Leigh Hopkins | Longreads | July 2019 | 25 minutes (6,131 words)
The roosters started at 4:30 in the pasture behind the inn. On the second crow, I rolled onto my back and blinked at the jalousie window’s slatted light, considering my first day at The Casa. We were allowed to ask three questions, no more. A visit with the world’s most famous “spiritual surgeon” was like going to see the wizard.
Mariana was silent in the bed next to me, the sleep falling in loose spirals across her face. I pulled back the sheets and slipped inside. “Bom dia.”
“Bom dia, meu amor.” A soft sound from a distant place.
Seven and a half years later, I receive a text from a friend in Rio: “Did you see the news?” She links to a New York Times article: “Celebrity Healer in Brazil Is Accused of Sexually Abusing Followers.”
When I visited John of God for the first time in 2011, I was an American expat living on an organic farm in the Serra dos Órgãos Mountains above Rio de Janeiro with my Brazilian wife. We had been together for eight years, so it only seemed fair that for a time, we should live in her country. I left a hectic career in social policy after the Obama administration picked up my nonprofit’s cause, figuring the hardest work was behind us.
Mariana saw the world in signs. A found penny meant money was coming. A white feather was a sign that the angels were watching. A black cat was a good sign as long it was facing you, but if it turned around, the good luck went with it. A bird in the house meant death was on the way. Whenever Mariana needed to make an important decision, she asked for a message, but the catch was that she rarely listened to the answer, especially if it wasn’t the one she wanted to hear. She just kept asking until she got the sign she needed.
When I visited John of God for the first time in 2011, I was an American expat living on an organic farm in the Serra dos Órgãos Mountains above Rio de Janeiro with my Brazilian wife.
If my throat hurt, she whipped up a batch of Brazilian tea, which tasted like a pungent combination of garlic, lemon, and the hunks of damp grass tossed behind the lawnmower. As I sipped, she closed her eyes, drew some symbols on my lower back and advised that I should wear more red because I was ungrounded and my root chakra was blocked. It was no wonder — before we moved to Brazil, I would wake up in Philadelphia on Monday, give a talk at the Colorado Department of Education on Tuesday, and by Thursday I was pitching to congressional staff in Washington. After years of grant writing and presenting literacy and poverty statistics to funders, Mariana’s world felt like magic.
As we braced ourselves for our second winter on our farm, I was willing to follow any sign that might mean an escape from the cold. Our farm was not far from Samambaia, the house where poet Elizabeth Bishop lived with her Brazilian partner Lota de Macedo Soares. Bishop wrote of our landscape:
“The mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships
slime-hung and barnacled.”
When it was clear that farming wasn’t going to cover our bills, we rigged a satellite dish to a boulder in a banana field and launched an online learning institute. We didn’t have indoor heat or hot water, so on winter mornings I pulled on every layer I could find: thermals under jeans, a tank top under a long-sleeved shirt under a t-shirt under a sweater under a thick blanket in front of the fire. I wore a wool hat inside. I cut finger holes in my socks so I could write. My nose was on permanent drip.
One morning, as I sat huddled in front of the fire, I uttered the two words I said so often they had become a kind of mantra: “Now what?” Before Brazil, I had moved 24 times, and then at 43, every morning I woke up trying to make peace with this new life far from everyone I loved, but one. The One.
I felt a tug toward the bookshelf, plucked out a book neither of us had read, and looked at the cover. The Brazilian Healer with the Kitchen Knife, by Sandy Johnson, the story of the author’s journey to understand mystic healing after surviving breast cancer.
I handed the book to Mariana at dinner. “I don’t know what it is,” I said, “but I think we should go see this guy.”
She reached for the olive oil and drizzled it over the rice and beans. “Who?”
“John of God,” I said. “I know it’s weird and we’re not sick, but wouldn’t it be —”
“João de Deus? I told you about him years ago!” She turned the pages. “Oh meu amor, it’s a sign,” she sighed. “And all the little devas made it come through your lips.”
João Teixeira de Faria, also known as John of God, has been described as the most celebrated spiritual healer and “psychic surgeon” in the world. His work falls under the umbrella of Spiritism, a philosophy that emerged in France in the 1850s. Spiritism appeared during a time when North America and Europe were undergoing a fascination with spirit communication. Suddenly, it was chic to attend a seance. Ghosts rapped on tables and blew in Victorian women’s ears. They whispered things that made them blush and faint.
