29 March 2009

"Old Souls" by Tom Shroder

Reincarnation is, undoubtedly, one of the most enduring themes in human history, traversing cultures and religions. It has been, in the wider sense, an expression of faith, hope and, ultimately, deep fear in front of the great unknown death still represents. Is there anything else beyond? That’s surely a question that has bothered every single man and woman at some point in their lives. Theories are abundant regarding to what happens after we leave our mortal coils, but the need for scientific evidence has inevitably been thwarted by the unquantifiable nature of the soul. People claiming to remember past lives aren’t hard to find but, as westerners, we have been taught to scoff at most of such cases. A feeling fueled by media appearances of egomaniacs or plainly mentally ill individuals who supposedly were Napoleon or Marie Antoinette in a previous life.

More recently, the emergence of New Age ideals that drink from the religious lore of the far-east has once again boosted the public interest in reincarnation. The intersection of such mythologies with the “tools” of modern age psychology and psychiatry produced an all new perspective expressed in both popular and academic works. It’s no surprise that the works of authors such as Brian Weiss became instant best-sellers, fitting perfectly into the new trend and, simultaneously, filling the empty space left by a progressive disenchantment with Christian tradition. “Old Souls” actually starts off amidst this environment, with its skeptical author exploring the meanders of such resurgence.

Past life events recovered through hypnotic regression cause controversy not only because of the supposed memories of the subjects, but mainly due to the doubts involving the process itself. Hypnosis, a long cherished method of psychoanalysis, became a fulcrum of contention for the results obtained aren’t absolutely truthful, resulting of an intersection of real facts and memories with the patient’s imagination and the therapist’s own expectations, both seeping through and often tampering with the truth. Looking beyond these widely popularized and questionable tales of reincarnation, Tom Shroder found the works of Dr. Ian Stevenson, psychiatrist and former director of the Division of Personality Studies in the University of Virginia.

His books and articles, virtually unknown outside the world of academia, took a different perspective on the prospect of reincarnation and the survival of the soul after death. After almost 40 years of thorough field research in various countries of Asia and America, he gathered hundreds of fascinating stories of children who naturally recounted past lives without the use of hypnosis. The serious and utterly scientific approach to the reported situations captivated the author’s interest, further catalyzed by the peer reviews published about Stevenson’s work. Tom Shroder was astounded to notice that other scientists had put forward the possibility of reincarnation in face of the present body of evidence, with some even suggesting other psi phenomena like extrasensory perception (ESP) to explain the acquisition of virtually unattainable knowledge by small children, some as soon as they began to speak. The facts were so powerful that many had difficulties to find a rational explanation based on the present state of science.

Shroder managed to convince Ian Stevenson and accompanied him on one of his last field trips to Lebanon and India. “Old Souls” is the fascinating account of that journey across of the often sordid environment of those two countries, from the war torn streets of Beirut to the overcrowded lanes of Delhi. Through its lines we can feel the difficulties and, sometimes, the perils inherent to the painstaking cataloguing of cases and their mandatory follow up. Away from the comfort of the laboratory, we discover a figure of great persistence, a man that after decades of investigative work still has the drive to face long car trips to remote villages, often just to add a few details to his files. As a man of science, Stevenson knew how hard is to venture into the unexplored areas of human knowledge and that strong proof is of the utmost importance. This book is, in itself, a powerful testament to his work and resilience.

Either among the Druze people (a religious community that emerged from the Islamic religion’s stem incorporating, among many other concepts, that of reincarnation) in Lebanon, or the Hindus in India, we come upon stories of now adult men and women whose childhood was marked, from a very early stage, by the remembrance of a different life and frequently a tragic death. Lives of common people, not prominent historical figures, just regular citizens whose existence was untimely terminated. Sometimes the outstanding tales of the children, containing many details of the previous life (names, accurate description of places and objects and the remembrance of very personal events and conversations) are further attested by birthmarks in their bodies (for example, a child whose previous personality was killed with a shot in the chest exhibits a spot where the skin has a different color or even a peculiar texture). The selection of cases is exhaustive and includes interviews with the children, their families and also the past life’s kindred.

