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A Case of Reincarnation — Reexamined

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 8.1, March 1998

Perhaps not since the famous “Bridie Murphy” case of the 1950 — when American housewife Virginia Tighe supposedly discovered she was the reincarnation of an Irishwoman — has a single “past-life regression” case received such widespread attention. The present subject is an English resident named Jenny Cockell. Since childhood, Mrs. Cockell relates, she has had constant dream-memories of another Irishwoman, eventually identified as Mary Sutton, who died more than two decades before Cockell was born, leaving behind eight young children. Investigation, however, shows that the reincarnation claims are not only unconvincing, but that there is quite a different hypothesis which best accounts for the proffered evidence.

Jenny Cockell was born in 1953 in rural England. Now a wife and mother, she lives and works as a registered chiropodist (i.e., podiatrist) in Northhamptonshire. Her unusual story has been told on such television programs as “Unsolved Mysteries” and in her own book, Across Time and Death: A Mother’s Search for Her Past Life Children (Cockell 1993).

Therein, as a self-described “withdrawn and nervous child,” she relates how she frequently woke sobbing with her “memories of Mary’s death” and her expressed “fear for the children I was leaving behind” (p. 1). In addition to her childhood dreams, she would frequently echo Mary’s domestic work during her play: making “bread” by mixing grass seeds in water, sweeping with a broom, and acting out other chores (p. 14). “I was also constantly tidying and clearing out my room and toys,” she writes, “something that I enjoyed almost more than playing with them” (p. 5). At this time, she did not know Mary’s last name and was unaware of countless other details about her origins and life. Somewhat artistically inclined, Jenny frequently sketched maps of Mary’s Irish village, although there were admitted variations in the supposed landmarks (p. 5).

Among the reasons for Jenny’s withdrawal was the unhappy atmosphere of her home, there being, as she described it, “an impossible tension” between her parents (p. 14). “I usually played alone,” she writes, “and the only company I regularly enjoyed was that of my two imaginary male friends” (p. 15). Although she had a high IQ (which would later earn her membership in Mensa, the “genius” society), she reports that she was thought a slow learner due to her “dreamlike state of mind” that carried even into the classroom (p. 15).

Although she describes her supposed memories as “dreams” and refers to her “private trance world” in which she was “oblivious to external activity,” the memories were vivid and seemingly real. As is often the case, this was especially so under hypnosis. In 1988 — by then married and the mother of two young children — Cockell was hypnotized for the first time. Under hypnosis, she seemingly became Mary. “I cried as she cried,” she states; “I knew her pain as my own” (p. 33). Tears rolled uncontrollably down her cheeks. Although under hypnosis she seemed to exist partly in the past and partly the present, she says: “Yet I was Mary, and the past had become very real. I could smell the grass on the slopes outside a large farmhouse, and I breathed in the fresh spring air” (p. 36). Again, “As the questions were being asked and answered in this strange, mechanical way, I seemed to be free to wander through the places I saw — tangible, vivid places. I felt the wind in my hair; I could touch and smell the air as though I were there” (p. 37).

Under hypnosis she also explored what she believed were her “psychic abilities.” In addition to her past-life memories, she was already convinced she had the power of psychometry (object reading) and dream premonitions (pp. 13, 28). The hypnotic sessions also took her on an out-of-body experience as part of a dubious test of clairvoyance. (Also, in an earlier session, as “Mary,” she had died, then went out of body to see the surroundings of her “now vacant body” [pp. 40, 55].)

Not surprisingly the hypnotic sessions also tapped other past-life experiences. “By chance I found myself,” she reports, “In one of the memories that had been with me since childhood. . . . ” One of several such memories, this involved a little French girl from the eighteenth century (pp. 40-41).

Ultimately, however, the hypnosis helped little in her quest to identify Mary or Mary’s family, leaving her “almost where I was before the hypnosis started” (p. 69). She bemoaned “the lack of concrete details such as that forever elusive surname” (p. 70).

She turned then to actual research, publishing an ad in a Mensa magazine, sending out numerous form letters, acquiring maps, and so on. Eventually she turned up a village (Malahide), a road (Swords Road), and finally a woman named Mary Sutton who roughly fit the target. The story ends with Mrs. Cockell making contact with some of Mary’s surviving children. Although they are supposedly her own offspring, they are — ironically and somewhat bizarrely — old enough to be her parents (pp. 117-153). Nevertheless, she is satisfied with her “reunion” and already is looking into her “next life” — as a Nepalese girl in the twenty-first century (p. 153).

