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Sales of the book far outpaced expectations

Pat MurphyI was 12 years of age when I first became aware of reincarnation. And it came courtesy of the movies. That happened a lot.

While it would be too pretentious to call our local cinema a theatre, the Sunday matinee was a staple and one Sunday’s featured film was I’ve Lived Before. Released in September 1956, it wasn’t exactly a big budget production but rather a modest Universal black-and-white affair that ran a little over 80 minutes. I found it both novel and intriguing.

Set in the 1950s, the plot concerned a commercial pilot who vaguely recognized an older woman passenger he’d never met before. Then he almost crashed the plane during landing because of a First World War flashback. Subsequently waking in hospital, he identified himself by name as a fighter pilot who was shot down and killed in France in 1918.


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It transpired that the dead pilot was real and the older woman passenger was his fiancé. Eventually, after some dramatic twists and turns, it was confirmed that the commercial pilot was indeed the reincarnated spirit of the man who died in 1918. Hence the movie’s title.

The inspiration for I’ve Lived Before was a story that had been serialized in 1954 and published in book form in 1956. It was titled The Search for Bridey Murphy and it became something of a popular culture phenomenon, sparking an upsurge of interest in the subject of reincarnation.

The woman at the heart of it all was Virginia Tighe, who’d been born in Wisconsin in 1923 and subsequently raised by an aunt in Chicago. At the time she became a sensation, she was married and living in Colorado.

Tighe was hypnotized a half-dozen times over a period of 10 months, in the process of which she purportedly regressed to a previous 19th-century life where she’d been a woman named Bridey Murphy in County Cork, Ireland. She spoke with an Irish accent during the sessions and recounted various details of her life and times up to and including her death at age 66 in 1864.

Sales of the book far outpaced initial expectations. It spent 26 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers and 200,000 copies were printed within the first two months. International interest was also stirred, leading to eventual publication in 30 languages.

And like true cultural phenomena, it generated a series of jokes and fads. For instance, Bridey Murphy parties with a “come as you were” theme enjoyed a brief moment of popularity.

The skeptics, however, were soon out in force.

Life magazine – then a cultural powerhouse – attacked the story’s credibility, as did newspapers like the Chicago American and the San Francisco Examiner. When the consensus settled, Bridey Murphy was widely considered to have been debunked. Cryptomnesia was offered as a common explanation, suggesting that – under hypnosis – Tighe unconsciously wove memories and stories from her childhood into what became the Bridey narrative.

Home from the cinema that long-ago Sunday, I was keen to share my new knowledge with my father. This reincarnation stuff was surely fascinating and he’d be impressed that I now knew something about it. Maybe he’d even learn from me, which would be a first.

That, however, wasn’t quite what happened. My father’s reaction was succinct. We were Roman Catholics and reincarnation was contrary to Church teaching and, therefore, not a concept to be entertained.

Thus began my education with respect to reincarnation and religion.

Some faiths, like Buddhism, had an iterative approach to things. Depending on the karma you accumulated in one life, you could be reborn in another. It might take time to get it right, but that was ok.

Catholicism, on the other hand, had a more austere vibe. To quote, “the Church teaches that at the moment of death the immortal soul separates from the body. Every person also receives a particular judgment of Heaven, Hell or purgatory, and the soul is reunited with its body.”

Put more starkly, the Catholic perspective was that you got just one shot and would be judged on what you did with it. There’d be no retakes or do-overs. So you’d better get it right the first time!

As for Virginia Tighe of Bridey Murphy fame, she generally shunned the spotlight and is said to have never personally profited from the phenomenon. Commenting on her 1995 death, the New York Times wryly noted that it was “perhaps for the second time.”

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit.

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