The Boy Who Thought He Was Reincarnated
In the early 2000s, a sensational news story took the world by storm: a young boy was proven by experts — so said the reports — to have lived a past life as a World War II fighter pilot who was shot down. James Leininger, born in April 1998, is the subject of books and TV shows and countless articles citing him as proof of reincarnation, bolstered by an assailable mountain of undeniable proof. Today we're going to look into this amazing story of a young boy who thought he was reincarnated... and, in the process, also look at the people who helped him get there.
Such cases are not uncommon. There are whole books about similar stories, where James Leininger is only a single chapter. We could talk about any one of them, but this case is a good one because it is probably the best known, has received both skeptical and credulous attention, and still has a large following of believers. The basic facts of the case are that James Leininger was born in 1998, and while other children become obsessed with trucks or tractors or horses or plush toys, James' fixation was airplanes. He loved them. Every birthday or Christmas brought him a shower of new airplane toys. By the age of two, he knew many models by name, especially those most commonly produced as toys and featured in books: fighter planes, like Mustangs, Corsairs, and Spitfires. His parents took him to aviation museums, and he loved the WWII fighter planes. It even got to the point that his parents tried to distract him away from airplanes — unsuccessfully. It's a familiar experience to many parents.
Another thing James had in common with many toddlers was recurring nightmares. His, not surprisingly given his favorite toys, was that he was in an airplane that was crashing. He'd cry and scream and wake his parents. Sometimes it would happen five times a week. James' mother Andrea began to suspect that the nightmare was so traumatic because it had an extraordinary cause. Perhaps James had lived it in another life.
By the time James was two and a half, he'd said the man crashing in the plane was named James, and that the plane was a Corsair — a famous WWII fighter plane in the Pacific. His parents reported that he even gave a partial name for the aircraft carrier he'd been on, the USS Natoma Bay, an actual WWII escort carrier.
Eventually, Andrea got ahold of a book on children who had lived past lives and studied it, while his father Bruce obsessively went through WWII records trying to piece together the bits little James had offered into a consistent narrative. Bruce garnered further details from James by going through the book The Battle for Iwo Jima with him. Their conviction that little James had been a Corsair pilot named James from the Natoma Bay who was shot down at Iwo Jima was so strong that they even took him to a reunion of crew from the Natoma Bay.
Eventually the Leiningers wrote a 2009 book promoting their son as an actual case of reincarnation, titled Soul Survivor. Although they clearly believe their son was reincarnated, the weaknesses in the story are apparent to the skeptical mind. All of the evidence is purely anecdotal, and is practically the gold standard of confirmation bias and observational selection. The story as the public knows it was written by the parents themselves after nearly a decade of personally trying to confirm and prove their belief. Reading their book, I marveled that the only proof they gave over and over again is that there is no way a three-year-old could have had knowledge of aircraft carriers or known the names of specific fighter planes. That's an insult to every three-year-old who ever lived.
We might well be tempted to observe that as poor as the evidence for this story is, it seems bizarre that Andrea and Bruce Leininger — perfectly intelligent, normal adults — would believe in it so wholeheartedly. Indeed, as we mentioned earlier, there are many such stories, all fully endorsed by intelligent people, despite a total lack of evidence or plausibility. It turns out that we do have a potential explanation for how these smart people can believe such a weird thing.
Let's look at the most famous case of an alleged reincarnation, that of Bridey Murphy. Virginia Tighe was a Colorado woman who became famous as the poster child for "past life regression" in the 1950s when, under hypnosis, she spoke of being the reincarnation of a 19th century Irish woman named Bridey Murphy. Her story was published in a book, The Search for Bridey Murphy, in 1956 and was a sensation, becoming a best seller. A Hollywood movie was made the same year. Suddenly everyone believed in reincarnation and in hypnotic past life regression.
