Special guest Kimberly Springer joins us to talk about an infamous, dangerous faith healer and his two — two! — appearances on Oprah's talk show. This episode contains, we're sorry to say, detailed descriptions of sexual assault.
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Aubrey: Hi, everybody and welcome to Maintenance Phase. The podcast that remembers your spirit but also your immunity to highly communicable diseases.
Mike: Now, I'm worried that you know what the show is about.
Aubrey: I just know the vague direction.
Aubrey: My name is Aubrey Gordon.
Mike: I'm Michael Hobbes.
Aubrey: We are back again with our Oprah correspondent, [laughs] Kimberly Springer.
Mike: Hi, Kimberly.
Kimberly: I'm haunting you like Oprah. Hello.
Aubrey: To talk about a surprise secret episode of Oprah that Mike has chosen.
Mike: A mystery topic.
Aubrey: A mystery topic. I really fancied myself a Sherlock Holmes type cracking this code. All that consisted of was looking at Mike's Twitter feed.
Aubrey: I was like, [crosstalk]
Mike: The real weak link in the show is my lack of impulse control.
Aubrey: Oh, that's me too though.
Mike: Let me see if I can transition us. If listeners want to enact their impulse to support the show, they can do that at patreon.com/maintenancephase.
Aubrey: Nailed it.
Mike: Thank you. And they can also hear a bonus episode, where the three of us talk about Oprah's infamous Harry and Meghan interview, which basically has nothing to do with wellness whatsoever, but all of us had thoughts and we wanted to talk about it, and we're going to release the episode next week.
Aubrey: With that, Michael Hobbes-
Aubrey: -what are we talking about today?
Mike: Okay. Are either of you familiar with a person named John of God?
Aubrey: Whoa. No, I feel very nervous now. No, I do not.
Kimberly: I feel fortunate not to know.
Aubrey: Every gay bone in my body was like, “I don't feel good about this.”
Mike: I'm delighted. I'm so happy with this development.
Mike: Okay, I'm going to walk you through the story from the beginning, and I'm going to try not to give you any spoilers of where it's going.
Mike: John of God is a faith healer in Brazil, who appeared on Oprah not once, but twice, in 2010 and in 2013. We are going to start out with a clip from Oprah's second show featuring John of God, where we're going to talk a little bit about his background, his upbringing.
Kimberly: Oh, boy.
Oprah: This is an interview I wasn't sure would ever happen. One of the most famous spiritual healers in the world, rarely talks to anyone on camera. John of God agreed to sit down with me under a mango tree on the grounds of the Casa. A group of his patients gathered to watch. John of God speaks only Portuguese. So, Heather coming, help to translate.
Heather: Ready, guys?
Oprah: You describe yourself as a spiritual medium. What does that mean, a medium?
John of God: [speaks Portuguese]
Heather: As a medium, he's a spiritualist. He believes a great deal in God, and he practices this mission already 55 years.
Oprah: Born on a farm to a family who rarely had enough to eat, João Teixeira de Faria was the youngest of six children. His father was a tailor. His mother, a housewife who also ran a small hotel to make ends meet. João left school when he was seven to work in his father's tailor shop. To this day, he cannot read or write. As a boy, João says he realized he was clairvoyant when he predicted a terrible storm that destroyed a neighboring village. This event began his journey as a spiritual medium.
Mike: What do you guys think? No red flags. I know there's no red flags, but what do you think other than that?
Kimberly: Just the unremitting willingness to entertain quackery--
Mike: I know.
Kimberly: --is baffling to me.
Aubrey: Yeah, it's really interesting to me that these Oprah episodes all happened sort of a decade or two before we started having more critical conversations about the idea of platforming people.
Mike: I know.
Aubrey: From this to Dr. Oz, to all kinds of stuff. It's this really interesting mix of a person who many of the people in my life have very fond feelings toward, who has also opened this series of Pandora's boxes of wild people to be on a national or international stage.
Mike: Also, you can see in the clip too, it doesn't appear that they've done much research on this guy's actual background, other than just like asking him. They're like, “He predicted a storm in advance.” She's not really quoting anyone skeptical of this, or anyone putting this into context. Kids say lots of stuff, and some of it seems weirdly magical, but not every kid is a magical kid.
Kimberly: It's interesting when she's a journalist and when she's not a journalist.
Mike: Yes, exactly. On his website, he says that he's treated Bill Clinton. But it's not clear if she ever actually checked with Bill Clinton to confirm this. Well, can people just say that or what?
Kimberly: It's easy enough to check, especially for her.
Mike: Aren't they in the Illuminati meetings in Switzerland every year? She can just [crosstalk]
Aubrey: They saw each other at Bohemian Grove or whatever. [laughs]
Mike: Basically, this is like a glimpse of who this guy is. And by the time he sort of shows up on the American radar, he's been at this for decades. He starts appearing in the press around 2000 in the American press, and there's oftentimes a perfunctory paragraph where they go into his background, and they're like, “Little is known about the background of John of God,” and they give the same details. This is from a 1999 Irish Times article. It says, “The son of a tailor, he has had only two years of formal education, but his psychic powers mean that he can channel the medical expertise of 33 deceased doctors, surgeons, dentists, and other spirit guides, including King Solomon, St. Ignatius Loyola, and Oswaldo Cruz, a doctor who eradicated yellow fever in Brazil."
Mike: It's just normal details. Anyway, he's a medium for 33 disease doctors.
Aubrey: There's part of this that reminds me a great deal of our conversation about the medical medium and celery juice. Someone who makes these wild claims about their own childhood and their own abilities in a culture, I would say, the dominant culture of the United States is not generally wont to believe in supernatural things, necessarily, but he's willing to permit them. And this feels like a moment of permitting it.
Kimberly: But also hiding behind this mysticism, and it's foreign, and he was illiterate. So maybe there aren't written records about who he is, so we couldn't verify it anyway. So, they're excusing themselves at the same time.
