How shall I put this? I do not believe in reincarnation. Not in this lifetime. I think Fitzgerald got it right; there are no second acts. One day I will die and that will be that.
Thus stands like a rock my unflinching opinion on the subject.
So, when my agent — who believes in everything except me — asked me to write a book about reincarnation, I said, “Sure.”
Why pick a hard-core skeptic, a journalist, (for God’s sake!), a Cassandra marinated in the smoky cynicism of H.L. Mencken to write a book about something as gauzy and hopeful as faith. It would be like turning the rationalist fox (no relation to the irrational media Fox) loose in the paranormal henhouse?
Obviously, he needed a doubting Thomas, a disbeliever, a cranky cynic to demonstrate that the fix wasn’t in. Who better to vouch for the integrity of Disney World than a certified grouch?
And then there’s this interesting other question: why would I take such a job?
The answer is simple. I don’t know. I do like to look into forbidden rooms, I watch Hannity (just to scream at the set), I poke at a sore tooth. I once told Ed Koch how I thought he was doing; (he didn’t appreciate the opinion, but as I always say, don’t ask and I won’t tell.)
Who should ghost the book? Bridey Murphy? Some gullible slave to the outré opinions of the occult?
No, me, a reliable nay-sayer. I saw my duty and backward into the past I marched.
There was, of course, a catch. In order to do this book, I would have to sort of “pass over,” in a manner of speaking. That is, the child who is the subject of this book lived in Lafayette, Louisiana — the Deep South — a part of the country in which I have had more than one near-death experience.
In 1971, when I was a reporter for Newsday on Long Island, I rode with Charlie Evers (the brother of the slain NAACP civil rights leader, Medgar Evers,) as he campaigned for governor of Mississippi. We rode all over the Mississippi Delta and as we drove across the exposed highway, I heard the sound of bullets whizzing past our windshield. Snipers in the trees. Charlie kept a loaded pistol on the seat of the car in case we got a flat. A spare tire in that part of Mississippi in the early ’70’s was not enough.
So that’s how I remembered the south. With fear and disbelief.
But this was 2007 and James Leininger lived in the quiet coastal plain of Louisiana — a town called Lafayette. There were no Obama posters, but there were storefront poker palaces and fast-food stretches and a decent hotel. (At one chicken restaurant, as I waited in line for lunch, the manager loudly fired the entire staff, then came out and asked if anyone on the line wanted a job. I went to find a McDonald’s.)
Bruce and Andrea Leininger were a handsome couple. Not unsophisticated. She had been a ballet dancer in New York and he studied political science at Columbia University under Zbigniew Brzezinski. Now he was working in human relations in the oil industry.
When I got down there, and we started to work on the book, they did not have a clear idea of how this story unfolded — just that something miraculous had taken place to their son James under their roof. It was a painful and awkward process — putting it all together, getting the sequences right, checking out the details, finding the right structure. Together, we drew up timelines and made charts and put it down on paper:
In the year 2000, when James had just turned two, he began to shout in his sleep — not always coherent — but it seemed to be about a World War II pilot killed in the battle of Iwo Jima. At first, it was just a kid having nightmares. But slowly, over a period of time, the child, James Leininger, began to deliver incredible accurate details, speak coherently, add uncanny facts — minutiae about the pilot — James Huston — his life and history. The information he divulged was of such breadth and diversity that it became impossible to dismiss, and even now, even as I still do not believe in reincarnation, I have no reasonable explanation for that unwinding story.
I’ve heard people say, oh, he must have been coached, or influenced by watching TV. But this was a child in his diapers, still sucking on a bottle. How could he be coached to know the flight characteristics of World War II era fighter planes? How could he know the names of the ships and the sailors who had taken part in a certain battle at a certain time?
James Leininger had been examined and tested by Carol Bowman, an authority on the subject of children who have supposedly experienced “past lives.” She vouched for his authenticity. James had already appeared on television (a media vetting that has popular, if not scientific standing), and was recognized by the paranormal community as the most authentic case of an American “past life.” Children experiencing “past lives” is a well-established (albeit controversial) field of paranormal studies. Several universities have departments devoted solely to its study.
It was always Bruce’s intention to debunk his son’s story. He was an evangelical Christian and thought that proof of reincarnation would damage his faith — one life, one soul, everlasting. Andrea accepted her son’s claims and didn’t attach any particular religious significance to the whole thing. But Bruce was dogged. Over time, he found that there was an annual reunion of members of the ship that his son had named as his own in his sleep. If he could prove that there were no Corsairs (the plane that James insisted he had flown in the war), he would have made his case that the story was not true and his faith was safe. Bruce began to attend the reunions of surviving crew members of Natoma Bay — an escort carrier that took part in the battle. He gathered up facts, all confirming the data fed by his son James, all also confirming that there were no Corsairs on Natoma Bay. He held onto that discrepancy as a holy chalice.
But something odd happened. During the course of his quest to debunk the story, Andrea tracked down the families of the dead crew members and eventually found James Huston’s sister, Ann. The sister had never had any contact with the ship or with the reunions. Still, she was curious about James Leininger, and, finally, sympathetic to his claims to be her brother. She was old and it was hard for her to travel from California, however, so she sent a batch of photographs of her brother taken during the war. And in a couple of the photographs, there was James Huston standing in front of a Corsair.
There were other odd things — when she sent James Leininger a drawing that her mother made of James Huston — the child asked where was the other picture? The other picture — buried up in the attic for sixty years — was a drawing of Ann. Her mother had made two drawings when they were children. How could James Leininger have known that? Ann was stunned. No one knew about that other picture. Except her dead brother.
As I say, I don’t believe in reincarnation. I hardly believe in carnation. I am a secular, rationalist skeptic. But I have no reasonable explanation for James Leininger/Huston.
©2009 Ken Gross, co-author of Soul Survivor: The Reincarnation of a World War II Fighter Pilot