Helping Yourself: Fabrication of Aboriginal Culture

This article by Cath Ellis is available here for download, and has been reposted from here.

Helping Yourself: Marlo Morgan and the Fabrication of Aboriginal Culture.

By Cath Ellis

IN my role as a teacher of Australian literature and Australian studies in an Australian university, I find my classes regularly contain a significant number of international students undertaking a semester of ‘study abroad’. As an introductory exercise, I ask these students to list the preconceptions they had of Australia before their arrival and to consider the sources of those ideas. With disturbing frequency students, particularly those from North America, cite a book that is little known in Australia: Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan. Conversations I have had with colleagues in my own and other institutions confirm that these are not isolated experiences. This is disturbing precisely because the book, which is routinely taken by non-Australian readers to be an accurate, non-fictional account of Australian Indigenous culture, is in fact a complete fabrication. Several commentaries offering detailed critical analyses of the book have already been published and my essay does not propose to contribute any further to this body of textual analysis (Sitka; Griffiths; Behrendt). Instead it offers a comprehensive historical account of the Marlo Morgan phenomenon and some thoughts on the potential impact of her venture on Indigenous people.

To begin, then, it is important to consider the events that inspired the fabrication of the story in the first place. In 1985 Marlo Morgan, a white, middle-aged allied health care professional from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, travelled to Brisbane for a period of three or four months, to do a stint of unpaid work in a pharmacy. Some time after her return to Missouri, Morgan began selling ti-tree oil products for Melaleuca Inc., a network-marketing company based in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Morgan promoted these products at events around Kansas City and told audiences that during her time in Australia she had helped a group of indigent Aboriginal youths set up a fly-screen business. She then told of how she was tricked into travelling across the country (she thought she was to receive an award for her work with the youths) and subsequently kidnapped by a ‘Tribe’ of Aboriginal Australians and forced to go ‘walkabout’ across the desert. (1) She claimed that her kidnappers had used ti-tree oil to cure injuries that she sustained to her feet during the walk and it was, she implied, the same oil contained in the products she had available for sale. (2)

According to Morgan some people approached her afterwards asking for copies of her lecture to send to friends and relatives who they thought would also be interested in her story (PhenomeNEWS). Encouraged by this, she produced a handwritten and later a typed version that she distributed at the end of her talks along with other promotional material for Melaleuca Inc. In 1991, with the help of her son, Morgan self-published a more sophisticated bound version of her story, featuring illustrations by her daughter and an advertisement for Melaleuca Inc. She began marketing and distributing copies, selling them for around ten dollars and before long what had begun as a marketing gimmick became a popular and lucrative commodity. In the following year she printed another 350,000 copies of the book, this time without the advertisement for Melaleuca Inc. From the beginning her sales had benefited from word-of-mouth recommendations, and to encourage this process she gave away an estimated 100,000 copies.

The story of Mutant Message Down Under is narrated by a white American woman called Marlo who is kidnapped by the ‘Real People Tribe’ in an unspecified region of the Australian mainland and is forced to go ‘walkabout’ with them. According to Marlo, the ‘Real People’ are the only Aboriginal people in Australia who have not been corrupted by non-Aboriginal culture, technology and ‘civilisation’. During the journey, Marlo undergoes a series of challenges and consequently learns a number of lessons about herself and her values. She gradually sheds the trappings of her middle-class existence–including jewellery, cosmetics, credit cards and clothes–and learns the skills and endurance necessary to survive in the oppressive climate and difficult terrain of the Australian desert. During the journey, Marlo discovers that the members of the ‘Real People Tribe’ are distressed by the degradation of their environment and have decided to remain celibate in order not to perpetuate themselves. She also learns that she has been specially chosen by the ‘Real People’ to carry their message to the outside world in order that the knowledge they have accumulated over thousands of years not be lost. To reflect this role, Marlo adopts the name ‘Traveling Tongue’. The implication is that the book is the end result of a ‘project’ that was initiated and endorsed by the ‘Real People’ themselves.