Mike: Yeah. Also, to fast forward to a passage that I wanted to read you guys later. A lot of this is wrapped up in this idea of the racial and cultural other. This is an excerpt from an article that appears in O Magazine in 2010. “Brazil has deep roots in the traditions of shamanism and spiritism, both of which feature the notion that individuals can and do cross the boundaries between this worldly existence and the afterlife. In this lexicon, it's perfectly understandable that King Solomon and other powerful spirits known as the entities would swing by to offer help incorporating in John's body.” It's like, “Well, they do weird spirit stuff in the developing world. It's poor people, it's countries we don't understand. Are they in touch with fucking King Solomon? Sure.” It's like somehow more believable if it's from a culture that we consider exotic already, and we think that a different set of rules applies.
Kimberly: But so, then what is Oprah doing in this space? Is it because it can fall under the umbrella of spiritualism?
Mike: Yeah, a lot of this she couches as becoming a more spiritual person and becoming more in touch with your spiritual self, which is a good goal. But also, it makes her vulnerable to some pretty wild claims. John of God starts showing up in the Western media in the early 2000s. There's a number of magazine articles about him. There's an ABC special in 2005. At that point, he's already quite popular in Brazil, but this international coverage makes him one of the most popular destinations for people looking to do this alternative healing. He's in a very remote village in Brazil, like he's one of the only economic drivers of this city. There's a clinic that he runs. It's part clinic, part church called the Casa. You have to wear white, the images that come out of these documentaries are really interesting. It's all these people in loose fitting, flowing robes and big white t-shirts and big white pants, just waiting in line to see this guy. This is an excerpt from a 2016 Newsweek article.
“During each of these two daily sessions, he sees more than 500 people in three hours. A young man in a wheelchair has traveled from Australia in the hope of finding a cure for the muscular dystrophy, which has left him bone thin and fragile. A woman from South Africa has a tumor in her heart. An Englishman in a wheelchair because of a bad fall during a trip on LSD. A wasted Brazilian woman who can't be more than 20 leaning on a stick. A white woman carrying a child with cerebral palsy. An older couple guiding a mentally handicapped girl. A black man with a huge growth on his neck. These people, many of whom have tried all other possible remedies, are hoping that John will cure them, or at least give them the answers which they have not found anywhere else.”
Again, the sound of the flapping of red flags in the wind.
Aubrey: Also, while you were talking about everyone comes in wearing loose fitting white clothing, I was like, “Man, if I saw that picture, all I would be thinking was a cult.”
Mike: I know.
Kimberly: I was wondering, “Are they wearing the Nikes or not?”
Mike: Another thing that stands out to me from that excerpt is how wide of a range of ailments there are. A guy with a tumor, a guy who sprained his ankle during a fall.
Aubrey: Right. Again, it's snake oil, it's celery juice, it's moon juice. It's a bunch of the sort of cure all kinds of things.
Kimberly: He's like a Swiss Army knife for any ailment.
Aubrey: Right. He's a real Leatherman.
Mike: [laughs] Also, medical care from hundreds of years ago, famously effective.
Aubrey: Yeah, that's right.
Mike: One of the weird cameos I came across while I was researching this was, you guys know who Shirley MacLaine is?
Mike: Famous child actress. She remained dope throughout her life. She went to John of God in the early 90s and he cured her cancer, according to her.
Mike: Yes. This was just an offhand reference in one of these random articles from 2005. And then, I was like, “This is weird.” And then I went to her Wikipedia page, and I found this sentence. On an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show in April 2011, MacLaine stated that she and her neighbor observed numerous UFO incidents at her New Mexico ranch.
Mike: I was like, “Okay, well, now it's assigning me more fucking Oprah episodes to do of the time when Oprah did an UFO episode with Shirley MacLaine?
Aubrey: I am waiting for bated breath for a Marianne Williamson cameo in this--
Mike: Oh my God. Yes.
Aubrey: --story, it really feels like a matter of time.
Mike: [laughs] I'm going to drop some text into the chat. This is a description from a woman named Susan Casey, who is talking about her treatment. I think it's worth noting that a lot of the people going to John of God, there's a lot of cancer, a lot of chronic illnesses, chronic fatigue syndrome, a lot of people dealing with diagnosed medical conditions, but there's also a lot of people coming there for more inchoate conditions of just like, “I'm sad,” or, “I don't have as much energy as I used to,” or, “I'm dealing with trauma.” This description, I think, encapsulates why people are seeing John of God and what they're getting out of it. Which one of you wants to read this? Who wants to be Susan?
Kimberly: I will. This feels like Sunday school being asked to read. Of course, I will.
Kimberly: Susan was also searching for her own healing. After her father suddenly passed away two years ago, Susan experienced a “tsunami of grief.” She wondered if John of God could help heal her grief. Susan met with him. He looked at a picture of Susan and her father. He then told Susan to sit in the “healing room,” a room in the Casa reserved for meditation and prayer, for three hours. Susan says she was surrounded by hundreds of people in the healing room, all of whom were praying and meditating with their eyes closed.”
“Three hours went by like 20 minutes, and it was blissful. It was like I was floating.”
“In her own state of meditation, Susan says she was able to speak with her father.” “It was very real. More of a vision than I had ever had before. I got this feeling like I shouldn’t be sad, that everything was okay.”
Mike: What do you guys think?
Aubrey: It feels very reminiscent to me of the waves that people from the US will talk about traveling to Central America and doing ayahuasca. They've really got something figured out down there.
Mike: It's also how I described going to the Eurovision Song Contest.
Aubrey: Three hours went by, like 20 minutes.
Mike: Otherworldly, I was floating. It was amazing.
Kimberly: I'm trying to [crosstalk] what did he do other than tell her to go sit in the room? Yeah, it's this exotic experience that she can actually sit and pray and meditate at her house probably for three hours but it might feel like three hours, particularly if you're not used to praying or meditating.