When we visited John of God for the first time in 2011, Spiritism was the second largest religion in Brazil. Mariana grew up hearing stories about Chico Xavier’s prophecies and the miracle healings of John of God. During the time we lived on the farm, ABC and CNN covered John of God’s miracles, and Oprah visited to experience his healings firsthand. Musician Paul Simon visited the healer at his wife Edie Brickell’s urging, later sharing that his song “Proof of Love” was written during his visit to John of God.
CNN’s investigation by Dr. Sanjay Gupta led to criticism from the scientific community for his mostly positive report. He interviewed a medical doctor and Oprah Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Susan Casey, who had visited The Casa in the hope of healing her grief from her father’s death. When asked about the possibility of a placebo effect, Casey said, “I don’t know what the danger is in false hope. Is that bad?”
2.1 Casa Attire
The Entities request that all participants wear white clothing to the sessions at the Casa. The Casa is a Spiritual Center, it is a house of prayer. Please wear clothing that is appropriate to a house of prayer. This includes the gardens and the path to the sacred waterfall. Specifically, sleeveless shirts, shorts, cutoffs, and very revealing clothes are not allowed. Your clothing should fit comfortably and not be tight around the waist. If you cannot avoid wearing a belt, you should loosen it when sitting down in the current room. A good rule of thumb is to bring three white tops and two bottoms. — Casa de Dom Inácio Guide for English-Speaking Visitors
On the morning of June 28, 2011, Mariana and I boarded a plane in Rio de Janeiro carrying two suitcases packed with white clothing. After a four-hour flight to the capital city of Brasília, we hailed a taxi to rural Abadiânia. During the 90-minute drive, the driver explained that the entire commerce of the town of Abadiânia was built around the Casa de Dom Inácio, or “The Casa.” Seventy percent of the guests who arrived each day were foreigners. Some sought a spiritual cure, and for others it was a kind of spiritual tourism. It was estimated that on the busiest days, as many as 5,000 people visited The Casa. By 2018, those estimates rose to 10,000.
Mariana saw the world in signs. A found penny meant money was coming. A white feather was a sign that the angels were watching.
The landscape was like a lesson in contrast from where we’d been. Deep red earth spread in rolling hills, and great, unobstructed expanses of sky were marked with billowing clouds at the horizon. Crumbling shacks slumped along the roads and rickety horse-driven carts trundled along beside the highway, driven with whips by weathered men in button-down cotton shirts and felt fedoras. My chest, which had been huddled inward from the cold, opened wide.
Abadiânia looked like any of the small rural Brazilian towns I have come to know. Many of the streets were dry and unpaved, and the town ended where pasture began. White clothing hung from shop awnings, like a beach town without the beach. Skinny dogs trotted in groups along the road past kids kicking at a worn ball in the dirt.
“This is what I heard,” Mariana said, “but I didn’t expect it to be so rough.”
The driver stopped in front of a small inn. “The Casa is just at the end,” the driver pointed. “Vai com Deus.”
YouTube shows visitors receiving physical operations at The Casa, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I might be one of them. In one, a woman stands on a small, low stage, blouse open. The Medium selects what appears to be a serrated steak knife from a tray, holds it up for the audience to see. He presses his hand against her naked breast, a quick slice, a rivulet of blood. No anesthesia. With the other hand, he forces the wound open, shoves his thick fingers deep inside the two-inch wound up to the knuckle, roots inside her flesh. Something bloody, fatty, and unwanted is removed and placed in a stainless steel bowl. The woman faints, and she is caught by the waiting attendants and carried from the room.
Worse than this: the scalpel to the eyes, the dreaded cornea scraping. Or a three-inch pair of forceps, shoved up one nostril. A man braces himself and squints, arms back, fists clenched. Bloody forceps are wrenched deep inside his nasal cavity, turned around and around. He yelps, and something is yanked from his nose until the blood runs in a thick, vicious stream into the bowl. The Medium stands back to reveal a Ping-Pong sized tumorous ball of flesh gripped inside the forceps. The tumor is disposed of, hands wiped clean.
