Mutatis Mutandis

Australian psychologist and writer, Peter Geyer is another of many who have been moved to write a detailed critique of Morgan’s book. It is archived at his site. Morgan was accused of plagiarising Robert Lawlor’s book Voices of the First Day, as well as misusing certain anthropological texts. Here, Geyer notes she even seems to have lifted a scene from a Tom Selleck movie! Peter Geyer makes many criticisms which are not made by Chris Sitka or Loraine Mafi Williams (also reposted here). This is not necessarily because he is more perceptive or more picky, rather, because Morgan’s book contains basic factual errors on virtually every page.


Commentary by Peter Geyer

Americans seem to have a high level of fascination about Australia these days. Many I’ve met over the years want to visit my country (my European family has lived here since 1857; I am a fifth generation Australian), but find the distance a challenge.

From reading her book “Mutant Message Down Under”, I gather that Marlo Morgan has found a way to make the travel easier. Her Aboriginal characters in the book can be found (at least by name) in a casual drive down Route 66, particularly in the Navajo lands. If you don’t want to do that, you can read a Tony Hillerman book (Hillerman is a best­selling writer who writes crime stories based on the Navajo Tribal police and Navajo culture) .

There is a major difference, however, between Hillerman and Morgan. Hillerman actually researches his books and has accumulated respect for his authenticity and respect in depicting Navajo and Hopi life in his fiction. The same cannot be said of Marlo Morgan, postscript endorsement from the now late Aboriginal trickster, Burnam Burnam, notwithstanding. [Burnum Burnum retracted his support. -ED] It’s perhaps no coincidence that the quotes at the front of the book are from Native Americans, when comments from Aboriginal people are more than readily available these days.

In mid 1995, at the height of this book’s popularity, the national newspaper “The Australian” carried an article indicating Aboriginal outrage with Morgan, which carried on into American courts and television appearances. While now categorised as fiction, her book was originally published as nonfiction. Morgan has also publicly apologised to Aboriginal people, but to my knowledge has not repudiated her story; hence this review.

This review is a nonAboriginal Australian’s way of putting some objective content to the dispute, something not found much in the “spiritual” sphere inhabited by books such as Morgan’s. The reviewer has an interest in and has studied Aboriginal religion at an academic level, but is not part of any group relating to Aboriginal culture. There are issues raised in this book which, apart from the unremarkable writing (at least “The Celestine Prophecy”, published at a similar time, was a racy yarn, theological implausibility at the end notwithstanding), call into question the basis of the whole book, let alone the “spiritual journey” undertaken.

The location of the story itself is a major problem for those with any comprehension of Australian geography. It’s obviously not a prerequisite for spirituality, but useful when you’re trying to establish some authenticity. Christopher Columbus had this problem (See Kirkpatrick Sale’s book “The Conquest of Paradise”), as did many others. So, some basic data. Australia is roughly the same size as the continental United States, but with the population of Greater Los Angeles (19 million today). Nearly everyone lives in the cities; Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world. The cities are predominantly on the coast, like most other countries. The interior of Australia is almost entirely desert, or dry land.

The actual size of Australia immediately renders Morgan’s account implausible. Broadly, she has claimed (not in the book itself, but elsewhere, as part of the public controversy surrounding her work) that the Aboriginal tribe ahe associated with are on the Nullarbor (no trees) Plain. Certain aspects of her book indicate to me that she got this locality from watching the Tom Selleck movie, “Quigley Down Under”, set in Western Australia, but shot in a number of locations, one of which is Warrnambool, the current residence of the reviewer. Read the book, watch the movie, look for the sequence in underground caves, and you’ll see what I mean.

Notwithstanding that, her descriptions of Australian life indicate the East Coast 2,000 to 3,000 miles away. Her encounter with crocodiles takes you to the far north (e.g. Kakadu, North Queensland), a little difficult to do in 120 days, even for a “spiritual” journey. Carlos Castaneda’s journey is much more plausible; but at least he’d done some research.

Furthermore, her descriptions of Australian society and technology and of European Australians’ interactions with Aboriginal people are also out of date and offensive to the vast majority of Australians, of whatever colour or attitude. It seems as though she is in an Australia of some 25-40 years ago. This leads me to question whether she has ever been to Australia for any length of time. I will demonstrate this with examples from her book.

