Monday, December 16, 2013
"Victorious Occultism": Unconscionable Treatment of Infants in Russia, and Matching Attitudes in the U.S.
Over the last few weeks I have been sent a lot of news by Yulia Massino and Nina Sokolova, two Russian women who are very concerned about potentially harmful “New Age” practices related to childbirth and child-rearing. Much as I sympathize with these problems in Russia, I’m equally disturbed about the fact that the United States is also home to related belief systems and practices. The less centralized government of the U.S. may make it even more difficult than it is in Russia to regulate treatment of pregnant women and infants in ways that will prevent harm, and American views of tolerance for religious-based practices may have a similar effect.
For those of us with little or no Russian, being at the mercy of Google Translate can make news from Russia quite confusing. For example, the name of a Russian birthing center is translated as “erysipelas” (an unpleasant skin disease), which has nothing to do with any of the problems to be dealt with. However, with repeated readings some information does filter through.
First, let’s have a look at the practice of “water births”, as espoused by a number of earlier mystical thinkers like Mme. Blavatsky, but practiced in the 1980s by one I.B. Charkovsky (see https://translate.google.ru/translate?sl=ru&tl=en&js=n&prev_t&hl=ru&ie=UTF-8&u=http%3A%2F%2Flena-malaa.livejournal.com%2F45160.html&act=url. As all observers of the “New Age” know, this technique involves having the laboring mother more or less immersed in water, so the baby emerges into a water environment. As humans are lung-breathers, this situation would be fatal if the baby were kept underwater too long, but in fact, because there is no air in the uterus, at birth the infant has its lungs and respiratory passages filled with amniotic fluid and mucus. Although much if this fluid has been squeezed out by pressure during a vaginal delivery, babies usually need some help in draining and suctioning the liquid that impedes breathing of air. Born into water or air, the baby has the same possibility of needing assistance to start breathing air. (Anecdotally, I’ve come across some accounts of infants being slow to start breathing on their own if born into warm water, but I know of no systematic study of this issue.)
What was Charkovsky’s reasoning about water births? The claims for both spiritual and physical benefits were numerous and can be seen at the link given above. (One interesting one is the idea that women giving birth in water experience orgasms at the time; I will leave this ludicrous suggestion to the imagination of women who have had babies.) Having persuaded himself and others that water births were beneficial, Charkovsky carried his reasoning further, to claim that sick infants and children could be cured by repeated immersion in icy water, and that this would prevent or cure mental retardation. The immersion is repeated rapidly with scarcely the opportunity for a breath between dips, thus closely resembling the torture practice of “waterboarding”.
I don’t think we have to fall for the idea that all problems are caused by trauma to realize that such a practice has the potential for powerful traumatic effects. It’s clear that newborn babies, especially less mature ones, can respond to being chilled with a cascade of internal responses that can include brain damage from increased blood flow toward the brain and death of intestinal tissue from a reduced blood supply there. As for older infants and children, the terror of this experience must be greatly multiplied by the awareness that a parent is nearby and does not stop what is happening. Why, then, would any parent choose this treatment? Part of the answer presumably has to do with the sad readiness of desperate parents to follow any guru who offers hope, but in addition I think we have to look to common metaphors of contamination as the cause of illness and washing as a health measure-- and these we see in the myth of Achilles, who was dipped into a river to make him invulnerable (except that that heel did not get wet), or in the custom of baptism by total immersion. These familiar ideas may prepare parents to accept what would otherwise be seen as a bizarre and dangerous practice.
Another practice advocated by those who recommend water births is “baby yoga”. The link above contains very disturbing photos of extremely young infants whose limbs have been forced into “yoga postures” (and I should point out that in the newborn the hips are not nearly as flexible as you might think, with a limit on the movement of the leg that gradually decreases until at 5 or 6 months the baby can pull the foot to the mouth ). How this was done, or what the occurrence of hip dislocations was, is not made clear.