In 1991, Morgan sent the manuscript unsolicited to Stillpoint Publishing, part of the Stillpoint School of Advanced Energy Healing in Walpole, New Hampshire. Stillpoint were attracted to the book and purchased the publishing rights for US$2,500. (3) They conducted work on a new edition that they planned to call Walkabout Woman: Messenger for a Vanishing Tribe which was to be classified as adult non-fiction in the subject area of Rural Anthropology (see Planning to release the book in September 1992, Stillpoint did some pre-publication marketing at the American Booksellers’ Association Convention in Anaheim, California towards the end of May. This brought the book to the attention of a much wider audience than it had previously enjoyed. Soon afterward, in early June, alarm bells began to sound for Stillpoint, as Errol Sowers recalled in an interview with the Boston Globe in 1994:

We started to get a lot of telephone calls from Australia.
That, and we had a problem with [Morgan] promoting herself
as having a PhD in biochemistry, which she does not, and a
few other credentials we couldn’t check out. We asked her
to authenticate five or six things that had to [do] with
the time, the place or the individuals that could back her up.

Only days before the first run of 50,000 books was due to be printed, Stillpoint were unable to get the verification they were after. In addition, they were concerned about a complaint of plagiarism brought against the book by Robert Lawlor, author of Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime to whom they had sent the manuscript for comment. (4) Reluctantly, Stillpoint decided against publishing the book and agreed to sell the rights back to Morgan for $5,000, an amount Stillpoint estimate to be around one tenth of their investment. With the rights back in her own hands, Morgan continued her self-publishing operation from home (Sowers).

In April 1994 David Scheeter, the proprietor of the New Age bookstore Paper Ships in San Anselmo, California, sold a copy of the book to Candice Fuhrman, a California-based literary agent who had been told about the book by a friend. She found many similarities between this book and James Redfield’s best-selling title The Celestine Prophecy, a book that had also started out life in self-published form. Fuhrman, who had ‘chased but missed’ Redfield’s book, was determined not to miss this one and began trying to make contact with Morgan (McCarthy). After several attempts, Fuhrman was able to contact Morgan but her encounter with Stillpoint left her wary and it took Fuhrman eight days to convince Morgan to let her take control of the manuscript (Sullivan). Having managed this, Fuhrman quickly negotiated a short but fiercely contested bidding war at the end of which HarperCollins won out against Bantam and two other rival houses, purchasing the publishing rights for around US$1.7 million (Oder). HarperCollins released the first run of 250,000 copies in September 1994, and backed it up with a US$250,000 marketing campaign that included a fifteen-city lecture tour for the author. Even before the release date, advances for the dub-rights, the large-print rights and foreign translations had brought in over half a million US dollars in advances for HarperCollins (Nathan). Upon release, the book proved to be an instant hit, remaining on the best-seller lists in the United States for over six months.

Apparently neither Morgan’s new agent nor her publisher shared the ethical concerns that stopped the Stillpoint edition. HarperCollins did, however, make some significant changes to the manuscript. For instance, Morgan’s claims to holding doctorates were removed from the author biography, which referred instead to her as a ‘retired health-care professional. (5) Most of the numerous typographical errors were removed and the reporting of the ‘Real People Tribe’s’ dialogue, which had been typed in upper case in the original publications, was changed to lower case. Other ‘errors’ that gave the impression that Morgan’s experience of Australia was limited were also corrected. For instance in the original editions, the narrator recalls re-entering ‘civilisation’ after four months in the desert and borrowing a quarter from a passer-by to make a phone call. As Chris Sitka points out in her 1997 critique of this original edition: ‘you don’t make phone calls with quarters in Australia […] we don’t even have quarters as part of the currency’ (Sitka). The removal of this and other errors from the HarperCollins edition demonstrates that the manuscript was edited to eliminate things that might cast doubt upon the veracity of Morgan’s story.

By far the most significant editorial alteration was the shift of classification from non-fiction in the original self-published version to fiction in the HarperCollins edition. (6) This alteration is reinforced in a disclaimer in the front pages of the book that states: ‘This book is a work of fiction,’ and in the first line of the back-cover blurb, which describes the work as a ‘gripping fictional account’. These two disclaimers, however, are overshadowed by a series of devices that encourage readers to apprehend the book as an accurate, autobiographical account of Morgan’s own experiences. In the first instance, the foreword entitled ‘From the Author to the Reader,’ begins ‘[t]his was written after the fact and inspired by actual experience,’ and is signed ‘Traveling Tongue’. As Robert Eggington observes, by the correspondence between the narrator’s biography and Morgan’s own, this connection between author and narrator is further reinforced (Eggington). The book also carries the endorsement in the form of a postlude by the late Burnum Burnum, a well-known Aboriginal Australian actor and activist who here identifies himself as an elder of the ‘Wurundjeri tribe’. In the postlude Burnum writes:
It is a classic and does not violate any trust given
to its author by us Real People. Rather it portrays
our value systems and esoteric insights in such a
way as to make me feel extremely proud of my heritage
… Mutant Message uplifts us into a higher plane of
consciousness and makes us the regal and majestic people
that we are. (Burnum qtd in Morgan 1994, 189)