Firstly, the author’s claim to have provided important historical information (i.e. new, not mentioned elsewhere) is false. There are many excellent books on Aboriginal life and history published over the past century and, while there were relatively few 40 years ago, a visit to any Australian bookshop or university library will demonstrate my point. Authors include Spencer & Gillen, Tony Swain, D.J. Mulvaney, Deborah Bird Rose, Ronald & Catherine Berndt in particular and there are scores of others.

These writers are observers of Aboriginal culture (note that there are many types of Aboriginal culture, with dozens of languages still extant), but Aboriginal people are also writing about their culture. While there is real truth in the loss of their culture for so many Aboriginal people (a controversial political issue today), the past few years have seen a vibrant resurgence of Aboriginal culture, particularly in the North and central Australia, but also in the SouthEast, where the majority of Australians live.

Morgan as writer seems to subscribe to the idea of the vegetarian Noble Savage, a European fantasy popularised by JeanJacques Rousseau and others, for ewhich there is really no evidence other than wishful thinking about a Golden Age when the gods (or God) were in Heaven and all was right with the world. This is not good history, or sociology…or spirituality, if it comes to that.

The notion that a white American woman of any particular distinction would be selected by an initiated Aboriginal person to carry a message to the world reeks of naivete and cultural imperialism. Aboriginal people are quite capable of doing this themselves, without an intermediary from another culture. Furthermore, as a female, Morgan would not be privy to Aboriginal male secrets, or spiritual knowledge.

Aboriginal religion, wherever practised, has separate ceremonies for males and females.; males are not allowed to know what is “women’s business”, and vice versa. Deborah Bird Rose, who I mentioned earlier, has been initiated into a particular Aboriginal culture, but it is women’s business, and as an initiated woman, she cannot talk to noninitiated women about specific things, nor can she publish specific aspects of the culture she is studying because males and uninitiated females have access to those writings.

This fact about Aboriginal religions has been well documented for over 100 years, and is still the subject of controversy whenever European laws and assessments involve potential access to secrets. Even if Morgan were initiated (and it would have to be into female secrets), she would hardly have been allowed to write a book on her initiation, nor would she describe Aboriginal corroborees in her book as analogous to Western concerts, an offensive and misleading comparison.

Back to location: Morgan is really unsure as to where she is. From my knowledge, her opening descriptions put her somewhere in the tropics,perhaps Queensland, but she refers to a highway “road train”, a term usually referring to the Sturt Highway into Alice Springs in Central Australia, quite some distance away. The business she’s engaged in seems to be run in either Brisbane (still subtropical) or Sydney (“world’s most beautiful harbor”), perhaps a combination of both; they’re quite different places, and 500 miles apart and more.

Even her reason for being in Australia is specious. Australians are as bureaucratic as any Western nation, and a simple phone call would not be sufficient to get her over to Australia to work. In particular, as she is in the health industry, it would be expected that Americans would come to Australia to learn. Even though I use the term, the greeting “G’day” would hardly be used by a bureaucrat; it’s passing out of general use like “cobber” or “digger”. Also, the term”Down Under”, like “Aussie” is more generally used by other cultures in reference to Australians, rather than used generally in Australian culture (Marketers seem to be an important exception). The job on offer would seem to be in Canberra, the national capital, quite different again to the other cities mentioned; from her description, it doesn’t seem to be there at all.

Whether the US Government would send helicopters out to search for her, is another question. Australia is another country; you don’t just fly over it on a whim. I’m sure the Australian Government would have something to say, and it would take some time for helicopters to get here. Morgan would have to be someone of importance as well, and that hardly seems the case. Even recently, with a search for American Robert Bogucki in Western Australia, an American search team was comprised of people paid for by the missing man’s family; they must have a few spare dollars.

Getting here is also interesting. Morgan arrives via Hawaii and Fiji, which is highly improbable. Direct flights to Australia have been available for some years; to stop off at Hawaii is nonsensical, although it can be done, by choice, while the Fiji option is just not on; it’s another route. You can stop off in Auckland on the way to Melbourne, but she certainly doesn’t go there.

More cultural snippets: Morgan refers to two-cent coins, which were withdrawn from circulation well before her supposed visit (we start with 5 cents these days). “Sheila” is a term almost entirely out of current usage, particularly in the cities. With regard to food and drink, her comment “still learning to make some basic imitations of American favourites” has probably never been correct. Australian cuisine is certainly more interesting and has much more variety than any country; our wines aren’t mentioned and yet they’re snapped up in American grocery stores because of their quality and price.

