Deena Metzger heals people with stories. Perhaps all writers do, but she carries it one step further, in her Healing Stories workshops, as a “writing therapist” focusing on myths, dreams, and nightmares — including one of the greatest nightmares, cancer.

She’s written about her own struggle to heal herself of cancer [THE SUN, Issue 101] and put out an extraordinary poster of her nude torso with an elaborate tattoo where her right breast once was. It was her way of saying that “our scars from the battles we fight are not shameful.”

— Ed.


When I had cancer in 1977, I learned there was a significant relationship between community and healing. In Tree (Wingbow Press, Berkeley, California) I began to explore the effect of the energy of the heart and the mind on the physical body. I (we) have learned a great deal in the last seven years and the new physics and new biology are beginning to support our intuition that personal energy can affect the outside world and that healing takes place in the larger body, in the body of friends and loved ones that gather around the patient. Just as one person often carries the illness for the rest of us, for the family and small circle, as well as for the body politic, so the body politic, the small circle, and the family by healing themselves, by attending to illness, can begin to heal the patient. In fact there exists only one world and one body, and illness or health in one part directly affects the others.

This piece is dedicated to two people:

In the Winter of this year, I began working with actor and director Warren Johnston, who had AIDS. As I came to know Warren, I was deeply moved both by the man and by the community which had formed about him. And if we were not able to find a healing story in time, while we were working it seemed very possible that healing could be initiated in the psyche, just as it seemed possible that community could help to provide an immune system when his was overwhelmed. And although Warren died in March, the exploration and gathering which did take place made an extraordinary difference in the quality of his life. Everyone who came close to him was altered positively even as we grieved first his illness and then his death. To make community at a time when community is besieged everywhere, to actively affirm love and commitment when love and commitment are violated and devalued, is to take significant political, social as well as personal action.

In June of this year, we learned that my oldest and dearest friend, the magical spirit and anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, had lung cancer. Once again I am watching and participating in the formation of a healing community, and the inspiration and urgency to write this piece comes out of this experience. (Perhaps this piece is also a prayer.) In addition, I have observed other spontaneous communities or talked with people who have had similar experiences (the healing community now formed about Julian Beck of the Living Theatre is another example) and so I know that we are in the midst of an essentially redeeming and transformative phenomenon. I am sorry it takes such extremes to force the creation of life-giving forms. In these times it is illness; in the past persecution, war, or natural disaster has provided the impetus. I pray to the Old Gods that we become motivated to create these forms without such urgent need or that, at the least, we keep these forms when the need is gone.

— Deena Metzger


In the Eighties, there developed the phenomenon of people spontaneously gathering in small groups to take care of their ill and dying. The original impetus was the need to provide for those physical needs which the patient and immediate family could no longer maintain independently; friends shared responsibility for physical care, child care, transportation, and meals. When health necessitated a change of habits and patterns, the network researched, developed, and participated in diets, exercise programs, and meditations, as well as researching, scrutinizing, and coordinating medical information. As awareness grew of the necessity to maintain a positive emotional atmosphere about the patient, friends accompanied the patient to all doctor visits and lived with the patient in the hospital. This was essential because high technology dominated medicine to the extent that even diagnostic procedures had become aggressive, debilitating, often, in themselves, life-threatening. With some exceptions, medical practice was becoming increasingly erudite and authoritarian while medical personnel lost consciousness of human needs. Medicine sometimes cured, but rarely healed. As interactions with physicians and medical personnel were likely to become combative, a partner was required to ask questions, supervise treatment and maintain the patient’s well being, in effect to provide protection, to insist that the ancient medical code, “Do no harm,” was respected. As these needs became clear, the network, the extended family which had formed to provide physical care, diversified to satisfy medical, then emotional, and finally spiritual needs. Soon maintenance was transformed into a significant and effective healing process.

After a while it became clear that a new social form was rapidly developing in response to the critical rise in the disease rate, the fact of extreme social alienation and dissolution, and the perception that healing necessitated social cohesion. This activity, though specific and highly ritualized, went unnoticed for a long time though an interest in the humanization of dying had developed into the hospice movement. This new phenomenon was related but distinct; the new emphasis was on living, not dying. It gradually came to be understood that appropriate care, attention, the proper combination of science and prayer, of medicine and meditation, reversed illness, and miracles arose out of the joint efforts and purification of the individual and the community psyches.