It’s best not to dwelve into the specifics of each case mentioned on “Old Souls”, for they are quite detailed and any short description does justice neither to the subjects, nor to Stevenson’s work. Tom Shroder must be lauded for his ability to transport the reader to the physical and human landscape of distant places, candidly revealing his evolution from disbelief towards serious hypothesing of the reality of this phenomenon, without ever losing his rational, journalistic mind. Believers and skeptics will find intelligent material to ponder about, but don't expect to find definitive answers. Reincarnation is far from being a proven fact, but this volume reminds us that in face of extraordinary facts we must, at least, put aside our preconceptions and allow brave men like Ian Stevenson to do their work without spurious interferences. His legacy is very much alive among fellow scientists and simple admirers, for time will certainly remember those unremittingly researched case files as a pioneering influence on the study of reincarnation and the paranormal as a whole.

More information on “Old Souls” can be found on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Souls) as well as about Dr. Ian Stevenson (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ian_Stevenson). The webpage of the University of Virginia’s Division of Personality Studies, a department founded by Stevenson in 1967, is also recommended (http://www.healthsystem.virginia.edu/internet/personalitystudies/).

8 March 2009

"The Complete Guide to Mysterious Beings" by John A. Keel

There's no way around him: even if you're just mildly interested in unexplained events John Keel is one of the must read authors. His life's story is almost as fascinating as the subjects he so wittily tackles. The nomadic nature of journalism, a profession he chose from an early age, took him to the farthest corners of the world. It would be in places like India and Egypt that the appeal of Fortean phenomena would compel him to dedicate the following decades to the study of bizarre creatures, fleeting lights in the sky and elusive apparitions. The sheer width of Keel’s investigative work makes him one of the most insightful commentators on anomalous subjects, although his approach and subsequent theorizations would lead to an almost complete isolation both from academics and hardened believers.

This specific volume is an upgrade on the earlier “Strange Creatures from Time and Space”, first released in 1970, and constitutes a fine example of John Keel’s intelligent writing style. As always he manages to create a subtle blend of newspaper article objectivity with personal and often comedic interludes, characteristics that make him an unparalleled master on the popularization (in the best sense) of the paranormal. “The Complete Guide to Mysterious Beings” works as an encyclopedia of anomalous beings that have been reported throughout human history, their appearances, physiology and, most relevantly, effects on the unsuspecting witnesses.

The author isn’t afraid to peer into events reported from distant centuries, for bizarre occurrences have always been with us as humans, a fact that allows us to see them in an historical, social and anthropological chain that conducts to what we are now and to how we see and interpret such incidents. It’s no surprise that the chapter dedicated to demon dogs and phantom cats also mentions themes like vampirism and lycanthropy, for the singularities of the outer world are undeniably linked to our cultural perception and behavior. From there we’re taken through the usual parade of classics such as hairy beasts, lake monsters and flying creatures (Mothman included), essential to prepare us for the Keel twist on the subject. So don’t be surprised if you’re reading about Bigfoot and, turning to the next chapter, you’re in the middle of a discussion about bedroom invading humanoids or brightly illuminated angelic visions. The strange creatures mentioned in the title come in all shapes and that’s what makes this book quite different from the “competition”.

Also relevant is the fact that many of the mentioned beings were sighted in association with other abnormal phenomenon like UFOs. This is a trademark of the author’s thinking, one that has garnered him despise and reverence. Unlike other investigators, Keel sees the paranormal as a whole, a gathering of various manifestations, with different appearances, but profound similarities on the way they affect the humans who are faced with them. He often concludes that, despite the form, the final purpose (if there is a consciously designed one) of this outlandish engagements with the occult is to confound and, most disturbingly, to manipulate the witnesses and, ultimately, our beliefs.

Keel’s very unique worldview is perfectly illustrated in the 2002 afterword he wrote for this book. After decades of uncountable millions of dollars launched into the extraterrestrial hypothesis scientific grinding machine, created by respected academics and fed by eccentric millionaires, the results are none. Our radio telescopes have captured the fascinating mumblings of distant galaxies, but never the intelligent message from an alien civilization. The SETI program and his siblings may have seemed the correct approach to the problem. However, time has disproven such vision and phenomena like UFO still baffle us as much as 50 years ago. It’s certainly the time to look back to our rich history and the powerful teachings of our ancestors, to learn with our mistakes and missteps and to try, just try, to look for answers elsewhere, for maybe they lie much closer to us than the inscrutable depths of space.

You may find more information on John Keel on the Wikipedia article about him (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Keel). Also you can check out another review, written by Rick Kleffel (http://trashotron.com/agony/reviews/keel-guide_myserious_being.htm).