We were shown to a bare white room with two twin beds and a tiled bathroom with a shower spigot in the corner, all of it spotlessly clean. The inn was $40 USD a day for a room and three meals, which were served buffet style at two community tables. We filled our plates with greens, rice and beans and fried yucca, cupped bowls of sugary passionfruit pudding and coconut cake, and carried them to the table. The other guests were mostly from Greece, plus a few Bulgarians, and Peggy, a cheerful American in her 70s.
Peggy told us that the week before, “Medium João” had appeared on stage and performed several visible surgeries. He administered anesthesia by waving a hand over the afflicted area, and then in full view of the crowd, he used his bare hands to perform brain surgery.
“What?” Mariana coughed. “No.”
“Yes! He shaved off a man’s hair and pulled a tumor out of his head!”
“Are you kidding?” I asked.
“Nope,” said Peggy. “He invited the doctors in the audience up on stage, and then he gave one of them the microphone. The doctor said that in his professional opinion, the tumors had been removed.“ Peggy put her hands on her thighs and rocked, chuckling. “The next thing you know, John of God stitched him back up without even looking. His eyes were literally rolling around in his head!”
Mariana held her hand to her mouth. “Que coisa.”
“Do you think it’s real?” I whispered. She raised her eyebrows and shrugged.
I glanced at Delia, a woman from Iran. Days later, we would learn from her friend that Delia had rapidly advancing pancreatic and liver cancer. She had received chemo and multiple operations without success, and decided that she was done. Even though she was exhausted and in terrible pain, she was spending three weeks at the Casa, her final hope. I told Delia I’d be thinking of her. She just patted my wrist and gave a tired smile.
Peggy was at the Casa for reasons she didn’t mention, but one thing she didn’t count on is that she woke up and noticed that her toes, which had been twisted with arthritis, were straight.
“Aren’t they cute?” Peggy sighed. “I’m just enchanted with them.” She held one foot up for me to see, and they were indeed very happy looking little toes.
I linked my arm through Mariana’s. “You’d think we were on a cruise.”
“I know, it’s so fun, isn’t it?” Mariana laughed. “Maybe it’s all the processed sugar!”
Dinner was served promptly at 6 p.m. and over by 6:40, which gave us enough time to put on whites and walk to orientation. We were advised to be in our rooms by 10, a rule kept by the entire town. Everything shut down but the street dogs.
When we reached the Casa the next morning, dozens of tour buses were already parked outside. Mariana rushed two paces ahead down Main Street, flushed and a little frantic. “Ai! Estou nervosa, amor!” Her white shawl flapped around her hips, white cotton pants two inches too short for her long legs, like always. She crossed the dusty road in front of a pack of dogs.
“Vai!” she shouted, waving at them. “Ai Meu Deus, this is too crazy.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m trying not to freak out.”
I reached for her hand, and we entered the gates of The Casa for the first time. Signs led us to the center of the complex, where people chattered excitedly outside. A roofed lookout deck floated at the edge of the property like a raft. People leaned against the rails, watching the sunrise. I didn’t know that it was possible to miss the horizon until I moved to the mountains, and the rolling green savanna of Abadiânia felt expansive and even auspicious. The grassy courtyard held dozens of park benches marked with dedication placards, where people were bowed in prayer among the wooden church pews. A one-story structure led to a long hallway with closed doors marked “crystal beds.” All of the white stucco buildings were trimmed in a glossy azure.
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The Main Hall looked like an open-air mission church, with long rows of wooden pews and high, red-tiled ceilings. The room was enclosed on three sides, the entrance a wide welcome to anyone who chose to enter. People leaned along the walls in wheelchairs, walkers, back braces, heads covered in scarves. Children with twisted limbs or heads bald from chemotherapy were held by their parents, and people with swollen and purple feet from diabetes sat patiently waiting until the first line was called. Despite all the apparent suffering, the energy seemed hopeful.
There was so much to take in. At the far left end of the sanctuary, a stage-like platform was raised a few steps from the floor, and behind it, the wall was decorated with a few framed prints of saints and a large photo of a smiling blue-eyed John of God. To his right, a large wooden triangle was nailed to the wall. Handwritten notes were tucked along the edges, and a dirty smudge marked the triangle’s center.
