A few weeks ago we finished our tour of the United States. On the tour, we drove from New York, to Miami, to Los Angeles, to Minneapolis, to Saint Louis, and then back again to New York and boy are our wheels tired. In celebration of the distance that we covered, after the last performance we promptly found ourselves a comfortable couch where we laid ourselves down and didn’t move for a week. Somehow during this week I came across the book Mutant Message Down Under, by Marlo Morgan, and I read the whole thing in one sitting. The story is about a middle class white lady from the US who is taken on a three month walkabout through central Australia by a group of Aboriginals who have so far avoided documentation by the Australian government. They walk through the desert in the peak of Australian summer and live off of the animals and plants that they encounter on their walk. The book is published by Harper Collins as a work of fiction, although there is a foreword chapter titled, “From the author to the reader,” in which it is stated that the story was inspired by an actual experience, and that it has been presented as fiction in order to protect the small tribe of Aborigines written about from legal involvement. As I lay there on the couch not moving, I found myself pretty sucked in to the story. After reading it I found that a number of the scenes and ideas in the book stuck with me and really kind of moved me. I passed the book to my girlfriend on her end of the couch and she read it in 2 hours without getting up once.

I can expand on what it was about the book that touched me, but not before mentioning the fact that the story is complete hooey. The author turns out to be kind of a nasty lady, to boot. I did some research about it last night because I had become curious about Aboriginal cultures, and I came across a number of thoughtful essays and websites which document the story’s countless blatant fabrications, and the outrage which the book inspired among the Aboriginal communities across Australia. (This essay in particular is excellent.) It turns out that Morgan did go to Australia once in the early 1990’s. She spent three months in Australia working for a pharmacy, then returned to the US and started selling Tee Tree oil through a network marketing company. As an advertisement for the oil, she fabricated a story about being introduced to the cure-all oil by a group of native people who led her on a mystical three month journey through the desert. When people became interested in learning more about her story, she wrote it out in long form and self published it, eventually selling 370,000 self-published copies. It was later republished by Harper Collins (which happens to be owned by Rupert Murdoch, which seems appropriate on various levels). The story is a lie, but Morgan presented it as non-fiction because she knew that the idea that such a journey could be possible in modern times would be more captivating to readers. She succeeded in her aims to captivate readers; the book was a bestseller for six months in the mid 90’s, Morgan appeared on Oprah, United Artists purchased the film rights and suggested that Susan Sarandon might play her character, etc.

So I was duped. And here I thought I was a critical reader. I let myself believe that her story really happened because I wanted it to be possible. Looking back it’s so obvious that she was inventing facts. The scene where she talks about the native Australian women making dream catchers out of spiderwebs certainly should have been my wakeup call. Not to mention that Morgan is a terrible writer. The book feels like it was written by a highschool senior, and is riddled with very implausible coincidences, which I sort of skimmed through as I read them. But I let myself believe the general outline of the story because it felt like a window into a world that I wanted to exist. It’s a portrait of people living out in nature and making it work, overcoming the difficulties via the power of a resonating spiritual awareness focussed on the specialness of being alive. It’s a really nice notion, and after having bulleted across my own country in a gas powered motor, pressing my face against the window and fantasizing about stopping the car and sitting for hours among some of the geological wonders that we didn’t have time for, I guess I can see why I was particularly susceptible to a hot desert fantasy.

I am reminded of an interaction I had with a couple of frat boys who ended up at our performance in Dallas. They came up to me afterwards and said that they were there only because they had a friend working at the venue. They had never heard of us before but they really loved the show. The two guys were brothers, and the older one had a girlfriend on his arm. For a minute I stood alone with the younger one, and he said to me, “my older brother really loved you man, he kept saying how he couldn’t believe how good the show was” (this I could actually hear while I was on the stage) “and he just couldn’t figure out what it was about you that was so great.” He then said, “my older brother gets all the girls, his dick is the size of your arm.” I said that large boy privates aren’t really what I am into, and he told me that this was really too bad, and that now his brother wasn’t going to like The Blow anymore, and then he walked away.