Even in its primitive beginnings, this ritual activity was characterized by the dim perception that the caretakers were suffering as extremely as the patient, and that somehow they were also carrying the disease within them, if not [yet?] in its physical form. Sometimes the participants were affected by the healing activities even before the patient to whom they were directed, as in the case of M.R., whose neck snapped into place while she was meditating (for the first time in her life) for the health and well being of B.M. This event, which later came to be rather commonplace, occurred during the first meeting of B.M.’s extended family. Fifteen people, not connected to each other except through friendship with B.M., gathered to help in her healing process. They divided the domestic, medical, and emotional tasks among them. A different coordinator for each week organized the caretaking logistics. Different people took responsibility for different tasks, assuming all activities which B.M. did not have to do herself so as to provide her with the maximum time and peace of mind to relax, meditate, exercise, heal herself. When it became clear to all that healing required nothing less than a complete change of life style and basic attitude, the network acted to create a clear space within which change was not only possible but inevitable. While one person meditated with B.M. regularly, another accompanied her on walks and encouraged gentle exercise, a third helped her complete a film which had been initiated before the illness, a fourth communicated regularly with perhaps hundreds of well wishers to all of whom B.M. could not possibly respond, a fifth organized her financial affairs, a sixth guided her through chemotherapy sessions, a seventh took over the car pool, an eighth established contacts with medical and spiritual counselors, a ninth established a dietary regimen and shopped and cooked, a tenth ran errands and did household repairs, others undertook childcare, even parented the two children, others provided transportation, engaged in research, accompanied B.M. on medical visits, read to her, and so on.

Unusual in the beginning, common if not ordinary in later years, these spontaneous caring networks formed for utilitarian reasons soon served more important spiritual purposes. Later research confirmed that the patient’s quality of life changed significantly and that the patient began to thrive not because his or her life was eased, but because the love and care directed at the patient had a specific, verifiable healing effect. Of course it was many decades later that research and researchers were sophisticated enough to be able to isolate the elusive energy that was transmitted during these interactions. In the beginning personal healing was a hope and an intuition, while a very few perceived that social forms were being rejuvenated as well. For years apathy and selfishness had characterized most social interactions and whenever possible caring activities were delegated to the state, the institution least capable of assuming responsibility. During the Eighties, this tendency was reversed as individuals wrested from the state control over their bodies, families, health, and lives.

The spiritual, healing aspects of these activities were unacknowledged to begin with and the spiritual skills were rudimentary at best. People had not yet learned to communicate with the gods; as technology had absorbed and fascinated them for centuries, they were too concerned, initially, with the mechanics of ritual and not sufficiently with the essence of prayer. [Prayer of this type was not a simplistic appeal to a “higher power” but rather nothing more (but nothing less!) than emotional, intellectual, moral realignment with what in fact has deepest value and accords with eros, the life force.] Another way of understanding prayer was through the perception that this alignment allowed for the specific transmission of healing energy (which came into existence despite science’s inability or disinterest in identifying it). Perhaps the implication of the innate interdependency among people, species, and environment was too challenging to the highly competitive and aggressive social system.

Prayer of this kind was, by necessity, compassionate, ecological, socially inclusive — political in its deepest sense. Most of those who participated in these rites were not aware of the implications. They simply wanted to create a healing pattern which could be replicated. In some instances it was as if they were plumbers who having discovered water had fallen in love with pipes. The people were so far from communication, that is, alignment, that some Eastern masters developed elaborate rituals requiring a lifetime to master in order to facilitate communication, or should we say connection. These practices, however, were not appropriate for everyone, nor necessary; some learned them and some did not, and naturally they were effective for a few of those who studied them. Still, some knowledge from these practices filtered into these rituals and unlike most other activities on the planet, these did no harm.

