where Lisa had lived with Kevin. Patrick had stopped talking about that home a while before, but we hoped that seeing it would spur his memory. We weren’t able to go inside their actual apartment, and Patrick didn’t show any signs of recognizing the building. He did say something about a race car track, which Lisa thought referred to one Kevin had there, but since he described playing with it with Jason, I didn’t know what to make of it. We did at least confirm that the building was brown and orange.
We then met Patrick’s father at his work. He said Patrick’s lesions—the opacity over his eye, the nodule on his head, and the scar on his neck—were definitely present when Patrick was born. He said Patrick hadn’t talked to him about Kevin’s life, but he had overheard Patrick talking to Lisa about it. He thought the situation was bizarre but had accepted that Patrick was remembering Kevin’s life.
We also met with Lisa’s ex-husband, the father of Patrick’s sister. He recalled all the time he and Lisa spent taking Kevin to and from medical centers. He didn’t remember going swimming with Kevin as Patrick had described. Since that would have been at least seventeen years before, that wasn’t surprising, though he did recall taking Kevin to the park one day. He had seen little of Patrick and was noncommittal about the possibility of previous lives, but he thought the situation with Patrick had helped ease Lisa’s grief. He said Lisa had been extremely close to Kevin and suffered tremendously when he died. He told us he came to the interview because he hoped our study of the possible past-life memories might help her.
By the following day, Patrick became comfortable enough to talk with us. He often spoke softly, and that tendency, combined with poor enunciation, made him difficult to understand at times. Adding to the confusion, he sometimes talked about Kevin in the third person and about things they did together. I wondered if this was because Patrick, a five-year-old boy, had memories of Kevin’s life but couldn’t make sense of being another person.
He told us about going to the zoo with Kevin and their cousin. Patrick had been to a zoo once two years before but not with the cousin, while Kevin had gone a number of times. Patrick talked about Kevin’s bedroom and its two closets. While Kevin’s bedroom actually had only one closet, it had two sliding doors that opened on both ends. Patrick described an apple-shaped “water ball,” and Lisa said Kevin had a bathtub toy like that. He also talked about going with Kevin to a ranch that had bulls. Patrick had never been to one, but Kevin had indeed visited a cattle ranch that his aunt owned.
Our trip was a success. We had learned all the history from Lisa, studied documentation of Kevin’s lesions, and even gotten Patrick to describe some memories to us. Having enjoyed meeting Lisa and her family, I had a greater appreciation for the people involved in these situations. They were not just characters in the pages of Ian’s reports. They were flesh and blood, and some had experienced the human tragedies that led to the end of a life a child later seemed to remember.
After we returned home, we wanted to calculate the likelihood that Patrick’s defects matched Kevin’s just by coincidence. Not even taking the limp into account, how likely was it that a child would be born with three lesions that matched ones on a sibling? Ian had previously determined that the odds of two birthmarks matching wounds on another body by chance were about 1 in 25,000. He began with the surface area of the skin of the average adult male being 1.6 meters. He then imagined that if this area were square and laid on a flat surface, it would be approximately 127 centimeters by 127 centimeters. Since he considered a correspondence between a birthmark and a wound to be satisfactory if they were both within an area of 10 square centimeters at the same location, he calculated how many 10 centimeter squares would fit into this body surface area and found that 160 would. The probability that a single birthmark would correspond to a wound was therefore 1/160. The probability that two birthmarks would correspond to two wounds was (1/160)2 or 1 in 25,600.
Critics challenged that figure. For Patrick’s case, we decided to get some help. I met with two statisticians from the medical school and explained the situation to them. Though they seemed interested, one of them eventually sent me a report declining to estimate the likelihood. He said any calculations would oversimplify a complex system. He added, “Phrases like ‘highly improbable’ and ‘extremely rare’ come to mind as descriptive of the situation.”
Ian had been intrigued by birthmark cases for a long time. They drew on his interest in the interaction between mind and body that dated back to his mainstream days in psychosomatic medicine. The year before we met Patrick, he published Reincarnation and Biology, a two-thousand-page work, many years in the making, that covered over two hundred cases of children born with birthmarks or birth defects that matched wounds, usually fatal ones, on the body of a previous person.
While Ian was intrigued by these cases, I was initially uncomfortable with them. I didn’t see how a wound on one body could show up as a birthmark on another, even if you accepted the idea of past-life connections. A student asked about this at a talk I gave. Ian responded with a quote from Charles Richet, a Nobel Prize–winning physiologist who also studied séances and ectoplasm: “I never said it was possible. I only said it was true.”
