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The word that best describes Sylvia Fraser is "intrepid." At a stage in life when others might be seeking armchair comfort, the Toronto-based author of 12 books boldly goes where more timid souls fear to tread, not only to seething realms like India and the Peruvian jungles, but into the labyrinthine tangle of childhood sexual abuse and the paranormal.
She has seen a lot, done a lot, and written about it all superbly, with a combination of relentless curiosity and a dazzling command of language. She wrote My Father's House: A Memoir of Incest and Healing back when no one else was talking about these things, and risked being dismissed as Canada's Shirley MacLaine with The Quest for the Fourth Monkey: A Thinker's Guide to the Psychic and Spiritual Growth.
Her memoir, The Rope in the Water: A Pilgrimage to India, took her deep into strange and dangerous country, a rich and enigmatic place in which she literally meditated on mountaintops for weeks at a time and nearly drowned in a rip-tide, only to be miraculously saved by a rope that she later found out did not exist. On her travels, Fraser is both tough-minded and vulnerable, with a combination of openness, canny survival skills and a gut instinct for the right person to trust. Like spirit guides in fleshly form, these strangers appear out of nowhere and take her on unplanned sidetrips, fascinating and hazardous in equal measure. But she always emerges unscathed, and wiser.
At the age of 65, Fraser desired to visit the Amazon, for a specific purpose. She wanted to spend time with Peruvian shamans and to drink ayahuasca, a potent psychoactive plant substance which some believe can transport the traveler to another level of reality: "For someone like me, who missed the psychedelic 60s and rarely takes so much as an aspirin, the idea of ingesting a mind-altering substance is radical, scary and even somewhat repugnant."
Very Jungian, very murky, and dangerous to boot. But Fraser did her homework carefully before embarking on this psychic expedition. She researched ayahuasca, its ceremonial importance and psychoactive effects via library and Internet, e-mailing seasoned explorers such as Marcus Lumby (more on him later), and booking space in shamanic retreats like Sachamama and Altiplano which are specifically geared to the Western traveler.
Having done all this, she took off for Iquitos in the Peruvian jungle with an open mind and an eager heart. The resulting book, The Green Labyrinth: Exploring the Mysteries of the Amazon, is a vibrant, skin-prickling read, the writing so saturated with richness and color that it seems to vibrate to a higher frequency ("I can see Gaia's mantle rippling around me in all its sun-dappled glory"; "Our freshly-washed emerald world flows, drips, sparkles").
Parts of The Green Labyrinth are closer to a conventional travelogue: her exploration of impressive sights like the ancient Inca fortress of Machu Picchu, and the eerie Nazca lines, those huge pictorial air-strips that can only be seen from the sky. There is something weird and impenetrable about all this ancient culture which draws her irresistibly.
And the sheer physical dangers of her surroundings ("hairy tarantulas the size of dinner plates," "the Amazon's 23 varieties of poisonous snakes, with fangs like barbecue forks") are nothing compared to the psychological risks of ayahuasca. For this she needed specific guidance from veterans, but these earthly guides could be hard to deal with. "Shamans are by nature tricksters who don't operate according to the rules as we know them, which is part of their value to us," she tells us. "A shaman's promise is like dandelion gossamer, blown away by the first wind."
And then there were the visions. Her first experience was something of a bad trip, or at least a disappointment. Physically it was grueling: "My hair is hot-wired. My eyes are fiery pinwheels. My head is spinning and I'm nauseated." The content seemed flashy and shallow. "I want to cry in frustration, but my eyes are too stuffed with mirrored balls and broken champagne bottles for tears. This is hell -- this perpetual, high-stepping meaninglessness." Her conclusion was not uplifting: "The whole experience adds up to a big zero -- showy, silly and irrelevant."
But slowly, with each of her eight ayahuasca experiences, more layers of the mystery are peeled back. In one particularly enlightening episode, she feels "awestruck, like a child who opened a Christmas parcel with her name on it and found the whole universe inside."
