“Pilot episode” (Reincarnation)

BABYPILOT

Reincarnation tales are almost always from people remembering their past lives as brave knights, Russian empresses, or trailblazing scientists. We never hear from someone reminiscing about their former experiences as a plumber, vagabond, or serial killer.

One of the more prominent tales in recent years centered on James Leininger. By the time he was 2, James had memorized the names of many airplane models and he also had recurring nightmares in which he piloted a crashing Corsair.

His precocious abilities and terrifying nighttime visions were fused by his parents to create an implausible tale that James had lived a past life as a heroic Allied fighting ace who met his demise at Iwo Jima. In fact, he had merely had a normal childhood interest and an overexcited mother and father.

The mom, Andrea, looked into other tales of past lives, while his father, Bruce, pored over narratives of World War II aerial battles. James, after much prodding, and receiving praise for giving appealing answers, learned how to give the “correct” response. All supposed evidence for his past life is, of course, anecdotal and are explained away as confirmation bias and cherry picking.

There’s no telling how many inconsistencies had to be dismissed or how many undesirable answers had to be ignored for his parents to arrive at their “conclusion,” which clearly was crafted ahead of time. They also had an accomplice, a self-described past lives therapist named Carol Bowman. The trio plugged in sizable gaps in James’ “recollections” and inferred what they wanted to from the sessions and after filtering discomfiting information. Eventually, they cobbled together a consistent narrative, which they presented as fact.

Bowman encouraged the parents to continue James’ fascination with World War II planes, and to let him know he was a reincarnated pilot. This notion hadn’t come from the toddler, who would have no idea what reincarnation, death, or rebirth were. Being a toddler fixated on airplanes, he naturally relished a fantastic tale where he played the role of a heroic pilot. And like most youngsters, he sought approval from adults in general and his parents in particular.

ABC ran a shamelessly credulous profile of the story, with the blogger Skeptico outlining the selective memory and reporting that it entailed. For example, Mrs. Leininger showed her son a toy plane and pointed out what she presumed to be a bomb. James told her it was instead a drop tank. She acted as though there was no way a child his age could know this. However, per the Pittsburgh Daily Courier, the Leiningers had visited flight museums, including ones that featured World War II aircraft with drop tanks. That he would remember this detail is much more likely due to his being a young boy obsessed with airplanes than it is because he is a reincarnated fighter pilot.

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