That explanation did little for me. But Ian also wrote in Reincarnation and Biology about work that in various ways showed that mental images can produce specific effects on the body. An example was the case of a man who vividly recalled a traumatic event from nine years before in which his arms were tied behind him. During his recall, he developed what certainly looked like rope marks on his forearms. If images in a mind can produce specific effects like that on the body, and if the mind continues after death and inhabits a developing fetus, then I could see how the images could affect the fetus. It would not be the wounds on the previous body per se that produced the birthmark or birth defect, but rather the images of the wound in the individual’s mind that did it. In Patrick’s case, his marks seemed to match lesions that would have made a strong impression on Kevin: the blindness in his left eye, the scalp nodule that had been biopsied, and the IV site used for his chemotherapy.
Two years later, we visited Patrick and Lisa again. Patrick had continued to say unusual things. He had talked about a life prior to the one as Kevin, this one in Hawaii. He talked about his family there and a son who died. He mentioned a statue that melted due to a volcano and how the townspeople rebuilt it. From his descriptions, his parents believed he was recalling events from the 1940s.
Several months before we met this second time, Patrick began talking one night as his mother fixed dinner. He asked, “Do you know that you have a relative that no one talks about?” He said he had met this relative in heaven before being born. He was tall and thin with brown hair and brown eyes. He told Patrick that his name was Billy and he was called “Billy the Pirate.” He had been killed by his stepfather, shot point-blank up in the mountains. He said he was upset that no one talked about him after his death.
Lisa knew nothing about any relative named Billy. When she called to ask her mother, she discovered that her mother’s oldest sister had a son named Billy. The details Patrick gave were correct. Billy had been killed by his stepfather three years before Lisa was born. The murder was never talked about in the family. When Lisa asked about the nickname “Billy the Pirate,” her mother laughed. His wildness had led to the nickname, and Lisa’s mother said she hadn’t heard it since Billy’s death. There seemed to be no way that Patrick could have ever heard about Billy or his nickname before.
Scientist with a very open mind
Patrick’s story may sound familiar. I included a brief summary of it in my first book, and Carol Bowman, an author of two books on children’s past-life memories who referred the case to us for Ian’s unique type of investigation, wrote about it in one of hers. Ian had been hearing such stories for a long time. He was a singular figure. He could be the most prototypic, staid academician—formal at times and precise in his language— while exploring the strangest things. Exploring them did not automatically mean accepting them, and he never lost his analytic approach to every case he encountered. Patrick’s mother said Ian reminded her of Jimmy Stewart, a comparison that, minus Stewart’s folksiness, was pretty apt. Both were tall, lanky, distinguished older men with kindly smiles. Ian was also pleasant and supportive—unfailingly so as I took my first baby steps in the field—with a wry sense of humor he could on rare occasion use to devastating effect. His comment about a book whose author claimed was channeled from the spirit of William James, the great American psychologist and philosopher: “If the vapid writings . . . did indeed emanate from him, I can only say that this implies a terrible post-mortem reduction of personal capacities. (Survival of death with such an appalling decay of personality makes it, at least to me, a rather unattractive prospect.)”
Before focusing on this research, Ian had an accomplished academic career with dozens of publications to his credit when he arrived at the University of virginia in 1957 to be chairman of the Department of Psychiatry. He also had longstanding interests in parapsychology and the question of whether any part of our minds survives after death. He started devoting more time to those interests and stepped down as chairman after ten years to focus on them full-time, mostly on children’s reports of past-life memories. When he first began writing about the cases, journal editors knew him by his reputation from his mainstream successes. This led prominent publications to at least take note, offering respectful reviews of his various books. In a review of one of his books in 1975, JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association, said that “in regard to reincarnation he has painstakingly and unemotionally collected a detailed series of cases from India, cases in which the evidence is difficult to explain on any other grounds. . . .
He has placed on record a large amount of data that cannot be ignored.” Two years later, The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease devoted most of an entire issue to Ian’s work.
He was far removed from those years by the time we met Patrick. Ian had always aimed for a scientific audience, writing densely detailed reports of cases for academic readers rather than the general public. The number of such readers open to considering his work had dwindled over the years, but Ian was still trying. At the end of our first trip to Patrick’s family, we were eating dinner when Ian began discussing plans for a paper about Patrick’s case. He imagined a title of “Unexpected Correspondence of 4 Physical Abnormalities between a Boy and his Deceased Brother,” and he thought we should submit it to The Lancet, a British journal that is one of the leading medical journals in the world.
