A Hallucinogenic Tea, Laced with Controversy: Ayahuasca in the Amazon and the United States by Marlene Dobkin de Rios and Roger Rumrrill

A Hallucinogenic Tea, Laced with Controversy: Ayahuasca in the Amazon and the United States. By Marlene Dobkin de Rios and Roger Rumrrill. Westport, CT: Praeger (2008). Hardback. Pp.162. ISBN: 9780313345425

According to Dobkin de Rios and Rumrrill the psychedelic Amazonian jungle decoction, ayahuasca, has a history of continuous use spanning at least 8,000 years. After all that time non-indigenes are now developing an increasing interest in ayahuasca’s intriguing cultural, magico-religious, legal, medical and psychopharmacological dimensions. This book covers all of these aspects in varying degrees (less so the pharmacology), but is likely of most interest for its analysis of the brew’s use in shamanic and healing contexts. It is here too that the book has most to offer, with half its contents given over to anthropological insights into the native use of ayahuasca, including interviews over the course of some thirty years between the authors and several ayahuasqueros.

From the ethnography we learn that prophecy is one of the main motivations among the native people of Peru for drinking ayahuasca, and that the brew is also important in healing, as well as in more sinister activities such as bewitchment and sorcery. The authors maintain, however, that any healing effects that do occur are due to an increased hypnotic suggestibility induced by the drug and to the shaman’s skills, if they have any, as a psychotherapist. A similar academic view is taken regarding the shaman’s belief in contact with animal and plant familiars who assist him in diagnosing illness. Dobkin de Rios and Rumrrill suggest this belief is merely self-deception, an illusion that provides a sense of security and a means of coping that immunizes people against depression. Nevertheless, the hypnotic suggestibility and self-deception hypotheses put forward remain largely unexamined and untested, reflecting a deep-seated ethnocentrism and possibly what Grof (2001) calls pragmacentrism – theoretical speculation “…based exclusively on experiences and observations made in ordinary states of consciousness” (p.15).

Unsurprisingly, having one’s magical beliefs labelled as delusional by anthropologists does little to reduce them and the Peruvians here under the cultural microscope still seek shamanic help for saladera (a bewitchment of bad luck) and daño, which is any physical ailment believed to be due to witchcraft and interpersonal conflict, usually envy. The former is generally a direct attack, whereas the latter usually involves the employment of a third party, a witch, to create the curse. Back in 1977, one shaman reported that a quarter of his clients came to him for love charms. These motives seemingly contrast with those of the modern “Western drug tourist’s” desires for a spiritual experience or to alleviate depression and resolve trauma, all of which, indigenous or foreign, are somewhat denigrated by the authors, who write, “the farce currently resulting from the borrowing of shamanic elements in a hodgepodge of cobbled mysticism verges on the ludicrous” (p.82).

This consideration of the modern ‘Western’ urbanite’s desire to use ayahuasca consumes the other half of the book. It is here that the central thesis reveals itself as much less a cauldron in which viewpoints about ayahuasca use are openly mixed but rather as an alembic in which to distil toxic opinions. The object of scorn being the growth in ayahuasca tourism and the subsequent demise of ‘real’ healers/sorcerers: the increased demand from wealthy foreigners resulting in virtually all “neo-shamans” these days being charlatans as the authors see it. This rather dim view of both ayahuasca seekers and dispensers is largely unsupported, however, and comes across as the authors’ opinion based largely on reports from a very few informants, usually older, more established Peruvian shamans – other regions in South America being ignored.

Certainly there are some negative consequences to Westerners seeking to sample Amazonian shamanism, either as a means of spirituality or in order to become well, although other researchers (e.g., Winkleman, 2005), following interviews, have tended to characterise these as spiritual seekers rather than drug tourists, and view their activities as more benign. However, short shrift is given to such research by Dobkin de Rios and Rumrrill, who are of the opinion that “pseudo-intellectual” Westerners taking ayahuasca are doing so due to a lack of authenticity in their own life, leading to a lack of morality and a subsequent desire to mock the drug laws in the northern hemisphere. Such a position is once again unsupported, and counters the foreign ayahuasca users’ actual reasoning as reported by the authors, albeit obtained second-hand from a “reputable ayahasuca healer” (p.80). Furthermore, the authors indicate that ayahuasca drug tourists are gullible and place themselves in danger at the hands of charlatans. This speculation is undoubtedly true in some cases, but the overarching tenor of the book in this regard is verging on vitriolic, not academic.

