Interviewee 2: You know I have been asked you know if you could wake up in the morning and god could heal you wouldn’t you do it? I says no because there’s nothing to heal. I’m fine the way I am so.
Jak: Welcome to the Guide Gods Digital Collection, I’m Jak Soroka in conversation with Claire Cunningham. You’re listening to a series of podcasts created from the interview material collected as part of Claire’s show, Guide Gods.
Jak: So the first one I picked was a faith healer story, and it, it spoke to me because it surprised me that I was moved by it because it is a story, that’s, it’s a very positive story around an experience of healing and someone feeling they have been healed from a religious experience. But there’s something about the way it’s told, I can’t not empathise with it.
Interviewee 1: My aunt had agoraphobia so she couldn’t go outside, she could go out if she was with someone, and so my other aunt was taking her to a faith healer so, you know so, faith healer, what? You what now? So I went along, you know, in my arrogance to put this guy right and sort of tell him to leave my aunts alone and stop trying to brainwash them, you know.
I went in and when I opened that door I just took one look at that man and I felt so embarrassed because I just knew he was a Christian, don’t ask me why, and I knew there was something genuine, not a, you know, not a “get up in Jesus’ name”, you know he was the real thing just looking at him it was just. I couldn’t explain to you. Now when I told you I didn’t know, well I knew God could heal but I didn’t know whether he wanted to or not, as I was closing the door he says “I just want you to know one thing, God does want to heal you”, and I thought ‘uh oh he can read minds, think pure thoughts, think pure thoughts’, I remember thinking that ‘think pure thoughts’.
He says, “But I’m just here every Friday and I offer myself to pray for people. That’s it. So do you want me to pray for you?”, and I said “Well okay then”. So he said, “Well you know where is it” and I explained my condition, he says “Okay”. So he put his hand on my shoulder and he just prayed for me, no flashing lights nothing, no “in the name of…”, just prayed for me, “look God you know you see this girl, she’s young, you know if it’s your will. You know, heal her”, and that was fine.
I went straight to bed which was not like me and straight to sleep. I woke up and I waited for the pain to hit, and there was nothing, and I thought ‘okay I’m still asleep, I’m obviously still asleep’ and I nipped myself really hard and I thought, ‘I’m not asleep. I’m not asleep’.
No pain in my joints nothing. I was able to run up and down the stairs, I was lifting tables and chairs because I couldn’t even lift, you know I couldn’t lift a fork it was just too sore. Um, ate something, solid, and of course my mum came running out of the bedroom, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” and I went “I’m healed, I’m healed, I’m healed!” and I lifted her and I swung her around you know.
Jak: Yeah so I guess I’ll talk a bit about what that story does for me and then I’ll ask about your response to it. I guess in the context of, in some other interviews you touch on this idea that there needs to be a space for disability communities to lament and grieve as well as to be the sort of like defiant and 100% happy with how you are, there’s also, there is suffering and there is struggle, and I guess I think about that when I listen to this story being told, and perhaps that’s why it touches something in me and strikes me as important to put out into the world. But I wondered what it does for you?
Claire: Yeah I think her story was really interesting because she kind of, has gone through many different stages of I think her relationship with healing as well. And at the start of this story she kind of is quite cynical, she is going into a faith healer [laughs] ready to give him an earful actually which I quite like, but is then, as she tells us, she believes she was healed by this guy.
To then actually what she went on to talk about later is that actually as she got older she acquired more impairments and more, you know many quite painful conditions, you know, and does very openly talk about at times you know, really feeling suffering from her conditions at times. But has this really interesting unusual place of having, believing that she was healed at one moment in her life, and talking about, she knows now that that is possible, and therefore understands that having, being in a current situation of knowing it’s possible to be healed but believing that God’s choosing not to heal again, or further situations in her life.
And so there’s a really interesting sort of journey of very conflicting sort of experiences that she’s had, and yet still absolutely has a, has a belief in the possibility of healing and talks about yeah I don’t know why he’s chosen not to heal me now but that’s his choice, you know.
And so, I think what for me was, I mean, yeah, coming from a place where that is an usual experience for me to have ever heard somebody directly tell me that they had been healed, you know I hadn’t encountered that before I guess it was something that I was only aware from TV documentaries or something, but, and yeah to have I guess personally quite cynical perspective or expectation around that. For me what was, I think what was part of the process for me was realising that when you sit in a room on your own with somebody who tells you these stories then, it, it does completely challenge you to the core. It doesn’t change me to the extent that I suddenly believe that there’s a God personally, but I have to sit there and go, well yeah I absolutely believe that she believes she was healed at a point in her life. And I think if I’d read that story, or I’d watched it on a documentary I would be quite cynical of it still but somehow there’s something about sitting, sitting with a person telling you one to one, you can’t hold on to that cynicism anymore somehow. And so yeah I think that’s the things that really struck me from moments like this of talking to people who, yeah, who were willing to kind of also be very open about the contradictions that they knew that they embodied.
