The inhumanity of shamanic healing
‘Laurens van der Post meets Crocodile Dundee’ – Michael Fitzpatrick on Rupert Isaacson and his Horse Boy Method, the latest miracle healing programme for autism.
Rupert Isaacson, The Horse Boy: A Father’s Miraculous Journey to Heal His Son, Penguin 2009.
Michel Orion Scott (director), Rupert Isaacson (producer), The Horse Boy, DVD, 2010.
Rupert Isaacson, The Long Ride Home: The Extraordinary Journey of Healing that Changed a Child’s Life, Penguin 2014.
It was a shock to sit in a fashionable North London bar with an audience watching – without evident protest – a film scene in which the mother of a boy with autism ritually cleanses her genital area with ‘holy vodkha’ on the instruction of a shaman in deepest Mongolia. It is even more shocking to watch as six-year-old Rowan is subjected to what a sympathetic journalist who accompanied the family on their trip to Mongolia describes as ‘what looks to an outsider like child abuse’ (Tim Rayment, ‘The quest for a miracle cure’, Sunday Times 9 September 2007). Rowan is ‘whipped by a shaman – an intermediary between the natural and spirit worlds – and force-fed milk, then held under a noisy drum.’ He undergoes a dramatic behavioural regression: ‘He loses his language and starts to babble. He screams uncontrollably at the sound of a cow, assaults a little Mongolian girl, and bites his father. Getting the distressed child to the ‘sacred waters’- the ‘brain spring’ – means wrestling him there.’ (The film shows only a discreetly-edited version of these events, focusing on the whipping received by Rowan’s parents, film-maker and author Rupert Isaacson and psychologist Kristin Neff, though there is a more detailed account in Isaacson’s books).
When, in the Q&A following the film, I ventured to agree with Tim Rayment’s assessment that this did indeed ‘look like child abuse’, Isaacson responded angrily. He claimed that as a father he had merely followed his son’s lead – and urged other parents of children with autism that they should do the same. But – and this is one of several evident contradictions in Isaacson’s approach – it is clear that, though his son may have shown a spontaneous interest in horses, the initiative to subject Rowan to shamanic healing came entirely from his father.
Isaacson’s latest book records how, since the trip to Mongolia, he has subsequently taken Rowan through similar rituals with shamans in remote regions of Namibia, Australia and New Mexico. He has also established a riding school at his ranch in Texas, offering the ‘Horse Boy Method’ for children with autism, claiming that this achieves ‘miraculous’ healing results, perhaps not ‘a cure’, but dramatic improvement in symptoms. Here is another contradiction. On the one hand, Isaacson believes that autism is ‘not a problem to be fixed’ but is ‘a wondrous way of being’; on the other hand, he presents it as the result of demonic possession, perhaps a curse from his enemies (made during his earlier work as a human rights activist in Africa), or the malign influence of ancestors (perhaps Kristin’s mentally ill grandmother – hence the vodkha douche). For Isaacson, autism is a state of superior enlightenment and special gifts, but it is also a manifestation of ‘black energy’ – evil spirits that require exorcism.
Rupert Isaacson emerges as a father deeply committed to his son, but struggling to cope with the challenges of autism. He is particularly troubled by the difficulties in toilet-training Rowan, by his recurrent tantrums and by his social disengagement. He is unsparing in his account of the day-to-day difficulties of family life with an autistic child (Rowan is now 12) and the strains this imposes on all the family. But though he asks himself some good questions, he lacks the insight to come up with the obvious answers. Thus – ‘how could I be sure this was not all just New Age nonsense on my part?’, ‘Was I a complete fool for doing this – just on some kind of ego trip, and not doing this for Rowan at all?’ and (my favourite, his reflection on the demand from the Chairman of the Shaman’s Association of Mongolia for $125 each for the services of nine shamans) ‘Had I fallen into a nest of charlatans?’ As another hapless father might put it, ‘D’oh!’