For instance, in the very first few pages the reader is informed that, despite the general scientific view that it is safe, ayahuasca is a dangerous drug and that “new data are emerging that provoke some real concerns about ayahausca’s use” (p.7). In particular, the text continues, the untrained use of it can be fatal, reporting three cases in which people have died in connection with ayahasca use. In the first case it is stated that “for example, [Dobkin] de Rios reported that an epileptic informant in Iquitos was given ayahuasca, and during a seizure that followed, she fell into the river and drowned” (p.7). This gives the impression that the seizure occurred under the effects of the jungle decoction and quite possibly as a direct result of it, though certainly the implication is that the ayahuasca is something to do with the death. When the reader turns to the original source of that report (Dobkin de Rios, 1972) it is discovered that, “After she had taken ayahuasca twice, Norma [a girl of eighteen who suffered from epilepsy]… had to travel with her mother to Brazil to see about some family property. During a convulsion, the young woman fell into the river and drowned” (p.103). Certainly the reading of the accident in the this original text indicates that the ayahuasca ingestion was completely incidental to the woman’s drowning, which was only mentioned because the ayahuasca failed to cure her of epilepsy! This is hardly grounds for labelling its ingestion as fatal, and nor is this “new data” having been first reported in 1972.

In the second supposed case of death from ayahuasca the authors mention “a fatal intoxication” of a US man that was “reported in a scientific journal” (p.8). However, a number of leading scientists engaged in ayahuasca research seriously questioned the original reporting of the incident by Sklerov et al. (2005), and published a rebuttal in the same journal indicating that the report “…is misleading as to the nature and toxicity of ayahuasca” (Callaway et al., 2006, p. 406). They went on to state that, “…there is no evidence that… his death… can in any way be attributed to ayahuasca per se, as a superficial or uninformed reading of the article insinuates.” Furthermore, they indicated that several points in the original article required clarification, “as readers may otherwise make unwarranted inferences about the toxicity and harmfulness of ayahuasca” (p.407) as indeed appears to have occurred in the book under review.

The final case of death by ayahuasca merely alludes to an event “whispered about among Iquitos residents” (p.8) concerning a woman who died following an aneurysm while under the influence of the psychedelic brew, but no references are given and the incident remains hearsay at best. It’s scholarship such as this, combined with an apparent lack of balanced viewpoint that undermines the potentially important message of the book. Yes, there may well be concerns regarding the modern non-indigenous use of ayahuasca, but to overstate these and blanketly criticise all parties involved without addressing “benefit maximization” as well as harm reduction (Tupper, 2008) is to catastrophize the situation. Not wishing to be an apologist for ayahuasca seekers or dispensers, it is my opinion that the kind of agenda-led anthropology and journalism presented in this book is likely to do more harm than good.

As a final example of the bias imbued within this text, in this case ethnocentrism, the authors make some mention of cultural appropriation of indigenous wisdom with the rise of white shamans, but then indicate that ayahuasca’s only salvation from becoming a malevolent agent is to incorporate it into the medical model within a strict set of protocols. While this is certainly one way forward, ironically, it is a direction that reeks of the cultural appropriation of a healing practice that spans millennia. In sum, this book is surely of interest to the discerning researcher of indigenous healing practices and shamanism, and, unlike ayahuasca it seems, it should require no warning label. For all other readers the same caution applies as for those initially seeking shamanic inebriants in the Amazon, caveat emptor.

A version of this article first appeared as: Luke, D. (2011). The light from the forest: The ritual use of ayahuasca in Brazil: Special issue of Fieldwork in Religion 2(3), by B.C. Labate & E. MacRae [book review]. Time & Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness & Culture 4 (3), 361-364.

References:

Callaway, J.C., Grob, C.S., McKenna, D.J., Nichols, D.E., Shulgin, A., and Tupper, K.W., 2006. “A Demand for Clarity Regarding a Case Report on the Ingestion of 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT) in an Ayahuasca Preparation.” Journal of Analytical Toxicology 30(6): 406-7.

Dobkin de Rios, M., 1972. Visionary Vine: Psychedelic Healing in the Peruvian Amazon. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company.

Grof, S., 2001. LSD psychotherapy (3rd ed.). Sarasota, FL: Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

Sklerov, J., Levine, B., Moore, K.A., King, T., and Fowler, D., 2005. “A Fatal Intoxication Following the Ingestion of 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine in an Ayahuasca Preparation.” Journal of Analytical Toxicology 29(8): 838-41.

Tupper, K. W., 2008. “The Globalization of Ayahuasca: Harm Reduction or Benefit Maximization?” International Journal of Drug Policy 19: 297-303.

Winkelman, M., 2005. “Drug Tourism or Spiritual Healing? Ayahuasca Seekers in Amazonia.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 37 (2): 209-18.

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7 Responses

  1. Simon says:

    Hi – I have not read this book but I have read another by Dobkin de Rios (her autobiography). This review is interesting as it seems to be saying that the authors only considered the healing powers of ayahuasca. However, this is not the case. Ayahuasca is used by shaman to carry out diagnoses, and they will then determine which natural plants are to be used to create medicines and the cures. Does the book discuss this aspect of how a curandero heals?

