The Horse Boy
I haven’t written about documentaries so far in this blog, and so I figured I should probably begin this post by laying out some basic truths about documentary films. You know, just so we’re on all the same page here.
A documentary film uses selective filming, editing, and narration to tell the viewer the story it wishes to tell. Nothing more, nothing less. That is absolutely fair, of course; Storytelling is what documentary films are all about. However, seeing as that is the case, documentary films should never be taken at face value. They do not give the whole picture; and they don’t necessarily – nor are they obliged to – give even an honest picture. The fact that the raw material of which they are crafted is footage of mostly spontaneous social interaction contributes greatly to their magic and appeal. But we must avoid using such terms as truth, reality, objectivity etc. when discussing documentaries. They’re not necessarily any more “real” than a romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler. So there’s simply no use in questioning their validity or truthfulness, any more than we would that of 50 First Dates. They’re stories. They’re representations of reality, yes; but that doesn’t make them particularly real.
Right? Right. Now that that’s out of the way, I can begin.
I have to admit that as a social anthropologist studying autism, I have made a decision (not necessarily a conscious one) to focus on the experiences of autistic people themselves, rather than those of the people around them. I felt the experiences and perspective of parents to autistic children, for example – important as they may be – are already getting quite enough attention as it is. And maybe I just didn’t want my own understanding of autism to be skewed by them. I can’t vouch that this is the best way to go; I did have parents suggesting to me that my perspective would be intolerably swayed without considering their perspectives. Well yes, maybe. The thing is that any perspective is always swayed, so you might as well be aware and in control of just how you allow yours to be influenced. Either way – the fact of the matter is that I mostly distance myself from the perspectives of parents to autistic children. This also means, almost inevitably, that I distance myself from the experiences of autistic children; except when those are reflected upon by autistic adults when recalling their own childhoods.
So The Horse Boy was, in a way, an important reminder of the very obvious fact that every autistic adult has a history of being an autistic child. And that parents are very often the most influential factors in those children’s lives. I needed this reminder, strange as it may seem.
I enjoyed The Horse Boy. It had a certain honesty to it that appealed to me and made me think long and hard not only about autism, but also about parenting – including my own. Because The Horse Boy wasn’t so much a film about Rowan (the child). It was more a film about his parents – particularly his dad, Rupert, who apparently was the one to come up with the idea of going to Mongolia in the first place. It is a film about relationships – Rupert’s relationship with his wife, with his son, with autism (as a thing, a category, a concept), with horses, with Mongolia, and with himself. And yes, also, implicitly, with a camera-crew and the prospect of making a successful documentary. So The Horse Boy, the way I saw and interpreted it, is indeed a film about a parent’s journey; but as with any good parent, his child – his son’s well-being, comfort, happiness – is an inseparable part of his own experience of life; of his own well-being, comfort and happiness. These connections and interrelations are the stuff of which all families are made of. So ultimately, this is a film about a family. A family that struggles. A family that needs help – and that seeks an unorthodox way to relieve it of its struggles.
The Horse Boy isn’t about healing autism, and it deserves credit for that. Sure, they all struggle with autism; Rowan especially, but his parents as well. But autism is never framed as a rival or an enemy; the idea of somehow eradicating it is never brought up. Autism is not conceptualized as a separate thing from who their son is. Instead, the family is simply trying to deal in the best way it can with the challenges having an autistic child – or in Rowan’s case, with being autistic – presents. The Horse Boy is about healing the distress that often accompanies being autistic, and that which accompanies loving and caring for an autistic person. This cannot be done with a drug or any other sort of biomedical intervention; because such interventions inevitably focus on the body. But the problem isn’t in the body; or at least not just in the body. Indeed, some forms of distress are made of broken or loose social connections. Or impossible expectations. Or negative emotions. Or confusion. Or doubt. Or uncertainty. Or fear.