If Morgan did stay at a 5 star hotel (I doubt whether a government Department would pay for that), she wouldn’t be presented with shepherd’s pie; you wouldn’t get it in most country pubs as a counter meal. Perhaps, as in the film “Accidental Tourist” she’s the sort of person who visits Paris and eats at Burger King. Her information on beer is trite, misleaduing and out of date by some decades, as are her characterisations of Australian names for other nationalities.

Generally, her descriptions of hotels and motels comes straight out of an Australia of 30-40 years ago; I remember some of the things she mentions, but they weren’t universal then either. You’re also far more likely to get a decent cup of coffee in Australia than the United States. Australians have consumed more coffee than tea for at least 30 years (a European cultural addition, not an American one) and it’s only in some small towns (less than 1000 people) that you can’t get a decent espresso, capuccino etc. The thing that I struggle with most when visiting the USA is the search for a decent cup of coffee, as those who have travelled with me will confirm; it’s got better in recent years, which is good.

The author’s depiction of an Australian suburb certainly predates my life (I’m 47); it sounds like Brisbane in the ’40s or earlier; it may be a country town. Quaint tearooms in the centre of a major city that advertise fortunetellers is certainly stretching it a bit; you’d be struggling to find the tearoom. You don’t have to be Aboriginal to be offended by this book.

(Chapter 5) Morgan is also a little bit naive and insensitive to other cultures, black or white, which makes you think about her claim of special selection in the first place. It is true that Aboriginal people were and are discriminated against in Australia as a whole, although this has improved quite markedly in the past 25 years or so. We still have a ling way to go. However, she seems to presume that Aboriginal people should assimilate, or integrate, and be part of AngloCeltic Australian culture; this is expressed by her token Australian, Geoff, who seems pretty ignorant and crass, even for a token. This perspective is a minority view amongst European Australians, and you wouldn’t find more than a handful of Aboriginal people remotely countenancing the prospect.

Aboriginal people also do not choose to live in the outback. Those who do have always lived there. The remnants of the Aboriginal people of Melbourne live two miles from the centre of the city and elsewhere in the city and the surrounding state of Victoria , and that’s just one example. Furthermore, the Aboriginal population is not declining, and hasn’t done so for some time. Aboriginal culture is being expressed and also rediscovered by those identifying with Aboriginal culture. This is not to say that everything’s rosy, as that is far from the case. Many Aboriginal people live in unacceptable Third World conditions, and this is an indictment of our governments’ policies, however well meant, as some of them have been.

Morgan’s use of the terms “halfcaste” and “half breed” are anachronistic in the former instance and an American, rather than Australian usage for the latter. These terms are not used today to describe Aboriginal people. Perhaps she’s seen too many Westerns.

The notion that it takes an American to employ Aboriginal people is patronising and offensive and neglects the fact of the many Aboriginal people in business and businesses. The idea that she can speak about the American free enterprise system of government to anyone in one of the most successful Western economies also beggars belief; speaking to an allegedly naive group of Aboriginal people does not stand up to scrutiny. The business she’s talking about makes no sense anyway, as Australian houses, with all their variety, are not as described; she should also have run into mosquitoes, if she encountered elephant beetles (“flying cockroaches”). Garages are also not rare, as she claims, and really haven’t been so since the 1950s. I don’t really know anyone without one.

The nicest thing I can say about her history part is that it’s specious, biased and inaccurate. There are few dates referred to and it makes little sense to infer that a 1923 document represents current discourse. In the USA at that time, governments were moving to sterilise those designated feeble-minded or moronic on the basis of IQ tests, and presumably, that doesn’t go on today. One leisurely Saturday afternoon spent reading about Aboriginal people is not sufficient to claim any sort of knowledge, in particular when the texts described seem so random and out of date. Perhaps she was in the wrong house. It would take you a few days to work through the data relevant to Aboriginal people in my library and I don’t really have a collection of Aboriginal books.

(Chapter 6). The “Walkabout” itself is so implausible in terms of activity and geography that it’s hard to know where to start. The idea of someone being initiated who doesn’t understand the particular Aboriginal language and communicates in signs does a disservice to Aboriginal people and their beliefs. It would be also more appropriate to refer to the crawling worms as witchetty grubs; that’s basic knowledge and they are well-known as typical fare for tribal Aboriginal people.