Jak: It strikes me, that kind of what you’re saying is that actually she, this story occupies, does occupy a grey area in that, it’s not that she was looking to be healed and trying to find that all her life, and actually, she, I think earlier in the interview she talks about how she can see how certain healing practices is all about normalisation and she completely rejects that, and so that’s interesting I think for me to hear someone with a story like this but they’re still politicised actually in their identity, and those two things are not mutually exclusive, like you can have a belief and have a faith and be right on, I kind of, I like that.
Claire: Yeah, absolutely.
Jak: But to offset that [laughs] that whole thing entirely I’ve also picked another person who’s voice stood out to me, actually for their strong critique of healing, religious healing practices, and particularly for highlighting how damaging it can be actually, particularly as a young person, which I think I was completely ignorant to before. And its, this is by no means the only voice that has this kind of story to tell, and, probably these kinds of stories outweigh the positive stories, yeah and I think that opened my eyes to what is essentially, like, abuse but being, yeah being done under a kind of sacred guise.
What you’re about to hear is someone talking from their experience as a young child, of being taken to a faith healer and the negative impacts of this. As a head’s up, this person’s disability affects her speech, so we’ve provided a transcript which you may use for reference for this part. You can find this on the right-hand side of the page, as is possible with all the podcasts.
[Interview clip plays]
Interviewee 2: I do remember a priest saying once when I was about 15 or so that if I embraced God, Jesus, that I would be cured, which to me was just… I was well aware I had cerebral palsy and there is no cure and I didn’t actually want a cure. I was happy enough the way was so, to me that was just… to me that was dangerous to hear that. You know if someone else, maybe more impressionable may have believed that. To me you know in that way, I thought it was absolutely disgusting to even say it to me. And the fact that he thought I wanted to be cured annoyed me more than anything.
I do remember when I was very young, you know before we moved to England we lived in Northern Ireland, my mother taking me to a faith healer. I think I’d have been about six and you know he come to Northern Ireland, this big faith healer, and there was like hundreds of people going to him. And he rubbed my, he told my mother to get soil from a relative’s grave… and take it in and he rubbed my face and my hands with it. And I, even then, thinking you know, just thinking this is stupid, you know. I knew that even then, that I was, I wasn’t going to be any different the next day. I wasn’t going to wake up and be different. That was… that was probably my very first sort of, thinking, you know this religious stuff was not all it was cracked up to be.
Claire: I think what strikes me when I remember these conversations and when I listen to this again is the, the, what you were saying about particularly the danger around being, the influence particularly of this sort of healing narrative when people are young and that the difference between these stories is also that the first person acquired their impairment as they got older, and then the second person that we’re talking about here who was taken to the healer at six years old and had soil from a grave rubbed in their face, is somebody who grew up, who was born with an impairment, and from the very youngest age is being subjected to a narrative, a projected narrative from a faith perspective that they should be healed.
I think there’s something really, yeah. It was quite sort of striking to have these different conversations, to recognise that both these people absolutely are very, as you say are really quite politically engaged around disability, and are very much come from, speak from places of ‘I’m fine the way I am’, actually both of them will talk from that perspective of, you know one absolutely has a strong religious belief and you know is fine with her relationship with God and being disabled, ‘I’m fine the way I am and if he wants to heal me anymore he will’. And the other person is absolutely, sort of, doesn’t want anything to do with religious institutions because they felt so damaged by this treatment as a child and also this, yeah this sort of continuing, sort of, being dragged to things like faith healers and things.
And just yeah the recognition that coming to disability later in life, as an adult as the first person did, meant that they have, yeah, you have a different sort of confidence and ability maybe to kind of hold, hold yourself against, you know, she was already to walk, she was in a position where she could go in and argue with a faith healer whereas a six year old child doesn’t get that choice.
And so, yeah they were really, I guess what was kind of hard to hear at times was these stories particularly where people had been children and really have no autonomy over their own choices, are really subject to their parents’ choices, or their family’s choices or their religious communities’ choices. And yeah sometimes I guess quite often with the people I interviewed, that’s where the damage in their relationship to religion had come from, they had, a number of them, not all of them, but a number of them had become quite alienated from the faith, because of these encounters as children that really they had no control over.
Jak: It strikes me that the difference between them is, is consent basically. One person, okay even though at first she was kind of like, I’m not up for this, then was and that’s, that’s actually the thing that struck me through listening to all the different stories is yeah, healing works when someone wants to be healed [laughs].
Jak: And I think that the subtext around enforcing healing on someone without asking whether they want it is; I’m not accepting you as you are and there is something about you that needs to be changed, and that’s actually a view that’s kind of just rife in society so it’s sort of unsurprising that it’s in religion, in religious practices. But it does surprise me the extent to which, the extent to which people have experienced it, that did surprise me.
