A young woman is embraced by her remote village as the reincarnated spirit of a soldier killed in war — until a professor obsessed with proving life after death shows up from America to test her claim. The unlikely pair put their futures on the line to push the boundaries of identity.
The village — rocked twice daily by Allied fighter-bombers — was quiet for now. This was the height of World War Two, and one Japanese soldier who was stationed in occupied Burma took advantage of the calm to fix himself a meal. He found a pile of firewood left behind by a Burmese villager; during the day, the townspeople hid in the thick forest only to return to their homes under the cover of night.
The solitary soldier dripped sweat. The infernal damp heat was unlike anything back home in Japan. Squinting through the salt sting, he started to prepare his meal. Then he heard it. Buzzing, faint as one of the relentless Burmese mosquitos, grew louder and became threatening. He scrambled to hide behind the firewood pile, which could provide some protection, but it was too late. Sprayed with bullets, he fell back under a wide acacia tree. His body lay there in the heat, mangled and insect-covered. According to local spiritual beliefs, the other, more important part of him was turned loose soon after the first bullet ripped through him.
Thirty years later, not far from the spot, sun blared on the three figures seated on the plains — an American scientist, his interpreter, and a young Burmese woman dressed in baggy men’s clothes: hair cropped short, a check-patterned longyi knotted in the front.
The scientist was tall and bespectacled, and he’d often rest his notebook and folder on his crossed leg, jotting notes with a touch of objective skepticism and preternatural calm. But this day in 1975 was different. This day could change everything, could shake up science and religion in one fell swoop. “Either he is making a colossal mistake,” was how one peer described the scientist’s work, “or he will be known as the Galileo of the 20th century.”
The scientist prodded his Burmese interview subject, whose name was Ma Tin Aung Myo, for details about the Japanese soldier she described dying near that spot many years earlier, years before Ma Tin was born. She proceeded to tell the scientist from America facts about the dead man’s life she shouldn’t have known. Her claim was outrageous and dangerous, and yet, as she unfolded the dead man’s story, she was unequivocal: She was that soldier, the reincarnation of a man cut down in his prime by enemy bullets.
Professor Ian Stevenson leaned into his questions, pressing her, daring her. He needed a breakthrough, with his credibility and standing at his university on the brink. His life’s work might not recover otherwise. Ma Tin Aung Myo, the young woman with the short haircut and baggy clothes answered his questions gamely. Then her demeanor changed. Looking the scientist square in the eyes, she issued a shocking request in Burmese.
Kill me, she demanded.
Ma Tin Aung Myo felt out of place. She hated Burma’s heat. She disliked the spicy food of her region. Most of all, she didn’t fit the roles her mother and father or any of the other members of her village expected her to play. She didn’t want to wear girls’ clothes, instead choosing to dress like her brother. Ma Tin didn’t want to play with other girls, either. She wanted toy guns, which was a highly unusual request in their community and culture.
The oddities started earlier. When Ma Tin was four years old, she was walking with her father and noticed an airplane above. She recoiled in terror and began to cry. Her father tried to console her, but she was adamant: “I want to go home,” the girl said again and again. She cried any time an airplane flew overhead. Her father asked why, and she said the planes would shoot her. When he told her that was silly, she replied: “I was shot and killed.”
This girl who did not seem able to conform caused a stir in the village in Upper Burma, and the attention, in turn, caused Ma Tin embarrassment and shame. She felt uncomfortable in her own body. She got kicked out of school at 12 for not dressing like a girl. When she first got her period at 15, she was distraught.
Through our present-day lens, Ma Tin Aung Myo would have been confronting a culture lacking the framework and vocabulary of a transgender experience. Reincarnation from a man, a karmic cause for the shifting of male to female during rebirth, offered a plausible explanation for her struggle to family and friends, and was backed up by the thoughts and dreams she’d reportedly had from an early age — these visions that had seemed to belong to another person altogether.
Finally, one day, Ma Tin told her parents what she said was her story. She had lived before as a Japanese soldier, she explained bluntly.