Unfortunately, Cockell’s intriguing and no doubt sincere saga does not withstand critical analysis. First, consider the overwhelming lack of factual information provided by the dreams and hypnosis. Unknown were Mary’s surname, either maiden or married, or the names of her husband or children. Similarly, the village’s name and even its location were a mystery. Cockell was ignorant of dates as well, including Mary’s birth date or even the year of her birth. And so on and on.

She employs circular reasoning. She sent out queries that sought a village with certain sketchy requirements and, when such a village was — not surprisingly — discovered, she adopted it as the one she was looking for. Obviously if it did not fit she would have looked further. Such an approach amounts to drawing a target around an arrow once it has struck something.

In addition, the technique of retrofitting (after-the-fact matching) is employed. For example, Mrs. Cockell made a sketch of a church after one of her hypnosis sessions that is matched with a photo of an actual church, St. Andrew’s, in the village of Malahide. But the sketch is simplistic, showing only a gable end and revealing no awareness of the greater overall structure. In addition, it entirely omits the central feature of the church’s gable end — a massive gothic window — and there are many other significant omissions and mismatchings. Moreover, St. Andrew’s is not the one Mary had actually attended, which was St. Sylvester’s Catholic Church, but instead merely one she would have walked by, one belonging to the Church of Ireland.

Rationalizations for errors and omissions abound throughout Cockell’s book. “A lot of the remembering was in isolated fragments, and sometimes I would have difficulty making sense of them,” she says (p. 6). “I still find it hard to see Mary herself. It was easier to see the surroundings, which is not too surprising as I see through her and the life remembered as her. I feel her personality mostly . . .” (p. 9). Mary’s husband was “hard to remember” but then “he seemed to be home less and less” (p. 20). That she lacked even a surname for Mary “was no surprise to me, since I have always been bad at names” (p. 27). Under hypnosis she gave the husband’s name, wrongly, as Bryan; it was John. At one time she thought the family name was O'Neil, rather than Sutton (pp. 37, 38). When the name of the road Mary lived on is found to be Swords, not Salmons, Road, Cockell notes that both begin with S and that the accuracy was “about as close as I usually get when trying to remember names” (p. 66). A village resident “could not quite place the roads” on the map Cockell had drawn, but later found it “to be more accurate than he had expected, given that it had been drawn from dreams” (pp. 64-65). Again, when viewing the Catholic church “struck no chords of memory,” she “wondered, however, whether the frontage had changed in the intervening fifty years or so: the lawns might once have been a graveyard, and the driveway certainly looked new.” She concluded that “so little of what I remembered had stayed intact” (p. 84).

But if Jenny Cockell’s story is untrue, where did it come from? The best evidence suggests that such past-life memories are not memories at all. The alleged remembrances made under hypnosis are simply the products of an invitation to fantasize. According to one authority:

For a long while it was believed that hypnosis provided the person hypnotized with abnormal or unusual abilities of recall. The ease with which hypnotized subjects would retrieve forgotten memories and relive early childhood experiences was astonishing. . . .

However, when the veridicality of such memories was examined, it was found that many of the memories were not only false, but they were even outright fabrications. Confabulations, i.e. making up stories to fill in memory gaps, seemed to be the norm rather than the exception. It seems, literally, that using “hypnosis” to revive or awaken a person’s past history somehow or other not only stimulates the person’s desire to recall and his memory processes, but it also opens the flood gates of his or her imagination. (Baker 1992, p. 152)

As to the genesis of “Mary,” I think we must look to Jenny’s unhappy childhood and her consequent tendency to fantasize. An analysis of her autobiographical statements shows her to have many of the traits of a fantasy-prone personality. (See Wilson and Barber 1983) For example, (1) she is an excellent hypnotic subject (pp. 35, 39); (2) as a child she spent much time fantasizing (p. 16); and (3) had imaginary playmates (p. 15), as well as (4) a fantasy identity (i.e., “Mary”). In addition, (5) her imagined sensations are quite vivid and real to her (pp. 36-37); (6) she not only recalls but relives past experiences (pp. 36-37); (7) she also has had out-of-body experiences (pp. 40, 54-55); and (8) believes she has a variety of psychic abilities (pp. 13, 28, 55). Taken together, these traits are strong evidence of fantasy proneness.

As she herself acknowledges, she was forever dreaming: “Sometimes it was about the future, sometimes about the past, but hardly ever about the present.” Indeed, she says, “My escape into the past grew as I grew, and it was like a little death in my own life, a death of part of me that replaced part of my life” (p. 16). Such is the admission of a classic fantasizer, whose need to retreat from an unpleasant reality led her to manufacture a reality — one that took on, in a manner of speaking, a life of its own.

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Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.