It all stared innocently enough: In 2011, Cathy Byrd, of Thousand Oaks, California, posted to YouTube a video of her son, Christian, then 2 years old, displaying his unusually precocious baseball skills. The clip went viral, leading ultimately to Christian making a cameo in the Adam Sandler movie That’s My Boy.
Filming took place in Boston, and afterward Byrd took her son to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox play the Yankees. When they passed a gigantic portrait of Babe Ruth on the way to the game, Christian — in full uniform, as he frequently was — stopped in his tracks and shook his souvenir bat at the baseball legend. “I don’t like him!” he cried. “He was mean to me!”
Christian was so adamant that he’d been wronged by the iconic slugger that Byrd ended up having to take him back to their hotel early. She wrote it all off as exhaustion from the long day filming and a cross-country trip.
Once the two got back to Southern California, though, Christian started making a variety of odd statements before bedtime — claiming, for example, that he was once “a tall baseball player, tall like Daddy.” Every night, Byrd and her daughter, 6-year-old Charlotte, would listen to him recount train rides and stays at fancy hotels. His specificity was peculiar and uncanny, Byrd thought, so she began to check the veracity of some of Christian’s assertions online. Doing so led her also to learn more about whatever science said, if anything, about reincarnation.
Among the various experts she consulted was Carol Bowman, the author of Children’s Past Lives. With her help, Byrd devised a series of non-leading questions and collected historical photographs to show her son to gauge his reaction.
One such picture was an old team photo of the Yankees in the 1920s. Christian quickly pointed to himself: Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse, the legendary first baseman cut down in his prime by the neurological disease that now bears his name. Soon after, Byrd next showed her son a photo of Gehrig’s parents. He identified Christina Gehrig, Lou’s mother. Christian then said, “Why weren’t you there back then, Mommy? I like you better.” He was 3 years old.
As time passed, Christian continued his ritual of wearing a baseball uniform every day. Byrd herself became a bigger fan of the sport, buying Los Angeles Dodgers season tickets. After considerable lobbying on her part, Christian in 2012 became, at age 4, the youngest person ever to throw out a ceremonial first pitch at a Major League game. (Fittingly, Dodgers star lefty Clayton Kershaw was the team’s starting pitcher that day; Christian is a lefty and a gifted mimic of Kershaw’s motion.) The boy had caught the attention of millions of viewers — and of Tommy Lasorda, longtime Dodger manager. The two, a mere 81 years apart in age, became fast friends.
Media attention — The Boy Who Thinks He’s Lou Gehrig! — only grew. When Christian was 5 and a half, his mother consulted Dr. Jim Tucker, head of the department of neuropsychiatry and behavioral studies at the University of Virginia. Tucker, with experience in the field since 1957, was well-placed to explore the situation. When Tucker visited their California home, Christian told him, referring to Cathy: “I picked her to be my mom, and then she got old.” Where was she when you picked her? Tucker asked. “She was being born,” Christian replied. Where were you at the time, Christian? “In the sky.”
At this point, Byrd was beyond wondering whether it was possible that her young boy was the reincarnated soul of Lou Gehrig. Now she was beginning to think she might have been Christina Gehrig, too. She redoubled her research efforts, one time coming across film of Gehrig that showed his batting style to be eerily like that of her son. Then she noticed the pair’s dimples, identically placed.
A devout Christian, Byrd was no exponent of any form of hypnosis or regression therapy. Despite her beliefs, though, she felt it was time to explore it, particularly after Tucker’s eye-opening visit. Between April and November 2014, she visited a regression therapist, ultimately spending more than six hours unburdening herself of recollections only Christina Gehrig is likely to have known: descriptions of Gehrig family jewelry, for example, that had been hidden for more than 60 years. (She later confirmed various facts by meeting with the Reverend Ken Steigler, who as a child was like a grandson to “Mom Gehrig,” as many knew her; Christina had lived with Steigler’s family during the last years of her life. She died in 1954.) By this point, she truly believed all these wild thoughts — both hers and her son’s — might actually be true.
Rolling your eyes in disbelief? Fair enough. Yet this tale is about more — it’s also about how for Byrd, writing The Boy Who Knew Too Much, a story of her journey with her son, became a chronicle of looking outside herself and recognizing that perhaps cynical human beings, living in the moment, might not have all the answers. Maybe the bodies in which we move through the world are simply vehicles on a journey between two points, not the first and last stop.
She learned that by age 5 or 6, most children who feel they’ve “been here before” move toward a distinct identity, and recollections of the past fade in tandem. Now 8 years old, Christian no longer talks much about a past life. He plays baseball year round, yes; his ardor for the game hasn’t waned. He’s a normal kid who rides his bike around the neighborhood with friends. Byrd herself observes that she’s happy if he’s happy — if he one day decides he no longer cares for baseball anymore, well, that’ll be fine with her.
Her book — which has been optioned for a yet-to-be-named 2018 feature film — will shed additional light (and considerable attention) on this astounding story. Is it all too much for a young boy? Has his mother’s investigation created an out-of-touch 8-year-old who’s certain he’s Lou Gehrig reincarnated?
Upon meeting young Christian, DeVon Franklin, a Hollywood producer who’s behind the forthcoming film, asked Christian if he believed Lou Gehrig was in the room with them. “Yes,” Christian replied. Looking around, Franklin asked where. Christian pointed to his heart. “Right here,” he said.
Perhaps Christian has a better understanding than most.