Mike: I think that there's something very interesting, especially with the kinds of patients that are seeing him for something not diagnoseable, or not all that specific or measurable. Something like grief or trauma. He oftentimes tells people that you must stay here for five weeks. He often tells people to abstain from eating pork and drinking alcohol and staying up late for 40 days. There's this whole industry that's grown up around him in this small, remote city. A lot of people will go there for a couple weeks, and you'll go see him two or three times. But the rest of the time, they're hanging out with other travelers. There's hiking trails and like activities around this town. And a lot of what they're doing is just meditating and chilling out. And so, part of me feels like, “Well, yeah, you feel better.”
Aubrey: Yeah. all of what you just said could also be used to describe a vacation.
Mike: Yes, exactly.
Aubrey: Oh, I feel better after a vacation.
Mike: Yes. People feel better after vacation.
Kimberly: And what we call self-care now.
Mike: Dude, do you know how I felt after I went to Eurovision? Are you fucking kidding me?
Mike: Amazing. There's actually an interesting break here because some of what he's doing is just this stuff, of just woo-woo, like, “Go think about your life for three weeks and go on a hike,” but he's also doing actual surgical procedures.
Mike: I am not going to show you the fucking footage because it is absolutely disgusting and I cannot watch.
Aubrey: Sorry, footage exists and you watched it?
Mike: I watched it through my fingers. I wasn't like watching it watching it.
Aubrey: I feel so troubled and heartbroken for you, and having watched this knowing what that does to you, in the way that you seem to feel for me when I read the entire goddamn book about celery juice.
Mike: Aubrey, I hated it.
Aubrey: I know how much you hated that one with every fiber of your being.
Mike: My boyfriend often listens to podcasts when he's doing dishes or whatever in the kitchen, so he can't really hear me, but then at one point I heard him cry from the kitchen. He's like, “Are you moaning? I can hear moaning.”
Mike: [crosstalk] I was on the couch watching these clips, it was like, “Oooh.” [crosstalk]
Mike: In this line of people outside, he does a little assessment of what they need. And then, for a lot of people, and this is what the really grizzly footage is, he does this thing where he sticks a pair of forceps up their nose.
Mike: Did this come up for you in the medical carnival thing research, Aubrey?
Aubrey: The snake oil stuff?
Aubrey: I don't remember anything in particular but forceps up noses? No.
Kimberly: [chuckles] You would remember.
Aubrey: I feel like that would have made the cut.
Mike: This is an old carnival trick.
Aubrey: Oh, Jesus.
Mike: There's a cavity up your nose that goes to the back of your throat. It's about four and a half inches long, and you can put something in there and it looks impossible. You're like, “There's no fucking way like an entire of pencil or whatever is going to go all the way up your nose.” But human anatomy, there is this cavity that goes back and it feels very weird when it happens to you, but it doesn't hurt particularly. But it looks magical. If you've seen at carnival shows or street performers, oftentimes it's a nail, they'll nail a long nail up the nose. Have you guys seen that?
Kimberly: I have, unfortunately. [laughs]
Aubrey: I've also seen it in the form of COVID tests.
Mike: Exactly. That's what I was thinking too.
Aubrey: How's it all getting up there?
Mike: Yes. Apparently, this was invented by Indian medical showman, and the first documented instance in the United States was in 1926. This is a very well-known carnival trick essentially, that you can do it on yourself, and it looks totally impossible. Or, you can do it on other people and they're like, “This has to be magical, because there's no way anything could go that far into my face.” He does this sort of forceps trick. In some of the clips that I had to watch, he sticks the forceps so far up people's noses, and he twist them around, and they do actually start bleeding.
Aubrey: Oh, Jesus.
Mike: This is something that he does, people come in there with like breast cancer, and he does this to them. He also does this thing, where this is also extremely old school, you'll go to a medical quack, whatever, and they'll make a small light incision in your body and they'll put their fingers in it and make it look like they're drawing something out of you. They'll be like, “Oh, there's a tumor inside of you.” And then, they'll pull out some sort of little snake worm thing, but it's just a sleight of hand trick. It's basically close-up magic. That they have this little thing in their hand, and they'll put a lot of fake blood on you. And so, there's so much fake blood everywhere that you can't really tell how deep the incision is. It's basically a paper cut. And they pull out this little like worm looking thing. And they're like, “Oh my God, you've been living with this inside of you all this time.” And you're like, “Oh my God, that's it. That's why I can't sleep anymore,” or like, “That was my leukemia the whole time.” And you can find people doing this all over the world. This is a very well-known, again, carnival trick.
Aubrey: Well, it's also like, you've also got a quarter behind your ear.
Aubrey: I've got your nose. [gasps]
Mike: That's a really good comparison because that's basically what it is. Also, it's just as dishonest. I think that with some of this stuff, Amanda Chantal Bacon and Gwyneth Paltrow, whatever, I do think that in general, these people actually believe in what they're selling, but then there's a broad spectrum there. And with stuff like this, the forceps and the fucking close up magic trick, they know it's a scam. They know that they are scamming you. This is the worst possible version of this where tThis dude knows that people are coming to him with leukemia and trauma, and real stuff, and he's promising them up here and he is fucking lying to them. There is no world in which he even pretends to believe that any of this stuff is real.
Aubrey: Yeah. I also think when you are in a situation where you have a really complicated or really troubling or really intractable health issue, I think it's also easy to undersell the role of hope in all of that. I remember what it was like before I was dealing with this thing. I just want to be free of it. And there is this moment after trying a new treatment where you're almost like levitating right with hope. You're just soaring with like, “Oh my God, this might have been the thing. I might be there.” That also probably comes with some physiological effects.
Mike: Yes. My beef with this whole thing is because I don't think that Oprah or any of the people that wrote these magazine articles ever truly considered the possibility that this dude was a fucking grifter, like a straight-up, carnival barker ass grifter. The two options consistently that are presented to readers are either this works, or it's harmless, and he believes that it works, but it's not really real. Nobody really considers this dude's fucking scamming you and doing sleight of hand on you.
Aubrey: What do you attribute that to, Mike? Why do you think that's not getting questioned here?
