This blog contains material I wrote and posted on multiply.com between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).
Saturday, 24 November 2012
Many Lives, Many Masters: Review
Health, Mind & Body
Dr Brian Weiss, MD
I’ve just finished reading, in one extended session, Dr Brian Weiss’ “celebrated” book, "Many Lives, Many Masters". This reading in one session wasn’t because the book was so unputdownable; it was because I was afraid that if I quit reading it, I couldn’t force myself to get back to it. It was that kind of book.
This isn’t really a review, per se, of the book so much as a discussion of the mechanics of writing it, because normally I wouldn’t bothering reviewing it. However, given that it’s apparently a “life-changing” work, and that it seriously requires debunking, I thought it incumbent upon me to do my bit.
So, what is it about? I’ll quote from the back cover blurb: “Psychiatrist Dr Brian Weiss had been working with Catherine, a young patient, for eighteen months. Catherine was suffering from recurring nightmares and chronic anxiety attacks. When his traditional methods of therapy failed, Dr Weiss turned to hypnosis and was astonished and sceptical when Catherine began recalling past-life traumas which seemed to hold the key to her problems.
“Dr Weiss’ scepticism was eroded when Catherine began to channel messages from ‘the space between lives’, which contained remarkable revelations about his own life. Acting as a channel for information from highly evolved spirit entities called the Masters, Catherine revealed many secrets of life and death.”
To put it more bluntly, it’s a book that purports to discuss the so-called “phenomenon” of reincarnation, and then extends it to include elements of spiritualism, all dressed up with the formidable psychiatric credentials of the author, which he never fails to bring to your attention (more on that in a moment).
Now, I’d better say this right away: on the question of reincarnation, you can’t call me a sceptic. You can call me a complete and utter disbeliever, for reasons I’ve gone into so many times in the past that I have no desire to repeat them here. Therefore I have, let’s say, a bias. But, for the purpose of this discussion, let me approach the book with as open a mind as I can manage.
Basically, the story goes like this: “Catherine” (which is not her real name) is a small town girl who works as a lab technician in the same hospital where Weiss is a psychiatrist. She’s involved in an unhappy affair with a married man, and is going through a mentally traumatic phase, including fears of enclosed places, choking and water. You know, like millions of other disturbed individuals in stressful situations? And, apparently, nobody could help her until another doctor, “Edward”, forced her to come to Weiss. “Edward” apparently thought it the right thing to do.
After eighteen months of therapy, “Catherine” apparently worked through her personal life history, including the experience of being molested by her father at the age of three, but hadn’t got any improvement at all. And then Weiss decided to try hypnosis on her, to get her back beyond the third year, to get at even earlier roots of her problems. And instead of remembering her first pacifier or something, she began recalling a past life...3500 years or so ago.
And over the next months, apparently, “Catherine” (under hypnosis) began remembering more and more details of past lives, including as far back as “a cave” and as recent as the Second World War, where she was a German pilot flying a four engine bomber. And as she waited in between lives, mysterious “Masters” spoke through her mouth and delivered preachy homilies to Weiss about himself and his purpose on earth.
Let get the biggest problem out of the way first: I have no particular reason to believe Weiss is not lying. I see that he has made quite a name for himself from this book, and several subsequent books on the same topic, and is apparently now quite a celebrity. However, all this is on the basis of a series of reported conversations with a woman whose real name we do not know, with no basis for deciding whether she actually exists or existed, let alone whether the conversations occurred as related. Of the two other people named to have had anything to do with “Catherine”, one, “Edward”, died even before the hypnosis treatment began, while the other was Weiss’ wife and surely not a disinterested witness.
I’m not saying Weiss is lying, but I am very far from assuming without independent proof that he is speaking the truth.
