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When Children Remember Past Lives

An interview with Barbara Graham, author of "What Jonah Knew."

Key points

  • Science shows that our RNA is chemically modified by the experiences of family members going back at least three generations.
  • If we accept the possibility that conciousness doesn’t end with death, then how we live now becomes even more important.
  • Science develops ideas of what is so and it becomes very difficult to force scientists to look at new data that may challenge existing concepts.

What would you do if your seven-year-old child began having memories of a past life? How would you respond to his claims of remembering a trauma from another's existence? That is the disturbing, fascinating question at the heart of Barbara Graham's debut novel, What Jonah Knew, published this week by HarperCollins. Part psychological thriller, part metaphysical exploration, this compelling book seeks to open the skeptical reader's mind to mounting piles of evidence that reincarnation does occur, however uncertain we are of how, when, or why. Graham is a veteran New York Times best-selling author whose other books include Eye of My Heart, on the perils and pleasures of being a grandmother, Women Who Run with the Poodles, a satirical look at the dark side of the self-help movement, and a memoir, Camp Paradox, about the slippery slope between abuse and consent at an all-girls summer camp. Her plays have been produced Off-Broadway and at theaters around the country, and Graham's articles have appeared in many magazines. I spoke to her recently about What Jonah Knew and her research into the mysterious phenomenon of reincarnation.

Mark Matousek: Since your debut novel, What Jonah Knew, touches on past lives, what do you say to reincarnation skeptics?

Barbara Graham: I say, look at the evidence. There are decades of credible research led by the late psychiatrist Ian Stevenson and his successor, child psychiatrist, Jim Tucker, at the University of Virginia. They’ve accumulated more than 2,500 cases of kids with spontaneous recall of a previous life. These are young kids who generally begin talking about a former life between the ages of two and four, and whose statements have been verified. In a 1999 interview with the New York Times, Stevenson said: “Science develops ideas of what is so and it becomes very difficult to force scientists to look at new data that may challenge existing concepts. I’m not trying in any way to replace what we know about genetics or environmental influences. All I’m offering is that past lives may contribute a third factor that may fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge.”

MM: So, if a therapist with no background in this had a young patient with these sorts of memories, how do you recommend they work with the child?

BG: 70 percent of the kids with memories of a previous life recall dying by murder, suicide, or an accident, and more than 35 percent show intense fear related to the manner of death. In his book Return to Life, Tucker describes it as “the kind of avoidant behavior that is part of the official DSM criteria for PTSD.” For example, children who remember drowning are often terrified of water. I’m not a therapist, but I imagine that treating these kids would be no different than treating any child with phobias, or who has experienced trauma and exhibits signs of PTSD: listening to them and taking seriously what they say.

MM: Why do you think every child doesn’t have memories of a past life?

BG: I think it comes down to trauma or the degree of distress. If you accept the possibility that there is some continuity of consciousness after death, then it seems logical that those who die suddenly or violently would carry more of an imprint from the previous lifetime than a 95-year-old who slips off peacefully in the night. What’s more, according to Tucker, “Dying young increases the likelihood that a child will later report memories of a previous life.”

MM: So, you're suggesting that therapists should treat children with disturbing past-life memories the same way they would treat other trauma?

BG: Yes. Being believed can be very helpful. Carol Bowman, who has been documenting these sorts of cases for decades, says to parents in her book Children’s Past Lives that “…these memories are an opportunity to heal unfinished business that otherwise might cause problems as your child grows into an adult.” It’s my understanding that kids who are allowed to speak openly about their memories have an easier time letting go of the past and adapting to their present life.

MM: Can you give me an example?

BG: Yes. Tucker worked with a little boy named Cameron who lived in Glasgow, Scotland, and who at two and a half began talking about his life in Barra, a remote island in the Outer Hebrides. By the time he turned three, Cameron was insisting he wanted “to go to Barra to my other family.” He offered numerous details, including the family surname—Robertson—and was convinced that his Robertson father had been hit by a car and killed.

MM: He said all this when he was three?