Most investigators seeking to either confirm or disprove the reincarnation claim scoured old Irish records trying to find someone named Bridey Murphy in 19th century Ireland. Nothing was ever found. All of the names and places she had come up with were weak matches at best, and none of the specific names or dates could be verified. One newspaper, however, looked a little closer to home. Reporters for the Chicago American found that when Tighe was a little girl, their neighbor across the street had been an Irish immigrant named Bridie Murphy-Corkell. Case closed. The memories of Bridey Murphy had been memories of a neighbor when she was a little girl. Were book sales impacted? Not in the slightest. In fact a second edition even came out.
But even more surprisingly, even Virginia Tighe herself never believed a word of the reincarnation story. She once said "If I had known what was going to happen I would never have lain down on the couch." She even refused to give permission for her name to be used in the book, so it used a fake name, Ruth Simmons. So how could her story have exploded so enormously?
It turns out the book was written by the hypnotist himself, Morey Bernstein, a wealthy businessman and amateur hypnotist. Bernstein was completely persuaded that Tighe was reincarnated from Bridey Murphy — or, at least, always said that he was — the book was making a lot of money. From his 1999 obituary in the Washington Post:
Bernstein was a lifelong believer in reincarnation, and it's not much of a stretch to assume that he probably coaxed her through the story in pursuit of his belief. This is also something we routinely see in other stories of reincarnation: the people who are the subjects are often surrounded by true believers who are really the ones creating and promoting the story.
This is not to say they do it dishonestly; not at all. When we believe something wholeheartedly and want to persuade others that what we believe happened actually did so, we all tend to exaggerate, hoping to make our case sound more persuasive. This is not something we do consciously or deceptively. If I know in my heart of hearts that what I'm telling you is the truth, I might very well add in some extra information — even something I make up completely — if it will help convince you. To our point of view, these little white lies are helpful not harmful, because the outcome is that you will believe what we already know to be true. So we should expect that those who believe these stories of reincarnated children are going to say anything they can — even rearrange the history of who knew what when, what word was pronounced how on what date, what stories a child might have heard — and we must be careful not to misinterpret these anecdotes as infallible factual accounts.
How can the Bridey Murphy story help us understand the James Leininger case? For one thing, it suggests that there's not much point in going back into the history books and trying to learn about the USS Natoma Bay or whether it carried Corsair fighter planes (it didn't) or what fighter pilots were named James in the war. None of that matters. Bridey Murphy tells us to look closer to home.
Maybe...just maybe...James Leininger had a Morey Bernstein of his own.
Carol Bowman is the author of several books on reincarnated children and promotes herself as a "past life regression therapist", as if that's a thing. Hers is the book that Andrea Leininger turned to. Let's hear Bowman's own words from her website about her involvement in our case:
So from about the age of 3, James' parents were following the advice of a past life regression promoter to manage the boy's interest in WWII airplanes — having first already decided on their own that he was in fact a reincarnated pilot. Part of Bowman's advice was to repeatedly assure this toddler that he was, in fact, a reincarnated WWII fighter pilot. The Leiningers wrote in their book:
That is psychologically outrageous. Remember, the notion that James had been reincarnated was never his own; it was his parents', primarily Andrea's, own idea. The parents, under the guidance of a strongly motivated self-described "therapist", put the idea into his head themselves. Bowman describes her book as "a memoir of [her] discoveries after she witnessed past life memories in her own two children, and a guidebook for parents." No. No parenting guidebook should advise teaching your three-year-old to believe a delusion, certainly not one that takes away his individuality and teaches that he's someone else. Nevertheless, Bowman continued exploiting little James to promote her agenda, just as Bernstein did before her:
Bowman and Bernstein had other things in common; most notably, a total lack of relevant education in psychology or any kind of therapy. Both wrote popular books promoting themselves as experts. And sadly, both managed to convince people of the reality of reincarnation. People who invent their own field and declare themselves its expert are usually dismissed as cranks; but when we fail to apply a skeptical process, we can easily end up conferring unearned respect on those very same cranks and, in the process, regard an innocent toddler — who wants only to play with his airplanes — as proof of the supernatural.
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