Burnum joined Morgan on part of her promotional tour of the United States in early 1995. It was reported in an article in the Milwaukee Journal that he was there to offer ‘credibility and support for her story’ (Pabst). All of these strategies combine to make it abundantly clear that, regardless of its official classification as fiction, the book was positioned as a work of non-fiction. As suggested earlier, belief in the veracity of the tale was vital to its success.

Morgan’s own statements added to this sense of authenticity. The extraordinary popularity of the book, backed up by HarperCollins’s marketing campaign, ensured that Morgan was in heavy demand for media interviews, including one on the high-rating Oprah Winfrey show. In these interviews Morgan was frequently questioned about the reclassification of the book as fiction, and she gave no indication that the work was in any sense fictional. In fact, she suggested the opposite, by saying that the fiction label was a strategic ploy conjured up by herself, her agent and her publishers to protect the ‘real’ ‘Real People Tribe’ and herself. The explanation she offered in an interview published in the Seattle Times during her promotional tour of the United States is typical:
In this country, if you write as fact, it becomes
a sociological text. You must be specific about times,
dates, places and people–things that are nobody’s
business. The Australian government says these people don’t
exist; they couldn’t still be there after the last roundup
to send Aborigines to the reservation. In the eyes of the
government, they would be criminals, walking on government
land without a permit, not on any census or tax rolls, not
registering births. But the government doesn’t pursue fictional
people or places […] I did go on walkabout. Everything that I say
happened did happen. Nothing in the book is embellished. It’s
fiction because of what I left out, not what I put in (qtd in
Ament). (7)

In this way Morgan was able to deflect charges of fabrication and cultural appropriation by insisting that she had Indigenous Australians’ best interests at heart.

When interviewers took a more hostile approach, her defence was similarly deflective. When challenged about the validity of Burnum Burnum’s endorsement being used to speak for all Aboriginal Australians, Morgan responded: ‘Well, I don’t–I don’t know that to be a fact at all. That’s your fact. But I have had no complaints from aboriginals [sic] at all, period. The only people who have criticised this have all been white-complected people’ (qtd in Reyes). Here Morgan is making indirect reference to earlier claims that she had received death threats from white supremacist organisations and fundamentalist Christian groups. Again, this comment made in the interview with the Seattle Times is typical: ‘Anyone who is into a racial issue sees me as a traitor for suggesting that aboriginal people may be superior to us in some ways […] Religious fundamentalists are upset at the suggestion that these people might be good people without going to church on Sunday’ (Ament). (8) In this way Morgan deflects accusations of insensitivity and racism, made both covertly or overtly in these interviews, onto other white people whom she positions as racist. (9) These defensive strategies further encourage those who identify as non-racist to accept, support and endorse her book as a true story.

At the time the publishing deal was finalised, Morgan also negotiated the sale of the movie rights for the book. A mutual friend had introduced Morgan to the film producers Kristin van Buren and Roger Pugliese as early as 1992. With their assistance, Morgan sold the film rights to United Artists for a rumoured sum of US$1.8 million (see Laurie). Even before the HarperCollins edition was released, it was reported that a film deal with a Hollywood studio was ‘in progress’ (Honeycutt). (10) Later that year the British press reported that script production had begun and that Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon had been approached for the lead role (‘Truth Goes Walkabout’). Early the next year Morgan told the Milwaukee Journal that Burnum Burnum would act as an adviser to United Artists to ‘ensure that the movie portrays the Aboriginal people with “dignity and respect”‘ (Pabst). By March 1995 it was reported that the film had been scripted, that a director was being sought and that the producers hoped to begin shooting in Australia shortly (Honeycutt). It was around this time that reports about protest action planned by Indigenous groups began to appear in the Australian press, no doubt making shooting in an Australian location less likely. In early 1997, reports in the Japanese press claimed that United Artists were auditioning actors for the film (‘Australian Aborigines Attack Author’). Over a year later, the Australian press reported that United Artists had confirmed that the film was going ahead (Barber), but from this point on the film disappeared without trace. It seems that for everyone other than Morgan the film venture did not prove to be as profitable a venture as the book publication had been.

