Wednesday, June 22, 2022

PARANORMAL OR NORMAL? Guest post by Barbara Graham




My debut mystery, What Jonah Knew, has been described many different ways: Magical. Mystical. Paranormal. Supernatural. And though in one way the labels fit, in another way they raise questions about where the otherworldly stops and reality begins.           

        Some background. I was working as a journalist when I was assigned to write a magazine article on past-life regression therapy. As part of my research, I scheduled an appointment with a well-known Jungian analyst who specialized in this work and had published books on the subject. To be honest, I didn’t expect anything to happen. I knew these sessions involved hypnotic suggestion and I—an admitted control freak—believed myself to be immune to trance-induced states. What’s more, the whole business struck me as unreliable at best, fraudulent at worst. Nearly everyone I’d read about who claimed to recall a past life under hypnosis seemed to remember being someone famous—Napoleon, Nefertiti, Abraham Lincoln—never your average serf or working stiff.  

            I was in full skeptic mode when I arrived at the home office of the analyst, a graying Brit of about sixty with kind blue eyes. He led me into his treatment room and, after we chatted a bit—with me warning him that I would likely be his first hypnotic failure—he instructed me to take off my shoes, lie down on his analyst’s couch and close my eyes. I did as I was told and he began to guide me in a relaxation exercise. 

            I don’t remember how the session progressed from there, but before long I found myself trembling and weeping uncontrollably as I witnessed a young woman, seemingly me, trapped among a tangle of bodies on the back of a giant flatbed truck, then tossed like an animal into a massive open grave and shot in the head. I couldn’t identify exactly where this was, just somewhere in Europe during the Holocaust. It took me days to shake the horrific images, which felt as real as anything I recalled from childhood. 

            On one level, the scene made sense. From the time I was quite young I had nightmares that were eerily similar to those images, and later I became obsessed with reading everything I could find about the Holocaust. Yet, as a journalist I was filled with questions. How could what I experienced be proved? Having grown up in a Jewish home in the 1950’s, wouldn’t I have been exposed to—and absorbed—terrifying accounts of Nazi persecution? What, if anything, was true about what I “saw”? What was hearsay? Did it matter?

            Still reeling from the session when I met with Mark, my therapist, a few days later, I was surprised when he pulled a book off his shelf and handed it to me: Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation by Ian Stevenson, M.D. Dr. Stevenson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia medical school, had for decades been researching young children who spontaneously recalled a previous life. Little did I know then the profound influence that this book and Dr. Stevenson’s work would have on my own.

            Nonetheless, he would have dismissed my vision under hypnosis of being murdered by the Nazis. In the introduction, he wrote, “…the most promising evidence bearing on reincarnation has come from spontaneous cases, especially among children.” He goes on say that cases induced by hypnotic regression can’t be trusted because they may include “the subject’s current personality, his expectations of what he thinks the hypnotist wants, his fantasies of what he thinks his previous life ought to have been, and also perhaps elements derived paranormally.”

            So what if my “memories” couldn’t be confirmed? The evidence presented in Stevenson’s research was so compelling, I didn’t care. The 2500-plus children that he and his colleagues had studied by the time he passed away in 2007* shared several key characteristics. For starters, the majority began speaking—unprompted, usually between the ages of two and four—of a previous life in such vivid detail, it blew me away. Many of the kids volunteered specific names of people and places that they had no earthly way of knowing, and insisted that their present-day parents weren’t their “real” parents. Yet, much of what they recalled seemed to have occurred late in the life of the deceased. Fully seventy-five percent described the manner of the previous person’s death, which was frequently sudden and violent, and many of them exhibited phobias, such as a terror of drowning, related to how that person died. Stevenson and his colleagues were able to verify enough of the children’s claims to make reincarnation the most likely explanation for what they said they remembered. 

            To say that this material stirred my imagination is an understatement. Ever since I was a small child I’ve had the sense that there’s more to existence than the life of the body, and that consciousness is not confined to the five senses or bookended by birth and death. The session I had with the Jungian analyst deepened this belief, and Stevenson’s groundbreaking research nailed it—to the degree it can be nailed, short of conducting controlled clinical trials. (Which would be impossible, since you’d have to use the dead as controls.) 

Then one day while walking down the street, the story of What Jonah Knew, about a little boy who claims to have been murdered in his previous life, came to me as a sort of download. That part felt utterly magical. And mystical.

            But is the novel itself paranormal or normal? Supernatural or simply natural—even if the science has yet to catch up.

            Here’s what Ian Stevenson said in an interview with the New York Times in 1999: “Science develops ideas of what is so and it becomes very difficult to force scientists to take a 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.”

            What I know for sure is that What Jonah Knew is a murder mystery. Beyond that—paranormal or normal—I’ll leave for readers to decide.


*The research initiated by the late Dr. Stevenson at the University of Virginia is ongoing and now led by his successor, child psychiatrist Dr. Jim Tucker. 


Barbara Graham is an author, essayist, and playwright. Her pieces have appeared in many magazines and websites, including Glamour, O, the Oprah Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, Psychotherapy Networker, Redbook, Self, Time, Utne Reader, Vogue, and, in addition to being collected in numerous anthologies. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller Eye of My Heart, the national bestseller Women Who Run with the Poodles, and Camp Paradox, a memoir. Her plays have been produced Off-Broadway at the WPA Theatre in New York and at theaters around the country. For more about Barbara Graham and her writing, visit:

1 comment:

Ian Wardell said...

I think the evidence from young children apparently recollecting a previous life is the most compelling evidence for an afterlife. I've heard of no plausible alternative to explain away this evidence.

Hypnotic regression is a bit dicey, though. Although, to be fair, I think scarcely any of the hypnotised subjects recollect a life of anyone famous. The same goes for the spontaneous memories of young children. Anyone claiming to remember being a famous person, I think we should dismiss!

Incidentally, will this “what Jonah knew” be available in e-book format?