Mike: I honestly don't know. A lot of it is the ethics of journalism, I think, because, for example, if Oprah really considered the possibility that this dude was a grifter, the next obvious question is, “Well, wait a minute, why are you giving airtime to a grifter?” It implicates the journalist to truly consider the fact this guy's just lying and scamming people out of their money, because it makes you question your own power as a journalist. Anyone you feature on Oprah, that person is going to make millions of dollars. It's like the Oprah's Book Club effect. To truly consider the fact that maybe this dude is lying, you then have to actually put some systems in place to be like, “Well, hang on a minute. We should check if he's lying first. We should do some due diligence on this guy. Did he predict the storm when he was a tiny child?”
Aubrey: Right. It also feels if we take this and then we take again, like the medical medium, Anthony William, and the responses to both of these, there is definitely uncritical platforming of him, but there is much more overt criticism. I also think there's this degree to which folks in the US are again more likely to fetishize indigenous forms of medicine, because of the guilt of imperialism and whiteness, and all of that stuff are also less likely to criticize it.
Mike: That's a really good point, Aubrey, because I feel once you add faith into this, it also gets much harder too, because it can feel like you're shitting on somebody for being a Christian, and that can feel really hurtful to people. We all want to be respectful of other people's beliefs. I think that's just another disincentive to bring it up.
Aubrey: Yeah, that's right. We're in a culture and in a political setting where we have forced religion into the public square, but also made it sacrosanct and untouchable and undebatable. It's this weird combination of it's the most public thing and it's the least discussable or debatable thing.
Mike: Yeah. Also, a lot of Americans are Christians, and Christians are predisposed to believe that Christian faith healing is real. I think the fact that Oprah is a Christian, and she talks about this as part of her Christianity, is also part of the reason why she falls for this.
Kimberly: And she sits at that nexus of-- she was credited with opening up TV and news to diverse voices, to an individual experience, but yet, we always forget that these individuals are consumers and that she's somehow able to make this profitable for these people just putting before us.
Mike: Yes, exactly. I think that that is something that she doesn't really reckon with. I've got another excerpt. This is an excerpt from the infamous Oprah Magazine article from 2010. This is about one of his surgical procedures.
Aubrey: Oh, Jesus. Thank you. “From my vantage point, only 10 feet away, the change in his body and demeanor was easily visible. Now, his eyes were more intense and they flashed noticeably darker. His gait became stiffer, his movements more deliberate. He turned to the three women standing against the wall, took the one closest to him by the hand, and gently sat her in a wheelchair. Her eyes fluttered white as she meditated. Reaching to the tray, he selected a short knife with a wooden handle, a cheap-looking type that you might use to pair an apple, and he held it up to the room, making sure that everyone saw its sharp blade. He tipped her head backward, running his hand across her face, and he opened her left eye holding the eyelid wide.” Jesus Christ, Mike.
Mike: I'm telling you, you do not google this.
Aubrey: “And then, he began to scrape the knife across her eyeball back and forth. Unbelievably, the woman sat absolutely still without flinching or recoiling.” How on earth could a knife across your eyeball not hurt?
Mike: What do you think?
Aubrey: Mike, I feel like you need to bake and mail me a cake--
Mike: I know. [laughs]
Aubrey: --for making me read that thing.
Mike: We're done here.
Kimberly: So, is he doing cataract surgery?
Mike: Well, this is one of those things, he does this procedure on basically everybody. There's no relationship between the procedures that he's doing and what people's ailments are. The author of the article actually admits later on that the thing that explains this, is that on your eyeballs, the white part of your eyeballs does not have any nerves. So, it's actually perfectly reasonable that somebody lightly scraping something across the white part of your eye, would feel fucking weird, but wouldn't hurt.
Aubrey: I understand that you have researched this and that it is demonstrably true, and also every fiber of my body rejects it. Anything going in my eye is going to hurt. I don't trust it.
Mike: I know. I don't want anybody getting in my eyeballs with a rusty knife.
Aubrey: [laughs] Our next tagline is just, like, “Welcome to Maintenance Phase, the podcast that encourages you to stick sharp objects in your eye.”
Mike: This is what I think is the cardinal sin of so much of the coverage of John of God over the years, is that many of the articles admit that this might not be real, but they don't jump to the obvious conclusion from that. The 1999 Irish Times article ends with, “Although I saw no miracles and have yet to comprehend with my own operation involved, this analytical agnostic has to confess that her visit to John has had a profoundly positive effect on every level.” Magic, who cares? Going to like remote Brazil and staying in a hotel like a meditation retreat for three weeks, people are spending tens of thousands of dollars. It's actually pretty relevant if it's real or not, because if all he's offering is some inner peace and some fucking hiking, most of us can get that within like an hour of where we live.
Aubrey: Right. Most of us can find a questionable cabin in the Catskills.
Mike: Yes. It's in a gay [crosstalk] peninsula thing.
Kimberly: I can get my acne care at the same time, I’ll pay double.
Aubrey: Yeah, that’s right. [laughs]
Mike: This actually brings us to the Oprah episode. In 2010, Oprah does an entire episode dedicated to John of God. Do you guys want to guess what it's called?
Kimberly: John of Gawd, G-A-W-D.
Kimberly: You know how Oprah likes to-- [crosstalk]
Mike: No, it's called, “Do you believe in miracles?” We've covered this on the show so many times that it's just like that fucking question mark is just such as get out of jail free card.
Aubrey: I'm just asking questions also came up in our QAnon episode, right?
Aubrey: This idea of, like, “I'm just asking about. If you're all upset about it, that's on you. I'm just asking a question.”
Mike: Oh, totally. Yeah.
Aubrey: I think particularly having this couched in the language of Christianity and of miracles, which is a particularly like Oprah slice of Christianity. Feels really-- argh.
Mike: It's bad.
Aubrey: It feels like that sound.
Mike: This episode, or at least the clips of it that I could find online. She doesn't just come out and say like, “This guy's a miracle healer, and everything is real.” She does the same thing we saw in that interview to the watch earlier, where she's like, “This is pretty woo-woo. And I don't know, I'm pretty skeptical.” And she takes the tone of like, she's the straight man and everybody else is trying to talk her into this. It's like an infomercial.