That proved to be too optimistic. Nine days after we sent the manuscript to the journal, we received a reply stating “after discussion among several editors here, we decided that it might be better placed elsewhere.” We then sent it to another journal. And another, and another. In all, we submitted the paper to six mainstream journals over the course of a year, and none of them accepted it.
We eventually included Patrick’s story in an article about several birthmark and birth defect cases that we published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration. It is produced by the Society for Scientific Exploration, an organization started by a group of academic scientists, including Ian, who had interests that the journals in their various fields were not friendly to, such as astronomers who studied UFo reports. The articles in it are thus scholarly efforts to address controversial topics. While our paper fit right in, Patrick’s case did not reach the broader academic audience Ian had hoped for.
Nonetheless, his optimism was not entirely misplaced. The year after The Lancet rejected our paper, it published a letter from Ian about the forty-two cases of twins he and colleagues had studied in which at least one of the pair claimed to remember a previous life. The letter was more than a column long, and the journal gave it a title of “Past lives of twins” without even a question mark at the end.
When Ian died in 2007, the Journal of Scientific Exploration devoted an issue to reviews of his work and to people’s remembrances of him. One was from Tom Shroder, an editor at The Washington Post who accompanied Ian on two research trips and then wrote a book about them. Shroder finished his piece by saying, “Whatever the truth turns out to be, Ian’s work, those countless files filled to overflowing with the passionate precision of his research . . . well, they are something. They are really something.”
The issue also included an article of Ian’s from 1958 that may have portended his future. Called “Scientists with Halfclosed Minds,” it was an essay Ian wrote for Harper’s Magazine that reviewed various examples of initial failure by the scientific community to recognize breakthrough insights. He warned of our tendency, especially dangerous in scientists, to reject new ideas that conflict with our previous understandings.
Ian’s awareness of this pattern did not keep him from pursuing the work he thought was important. He once told me— with a smile—that he would die a failure because he had not achieved his primary goal of getting mainstream science as a whole to seriously consider reincarnation as a possibility. That objective may have been quixotic, but Ian expressed no regrets about the course he had chosen. To the contrary, he had enjoyed the journey, having been fortunate and resourceful enough to be able to devote many years of his life to studying matters that interested him. And though he may not have convinced the whole of mainstream science, he did open a lot of eyes, including those of numerous scientists.
Throughout his life, Ian kept the attitude of open-minded inquiry he encouraged in 1958. His final paper was a wonderful summary of his last forty years called “Half a Career with the Paranormal.” He finished it by writing, “Let no one think that I know the answer. I am still seeking.”
I hope you will approach the cases in this book with such an attitude. You may be tempted to think the idea of past-life memories is just too fantastic. I can understand that way of thinking. I’m not in this field because I’m a big believer in past lives, and I’m not here to promote the idea. I got involved in this work because I wanted to figure out for myself whether life after death might be possible. Even though I have become persuaded that something is indeed going on in some of the cases, I continue to consider the various possibilities for each one. I won’t bore you with those considerations as I relate the cases, but I would encourage you to be open to all of them, both the ordinary and the extraordinary.
In my first book, I gave an overview of what is now fifty years of research. With this one, I’m focusing on some remarkable cases I’ve studied in recent years, ones I didn’t include in the first book (except for Patrick’s). But I want not only to show you the phenomenon but also to make sense of it. If you’re having trouble taking this kind of work seriously, it may be because the cases can seem so outside of science, so outside of the real world. The JAMA book review notwithstanding, I suspect that’s why many people have ignored this large amount of data for so long. At the end of the book, I’ll address this concern, showing you how past-life memories can be consistent with current scientific understandings. If you are skeptical, I would challenge you to make a final determination only after you have heard all the facts. I will also explore how this phenomenon, beyond being consistent with scientific knowledge, can even lead to new insights about the true nature of reality, both about our existence in this world and about the possibility of life after death.
I hope all of us can try to emulate Ian’s attitude of maintaining a critical eye but also an open mind. In this way, you can appreciate the astonishing experiences some of these families have had, and you can consider any meaning to take from stories of children like Patrick, a little boy who may have come to this life bearing marks and memories from his dear, deceased half brother.
Excerpted from Return to Life by Jim Tucker. Copyright © 2013 by Jim Tucker.
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