A father goes to great and treacherous lengths to “cure” his autistic son.
Texas-based travel writer Isaacson met wife Kristin while traveling through India on assignment. The birth of their son Rowan in 2001 joyfully coincided with their seven-year anniversary. It wasn’t long, however, before Kristin, a child-development psychologist, recognized early deficiencies in Rowan, as well as intermittent tantrums and mood swings that quickly increased in severity and regularity. After Rowan was diagnosed with autism at two-and-a-half, both parents considered various behavioral interventions. Some promised a possible recovery while others—chemical detoxification, viral therapy, diet modification—seemed overly radical. Only rushed trips into the forest seemed to quell Rowan’s rages, which by age three had become a daily occurrence. The boy had a one-time positive response to healers and shamans from a delegation of Kalahari Bushmen Isaacson knew from his years in Africa. Rowan also demonstrated an extraordinary connection with animals, specifically with Betsy, an aging mare who genuflected in uncharacteristic “voluntary obeisance” whenever she was in the boy’s presence. In learning to ride Betsy, even Rowan’s verbal skills improved. Putting all these pieces together, the author proposed to a reluctant Kristin that they backpack and ride horses across Mongolia, integrating Rowan with the faith and trance healers of the “horse people” who lived there. Together with their guide Tulga, the Isaacsons experienced unorthodox rituals, mineral springs and exotic edible delicacies (fermented mare’s milk, bloody “boiled and quivering” sheep’s lung). They navigated the hilly terrain of the Mongolian steppe and, after a grueling nine-hour ascent into the mountains of southern Siberia, met Ghoste, a powerful Siberian shaman. By this stage in his quest, however, Isaacson begins to sound like a dangerously focused extremist. His determination in seeking normalcy for his son was honorable, but the dangerous situations he was willing to put his family in to achieve this goal are disturbing.
Breathtaking atmosphere, solid prose and stunning cultural observations can’t obscure troubling parental desperation and skewed priorities.