This man — the soldier she was speaking about — was from northern Japan. He was married with children, whom he had to leave behind to serve in World War Two. He was stationed in their Burmese village as an army cook approximately 30 years earlier. One day, the soldier had made a pile of firewood near an acacia tree. Overhead a two-tailed Allied plane turned and dove toward him, a hail of machine gun bullets riddling him in the groin and killing him. Ma Tin told her family she now wanted to go home — not meaning their village, but back to Japan, back to her children. She told her parents that when she grew up she would go there by herself.
Her parents had listened raptly and, for the first time, seemed to understand her. What a huge relief to Ma Tin, a pressure valve fully released: she finally made sense to her own family. Her parents even knew just the tree Ma Tin had described where she died in her past life, was about 75 meters from the family home. Her family gave the teenager the nickname Japangyi, which meant “the Japanese guy.” Remarkably, they and the others in her village also stopped pestering her about acting like a girl. She began to dress and act freely in accordance with her identity. Her female friends would address her as Ko, the male honorific. She was the one to add Myo to the end of her name to appear more masculine.
Language, for her, was not just about communicating but a way of publicly affirming herself. Without the benefit of today’s terminology, Ma Tin found acceptance through her amazing narrative. She had no reason to believe it would soon be subjected to intense scrutiny.
It had become routine for Professor Ian Stevenson to receive tips about possible psychic powers, paranormal encounters, and reincarnations. He worked to sort the wheat from the chaff, and most was chaff. The once-precocious scholar was, by the 1970s, an established but controversial figure in American academia. He had become a leading proponent of a still young field called “parapsychology,” the study of phenomena left unexplained by traditional science. Research into the paranormal had largely been practiced on the fringes of academia by independent researchers using questionable methodology. Stevenson was different.
He graduated at the top of his class from McGill’s medical school in his native Canada before teaching psychiatry at the Louisiana State University School of Medicine, where he won over medical colleagues as a cautious and methodical peer. By 1957, at 39 years old, he was appointed chair of the highly respected Psychiatry Department at the University of Virginia, a rare feat for such a young professor and a testament to his growing professional reputation.
But Stevenson had other interests. Born on Halloween, he had been a sickly child. He turned to reading to fill the hours spent stuck into bed. His mother’s library included a collection of occult books, with tomes on reincarnation, all of which Stevenson devoured. When he studied traditional science, these other texts still stuck with him. There was so much in common experience that could never be accounted for by rational explanation — that eerie chill up your spine when a loved one falls sick thousands of miles away; detailed knowledge a person possesses about another person or place with no way of having come to that knowledge; vivid flashes of events yet to come that turn out to be spot on. All were either simple coincidences or something else not yet understood by humankind.
Once ensconced at UVA, Stevenson began breaking the academic mold by publishing serious articles on parapsychology. His work won a devoted fan and patron in Chester F. Carlson, the inventor of xerography, the photocopying technique perfected by the Xerox corporation. Carlson was convinced his wife, Dorris, had some psychic abilities, including premonitions and out-of-body experiences, and the inventor and entrepreneur donated to the University of Virginia to support Stevenson’s work, starting with a tape recorder. Carlson’s gifts grew, leading to the creation in 1964 of an endowed chair at the university. Stevenson later recalled what he thought when Carlson died: “The bottom has dropped out of this. I’ll have to go back to ordinary research.” But it turned out Carlson had bequeathed $1 million for Stevenson’s work.
With the endowment, Stevenson founded a new research division that conducted methodical experiments on campus, its work earning coverage in august publications such as the hundred-year-old The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. Stevenson stood up defiantly to detractors, writing: “Those who forget that science is fundamentally a method and not a collection of facts will righteously challenge new concepts which seem to question old facts.” He boldly proclaimed that the “data of parapsychology portend… a conceptual revolution which will make the Copernican revolution seem trivial in comparison.”
In such uncharted territory, he gave chances to people from a diverse range of backgrounds who wanted to join the team, including those from outside science. One was Champe Ransom, a young lawyer who became fascinated with parapsychology and jumped at the chance to leave the Alaska state legislature, where he served as counsel, to join Stevenson’s radical department in Virginia in 1970.