Kimberly: I'm thinking about who her audience was for the show. I still just can't figure out, like, why hedging your bets? Either say you support him and you believe him or not.
Mike: I think that, to me, is the fundamental chickenshitness of this-- [crosstalk] We see Dr. Oz doing this constantly. Where it's like, “These magical medical supplements, some people say they're incredible and I lost 50 pounds in two days. And other people say they don't work. But I'm just presenting the debate.” But it's like, “Well, no one has heard of these pills before you told me about them.” It's like she's introducing this guy into American homes, and saying, like, “There's some chance that he's a miracle healer.” And I don't think that she's taking that responsibility seriously at all.
Aubrey: As you were saying that I was realizing that that people are talking, some people are saying this, really goes on our list of now that's what I call maintenance phase.
Mike: Oh, my God, I know.
Aubrey: If you can't cite who's talking and who's saying what, if you just say people are talking and then you say a bunch of stuff, then the people who are talking are pretty much just you.
Mike: Yeah. The example that they always use in journalism, is if one person says it's raining outside and the other person says it's sunny outside, your job as a journalist is not to report what both people are saying. Your job is to fucking go outside. That is supposed to be what journalism is, but because we have these precepts of objective journalism, which we could do easily like 10 entire episodes on, journalists often do take the stance of, “I'm just reporting on the debate,” and they think that that's the responsible way to do it, when the actual responsible thing to do, is to investigate this person before you put them on your show, and before you bring them this extra level of visibility.
Kimberly: We keep coming back to Oprahish journalism, which I have a point to make.
Kimberly: I still disagree because even if Oprah says, “Well, this person says this and this person says that,” all of those people are potentially still going to watch the show and be the audience that is driving up the advertising fees. It makes sense in that capitalist framework of, we don't care who the audience is or what they actually think, and we can make that clear by saying there's a debate.
Mike: Right. Well, we see this so much too, that people who are de facto playing a journalism role in people's lives, informing the public on issues of public concern, will deliberately reject the title of journalism, because they know journalist comes with it a set of ethics and a set of norms. People are getting their information from Oprah show. I think you're right, that she wouldn't necessarily identify as a journalist. But what she is doing is journalism in a lot of ways.
It's clip time. This is a clip from the infamous 2010 “Do you believe in miracles?" episode.
Aubrey: Oh, God.
Oprah: What you were describing, so you obviously didn't have the same kind of experience? He didn't cut on you other than the nose probing and you still have cancer, stage 4 cancer. So, everybody that comes isn't healed?
Jeff: Right. That's correct.
Jeff: I have no way to understand that. I think that's where we need to do the research. I think that every case is so individual. One person can come before John of God with a particular illness and be given one prescription, the next person can have that very same illness and be given a very different prescription, it's very individual. One person can be told to go meditate, and it's the journey of a soul. And we all are trying to use the illness to learn something that is unique to our particular situation, I believe.
Mike: The panel that she has, the woman who she gestures to is Susan Casey. She is the woman who went to John of God for grief over her father's death. And the excerpt that we read earlier was from her Oprah Magazine article, which we're going to talk about in great detail in a second. The dude on the panel is Jeff Rediger, who I think is at Harvard. I genuinely don't know where to put him on the doctor versus grifter spectrum. He has written a book on this thing called Spontaneous Healing, which is a real thing, that there are quite a few medical conditions where some people just get better.
When I was doing research for the Tuskegee experiment, one-third of people with long term syphilis, they just don't have it anymore, and we don't actually really know why. He calls that spontaneous healing. I think there's definitely a grifter aspect to this entire field but then it's actually a legitimate medical phenomenon that I don't think is very well understood.
Aubrey: This is part of where all of these miracle cures things show up and so many grifters show up. There is still so much that we just don't know about medicine, there's so much that we don't know about physical and mental illness. Any place where we don't know, we tend to reach for almost any port in the storm, which opens up this whole world of totally unproven, totally untested kind of stuff. I don't necessarily begrudge this dude wanting to study that. It seems very strange to have someone who's studying that show up on Oprah on a show called “Do you believe in miracles?” Right?
Mike: Yes. It's a legitimate question to ask. I don't know if I agree with his answer to that question.
Aubrey: No, of course.
Mike: The third person whose name is Lisa Melman is a South African woman who had breast cancer and went to see John of God. And she talks in this Oprah episode about how she saw him, she underwent this long treatment in Brazil. She came back and her doctor said that her cancer was still metastasizing, but it wasn't metastasizing as fast as they would have expected, and she it appears denied herself Western medical treatment of her own cancer and she died two years after this aired.
Aubrey: Jesus Christ.
Mike: It's this weird, haunting interview now, where it's this woman describing deliberately not getting care for the condition that will eventually kill her. It's rough, I know.
Kimberly: I thought we were going to avoid victim blaming, but we eventually get there with the whole journey of the soul talk. He works with the energy that you bring to him. There's a subtle "Your energy was not right." This idea that you're supposed to fight and mobilize yourself the body in a particular way, and there's just the thread as that in that.
Aubrey: If it didn't work, it's not that it didn't work. It's that you didn't do it right.
Mike: One of the reasons why I chose this clip was because it's fascinating that they're just basically blithely mentioning in the middle of an hour-long episode called “Do you believe in miracles?” that it might not work for you, and we have no criteria for determining in advance whether this is going to work for you or not. There's like, “Oh, yeah, by the way, lots of people who go there get no effect at all.” But then again, they don't follow that to the logical conclusion that maybe this guy is full of shit.
Aubrey: Also, it does feel really interesting to me-- again going back to this, there's a researcher on this panel, it feels really interesting to me to be in a place of talking about research that's in process in the absence of any findings. “I'm researching this thing, and I don't really know about it yet. Here are some ideas that I maybe have.
Kimberly: But I can totally see that Oprah, her show, the 24-hour news cycle coinciding with a push for academics to become “public intellectuals” and him getting a lot of credit for showing up on Oprah to talk about his research.