One by one, people approached the mysterious wooden triangle on the wall, bowed, and slipped a note inside the frame. Some leaned their foreheads on the dirty smudge at the center of the triangle, praying, sometimes weeping. For others, there were even more rituals; first they knelt at the base of the stage, kissed the note and touched it to their heads before placing it on the triangle.
Mariana raised her eyebrows. “Muito estranho, meu amor,” she whispered. Very strange.
Signs posted on the wall read “Silêncio,” but the room buzzed with nervous chatter.
At 7:30, a round man with glasses took the stage. He stood at the microphone and called, “Corrente!” At the sound of his voice, two hundred people rose and formed a line. To the right of the main platform, a closed door opened. A beautiful woman with waist-length black hair guarded the entrance. She smiled serenely, hands clasped in front of her as people shuffled into “the Current Room” in single file. More than 20 minutes passed as the Current Line entered the hidden room. When it was over, the door closed.
Mariana poked my ribs. “We look like little patinhos,” she whispered.
She waddled her hips and gave a frisky look. “Ducklings!”
I laughed loud enough for people to turn and smile.
By 8:00, the Main Hall was standing room only. The anticipation had weight and shape. A small, weathered-looking family was dressed in their Sunday best; rumpled, brown wool suits and faded flowered dresses — The Casa sometimes made concessions for people who didn’t have the resources to wear white. A wrinkled woman clutched her husband’s hand as he gazed at the stage with milky, unseeing eyes.
At orientation the night before, a jovial guide informed us that everyone may ask up to three questions of “The Entity,” the name used for John of God when spirits were working through him. He advised us to consider our requests carefully, and told the story of a man who went before The Medium asking to know the “root cause” of his illness. João de Deus asked the man: “Do you want to know the cause of your illness, or do you want to be healed?” The guide looked at us like: can you believe it? Everyone chuckled.
I revised my questions. The author of the Oprah Magazine article went in search of relief from her grief over her father’s death. I knew this kind of grief. After seven years, the loss of my brother had transitioned from guts-bleeding-into-the-tiles sorrow to something more furtive. I had found a way to manage. I didn’t have a life-threatening illness that I knew of, and my grand mal seizures had taken the year off, controlled by medication.
YouTube shows visitors receiving physical operations at The Casa, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I might be one of them.
Ultimately, I chose one physical request: to heal my uterine fibroids; the second was an emotional appeal, to feel more at home in Brazil; and the third was a deeply spiritual request. I’m sure it was something about the very essence of my existence, a question with purpose and focus and bones, but to this day, I just can’t remember it.
A thin woman stood on tiptoe in front of me, jerking her head back and forth. She turned in my direction, and flickered over my light eyes and hair.
“English?” She asked.
“Yes.” I smiled.
“Do you know what happens next? When do I get my turn?”
I held out my hand. “May I see your ticket?”
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small laminated card the size of a raffle ticket.
“Primeira vez,” I read aloud. “It’s our first time, too.”
She clutched the ticket. “So now what? When do we get to see him?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know, I guess he decides once he gets here. Last night at orientation they told us it’s different every day.”
“Revisão!” A man’s voice called over the crowd. “Revision line!”
The woman’s head snapped around to face the stage. I raised my neck over the crowd as the next group shuffled in, another 200 to 300 people. As they filed past, an older man in a long white coat cut through the crowd and took the stage. He was introduced as a Filho da Casa, a “Son of The Casa.” In heavily accented English, then German, then Portuguese, he told the history of João de Deus with great passion. It had been 54 years since The Medium performed his first healing after incorporating the spirit of King Solomon.
“Primeira vez!” someone called out. “First time line.”
People swarmed and pushed, and someone from the stage called, “Calma! Everyone will have a turn!” After 15 minutes of shuffling, the beautiful woman at the door took Mariana’s ticket, and then mine, and we crossed the threshold into the Current Room.
It was nothing like I had imagined. Hundreds, maybe 1,000 people sat in church pews, eyes closed, a vibrating sea of white. Some moved their lips in silent prayer, some twitched or adjusted their positions, and others appeared to be completely at peace — a human current in service to The Entity.
Imagine entering a stadium full of sports fans after a big win, everyone cheering. Or a high school graduation, when the theater is filled with shared anticipation and pride, or the Fourth of July, with your arms around your love, watching the sky light up, knowing that you’re a part of something. Like that, but without the noise. Mariana shook her head at me, tears streaming down her face. The feeling was electric.
