If this book had been written as a novel, it would be perhaps more believable – as a memoir purporting to be wholly factual, it leaves too many questions hanging in the “smoke.”
Subtitled “A Woman’s Journey of Healing, Wild Love and Transformation in the Amazon,” the book has a lot to live up to. Written by music composer and sound artist Margaret de Wys of Bard College, the book has certain bona fides, one feels. Yet there is too much space in between the facts of the account, too many slippery places on the jungle path she leads us down, or down which she herself was led.
Margaret had breast cancer. Unconvinced by standard medical techniques, she sought the help of shamanic healers. At a convention of such people she met Carlos, an Ecuadoran Indian with feathers in his hair who immediately “saw” that she had “black smoke” in her breast. He told her he could heal her if she would come to his home. Throwing caution and convention to the winds, she went for a month and lived with Carlos and his family – a common-law wife, children, and many loosely defined relatives – in a primitive and dangerous setting where she knew nothing of how to survive, so made Carlos her guide.
He immediately introduced her to the use of ayuhuasca, a combination of various indigenous vines that brewed together make a foul tasting concoction (sometimes called yahe) with a potent hallucinogenic and emetic effect. Used for all kinds of cures in the Indian culture, ayuhuasca causes violent vomiting, sometimes bringing up intestinal parasites. Margaret believed that her purges may have rid her body of the toxins of civilization and the poisons of her disease. Carlos also introduced her to his healing methods, which varied from patient to patient and almost always included the ingestion by him, her and the patient of more of the drug. Margaret began to have full-blown hallucinations so vivid that she took them for real. Each time she had a significant vision she would tell Carlos and he would affirm the sacred and symbolic nature of her descriptions.
Margaret returned home to find that her cancer was completely gone, and with it her usual aspirations and her 20-year marriage. Inevitably she returned to Carlos and for a time became his lover.
Many of the healings Carlos, then Carlos and Margaret, and then Margaret alone performed are described in vivid detail. One involved a woman plagued by lower pelvic pain. Carlos rubbed her abdomen and chanted until Margaret “saw” a little girl emerge from the woman’s body and fly away. When she told Carlos about the little girl he confirmed that the woman had had a baby that had died at age two and that he had helped her to get rid of her sorrow and thus relieved her pains.
The relationship with Carlos was confining. Margaret had no knowledge of how to live in his world. She was never alone, and when she went off by herself one day, desperate for simple solitude, she stepped in quicksand. She was rescued by Carlos who, before extracting her, made her swear she would never leave again without someone to accompany her.
Later ,Carlos and Margaret teamed up to perform healings in the U.S. and then at a First Nations center in Canada, where Carlos ran afoul of the legal system
- one of his patients died shortly after he began her healing ceremony. His reputation as a healer couldn’t save him because he and his family were involved in the illegal traffic of ayuhuasca and no one was willing to vouch for him. Except Margaret.
I found too much of the typical cult leader personality in Carlos and was disappointed in him, though clearly his pupil was not. I saw too many ways in which she could have been duped, where the power of suggestion, the weight of culture shock and isolation, and the heavy use of drugs could have held her in his sway.
Other readers must draw their own conclusions from this unusual story.