Mike: Also, one of the other things that drives me nuts about this is that she brings him on as the skeptical voice. He's the only person that she brings on who's not like, “I received this treatment, and it worked for me.” She's using his medical expertise as a way to give herself and him credibility as like, “We're hearing from all sides here.” But she doesn't bring on anybody who's like, “Uh, this guy is absolutely full of shit.”
Aubrey: Yeah, he's the skeptic, but he's not skeptical.
Mike: Yes. Have you guys heard of somebody named the Amazing Randi?
Mike: It sounds like I made that up. I realize from Aubrey’s--[crosstalk] but it only exists in my head.
Aubrey: It's just like some dude you went to middle school with. Like people would pay him to eat worms.
Mike: He's a legendary debunker guy. He was actually originally a magician, which is how he found out about these sleight-of-hand tricks where it looks like somebody pulling a tumor out of you. He used to appear in the 80s and 90s on The Tonight Show and debunk people. There's this infamous clip where some guy comes out and says that he can bend spoons with his mind. And then, they bring out the Amazing Randi, and the Amazing Randi’s like, “I brought my own set of spoons, can you bend to these ones?” And then, all of a sudden, magically, the guy’s, “Oh, I don't think the spirit is speaking to me right now. I can't do it.” And they're very obviously just trick spoons.
The Amazing Randi wrote a long, very interesting essay about John of God, because he was asked in 2005 to be the skeptical voice on an ABC special that investigated John of God. And one thing that he says, he has this fascinating passage where he talks about how it's interesting on Oprah and this ABC special. They'll talk to doctors, but they won't talk to people who are experts in medical grifting, and the economies and tactics of people who lie for a living and sell fake services for a living. That is actually in some ways, a more relevant expertise, because the only thing that a doctor is qualified to say about this is like, “Does this make sense medically or does it not?” Whereas somebody who's an expert in scams can say, “Well, this works economically.”
Aubrey: Yeah. It does feel really interesting that all of this stops short of that. But there's no willingness to entertain that there might actually be unproven practices here, or there might actually be ill intent here.
Mike: Yes. And you can also tell that Oprah and her producers didn't do any due diligence on this guy, because one thing that she mentions throughout the show, is that John of God works for free. And it's like well, obviously, this guy's like a man of God, because he's not charging anything for these trips. He's not getting rich off of it. He's doing it because he wants to increase human happiness in the world, whatever. But what nobody mentions is that almost everybody that goes to John of God, one of the first things that he prescribes is herbs and his wife sells the herbs.
Kimberly: Oh, my God. [laughs]
Mike: He is making money. One thing we find out after all of the scandalous stuff, which we'll get to in a second, is that he owns a huge number of properties in this small town in Brazil. So, a lot of the tour companies that are charging you thousands of dollars of like, “We'll get you a bus to go to this remote village, etc.”, he's getting a huge cut of those and he's getting a cut of the hotels.
Kimberly: Of course, the economy is making money, so he's making money.
Mike: Exactly. He is the economy of this town, so he's getting extraordinarily wealthy off of this. They didn't do any of that background. They're just like, “Oh, he provides it for free.”
Aubrey: Yeah. Ooh.
Mike: I thought you had [crosstalk], Aubrey.
Aubrey: It's just really fascinating to me that there's zero 'follow the money' on any of this.
Mike: I am convinced that this is another weird developing country thing, with this magical people in the developing world idea that Americans have how little information we have about how developing countries actually function. I think that we tend to overlook that there are human incentives at play in these societies as well, and there are huge inequalities in developing countries as well. We find out later that John of God, he's all wrapped up in the mayor, he's wrapped up in national Brazilian politics. It's like, no, there's structures of power in other countries too.
Aubrey: Well, and all of that context is stripped away, from any and all of this, like, we're not looking at the full picture. We're just going, “This guy says he performs miracles, and maybe he does.”
Mike: [laughs] So, that's basically all we're going to say about the episode. But I do want to dwell on the article in Oprah Magazine that comes out in correspondence with this episode, because it's one of the worst things I've ever read.
Mike: I have a document in front of me with all of the quotes that I want to read, and I highlight quotes in yellow that I want to read, and the whole page is yellow.
Mike: So, I'm trying to resist the urge just, like, “Let's just read the whole thing, guys. It's 10 pages long.”
Kimberly: You’ve missed a spot.
Mike: I'm resisting this. Okay, Aubrey, I'm going to make you read this one.
Aubrey: Okay. One physician I knew to be interested in John of God's work was Mehmet Oz.” Fuck you, Michael. “As a cardiac surgeon, his training had been rigorously scientific, but he wondered about what Western medicine didn't yet know. “I think the next big frontier is unlocking the doors to energy medicine," Oz told me. “It dramatically broadens our vista of opportunities to heal. The challenge we have is that energy is not as easily quantified as the surgeon scalpel.” “But the stories coming out of Abadiânia challenge that stance. Five years ago, Oz had participated in a Primetime Live segment focusing on John of God. He examined hours of film footage from the entity's healings, he looked at scans and biopsy reports, and there were results he couldn't explain. The shrinkage of an aggressive cancer, for instance. “This guy had glioblastoma, which is a very deadly brain tumor," Oz recalled. “It was grade 4. They biopsied it and proved it. If we can understand what role he's playing in reversing illness," Oz, said at the time, "we should be doing that here.”
Mike: What do you think?
Aubrey: That's fine study and then present the findings. I don't really get this whole thing of like, “This is something we should look into.”
Mike: [blows raspberry]
Kimberly: Just based on Oz episode, he's always doing market research. So, he's not trying to look for anything to disprove. He's trying to look for something to bottle and sell.
Mike: Oh, yeah.
Aubrey: That's right.
Mike: A huge red flag in this is that it says Dr. Oz examined hours of film footage from the entity’s healings. That footage was provided by John of God.
Aubrey: It would have to be, I don't know where else it would come from.
