Reviewed by Edward N. Reynolds, Ph.D.
In JRT Issue 7, Spring 1989
The late philosopher and mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-87) drew public attention to the concept of the “hero’s journey” through his scholarly writings and his widely praised public television interviews with journalist Bill Moyers (published as The Power of Myth, Doubleday, 1988).
As described by Campbell, the hero’s journey is the drama of any individual male or female, who leaves the security of familiar people and surroundings for trials and adventures in some unknown realm. With the insights gained from these experiences, the “hero” returns to his normal life as someone transformed, deepened, and enriched. He is now able to add a new level of understanding to the lives of all who come into contact with him.
By Campbell’s definition, Dr. Brian L. Weiss’ Many Lives, Many Masters (Simon & Schuster, 1988) describes a “hero’s journey” of transformation pursued by a respected and accomplished psychiatrist. Much of its popular appeal comes from this quality with which even skeptical readers find it easy to identify.
When Dr. Weiss met Catherine, the patient with whom he shared his journey, he was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Columbia University and had received an M.D. from Yale Medical School. In addition he was an associate professor of psychiatry at the Miami (Florida) University School of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at a large university-affiliated hospital. Adding further to his stature was the fact that he had already published 37 scientific papers and book chapters in his field and was widely sought as a speaker at professional meetings. At that time he was a successful, rather conservative physician and scientist hardly anticipating that this new patient would lead him on a journey of self-discovery and transformation. As he comments near the beginning of the book.
At the time of my first session with Catherine I had no idea that my life was about to turn upside down, that the frightened, confused woman across the desk from me would be the catalyst, and that I would never be the same again. (p. 20)
At the time of that first interview, Catherine was a twenty-seven year old unmarried laboratory technician at the hospital. Her complaints were not much different from those of thousands of other young women who seek therapy. Her life was burdened with fears, including fear of dying, fear of the dark, fear of water, and fear of airplanes. She was also plagued by insomnia, and often suffered from nightmares when she was able to sleep. Perhaps most upsetting of all, she was involved in a highly painful, dead-end relationship with a married man.
For 18 months, Dr. Weiss treated her with traditional psychodynamic psychotherapy. They explored her painful early life as the child of an alcoholic father and depressed mother. Eventually she was able to recall the horror of child sexual abuse, which she had suffered at the hands of her father when she was three years old. However, despite care, skill, and hard work, the conventional psychodynamic approach did not relieve her symptoms. Even reliving her childhood sexual trauma had no apparent effect.
At this point Dr. Weiss, a skilled hypnotist, resolved to begin a course of hypnotherapy, hoping that this might bring Catherine some relief. In their first hypnosis session, once satisfied she had reached a deep level of trance, he instructed her to “go back to the time from which your symptoms arise.” (p. 27) To his astonishment, she reported finding herself in a market place in 1863 B.C., probably in Greece. Her name, she said, was Aronda and apparently a flood or tidal wave was destroying her village. Obviously distressed, she cried,
“There are big waves knocking down trees. There’s no place to run. It’s cold. I have to save my baby, but I cannot…just have to hold her tight. I drown; the water chokes me…My baby is torn out of my arms.” (p. 28)
This dramatic episode began an exploration of many different lifetimes in many different cultures and social circumstances. In addition to the life as Aronda, Catherine described being Luisa, a prostitute in 18th Century Spain, a black freed slave called Abby in Virginia, and a British sailor named Christian, among others.
At one point she told her startled therapist that she had had a total of 86 past lives. Moreover, within a week of her first regression, her longstanding phobias, such as fear of drowning, began to disappear.
Dr. Weiss’ initial amazement and skepticism about this unforeseen development is understandable and well described. He first considered the possibility that she might be psychotic or, due to the child abuse, suffer from multiple personality disorder. As an experienced psychiatrist he was very familiar with these mental illnesses. But Catherine’s profile simply didn’t fit known psychotic or multiple-personality models. Satisfied that she was neither faking nor clinically disturbed, he went on to consider extra sensory perception (ESP) and Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious as the source of her remarkable recall. These explanations he also dismissed. What he could not ignore as an intellectually honest therapist was the fact that all of her major psychological problems were progressively resolved following the past-life sessions until she was eventually symptom-free.
Equally significant for Dr. Weiss was Catherine’s contact with “master spirits” who communicated spiritual wisdom and advice when she entered a “between lives” state. Through them, she was able to demonstrate a very high level of psychic ability, including knowledge of Weiss’ intimate personal life, which she couldn’t have gotten through normal means.
As he struggled to understand and accept his experiences with this most-unusual patient and her master spirit guides, Brian Weiss undertook a “hero’s journey” in every sense of the word. It is our good fortune that he had been willing to share it with us in this well-written and often dramatic book, one without any hint of the “dime-store novel” quality so often displayed by books of this kind.
Many Lives, Many Masters would be a stronger, more convincing study of survival after death and reincarnation had some effort been made to verify the historical reality of Catherine’s past lives, at least in those cases where documentation was possible, for example any lives lived in the recent past. There is no evidence that this was ever explored or even contemplated. Further, it should be noted that, while Dr. Weiss was impressed by the accuracy of Catherine’s knowledge of ancient cultures, little real proof of this is provided to the reader.
I would also have liked a bit more theoretizing on the part of this brilliant and experienced psychiatrist as to how the therapeutic process behind past-life regression really works. It appears evident that recall and catharsis are the major curative factors, but the reader is never completely sure of this. Dr. Weiss’ professional detachment sometimes seems to be somewhat overshadowed by his enthusiasm for the transformation he is witnessing and experiencing.
Nonetheless, despite these minor flaws, the book is superb reading. The sincerity and simplicity of its message is probably its greatest strength. Furthermore, the courage shown by Brian Weiss in jeopardizing his professional reputation by writing such an unconventional work attests to the depth of the transformation of this wise and just man. He deserves the rewards reserved for the successful hero.
Toward the end of the book, he expresses it this way:
I still write scientific papers, lecture at professional meetings, and run the Department of Psychiatry. But now I straddle two worlds: the phenomenal world of the five senses, represented by our bodies and physical needs; and the greater world of the nonphysical planes, represented by our souls and spirits…My job is to connect two worlds (p. 208).