Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mutant Message Down Under: Hoax or Truth?

Mutant Message Down Under is the story of a white American woman who claims to have gone on a three or four month walkabout in Australia with a group of Aborigines called the Real People, during which time she learns their ways and is mystically transformed into a better person. The book started life as a sales brochure that Morgan wrote when she was selling Ti-tree oil products, then became a self-published non-fiction memoir and finally was picked up by a major publishing house which corrected some factual errors and typos and marketed it, mystically transformed, as fiction. The book became a huge success in the new age market and Morgan made lots of money from the book and from lecture tours, but after a while there arose a controversy about the authenticity of the story. A group of Aborigines travelled to the United States to confront the author and to ask her to admit, not only that the work was completely fabricated, but also highly insulting to Australia's native people. Morgan did apologize, but later retracted her apology and wrote a sequel of sorts.
Many people recommended this book to me over the years so when I started reading it several things surprised me immediately. The book is very badly written. The story is completely, transparently incredible in the true sense of the word. The author's attitude towards Aborigines is very condescending, but wrapped in a kind of 18th century "noble savage" guise. It really is awful dreck, but yet, may people I know loved it.
You can easily find websites that both praise and debunk the book. In addition to reading what is available by "Googling", I searched on EBSCO and found a scholarly article from an Australian academic journal that gives the facts of the case*.
Here are a few passages from the book that made me question the whole premise of Marlo Morgan's adventure in Australia:
In her forward, "I have saved you a trip the public library by including important historical information....What I can't save you from is the Mutant message!" (xiii) In fact, the book has no information about Australia that could not be gleaned from a Qantas ad and for Morgan to equate what she provides as sufficient research is rather condescending towards the reader, I thought.
In the beginning, the author meets a fortune teller who intones "the reason you have come to this place... is destiny." (33-34) Morgan has a very inflated view of herself as the appointed person to carry a message from the Aborigines to the rest of the world, but arrogance is one thing, belief in the fortune teller that no one else sees in the tea room, is just silly and, perhaps worse, a terrible literary cliche.
She describes the country and people with tourist brochure superficiality and then adds, "There was only one thing about the country I did not enjoy. It appeared to me the original people of the land, the dark-skinned natives called Aborigines, were still experiencing discrimination." (35) This would have been in the mid 1980's perhaps, so conditions and legal protections for Aborigines were worse then than now, but it just sounds naive and condescending to say she did not "enjoy" the discrimination as though the rest of the world does enjoy it or does not notice it. Let's just say that sentence would have been red-pencilled as "awkward" by any English teacher. She claimed earlier in the book that she always read everything about Australia since she was a child, (25) although in interviews and elsewhere in the book, she says she knew nothing about Australia before going there. OK, which is it? Similarly, as she sets out totally unprepared for a very long cross-continental hike, she claims to be both a "bubble bath" person and an outdoorsy person. Her caginess about her health care credentials made me very suspicious, and her obsession with the callouses developing on the soles of her feet, which she describes as "hooves" on the Aborigines (seriously!) and then her description of the natural oils the Aborigine women used to treat it, seems to fit into what I have later pieced together about the author, which is that she might (or might not, she never says) be a chiropodist and she sold Ti-tree oil for its healing properties. Why was she not more forthcoming and specific about the exact nature of her "health care" background? Vagueness in the service of self-aggrandizement is rather suspicious. If you read Cath Ellis' article, you might, probably correctly, conclude that the whole book began as an ad for a foot callous treatment Morgan was selling. It's impressive that snake-oil salesmanship was still alive in the latter part of the 20th century.
The bottom-line here is that if you like new age books with messages about how technologically advanced cultures are ruining the earth and can learn a lot from cultures that are not as technology-dependent, regardless of how badly this message is delivered, you might like this book.If you liked Paul Coelho's the Alchemist and James Redfield's the Celestine Prophecy, you might like this book too.
If, like me, you would agree that technology is not a totally benign force and that we Westerners should not be ethnocentric about our culture, but you don't like to be lectured at in bad prose, and with simple-minded platitudes and downright fabrications of events, you will not like this book. If you tend to be highly empirical and rational and skeptical in your approach to claims that seem unbelievable, you will not like this book.

Reading this did make me think about frauds and hoaxes not only in the world of memoir publishing, but also in the field of anthropology which would make an interesting piece for the blog. Do any of you remember Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan (1968)?

*Helping Yourself: Marlo Morgan and the Fabrication of Indigenous Wisdom.

Authors: Ellis, Cath
Source: Australian Literary Studies (University of Queensland, School of English, Media Studies & Art History); 2004, Vol. 21 Issue 4, p150-164, 16p


Sebastaeon said...

In this criticism of Marlo Morgan's book the author seems to not have even read mutant message down under completely, as she does not address the deeper subjects and information about the Australian aboriginals culture. I have studied anthropology and consider myself a spiritual person and enjoyed greatly the book, I feel as if I learnt a lot about their magic from it. if all you can do is come up with a couple bland criticisms about nothing really relevant involved in the book, then maybe better to say nothing at all, it's a great book, maybe it is real, or is that what your most afraid of?

Anne said...

It is possible to enjoy a book and to feel that it has something important to say, as you did with Mutant Message Down Under', but the fact remains that the book is widely regarded as a hoax and is considered very insulting to indigenous Australian people. To read more about the issue of author Morgan's hoax, please refer to

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the book.

Anonymous said...

Well im enjoying the book , this message sounds like a person from the western culture because they are recessive in the west, never able to accept any truth ,because f all the things we are distracted from

LioraC said...

I find this book an insult to the depth and the ancient lineage of the Aboriginal people. Just another white exploitation

J Starsinger said...

One wonders if a man spinning a yarn would receive vitriol in equal amounts. It is a tall tale, Archetypal. It has stuck with me for 20 years. The Author has accomplished something monumental. You love it; you hate it: you remember it. That's big.