I have wanted to talk to Sylvia Fraser ever since we first exchanged letters back in 1994, when she wrote an impressive article in Saturday Night magazine refuting the then-popular notion of "false memory syndrome" in sexual abuse cases. When we met recently, I was surprised and pleased that she remembered our long-ago connection, and also surprised at how readily she was able to discuss the excruciating topic of childhood trauma, though her face sometimes revealed how difficult it still is for her. Her travel books reveal that much of her thirst for spiritual knowledge is a quest to heal herself at the deepest level.
Sylvia Fraser is complex, friendly when you greet her, with a dazzler of a smile, but also somewhat reserved and self-contained. I saw in her both strength of character and vulnerability. She has a way of dropping her eyes that is shy and almost girlish, but the planes of her face reveal a kind of eagle spirit, indomitable. "Ageless" is the word that comes to mind, a mature woman's power showing through the fine English rose complexion.
As we talked, she anticipated many of my questions in a way that was a bit spooky. I'd ask her something, and she would answer the question, then the next one, and the next one, in sequence, so that I barely had to glance at my notes. I will admit to a lifelong fascination with the paranormal (lots of things have happened to me that I can't readily explain), and I did get the sense, while sitting across from her, of an aura around her, a nimbus of energy that reminded me of a big white chrysanthemum.
That night I fell into bed exhausted, with a strange whirling sensation in my head. My dreams were weird, labyrinthine, both vivid and and intense, almost as if I had caught the ayahuasca fever secondhand.
Margaret Gunning: I've read your last two books [The Rope in the Water and The Green Labyrinth] and found both of them completely absorbing. I can't help but notice how intrepid you are, going into these places that are full of risks. Why these books, now?
Why this, why now. Well, there are many answers to that. I'm at a particular age in my life in which questions tend to surface more than they do at an earlier age. I've lost a lot of people around me through death. All my primal family is dead. There were significant events around those deaths, and of course death is usually a significant event, but in terms of knowing when things were going to happen. Just a kind of breakthrough from that ordinary predictable, material world in which we move. There are breaks in ordinary everyday reality in which something strange seems to be happening, and other forces seem to feed into one's life: coincidences and significant events begin to occur, or there are dreams that turn out to be prophetic. All those events tend to pile up around death. And I think it's partly because of what our culture [has been] doing in the last ten years. There has been a huge shift in what people are willing to look into. People have become infinitely more open-minded and aware that the culture in which we live has been defined too narrowly. It isn't that it is wrong precisely, but that rationalist materialism simply doesn't do it all. There are all sorts of things that don't quite fit into the paradigm of what you can taste, touch, feel. The world is larger than that, and there's a sense that other cultures which have gone on different routes possibly have some of the answers. And if not answers, some better formation of the questions.
Why would something as far-flung as Peruvian shamanism appeal to a white Western journalist? What was the process, and how did this follow from the rest of your spiritual exploration?
I studied philosophy in college, and was very engaged by that. It absolutely came to me as mind-boggling that ideas could actually change who you are. Before, everything I had received in school was information. And suddenly there were these large ideas that one argued about and that pitted one philosopher against another. I found it totally changed the way I viewed the world. Because I had come up in a rather structured, two-times-if-not-three-times-to-church-on-Sunday kind of environment, I found that first wave to be releasing me from that. And I wasn't particularly interested in, say, a philosopher like Plato because that sounded too much like Christianity. When I was pursuing a journalistic course I became very much a materialist and a pragmatist. I just took that kind of thing for granted, that this was a one-shot universe, and that was that. The death scene was far enough in the future that there seemed nothing wrong with that. But then, when I had to deal with the issue of sexual abuse, I found I had managed to block out a whole part of my life. It completely undermined my faith in my mind and in my version of the universe, because if I could forget or put aside all these events I lived through in connection with my father, what kind of a labyrinth was I in, in terms of my own mind? So my whole sense of identity shifted dramatically. Of course when your identity shifts, your point of view shifts, and so I was forced out of that easy kind of approach to life in which things followed the usual pattern. It happens to people in all sorts of ways, people who experience deaths of those close to them, or who themselves become very ill or experience warfare. These kinds of traumatic big events change the kind of neat little world in which we thought we lived.
