Her name is Sherrie Lea Laird. She is the lead singer of a Canadian rock band called Pandamonia and the divorced mother of a 21-year-old daughter.
But throughout her life, the 43-year-old Laird contends, she has also been someone else: Marilyn Monroe.
Laird's assertion that she is the reincarnation of the late Hollywood icon is sure to be dismissed by skeptics. But it has found an ardent defender in a Malibu psychiatrist named Adrian Finkelstein, who said he uncovered Laird's previous existence after placing her under hypnosis as part of a highly controversial therapy known as "past life regression," in which patients recall their past lives as a way to deal with problems in their current lives.
"In science, and I'm a scientist, we end up believing in what we prove scientifically," Finkelstein said in a recent interview. "I established through research that Sherrie Lea Laird is the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe."
Finkelstein is an author and lecturer who, before journeying into the realms of spiritual healing and New Age therapies, was schooled in traditional forms of psychiatry, graduating from the prestigious Menninger School of Psychiatry in Topeka, Kan., was a volunteer instructor in UCLA's department of psychiatry in the early 1990s and is currently accorded privileges to practice at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he occasionally consults on hypnosis techniques.
His videotaped sessions with Laird — who bears little resemblance to the late screen legend — are recounted in a new book he wrote titled "Marilyn Monroe Returns: The Healing of a Soul." Speaking as "Marilyn," the hypnotized Laird recalled love affairs with John and Robert Kennedy, including a tryst with JFK in the White House; she said JFK told her state secrets about Fidel Castro and Cuba; and she gave details about the actress' death at age 36 from a drug overdose on Aug. 5, 1962, dismissing conspiracy theories that Monroe had been murdered.
Neither the American Psychiatric Assn. nor the American Psychological Assn. have taken an official position on past life regression therapy, but it's not considered a mainstream therapy.
Critics, though, say the process can leads to patients incurring false memories, often as a result of intentional or unintentional suggestions of the hypnotist. As a result, skeptics say, these accounts are difficult if not impossible to prove.
Steven Jay Lynn, a professor of psychology at State University of New York at Binghamton, who has published more than 250 books, articles and chapters on hypnosis, memory, victimization and psychotherapy, said past life regression therapy "can be very comforting to people, and quite possibly helpful, but that doesn't mean they've experienced something that was a residue of an earlier life."
Too often, Lynn said, patients and their therapists can become emotionally invested in trying to uncover a past life experience and are therefore susceptible to interpreting the situation in a way that confirms their beliefs.
"It's not a fraud — people genuinely believe they have experienced past lives," he added.
Those who practice past life regression therapy say it can make all the difference for some patients. "It really can help to heal or cure or alleviate mental and physical symptoms," said Dr. Brian L. Weiss, a graduate of Yale Medical School and chairman emeritus of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami, who said he has spent 26 years conducting past life regression therapy on some 4,000 patients.
A patient with persistent neck problems may recall being hanged in a past life, while someone afraid of heights may come to believe they were thrown off a castle wall in the 15th century. Understanding the root of these seemingly unfounded fears allows patient to confront and overcome them, he said.
Although many dismiss the notion that souls, or spirits, can be reborn in a new body, Weiss said it's a concept that is widely accepted in the East and elsewhere. He also said that many in the U.S. believe, even if they might not like to publicly admit it. A national poll conducted in 2004 for Fox News by Opinion Dynamics Corp. showed that 25% of Americans believe in reincarnation.
"It's not just Hindus and Buddhists," Weiss said. "There is a Jewish tradition and Kabbala. Mystical Christianity. Plato believed in it. Ancient Greeks did. Many Romans did too. Benjamin Franklin did."
After treating hundreds of patients with regression therapy, Finkelstein, who runs the Malibu Wholistic Health Center, came away convinced that Laird wasn't lying and wasn't psychotic.
Indeed, he noted, she was able to answer — under hypnosis — hundreds of carefully researched questions about Monroe's life. He noted that some of her answers could have been known only by the real Monroe, such as being able to identify the actress' maternal aunts in a family photograph.
The psychiatrist also pointed out similarities that he said existed between the two women's facial features, hands, feet, voice patterns and handwriting. Finkelstein stressed that Laird was not a poser who wanted to embody Monroe but was someone struggling to reconcile years of pain and disturbing memories: "She didn't want to be Marilyn Monroe, period. She wanted to be herself, unlike so many pretenders, beautiful girls who stepped forward and wanted to be her."
In some ways, Laird's account is reminiscent of the 1956 bestseller "The Quest for Bridey Murphy."