In the early 1990s the book was brought to the attention of Robert Eggington, the coordinator of Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation, a Nyoongah arts advocacy organisation established in the mid 1980s. (11) Dumbartung sought funding from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission to investigate the book and they subsequently organised a series of meetings in Indigenous communities. Eggington’s suspicion that the book was a fraud was confirmed at these meetings: none of the communities had any knowledge of Morgan; no one claimed to have travelled through the desert with her; and no one had heard of the ‘Real People Tribe’. Dumbartung also commissioned Dr John P. Stanton, from the Berndt Museum of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia, to prepare a report on the book. Stanton’s report suggests that Morgan’s book ‘demonstrates more of the author’s imagination than any first-hand experience of living with and knowledge of Desert Aborigines beyond that available in any popular text’ (Stanton).

As a result of these findings, a delegation of eight Aboriginal people travelled to the United States to confront Morgan. Various Australian and international media reported that Morgan had offered a verbal apology during a telephone link between the delegation in Los Angeles and the author in New York and she promised a written one within forty-eight hours (‘Author Admits Message a Hoax’; ‘Mutant Author Says She’s Sorry’; ‘US Author Apologises to Aborigines’; Guilliat; Ellicott; Gould; Jopson; Laurie; McDonald). One article makes mention of an interview with Marlo Morgan on SBS Radio in which Morgan ‘broke down’ and said:
I would like to say that I’m terribly sorry and my sincere, my
sincere apologies to any Australian Aboriginal person if I have
offended them in any way. I think of them in only the highest
… please read this book … with an open mind and see if there
is anything derogatory to your people because it is not. I love
them, and I wish them equal opportunity and all the best.
(qtd in McDonald)

On hearing the news of Morgan’s apology, Burnum Burnum formally withdrew his support from the publication. In a letter to Dumbartung, he declared that his response to the book was ‘innocent’ and that he ‘did not understand the tribal ramifications’ of his support for the author (Burnum).

After the press conference, however, Morgan’s attitude changed markedly. No written apology was forthcoming and she refused to co-operate any further with the delegation of Aboriginal people and communicated only through her lawyers. Her book remained on sale and she continued to deliver lectures, deflecting the protest actions of Dumbartung as best she could. According to a delegation that protested during Morgan’s lecture tour of Japan in April 1997, she told her audience that the protestors had travelled there to carry out an assassination attempt on her life. She declared that ‘the attempt had failed because she represented all that was good and that [the protestors] represented all that was bad’ and that ‘in the end, goodness will prevail’ (Dumbartung ‘Message Stick’; Garran). At a second protest in Japan, Morgan anticipated a similar confrontation and met the Dumbartung protestors as they approached the podium, presented them with a red rose and said: ‘Take this token gift of love, come over to us and become one with us. We know you are full of anger and hate but we love you all the same’ (Dumbartung ‘Message Stick’; Garran). The Aboriginal delegation and its protests failed to have any significant impact on Morgan’s lucrative venture. As with her earlier encounters with the media Morgan once again deflected criticism of herself onto others.

In 1998, HarperCollins sought to cash in on the success of Morgan’s first book with another by Morgan called Message from Forever.” A Novel of Aboriginal Wisdom. Although this text does not carry a written endorsement from Burnum Burnum, it is dedicated to him. In this second publication, Morgan makes strategic moves to avoid the controversy that her first book attracted. On the dust jacket, the book is clearly identified as ‘a novel’. But its subtitle’s claim to deliver a message of Aboriginal wisdom suggests it is informed by the same ‘real’ and ‘factual’ Indigenous wisdom contained in the first publication and presumed to be entrusted to Morgan.

Message from Forever is the story of fraternal Aboriginal twins named Beatrice and Geoff who are born in the desert but taken from their mother soon after birth and are then separated. (12) The boy moves with his adoptive parents to the United States, where he endures an abusive childhood, becomes an alcoholic, is convicted of murder and is sentenced to life in prison in a Florida gaol. The girl struggles to establish herself in non-Aboriginal Australian society by taking on various forms of employment. She subsequently joins the ‘Real People Tribe’ and has similar experiences and revelations to those of the narrator in Mutant Message Down Under. Eventually, through the delicate workings of fate, the twins are reunited and narrative resolution is achieved. In interviews, Morgan claims that this story was inspired by the real-life experiences of her friend Burnum Burnum, a member of the stolen generations. The story also has many similarities with the life experiences of James Savage (birth name Russell Moore), a stolen child who was adopted by a white family and brought up in the United States. Found guilty of murder, and formerly on death row, Savage is currently serving a life sentence in the Sumter Correctional Institution in Florida. (13) Beyond a series of rather superficial devices that subscribe to the generic conventions of the novel form, this text has the same ideological and intellectual foundations of the first.