Mike: John of God and his supporters have made a bunch of videos of his surgical procedures, but they're filmed very carefully. Oftentimes, you can't actually see what's happening with this sleight of hand stuff where he pulls the tumor out or whatever. They're filmed with his back to the camera and there's no closeups, and they're there in black and white, and they're in bad-- they almost seem deliberately bad so that you can't actually see what's going on.
Kimberly: Well, it's enabled too by our own imperialism ideas about it. "Well, they probably didn't have great cameras over there, so this is what we have."
Mike: Yeah, exactly. They have iPhones in Brazil, man.
Mike: This guy makes millions of dollars. They can get some 4k out of Brazil, dude.
Aubrey: I think there's also journalism drag.
Aubrey: We're almost play acting at being journalists, but we have a very clear agenda. We're not going to research things. We're here to promote a set of ideas or a worldview. There's plenty of skepticism of weight-neutral healthcare or community health workers. And then, there are moments like this where you're like, “Why is no one skeptical?”
Mike: Can I illustrate that with one more story?
Kimberly: Kimberly, do you want to read this one?
Mike: Yes. This is still from the O Magazine article.
Kimberly: I met Jeanette Lidia, a 40-year-old blonde woman from the south of Brazil, who had battled with recurring cancer. It had begun 17 years ago in her knee and migrated so thoroughly into her bones that no treatment was possible. She too arrived to Abadiânia with one last hope.” “Come back to 21 times,” the entity said, “and you will be healed.” “This was a pretty tall order considering that Jeanette’s commute required a 40-hour bus ride that left her racked with nausea. But she did as he said. Eventually, she began to feel well again.”
“Three years later, however, the cancer returned with a vengeance, this time in her uterus. She went back to the Casa disappointed and upset. “Don't be unhappy,” the entity told her. “I'm going to give you the president you hope for.” “Once again, Jeanette followed his instructions. Six years later, she became pregnant, and on April 26th, 2000, her daughter Evelyn was born. This would be a miraculous event for any woman who had been that sick, but the bar was even higher. In a calm and measured tone, Jeanette told me that she had given birth despite having previously undergone a complete hysterectomy.
Aubrey: Wait, what?
Kimberly: Jeanette had no tubes, no uterus. The doctor said it would be a psychological pregnancy. Whoa, wait. Okay. [laughs]
Mike: I know.
Kimberly: Holy shit. But then they did an ultrasound and she was five months along.
Mike: Lot going on.
Kimberly: My brain just exploded.
Aubrey: Oh, boy.
Mike: So, it's like, “She had cancer and it went away. Oh, and by the way, she had a daughter, despite having had a hysterectomy.” That's a pretty big deal.
Kimberly: Sorry, I'm re-reading it.
Mike: You guys are just reeling right now.
Aubrey: I genuinely, you know, I can yell talk about just about anything. This one is fully blowing my brains out of my head.
Mike: “Was it a psychological pregnancy, Mike?” That's usually your question when I tell you about pregnant ladies.
Aubrey: Always, anytime a baby's involved, psychological pregnancy.
Mike: Was it a psychological pregnancy?
Mike: Do you want to hear how the author tries to justify it?
Aubrey: Yes, please.
Mike: She says, “I was being asked to believe what science could flatly deny, that a pregnancy could occur in the absence of an egg. But there was Evelyn, a long-legged sprite of a girl with wavy brown hair, hugging her mother's waist as Jeanette recounted her story.” It's like, well, it has to be true because the baby is right there. But that's not the difficult part of the story to believe.
Aubrey: That person had a child.
Mike: People have babies.
Aubrey: What are the chances that the entity and the medical medium spirit are the same?
Mike: The same prankster from the future?
Aubrey: The same ill-intended ghost.
Mike: We're going to watch one more clip. This is from Oprah's second TV special about John of God. The first one was so successful that in 2012, she actually goes down and visits John of God.
Kimberly: Oprah, girl, why?
Mike: I know.
Aubrey: Truly, why?
Oprah: The first time I saw it today, I was humbled by the experiment.
Heather: [speaks Portuguese]
João: [speaks Portuguese]
Heather: Because a little bit of this belongs to you. A part of this belongs to you.
Oprah: How so? I don't understand.
Heather: Because you are human.
Oprah: Hmm. Well, could the entity tell me, what does human energy look like because as I understand it, each person that comes before you, the entity sees the energy of that person.
João: [speaks Portuguese]
Heather: We have an aura, we have different colors [unintelligible [00:48:19].
Oprah: So, human energy looks like colors?
João: [speaks Portuguese]
Heather: Yes. Various different colors.
Oprah: What does something like cancer look like when you see inside?
João: [speaks Portuguese]
Heather: When he sees cancer, he starts asking that this be taken away, be removed as being God's will, because it is not his-- he does not have the power. It is God who has the power and he prays to have the person's cancer removed by God if it is His will, if it is God's will.
Mike: In my brain, the birds in the background are like, “Don't listen to him.”
Mike: “Everyone make a fuss so Oprah can't hear this fucking grifter.”
Aubrey: Oh, my God.
Mike: What did you guys think?
Aubrey: It's really interesting. This is actually the closest that we've gotten to his actual methodology, and it feels like he's doing his own praying for you.
Kimberly: But it's also nothing new, right? I mean, auras, energy leaving?
Mike: Oh, yeah. Again, this is classic grifter stuff. If she had spoken to some like Amazing Randi type debunkers, they'd be like, “Oh, yeah, he's going to give you some aura bullshit.” It's also so funny to me how Oprah nods profoundly at his just absolute empty bullshit.
Aubrey: A complete word salad. That's a good point you made, magnetic poetry set.
Mike: You can tell that she's in some way bought into it because she's not asking him anything skeptically. What color is cancer is not a tough question, because there's no wrong answer to that question.
Kimberly: So, it's never about resolving the question mark of these headlines or show titles.
Kimberly: Okay. Outstanding.
Aubrey: Is this dude still doing his thing?
Mike: Oh, do you guys want to get to the fucking twist and downfall, like the horrifying shit?