As the father of an autistic son, I have no doubt that horse-riding can be a highly enjoyable and beneficial activity for people with autism. It combines physical exertion in the outdoors and interaction with both horses and people in a way that can enhance mood, improve behaviour, encourage sociability. Though we have never succeeded in getting our son on a horse (he refuses to wear any sort of hard hat), we have, like many parents, found much benefit from cycling (with an improvised saddle in a similar position to that used by the Horse Boy) and from trampolining. These activities are considerably cheaper and more accessible for most families than horse-riding – and they do not require any specialist training or expertise. I cannot see any advantage in dignifying these simple activities as ‘bicycle or trampoline therapy’ or any justification for making extravagant claims for their ‘miraculous’ healing powers.
While Isaacson’s claims for horsey-healing are fanciful, his promotion of shamanic exorcism is more worrying. He returns to primitive notions that developmental disorders are the result of evil spirits, the responsibility of malign forces or dead ancestors – or even of parents who must subject themselves to rituals of purification and mortification. Most of the rituals he describes are the familiar theatrical displays of scary masks, trance dancing, chanting and drumming, laying on hands, sucking bones and spitting out fluids. But there can be no justification for subjecting an autistic child to the sort of inhuman and degrading treatment described in his account. Nor can this ill-treatment be justified by the claims that Isaacson makes in relation to Rowan – that these rituals were followed by improvement in his toileting, his tantrums and his sociability. My son made similar improvements as he got older, without exposure to horses or shamans, as have many autistic children.
In his promotion of the cult of the primitive, Isaacson combines elements of Laurens van der Post and Crocodile Dundee. But, as the libertarian anarchist Murray Bookchin observes, this sort of retreat from into mysticism ‘is no trivial matter’: ‘It took thousands of years for humanity to begin to shake off the accumulated “intuitions” of shamans, priests, monarchs, warriors, patriarchs, dictators and the like – all of whom claimed immense privileges for themselves and inflicted terrible horrors on their inferiors on the basis of their “intuited”wisdom”.’ (Murray Bookchin, Re-enchanting Humanity: A Defence of the Human Spirit Against Anti-Humanism, Misanthropy, Mysticism and Primitivism, Cassell, 1995, p98.)
The warm applause for the Horse Boy film in North London reflects the enthusiastic reception received by Isaacson in the British press, where he has won something of a fan club: ‘With his long blond hair, biker jacket and distressed jeans [Isaacson] looks like a surf dude’ (Liz Hunt, Daily Telegraph, 6 March 2009) ‘With his flowing blond locks, [Isaacson] looks like a veteran of a 1980s rock band’ (Jessie Hewitson, The Times, 2 December 2012).
This reminded me of ‘a handsome, glossy-haired, charismatic hero to families of autistic children in this country and America’ (Justine Picardie, Telegraph Magazine, 8 June 2002) – a description of Andrew Wakefield, the former Royal Free gastroenterology researcher whose fraudulent research claiming a link between the MMR vaccine and autism did so much harm a decade ago. (It is scarcely surprising to discover that Isaacson endorses Wakefield – now a neighbour in Austin, Texas since he was struck off the medical register in the UK.)
Back in 2002, Picardie suggested that Russell Crowe could play Wakefield in a movie version of the MMR story; in the event Wakefield fans had to settle for Hugh Bonneville in the 2003 Channel 5 drama Hear the Silence. Now that Isaacson is planning a Hollywood remake of his film, he favours Robert Downie Jnr to play himself in the starring role. Given the popularity in the American cinema of sentimental voyeurism in relation to autism and cosmopolitan condescension in relation to aboriginal societies, the film seems destined for the Oscars. The only losers will be people with autism who will continue to be the object of atavistic fantasies and the targets of promoters of miracle cures.
Michael Fitzpatrick is the author of MMR and Autism: What Parents Need To Know (2004) and Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion (2009).