Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Horse Boy book review part II: The journey and aftermath of Mongolia

When I last left off reading and reviewing the Horse Boy, Rowan, Rupert Isaacson, and Kristin Neff were on their way to Mongolia via the UK, and were about to arrive in the capital city of Ulan Bator, which is, according to Rupert Isaacson, a depressing, ugly sight, "a carbuncle on the face of one of the most unspoiled, most intact ecosystems left on earth." My my.
But as it is, they're only staying a few days there, before they head off into the wilderness to meet various Mongolian shamans, and maybe establish contact with the enigmatic Deer People, that is, Northern Mongolian reindeer herders.
The "crew" consists of Tulga, a guide, his nephew/assistant Bodo, the film crew, Rowan and his parents. I must admit, I cocked an eyebrow at there not being a medical doctor present. Not just because of Rowan being autistic and possibly needing a doctor there in case of a major emergency, but for the sake of the rest of the crew. If someone were to break a leg, or be trampled by a horse, or get bitten by an insect or a snake, would there be a hospital available quickly in any way other than emergency airlift? It seemed like an oversight to me not to have a doctor on the team so that if something were to happen, something could be done by a medical professional.
But I digress. the next order of business was the first Shaman ritual,at the base of a sacred mountain, where nine Shamans would work on Rowan. But first, a trip to a museum and an amusement park. At the amusement park, Rowan was stared at, as any autistic five year old with a film crew of his own would in any country. But Isaacson noticed something different about the attention the Mongolian people gave Rowan from the attention he received from Britons and Americans:
They were curious about us- You'd have had to ad to be inhuman not to be, as a five year old whizzing about the crowds with a film crew close behind would attract attention anywhere. Yet, once the first surprise was over, everyone tolerated Rowan's pushing, yelping, and joyful rushing about with a good humor quite at odds with what we had come to expect in the United States and Britain, when Rowan was at his most autistic. Here, it was as if we- he- were somehow being accommodated, not merely tolerated, despite the spectacle we were making as we thundered about in his wake like photographers behind some diminutive model or movie star.
Previously, we had been told in America that when Rowan would act oddly or lose his temper in public, the common reaction was tut-tuts of shame at the parents not controlling him, or even coming up to Rowan's parents to inform them that they were failures as parents for not controlling their child's behaviour in public. Isaacson it had been a small comfort to snarl back, "He's autistic, what's your excuse?" and have the people retreat in embarrassment. This Mongolian mode of treatment of the parents seemed preferable to me, even though I don't know exactly what they were thinking. Causing stress and public humiliation to parents of a disabled child does a disservice to everyone. It stigmatizes the disability, hurts the parent-child interactions, and makes life more difficult for all.
The next day, Rowan & Co. set out to meet the Shamans for leg one of the journey. They gave thanks to Isaacson, explaining that under Communism's rule, Shamanism had been repressed, and he was assisting in the comeback of the old folk religion, not only by bringing Rowan, but I think the cameras and the eventual film would help shine a light on the significance of the religion to the shamans.
The ceremonies involved yak's milk, vodka, and elaborate, repetitive chanting and drumming. Honestly... While some parts of it didn't seem so bad, a few moments made me severely uncomfortable:
Still, once in the shaman's arms, to my great surprise, he went quiet and still. Until the assistant passed her spiritual mistress a bottle of vodka, from which the shaman took a hearty pull, then without warning spat the liquid over Rowan's face and body. The result was predictable:
I'm twenty-one years old, mostly a placid person, and not much can surprise me. But someone spitting vodka all over me without warning would illicit some major screams and howls of pain and disgust. Especially if it got into my eyes, nose or mouth, which I suspect may have happened to Rowan: alcohol of all kinds, let alone straight up vodka, is very flammable and stings the skin upon contact, but in the eyes, nose or mouth, it downright burns.
I honestly think doing that, regardless of the cultural context, was cruel.
But that doesn't even begin to compare with the discomfort I felt for Kristin, Rowan's mother:
"Er.... the shaman says that when you were pregnant, black energy entered you womb. You must take this vodka and cleanse the, um, parts where Rowan came down."
Kristin looked at him a moment. "You're saying I have to take this bowl of vodka and wash my vagina out with it?"
Tulga looked at the grass. "Um... yes, the shaman says is (sic) very important.

