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The Horse Boy: A Father’s Quest to Heal His Son. By Rupert Isaacson. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.
Horse Boy is an absolutely captivating, fascinating non-fiction work that unfolds the journey of a father who goes to the end of the earth to find help for his troubled and sick son. From start to finish, it was an intriguing tale.
To summarize this adventure, Rupert and his wife, Kristin, learn that their son, Rowan, is autistic when Rowan is about 2 1/2 years old. And as would be expected, their lives completely change and are centered on Rowan. Rowan’s autism caused him to throw unexpected tantrums and fits, which drove away babysitters, drew constant negative stares and uninformed, rude comments of the public, brought suggestions for institutional care, and left his parents frustrated, exhausted, and without any time for marital affection. On top of this, Rowan never learned to potty, and his fits were often accompanied by vomiting and spoiling his pants. Isaacson says, “Our lives were tantrum. Tantrum and the spaces in between” (p. 315). Life was tough!
However, through a series of events, Isaacson discovered that his son made an incredible connection with animals, especially horses, and he seemed to really respond to an experience they had with a group of shamans. This developed into a wild idea that Isaacson just could not shake, and after some time, finally convinced Kristin to go along with. Why not take Rowan to Mongolia, the home of horses and shamanism, and arrange for Rowan to interact with horses in their homeland and meet some of the greatest shamans alive today? If he responds to both horses and shamans, maybe the double treatment would trigger a cure! And thus, they set off on the adventure.
They land in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, take a van as far as a vehicle can travel through the vast territory, and then horseback into Siberia to meet the Reindeer people and a famous shaman named Ghoste. Quite an experience! From the descriptions of the scenery, to the entering of out-of-the-way villages, to meeting new people in new places, to the new experiences and opportunities of discovery, one could not help but envy such an adventure of a lifetime. However, this was no vacation! The journey was challenging, they still had to accommodate Rowan’s behavior, the strange food was difficult, the days were long, the weather was often hot, and there was no way of knowing if it were all in vain.
As it happens though, just before he turned 6, Rowan made a remarkable improvement beginning soon after he met with Ghoste. Before they left for the US, Rowan begin to potty on his own, and his tantrums begin to fade away. He also started making complete thoughts, responding with complex, verbal conversation, and gaining control over his violent reactions. Within months of being home, Rowan had a group of friends (something entirely new!), was completely potty trained, and could sit and ride a horse on his own. Isaacson writes in the final words of the book, “My son sitting up in perfect balance. Riding away from me. Free” (p. 351).
At that point, you can’t help but rejoice with the author!
Horse Boy has some outstanding strengths. Isaacson is an incredibly gifted writer. He has the gift of describing events and places and feelings in such a way that the reader is there! Within the story itself, Rupert and his wife, Kristin, are to be commended on several accounts. First, they remained committed to each other and to their marriage in the face of a draining, trying, difficult life - an autistic child. Statistics abound that the rate of divorce increases dramatically when a couple has a special needs child. The Isaacsons refused to let their marriage end, and for this, they are to receive a loud applause!
Second, they not only loved each other through this, they loved their son! Day after day, enduring his fits along with the public shame, cleaning mess after mess in his pants, they never failed to show him love. That is not to say they didn’t get frustrated and lonely and tired and unsure if they could keep going, they did all of those things. But - they never quit caring for Rowan, showing him constant affection, and caring for him as best they could. Again - loud applause!!!!
A final strength is Isaacson’s brutal honesty. He doesn’t hold back in any area of this life story. He opens up his heart, his wife’s heart, Rowan’s condition, and all the ups and downs of the adventure. This is not a shallow, surface-level book. This is a gut-level, transparent tale of commitment to an autistic child. For example, Isaacson holds nothing back in vivid description of Rowan’s tantrums. He even says himself on several accounts that the violence, projectile vomiting, rage, screaming, and agony appeared demonic, like something off of The Exorcist (pp. 14, 19, 23, 320). Imagine a father describing his son and his feelings that way. That is what I mean by gut-level honesty!
Approaching this true story from the standpoint of a believer in Christ caused other reactions within me as well. First, there is the whole issue with shamanism. The description of the religion itself is that there are 99 gods which are connected with the 99 pillars that hold up heaven. There is one main god, Tenger, and the other gods are white or black gods. These, however, really are just different aspects of the one god, which also represent the different ways humans can be. (p. 197) There you have it, a religion where the gods are mere reflections of humans!
Then the whole shaman healing rituals were bizarre. Isaacson, his wife, and Rowan experienced everything from strange concoctions (including drinking feces!) to being beaten (not Rowan) to dances, predictions, and prayers to (?). The purpose of these healing rituals was to contact the spirit world and discern the spiritual energies. In all of this a glaring tension arose which seemed overlooked by the author. At one point the shamans connect Rowan’s autism to a negative energy in Kristin’s belly and a negative energy from a female in her ancestry. Ghoste, however, said that Rowan’s autism simply meant he was to be a shaman. It was his destiny. He was to be able to contact the spirit world. As with the structure of shamanism, it seems that anything is taken as true and should be done if it comes from the lips of a shaman (even to the consuming of feces!).
The final observation is that Isaacson himself seems to be a jumble of spirituality, or more correct, he seems to embrace pluralism with no questions, tension, or evaluation for true or false religious ideas. Everything goes and everything is true. For example, his wife is a committed Buddhist, he often prays to “God” (pp. 36, 290), he embraces the beliefs of shamanism (p. 32), acknowledges a god who created the world (p. 71), believes in a spirit world, prayed to the Lords of the Mountains and the Lords of the Land, and wonders if in another life if he will carry Betsy like she has carried him (pp. 38, 335, 356). (BTW - Betsy is the neighbor’s horse that Rowan first connected with and learned to ride on.) Isaacson’s spiritual worldview seems to be that there is a mixture of truth in all religious ideas. It’s all out there somewhere and can be experienced from reincarnation, to a Creator, to enlightenment, to folk-type religion. But of course, the question for Isaacson, and everyone else who embrace all religious ideas is “Where will all this end?” “What happens when you die?” When one begins to trace this question, it becomes clear that every religious system cannot be true.
In the end, therefore, I both rejoiced and felt crushed by this story. I rejoiced over a saved marriage, an unforgettable journey, and a healed boy! I am troubled though that for all Isaacson has encountered in his spirituality, he never once hinted at any experience with Christianity. And indeed, the message of Christianity, that is, salvation from sins and eternal life with God through faith in Christ, is the only permanent path to true, lasting freedom! (John 8:32, 14:6). The very last word of Isaacson was that his son was “free.” How I pray he and his family come to Christ, and truly, really, eternally, be FREE!