When she was three years old, a friend’s daughter announced that her real name was Joseph.
At first, her parents thought this was comical, if also slightly puzzling.
But it became alarming as the girl, Sally, insisted she was a boy and that her parents, Anna and Richard, weren’t her real parents and their home city wasn’t her real home.
She was convinced that, as Joseph, she lived in a little house by the sea, with lots of brothers and sisters.
‘She seems so certain,’ Anna told me.
‘Initially, we thought she was playing a make-believe game.
But this isn’t imaginary — it’s almost as if she has memories of when she was a boy called Joseph.
Memories Of Heaven: The book is compiled from letters and emails sent to motivational speaker Dr Wayne Dyer and his assistant Dee Garnes
She keeps asking to see the ships, and we’ve never taken her to the seaside in her life.’
It should be pointed out that Sally’s birth was almost a miracle — coming after her parents had been vainly trying for a child for years, undergoing a series of failed IVF treatments.
Whereas dad Richard was a no-nonsense chap who found this behaviour hard to take, mum Anna knew that their daughter wasn’t playing tricks.
She felt strongly that Sally’s memories were, in some way, real.
The possible explanations — some kind of mental illness, reincarnation or ghostly possession — all seemed equally unnerving.
But of her daughter’s truthfulness she had no doubt.
For her part, Sally was frustrated because the grown-ups didn’t take her seriously.
We advised Anna not to let Sally see that she was worried, and to wait and see what developed.
Sure enough, six weeks later the little girl had stopped talking about Joseph and the house by the sea, and seemed to have forgotten those ‘memories’.
But I never forgot about it.
Earlier this year, a book appeared that set me thinking about what had happened.
Memories Of Heaven, by the motivational speaker Dr Wayne Dyer and his assistant Dee Garnes, collects dozens of similar stories — proving that, whatever the explanation, there was nothing unusual about Sally.
The book was compiled when Dr Dyer had been ill with leukaemia for years, and he died of a heart attack before it was published.
Certainly, there is often an annoying shortage of detail in the accounts, which are printed verbatim from letters and emails sent to him by readers.
But what the testimonies lack in background and research, they make up for with their apparent honesty.
These stories come from dozens of independent sources, yet often tell of phenomena so similar that they seem to be describing the same events.
One-off accounts of supernatural oddness, however convincing, can be dismissed as anomalies.
But when scores of parents report the same experiences with their children, perhaps we should take notice.
Zibby Guest, from Chester, writes that her second son, Ronnie, was 16 months old when he started talking, and would often refer to his ‘other house’, where he was ‘a grown-up’ with another mummy and daddy.
And Susan Bowers, from the U.S., didn’t know whether to gasp or laugh when her three-year-old looked up from struggling with his shoelaces and grumbled: ‘I used to be a man before, but I guess I’ll have to learn how to do this again.’
Ann Marie Gonzalez, another American, was ‘a little freaked out’ when her daughter on her lap stopped singing in mid-song and asked if her mother remembered ‘the fire’.
Ann Marie asked what she was talking about, and the little girl very slowly described a blaze that had killed both her parents and left her an orphan, living with her ‘Grandma Laura’.
Another small child, the youngest daughter of Heather Leigh Simpson in Indiana, couldn’t bear the sound of sirens. They reminded her of the awful day when men came and took her mother away, and never brought her back.
When her puzzled mum pointed out that she was still there, her daughter said: ‘No, the mummy before you.’
Other accounts contain rather more detail.
A four-year-old American called Tristan, for example, was watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon on TV while his mother, Rachel Martin, was cooking.
He wandered into the kitchen and asked her: ‘Do you remember, a long time ago, I used to cook in George Washington’s [the first U.S. president] kitchen? I was a kid.’
Humouring him, his mum asked if she had been there, too.
He replied: ‘Yes. We were brown people. But later I died — I couldn’t breathe,’ and he gestured with his arms wrapped round his throat.
Intrigued, Rachel read up on George Washington and discovered that his cook, Hercules, had three children: Richmond, Evey and Delia.
Discussing her findings with her son, he said he remembered Richmond and Evey but couldn’t think who Delia was.
The idea that these are memories of past lives is given some credence by the fact that children often describe dying, even though they might be too young to have learnt about death.
Take the story of Els Van Poppel and her 22-month-old son, Cairo. They were about to cross a road in Australia when Cairo said they should be careful ‘otherwise I’ll die again’.
Shocked, his mother listened as he added: ‘Remember when I was little and I fell and my head was on the road and the truck drove over it?’
Els is convinced Cairo had never seen anything so gruesome on TV, nor heard it discussed. Equally, she was sure he hadn’t dreamt about it.
Memories Of Heaven author Dr Dyer, himself a father of eight, had a similar experience.
There are dozens of stories in Dyer’s book, from a girl who remembered being a wartime soldier with a blue-eyed daughter and a swastika on an armband, to the boy who regularly recalled being an old man in a chair by the hearth, under a thatched roof
He says his daughter, Serena, often talked in an unidentified foreign language in her sleep. Once, she told her mother: ‘You are not my real mother. I have a real mother that I remember, but it’s not you.’
There are dozens of such stories in Dyer’s book, from a girl who remembered being a wartime soldier with a blue-eyed daughter and a swastika on an armband, to the boy who regularly recalled being an old man in a chair by the hearth, under a thatched roof.
Of course, most people reading such stories will say there is a simple, rational explanation. Perhaps the child has glimpsed something on TV, just for an instant, and that notion has been growing in the subconscious infant mind.