Kristin took this all very well, joking about photoshopping out her cellulite and washing the C-section scar with the vodka while it was filmed. But I was mortified. Again, alcohol burns when it comes into contact with certain tissues, and I can't even imagine the horrible burn of having to douche out your vagina with vodka, let alone the consequences of the PH balance of the vagina being thrown off or drying it out.
At this point, the skeptic in me was inside screaming "How can you read about this! This makes ABA and refrigerator mothers seem tame in comparison!" And it's true. The idea of black energy causing autism was very anti-neurodiversity. Saying the womb was entry for this black energy was akin to autism's discovery and the coining of the refrigerator mother hypothesis. I just could not wrap my head around either Rowan being sprayed or this douching to be acceptable. I wasn't particularly expecting a neurodiverse view from the Shamans honestly, but having vodka spat onto Rowan took me aback.
It continued with Rowan's parents being whipped by the shaman painfully. Rowan, mercifully, received a more humane whipping, and he was described as being giggly and cooing throughout the whipping, so I was slightly relieved. But at this point I was seriously beginning to worry about this. It was not good that we were only two days into Mongolia and I was already getting sick to my stomach with horror at what was being done. I just hoped that future treatments would be more humane, and that this was just something akin to hazing from a sorority or fraternity at a university.
The next chapter detailed the shamans asking Rowan's mother Kristin if there had been anyone on her side of the family "like a shaman", who perhaps had been "oversensitive of the mind" and "not entirely stable". The shamans were alluding to a close relative, as a type of spirit, disrupting Rowan, and black energy related to water, that black energy had entered Kristin's womb while she had been in water, and this unhelpful ancestor and the black energy were part of Rowan's autism. Anyone familiar with cold reading can see that this isn't exactly a revelation. Most people have a female relative, and almost all families have a relative who has some type of mental disability or may be considered eccentric or unstable, and in many cultures, women are considered more susceptible to mental illness, or at least were more likely to be diagnosed as having something wrong with them if they deviated from the norm. So these small suggestions could have Rowan's parents overthinking and experiencing pattern recognition when there is none. Humans are absolute devils about seeing significant connections that don't actually exist.
At this point, they set off in a van for outer Mongolia to meet more shamans. There is, according to the narrating Isaacson, a decided improvement in Rowan's behaviour. He is speaking in more fluid sentences now, possesses a larger vocabulary, and says "please" and "I love you".
But then an unusual occurrence takes Isaacson by surprise: Rowan refuses to ride the Mongolian horse that he had fitted for them to ride together in the wilderness, opting to stay in the van. His father notes this ironically, but he seems heartbroken at Rowan's refusal to ride. After all, this book was called The Horse Boy. But I couldn't help but remember that Rowan had not necessarily had a natural rapport with all horses, just Betsy and her herd. Maybe this horse just wasn't one that Rowan felt a connection with, or he was just plain tired and wanted to ride. Whatever the case, I didn't particularly see it as a devastating blow.
But Isaacson admits that he makes a mistake, and forces Rowan to ride Blackie with him. The chapter ends with Rowan screaming "help me, help me!" and "retreating" due to his nervous system being overloaded with stimuli. Having experienced similar blackouts before, I was extremely pained to read this, it was down right triggering for me, and I had to pause to put the book down for a few moments and gather my bearings.
When I started up again, Isaacson was miserable and angry at himself for what he did to Rowan, angry that he hadn't considered all the possibilities and accommodations, and wondering if Rowan had been stripped of his connection with horses by this trauma.
Fortunately though, Rowan bonds with a horse named Blue, and they eventually make it to the Reindeer people without much incident, save some food poisoning, a few tantrums from Rowan, and numerous "Code Browns" (Rowan is incontinent, this is parent code for a wash-up and fresh change of pants) The shaman they were seeking, a man by the name of Ghoste, assures them that Rowan will be a shaman one day, unless they do anything to disrupt it. After a ritual and the sacrifice and consumption of a special reindeer, they head out to return to Ulan Bator, and by all accounts, Rowan begins to show decided improvement. His speech increases drastically, he expands his imagination, and, much to his parents' relief, Code Browns become a thing of the past. Everyone is joyous as Rowan learns to use the toilet, begins to tell stories, and seems to lose his neurological overloads.
Upon their return to Texas, after a meeting with Simon Baron Cohen (Many bloggers better than I have covered why Baron Cohen is problematic as a speaker about autism) the family begins to notice Rowan's improvements are not hiccups or confined only to Mongolia. He seems happier, less miserable, and less prone to tempestuous changes in his body due to sensory overload. He makes friends, rides horses, and continues to progress. I define "progress" here as this: Rowan is happier. He is more aware of his surroundings, yet less likely to be hurt by them through a sensory overload.
When Rowan benefits, his family benefits. His parents experience more freedom now that their son is happier and less attached to them. During one of these outings, Rupert Isaacson mused on Rowan's progress:
Rowan is still autistic- his essence, his many talents, are all tied up with it. He has been healed of the terrible dysfunctions that afflicted him- this physical and emotional incontinence, his neurological firestorms, his anxiety and hyperactivity. But he has not been cured. Nor would I want him to be. To "cure" him, in terms of trying to tear the autism out, now seems to be completely wrong. Why can't he exist in both worlds, with a foot in both, as many neurotypical people do? Think of immigrants in the United States, living with one foot in their home language and culture, the other in the West, walking in two worlds. It is a rich place to be. Can Rowan keep learning the skills necessary to swim in our world while retaining the magic of his own? It seems a tangible dream.
I am not ashamed to admit that when I read that, I started crying.
The book ends a few pages after, talking about a new charity that Isaacson set up to combine equine therapy with autism therapy, and that the proceeds from this book would benefit scholarships for families of children with autism who could not otherwise afford this luxury/necessity.
The epilogue from a year and a half later came, detailing Rowan's continued progress and the success of the equine therapy school. With it were acknowledgements and thank you's, sources (one of which was Autism Speaks, ugh) and reading group guide questions. The very last question:
17. In what ways might autism be considered a gift?
It couldn't have possibly ended in a better way.