As several commentators have noted, there is little in Morgan’s texts that resemble the knowledge and laws of any indigenous Australian nation (Sitka; Stanton). In her 1994 review, Francoise Dussart writes: ‘Mutant Message is not about them [Aboriginal people] but about a pseudo New Age vision of a “them” by an un-rigorous member of our own Western tribes. If this book has any message at all it is Morgan’s alone’ (5). Not only is the story of Morgan’s kidnapping and journey in the first book a fabrication, so too is the cosmology at the heart of both books. After stripping this away, what remains is a mishmash of vague, unsophisticated dictums about personal growth, self-healing and environmental awareness. Despite this, the book’s message offers an interesting insight into her phenomenal commercial success. After all, there is nothing especially confronting or demanding about these ideas. The dictum that the ‘Real People’ ‘hope we will re-evaluate our material possessions and adapt them accordingly’ offers little more than reassurance and encouragement to think before you consume. As such, these books ultimately amount to a non-confronting affirmation of comfortable middle-class values of materialism tempered with ethical consumption. Despite her own repeated insistence on the importance of protecting the ‘Real People Tribe’, there is certainly no encouragement for individuals to become involved in activism that may alleviate the plight of indigenous people.

From its humble origins as a means of drumming up sales in ti-tree products, Morgan’s fabrication has made her a considerable fortune. Along with the sales of her self-published first book, the sale of its publishing rights to HarperCollins and her royalties from both books, the sale of the film rights, the speaking fees she has received–reported to be as much as US$2,500 (Montgomery)–she has also embarked upon several merchandising ventures including audio and video tapes, and a companion self-help guide to Mutant Message Down Under. More recently, her works have been available for sale in digital format as electronic books. Importantly, Morgan’s ventures are only a small part of a much larger phenomenon, to which her book has a complex relationship. Morgan positioned her fabricated story within the vast, proliferating field, referred to as the ‘New Age’. A quick browse through the New Age section of a local bookshop will give some sense of the amount of choice available to consumers. This, combined with the fact that most of these products tend to employ the lingua franca of self-sacralisation, means that there are a lot of different products effectively offering much the same thing. For while the New Age market is large and lucrative, it is also highly competitive. In order to succeed in this industry, effective product differentiation is vital. Anything that authorises or authenticates a particular product or service gives it a vital edge in the market. As many scholars have observed, this authority is increasingly being appropriated from indigeneity (Heelas; Bowman, ‘Noble Savage’; Root; Donaldson; Hill).

Marion Bowman’s research into the uses of ‘Celticity’ offers some important insights here. She demonstrates how Celtic cultures which were once pitied, despised and patronised for not being mainstream ‘are now seen as less tainted, as repositories of a spirituality, a sense of tradition, a oneness with nature that has elsewhere been lost’ (Bowman, ‘Cardiac Celts’ 243). She argues that apparently archaic ideas embedded within primitivism, such as the Golden Age and the Noble Savage, have been adopted in New Age and Pagan circles (243; see also Piggot 30). Bowman’s work concentrates on Celticity, but is equally applicable to the increasing fascination with other ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’ cultures. Her work draws from and fits within the research conducted by Colin Campbell, who argues that Romanticism is the most likely source of an ‘ethic’ that legitimated a ‘spirit’ of modern consumerism (see Campbell 279-96). In this context, the Noble Savage grew into a kind of ‘spiritual and intellectual alter ego of urban industrial’ life offering a glorified pre-industrial/pre-capitalist vision of rural or primitive life. With this shift in emphasis, Bowman argues, there has been a corresponding shift in the way that the past is viewed, to the point where it is seen as a Golden Age: a time when life was simpler, purer, more natural, harmonious and, consequently, more authentic. This view is particularly true of those versions of New Age philosophy which turn to the past to extract knowledge and wisdom that will help them re-establish their lost relationship with nature, the earth and, eventually, themselves. Indigenous peoples and cultures are particularly useful in this respect because they are seen as living keepers or holders of ancient knowledge and wisdom. In other words, ‘primitive’ indigenous people are seen as intercessors between the present and the past. In addition, access to ‘primitive’ culture offers access to a marginal existence that is, by definition, significantly distanced from a mainstream audience that was, of course, the cause of the original disaffection. Ultimately primitivism offers a place untouched by the corrupting influences of industrialisation, capitalism, consumerism and materialism. The inescapable irony here is that this very act of consumption simply replicates the capitalist imperial project.

