Cured by Jeffrey Rediger review – stories of spontaneous healing | Books


The placebo effect is a wonderful thing, and still highly mysterious. A person who believes they have been given effective treatment for pain or disease, even though they haven’t, might get better. Placebos can work even if you know they are placebos, and for reasons no one understands the placebo effect appears to be getting stronger over time. It is silly to casually dismiss findings that a medicine performs only a little bit better than placebo: placebo is already extremely strong.

It is surprising, then, that the placebo effect is first mentioned only halfway through this compendium of stories about people given terminal diagnoses for stage 4 cancer and other diseases who, for medically unexplained reasons, suddenly experience a miraculous recovery, or in the lingo a “spontaneous remission”. One woman goes to a faith-healing centre in Brazil and gets better; another quits her job and starts doing yoga and gets better; another accepts herself just as she is and faces up to death and gets better; a man adopts the “keto” diet and gets better, and so forth.

The author, a psychiatrist with a theology degree, is determined to keep an open mind about all this – but not so open, the reader hopes, that everything falls out. He notes, for example, that people who attend the Brazilian healing community experience a sudden change in diet (lots of fruit juices and vegetarian meals), spend hours a day meditating, and experience the loving kindness of strangers, all of which are definitely good for you. The keto diet, in particular, might be excellent for the immune system – and we know, thanks to the growing field of cancer immunotherapy, that a supercharged immune system can defeat tumours all by itself. Even forgiving those who have wronged you, some research suggests, is good for the immune system.

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This is all interesting and warmly related, and Rediger mainly avoids woo, as you would hope a medically trained person would – though there is one dispiriting section in which he excitedly suggests that quantum physics might explain how the mind can affect the body. How, exactly? Oh, just because quantum physics apparently “is showing us that some of the laws of the universe that we thought of as fixed or immutable are, in fact, not”. Actually, quantum physics, too, is grounded in immutable laws. The author is in a hurry, too, to dismiss the possibility that a couple of his case studies happened to be especially “high responders” to chemotherapy drugs that they did, in fact, take, while also embracing their unique individuality.

It’s worth noting that an ancient, moralistic view of health and disease is still encoded into the terms we use: “remission” originally meant forgiveness of sins, or pardon for a crime, and the potential negative implication of a book such as this, which cheers on those who experienced remission for having done all the right things, is that if you get sick, and stay sick, you have no one to blame but yourself. The sect known confusingly as “Christian Science”, indeed, follows the teaching of its founder, Mary Baker Eddy, that sickness is merely an illusion and can be corrected by prayer. Despite his laudable attempt to reassure the reader that “being sick is not your fault”, Rediger’s own conclusion is not a million miles from the same idea. “What spontaneous healing has taught us,” he writes, “is that waking up to a deeper awareness of our value and strength is capable of changing our physiology. If we assume that the mind is powerful and capable of altering disease progression, it follows that a significant mental change may be capable of precipitating a significant physical change – even a remission.”

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There is a lot of work being done with that little “may”. From a scientific standpoint, there is a severe issue of selection bias in the narratives the book offers. Rediger does not, after all, tell any stories about people who became ill and then changed their diet, avoided stress, embraced love, and faced up to their inevitable extinction – and still died anyway. You would think there would be no shortage of such discouraging tales. Without a sense of whether they, as you might suspect, vastly outweigh the cases of amazing recovery, it is hard to draw firm conclusions. The introduction even claims that the author has discovered “the foundation for a new model of medicine”, but it would be irresponsible to suggest anyone decline hospital treatment in favour of positive thinking. In the meantime, the author himself at one point boasts that it is almost impossible for him to become ill. Given the timing of his book’s publication, one can only hope he is right.

Cured is published by Penguin (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.



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