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 Marilyn in a previous life, and whose claims have been championed by a southern California psychiatrist in a new book.

Sherrie Lea Laird takes no pleasure in what she sees as her deep bond to Monroe. Rather, it has plagued her with flashbacks and sent her to the psychiatric ward.

In his book Marilyn Monroe Returns: The Healing of a Soul, Laird's doctor, Adrian Finkelstein, points out her ability to answer hundreds of detailed questions about Marilyn's life under hypnosis. She could even pick out Marilyn's maternal aunts in photographs, he writes.

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

Laird admits having being 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, as a young adult, that Monroe's character in Bus Stop is a singer, like her, named Cherie.

So was 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 emails to the Malibu doctor: "I think I was M. Monroe, but who doesn't?"

Dr Finkelstein, who has an impressive academic resume, has spent the past 20 years researching the scientific evidence for reincarnation. He believes he was himself a French physician in a previous existence.

Many psychiatrists believe patients like Laird are sincere in their beliefs and see therapies like Dr Finkelstein's as a comfort.

Finkelstein and Laird, meanwhile, plan to join the annual pilgrimage to Monroe's gravesite in Los Angeles this Saturday on the anniversary of her death.

- INDEPENDENT