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By Joshua Brandt
In 1995, Dr. Walter Semkiw embarked on a spiritual odyssey that culminated in a startling epiphany: he is the reincarnation of John Adams, the second president of the United States.
But Semkiw, who works as a physician in the occupational therapy department at Kaiser HospitalSan Francisco, waited several years before coming "out of the closet" about his discovery, which he knew others would find questionable.
"Well, the problem was really simple," says Semkiw, 53. "I didn't want to be running around saying I was John Adams if I really wasn't."
A Noe Valley resident since 2000, Semkiw has spent a third of his present existence writing, researching, and speaking about reincarnation--the idea that a soul, or identity, can be reborn in the body of another person. He's become an expert on the subject, with readers in India and around the globe. But he'll be glad to tell you he wasn't always one.
The first clues to his presidential past arrived on a cold night in 1984, when he was a medical student at the University of Illinois in Chicago. As Semkiw recalls it, the weather was particularly brutal, and there was little to do besides study. So to alleviate boredom, he decided to visit a medium. The medium told him that in a previous lifetime, Semkiw had written something on parchment paper and was responsible for "securing the ideals of humanity." The medium also told him to study the life of founding father John Adams. If he did that, the medium said, Semkiw would see himself.
Initially, Semkiw dismissed the notion as pure claptrap. And he tried to erase it from his mind. But then in November 1995, while Semkiw was working as a medical director for Unocal 76 in Hawaii, a "booming voice" once again implored him to seek out the biography of Adams (who served as our nation's top executive from 1797 to 1801).
This time, Semkiw listened. He went through close to a dozen mediums, and began conducting his own independent research. He came across pictures of Adams at a Paris peace conference where Adams' facial features were "almost identical" to his own. And, after devouring several books about the revolutionary politician, Semkiw determined he shared some of the former president's most salient characteristics, including a concise writing style and a "bluntness that can be abrasive at times."
In the years that followed, Semkiw studied prominent cases of other people who claimed to have past lives. His research formed the crux of his 2006 book Born Again, subtitled "Reincarnation Cases Involving International Celebrities, India's Political Legends, and Film Stars." (The book is a follow-up to his Return of the Revolutionaries, released in 2003.)
Among the examples Semkiw cites in his work is neurosurgeon Norm Shealy (considered the father of neural pain alleviation), who believes he is the reincarnation of 19th-century physician and mesmerist John Elliotson. Semkiw also interviewed controversial Bay Area resident Barbro Karlen. Karlen, who was born in Sweden, claims she has vivid memories of being Holocaust victim Anne Frank.
Armed with his "documentation," Semkiw finally approached Bay Area "transmedium" Kevin Ryerson, who has worked with actress Shirley MacLaine, perhaps the most famous proponent of past lives. (Ryerson appeared as himself in MacLaine's movie Out on a Limb.)
According to Semkiw, Ryerson is a medium who channels several different spirits, one of whom is a 3,500-year-old former Egyptian high priest named Ahtun Re. It is this spirit, Semkiw says, who is responsible for validating most of his reincarnation intuitions.
At first, Semkiw felt strange communicating with Ahtun Re through Ryerson.
"Speaking to an Egyptian spirit guide that has been dead for over 3,000 years was a novel experience for me," he wryly notes.
Still, Ahtun Re confirmed to Semkiw's satisfaction that he was the reincarnation of John Adams. Furthermore, he told him he was surrounded by related reincarnated individuals, or "karmic soul groups." Semkiw's brother George was the reincarnation of Peter Adams, the president's brother, and Semkiw's estranged wife was the reincarnation of John Adams' son Charles, with whom he'd had a very volatile relationship.
The rest, as they say, is history.
These days, Semkiw is busy attending conferences and holding workshops on reincarnation. He also contributes to the Institute for the Integration of Science, Intuition, and Spirit (IISIS), which he co-founded in 2005 as a center devoted to the scientific study of reincarnation. The organization gives out yearly statuettes, to the individual who makes the greatest contribution to the "objective evidence of reincarnation" and who "embodies the positive social change" that IISIS believes reincarnation promotes.
"Soul groups" remain a prominent theme in Semkiw's explorations. He believes people are reincarnated for a myriad of reasons: love, familial bonds, or the need to work together on common goals, he says.
In Born Again, he traces three of the major politicians of the past quarter-century--Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and George Bush--back to the Revolutionary War. (Ironically, according to Semkiw, Bush was under Gore's military supervision in a past life.)
Though well aware of the skepticism people have about his claims, Semkiw defends reincarnation as a good philosophy to live by.
"Not only is the old adage about karma true--'Don't leave an ugly footprint or it will come back to haunt you'--but reincarnation is the way to true world peace," he says. "If, for example, Jews knew they could come back as Palestinians, there would be a lot less bloodshed in the Holy Land. Fighting each other makes no sense if two souls have met before."
A son of Ukrainian immigrants, Semkiw was raised Catholic. However, he views mainstream religion as lagging behind the times.
"We've advanced in technology to the point where we can easily blow up the entire planet...but our spiritual point of view is based on archaic documents thousands of years old, such as the Old and New Testaments and the Koran," Semkiw says.
"Mainstream religions can't address the issue of reincarnation because it goes against their own self-interest. It's a Catch-22 for them. Religions exist because of fear of death."
Just as John Adams spearheaded the American Revolution, Semkiw believes that his charge is to lay the groundwork for a "reincarnation revolution."
"We have both dedicated our lives to social causes, regardless of risk. John Adams risked his life for the American Revolution, and I know that I'll often be ridiculed for my beliefs.
"People may laugh at me, but I feel honored to be an advocate for reincarnation research, because as crazy as it sounds, I know that reincarnation research will ultimately transform the world."