A small office — packed with filing cabinets full of notes and transcripts and a large map of the United States stuck with pins according to case types (rebirth… near-death… ghost/poltergeist) — became the nerve center of the most methodical paranormal research in the country. In one systematic experiment, individuals were sequestered in rooms to look at emotion-inducing photographs clipped from magazines. In another room, individuals who claimed psychic abilities sat. The psychics, attempting to pick up signals from the other room, would record their observations, and Stevenson’s team would compare data. Results of such experiments were sometimes more promising than expected.
The combination of Stevenson’s stature and the rogue nature of his work attracted notice, and over time the attention prompted attacks. Stevenson recalled that a group of UVA professors, disgruntled over the endowment for his research, told him he “could take the million dollars with me if I would leave the University.” Alumni began calling and sending letters to the university president protesting Stevenson’s work. His wife, Octavia, was teased. She joined the chorus, telling him, “You’re just ruining a promising career. Everything is going great for you. Why do you want to do this?”
At least some of his interest, in fact, reflected his wife’s circumstances. Octavia suffered from a severe case of diabetes, and a period of stability precipitated a downturn. Their only child had been stillborn, a trauma embedded in his memory. Stevenson would never have any children, a fact he always lamented. As he watched the person closest to him decline, he became even more obsessed with discovering whether a human soul could survive beyond the body.
Even many hardline skeptics were impressed by the approach he took. “He’s an incredible methodologist, hard to fault,” Dr. Albert Stunkard of the University of Pennsylvania medical school commented to the New York Times. “He’s very convincing, but I’m not convinced. Which is not to say that his research isn’t valid.” Experiments inside their cutting edge lab were fascinating but perpetually inconclusive. Stevenson sought evidence that could convince the most demanding observers — starting with Stevenson himself.
The trick was how to get close enough to subjects to conduct serious scientific observation, especially when it came to studying claims of rebirth, which were as old as time. In one of his scholarly texts, Stevenson lamented “most of the best evidence bearing on reincarnation has come from spontaneous cases. Relevant material does not often arise in the laboratory under circumstances where we can exert even moderate control.” As a result, his research compelled him into the field, often to countries who were more open about the possibility of unexplained phenomena. He began leading a double life outside the classroom worthy of a paranormal Indiana Jones.
On one of his swings through Southeast Asia in the fall of 1972, he got a message from U Win Maung, a trusted colleague. U Win tipped him off about a case of purported reincarnation he heard about from a town elder in Burma that Stevenson ought to check out for himself.
Fielding a tip was one thing, tracking down a living subject in an isolated village quite another. The 57-year-old American professor was ushered around Burma by a blind interpreter as he traveled through rugged mountainous terrain and remote villages looking for “informants,” as he called those with claims of supernatural experiences. He waded through rivers and crossed desert plains. At one point, a hired driver got stumbling drunk during a stop. With a blind interpreter and an inebriated driver, the professor had no choice but to drive a rickety World War Two jeep with no brakes himself, powering it down a narrow, single-lane road, steering headlong into the darkness. Stevenson had a serious disposition, but even he had to laugh at how close he could come to cashing in his chips while trying to understand the mysteries of the great beyond.
Stevenson had to spend much of his energy safeguarding his team. Dacoits — gangs of bandits, armed with ditched Japanese machine guns and grenades — terrorized locals and wouldn’t hesitate to attack a foreigner. A drug kingpin named Khun Sa ran roughshod over the countryside. The criminal tyrant created his own refinery to produce opium and engaged in violent clashes with rivals, including the Burmese government. Covert deals and blistering firefights posed special danger to visitors unfamiliar with the area.
At last Stevenson arrived at the isolated village in Upper Burma. Trees stretched over thatched palm houses, shadowing their sharply-pitched roofs. The homes were elevated from the ground — necessary protection from flooding. Stevenson would later learn those spaces were a favorite place for children to hide. He introduced himself to villagers, explaining he was there from an American university with the intention of understanding stories of rebirth. He brought with him years of experience studying variations of such phenomena and, he said, he particularly wanted to talk to Ma Tin Aung Myo.