This might break you wide open to things that other people might be more closed to, or not willing to explore.
Or don't have to. I also think that if you do have trauma in your childhood, not just abuse but any form of dislocation, moving around a lot or an immigrant experience, that is the extent to which one experiences anxiety or unhappiness. You have to look for a solution, or some way of viewing the world that is somewhat larger and higher than that which other people might be content not to question.
I want to ask you about not just the physical danger of traveling the way you do, but the psychological danger. You made the decision to drink the ayahuasca ceremonially. I have a quote here from the book: In dangerous situations I often lack the sensible, protective fear others possess. Now what is that all about? A lot of people who come through trauma are loaded with phobias.
That's very true, but I think the premise I adopted as a child was that my house was unsafe, but therefore the world was safer. The real danger was at home. And so unless you are going to live an entirely fearful life, then you make the perhaps totally irrational assumption that the outer world is a safe place, or at least safer.
The worst has already happened, in a sense.
It is as if, when you have a traumatized childhood, you're forced into a wartime situation, in which you do know what it's like to have your survival passed out of your own hands. In terms of The Rope in the Water, that's exactly what happened when I found myself in a position I couldn't solve. There was no rational way I could solve it. If I were a character in my own novel, some extra jerk of supersonic energy would come and I would swim to shore, but that's not what happened. I really went past it, and somehow or other, for whatever reason, the problem was solved for me. So when I came to doing ayahuasca, I think there were a number of factors that played into the situation. One was that I had read a fair amount about it. I don't know if you could call it a "safe" drug, but it doesn't have the casualty list that a lot of others do that have been manufactured. Also, I guess I would say that I'm at an age when I've had a good run. So I'm not jeopardizing my unborn children, I'm not doing anything genetically that is going to hurt anybody else, no one is dependent on me. So it seemed like a decision I could make. But it was done to some point, and the point was that I hoped to cross over that line and find something of value, as opposed to trying things like white-water rapids stuff, climbing mountains and things like that, which is a more masculine approach. And in some ways, it's the same thing: you are putting yourself in a near-death situation. That's not the way they define it, but if you read the accounts, that's where the big kicks come from. I love hiking and things like that, but I couldn't imagine anything I would less like to do.
But the psychological danger can be far more damaging than just the physical. You can break an arm or lose your life, but to lose your mind -- the risk of that is far greater.
I looked at that one, and it seemed to me that it was unlikely to happen, and so I just kind of set up the situation as safely as I could. By that I mean the shamans that I chose were those that were used to dealing with Westerners. I didn't go into the deepest part of the jungle for the most authentic shamans. I wasn't going to put myself into a situation that was deliberately defiant, but a situation that would get the job done, and the job meaning I wanted to have ayahuasca. So when I looked at the Web sites, and saw this report by Marcus Lumby...
That was my next question! You must be peeking. Tell me more about him.
I can't read upside-down. But about Marcus Lumby. There's not much to tell -- I pretty much told all that there was. He was very helpful, he had written a very full report about his own experience, talking about how he had got into trouble and this shaman had helped him out. I e-mailed him, and he e-mailed me back immediately and was a very helpful, useful, sweet young man. So when I found out he was going to be there at the same time I was, I thought: Oh boy, that's great! Then when I got there, he wasn't there, and the answers I got to my questions -- you know that sense when you ask questions and get a real sense you're not supposed to go further. It really was pretty much as I reported it. There's no extra information. I had a few e-mail correspondences from his father, who affirmed that he had died tragically. When I wrote back, he answered indicating that it was suicide, as I had guessed. He wasn't bitter about the ayahuasca, but he said: Well, it didn't seem to help my son. That was about all. So the way that story played into my own experience -- again, it's that mystery around death, as well as the ayahuasca situation. It functioned very importantly in my experience as a kind of marking of the path. Which is why I chose him in the first place -- because he had marked the path. He seemed to continue to do that -- or I thought he did.