And it is these aspects of the child’s and parents’ distress that were targeted by the Mongolian shamans. And it is why – to the audience’s perceived amazement – the rituals actually helped.
I don’t know hardly anything about the Mongolian belief system or its traditional medicine. From the film, I can infer that it involves some sort of ancestor-reverence and belief in spirit possession (so that the shaman argues that Rowan’s soul is possessed by Kristin’s deceased grandmother). Explicitly, the healing rituals are apparently meant to both appease the spirit and confront it in battle, in order to remove its grip of the child. But we don’t have to accept the metaphysical belief system of the shamans to appreciate the positive effect that such a ritual may have. There are other, more earthly ways to account for why this ritual – or rather, this series of rituals – had made a difference in the lives of Rowan and his parents.
It’s not so easy to tell what this effect could be, however. With the limited information we have, it is indeed quite impossible. To do that, we will have had to take a much, much deeper look at the rites themselves, where exactly they were performed and why these places are significant, who precisely performed them and what their exact role in society is, what artefacts were used and what they symbolize, what texts were recited and what they mean, as well as the specific interactions between the healers and Rowan, between the healers and Rowan’s parents, and between the various healers themselves. Not least, a very profound familiarity with this particular society’s beliefs, values, and language is required. Without any such knowledge, the best we can do is speculate. And speculate is precisely what I am going to do. I am hoping to show that whatever the specific characteristics and attributions of the rituals may be, such rituals in general may indeed have a positive, durable effect on relieving one’s distress. And this is regardless of whether one is willing to accept the existence of spirits and demons.
Mainly, what the series of rituals carried out during the family’s visit to Mongolia did was to put Rowan’s suffering in context – a different context. It has given it a narrative: a cause, a reason, an explanation. A history that goes far beyond his own still short existence. It has located Rowan’s suffering; and significantly, it has located it outside of Rowan’s own body (or more accurately, inside his body, but as an external intruder). The shamans never mentioned ‘autism’, mind you. ‘Autism’ was never the object targeted by their rituals. They targeted only the suffering; only the distress. So in the eyes of father, mother and son, what the healing rituals did was to strip Rowan’s distress – as well as his parents’ – from the binding label ‘autism’, with its usually-not-very-positive, Western and Modern and Medical connotations. Instead, they have placed them elsewhere. Once this change is achieved – and it’s not easy to achieve, as one can easily imagine – many other things are likely to change with it.
For example, the series of rituals had the rather immediate effect of altering Rowans’ surroundings – mountains, horses, streams etc. – as well as, arguably, his symbolic position within those surroundings. It has placed him in the centre – in fact, it has placed him as the centre – rather than viewing him as (metaphorically) lagging behind or being pulled forward to somehow keep up. It has altered Rowan’s parents’ understanding of him and expectations of him, thus in a sense modifying and revalidating Rowan’s presumed role within the family, within society – and indeed within the world. It has probably affected the relationship between the two parents, perhaps readjusting it so that it is more geared towards Rowan’s own difficulties and capabilities, which are presumably very different from those imagined by Rupert and Kristin since before he was born. Or perhaps the rituals have somehow ruptured Rowan’s constant painful memory of a (short) lifetime of much distress, anxiety and discomfort, fixing his gaze forward instead, towards a more comfortable, accepting, bright future.
Like I said, I can’t be sure of any of these claims. They are all mere speculations – if that. But my point is that too often, when we think of autism and the distress and suffering that accompany it, we think of brain wiring, cognitive functioning, DNA strings etc. Those all play a part, yes. But other factors are also meaningful. It could be argued that other factors are even more meaningful. These ‘other’ factors, such as those noted above, are neither fixed nor inevitable aspects of autism. Their transformation shouldn’t ever be conceived easy, but it shouldn’t be reckoned to be impossible either. Our experience of the world is constructed of many types of materials, connected in an infinite number of ways. At least some of them are potentially alterable.
What do you make of all of this?