The Horse Boy


I had a quiet day today, popped into the office, pruned a hedge, did all that kind of thing. After dinner Clemency and I watched a DVD which I found almost unbearably moving. It is a documentary called The Horse Boy which records the story of Rupert Isaacson and Kristin Neff and their 4 year old autistic son, Rowan. Rupert is a journalist with an interest in the bushmen of the Kalahari and their shamanic traditions, and Kristin teaches psychology. Rowan is incontinent, prone to daily 4 hour tantrums and the other trials to which severely autistic people are subject, but he has an uncanny rapport with horses. Hoping against hope for some help from shamanic healers, his parents decide to take him to the place where there is a strong shamanic tradition and a strong horse culture: amongst the reindeer herders of Mongolia. The film is the story of their journey.

It traces a familiar inspirational arc for this sort of film, but does it with a good deal of sensitivity. It is a portrait of some absolutely wonderful parenting and a moving glimpse into autism and the burdens of those who live with it. But of course it is more than that. Kristin and Rupert finally reach their goal and a shamanistic ritual is performed and from that moment on an extraordinary transformation occurs in Rowan. His autism remains, but he becomes, almost instantly, continent and free of the terrible tantrums. His social isolation ends and he is able to relate to other children and to his parents.

Which all raises some interesting questions for a Christian. What on earth has happened here? I don't know a lot about shamanism, but had always assumed that when it worked it worked through the power of suggestion. The shaman becomes a focus, by agreement of the community in which the shaman lives, for spiritual values. The shaman performs his (usually) rituals, wears his symbolic garb and evokes the archetypes buried in the psyches of us all; healings are thus effected by the working of the unconscious mind on the body. Of course, all this can hardly have been happening for Rowan. And yet demonstrably, dramatically, he finds a measure of real healing.

This is one of those movies I am reluctant to speculate on. The experts gathered for the documentary seem, none of them, to understand the causes of autism or even what it is. The shamans diagnose it in terms of the spirit of a dead grandmother and of "dark energy". The shamans effect a cure. The experts do not. I am left with questions about consciousness and its relationship to our bodies. I am left also with questions about healings effected in the name of Jesus and the claims of many Christians to exclusivity in the area of healing. What was going on for Rupert, Kristin and Rowan? God knows. But watch it and tell me what you think.

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