He helped you launch the adventure, but then there was a twist. There are a number of incidences where there seem to be twists or unexpected things that happen. But you always handle it so well. You always land on your feet.
Interestingly, he wasn't there, and there were these three relatively grumpy women that were there. But they were intelligent, they were informed. They were certainly far more into it than I was, talking about the spirits as if they were real. I certainly wasn't saying anything skeptical, I wasn't asking skeptical questions because I didn't think it was the place for it. But certainly I was having trouble believing in the validity or reality of these things, the mythological context and so on. I loved the story of Jeremy Narby who traced the mythic snake that he saw in his first ayahuasca experience, through snakes in mythology, and came to the feeling, with a fair amount of evidence, that this was the double helix (of DNA). So those kinds of connections really blow my mind, and are really comforting to me.
So you're all set to have your first experience, you've set the stage, done the research, and you take ayahuasca for the first time. But it was not entirely satisfying, was it? It was almost a bad trip.
It was totally unexpected, because the last thing I was anticipating was frivolity. Silliness. The idea that I would go through this profound experience and encounter only silliness was -- I was beside myself! And of course this anxiety only made the situation worse, as it took me out of whatever calm center I had. I was totally baffled, totally confused, and totally uncomfortable in terms of feeling so terrible, so ill.
That's another thing I was going to bring up, is that it's physically not an easy thing to ingest --
Bring up, indeed!
Yes! It doesn't sit well in the digestive system at all.
But it's supposed to be an ordeal. It's not supposed to be easy. Shamanism isn't a party trick. You are playing with elemental forces, possibly, and certainly with your brain chemistry and with your physicality. You're ingesting something quite potent. The shamans talk about the throwing up as a cleansing. That makes more sense in the context of their culture, as there are a lot of parasites there. But that cleansing is supposed to be psychological as well.
Each time you took ayahuasca, you asked for something. You learned to hone those questions as the process went on. In the beginning, did you know what to ask for?
In the beginning, it was "Please help me to communicate with my higher self." I thought that that was a really clever, modest kind of request. I felt quite resentful that all these things that I thought I had dealt with -- the last thing I wanted to have to deal with was anything to do with abuse. I wanted to graduate, I wanted grand insights about the universe. Why shouldn't I? I've done all this work, I've gone to all this trouble, and I kept getting trapped in my own psyche. I didn't like that much. But the answer to that is, ayahuasca knows, and so that's who you are, that's who you should be.
I would imagine trauma can become very lodged in the soma, so that it is hard to release it just by talk therapy. Many people seek some kind of body work or physical way to deal with this.
Yes, and I did this myself through yoga. In my own case, when my memories started to come back, they were very physical. My body reacted very violently to the memories. That was what made it so indelibly truthful. My body knew. Every cell in my body knew. If you have trauma in your past, you have to resign yourself that it's there. Just as I say that I have good peasant health, I also have trauma, very early level experiences.
Can it leave you with gifts -- strengths that others may not have?
The poison that does not kill makes strong. For one thing, it makes you use more of yourself. It's like wartime experience. You can't just get by on 10 per cent of your energy. If you are threatened, you have to know what's going on. There are bad things, too -- defenses that are useful at the time, which hang around. I thought that after writing My Father's House, I couldn't even wish that it hadn't happened, because I wouldn't know who I would be. I would be killing myself and bringing into existence an entirely different person. If you're not your memories, who are you?
I absolutely loved your writing, the vibrant descriptions of the natural surroundings. Do you think the ayahuasca may have affected your writing to make it particularly vivid?
I can't say. I can't separate that from the whole experience. Ayahuasca jumbled up my senses in a way that was lyrical. I perceived differently. I could smell color, and hear color. So it definitely enriches your senses. Now to what extent that carries over, I don't know. There were certain images, like the skeleton on the cross [in the chapter, "The Crucified Cross"] -- images that came to me as they would in dreams.
What were the lasting effects?