The banquet also presents the paradox of Morgan as an extremely materialistic person on an amaterialistic spiritual journey; this is apparent throughout the book. In no place in the entire book is there an indication that she understands her purported experience at any other than a superficial level; Aboriginal religion is deep, complex and often secret, as I have said before. The names “StoryTeller” and so on show more relevance to a Hillerman book than an Aboriginal experience in Australia. The dingo is also not like a coyote or wolf.

While there are a number of Aboriginal cultures in Australia, some basic similarities are shared. One is that there are a number of elders, and really nothing much like a chief at all. Morgan also mentions nothing about the kinship relations integral to every Aboriginal community; it’s how you’re identified as Aboriginal and it’s integral to every religious practice. This information is readily available in many texts and, more obviously, in verbal form from the people with which she claims association. Aboriginal people don’t go on walkabout in a random sense; there’s a purpose, and there are strict boundaries imposed on where they go. There are geographical and intertribal limits.

(Chapter 8) “Mutants” is a Greek word; highly unlikely in the context presented in the book, and certainly inappropriate to Morgan on the evidence presented. There is much data on Aboriginal responses to white people in general, and this is not one of them. On the positive side, the description of food gathering is reasonably accurate, although the assumption that Aboriginal people can survive in any conditions is demonstrably false.

(Chapter 11) The idea of a vegetarian coastal tribe forced inland is impossible in the first case (vegetarianism) and implausible in the second, as other tribes would resist incursions into their territory; there’s much historical data on that. On the other hand, the Aboriginal connection with understanding weather has something going for it. Robert Tonkinson has described an Aboriginal group in the late 60s/early 70s who test missionaries’ assertions about Jesus by a challenge to get Jesus to make it rain to end a time of drought. The Aboriginal people leave for a while, then return, saying they will make it rain when Jesus couldn’t. And so it rains. There’s nothing supernatural in this, simply attunement to the world they live in.

Her description of Aboriginal trackers at work is broadly accurate, but the attribution of telepathy is overstated and distorts the natural skills possessed in this area. Mental telepathy being described as the way human beings were designed to communicate is simply waffle, and denies the existence of the larynnx, and ears. Morning prayer services facing East relate to a desert other than this one and the whole process of seeking permission to kill animals seems more Iroquois than Aboriginal.

(Chapter 9) We’ve got lots of flies in Australia, and bush flies in particular are difficult, but they’re hardly in swarms of millions. Australian fishing hats with cork floaters are from another age and are not in general use, unless as a joke. Spirit Woman probably lives near Tuba City or Shiprock, certainly not here.

(Chapter 12) If Morgan claims to know something about Aboriginal people, she would be expected to have an awareness of the tribal names, in particular Pitjantjara, Walbiri and Arunta, whose lands her tribe would have travelled through on their highspeed walkabout, as well as many other tribes. Spelling is irrelevant if you are learning a language from native speakers, who do not have an alphabet. It is the researchers, not the reporters, that use different ways of spelling e.g. in Chinese, for instance, or Biblical exegesis/translation. If she really had learned language from tribal Aborigines, there would have been no need to refer to a written text.

(Chapter 13)Divine Oneness is too Westernised (or Easternised) for Aboriginal religion, which doesn’t really have such a concept, or a creator god, except where Christianity has influenced stories. The healing of a broken bone I leave up to people’s belief system; I doubt that any Aboriginal person would claim such healing powers; you just don’t hear of it.

(Chapter 14) The discussion on totems doesn’t deserve serious discussion without a correlation with kinship practices and also the acknowledgement that certain songs and sacred sites relate to various totems within the same tribe.

(Chapter 16) Once again, describing the free enterprise system and social security (an antipodean innovation in any case) to Aboriginal people through sign language is fatuous and ignores the obvious connections (described in the book) that these people have with urbanised Australia. This book is like Jungle Jim, or the Phantom, in many respects, which is a bit unfair on both these characters.

(Chapter 17) Morgan’s references to Aboriginal music as resembling a concert has been commented on earlier, and the comments ascribed to the musicians aren’t relevant to this sort of serious religious presentation. Maybe she’s confused this with Yothu Yindi. Aboriginal culture is much more selfeffacing than that and imposing Western concepts of work and play over that distorts what Aboriginal people actually do.

