In the summer of 1988, Carol Bowman and her 5-year-old son, Chase, met with hypnotherapist Norman Inge.
"Sit on your mom's lap, close your eyes, and tell me what you see when you hear the loud noises that scare you," Inge instructed Chase.
What followed stunned Bowman. Chase described in vivid detail an episode in a previous life, when he was a terrified solider fighting a battle during the Civil War. Boman was quite sure her son had not previously been exposed to any information about the Civil War.
Bowman had been interested in reincarnation and past life regression but this revelation by her son was something new.
"Up to that time I had never thought that children could remember their past lives," she said.
I have to admit, I never thought so either. And when I first picked up "Children's Past Lives: How Past Life Memories Affect Your Child" by Bowman (Bantam, 1997) I wasn't particularly interested in the issue. But after reading her thought-provoking, well-written book, the obvious question was: "Why not?" Why not reincarnation? It's as compelling a theory as any other.
In a recent phone interview, Bowman, 46, pointed out that according to a national poll, 27 percent of the American public believes in reincarnation.
"People are interested in reincarnation, in life and death," she said.
And she believes that many children can access their unconscious memories more easily than adults.
"There's no way to tell whether all children have past life memories, but the majority of us have been here before," she said confidently. "Memories are unconscious and when children are young they can access those memories - they are not close-minded."
Bowman favors helping children recall those memories. The event is frequently therapeutic. Chase, for instance, lost his fear of loud noises after recalling his life as a soldier. This experience with her young son prompted Bowman to begin collecting similar stories from parents and researchers. She found that it is surprisingly common for young children to remember their past lives spontaneously, without hypnosis or prompting.
She also writes about Pierce Hall, 6, whose mother took him on a car trip to a strange city. The boy suddenly became very excited and directed her down an unfamiliar street, pointing out the houses where he and his friends had lived when he was a man. He then told his dumbfounded mother he would show her where the boats were, and confidently directed her to the harbor.
Inevitably, you have to wonder whether children make up past life experiences. Bowman says there are four ways to tell when a child may be talking about another life: Look for a matter-of-fact tone, consistency over time, knowledge beyond experience, corresponding behavior and traits.
Bowman herself was a past life regressionist for many years - that's how she got to know Inge - but she is not practicing anymore. Instead, she is busy collecting anecdotes from children and evidence about the phenomenon for a second book. Her first book is part memoir, part case histories, part guidebook for parents.
Bowman knows her theories are controversial, but she is such a passionate and clear advocate that it's hard to dismiss her as a fringe-element member.
Why are her theories important?
"The healing that can take place is a very important component," Bowman said. "The experience can rid a child of phobias and is valuable in terms of psychology for understanding the origin of personality. Plus, it opens us up to new ways of looking at ourselves."
Rather than viewing death as the ultimate finality, she views death as a much more hopeful event.
"Kids' memories offer convincing evidence that we lived past lives," she said.
Bowman lives outside Philadelphia with her husband, who has never had a past-life memory, and her two children. She will be in San Francisco this fall to deliver a paper at a meeting of the Association for Past Life Research and Therapies and may schedule readings at local books stores.
She has received very positive feedback about her book through the Internet where she has a Web page at www.childpastlives.org.
"People say the book has changed their lives, but I never hear from the skeptical people," she adds.
If reincarnation is a fact, does it follow that a respected author born in the last half of the 20th century, a wife and mother living comfortably and well in the United States, is highly evolved on some kind of reincarnation scale?
"You're asking me if spiritual evolution is linear," she said. "It seems so, but maybe, maybe not. It's a unique time to be alive - we should enjoy it while we can."
Carol Bowman is the author of