But much harder to explain are the recollections of past lives that match a child’s family history, with them seeming to know about relatives who died before they were born.
For example, Jody Amsberry became pregnant about two years after her mother suffered a late miscarriage.
The stillborn child was named Nicole, and Jody decided that her own baby girl would be called Nicole.
When she was five, Nicole said to her mum: ‘Before I was in your tummy, I was in Granny’s tummy.’
Anna Kiely tells a similar story about a friend, whose first daughter died before she was a year old.
The woman was devastated, of course, and it was seven years before she had another baby.
The second time around, fearful of Fate, she was reluctant to do the same things she had done with her other child.
She sang different lullabies, for example.
Yet, when her daughter was four and heard a song that her mother had sung to her dead sister but not to her, the child announced that she recognised it.
She said: ‘Mummy, you used to sing it to me.’
Similarly, Judy Knicely was dumbstruck when her three-year-old daughter announced that she used to be a boy, and that her grandmother had been her mother: ‘I was her little boy and I died when I was almost four.’
Sure enough, her grandmother had lost a son just before his fourth birthday.
Some of these stories involve a child claiming to be a much older relative.
One woman reports how her two-year-old son twice told her that he used to be her father.
Another was telling her two-year-old granddaughter about her own grandmother, who had brought her up and died 50 years earlier, when the little girl said: ‘I know, because I am her.’
Then there was Suzanne Robinson, who fell asleep, only to be woken by her three-year-old daughter smoothing her hair in a caring, maternal way and saying: ‘Don’t you remember? I used to be your mother.’
One fascinating implication of these apparent stories of reincarnation is that it does not happen at random.
Such cases normally involve children claiming to be someone who was a family member in the past.
This suggests that there is an element of choice in where they get reborn.
The theory is borne out by letters collected by Dr Dyer.
Tina Mitchell in Blackpool, for example, writes vividly of a car journey she was making with her five-year-old, Mather, when he pointed to a cloud and said: ‘When I was zero, before I was born, I stood on a cloud like that with God, having fun.’
A few weeks later, he repeated the claim, adding: ‘When I was standing on the cloud, God told me to pick my mummy.
‘I looked down and saw mummies everywhere. They all wanted me to pick them, and they were all reaching for me. Then I saw you.
‘You were alone and sad and you couldn’t find your little boy, and I knew I loved you and you loved me, so I told God that I wanted you.’
The fact is that his mother was single and alone at the time she adopted Mather, when he was just a few hours old.
Sometimes, such ‘memories’ of children choosing their parents stay with people all their lives. Judy Smith, who is now in her mid-70s, remembers telling her parents when she was three that she had picked them.
‘I was somewhere above the earth, looking down at a gathering of several pairs of people,’ she writes.
‘I then heard a voice asking me which ones I wanted as my parents. I was told that whichever couple I chose would teach me what I needed to learn. I pointed to my parents and replied: “I’ll take them!”’
But such a ‘selection process’ is not always quick.
Chris Sawmiller’s four-year-old son, Lucas, complained to her: ‘Do you know how long I waited for you to be my mum? A long, long time!’
Lucas has told the story several times and always emphasises how long he waited. He says he made the right choice: ‘I picked you to be my mum because I love you so much.’
A similar story is told by Robert Rinne, whose five-year-old son told him and his wife that he had picked them to be his parents while he was in Heaven.
Apparently, he went through one door to inspect the mothers and fathers, and another to see who his siblings would be.
Sometimes the stories are agonisingly poignant.
Marie Birkett, of Southampton, had to terminate a pregnancy while she was being treated for back problems.
Years later, after she eventually became a mother, her two-year-old daughter said: ‘Mummy, you sent me back the first time because you had a bad back, but I came back when your back was better.’
Descriptions of Heaven are blissfully childlike.
One mother says her daughter claims to remember sitting in a ‘ring of angels’, throwing a ball around the circle.
Another claimed her son was adamant that Heaven was ‘all parks’.
The mother of a girl called Amy Rattigan had two miscarriages before giving birth to a sister for Amy.
When that girl reached three, she told her mum that she ‘missed’ her unborn siblings because they had all played together in Heaven.
Often these games involved flying on angel wings.
Similarly, Sandra McGleish told Dr Dyer’s daughter that at night an angel would take her on ‘flights’ to see her grandfather, who had died ten years earlier.
The old man was apparently growing yellow roses for his wife, who was still alive.
Wings, it seems, are what children miss most about Heaven.
For instance, Trina Lemberger’s grandson was snuggling up to her when he said sadly: ‘I’m forgetting how to fly.’
Meanwhile, after Susan Lovejoy’s five-year-old, Joseph, broke his arm trying to make a jump, he complained to his mum: ‘When am I going to get my wings back?’
She explained that only planes have wings and he sobbed pitifully, saying that God had told him that when he ‘returned’ to earth he would have his wings back.
Of course, all these stories may be childish fantasies.
But as I read them, I thought about my friends’ daughter and those ‘memories’ of a life before this one, seemingly impossible yet so vivid and sure.
And I found myself wondering whether it’s these children who know the truth — and we adults who have forgotten it.
Memories Of Heaven, by Dr Wayne Dyer and Dee Garnes, is published by Hay House at £9.99. To order a copy for £7.99 (offer valid until January 2; P&P free on orders over £12), call 0808 272 0808 or visit www.mailbookshop.co.uk.