Kimberly: Oh, God. Okay.
Mike: This is absurd. The structure of this episode because this is a wellness podcast, we're mostly focusing on his wellness grifting. But then in 2018, we find out that this dude is a serial rapist.
Aubrey: Oh, God.
Mike: It's actually fascinating. In 2018, we're in the midst of all of this #MeToo stuff, like this flood of allegations against powerful men is happening. One of the people who is inspired by this, her name is Zahira Mous. She's a choreographer in the Netherlands. She had gone down to visit John of God a couple years previously, I believe in 2014. And she posts this very long post on Facebook. This is extremely rough, by the way. So, if you want to be like me watching surgery footage, and fast forward, that's totally fine. She was seeing him for sexual trauma. She flew to Brazil, she was waiting in line, she waited hours and hours, I believe all day. And it seemed that he almost arranged it so that she would be his last patient of the day. She went in for consultation and he said, like, “Let's go to my healing room, this backroom where the healing happens,” which turns out to be his bathroom. And then, he pins her to the wall and he viciously rapes her.
Aubrey: Jesus Christ.
Mike: She is super traumatized. She says that she's never really been able to process that she's never gotten over it. She was seeing him for sexual trauma. It's the worst fucking thing.
Aubrey: That's the thing that gets me, is there's no gradation of sexual trauma or sexual assaults that-- at least not that I'm willing to get into. But there is something so specifically horrifying about someone who's seeking treatment and then to experience that same trauma from the person you're seeking treatment from, is so deeply, deeply awful and troubling.
Mike: Well, he's playing on her vulnerability. This is classic abuser stuff, is he sees her as a mark because this is something, the desperation and the pain is something that makes people easier to target, and then fucking gaslight afterwards. This business model is perfectly structured to deliver him potential victims. It's a bunch of desperate people who see him as this Prophet, and he's linked up with God.
Aubrey: It's not even like, “I want to take a shower.” It's like, “I want to take a shower in rubbing alcohol.” I'm just like, “Argh, this is so gross and upsetting.”
Mike: Okay, do you want to hear the worst part? In an interview with The New York Times after all of this happens, they ask, “How did you hear of John of God?” And she says, “I heard of him from a friend and I saw Oprah Winfrey's documentary.”
Aubrey: Ah, fuck.
Kimberly: Any quote from Oprah’s camp on that? Probably not.
Mike: Yeah. We eventually get an extremely fucking anodyne public statement. This is the most boring thing I've ever read out loud in my life. She says, “I went to Brazil in 2012 to tape an episode of Oprah's Next Chapter that explored the controversial healing methods of John of God. The episode aired in 2013. I empathize with the women now coming forward and hope justice is served.” But then, after this Facebook post, Brazilian journalists start looking into it. A couple weeks later, there's a Brazilian TV special with Zahira and three other victims, none of whom are named. And this is a massive-- because he's quite famous in Brazil, and this TV special is a sensation, and within 36 hours, 78 more people come forward.
Mike: By now, there's more than 600 victims have identified themselves.
Mike: Yeah, it's bad. They all describe exactly the same pattern that Zahira describes, where it's they were singled out by him, they were taken into a backroom. It's exactly the same pattern.
Aubrey: Ugh. I'm both curious and afraid to ask, is there a shift in the media coverage around this guy more broadly?
Mike: What's extremely frustrating about this, is that there had been previous allegations before Oprah's episode. These were always a footnote in these glowing, is it a miracle type reports, like, “Yeah, there's some things with women, but anyway, he denies the allegations.” No one really looked into it. I don't know how to fit the rape stuff in with the medical grifting. It is interesting to me that it's only after the abuse allegations came out that Oprah finally removed all of his stuff from her web page.
Mike: I think our line for not platforming people shouldn't be rapists. I think it should just be lying about medical shit, don't platform those people. Yes, deplatform the serial rapists, but those shouldn't be the only people that we deplatform.
Aubrey: When you uncritically platform people, this is part of the potential cost of that.
Mike: Well, this is the thing, every I'm a miracle healer charlatan is a serial rapist, I don't think that that's a high probability, but also by promoting these kinds of methodologies, you're putting people in contact with shady people, and that leads to all kinds of other immoral behavior.
Aubrey: Has he faced any consequences for all of this?
Mike: Yes, this is the happyish ending to the story, is that he's now serving 19 years in prison for rape.
Aubrey: Jesus Christ. I don't know that a prison sentence is ever a happy ending, but also at least a fucking rapist isn't being put on Oprah.
Mike: He's also facing a bunch more charges and his daughter has come forward and said that he molested her for years.
Aubrey: Oh, Jesus.
Mike: And said that he's a monster. This guy is unbelievable bad news.
Kimberly: But I doubt that the charlatan ends with him being in prison because he's a grifter, so he's going to grift in jail too.
Mike: Do you guys want to hear an extremely perfect epilogue to this?
Aubrey: [hesitatingly] Okay.
Mike: This is actually not that bad, Aubrey, don't worry.
Aubrey: Okay. I feel I'm really reeling from this episode.
Mike: This is the ending of an excellent Sydney Morning Herald article about him being convicted of all the rapes. And it's talking about the town, what happens to this town now, and it closes with, “The number of international tourists is decreasing, but guides continue to promote the town and the Casa as a sacred place. They say there's an enormous crystal in the ground which gives energy to the entities and that they're even stronger now.”
Kimberly: The entities will be able to embody somebody else.
Mike: It's just grifters gotta grift. Nothing is going to stop the fundamental grift here.
Aubrey: This is the tee-up for the sequel.
Mike: Yes, exactly. The long con remains even as the short con destroys itself.
Kimberly: They learned so well.
Mike: So, that's it. That was John of God.
Aubrey: I will say the feeling that I am having right now is like a sailboat without any wind. Just hanging out, just adrift. Not really sure how I'm going to get anywhere from here.
Mike: Aubrey, throughout the Skype, I can tell that your aura is devoid of color.
Mike: It used to be purple.