    There is also the other side of the coin whereby many young Peruvians are no longer interested in doing apprenticeships. So the upside is that there are some genuine Westerners who understand the value of this knowledge and who now wish to preserve it and teach their own compatriots who valuable it can be. It sounds like this book is not so balanced in this respect?

    But an interesting review and thanks for being able to publish it here.

    • David Luke says:

      Hi Simon, yes the book considers some of the ways in which the shamans say they heal and diagnose illness, though the authors rather disregard these in favour of prosaic explanations, but largely without evidence to back up their perspective.

      Indeed the book is not very balanced and is filled with the authors’ gripes and prejudices, often at the expense of good scholarship.

      It is still worth a read though, if you can duck the inherent agenda.

  2. Chai says:

    While I have not read the book, I have worked extensively with the plant medicine, as well as with both indigenous and Northern “shamans”. I think it is a mistake to disregard criticisms of the state of ayahuasca “shamanism” in both South America and elsewhere. There are widespread problems with the influx of “maestros” into the US and Europe and tourists to South America. The two biggest issues are, as always, money and sex. The money, sometimes $5-10K per weekend, has attracted a class of people who are generally uneducated, untrained, and who lack an understanding of western/northern psychology, and who by the nature of the trade of the “road man” are unable to provide the proper care and support for people who undergo powerful, life-altering experiences. In addition, there are widespread cases of “shamans” taking advantage of women sexually, both as a result of them assuming the position of a spiritual authority, and (depending on your belief) through the use of sorcery. I have witnessed this directly and others have reported the same. One very well known “maestro” with a center outside Iquitos is infamous for preying on his “students”.

    As one good friend of mine, who is also a traditional indigenous practitioner of plant medicine (most real shamans never call themselves shamans), said recently to a group of his “peers”: “You should be ashamed of what your are doing to the gringos. Send them home, leave them alone. You are not only destroying the traditional but you are taking advantage of people who don’t know better.”

    Don’t get me wrong, I am a proponent of responsible use of ayahuasca. The problem is finding a responsible person with integrity that can be trusted.

    • David Luke says:

      Thanks for your response. I don’t doubt this is a genuine problem, and say as much. Indeed I was being interviewed for a radio show tonight by a woman who was molested by a supposed shaman in Peru, pretending to run a San Pedro ceremony. Such people do exist and give those with genuine motives a bad name, and indeed anyone thinking of going to South America to explore psychedelic shamanism – and I am not advocating this – but they would be wise to only go to people who have been recommended by someone they trust. Such people also exist. Alternatively, what is needed is something like an alternative ‘trip advisor’ where people can write reviews of their encounters and those unethical sham shamans will be exposed and avoided in time.

      My response now is as it was in the review – caveat emptor – buyer beware. These are foreign lands and alien psychological landscapes, that alone should be risky enough, but people should also be pretty sure of who they are tripping with, and what they are really paying for. This always applies, no matter where in the world you are, but especially far from home.

      If, “the problem is finding a responsible person with integrity that can be trusted,” then those seeking this realm should have some integrity and make sure they are in safe hands before they embark on such a precarious journey.

      So where you say that I make “a mistake to disregard the criticisms of the state of ayahuasca “shamanism” in both South America and elsewhere”, I think you misunderstand me, because i do not disregard the criticisms I merely critique the book and its flaws, to wit: it dwells excessively on the scourge of charlatans in “South America”, when indeed there are many reputable and honest ayahuasceros working on that continent, but unfortunately the authors gripe only on this issue and also restrict their research to Peru (where there is indeed a growing problem) and apply it blanketly to the whole of South America, and; they put forward some unscholarly and unsupported claims that ayahuasca can be deadly, when in fact they have little if no real evidence to justify this claim.

      Charlatanism is a menace wherever it operates, but people everywhere will try and make a fast buck if they see gullible and (relatively) wealthy clients. Pensions scams are no less prevalent. However, poor scholarship is also a menace, though perhaps somewhat less risky, but should also be exposed – I merely attempt to do so here. Again, thank you for your response.

  3. Chai says:

    love your reply. we are agreed:) well put, direct and strong. you are an intelligent writer. maybe you should write a book about all the positive medicine work? or i should write a book on the fakes. either way, it is for the same purpose, to make people aware of all the benefits and all the dangers. thanks for your thoughtful reply.

  4. ayadox says:

    I totally agree with your criticisms, I had read all of de Rios’ previous books, she was after all one of the early pioneers of ayahuasca research. I was quite disappointed by this book for the reasons you list, lack of rigor, lack of research (mostly quoting her own wrtings), a number of glaring factual and spelling mistakes, the whole thing seemed like a long rant from someone that -judging by some of the mistakes she made- didn’t actually seemed to as deep a knowledge as about South American ayahuasca use as I had assumed.

  1. July 16, 2012

    […] Literary Review: ‘A Hallucinogenic Tea, Laced with Controversy: Ayahuasca in the Amazon and th… (psypressuk.com) […]

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