Ultimately, Marlo Morgan’s books are fundamentally harmful to Australian Aboriginal people not because they are sold as authentic Aboriginal wisdom, but because they are bought, accepted, and understood as authentic Aboriginal wisdom. Even though both books are protected by their fictional classification, the devices that convince readers that they are in fact reading non-fiction are so effective that they have been accepted as such by hundreds of thousands of readers around the world. As testament to this, countless reviewers refer to the story as if it were factual (see Publishers Weekly; Ward; Dempsey; Ament; Graham; Martinez; O’Connor). In addition, Mutant Message Down Under is routinely set as required reading for high school and university courses and is relied upon as an authority on Australian Aboriginal culture in many other situations. (14) As a result of its popularity it was widely translated, which means that in some languages it is one of very few books ‘about’ Australian Indigenous culture. For all Aboriginal people, including those who are custodians of the traditions and knowledges of their nation and those who are not, their culture does not correspond to that which is now widely accepted and valued as ‘authentic’ by people throughout the United States, Europe and Japan.

Morgan’s reference to her reading audience as mutants suggests that only those who are as enlightened as herself are able to recognise their mutant status. The implication is that only by reading Morgan’s books and using them to get in touch with these ancient truths, are people able to reach this level of enlightenment and, presumably, begin the process of ‘de-mutating’ themselves. In his critique of Robert Lawlor’s Voices of the First Day, Mitchell Rolls argues that the process of cultural invention undertaken in these books ‘is not according respect to Aboriginal cultures because of their significance unto themselves, but because of their utility in supposedly meeting the needs of a “deteriorated and purulent” West’ (217). This serves as a final, poignant reminder that Morgan’s books are not ‘about’ Indigenous culture at all. In the first instance, as this essay has pointed out, the stories they tell are fabrications masquerading as ‘authenticity’. In addition, these books, as damaging as they are to Indigenous people, concentrate only on the needs of the already privileged and powerful non-Aboriginal people in the West.


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–. Mutant Message Down Under. 1st ed. Lees Summit, MO: MM Co., 1991.

–. Mutant Message Down Under: A Woman’s Journey in Dreamtime Australia. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

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Oder, Norman. ‘A Megabuck Message from Down Under.’ Publishers Weekly 241.26, 27 June 1994: 21.

Pabst, Georgia. ‘Out of the Australian Desert: Mirage or Truths?’ Milwaukee Journal 3 Feb. 1995:1d.

phenomeNEWS Exclusive Interview with Marlo Morgan.’ 1998. PhenomeNEWS <> 3 May 2001. (No longer available at this url. An archived copy is available on request from Jens-Orr Korr at the Creative Spirits Website–see above.)

Piggot, Stuart. The Druids: Ancient Peoples and Places. London: Thames and Hudson, 1969.

Read, Peter. ‘In the Middle of the Ocean, Drowning.’ Overland 119 (1990): 54-62.

Read, Peter. A Rape of the Soul So Profound. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1999.

Reyes, Catalina M. Re. Mutant Message Down Under. 1994. Online Posting. NativeNet. 4 May 2004.

Rolls, Mitchell. ‘New Age: New Orthodoxy: The Institutional Authorising of Balderdash.’ Journal of Aboriginal Studies 1 (2002): 22-34.

Root, Deborah. Cannibal Culture. Art, Appropriation and the Commodification of Difference. Boulder CO: Westview, 1996.

Schwarz, Bob. ‘Saying Grace We Want to Say Thanks, But We’re Not Sure How.’ Charleston Gazette 23 Nov. 1994: np.

Sheets, Alan, and Barbara Tovey. Soul Type, Chakra: Religion and Ancient Egyptian Correlations. 1999.<> 4 May 2004.

Sitka, Chris Napaltjarri. Morgan’s Mutant Fantasy: A Critique of Marlo Morgan’s book Mutant Message Down Under. 1997. <; 3 May 2001.

Sowers, Errol. Personal Communication. May 2001.

Stanton, John P. Marlo Morgan’s Mutant Message Downunder: An Anthropological Perspective. 1995. <> 9 January 1999.