From the time he laid eyes on Ma Tin, now 19, he was intrigued by how she presented herself, stoic and tough, and “overtly masculine.” In the only known published photo of her, she stands between a male and female sibling. She carries and presents herself in a way similar to her brother, which felt natural for her. As Stevenson familiarized himself with the village, Ma Tin kept her head down, working hard selling fruits and ready-made meals to locals and those passing through.
Ma Tin faced this soft-spoken, ultra-polite interloper. By this point, her father had passed away, and with him went one of her few sources of protection. In presenting her inner self as a Japanese soldier killed by Allied forces, she had deep reasons to recoil from a westerner of the Greatest Generation. She was also in a very vulnerable spot. If Stevenson found her claims lacking, he could pose a grave threat. Her oddities had been overlooked because of a village-wide belief she was reincarnated. If Stevenson disrupted this faith, she’d become a pariah.
Stevenson, with his inoffensive air of absent-minded competency, earned the trust of Ma Tin’s family and extended circle, whom he interviewed. He observed and recorded details of her experiences that had led to the general belief she was a Japanese soldier killed in Burma during World War Two. He was especially fascinated by seemingly small facts, such as her desire to play soldier with toy guns as a child. A strain of paranormal research believed reincarnated children tried to relive the roles of their past lives in the form of play.
Stevenson was methodical as always, studying her claims backward and forward. He cataloged Ma Tin’s “memories” from what she claimed was her former life and compared them with what he could discover from local experts about the Japanese occupation in World War Two. By speaking to family and friends of Ma Tin, he charted her earliest comments about Japan and the soldier from the time she was a child. Stevenson also conducted a Goodenough–Harris Draw-a-Person Test. The diagnostic tool was often used to measure intelligence in children, but Stevenson wanted to see what happened when, in the extended version of the test, she was given freedom to draw herself. She sketched two masculine figures. To a believer, this suggested her feeling of existing as two people, and supported her feelings that she was as much a man now as in her past life.
Stevenson found that her stories and traits had remained fairly consistent over time — even down to the fact that when drawing herself in the Goodenough-Harris test she used her left hand, as she had claimed the Japanese soldier did. But for every intriguing detail he encountered, he could point to a scientific or common sense explanation. Even when details synched up between her visions and local history — like the tree in the village where the soldier died — Ma Tin could theoretically have overheard such a story before she was even old enough to register it consciously. As scientific evidence, it wasn’t enough.
By the end of his visit, Ma Tin could breathe a sigh of relief. The expert may not have been able to prove her claims, but neither had he disproved them. From Ma Tin’s perspective, she dodged a bullet. She could maintain her position in her village as Stevenson stamped her case unresolved.
Ma Tin could thank pressures back in the United States for putting a ticking clock on Stevenson’s whirlwind tours abroad. Those ever-present pressures — Octavia’s health and the oversight of the Division of Parapsychology — never failed to pull Stevenson back home. From Burma, Stevenson made the long, arduous journey back to Virginia.
Backlash against Stevenson’s work mounted steadily. The 1970s was an age of early modern computers, circuitry, and lasers — an age of science when outre ideas of intangible phenomena were pushed even more to the periphery, just as Stevenson was attempting to apply serious methodologies. Some peer-reviewed scientific journals blocked publication of his work, and the ever-rising rising clamor of university colleagues questioned his affiliation and suggested he be sacked. Some years had passed since the death of Stevenson’s benefactor, the Xerox king Carlson, and that million-dollar war chest could not last forever.
As if sensing the impending fall of a once-respected figure, a primary academic antagonist emerged. Paul Edwards was a philosophy professor at the New School and Brooklyn College and a staunch opponent to anything he considered unscientific and mystical. “There is no God,” Edwards wrote, “there is no life after death.” Always hunting for an intellectual grudge match, the diminutive sweater-and-tie academic set his sights on Stevenson with an aim of toppling him.
With all this to juggle, Stevenson often had to cut short his trips to India and Asia, including a second visit to Ma Tin’s village to collect more information. He’d inevitably return stateside to his desk armed with stacks of notes and familiar frustrations. All his interviews, his many careful observations, however suggestive, could be reasonably viewed as circumstantial. Quest after quest stopped short of evidence, giving way to “what ifs” and disappointment.
