Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 01/11/21

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Deborah Gaal (above) was a finalist in the 2018 National Jewish Book Awards and winner of the 2019 IndieReader Discovery Awards the  author of The Dream Stitcher about a woman who discovers she has the ability to create embroidery that appears to cause dreams to come true. Her new book, Synchronicities on the Avenue of the Saints, tackles the issue of mental illness from what she calls the “shamanic view.” At her website, Gaal says “I enjoy crafting novels that bring darkness into the light, touch on societal issues, and make our personal trials seem relevant and manageable through the allegory of relatable characters.” I recently had the opportunity to ask the rising author about her latest work.

JWK: Tell me about Synchronicities on the Avenue of the Saints.  What’s it about?

Deborah Gaal: Noah Friedman, a young physicist coming of age and on the brink of discovery, has been on a drug most of his life to control his bipolar disorder.  The drug was developed by his psychiatrist at the request of his misguided but loving mother, Sally, who owns a pharmaceutical company.  Events converge to upend the course of Noah’s life and set him on a new path: his fledgling journalist friend, Fleck, informs Noah he’s discovered Sally might be selling the family business (and the drug with it); Fleck introduces Noah to a shaman who tells Noah the drug he’s taking has dire consequences; Noah’s dying grandmother reveals a century’s old tale of family theft; a ghost and victim of that crime threatens revenge unless Noah rights his family’s wrong.

Metaphorically, the novel concerns the dichotomy of bad medicine and good medicine, the bipolarity of our society, the need for the indigenous world and modernity to join forces as a way to heal the earth, and the importance of honoring our ancestors.
JWK: How did the idea come to you?
DG: I was dealing with a family member who was struggling with bipolar disorder.  I felt as though  we had explored the limits of conventional therapies— hospitalization, drugs, talk therapy— without success, and I was worried I would lose my family member to drugs, alcohol, homelessness, suicide, or a state of crazy from which he might not return.  My search led me to read a natural health book about an African shaman, Dr. Malidoma Patrice Some, who took an 18 year-old bipolar patient to live with his tribe, the Dagara Tribe, in Burkina Faso.  The tribe believed that anyone with mental illness was a shaman, or healer, in the making.  And because of this view, the young man was seen as someone who should be revered, rather than shunned.  He was embraced by the tribe, which led to his healing.  After some time, he returned to the United States, attended Harvard, and became a doctor.
I was moved by this story of healing and acceptance and wanted to learn more.  I read the books written by Dr. Some (there’s a bibliography in the back of the novel) which deal with his journey as well as African Indigenous beliefs and ritual.  By coincidence I discovered that Dr. Some would be teaching a weekend course about 3 hours north from me.  While attending that weekend, I had a divination with Dr. Some.  That led me to spend a week with him and his students in the Oregon woods learning ritual and indigenous beliefs. While there, the idea for this novel took shape.
JWK: In an interview you quoted the words of a shaman who believed that a person struggling with mental illness is actually a “healer in the making” who is in a struggle to find their true purpose.  Can you elaborate on that?
DG: I think the best way to clarify this is for me to go back to the source material that led me on the path to write Synchronicities on the Avenue of the Saints.  The book I mentioned above is The Natural Medicine Guide to Bipolar Disorder by Stephanie Marohn.  (Again, listed in the novel’s bibliography.) Here are short sections from the book that led me on the path to explore more:
“In the shamanic view mental illness signals ‘the birth of a healer,’ explains Malidoma Patrice Some, PH.D., an internationally celebrated African shaman, diviner, and teacher.  Thus, mental disorders are spiritual emergencies, spiritual crises, and need to be regarded as such to aid the healer in being born.”…. “What is Shamanic Healing?  Shamanism is ‘perhaps the oldest form of practical spirituality in the world, originating in the time of Ice Age people, going back as far as 35,000 B.C.’ It is also practiced virtually everywhere in the world.  A shaman is someone who has gone through advanced initiation into the ‘hidden’ realm.  The shaman uses the knowledge gained from the other realm for healing and the good of the community.  Shamanic healing is psychic healing, but the term delineates, in particular, indigenous healing that is rooted in traditional ritual.”
Dr. Some goes on to explain the views of the Dagara tribe in Marohn’s book…“What we view as mental illness, the Dagara view as ‘goodness from the other world.’  The person going through crisis has been chosen as a medium for a message to the community that needs to be communicated from the spirit realm.  ‘Mental disorder, behavioral disorder of all kinds signal the fact that two obviously incompatible energies have merged into the same field.’”
The shaman’s job is to guide the healer within to be born into this world, thus freeing the afflicted person to become who they are supposed to be. The underlying problem of mental illness, according to Dr. Some, is disconnection from purpose.
JWK: What do you hope readers take from your story?
DG: I wanted to place the concepts of African indigenous beliefs in multi-cultural story form, so that people who might not be necessarily drawn to the subject matter, but who enjoy reading novels, might be exposed to the teachings.  I also desire to give hope, shed a little light on the darkness, for individuals and families dealing with mental illness.  There is help out there.   But, most importantly for me as a writer, the story is meant to be an enjoyable journey.  Within the pages there’s a wild bunch of characters, as well as pathos and humor.
JWK: Are you working on another book? 
DG: I completed Synchronicities right after launching The Dream Stitcher.  The two novels were completed pretty much back to back.  I’m refueling my energy by taking a break from long story form to complete bits and pieces of short stories that have been banging around in my brain for some time.  But even so, new novel ideas are starting to percolate, and new subjects I’m interested in researching.  It’s a bit too amorphous to talk about at this point.  More later.
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11
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