Am I guilty of duping the brother? I am pretty up front about not being into boy privates, and I mention it clearly during the performance, but I can see that the way that I have been presenting myself in the show lends the opposite impression. He and his gang were talking and drinking and probably listening to every other word I said, and my physical appearance probably said more about who I am than any of my words. They saw girl with long hair putting on heels dancing to the music and I guess they attached all the typical associations and bought it. I am interested in the contradictions between how it appears and what it is, I like letting the fiction rub up against the non fiction. What is interesting to me is that when I clarified the reality of the situation, the younger brother’s judgement was that if the straight boy couldn’t believe in the fantasy of what he thought I was, then he didn’t want anything to do with me.

In my research on Australian Aboriginals, I found some interesting information presented by Aboriginal communities themselves. One website presents a report on the pan-Australian Aboriginal response to Morgan’s book, and chronicles the trip that a delegation of elders took to Los Angeles to meet with United Artists and protest the film company’s plans to make a movie of the story (which appears to have worked). I also found something called 12 Canoes which is an exquisitely constructed website that presents a picture of the Yolngu people who live in north eastern Australia. It was initiated by the Dutch film director Rolf de Heer who made the movie 10 Canoes with the involvement and support of the Yolngu community. I really enjoyed the movie 10 Canoes when I saw it, and the 12 Canoes site is pretty inspiring, because it feels like the community is directly inviting interested viewers to look through the digital window and take a peek at the world in which they are living. The site opens with an introduction, which says,”We welcome you to know about us, about our culture, this way.” Look, they wear clothes and have cars. Certainly this is not as romantic for the new age western audience as an image of people healing themselves with the energy field, who walk around naked and silent speaking mostly via group telepathy. But on the plus side, it does in fact happen to be true, and there is something really beautiful about looking at things and being willing to see what they actually are.

***If my post has made anyone curious about Morgan’s book, please do the karmic balances a favor and don’t go out and buy it. Her endeavors really don’t seem to deserve any more financial gain. For example, when another delegation of Aboriginal elders went to Japan to protest Morgan’s lecture tour there, she told the audience that the protestors had travelled there to try and assassinate her, but that “the attempt had failed because she represented all that was good and that [the protestors] represented all that was bad” and that “in the end, goodness will prevail.” When the Aboriginal delegation went to another lecture in order to protest, as they were approaching the podium Morgan handed them a red rose and said, “Take this token gift of love, come over to us and become one with us. We know you are full of anger and hate but we love you all the same.” (I took these quotes from the excellent essay linked above, “Helping Yourself” by Cath Ellis, and she properly cites her sources in the bibliography attached to the essay. This is to say: that woman really said those things. Sometimes the beauty of seeing something clearly leaves you with an eyeball full of nastiness.)

August 16, 2011

  1. jg

    if, after all this, you want to read another book about aboriginal culture, may I suggest Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines? he’s a travel writer, in theory, but usually makes a bunch of stuff up as well. so it’s probably not a very accurate description, but it’s a very beautiful ‘story’ about how aboriginals use songs as sort of maps. their place in the world around them (and, in a way, the world around them per se) is caught in the songs their sing to themselves. (the wikipedia page – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Songlines – makes it sound a lot worse than I remember it being).

  2. missy

    I’m so glad i read your blog. I feel connected to you in some way. I’m so glad I got to meet you in LA when you performed. Out of the countless days I’ve been alive, that night seemed best.

  3. vicky

    i am glad i caught your *** footnote

    i would really like to read a future blog post from you that lists books you read and liked circa age 23 aka post-college blues time

    i miss how in grade school, the books that teachers keep in the classrooms for us to read are books featuring characters who are also our age, and that’s nice

  4. Khaela

    I am glad that you reminded me, jg, about The Songlines. I’ve been meaning to read that. I suppose that every story has a little bit of invention, maybe it’s hard to avoid. I forgot to mention above that I also came across a site for Australia’s oldest Indigenous publishing house, Magabala Books: http://www.magabala.com, which has some things that look pretty interesting.

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