I can't smell color now, but I know that it can be done. Once you've had an experience, the reality of it fades, but you don't lose the remembrance of something special happening. You may lose some of the intensity, but once certain doors are open, they remain open. I have read various kinds of physics books describing atoms and quantum physics, indicating that the material world is really not solid. I grasped that intellectually a long time ago, but to experience that is quite another matter. There is quite a gap between intellectual understanding and experiential understanding.
So do you feel the ayahuasca opened a door to another level of reality, as you read about? In other words, it doesn't just alter brain chemistry but acts as a portal to another reality. Is such a thing possible, and have you ever experienced it?
I would say the most dramatic experience of that was the rope in the water, because it saved my life. You can't scoff at something that saved your life. And yet it doesn't make sense.
Was it a kind of surrender?
There are things that just happen that you wouldn't expect of yourself. For example, when I understood about my father's abuse, my anger fell away and forgiveness seemed to be automatic. Now that's not something that I would have expected of myself, it just happened. And that's the way it was in the water. I would not have expected myself to give up, to surrender. It's not my character, generally speaking, but I did. I don't know where that comes from. Maybe I was just paralyzed. I don't know. I also think that I learned a lot of survival as a child, without question, even though I don't have conscious memory of how that all worked. I think my health is guarded by the fact that I can really tune in intuitively to my body, if my attention is grabbed. I tend to do a fair amount of healing with the mind, and I think it's because of being abused. I just learned something biological, biochemical, something my body can do. I don't have conscious control of a lot of things, as shamans claim to, as psychics claim to. I can't just summon those forces like a party trick. But when the chips are down, when it needs to be there, it is.
Many people who endured this kind of thing do not come out whole. There are all sorts of people sticking needles in their arms who were sexually abused as children.
The people in our society that we define as "sick" -- people who have epilepsy, do drugs or have psychotic breaks -- in tribal societies can become special people. They learn to form that containment that allows them to use this difficult, special information. In India, Mata Amritanandamayi was accepted as a manifestation of Devi by millions of people. Her background was such that she was eating excrement, she was burying herself in the earth, she was doing everything that would seem crazy. Yet she emerged from that to be one of the most powerful women in India with a huge ashram, schools, and millions of people following her. But that's a process our society has no patience for. Any form of genius often comes afflicted with difficulty in coping with the society we present them with.
There were some specific things you saw in your visions, including the dog's grave. What was that all about?
As with the situation with Marcus, I can't say a lot more than what occurred. It was very vivid. With the ayahuasca, I had been having hallucinations of various kinds. And I remembered having seen it earlier in the day, thinking about photographing it. I touched it, I felt it, I looked at it, I talked to (shaman) Don Francisco about it, but as it turned out, none of that happened. It wasn't there. It didn't exist.
You also encountered a goddess figure. Tell me about that.
This was the Green Goddess, Ayahuasca, as well as Ajosacha (the spirit of ajosacha, a plant used to heal and diagnose, depicted as a crone). Both these are goddess-women. Ayahuasca is green and youthful and powerful. It's just part of Amazon mythology, just as we might have fairytale princesses and kings that suit our mythological take on the world.
Their mythology is connected to the things they see, the water, the sky. The idea of talking to Ayahuasca makes sense as a metaphoric manifestation, and a personification of the communication that takes place between the DNA of plants and the brain, from which shamans know how to combine these plants to produce an extremely complicated formula. Ajosacha, the old woman who represents what we would call wild garlic, is just another figure, and they're different. When I was in the other camp (Yushintaita) the shaman, Don Agustin, talked about Yacarunas, the water people. That was his mythology. Just as they say that psychiatric patients take on the imagery of the psychiatrist, so people who have ayahuasca visions there were always seeing Yacarunas. It could be these images clothe themselves in ways that are culturally relevant. Carl Jung wrestled with this one, and he found a lot of common mythology. Take a look at all the creation myths that include snakes and it's truly overwhelming. There are some that seem to transfer from culture to culture, but some don't. But as with the Yacarunas -- water spirits -- pretty much every culture has a mermaid myth. Again, it seems to be some kind of common language that people understand on an unconscious level. It's culturally-determined to some degree, but maybe some experiences are consistent.