Steinberg, David. ‘Novel Follows Two Paths of Separated Twin Aborigines.’ Albuquerque Journal 28 June 1998: C8.

Sullivan, Barbara. ‘Beyond Belief?’ Buffalo News 29 Oct. 1994: C7.

Thomas, Brett. ‘Koori Novel Threats.’ Sun Herald 4 Sept. 1994:11.

Valaskovic, Susan. ‘Real People have Real Values.’ Rocky Mountain News 11 Dec. 1994: 14m.

Ward, Tim. ‘This Message from the Real People Makes for One Weird Tale.’ Globe and Mail 3 Sept. 1994: C17.

Webster, Dan. ‘Book Notes.’ Spokesman Review 9 July 1995: E5.

Wyndham, Susan. ‘The Mystery of Marlo Morgan Down Under.’ Australian Magazine 29-30 Oct. 1994: 26-8, 53-4.

(1) In an early piece of investigative journalism published in 1992, Elaine Adams, a staff writer for the Kansas City Star, spoke to friends, relatives and acquaintances of Morgan’s. Leon Brosnan, the owner of the pharmacy in Brisbane at which she worked, is reported as saying: ‘I knew she wasn’t kidnapped before she worked for me […] and after she worked for me, she went to Sydney and then went home to America. There wouldn’t have been four months to go walk about [sic].’ Adams also interviewed Nola Rae, a friend of Morgan’s while she was living in Brisbane, who claimed that she and Morgan had ‘talked at length about spirituality, but Morgan never mentioned any walkabout. Later, in a letter, Morgan told Rae about a life-changing experience she’d had in Australia. But Rae said the experience did not involve aborigines [sic] or a walkabout’ (Adams).

(2) The same 1992 newspaper article reports that Frank VanderSloot, president of Melaleuca Inc, was ‘angry that Morgan would use such a book to market Melaleuca products. He said the company monitored literature carefully to avoid making inflated claims, and Morgan’s actions appeared to warrant termination’ (Adams). Another article, published in September 1994 indicates that the Missouri Department of Consumer Affairs had made ‘rumbling noises’ and that Melaleuca Inc. were angry that inflated claims had been made for their produce and that they emphatically distanced themselves from her (Carroll, ‘The Odd Saga’).

(3) When questioned about her encounter with Stillpoint, Morgan insisted that she did not send the manuscript unsolicited but was approached by the publishers, a claim that Stillpoint denies (Montgomery). Elsewhere Morgan has described Stillpoint as ‘A ma-and-pa operation’ (Sullivan).

(4) For a sample of direct textual comparisons between Morgan’s and Lawlor’s writing see the Creative Spirits website ( maintained by Jens-Uwe Korff. The back cover of Lawlor’s book makes prominent a commitment to donating proceeds to the Denooch [sic] Aboriginal Healing Centre in Nowra, NSW. One of the self-published editions of Morgan’s book also claims to support the (similarly misspelled) Denooch Centre (Morgan 1991). Bobby McLeod, founder of the Doonooch Self Healing Aboriginal Corporation, remembers receiving a $100 cheque from Morgan enclosed in a letter asking him for more information. (Wyndham)

(5) Morgan’s claims to holding medical qualifications vary widely in publications written by and about her. In the early self-published editions of the book, for instance, she claims to hold doctoral degrees, but in an interview conducted on a community radio station in Albuquerque, New Mexico around the time of the release of the HarperCollins edition she claimed to being a licensed chiropractor and acupuncturist (Reyes). Most often newspaper articles refer to her as a trained, licensed or retired chiropractor (Oder; Heltzel; Sullivan; O’Connor; Pabst) with others referring to her as a chiropodist (Hubble), a doctor (BooksStyle), an acupuncturist (Pabst; Laurie), a practitioner of alternative medicine (Nathan) and a psychologist (Mathias).

(6) This shift in classification attracted attention and in some instances considerable confusion in many of the reviews and articles about the book published around the time of the HarperCollins edition’s release (Oder; McCarthy; Thomas; Carroll, ‘The Odd Saga’; Carroll ‘The Odd Saga If’; Dempsey; Ament; Heltzel; Montgomery; Hay; Sullivan; ‘Truth Goes Walkabout’; Hoover).

(7) See also Heltzel, Montgomery, Valaskovic, Independent on Sunday. Hoover, Webster, Lee.