With Edwards and other antagonists on the rise, Stevenson’s best defense was to shore up his position, and fully documenting his best cases was key. In theory, claims of reincarnation presented unique opportunities for verification because they could produce data sets in the past and present that could be compared. Scanning his office’s map of the world, those pushpins color coded for reincarnation represented opportunities.
Among these, Ma Tin Aung Myo’s case stood out. While most individuals believed to be reincarnated were young children whose families reported the claim, Ma Tin was an adult. This gave her the unique power to articulate her experience directly. Was it possible he’d missed something crucial in his investigation of Ma Tin? If so, he was on borrowed time to find out. From the early days of his overseas research, he had documented the centuries-old belief in Eastern cultures that reincarnation retained a fleeting nature among those who claimed to have experienced it; memories of past lives faded as they grew up. Ma Tin was now in her twenties, and the window during which her case was viable was closing fast. The next time he went to Burma, he’d take another shot at unraveling the enigma.
Ma Tin was suffering, living a life that was not fully her own. Ma Tin felt intense isolation and depression. On top of her internal confusions, Burma was fraught with danger in the 1970s. Paradoxically, Ma Tin’s vision of a previous life as a Japanese soldier had freed her but also trapped her. The story protected her inside her village, but had to be guarded lest it spread too far and raise unwanted attention and superstitions. It was a tightrope with a dire drop on either side.
Although the Buddhists of the region believed that a series of terrestrial lives could occur “until they achieve Nirvana,” claiming the identity of an occupying Japanese soldier was not always welcomed in Burma. Back in the early 1940s, the Burmese had hoped to break from British rule and initially accepted Japanese intervention. Yet many felt they had traded a global oppressor for a local one, and bad blood lingered. According to accounts in Burma, World War Two-era Japanese soldiers bullied and sometimes brutalized citizens. Ma Tin wasn’t the only person in Burma in the 1970s who had professed to be reincarnated from Japanese soldiers. One such individual, only a child, was caught by villagers and burned alive.
Throughout the country, reincarnation wielded an unpredictable power that stretched from common villages to elite palaces. Its power was even felt in the upper echelons of the criminal world. Khun Sa, the drug lord, had not always been Khun Sa. A few years earlier when he was thrown into a high security prison, he was Chan Shee Fu. In prison, Fu, one of the country’s most prolific opium dealers before his arrest, pored over a smuggled copy of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a massive 14th century Chinese novel interwoven with supernatural elements. Emboldened by that heroic story, he embraced an ambitious new narrative for his life: his opium trafficking was a means to revolution. And inspired by his discoveries about reincarnation while in prison, he announced a spiritual rebirth. He was now Khun Sa. His followers kidnapped two Russian doctors and successfully bartered for his release.
Khun Sa’s mantra became: “Cut your enemy off at the knee if you want to expand.” With international law enforcement agencies cracking down on the drug trade, and with his spiritual beliefs influencing his increasingly erratic actions, Khun Sa distrusted all strangers, and those with supposedly supernatural circumstances that might rival his own would top that list.
Ma Tin was safest staying invisible. Then just like that, Stevenson returned. The tall, wiry westerner in tweed and brown Oxford shoes strode back into the village in 1975, by now knowing right where to go. However intimidating his visits could seem, Ma Tin could also see in him an unlikely source of hope. Her late father had been the one person who seemed to understand her. Though Stevenson could come off as clinical and obsessive, Ma Tin bonded with the professor, in whom she perhaps sensed an unfilled yearning for his lost child, a pain he admitted he never got over. They shared other commonalities. In their own ways, both were outcasts from their larger communities, at constant risk of expulsion.
