The unifying theme of this book is that healing calls for making meaning out of illness. Stories have arcs that organize experience into meaning, as they grow from the initial alarm into conflict and struggle in pursuit of a goal, and finally come to a resolution. Marc Ian Barasch uses classic films as myths of the healing path, a framework within which he tells his own story and the stories of others who have confronted serious illness. The essence of healing isn’t always surviving. Some of his journeyers, as he calls his fellow travelers on the path, died. Others had virtually impossible recoveries through spiritual and holistic approaches to self-healing, defying both medical predictions and medical advice. Still others, like the author, had conventional treatment while integrating psychological and spiritual changes.
Barasch did substantial research. His own encounter with cancer and his bizarre dreams that diagnosed it long before his doctors did and predicted aspects of his treatment provoked his curiosity about how others heal. (He wrote another book, Healing Dreams, which I highly recommend.) I’ve read just about every book or study that he cites in The Healing Path , which made this section of the book a little too familiar to me, but then, I’m a professor who has taught a course on alternative medicine. The book is few years old, so its medical information isn’t the latest, but the essence of the message holds up. His adventures as a seeker of alternative options, and the profound self-explorations of the journeyers he interviewed, make for a compelling story.
His language is extraordinary. I bought this book as a used paperback, idly curious after having liked Healing Dreams, and I’ve actually highlighted and starred sections, something I don’t normally do to my books. There are so many shining jewels I had to make sure I could find them again.
The final sections of the book blew me away. I’ve studied energy healing, psychology, and a lot of yoga and meditation. I teach the latter two. I write fiction that involves a healer. I know this stuff, but he knows more, because he has lived through things I haven’t. He taught me, even though all the facts were familiar. His wisdom isn’t platitudinous. It’s hard won.
In James Scott Bell’s writing guide Super Structure, he discusses how great movies and fiction all have a turning point in the middle where the protagonist confronts a painful or frightening truth about himself or his life. Bell calls it the Mirror Moment—looking in the mirror literally or figuratively—and says the essence of it is change or die. This might not mean bodily death; it could be spiritual or emotional or professional. (Synchronicity: He uses one of the same movies Barasch does, the Wizard of Oz, to illustrate his ideas.) This next observation is a minor spoiler, if nonfiction can have spoilers. Barasch says his realization at the key stage of his journey through cancer was change or die. He had to change his whole life, not just get the disease treated. He was facing all the forms of death, not just the one threatening his body.
Change or die. That’s the hardest lesson—we fear change. It can seem like a death of sorts. When sick people change, it can upset those around them. This aspect of healing and illness is examined frankly in this book. The larger story around each journeyer shows over and over that healing is not a return to sameness. Disruptions ripple in all directions.
Anyone who is or has been seriously ill, knows someone who is, or simply loves good writing, could appreciate this book. And strangely enough, there’s a lot in it for fiction writers to learn from, as Barasch uses fiction to illuminate aspects of the plunge into illness, the confrontation with mortality, and the helpers and obstacles encountered on the way out—the healing path.