Jak: This story is continuing on the accounts of negative experiences of non-consensual healing and a trip to Lourdes in France, which from my small understanding is a place where Catholics often take their disabled relatives to be healed and yeah there’s things like holy water that people are dipped into and…
Claire: It’s a big pilgrimage site for Catholics, I think for lots of reasons, but yeah it’s really famous particularly as a healing spa town sort of thing as well.
Jak: Okay yeah. Actually after this story I had a quick look online of the crutch grotto.
Claire: I’m quite desperate see it, a crutch grotto is like my idea of heaven in a way, [laughter] ironically. Yeah, as someone who uses and loves crutches the desire– I did question whether I should have gone to Lourdes, but actually again I was, I thought about it, and then I thought actually I don’t, emotionally and psychologically I just felt I didn’t want to put myself in a place like that. I wasn’t sure if I could, if I was strong enough to kind of deal with that, yeah the kind of overwhelming state of being somewhere that is trying to be about changing a body, potentially.
Jak: Yeah, yeah. Actually looking at the photos they were weirdly beautiful and eerie at the same time. But yeah this is a personal account of that place.
Interviewee 2: I had to sit there soaking wet to dry and you weren’t allowed to dry yourself and you weren’t allowed, you know. So you had to wait in front of loads of complete strangers stark naked. I was like oh god. So I didn’t go there [unclear] and my mother went mad, ‘it’s not going to work!’ I goes, “It’s not going to work anyway”! I goes, “I can go to this for a year and it’s still not going to work”. You know this is who I-
So and as I say I went to the grotto and they had all the crutches hanging in the grotto and I just felt sick you know. I wonder who actually owned them crutches that are there. You know that whoever manages the grotto, did they put them there or did people actually leave them there and then they had like I guess the next four nights, a candlelit procession through the town, which was lovely. You know it looked beautiful, but then the way that all the disabled people in their wheelchairs and their beds. And some are very severely disabled, you know, really, I was just… To me it was like a freak show. That’s how it felt to me. And I felt bad for standing and watching it and just thought oh god. So, the brilliant experience of Lourdes.
Jak: As I was listening to different people’s healing stories, your response was often to talk about your experience of similar things or people, yeah telling you ‘you need to be healed’ and I wondered if, and the negative impacts of that, and I wondered if you looked at those stories, those experiences that you had differently after listening and hearing other people’s? If they’ve been reframed at all or…?
Claire: Yeah, I mean I think my own experiences with, the sort of yeah, a projection from others of needing healed are quite mild I realised in relation to what a lot of people had been subjected to, you know I had a few sort of sporadic encounters as I was growing up that, somebody, you know— And quite a few as you would hear already, a number of these interviews were in Northern Ireland and I was at uni in Southern Ireland, so again it was a predominantly Catholic country. You know I occasionally had people wanting to pray for me or offering me medals for prayers.
Yeah, and but at that point being in my, twenties, and late twenties then a few other quite rare encounters because I wasn’t in a faith community, or I wasn’t subject to it much as a child, that, I was aware of moments of, what, what began to occur to me was I was really, I was really unclear whether people were offering to pray for me for my benefit or for their benefit.
And that was my sort of, my personal overriding question at times, and coming into the show, into this research and talking about healing, that was sometimes what I was curious about with people as to whether people felt that this, people wanting you healed, or praying for your healing, whether that was really sometimes, really about the person and supporting them, or whether it was about the person doing the praying making themselves feel better, or in some cases earning, earning credit [laughs] in the eyes of their God you know. And that was, that was my sort of quite negative sort of perspective and frustration that I was coming with.
So I think partly it made me realise how lucky I was that I had had such mild experiences compared to what other people had encountered.
Jak: It just struck me actually that, I feel like ‘enforced healing’ is like a paradox/, I feel like healing can only be, like it has to kind of come from you otherwise it’s not healing.
Claire: /Yeah [laughs].
I think also for me It was also this vital thing of learning that, this notion of healing is a very broad concept and can be a very broad concept, and isn’t this narrow thing about fixing a physical body, particularly, that that many people, had sort of you know in many experiences it had been narrowed down to ‘let’s make this person not asthmatic’, ‘let’s make this person not have cerebral palsy’, ‘let’s make this body straight and strong’ [coughs], perceptions of what strong is, you know… ‘Let’s make these bodies, normalise these bodies in some way’.
And I think yeah the important thing that I had to learn from this was that, yeah, of, you know the people that I spoke to teaching me that the notion of healing can mean a vast array of things, and means a very different things [sic] to different people.
But the problems are when it’s a projection from somebody else as to what should be healed, as opposed to what people internally want healed, and that it’s quite valid to want healing in your life but that might not actually take the form that somebody else thinks it takes. And yeah that was I think a really important, a very simple but really profound and important thing for me to start to understand.
Jak: Thanks for listening to this conversation as part of the Guide Gods Digital Collection. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please listen to our other conversations via the website.