How accurate do you think your remembrances of these things were?
Well, you could say the same thing about dreams. A psychiatrist would say that even if you misremember a dream, the way you misremembered it is your projection, you own that as well. Even if you try to make up things, those made up things contain your own perceptions. I would say the only thing I found in which being a writer might have interfered somewhat with the experience was that I tried, as soon as I was able, to grab a notebook and jot down things that would remind me of the experience. It's just like trying to capture dreams, some things are so complex. It's imperfect, you're translating something into a language in which it wasn't intended to be presented. But even if I weren't writing a book, it's the way I do things. It's my way of processing things, so it was consistent with me.
There were suggestions of images that passed from mind to mind. In one case, I saw the woman Cynthia in two places, and it turned out that part of what I saw was Francisco's vision. Somehow or other I picked up on that. That is supposed to be a common aspect of ayahuasca, particularly among tribal people who are used to doing this together, they do pick up on each other's visions.
Towards the end of the book, you make the statement, "I wish I could have made better friends with ayahuasca." Did you feel you were observing somewhat from the outside, or were you at any point totally one with the experience?
I couldn't get rid of my revulsion. And my revulsion became pretty overpowering. It wasn't ideal to do as much as I did right in a row. I had to set up the itinerary somewhat in advance. I'm used to soldiering on, and I wasn't aware that I would develop this revulsion. I never really got to the bottom of it. It's not pleasant to be ill, but my reaction was quite over the top. One thing I thought -- to survive as a child I had to set up a pretty strong ego, because that was all that was going to get me through. I had to invest an enormous amount in this identity that was going to see me through. It was my shield in the world. There is such a primal aspect to the ayahuasca experience that it's possible that on the primal level in my body, there was just too much of a sense that I could die from this, that my survival was at stake, and it was like being in that abused child's world where you don't know whether you are going to be able to take that next breath. It could very well be that that was what I was dealing with. But I was never able to quite get to the bottom of it. The others were as sick as I was, but for some reason or other they didn't seem to develop this repulsion that I did. It became a very dominant aspect of the experience. The feeling of dread would start to build up: Oh no, I can't do this again. It would seem to be atypical in terms of my reaction to an experiment which could be useful and interesting and valuable. I didn't know whether or not to pay attention to it, to walk away.
How did you come out the other side of all this?
These things are subtle. I have a lot less invested in the material world, or the things that go with it. There is a letting go of ambition, in that driving sense, a letting go of things that I used to think I needed, and the borderline between waking and dreaming is not so strong. Many people in our culture would find that troublesome. And I've asked myself about this: Is this a good thing, but I think eventually it is. I spend a fair amount of time by myself. I'm not a hermit, by any means, but the work I do is solitary. With a longer writing project, you just have to go into a certain kind of space. Again, it's an occupation that blurs the line of reality, and I don't know whether one chooses that occupation because that's the mindset one has, or whether the occupation works on you in that way, but I would say it's probably a combination of both.
What about researching?
There are some things that one gets better at. Writing isn't necessarily one in which one sees a straight line of improvement. Things are very up and down, some things work better than others. But there are certain tasks that one gets better at, and I would say that I am a pretty fast and efficient researcher. I totally destroy books, I underline furiously. It isn't a system that anyone else would ever understand. At the point of time when I am researching, I'm pretty driven to acquire all this information, so I can read very quickly, which isn't the way I read recreationally. My mouth practically moves when I read recreationally. But if I'm researching, I can absorb books fairly quickly. I just sort of go into a semi-trance. I do find with non-fiction, by the time you've done your research you almost have a first draft. Particularly when you do travel. I tend to simply jot, I never make the mistake of trying to write a decent sentence when I'm traveling. Rather than committing myself to being grammatically correct or to write a paragraph that in any way will stand, I just jot and sort it all out after the fact. And that seems to work very well. | July 2003
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. Her novel, Better Than Life, will be published in 2003. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.