The man had visions from past lives. He remembered stopping at a café for a glass of wine, in a city he did not know; he recalled painting a portrait of a hunchbacked woman. Years later, on vacation, rummaging in an antique store, he found a portrait of a hunchback, and he knew, suddenly, that it was his. He tracked down the painter, a 19th century American, and he found details that matched, with eerie accuracy, his earlier visions.
And so Robert Snow, a police captain and writer from Indiana, did what anyone else would do when confronted with such spiritual and psychological marvels: he cashed in. Snow wrote a book. He was profiled on the SciFi Channel (now Syfy), and yesterday he appeared on Katie Couric’s daytime talk show, “Katie,” for an episode on reincarnation in which Couric (whose contract with ABC is reportedly worth $40 million) explored the possibility of past lives with Yale-trained psychiatrist Dr. Brian Weiss (who charges $950 per person for his 5-day workshops).
In other times and cultures, reincarnation has been intertwined with ideas of reward, punishment, and spiritual progression. Now it’s been reborn as the child of daytime television. And, as Couric shows us, this new reincarnation is pretty damn telegenic.
Couric, Weiss, Snow, and a handful of guests swapped stories that could be chalked up to weird coincidence, outright deceit, wishful thinking, or, if you’d like, the migration of souls.
In the episode’s highlight , Couric underwent regression therapy with Weiss, in which she remembered a lake and a rowboat. “I think I’m definitely a boy,” she said—a boy wearing “loose pants” and living in 1900. She compared the scene to something from a Mark Twain novel.
Afterward, Couric revealed that she had written her undergraduate thesis on Mark Twain novels, so maybe she was just channeling a familiar fictional world. Weiss, who has the soothing voice and professorial handsomeness of a soap opera shrink, was unruffled. Perhaps, he suggested, Couric’s past life influenced her choice of a thesis.
The blending of sensationalist graphics, unverifiable claims, and obvious profit motives makes for some cringe-worthy television. But it becomes clear, watching Couric, why reincarnation is a made-for-television phenomenon. It’s like the world’s most soothing Ouija board: freaky stuff happens, and if you don’t like it, you can just flip the channel.
And if you do like it, then Katie Couric (whose mother was Jewish, but who was raised Presbyterian, incidentally) is offering you a taste of immortality, plus the fulfillment of the promise that television always makes, but never quite fulfills, which is to take you there, to make you part of the action. With reincarnation, you don’t have to watch “Rome” on HBO. Like one of Couric’s guests, you can remember, under the influence of a licensed psychiatrist, that you were a Roman (“I remember distinctly marble stairs…I was wearing sandals”). History, distant lands; studios and cafes: you can occupy them. And, as a bonus, families can get reunited in life after life—“we come into lifetimes often with the same people,” Weiss explains—so there’s a wholesome message here, too.
Reincarnation is the rare topic that provokes both scientists and the Southern Baptist Convention. But, as quack-ish doctors and bold religious repackaging goes, Couric’s reincarnation episode doesn’t seem so bad as long as we recognize it for what it is: a combination of good business instincts with speculative fun.
In other words, television.
The writer would like to thank Devine’s sports bar in Durham, N.C., for allowing him to watch “Katie” on one of their TVs.