I was Marilyn Monroe in a previous life, claims singer

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We've had countless memoirs from Marilyn Monroe's "secret" lovers. We've been regaled with conspiracy theories that the iconic actress did not commit suicide but was murdered by a cabal including anyone and everyone from the Mob to the Kennedy brothers.

Now, with the 44th anniversary of Monroe's death looming, comes a different twist on the old obsession: a psychologically troubled Canadian singer who claims she was Monroe in a previous life, and whose claims have been championed by a Californian psychiatrist in a newly published book.

The story sounds easy to dismiss, but it is at least told absolutely straight. Sherrie Lea Laird takes no pleasure in what she sees as her deep bond to Monroe. Rather, it is something that has plagued her with terrible dreams and flashbacks, and sent her to the psychiatric ward.

Her doctor, Adrian Finkelstein, does his best, meanwhile, to establish a scientific basis for believing that Laird really is the reincarnation of the most recognisable actress of the 20th century. In the book, Marilyn Monroe Returns: The Healing of a Soul, he points out her ability to answer hundreds of detailed questions about Monroe's life under hypnosis. She could even pick out Monroe's maternal aunts in photographs, he writes.

Laird claims to be able to feel the crushing sensation in her chest that Monroe may have felt in her dying moments after she overdosed on pills on 5 August 1962. She says she experiences pain at the break-up between Monroe and John F Kennedy. Perhaps most bizarrely, she believes her own 21-year-old daughter, Kezia, is the reincarnation of Monroe's mother, Gladys Baker - who died just a few days before her birth.

Sceptics might be interested to note that Laird admits to having been fascinated with Monroe from the age of 11 or 12, when she first heard her sing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend". She was particularly taken by the discovery that Monroe's character in Bus Stop is also a singer, with an almost identical name: Cherie.

So is this a case of unhealthy overidentification with a dead celebrity, or a real case of past-life regression, as Dr Finkelstein argues? Laird herself wrote in one of her early e-mails to the Malibu doctor: "I think I was M Monroe, but who doesn't?"

Dr Finkelstein, who has an impressive academic resumé and now runs an organisation called the Malibu Holistic Health Centre, has spent the past 20 years researching the scientific evidence for reincarnation and the existence of flashbacks to earlier lives. He once wrote a book called Your Past Lives and the Healing Process, and believes he was himself a French physician in a previous existence.

Professional bodies such as the American Psychiatric Association take no position on the validity of past-life regression therapy. Many psychiatrists believe patients like Laird are sincere in their beliefs and see therapies like Dr Finkelstein's as a comfort to them.

Finkelstein and Laird, meanwhile, plan to join the annual pilgrimage to Monroe's grave in the Westwood Cemetery in Los Angeles this Saturday, where they will pay homage to her on the anniversary of her death.