Review of Tucker (2013)

Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives
By Jim B. Tucker, M. D.
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013. Pp. 243. $24.99  (cloth).
ISBN ISBN-10: 1250005841  ISBN-13: 978-1250005847

Kindle e-book: File Size: 679 KB. $10.67. Nook e-book: $11.99

Return to Life

Jim B. Tucker is Bonner-Lowry Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences in the Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS) of the University of Virginia Medical Center. He has been at DOPS since 1999 and upon the death of Ian Stevenson in 2007 succeeded him in responsibility for DOPS reincarnation studies. This is his second book about children who seem to remember having lived before. His earlier book, Life Before Life: Children’s Memories of Previous Lives, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2005. Life Before Life introduced the reader to 40 years of Stevenson’s work and described some of Tucker’s own. This new volume begins with Tucker’s first field investigation, in Stevenson’s company, but is largely about Tucker’s own research. It includes accounts of several new American cases, in which Tucker has specialized.

Tucker was trained by Stevenson and approaches his investigations in similar fashion, interviewing first-hand witnesses, collecting written documentation, and making a careful record of all a child has said and done relating to his apparent memories, but his reporting style is very different. Stevenson aimed for a medical and scientific readership and wrote in a technical way. Tucker writes for a general audience and his presentation is looser and more lucid.  Tucker’s children are children, not “subjects.” We get to know them and their families and learn how their parents deal with their strange behaviors and assertions. We also see Tucker at work and come to appreciate how much effort often goes into tracking down the people the children believe themselves to have been.

The structure of Return to Life is basically chronological, following Tucker’s career at DOPS. The first chapter deals with Patrick Christenson, to whom Tucker introduced us briefly in Life Before Life. Psychotherapist Carol Bowman, who referred this case to Stevenson, describes Patrick’s case in her book Return From Heaven under the name Chad Luke, and it was covered in an academic journal paper, Some Bodily Malformations Attributed to Previous Lives, where he is called PM. The reason for this considerable interest is that although like many American cases Patrick’s case features an apparent rebirth in the same family, it includes congenital abnormalities and a birthmark related to the deceased half-brother whose life he spoke about. Tucker’s account here is the fullest treatment the case has so far received and it provides a strong opening to the book.

In Chapter 2, Tucker takes us to Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) on a research tour with Australian psychologist Jürgen Keil. Some of the cases he and Keil encountered involve “experimental birthmarks,” so called because they correspond to marks made on a body shortly before or after death with the express purpose of stimulating a birthmark and thus tracking the person’s spirit to its next body. Another case is an unusual one in which the previous person died after the birth of the child who recalled his life. The boy was 7-8 months old when he became severely ill, then recovered with signs that he was his recently deceased uncle. In cases of this type—of which only about a dozen are known—it is as if the spirit with which a child is born is replaced by another spirit, which then continues to quicken the body. These are not cases of transient possession, but of what we might term replacement reincarnation. Tucker describes another “anomalous date” case, that of Sumitra, originally reported by Stevenson and colleagues (Stevenson, Pasricha, & McClean-Rice, 1989), but confusingly, he includes an account of Sharada as well. This last is another unusual case, but it is not one of replacement reincarnation. Rather, it is an adult past-life memory case, resembling multiple personality, in which memories of the previous life emerged especially strongly (see Matlock, 1988).

Chapter 3 is concerned with the Scottish case of Cameron, which Tucker investigated for a British television documentary. The program is posted on YouTube under the name The Boy Who Lived Before. The case was independently investigated by Tricia Robertson of the Scottish Society for Psychical Research and she devotes a chapter to it in her Things You Can Do When You’re Dead! Robertson includes details not reported by Tucker and her account should be read alongside his for a fuller appreciation of the case. Cameron’s case has received a lot of play because of where it occurred, although as with many Western cases, the person he believes he was before has not been located. Robertson promises to continue her search, however, and we may hear more about Cameron in the future.

Chapter 4 returns to the United States and the important case of James Leininger, the subject of the book Soul Survivor: The Reincarnation of a World War II Fighter Pilot. This case is remarkable in its behavioral features and in the wealth of detail recalled, which put it in a class with the better Asian cases. Moreover, the person whose life (and death) James remembered was identified by his father after an arduous stint of detective work. Tucker was unfortunately unable to investigate this case when it was most active (while James was speaking of the past life and exhibiting related behaviors) and did not meet the family until after the person James was talking about was known, but his efforts to confirm what James said before the identification was made make fascinating reading and fully support the account given in his parents’ book.

Chapter 5 is devoted to another “solved” American case, concerning a boy named Ryan who recognized “himself” in a still from a 1932 movie. The actor in question had only a bit part and was not easy to trace, but thanks to interest in Ryan’s story from the producers of The UneXplained, he was eventually identified. Details of his life were then found to match things that Ryan had been saying. The actor’s daughter verified some items not recorded in historical records. The UneXplained: A Life in the Movies aired in April, 2011.

Chapter 6 presents two cases in which the previous person was better known. Such cases are easier to verify but are less evidential because more information about the people is available in the public domain. In Chapter 7, Tucker describes several cases in which it has not been possible to find people matching the descriptions given by the children. Without identifications, we cannot know how much of what they say is true. In one case, however, there is a good deal of suggestive evidence of some sort of paranormal awareness that would be consistent with memory of a life in Virginia City, Nevada, in the 1870s. In another case, a girl who claimed to have lived in England in 1786 recognized several coins of that time.