I went through a lot of emotions when reading this book. I took a different approach to both reading and reviewing it than I did Unstrange Minds or Autism's False Prophets, because while the former two were written by doctors in medicine or anthropology, and Unstrange Minds took a few steps away from Grinker's daughter Isabel, this was completely about Rowan and his family, personal and up close. I knew I would have to take a different attitude besides my de facto analytical approach, and take it all with a little grain of salt. And if you document my shifting opinions throughout the review, you'll notice I went through quite the emotional roller coaster: Anger, confusion, sadness, happiness, relief, apprehension.... It was interesting.
I also knew when I started this project of new age perspectives on autism that I would frequently be challenged by assertions that would upset me as a skeptic and a science advocate. Such is the case in this book, being angered by giving Rowan homeopathic solvents, chelation elements, and Isaacson's uncritical assertion that scientists believed that autism was caused by environmental factors. In fact, a genetic view is much more common, and the main proponent of the environmental theory (I hesitate to even dub it that) is quacks at Age of Autism. The promotion for Autism Speaks though, made me angriest. To have it come at the end of the book made all of Isaacson's beautiful words about curing being an absurd idea to ring hollow to a degree. I'm guessing he's not familiar with Autism Speaks' motives and philosophy, but it was still a bad move in my book.
However, in spite of it all, I really enjoyed this book, and I was overjoyed by the message of embracing autism. I know not all parents can journey to Mongolia, and so this works better as a travel memoir or an anthropological study of shamanistic rituals in Mongolia than it does as a book about how to resolve your own child or your own neurological tempests and troubles. But the fact that it was such a popular book (and film) testifies to the power of these types of stories to educate. Knowing that thousands, if not millions, of people read that passage above about how curing is a fool's errand and were asked to consider autism's gifts made me feel hope like never before.
As I continue to delve into the world of new age thought and autism, I wonder if I will discover more examples of this, of autism being seen as something more, something special. Not just a series of sturm & drang in need of desperate curing.
In the meantime, pick up the Horse Boy for yourself if you desire. The profits towards the book go into this cause.

1 comment:

  1. This does sound interesting. Unfortunately, except for the occasional exception, I choose which books to read via compulsion. That makes me unlikely to read book recommended to me. But I do allow myself a bit of "freedom" when I visit bookstores, so I'll look into it next time I'm at one! :)

    I might look into those other books you recommended, too.