The line moved faster, past hundreds of people praying in pews on all sides, and as we turned the corner to face the line that waited before João de Deus, my body started making a slow buzz, like an airplane about to take off. At the end of the aisle, women dressed in gauzy white sat facing the line in a row of ornate wooden chairs, deep in meditation.
“Médiuns,” a woman whispered behind me. Mediums.
I peered around them to see people kneeling before an enormous, sagging man in a white bowling shirt and gold chains, seated on a kind of throne. One of the guides gave me a sharp look and pointed to the line. Everything was speeding up. I stared at the mole on the back of Mariana’s neck and tried to focus on my questions, but there was too much to take in: the church music, the strange instructions, the sweltering heat.
On cue, Mariana stepped forward and spoke to The Medium in Portuguese. He uttered a few words in a growling, emphatic voice, and in an instant, she had moved on.
I took two steps forward and faced John of God. His pale blue eyes gazed at me without expression, and when I opened my mouth to speak, his eyes rolled back. In the split-second it took me to make just one of my requests, he interrupted:
With a flick of The Medium’s hand, I was done.
On December 8, 2018, Dutch choreographer Zahira Lieneke Mous told Globo TV that during her second visit to The Casa, she was chosen for a private consultation with John of God. She says he told her, “You feel special.”
She reported that he took her into a private room, told her to turn around, and raped her. Afterwards, The Medium invited her to choose a crystal from a large gemstone cabinet.
Since then, women and children have reported that after inviting them to join him for a “special healing,” John of God told them to close their eyes while he forced them to masturbate him or submit to anal sex. When they cried, he told them, “Calm down, this is part of your treatment.”
“Philosophy is a talk on a cereal box religion
Is a smile on a dog”
— Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians
My first operation turned out to be a few minutes sitting in a pew with my eyes closed, surrounded by 50 people or more, the voice of John of God offering prayers in Portuguese, a few waves of the hand. When it was over, we were shuffled back into blinding sun, offered a bowl of vegetable soup, and a $30 prescription for a 40-day supply of passiflora; generic-looking capsules filled with ground passion fruit flowers. Everyone who had surgery received a prescription. The Casa guides explained that it would help to calm and balance us as we adjusted to surgery, and for the next twenty-four hours, we were to stay in our beds.
I turned in my narrow bed until the familiar sounds of morning brought me awake. Mariana was still asleep in the twin bed next to me, so I dressed and padded down the hall as the breakfast bell rang. Women moved about the breakfast room in flip—flops and pajamas, their faces creased and sleepy like children’s. One of the Greek women sat in a nightgown and robe on the front porch, smoking Parliaments. I took a seat next to her and she raised the cigarette in salute. We sat quietly like that for a while, side by side, watching the sunrise.
I set a plate of fruit for Mariana on her bedside table. Pulled back the sheets, listened to her breathe. “Do you believe it?” I whispered.
“Que, meu amor?”
“I mean, do you think you were healed? That actual healing is happening here?”
She turned over, eyes dark and watchful. “I don’t know, my love. I mean, I hope so.” She laced her fingers in mine and turned my wedding ring around my finger, playing with the stone. “I know something is happening here that I can’t explain. I mean, everyone seems so happy. Aren’t you?”
I nodded. “Whatever happens, I’m glad we came. I needed a vacation.”
She laughed and pulled my arm around her waist. Soon, her breathing returned to the deep, slow rhythm I knew better than my own heart.
Six months after our first visit, Mariana was diagnosed with cancer. When the doctor looked up from the papers, his eyes were kind. “You understand the results?”
We nodded. He was our third opinion. He pointed to the slides, explaining that the tumor was extremely large and unquestionably inoperável. Even in my second language, the message was clear. I closed my eyes and went to every dark place. A high-speed film of the most wretched, bloody, loathsome life-ending things that could happen, every worst-case scenario.
Instead of making an appointment to see a radiologist, Mariana booked a flight to Abadiânia.
How much does a miracle cost? We researched natural healing methods. I made Mariana 13 organic juices a day, one for every waking hour. She swallowed 85 vitamin supplements a day. I boiled, filtered and gave my wife five organic coffee enemas a day – all of this in a rural mountain community an hour’s drive from the nearest hospital. My hands developed cracks that wouldn’t heal. I slept for three hours at a time, often waking to the sound of crying, mostly hers, sometimes mine. We mourned a thing that was not yet lost.