BG: Yes, and when Cameron was five, Tucker accompanied him and his family to Barra to investigate and search for the Robertson’s home. When they finally found it and were allowed inside, Tucker reports that Cameron looked very sad. His mother, Norma, asked him if he missed his Barra mother, and Cameron nodded, leaning into her for comfort. And though not every detail the boy remembered could be verified, his mother said that Cameron was much calmer after the trip to Barra. In Return to Life, Tucker explained that Cameron “seemed to have seen enough to validate in his own mind that the memories he had experienced were real.”

MM: What happens to kids like Cameron when they get a little older?

BG: The research shows that by the time children are six or seven, their memories of the previous life begin to fade, much in the same way that very early childhood memories fade in everyone. In most of these cases, the older children are, the more they identify with their current life until, eventually, the past-life memories all but disappear.

MM: I'm confused between reincarnation and rebirth. What's the difference?

BG: Semantics. I’ve heard Tibetan Buddhists use the words interchangeably. But it’s important to be clear that neither the Buddhists nor the researchers view reincarnation—or rebirth—as the perpetuation of a fixed personality. “Though a child may remember a previous life, it’s not as if Joe Blow comes back as John Doe,” Tucker told me recently. It seems that somehow—and no one claims to know exactly how—fragments of consciousness get transferred from one life to the next. And some people remember them.

MM: That sounds pretty metaphysical. Would you say that it's possible to appreciate the story you've written without getting into the metaphysics?

BG: Absolutely. What Jonah Knew is a novel of psychological suspense—and, I hope, a damn good read—that deals not only with reincarnation, but also with ancestral trauma. At its core, the book is about trauma and memory filtered through different lenses—Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, inherited family trauma, and studies of kids with spontaneous recall of a previous life.

MM: Can you tell me how your own personal trauma prompted you to want to explore the topic?

BG: Years ago, I was assigned a magazine article on past life regression therapy. As part of my research, I had a session with Roger Woolger, a well-known Jungian psychologist. I’m not very susceptible to hypnotic suggestion, so I wasn't expecting anything to happen. But much to my surprise, I tapped into a vivid memory of being murdered during the Holocaust. The experience was incredibly powerful. And devastating. I cried for days afterward.

MM: Can you bring us experientially into that? What did you see?

BG: A body I took to be my body being thrown from a flatbed truck into an open grave, then being shot in the back of the head. On one level, it made a lot of sense. As a kid, I was obsessed with the Holocaust. I read every book on it I could find. My own therapist, whom I saw a few days after the session with Woolger, suggested that many people who were born in the late '40s and early '50s carried memories of the Holocaust. He was the one who gave me Stevenson’s book on reincarnation, which became the germ of the novel. Later, I discovered a book called Beyond the Ashes by Rabbi Gershom, in which he collects the stories of many people—Jews and non-Jews—who believe they died in the Holocaust.

MM: How do you think trauma has affected you?

BG: I’ve been prone to anxiety from the time I was quite young. Perhaps one source was the Holocaust, even though I wasn’t fully aware of it until I did the session with Roger Woolger. In addition, I believe I carry some inherited trauma, too. My grandmother talked about getting stoned by the Cossacks when she was a little girl playing by the river in her Lithuanian village, and she remained fearful all her life. I think I was wired for fear, and that wiring takes a long time to unwind. In a sense, unwinding it has been my life's work, and writing this novel has been part of that.

MM: It doesn’t seem accidental that you helped Mark Wolynn with It Didn’t Start with You, his book on inherited family trauma.

BG: Mark’s work opened my eyes to ancestral trauma, the way Stevenson's work opened my eyes to reincarnation. I'd always had the sense that my psyche had been affected by family trauma, as well as events in my own childhood, and what I learned from Mark confirmed it. The science is very compelling and shows that our RNA is chemically modified by the experiences—good and bad—of family members going back at least three generations.

MM: What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

BG: Maybe just a glimmer of the idea that our lives are more vast and mysterious than the materialist view of the world suggests. If we accept the possibility that consciousness doesn’t end with death, then how we live now, how we treat one another and our planet, becomes even more pressing than it already is.

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