(8) In some interviews she claimed that death threat calls had been traced to Oregon and that the FBI had become involved (Ament), and in others that the threats had occurred in Idaho and Detroit (Steinberg). See also Thomas; Carroll ‘The Odd Saga II’; O’Connor; Pabst; Franzen; Hoover; Steinberg.

(9) At a dinner party in 1992 Gareth Griffiths, an esteemed scholar of postcolonial literatures, met Morgan, who was also a guest, and received a similar reaction from her. At this meal, Morgan attacked Griffiths after he had questioned the veracity of her story and referred to his ‘typically prejudiced White Australian Attitude’ (77).

(10) According to an article in Publishers Weekly the meeting between Morgan, Pugliese and van Buren occurred before she had written the manuscript (Nathan). In this same article it is suggested that the film was optioned by Pugliese, van Buren and their partners Michael Taylor and Barbara Boyle of Boyle-Taylor productions as early as 1991. The Creative Spirits Website suggests that Morgan also sold the film rights for her second book to these producers but I have been unable to verify this.

(11) The Dumbartung organisation’s manifesto entitled ‘Jangga Meenya Bomunggur’ (translated as ‘The Smell of the White Man is Killing Us’) has, as one of its six resolutions, the following: ‘We call for the strength of Unity of all Aboriginal People in Urban and rural Areas to identify and resist all abuses and exploitation of Our Culture utilising whatever tactics are required in accordance to Aboriginal Protocol.’

(12) The cover of the paperback edition of this second book had its title augmented to Mutant Message from Forever. further cementing the associative connections between the two publications.

(13) For more information on the story of James Savage, see Peter Read ‘In the Middle of the Ocean Drowning’ and A Rape of the Soul So Profound.

(14) It was required reading for Dr Linda Groff’s ‘Intercultural Communication And Inter-religious Dialogue’ course at California State University in 1996 and a set text in Dr Lee W. Bailey’s ‘Religion and Environment’ course at Ithaca College, New York. Elizabeth Farmer used it in a paper submitted to the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2000. The New Equations website, describing ‘the nine life force energies that human souls brings [sic] forth’, uses it as a source in its explanation of ‘Soul Type 8: integrity’, which corresponds to ‘primal spirituality based on the traditional practices of tribal groups such as the Australian Aborigines, Native Americans and Africans’ (Sheets). Bob Schwarz uses it as an authority in an article on saying grace published in the Charleston Gazette in 1994. An extract from it has been included in a Dutch literary guidebook to Australia: Leesgids Australie (2003).


6 Comments on “Helping Yourself: Fabrication of Aboriginal Culture”

  1. […] my earlier article for more details, and this article by Cath Ellis, for a more detailed account of the whole […]

  2. Michella Says:

    I have tried leaving comments at other related sights (they are considerable) however unsuccessful I am hoping this goes through. I do have much to say – hope this goes through


  3. Yakaru Says:

    My apologies to anyone who has tried to comment here. Moderation is switched on, and due to a technical hitch, I can neither turn it off, nor approve comments. Working on it….
    – Site Admin.

  4. Laurette Says:

    Whether or not she is a liar or a cheat, you’ve got to hand it to her. She has written an inspiring book about what she conceives of as our next evolutionary step. Not only that, she appears to be in sync with other spiritual authors about the next evolutionary step for mankind. Check out the Mother of Pondicherry’s writings. She set up an ashram in India and established a village based upon New Age ideas of free trade and very little use of money. The town is called Auroville

  5. gunnlina Says:

    Hello, I don’t know if this blogg is still active, but if it is, I just want to say thank you for giving such a detailed and serious report on the book “Mutant Message Down Under”.

    I teach English at an upper secondary school in Norway and have always found it difficult to make teaching about Aboriginal cultures interesting and trustworthy. Before the summer a collegue suggested I should read Morgan’s book and I was at first thrilled at what I thought was authentic experiences from the meeting with an Aboriginal tribe. Then I happened to see what had been written on Wikipedia and saw that there had been a lot of criticism about the book.

    I hope as an English teacher I can give a true picture of the Aborigines’ situation today and their culture and this article has at least helped me to know which book not to use. If I mention it it shall be to show how the truth can be twisted and the importance of checking ones sources.

  6. Yakaru Says:

    I sincerely apologize to those whose comments were held in moderation for such a long time. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    I had intended to close the comments on all the articles here, as they are mostly reposts. I will also now close this thread.

Comments are closed.

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