Suzanne Stratford is drawn to interesting stories. That's a driving trait for any reporter, and she's been working the Cleveland beat since 2000. Won a couple of Emmys along the way too. After one particularly eye-opening assignment, she pitched an idea for a show. The result: The Ghost Inside My Child (now airing Saturday nights at 8 p.m. on Lifetime), which takes a closer look at all those freaky tales of children remembering past lives and suddenly quoting, say, Joseph Stalin's barber with stunning accuracy.
How might you describe the show to someone who hasn't seen it?
SS: It is a documentary-style program with families who have experienced what you might call a phenomenon of their children talking about their past lives in detail. Many of these details we've been able to confirm, as much as you can confirm them and as much as you can confirm that somebody once lived as someone else.
Those phenomena probably encompass a wide range of stories, right?
SS: It ranges from a child maybe talking about another mommy and saying something like, "My other mommy let me play with that toy," or something. We have a new case where the child is petrified of showers and talks about being with his other mommy and dying in the shower. The child also has an obsession with the Holocaust. He has birthmarks that he points to and says, "That's where I was shot." Things like that. Really, some of this stuff is mind-blowing.
What comes to mind immediately are dreams and nightmares, but do these sorts of stories seep into the family's day-to-day life disruptively?
SS: They do. That's how it starts. You can kinda tell the people who might be reading into their child's reactions versus those that might be — I don't want to say "legitimate" — but that might be stronger cases. Generally, the children will start having nightmares when they're 2 or 3. They'll start having these nightmares — not always, but a lot of them — especially if the child is talking about a tragic death. Then they'll start talking about it more and more. In one of the families — a very famous family now that I first met about nine years ago, which is how this all originated — that little boy would have nightmares and memories about being a World War II fighter pilot. He would also do things like when he would play with his toys, he would build what looked like a cockpit. He would draw pictures of people dying.
The memories transfer from their dreams to real life, then?
SS: Right. The boy who remembered the Holocaust drew pictures of bodies in ditches. They do things like that. Then it goes to the next level where some of them will be petrified of, say, loud noises. We met one little girl who's terrified of a certain beeping sound that's associated with smoke alarms. Well, she talked about being at Ground Zero and dying there. The sound that she is so afraid of happens to be the same sound that was made by the tanks on the firefighters when they stopped moving. It's a really horrible sound when you know what it means.
These are fairly specific, then. How might professionals explain these stories? Of course, the word "ghost" figures into the title pretty prominently.
SS: When I first pitched the idea, I really felt strongly that it would be best if it was just families sharing their stories and you let the public decide. If you get an expert on either side, they'll both reason it away. Someone who supports reincarnation will say it's reincarnation. Skeptics will say they're just flash memories or something they saw on television. There are counselors who we work with if the families would like to speak with a counselor. Generally, though, by the time the families are speaking with us, they've already been to a counselor.
Was there something personal for you that sparked your interest in these stories?
SS: Absolutely. This is not something I was very familiar with at all. About nine years ago, there was a blurb that came across the wires about this family in Louisiana. They said their son was a World War II fighter pilot. They started looking into it, and the little boy was able to give the name of the ship he was on. A gentleman from Ohio happened to be on the same ship. I was assigned to do a news story on him. We went down there expecting who knows what, and they were this nice, normal family trying to disprove these memories. The boy gave his name, where he died, the name of the ship he flew off of, the type of plane he flew. They took him to a reunion, and he even knew people by name. How could he do that? He had more than 60 specific memories. He spoke with the pilot's sister, who was still alive, and he even knew things about their childhood. It got to the point where she said, "I believe he has my brother's soul." So after that news report, I was so fascinated by that family. The more I looked into it, I realized there are so many of these stories.
What have been your big takeaways from this show? And how has it impacted your work as a journalist?
SS: I feel strongly — and I know this sounds cliche — but I feel strongly that every person has a story. Sometimes it's a happy story and sometimes it's very tragic. Also, in the news industry, anything and everything is possible. You can never say "never." Like, "This could never happen!" Well, yes it will. Anything and everything is possible. It's an amazing, incredible world we live in — with so many people. I just enjoy sharing other people's journeys. The more we learn and know about each other — it can be a unifying process.