In their 60,000+ years in Australia, Aboriginal people have cared for the land, but also been accountable for the extinction of a number of animal species (e.g. the Diprotodon or giant kangaroo) and their technique for using fire to clear land to stimulate growth is not mentioned. The brutality of some Aboriginal justice (Spearing in the leg etc.) is also not mentioned, nor are the number of Aboriginal tribes who have a warrior culture and respect physical prowess. There have been many Aboriginal boxing champions, who have been drawn to the sport because fighting is valued in their community.

(Chapter 18) Dream Catcher….back in Navajoland again. Dreams are significant to Aboriginal people, but this seems not to address that issue.

(Chapter 19) Wild camels are a feature of Central Australia. They’ve been there since the 1880s. “apparently some of them had survived although the party riding them did not” is false. Afghans (i.e. people from Afghanistan) were deliberately brought over to Australia, and camels as well, as the conditions in the Centre were thought to be conducive to that sort of experience and transport.

(Chapter 20) Much of the talk about sports etc. treats Aboriginal people as childlike, unnecessary, inaccurate and a throwback to much 19th century literature. “Releasing the child within” is hardly appropriate. Western therapies have no place here. Ask any Aboriginal.

(Chapter 22) Ayers Rock is called Uluru now (it’s the original name); it has been for some time, and it and the surrounding land are owned by the traditional owners, Aboriginals. This place is a very long way from the Nullabor, and still quite some way crocodiles (we’re talking many hundreds of miles).

Putting up telegraph lines in the 1820s is more than difficult anywhere (ask Samuel Morse). Perhaps the 1880s is more relevant. In the 1820s in any case, no white person had explored the area, and white settlement was essentially confined to areas around Sydney and Hobart. It is true that part of Australia was settled by convicts, but to draw conclusions of brutality from that event is historically inaccurate as well as offensive to places such as Adelaide, for instance. All of this stuff can be checked by looking at a basic history of Australia.

(Chapter 23) The cave of the Real People (This is Quigley Down Under), seems to presume that these people are Westerners after all. Sacred artifacts being kept away from the uninitiated is correct, but collections of trinkets are a bit much. Recording history makes no sense except as dreaming (not Dreamtime, strictly. The Dreaming is past, present and future), and it is not the western concept of history. The speech on pp 147/8 about becoming celibate and disappearing from the earth stretches credulity again being totally opposed to the generally held Aboriginal view or caring for and attachment to the land.

(Chapter 24) The nuclear explosions refer to Maralinga in the 1950s, quite a way from where the real People are supposed to be. The Aboriginal custodians of this land are well known and have been seeking compensation from both the Australian and British governments for some time, with some recent success. The red ochre used in Aboriginal painting is hematite, which has toxic properties. To presume that nature’s chemicals are nontoxic is naive, and contradicts earlier statements about poisonous plants in any case. The comment about housing is actually correct (there are some surprises in life), although changing. it is more a comment of the 1970s. Australian administrators seem to have continual difficulty with this issue.

(Chapter 25) Aboriginal people do place significance on dead bodies in that they attempt to stay away from them as much as possible, including abandoning camps etc.

(Chapter 26) Teaching Aboriginal people a line dance is more than faintly absurd; their context for dancing is ceremonial. Country music does have some appeal to detribalised Aborigines; so does reggae.

(Chapter 27) So much for Aboriginal control over the elements, or prescient powers.

(Chapter 28) Crocodiles! These are in specific areas in the North of Australia, and one of them is not the Nullabor. The real People would have to teleport rather than walk in order to do all this.

(Chapter 29) It doesn’t matter where you are in Australia, a standard coin won’t get you far with a call. The descriptions of Australians Morgan is involved with here are not positive at all. They are possible, but don’t ring true and don’t fit with the people she’s supposed to be working for. She could have spent all her time in a small town in North Queensland in the 1960s from the description, and she really doesn’t seem to have met anyone like Australians I know who would work in similar areas to what she claims. Even without the discrepancies I’ve pointed out, and the obvious misrepresentation of Aboriginal culture and Australians in general, this is a major flaw. Her people aren’t real; none of them.

In the time she claims to have spent in my country, Marlo Morgan doesn’t seem to have met many people. Her arrogance and naivete associated with her departure leads nme to question whether she was in Australia at all. Maybe she is the Accidental Tourist. Of course, mystical quests don’t have to be real, but even those have to have plausibility and consistency. I think I’ll stick to the Grail Legend, or Robin Hood. There’s more truth of any kind in those than in this book.

%d bloggers like this: