This paper first appeared in the June Issue of the ‘Skeptical Adversaria’ (the Newsletter of ASKE, the Association for Skeptical Enquiry), 2006, pp1-2.
In the previous Newsletter there were a number of articles which I suggested were connected with the theme of storytelling. I described one story that I had read in the Rossendale Free Press, namely that of the psychic dog investigated by Rupert Sheldrake and by Richard Wiseman and his colleagues. There was another, more unfortunate story in the same edition of the newspaper that is worth presenting.
This story was the front-page feature and was headlined 'Dying is not on my to-do list'. It is about a woman, whom I shall call Mrs L, who is in her early 40s and who has cancer of the colon and liver. In this story, Mrs L's doctor informs her that she can have chemotherapy, 'which sometimes worked and sometimes didn't'. She says, 'He also talked about Macmillan Nurses and hospices and that's when I decided not to go for further tests'. Instead she opted for what the storyteller calls 'alternative medicine'.
We learn that this treatment is very intensive, starting at 5am each day and ending at 9pm. It consists of 'a combination of nutrients' devised by Mrs L's therapist, which she ingests every day. Her therapist 'is also using a hand-contact technique called bio touch to relax her body tissues' He explains, 'It is about cleaning the body out and restoring the acid balance. Once you get the tissues to relax it can heal'.
The story is accompanied by a photograph of Mrs L, her husband, and their three young children. In fact Mrs L's husband is her therapist. He is described as a 'homeopathic therapist' and a 'chiropractor'.
The 'nutrients' and vitamins that Mrs L is taking are costing hundreds of pounds a week. A series of events has been organised locally to raise money for her treatment and more are planned.
Great things are happening. Six weeks into her treatment Mrs L is able to eat without experiencing excruciating pain. According to her therapist, 'Her stomach was like a mountain range when I started. The growths stuck out right under her ribs and bladder - they were as large as a fist. Now they are just small knuckle size'.
Mrs L and her family believe that she will beat the cancer. 'I want (the doctors) to know that it can be done without cutting someone open', she says.
As with the feature on the psychic dog, we again have a wonderful story that resonates with the fairy tales and fables that we heard and read in our childhood. Mrs L is the heroine, fighting a monster, namely cancer. No doctor in the land seems able to help her and their attempts become more drastic and extreme. But our heroine's loving husband is also a wizard. Can his magic powers save her? Yes indeed they can, with the help of their loving neighbours and friends!
But, unlike the earlier story, the story of Mrs L is, as it presently stands, an incomplete one. The reader needs to know the outcome. Nevertheless the moral of the story has been made clear to all who are struggling with the same affliction: emulate the heroine; abandon the standard authorised remedies of the ordinary doctors; seek out the magician, in this case Mrs L's husband and his expensive remedies.
In fact, the next chapter of the story is not long in coming. It is told in the obituary column of the same newspaper just one week after .the original story.
As I stated last time, I have always been speaking about the characters in the stories and not directly about the actual people they portray. Now I have to refer for a moment to the actual events outside of the story that describes them. On the day readers were absorbing the account of Mrs L and the remarkable success of her husband's 'alternative' treatment, she had already been admitted to hospital, having deteriorated earlier that week, and she died that same day.
In two consecutive obituaries we read brief stories of the eventful life of Mrs L, so tragically cut short. We hear of her devotion to her children and of her husband's devotion to her, even though he had lived away from her for the last 5 years ('we needed that breathing space'). We learn that he is planning a cremation, which will be a memorial service to her and 'her love for life'. It would be a poor storyteller indeed who failed to convey the sadness of these events or omitted to pay tribute to Mrs L's achievements in her foreshortened life.
Are there any villains in the story so far? 'What about the storyteller?' some might be asking. Wasn't it a serious failure to speak 'on behalf of the facts' for the writer to omit the detail that no evidence exists that the treatment Mr L was administering would cure his wife or anyone else of cancer?
But now comes the fourth instalment. This is entitled 'Touching Tribute' and is in the next issue of the paper. Here we read of the memorial service to Mrs L in which a poignant letter, written by her son, is read out to the mourners. The storyteller then reminds us that Mrs L 'shunned chemotherapy and radiotherapy in favour of alternative medicine administered by her husband (Mr L), who has no formal medical qualifications'.
Hold on a minute! Doesn't this seem to you a rather odd comment to drop into the story at this particular juncture? But look what comes next. 'Police are investigating how (Mr L) looked after his wife and a file has now been sent to the Crown Prosecution Service to consider whether he should face any charges'.
Next we read that Mrs L's body was not at the service. 'At her husband's request, she had been cremated in Burnley earlier that morning with no one present'.
The story ends, 'An inquest into her death has been opened and adjourned pending police inquiries'.
So, is there a villain in this story or are all the characters heroes and heroines? A visit to the newspaper's website, where readers can email their reactions, reveals that opinion is divided. One correspondent praises Mr L as 'a spiritual and compassionate human being' while another, a friend of Mrs L, declares that she was 'coerced, brainwashed by and ultimately had no defence against her "therapist"' and adds 'The Americans have a crime of "Negligent Homicide". I wish it applied here!!' But it is left to Mrs L's sister to provide the most vitriolic comments on Mr L.
Perhaps, as in many an interesting story, it is what can be read between the lines that proves to be the most revealing.
In April 2007 a spokeswoman from the Crown Prosecution Service stated, 'Having considered all the evidence and circumstances surrounding the case (of Mr L), we decided we could not properly proceed with charges. Were the police to submit new evidence we could look at it and review the case again'.
In June 2007 it was reported that Mr L had died of a heart attack on board his boat in California. A post mortem examination found that he was suffering from heart disease. According to the Rossendale Free Press, Mr L (real name Alain-Denis LeMaster) called himself 'doctor' and claimed to be a chiropractor. It is also revealed that he was being investigated by the West Yorkshire Police at the time of his death.