She decided to share ever-more personal details. She told Stevenson, almost boastfully, that she now didn’t own a single piece of women’s clothes. She had become more insistent — “flint-like,” was Stevenson’s description later — about how she presented herself. Ma Tin also revealed she had been born with a birthmark around the groin area: a thumbprint-sized, brown-black patch that eventually faded away. According to Ma Tin, her birthmark was the location where the fatal shot had entered the Japanese soldier. Though it had faded over time, witnesses confirmed the location and description of the birthmark. In some of their conversations, Ma Tin even tried to explain why the soldier’s soul inhabited a woman’s body. In his own life in Japan, Ma Tin said, the soldier had disrespected women. Being inside of a woman’s body was a form of punishment, a poignant and disturbing addendum to the larger narrative.
Stevenson, meanwhile, explored the anecdotes he had gathered that Ma Tin had spoken an unusual language as a child. He could refer to a case back in Virginia of a woman who spoke German — a language she didn’t know — when hypnotized, leading to intense speculation about whether she could have carried over the language from another life. But Ma Tin’s early language was another inconclusive lead in Stevenson’s search for undeniable proof. Ma Tin’s relatives did not know if the strange words she spoke in her youth had been Japanese, and the informant herself couldn’t recall them.
More than on his previous visits, Stevenson put Ma Tin through the ringer to get his answers. At times she hid from him, huddled behind a door or under a pile of clothes. In private she sobbed. Cloudy or rainy days seemed to trigger “an ‘inwardness’” during which Ma Tin especially shared what she claimed were memories of her previous life, though she also felt those visions fading. Ma Tin was changing before his eyes. When a plane passed overhead, she no longer ran crying. Burmese food no longer tasted so strange, and she told Stevenson she had begun to eat “normally.” She no longer wished to go “home” to Japan. Memories of Japanese names faded beyond recovery. Ma Tin’s connections to the past life — if they ever existed at all — were slipping through her fingers and Stevenson’s. Her situation seemed to capture a double pain, the pain of remembering the past life and the pain of forgetting it.
Threats closed in on all sides, back in the United States and in Burma.
Paul Edwards, the New York-based philosophy professor, found just the leverage he sought against what he believed was Stevenson’s dangerous version of science. Edwards recruited the testimony of Champe Ransom, the ex-lawyer turned Stevenson’s research assistant, against Stevenson’s reincarnation cases. Through Ransom’s records, Edward charged the now embattled UVA professor with posing leading questions and interviewing informants too long after their experiences, serious charges in academic work. “Stevenson evidently lives in a cloud-cuckoo-land,” Edwards wrote.
With Ransom’s critique up for publication, wolves seemed to be circling for a kill. A new president, Frank Hereford, had assumed office at the University of Virginia, replacing a former English professor with a physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project — an unlikely candidate to support paranormal investigation. The future of the Division of Parapsychology teetered.
In Burma, the messy end to the Vietnam War left borderlands flooded with weapons and munitions, which were swiped-up by Burmese mercenaries. There was no stopping Khun Sa drug-financed fiefdom now. The stoic, Zen-like criminal would dominate the Burmese drug trade for decades and would later claim to have made a deal with the CIA to protect him in return for funding clandestine anti-Communist wars in the region. Ruthless and bombastic, Khun Sa ordered executions of those who crossed him and kidnappings of those who could help him. He also began to imbue his criminal deeds with a higher purpose. He wished to free his fellow Shan people from what he felt was an oppressive Burmese government. He was on his way to creating the Mong Tai Army, which reached as many as 20,000 troops, and military rule would mean ferreting out anyone considered to be allied with traditional enemies, which included Japan — yet another shadowy threat to Ma Tin’s double life.
Even as Stevenson searched for evidence of Ma Tin’s spiritual claims, he began to suspect that her real secret was her sexual and gender identity. He considered whether, in fact, her reincarnation story was a manifestation of being transvestite or transsexual — two primary categories of the era through which to consider gender presentation. (Stevenson seemed unaware of the more recently coined term “transgender,” the meaning of which was to evolve for decades to come.) He approached the possibility thoughtfully. But to Stevenson, transvestism seemed too limited a category, as he was convinced Ma Tin’s identification as a man ran far deeper than clothing and outward presentation. Transsexuality, the desire to be physically altered through surgery, also didn’t apply. Through these lenses he possessed, he was left with questions rather than answers.