When Mariana began traveling to Abadiânia every four weeks, friends sent donations, and when John of God told Mariana “I will cure you,” she refused all other treatment. I was frantic. “You can’t just give up! You can do both.” Soon the juice glasses lined up next to her laptop, the tops crusted over, buzzing with flies.
“I’m disgusting,” Mariana said one morning. “How can you even look at me?”
“I love you.”
“I don’t believe you.” She was huddled under a desk lamp, curled on the twin bed in the guest room, where she had gone to read books. I reached over to rub her back, but she grabbed my hand and pushed it away. “You think I’m going to die,” she said to the wall.
Six months after our first visit, Mariana was diagnosed with cancer. When the doctor looked up from the papers, his eyes were kind. ‘You understand the results?’
I shook my head, no. It wasn’t the first time Mariana had said this. She started saying it around the four-month mark, the expiration date given by the doctor, something that should be against the rules. She said it when she was afraid. I became the physical manifestation of all of her fears. Every time she said, you think I’m going to die, I told her I love you, I can’t imagine my life without you, please don’t go, until I ran out of ways to say it, so I just said, “I don’t.”
Mariana turned over and studied me. “You do. You think I’m dying. I can see it on your face.” She pulled herself from the wrinkled quilt and sat up. “Don’t you dare cry! Do you hear me? I don’t need the bad energy of someone who doesn’t believe I’m going to live.”
“No!” She held up her hand to stop me, wincing as she raised herself from the bed. “If you don’t believe in my cure, then leave!” She slammed the door behind her.
I sat on the bed, pushed my fingers at my temples. Stared at the wall. On the white stucco above the enema table there was a faint stain from a smear of blood. Beneath it, Mariana had tacked a holy card of Saint Rita of Cascia. It was so unexpected to see her there, a Catholic nun living among the gurus stacked on the bedside table.
I leaned closer to read the card:
Saint Rita of Impossible Causes. Saint Rita, who entered the convent after her abusive husband was killed in a brawl and both of her sons died within a year of each other. Saint Rita, the patron saint of the impossible, of difficult marriages and festering wounds, saint of the sick and the widowed, the saint of loneliness.
We inhabit these bodies because somewhere down the line, our DNA figured out how to make it. If one tribe didn’t accept us, we might walk another five or 10 or 20 miles, not knowing whether we would be accepted once we arrived. We are hardwired to fit in. So when winter came again, when Mariana’s blood began to run from her body, when it stained her clothes and my hands and the sheets, I closed the doors and latched the shuttered windows of our farm and moved all of our possessions to Abadiânia.
For six months, I rose at dawn and dressed in white, silently praying for a cure. Some days, we waited for three hours before The Entity took his throne, with no explanation of where he had been. The street dogs increased in numbers. They took on a collective feral stance in the summer heat. People left styrofoam containers of food on the streets after meals, and soon the dogs began lunging at tourists as they walked to The Casa. At night, I lay awake, listening to them killing each other in the fields outside our house.
On a Sunday in September, during the final chorus of “Let it Be,” the Main Hall erupted in growls. The music stopped, and a snarling mass of teeth and fur sprang on a soft yellow form, sleeping under a bench. People screamed as the pack tore into a tiny dog.
The next morning, all of the street dogs were gone. And Joshua, a kneeling boy who had taken to spending his day in the middle of Main Street — three steps forward, kneel and pray, touch forehead to road, stand and bow, four steps back, forehead to road — had disappeared with the dogs.
Month after month, I watched John of God perform hundreds of surgeries from 10 feet away, until the blood and the bowls and scalpels and sutures felt like everything else, a distraction from the truth: Mariana was dying.
“I know it doesn’t make sense,” I told our families, “but she won’t leave.”
The question was, why did my brilliant, feminist wife seek salvation from this strange man when the hands of men have harmed so many?
On weekends, I walked the rolling fields, met friends for crepes, swam in a sacred waterfall, gobbled cold bowls of açaí that turned my lips and teeth purple.
Maybe it wasn’t cancer, it was just a vacation.
