Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro

Soul Survivor

Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

Recently I heard a compelling three-hour radio interview with Bruce and Andrea Leininger, authors with Ken Gross of Soul Survivor: The Reincarnation of a World War II Fighter Pilot. This account is said to be the best documented American case of a child's recollection of a past life.I have an open mind about reincarnation and enjoy speculation about past lives.

At age two, the Leiningers' son had recurrent nightmares about an airplane crash. When asked why his airplane crashed, he said that it was "shot"; when asked who shot it, he said, "The Japanese." When asked where his airplane came from, he answered, "A boat" with the name "Natoma."

"That sounds Japanese," his father said.

"No," the two-year-old said, definitively. "It's American."

Leininger googled "Natoma" and found the World War II escort carrier in the Pacific, the USS Natoma Bay.

During the next several years, the Leiningers' son continued with an airplane obsession, with nightmares of varying intensity, and occasional odd comments. Bruce Leininger pursued historical research, eventually attended the reunion of Natoma Bay veterans, and with the aid of his wife finally identified a Natoma Bay casualty, Lieutenant James M. Huston, Jr., whose circumstances fit with a variety of details given by the little boy.

The little boy's passion for aircraft is exceptionally charming, but perhaps the most touching aspect of the story is the reaction of veterans and their families to Leininger's research. Huston's sister had never learned how Huston had died; a pilot from another squadron who had seen Huston die had never known who he was; other veterans and families gained similar closure from the research and from the Leiningers' tactful and unselfish interventions.

I looked at the book's web site and was intrigued to see photographs showing the striking resemblance between the little boy and Lt. Huston. Huston as a boy and the Leiningers' son could be the same person; the younger Leininger when grown will probably look much like Huston. This spurred me to read the Leiningers' book.

The Leiningers' ghostwriter, Ken Gross, did them and their story a disservice. The Leiningers, obviously sincere, intelligent, and caring parents, were very capable of telling their story on the radio; I would have preferred a Studs Terkel-type transcription of interviews rather than the cliché-ridden, overdramatized book that resulted. Gross provides too much information on some personal matters and-you can anticipate that it is not that kind of book-does not (with one exception in an anecdote near the end of the book) answer the relevant questions that I had.

The father has a master's degree and some experience with historical research. Could the History Channel have been a fixture of their home? (A book from the History Channel is mentioned.)

The little boy clearly is highly intelligent as well as imaginative. According to his parents, with no family input he taught himself by age 3 to write his name. Did he look at-or perhaps read-books about World War II airplanes? Eventually his father gathered quite a library about the war in the Pacific.

The little boy who had his own flight simulator software by age 4 and who at age 3 told a Blue Angel pilot, "I want to be an F-18 Super Hornet pilot and then a Blue Angel pilot-the slot position," was acquiring a lot of airplane-oriented information through normal means.

The grandfather was a World War II-era Marine veteran of the Pacific. What stories might he have told in the boy's hearing?

Although the father was skeptical, the mother early became committed to a reincarnation explanation. What kind of subconscious effect could her expectations have had on the son's imagination?

The parents denied that the little boy ever heard them discuss the issue, always certain that he was asleep. What could he have overheard? Even sleep learning is inherently more likely than remembering details of a past life.

In fact, it strikes me that efforts by the parents to prove the story, their interest, focus, and obsession, actually made the story less provable, by contaminating ongoing evidence and warping their ability to evaluate it.

I think many people underestimate the hothouse family atmosphere when there is a highly intelligent only child with an obsession. And, they underestimate the trance-like ability of a very young child to absorb and feed back information. I suspect at least part of the story was amplified, in some sense manufactured, through unconscious means, which alone would be an interesting psychological phenomenon were it to happen.

Having said this, there remains an inexplicable core. At the very least, there were some extremely odd coincidences between a toddler's remarks and an identifiable historical individual. I am not above considering reincarnation as an explanation, but despite its appeal and widespread belief (as in Asia), I don't think it is logically necessary. Other paranormal possible explanations range from the grotesque (possession) to the benign (clairvoyance).

To me, the case remains a mystery both psychological and paranormal-because of the impossibility of teasing out which elements are one or the other. Despite the book's flaws, it is a very interesting case study and an appealing, thought-provoking story.

Copyright © 2009 by Heidi Boudro