Hypnosis, as I discovered with only a cursory internet search, is unreliable as a memory search tool*, and people with a high degree of suggestivity can easily be led into repeating information knowingly or unknowingly fed them by the hypnotist. If you read the book, it’s hard to avoid noticing the fact that Weiss was “leading the witness” as the courts say, suggesting answers which “Catherine” almost always meekly confirmed and enhanced, paving the way for Weiss to ask even more leading questions. In fact Weiss admits as much, but explains it away as “Catherine’s” child-like responses which forced him to ask specific questions in order to get answers. I am less than convinced.
Still less am I convinced by “Catherine’s” recollections. For instance, she remembers her life in ancient Greece, in circa 1536 BC...which she recalls, under hypnosis and living that life, as 1536 BC. I doubt the ancient Greeks had means of telling the future and of predicting the change in eras and dating systems. (On a side note, the Greeks of 1536 BC apparently wrote on paper as well!)
One of the most damaging things about “Catherine’s” recollections is that they cannot be pinned down historically. She reports being a “servant” or a “sailor” or a “raider” and sometimes drops a date or two, but never, ever, provides any verifiable detail; not even a single, solitary surname. In fact, her “recollections” seem to be extremely shallow; little better than something any averagely well-read person can remember from a few TV documentaries or school history lessons on how people lived. Weiss repeatedly tells us that he knows – he knows – that she isn’t making up any of this because she’s “simple” and “couldn’t have known anything about this because she wasn’t interested in it.” I’m not particularly interested in pelota, or panning for gold, but I could tell you something of them if you asked me to; and I’m sure you all have knowledge about things you aren’t mostly interested in. It happens to everyone. If “Catherine” isn’t capable of this, she must be a remarkably intellectually crippled woman...and yet she is a woman who apparently can predict the winners of horse races and has suddenly become a highly competent psychic after the hypnosis begins.
Oh, and while I am on the subject, I noticed that in one of her lives, "Catherine" was a black woman born around 1867, and died in her sixties; which would date her death to somewhere about 1930. However, she was also a German pilot, named Eric, with a wife and child, killed in 1945 at the latest; and who was a pilot on a cargo aircraft even before the war began. I didn't see any attempt by Weiss to explain this chronological aberration. Maybe he didn't notice it.
Another highly suspicious thing about the whole recollection thing is the fact that Weiss admits trying to push “Catherine” to recollect her death, skipping the memories of her life (which would give us a few details, perhaps) in order to get to the “messages of the Masters” which are apparently relayed by the hypnotised “Catherine” from between the worlds, and are meant for Weiss, and for Weiss alone. These messages are almost entirely pop spiritualism; they talk about how we are here for a purpose, which is to “learn” (what, I don’t know) and that we have lived countless lives and have countless more to come. Given even the Earth has a measurable age, and will be destroyed by the Sun at a predictable time from now, I don’t know what the “countless” is all about – and I find it highly interesting that Weiss, with all his formidable credentials, doesn’t think to pose this question.
But that’s hardly surprising when you take a look at Weiss’ technique. It’s cyclical and predictable. First, he claims “Catherine” made certain statements. Then, he claims that these statements prove reincarnation exists. And then, before his reader hopefully takes the time to begin thinking about what he has said, he follows it up with a recital of his qualifications and his experience in various universities. The obvious idea is to bulldoze doubts under the weight of his degrees. His effort to market the idea is blatantly clear.
Of course, the fear of death is a compelling force. Any “study” that purports to show that death isn’t really an end will immediately find a ready market, even if said study doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The popularity of near-death-experience books alone should be proof of this, but Weiss goes a long step further than merely life after death. Not only does he claim that people are reincarnated; he claims that groups of people are reincarnated, over and over again, together. Weiss himself appears as a wild old sage in ancient Greece, and “Edward”, too, over and over again.
Not only will you be born again, but your friends and lovers will live again with you.
Now, is or is that not a marketable premise?
After reading the book, I still don’t know if reincarnation exists. I do, however, know that this isn’t reincarnation I’m reading about in Weiss’ book.