Tucker offers a plausible theory of reincarnation and past-life memory. This begins with the proposition that consciousness is not generated by the brain (although it is in some way modulated by the brain), but exists independently of it. Given this dualistic premise, it is not inconceivable that consciousness could survive the body’s demise and later become associated with a different body. If memories are registered in consciousness rather than in the brain, it would be possible for a child who inherited the consciousness of a deceased person to recall events from that person’s life. And if mental images are carried in a consciousness that survives death, then those images could furnish the source of birthmarks and other physical impressions reproduced on the new body.

In Chapter 8, Tucker seeks to bolster this theory by appealing to quantum mechanics. He points out quite properly that during the twentieth century, experiments in quantum mechanics showed that materialism provides only an approximation of how the physical world works. Materialism holds that consciousness is produced by the brain, so its undermining opens the possibility that consciousness and the brain are separate entities. But Tucker goes further, presenting quantum mechanics as portraying physical reality as a creation of consciousness. Although some quantum theorists have affirmed this, it is by no means the majority view. Tucker may be right (I believe that he probably is), but unprepared readers may find it hard to swallow and Tucker could have made his essential point more easily by referring to a paper by physicist Henry Stapp in which he demonstrates the Compatibility of Contemporary Physical Theory with Personality Survival.

Tucker’s understanding of quantum mechanics leads him to suggest that our embodied lives are no more than a “dream” or mental construct. He explores this notion in Chapter 9, the concluding chapter of the book. He makes one point that seems to me very good, which is that the afterlife may not be a place to which we are all destined to go, but rather another state of consciousness, another dream. This allows him to posit that the specifics of each individual’s afterlife are unique and personal, a function in part of his or her ideas about what to expect. But there are problems with the way he plays out this scenario. He suggests that our experience after death is akin to a shared lucid dream. However, near-death experiences and children’s memories of the interval between death and rebirth (some of which are recounted in the book) seem concrete and realistic (although they may refer to fantastic events). Near-death experiences, in fact, often say their consciousness was especially clear, not at all what one would consider dream-like. Had Tucker placed less emphasis on the dream analogy and more on the purely mental status of existence after death, his argument might have been more persuasive.

Tucker tells us that “ordinary” natural deaths are likely to be associated with same-family cases and “exceptional” (premature and violent) deaths with stranger cases. He interprets this to mean that individuals with “strong or unresolved emotional connections” to their families return to the same dream to continue its story line, whereas those without such connections take up other story lines with other people (pp. 202-203). This supposes that natural deaths are associated with emotional connections to loved ones whereas exceptional deaths are not, but why should that be? I suspect that emotional connections figure in many cases with exceptional deaths, especially cases in which a person dies leaving unfinished business, such as a young child in need of care. There is, moreover, a confounding factor which Tucker fails to mention: cultural conditioning. The ratio of same-family or acquaintance to stranger cases varies tremendously by culture. Same-family cases are relatively uncommon in Asia, where one’s karma is thought to dictate where one is reborn, and relatively common in animistic tribal societies (such as African or North American Indian societies) where the ideal is to return in the line of one’s father or mother. It appears that one’s beliefs influence not only how one experiences postmortem existence, but also how one returns to the physical world.

Tucker does not address one of the most interesting aspects of the cases he reports, namely, the contrast they provide with Asian reincarnation cases. Any reader acquainted with Stevenson’s Asian cases will readily see that Tucker’s Western cases belong to the same class. Western and Asian cases have many features in common, including the early age at which children speak about past lives. Critics frequently allege that reincarnation cases occur only in places with an entrenched belief in reincarnation, implying that they are no more than culturally-prescribed fantasies. After Stevenson’s European Cases of the Reincarnation Type and now this volume of American cases, that argument is difficult to sustain. Nonetheless, there do appear to be fewer Western cases and those that arise are on the whole weaker in the amount and type of information they convey, making them more difficult to solve. If reincarnation is a universal phenomenon, why should this be?

The answer may lie in the much longer interval between lives in many Western cases. Tucker states that the median interval of cases in the DOPS files is 16 months, but this refers to all cases, Western, Asian and tribal combined. Stevenson (1986) reported that the median interval of his solved non-tribal American cases was 141 months, or about 12 years. All but one of these cases was a same-family case. With the exception of Patrick, all the Western children described in Return to Life claimed to recall lives of people who died 40 or more years before and these previous lives were set in places distant from the child’s home. Other Western cases are similar in these respects. Because past-life memory, like memory of our present lives, tends to be associational, lives in remoter times and in more distant locales would provide fewer cues to recall, resulting in fewer, weaker cases in the West than elsewhere. Interestingly, Western traditions going back to the classical Greeks and continuing to the present in Theosophy and the teachings of Edgar Cayce assume long intermissions (often on the order of centuries) in distant places (often other countries), so the longer interlife intervals and distances in Western cases is as culturally mandated as is the contrary expectation in Asia.

The problematical aspects of its final chapters notwithstanding, Return to Life is a powerful contribution to the serious reincarnation literature yet at the same time is accessible to the general reader. Tucker’s previous book, Life Before Life, was translated into 10 languages, and Return to Life promises to be equally successful. It includes notes with references but there is no index.

Other reviews

For other reviews of this book online, see:

Mail Online (2013, Dec. 24). The reincarnated children.

News.com.au (2013, Nov. 26). Jim B Tucker tells stories of children who believe they are reincarnated in new book ‘Return to Life’.

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