But there is even more to “baby yoga” than this. Some readers will already have come across the claim that babies can be made extra strong by adults who essentially fling the babies around, holding on by one hand or one foot as the baby shrieks. A discussion and some footage of this can be seen at http://www.thedoctorstv.com/videolib/init/6483 (why do these guys have to wear scrubs to be on TV, I wonder?). Elena Fokina, a proponent of “baby yoga” and of Charkovsky’s methods, is presently the subject of an on line petition: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/978/068/511/stop-lena-fokinas-pracitce-of-baby-yoga/. (Yes,”pracitce” is what it says.)
There’s one more person that I must fit into this post, because she provides such a good example of how politics can confuse views of these practices. This is Janna Tzaregradskaya, whose perinatal advice organization (or cult) was in the news because of some gunfire (http://translate.google.ru/translate?sl=ru&tl=en&prev_=t&hl=ru&ie=UTF-8&u=http://www.kp.ru/daily/26171.4/3057635/). In an interview (http://translate.google.ru/translate?sl=ru&tl=en&prev_=t&hl=ru&ie=UTF-8=http://nekin.info/q27.htm), Tzaregradskaya volunteered her opinions that ultrasound causes birth defects and that criminality and alcoholism are explained by such people having been born in hospitals. She also commented elsewhere that 90% of children remember their births.
Unfortunately, the criminal charges for the shooting incident described in the link above were not emphasized in a Daily Mail (www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2471806/Rusian-breastfeeding-expert-arrested-cult-leader.html) article that claimed that breastfeeding was an uncommon practice in Russia and that Tzaregradskaya was being hounded for encouraging breastfeeding rather than for persuading families to avoid medical care. This was, I think, less a matter of reportage than of carrying on with the current cross-fire of political pop-guns between Russia and the West.
Obviously, Russia has some difficulty controlling practices that are potentially dangerous to women and children, but that are easily framed as “ancient wisdom” or “the ways of our ancestors”. What about the United States? Do we have similar difficulties? Yes, and many of them also derive from what is now called the “New Age”, but is actually identical with the “New Thought” of the 1880s (yes, that’s the correct century). ( Some others, like the advice of Michael and Debi Pearl of Tennessee or of the now-diminished “Baby Wise” group, are descendants of Calvinistic views of submission and obedience to parents as analogous to the Christian’s submission to God. ) Among the “New Age” group the paramount organization is the Association for Pre- and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH), whose members have fostered Lloyd DeMause’s beliefs in the “poisonous placenta” and its psychological damage as well as the position taken by Stanislav Grof that LSD or oxygen deprivation could yield true pictures of experiences during gestation and birth (rather than images of what someone imagined gestation and birth to have been like). The APPPAH member David Chamberlain has claimed that all children recall all the details of their births and even earlier events, while another member, William Emerson, specializes in massaging young infant’s heads and necks so they will re-experience the pains of their birth and “cry out” those traumas. Emerson’s viewpoint is an example of the belief held by some of these people, that infant crying is a necessary way of getting rid of negative emotion and should not lead to attempts to comfort or soothe the baby—an ideal of indifference to the child that also seems displayed in the Charkovsky cold-water method.
State laws in the U.S. do not prohibit the teaching of most such beliefs or the use of potentially dangerous methods for birth or for child-rearing-- especially if it is claimed, as it is both here and in Russia, that there is some religious principle associated with a practice. Although it would be possible for professional organizations in medicine and mental health to ban the use of these methods by members, and to make efforts to educate the public about the practices, this has only very rarely been done. In fact, the ethics code of the American Psychological Association discourages such moves by requiring psychologists who object to a therapy to speak directly to one of its proponents in an attempt to resolve the conflict, rather than ”going public’.
A prominent Russian thinker has used the term “victorious occultism” to describe the situation in Russia. We’ve got it here, too, and the only way out I can see is for concerned people to speak up loudly.