Choke me in the shallow water before I get too deep
What I am is what I am are you what you are or what
The week after my fibroids swelled and bled through my dress and grew to the size of a Sunday brisket, Mariana fevered and hemorrhaged for four days and nights without stopping. When her fever spiked to 105, I held her in frigid showers until her temperature went down, washed the sheets, fed her soup, smoothed the curls from her face, held vigil, and began again.
Anytime I mentioned the fevers, the people around me would nod and smile knowingly, “Ah yes, the healing is almost done.” I nodded, but the way their voices bunched up inside my head reminded me of a raccoon I once saw in the woods, teeth pulled back in a grimace, belly full of maggots, the slick white squirming the only thing alive.
On the fifth morning, when her fever broke, I pulled on a hoodie and jeans and ran to The Casa as the doors opened. The first person I saw was John of God’s right hand woman. When I tapped her back, she turned around and I told her everything— the blood and pus under my nails, the shit, the smell — frantic to make her understand. When I ran out of things to say, she looked at a place just above my head and to the left, and when she answered, her voice was tired. “Go sit in Current.”
When she turned and walked away, I balled up my fists and tore into the Main Hall with my teeth bared, gnashing at all the white. A Bad Energy person. My head snapped from one person to the next, until I found the face of one of the attendants I knew, and for a split-second, I believed that he was afraid. I saw that I was nothing.
Four weeks later, I packed two suitcases and returned to the US to set up a rented house in my parents’ desert town, promising to return for Mariana and bring her back with me at the end of the month. Twenty-four hours after I arrived, I called Mariana to tell her about the house I had found for us. She was quiet. Finally, she said: “What am I going to do in a boring little town in the middle of the desert? Wait around to die?”
If you stood on the moon and looked at a point on the Earth 60 miles from the Tohono O’odham Nation and 32 miles from Mexico, you would have seen me. I was a dirt-speck banshee, a wailing thing. I memorized every word of Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese and repeated it throughout the day. I woke at 2 and 3 in the morning to find myself kneeling in front of my bookshelf altar, face pressed to the carpet.
The doctors cut me open on the last Friday in July in the middle of a thunderstorm, waves of creosote rolling across the Sonoran hills.
“I want to keep my ovaries,” I said, as they rolled me in.
The surgeon checked his clipboard. Made a mark. “Fine with me. We’ll be done sooner.”
Fourteen days later, Mariana was gone.
Six years after her death, I still haven’t found peace with the way The Casa made it happen. I am still trying to put away the story that I left her, when the harder truth is that she chose him.
On December 16, 2018, after a brief disappearance, John of God surrendered to the police. During the weeks after his arrest, the newspaper O Globo reported that more than 500 women in seven countries came forward with stories that followed a similar pattern, some of them occurring when they were as young as 10 years old.
Every few days, I Google João de Deus and read the Brazilian papers. I see photos of people I knew. I look for some new detail that might help me better understand what happened, and bring some kind of closure.
“Task Force has received 596 reports from women claiming to be victims”
“Police find $1.2 million and hidden guns in a false closet in house of John of God”
“’John of God’ faith healer ‘kept teenagers as sex slaves and sold their babies for up to £40,000 before shipping them from Brazil to Europe’”
“João de Deus selected victims and made abuse appear part of the ritual, say police”
João de Deus leaves hospital to return to prison
“Task force report says João de Deus built $ 100 million ’empire’ with extortion and money laundering”
“Do you wish you had gone back for her?” someone asked me recently.
And by this, were they asking, do I wish that I could split myself in three? Do I wish I had grabbed two fistfuls of red earth, foraged wild herbs from my mountain farm, clipped the unwashed curls from my love’s hair before they burned her and muddled them with rosewater and rue? Do I wish I had the power to conjure the kind of magic that could sew shut the puckered lips of every demon golem that ever dipped its tongue in gold and promised to save us from its own poison?
One of John of God’s alleged victims said that what kept her silent was the thought of all the people dressed in white, just outside the door.
I have been in so many of these rooms. I know how their spells work.
“Feche seus olhos,” a voice would call. “Close your eyes.”
* * *
Leigh Hopkins is an online instructor at Lidia Yuknavitch’s workshop series, Corporeal Writing. “Turning Purple,” Leigh’s column at The Rumpus, confronts the borderland between left and right, red and blue. She is seeking representation for her memoir, The Cure.
Editor: Sari Botton