In an odd way, the phenomenon resembled similar re-vitalizing activities which had occurred in history (a subject which B.M. herself had written about some twenty-five years before the event of her illness in regard to the Shakers, who provided a positive example, and the Puritans, a negative example). Pagan druids, early and Renaissance Christians, eighteenth century Hassids, Sikhs, and so on, in response to one disaster or another, had each come to an understanding of a sacred universe. Inevitably scholars ridiculed these tendencies in communities to create heaven on earth as impractical, imaginary devices to compensate for intolerable conditions, but the ridicule of the scholars or realists seemed just as foolish to the visionaries as the visions seemed to the realists. The realists wanted empirical evidence and statistics; the visionaries were too absorbed in trying to reach god and heal their constituents, communities, and, in this case, the entire planet, to stop to engage in “counting” the activity, which had most value in the twentieth century. (In fact it was the total dedication to the ritual, avoiding the seductive return to the old forms, which accomplished the healing process.) It seems that disaster was sometimes the occasion for authentic vision, and became an opportunity to see and understand what was commonly rendered invisible by the desire for comfort, prestige, renown, power, and material acquisition. And though the possibility of the total destruction of the planet had not induced a spiritual vision, the possible destruction of a beloved through a few “chosen” diseases, cancer (and AIDS) in particular, accomplished it. This was as it should be.

(In early 1984 the idea first surfaced that AIDS, like cancer, might be healed through meditation and psychological and spiritual transformation. AIDS inspired the same terror and desperation as did cancer, perhaps because it was equally emblematic of the political and social diseases of the society; the AIDS patients, like the cancer patients, were the stages on which the most deadly extant social dramas were enacted. Through these two illnesses, disease came to be profoundly understood as holograms. When the society healed, individuals were healed accordingly — not only because the environment improved — and when individuals healed, the society was healed as well.)

The early vision of feminism — “the personal is political” — was rendered even more profound when people turned their attention to disease as a political event. It was necessary for the people to return to the small and to the personal. They could not value a species, except abstractly, and therefore falsely, if they could not value an individual. They had lost the ability to guard the life trust that they were given when they had been given their own bodies, their own selves, but sometimes they could rise to guard the life of a friend, child or lover.

So in this situation, as in most situations on earth, irony was the prevailing mood. Cancer like AIDS bore extreme resemblance to the predominant political modes on the planet; AIDS patients, like all other human beings and species on the planet, became totally incapable of defending themselves against aggression. At the time when there was the greatest investment in defense, these systems were simultaneously rendered impossible; at a time when defense was escalated, the victims were most vulnerable to invasion by now one and then another aggression. Even as science and the military proved that there could be no inviolate boundaries, so the disease victims were unable to defend themselves against invasions. Cancer, which had begun to affect as many as one in four, was a disease whereby an essentially weak, immature, dysfunctional cell invaded and occupied surrounding territories, dislocating the inhabitants, destroying the territory, devouring the resources, providing no exchange whatsoever until the entire territory was devastated and the inhabitants died of starvation, suffocation or toxicity. This dread disease became endemic to the second half of the twentieth century as tuberculosis had been in Europe in the nineteenth, and the plague earlier. Ironically, cancer, which perfectly mirrored imperialism, became through its proliferation the agency of spiritual and social — and therefore political — conversion.

In summation, these diseases were mirrors of the prevailing political moods and activities. They were microcosms enacted in the human body of larger events being enacted on the social and political body. Odd as it may have seemed to those who believed that every action had meaning, those who suffered the diseases were not those who perpetuated them. The victims of the diseases were exactly those who were also the victims of the political, militaristic mayhem which dominated the twentieth century. The victims of the diseases were exactly those who could not tolerate the prevailing aggression, the gentle caring ones who were neither imperialistic nor overly defended by nature nor action. For as the century developed there were those who could not tolerate the culture and they succumbed, psychologically, spiritually and then physically. But as time passed, fewer and fewer people could tolerate the conditions they had created; even the most stalwart were unable to live in the nest they had fouled. So more and more succumbed, requiring vast numbers to organize themselves in opposition in healing networks. Soon even those who were responsible for the original mess were being healed by procedures diametrically opposite to their psychology and their spirits were inevitably healed as well. And so it was at the time of greatest peril that the most unlikely and relatively insignificant of activities changed the entire direction of world culture, re-established a healthy environment at a time when doom was inevitable.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century when these events were first chronicled, a historian was heard to remark, “The gods are not gods if they don’t have humor.” He had just unearthed an antique bumper sticker from the state of California, which read, “Cancer is the Answer.” It had early on been suspected that cancer might be the answer for individuals as it was a disease which almost always stimulated deep personal transformation, but it had never been thought that cancer and AIDS might lead to political transformation as well. Nevertheless that is what occurred. And so the planet was saved by exactly what seemed to be one of the modes of its destruction.