For Stevenson, the way to respect this young woman the most was to take her claims seriously. He urged her to give him a name. If Ma Tin could tell him the name of the Japanese soldier from whom she claimed to be reincarnated, Stevenson could scour the world for records to verify his death and its circumstances. Stevenson often combed through such records, bribing bureaucrats when necessary by handing out sought-after American-made shirts. Ma Tin also could almost make out the plane that mowed down the soldier, but couldn’t tell if the plane was British or American. If Ma Tin managed to visualize its markings, Stevenson would be armed with more data to compare with the historical record.
What turned out to be surprisingly more specific was a series of dreams. These dreams belonged to Ma Tin’s mother, Daw Aye Tin. She experienced them 23 years earlier when she was pregnant with Ma Tin. Once a week, the expectant mother had a recurring dream about a Japanese soldier. The stocky Japanese man was shirtless, with short pants, and reminded her of an army cook that she’d met during Japan’s occupation of the region. In the dreams, the soldier said he would stay with them, but she ran from him. Stevenson previously had traced a belief existing in Eastern cultures that reincarnation was prefigured by “dreams in which a deceased person appears to the dreamer and announces his intention to be reborn as a child of the dreamer’s family.”
In increasingly intense — and tense — sessions with Stevenson, Ma Tin summoned up more details of the Japanese soldier’s death. The army cook had taken off his shirt. He wore short pants with a large belt. The man in Ma Tin’s visions matched with precision the man in Daw Aye Tin’s recurring dreams, right at the pivotal moment in the arc of reincarnation — the moment of his death.
Large crowds of villagers gathered during Stevenson’s interviews with Ma Tin to witness what they believed to be a case of genuine reincarnation. In front of her friends and family, the scientist pressed Ma Tin about the veracity of her claims, to unturn any possibility she was a fraud, her story a concoction, her claims a substitution for an equally complicated question of sexual identity. He pressed Ma Tin harder than he ever had to get to the bottom of things. It came down to this: Who was she really? All their mutual pressures came to a head.
Ma Tin saw defeat and incredulity in Stevenson’s eyes. A last-straw impatience emerged from the usually implacable scientist. As his questions flew at her, her own temper rose. She became angry and upset with him. Seated across from the man and his interpreter, she blurted out in desperation: Kill me. He could use any method they wanted, Ma Tin continued her alarming declaration, but he had to guarantee her that she would be reborn as a boy. Then she would live, body and spirit, in the form she belonged. Showing his wry, oblique sense of humor, Stevenson jotted down of the dramatic request: “We had no wish to carry out her suggestion.”
For a moment, Stevenson could bring a clinician’s eye to the odd gesture toward martyrdom. In offering to die, perhaps she wished to provide him with the ultimate experiment of his life’s work: to observe how a soul travels into another being, to peer into the fate of the beyond he had so obsessively chased. Ma Tin’s heartbreaking entreaty to bring her back as a man spoke to a profound inner turmoil — evoking the suicidal feelings now understood to sometimes accompany gender dysphoria — that nothing in either the science of the day or parapsychology seemed to satisfy.
Upon returning again to Charlottesville, Stevenson organized his material. Though he did not find the Holy Grail he’d searched for, he did not go home empty handed, feeling Ma Tin Aung Myo’s case was in many ways exceptional. He believed there were legitimate mysteries within Ma Tin’s experiences that he was not confident he could explain away. Maybe those mysteries could be further studied by peers who might find verification he didn’t have the luxury of time or sufficient resources to discover. Maybe there was even a slim chance of finding that real key to life after death Stevenson sought with increasing desperation as his wife Octavia’s health continued to go downhill.
But he faced a conundrum in putting out a flare to other intrepid researchers who might push the case forward. Within such a heavily militarized Burma filled with superstitions about reincarnated spirits, Ma Tin Aung Myo’s life could be placed in danger. For Stevenson, to give up identifying details, including her location, could be tantamount to betrayal. Yet Paul Edwards and his other critics would pounce on any vagueness in the published research as reason to dismiss the work entirely. Stevenson, it seemed, could either save himself or his subject.
He made a decision. He would share her story with the scientific community, signaling he found her plausible and credible, but would refuse to expose the name of the village. His published reports held back other details, as well, in order to shield Ma Tin.
