Christina Patterson: Don't underestimate the pleasures and pains of New Age nuttiness

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The Independent Online

Marilyn Monroe is alive and well and living in Canada. That, at least, is the claim of a Californian (it would be Californian) psychiatrist in a new book, Marilyn Monroe Returns: The Healing of a Soul. She is, claims Dr Adrian Finkelstein, living in the body of a Canadian singer called Sherrie Lea Laird. Under hypnosis, Laird has, he says, answered hundreds of detailed questions about Monroe's life. "I think I was M Monroe," she wrote in an early email to him, "but who doesn't?"

Well, plenty of people, actually. Most of those rallying to the cause of reincarnation seem to plump for Cleopatra. A friend of mine (a former friend, to be strictly accurate) looked up from her bath one day to see Tutankhamun. It was the beginning of a journey that was to lead her from City high-flyer to a new life as a psychic and healer. Not, judging by my own experiences, a very good one, but her confidence in her abilities remained undimmed. This Essex girl made good and member of Mensa was, she confided, "gobsmacked" by the sudden arrival in her life of the pharaoh and his friends in the psychic realm. They talk to her, she told me, all the time.

Another friend of mine, a teacher in particularly challenging domestic circumstances, said casually the other day that she thought her daughter had "chosen" her parents before birth. "I have to believe it," she added, when I asked her to explain, "otherwise I couldn't cope." I couldn't hide my shock. There's plenty of evidence, of course, that positive thinking, and even prayer, are good for your mental and physical health, but to reverse the basic laws of procreation is surely something of an intellectual somersault too far.

Both of these women are, like Cherie Blair, that other famous dabbler in New Age nuttiness, intelligent, successful and apparently sane. I met them on a holistic holiday at a time of ill health. My aim was to lie in the sun, eat nice food and do a bit of writing. Instead, I was initiated into something called reiki. An immensely fat American woman, who called herself a "reiki master", conducted daily workshops in this highly idiosyncratic form of healing, "activated by intention", according to the official material of the Reiki Federation, which "promotes the body's regenerative self-healing power". It was great fun. We learnt the story of how it all started - a monk went up a mountain in Japan, I think, and had some kind of revelation - and we also learnt the secret symbols that unleash the power. After a few days we underwent a kind of official anointing, in which the "chakras" in our hands were "attuned" by the master.

The whole thing was clearly nonsense - and yet, and yet. Even I - with circulation so bad that I clutch heated cushions in high summer - felt burning heat as I practised on my fellow students. And at the end of the fortnight, my aches and pains had gone.

Medical science would probably cite the placebo effect, which, as countless studies have demonstrated, is the most powerful medicine of all. My levels of faith in the whole enterprise weren't high, but maybe they rose in line with the physical and emotional temperature. Or maybe it was the laughter. That, too, according to several studies, is a potent medicine. Much more peculiar, however, was the fact that when I agreed to have a go on a couple of friends when I got back, both reported dramatic improvements - one in an inflamed hand and the other in an injured knee.

Most of us have our own tales of the unexpected. I once heard someone washing up in my empty kitchen. A friend heard nocturnal whispering in his ear. During my misspent adolescence as a born-again Christian (I went to a youth club to meet boys and it all went horribly wrong), I regularly witnessed prophecies, "words of knowledge", speaking in tongues and healings - the standard accoutrements, apparently, of the Holy Spirit. It took me a while to learn a very important lesson. Weird stuff happens. It happens in a variety of contexts and for a variety of reasons. Some of it can be explained psychologically, and scientifically, and some of it can't. There are, as Hamlet said, "more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy".

The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions. It's also paved with the beliefs of those who have used apparently supernatural phenomena to justify a particular world-view. It's really not such a great leap from "God (or the Universe) wants to heal and bless me" to "God (or the Universe) hates the children of Lebanon". But it's a very, very dangerous one. And no, I'm not going to tell you about those reiki symbols.

NHS - someone's idea of a sick joke

Hospital scans are not much fun. They are even less fun when you suspect that they're never going to be looked at. This suspicion was confirmed by the revelation that X-ray films and scans for 100,000 patients were dumped in cardboard boxes in a corridor at the Royal London hospital and left unchecked for years. The man who revealed this scandal, radiologist Dr Otto Chan, was sacked. I think he deserves a medal.

My own experience of the Royal London, and its sister hospitals, Bart's and Homerton, has been one of surrealism at times bordering on farce. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago, they did, at least, manage to look at the mammograms before losing them.

Three and a half months later, on the day of my second operation, the surgeon ripped open the envelope to find an X-ray of an ankle. Two weeks after that, in response to my repeated phone calls and letters, I got a letter explaining that the mammograms had been "mistakenly allocated a Homerton hospital number". Well, I'm glad we got that one sorted.

I've lost count of the number of times I've spent all morning in a hospital waiting room only to be told that the consultant isn't there. It happened, in fact, at the Royal London this week. Even when the consultants are around, patients are allotted double- and triple-booked slots long before they're due to turn up.

We have one of the best publicly funded healthcare systems in the world, but it's a shambles. And it's one that expresses its contempt for its consumers. The nurse who weighed me this week was thrilled that my body mass index was normal. Most of the patients are, she said, obese. What she meant was that they were poor. And poor people's time doesn't matter.

* Conflicting reports from the feminist front line this week. Well, not that feminist, actually. Young women are, apparently, no longer prepared to slog away at the coalface of career advancement using their sisters' boring old recipe of long hours and hard graft. No, like the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin.

Instead, according to a survey conducted by New Woman magazine, they're perfectly frank about their desire to find short cuts to a leisured life. More than half said they'd be happy to be supported by a rich hubby. More than half also said they'd pose for a lads' mag in not very much for some ready cash.

Personally, I'd prefer to work at a real coalface than endure such an ordeal by cellulite, but then I'm over 40 - a category, according to another new report, in which most women hate their bodies. There is, as yet, no third report defining the magic moment when psychotic self-confidence swings into self-loathing, but it's all pretty depressing stuff. Perhaps it's not surprising, in the age of Botox, boob jobs and Jordan, left, that physical charms, and decline, still feature so prominently in the female psyche.

Cheer up, loves! It might not happen! And anyway, you've still got your brains.