As expected, Edwards published a series of texts building his case against Stevenson’s reliability and the possibility of reincarnation. In the process Edwards was, as a fellow philosophy professor put it, “grind[ing] every axe he owns.” Edwards’ whistleblower, Champe Ransom, seemed somewhat sheepish at the use of his inside observations by Edwards. Ransom later noted that he wished he had been able to express his admiration for Stevenson and much of his overall approach, and denied that Stevenson had ever tried to prevent his critiques from going public (one of Edwards’ laundry list of allegations).
Stevenson lamented what he saw as an unwillingness in the field at large to examine his observations with an open mind. “The wish not to believe,” he wrote, “can influence as strongly as the wish to believe.” He may have been knocked down a few pegs, but he weathered the abuses of his antagonists by holding firm to his methodology. And by pivoting to the recruitment of new sponsors, several of which had earned fortunes in Hollywood, the Division of Parapsychology thrived in spite of its hurdles, eventually being rechristened the Division of Perceptual Studies. It has housed a bevy of some of the most unusual experiments in any academic setting, and continues to today, counting among its current benefactors comedian John Cleese. As hailed in its official literature, its neuroimaging laboratory has “an electromagnetically and acoustically shielded chamber, a high-quality commercial EEG data-acquisition system, and extensive software resources for analysis and modeling of multichannel physiological data.” They have investigated ESP and psychokinetic subjects, seeking those who can “perform consistently at above-chance levels.” The Division has studied deathbed visions and dreams, out-of-body experiencers and trance mediums.
Octavia’s health worsened in the years after the Burma expeditions. She suffered from severe inflammation of the nerves and then kidney problems. She remained skeptical of Stevenson’s work. She died in 1983, leading Stevenson to reflect to his friend, journalist Tom Shroder, that “in some ways the best thing for a human being is to be forced to be completely focused on caring for someone else.”
Into his old age, Stevenson continued following clues to paranormal experiences around the world in hundreds of cases, many of which centered around claims of rebirth, and applied the most rigorous scientific methods to supernatural questions in history, leading the San Francisco Chronicle to label him “a scholarly reincarnation detective.” When he passed away at age 88, Stevenson left behind a combination lock in one of his filing cabinets in Charlottesville, so that if he was reincarnated only he could open it. The still-locked cabinet, if ever opened, may well contain secrets of Ma Tin’s case and others never before revealed.
From a believer’s perspective, aspects of Ma Tin’s case — including the early childhood claims of Japanese identity and the overlapping details between her visions and her mother’s dreams from decades before — may suggest far more than coincidence. A skeptical analysis would surmise that in Ma Tin’s childhood the other stories of Burmese claiming to be reincarnated from Japanese soldiers had seeped into a stratum of her developing consciousness, creating the feeling of a dual reality. All evidence suggests Stevenson and Ma Tin both genuinely believed rebirth phenomena were behind her experiences, but also that they both deeply wanted to believe.
Stevenson never got to see Ma Tin Aung Myo again, never having the chance to dig deeper into her case, or to renew their singular camaraderie. In 1981, U Win Maung, Stevenson’s associate, returned to the village for a follow-up interview and reported back to his ivy-cloistered friend in Virginia. The news: Ma Tin Aung Myo was gone. Whether Stevenson’s investigation hastened the departure, or local developments such as the stranglehold of the “reborn” Khun Sa pushed Ma Tin away, their former informant had relocated. Reports indicated that Ma Tin — quite likely using the fully masculine name Maung Tin by this point — had short hair, wore men’s shirts, and that he — now gendered in the way he sought — lived with a girlfriend. Relatives said that Maung Tin wanted to join the army, coming closer to the forgotten life of a military man Maung Tin believed he carried on inside.
Through any lens, Maung Tin trailblazed a remarkable and courageous path to what seems, by all rights, a confident, barrier-busting identity.
Nick Ripatrazone has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, Esquire, The Atlantic, and is the Culture Editor for Image. His next book, Longing for an Absent God, will be out in 2020.
For all rights inquiries email here.