Register Monday | July 26 | 2021
In Good Faith Illustration by Sam Island.

In Good Faith

After going to a faith healer, Dominik Parisien could see magical thinking all around him—and who it hurt.

There was a different kind of dark at the compound we had driven into, hours away from the lights of Ottawa, and the stars above shone clearer than any that Mom had ever seen. They felt like a good omen, she told me later.

I was fifteen at the time. I don’t remember the stars that night looking remarkable. The lights that caught my eye were coming from the row of cars alongside ours leading into the com-pound, called the Dal-Grotto Mission. A few headlights punctured the darkness in the makeshift parking lot, illuminating the interior of the vehicles. I figured there were sick children, or teenagers like me, asleep in the back seats. I tried to guess from the faces I could see what these people had come to cure. Cancer. Depression. Brain damage. Chronic pain. 

Occasionally, a new arrival’s beams lit up the area. They gave a glimpse of this section of the mission as we’d seen it earlier in the day: a green and yellow field bordered by trees, a line of decrepit fencing, a stout stone chapel, an outdoor prayer altar, a wishing well, an office building in the back. Somewhere on this property, in the middle of nowhere near Eganville, Ontario, there was a man who claimed to be touched by God. 

Gearing up for our long night in the car, I pulled the blankets on and off, shifting my weight constantly. The seat belt clip kept digging into my back, my sides, my stomach. I buried my head into the pillow in protest.

Earlier in the year, another man of God—a priest—had tried to heal me. I’d experienced a violent convulsive episode in his church while at a service with my girlfriend and her grandmother. The priest had his parishioners drag my unconscious body to a nearby room so he could intercede on the Lord’s behalf. He performed an impromptu exorcism. The man we were here to see would at least be asked to help, to perform a miracle of healing with my consent. I couldn’t decide if that felt better or worse than the exorcism.

Despite her hope, I knew Mom felt like a fraud being there. We were Christian, yes. Catholic, but only just. Sometimes we’d go to Mass as a family on Sundays, though I had stopped attending in my teens unless specifically requested. Dad taught Phys Ed at the same French Catholic school I went to, which was rather lax when it came to religious matters—a fact I appreciated, as I’d been turning away from faith for a few years. No one in my family could claim to know all that much about religion, its history or rivalries or mysteries. Our allegiance to Catholicism was more in culture than belief, like most French Catholics in our small town in eastern Ontario. We didn’t even know to which denomination the healer at the mission belonged, if any.

The couple who’d sent us there were friends of my parents. True believers, they were instructors in our local Sunday school and headed the parish community group. At the time of my visit, in the early 2000s, the Dal-Grotto healer was treating the man’s aging mother, another true believer, for cancer, alongside her chemotherapy treatments.

The mission was just another supposed house of healing in a long line of them that year. I was already being treated by a private pain specialist in Toronto, as well as my local family doctor and neurologists, psychologists and other specialists. I’d been prone to bad headaches before, but nothing like the frequent, convulsive episodes that had started to wrack my body, the vomiting and fainting spells, the insomnia and the debilitating pain that often left me in tears. The best diagnosis we had was chronic pain, possibly related to chronic cluster headaches, often called “suicide headaches,” along with other complications.

We were seeing few positive results with traditional medicine—though we kept pursuing new avenues, treatments and medication—so my parents turned to alternative medicine to supplement those efforts. Some of the obvious options were pursued: chiropractic, acupuncture, meditation, massage, reflexology and Reiki. The turn to religious healing was just another desperate, esoteric gamble.

I resented the increasingly stranger ministrations but struggled to articulate that resentment to my parents. It was difficult enough dealing with the side effects of my rotating cocktail of medications—including, eventually, morphine—without the ebb and flow of assurances and unfulfilled promises from every new specialist or healer we encountered. It was becoming increasingly hard to hope, harder still not to disparage my parents’ hope.

Faith healing felt like it might finally be the breaking point. It was simply too illogical for me to support. I wanted to mock it openly, scream no, no more at my parents, at the healers, at the world. Yet I cared too much about my parents’ approval to show anything but a polite, quiet anger.

We were all on such a strange journey together. I knew little about parenthood, and they even less about disability. I was at a loss on how to adequately express my struggle with the harsh new reality of my body, and what felt like my parents’ constant, smothering concerns.

I had begun to wonder: if we were down to miracles, what could possibly come next? What would my future, my life, look like if we were unable to find answers?

The Dal-Grotto Mission has a long history. Located roughly 130 kilometres west of Ottawa, near Pembroke, the mission occupied about three hundred acres outside of the small village of Eganville, population one thousand. 

Before the mission’s founder, Edmund Dale, began healing patients in his home on the property, he was a performer. He danced on the vaudeville circuit in the United States during the Great Depression, and changed his last name from Dallaire to Dale, as it was better for show business. Dale pursued a number of short careers before settling on faith healing. Still, he claimed to have possessed his gift of healing since childhood. It’s unclear at what time, exactly, he began putting it to use. But in 1964, Dale’s son Richard—who was said to be blessed with the same God-given powers—took over the family business, and later established the mission as a numbered company.

Over decades, thousands of people travelled from across North America to be healed at the mission, first by father and then son. Some of the more recent patients were even the grandchildren of earlier ones. The mission “was often seen as the last hope for the seriously ill,” wrote Gary Dimmock in a 2009 article for the Ottawa Citizen. Edmund Dale had reportedly boasted that “the worse the disease, the easier it is for me to cure.” He claimed to have brought hundreds of people back to life, quite literally, and to have cured all manner of conditions and terminal diseases, such as cancer, ulcers, paralysis, blindness, chronic pain, depression and brain damage. The two Dales were unaffiliated with any specific church, but they said they were conduits for God’s will.

In Christianity, Jesus Christ is credited with four types of miracles: healings, exorcisms, raising the dead and control over nature. Those miracles are presented as proof of His divine nature. Whether regular people are capable of performing similar miracles has been a source of theological debates and schisms for centuries. 

Faith healing occurs in various cultural traditions, but within North America much of it happens in the United States, mainly due to the country’s larger Pentecostal population, which is closely tied to the practice. There tend to be class assumptions around faith healing. Some see it as the province of the back-woods, followed by uneducated rednecks. Many people may assume that no urbanite in their right, educated mind would give it any serious consideration. Yet American researchers studying the National Survey of American Life in 2011 found little correlation between a lack of education, or one’s socioeconomic status, and the use of faith healing.

This practice is far from a strictly American phenomenon; Canada has a long history of it, too. In Montreal, thousands came to seek the help of Alfred Bessette from the 1870s well into the 1930s. Commonly known as Brother André, and later Saint André of Montreal, Bessette was said to have performed over ten thousand miracle cures. He also founded the Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal. With its ornate reliquary now containing Bessette’s heart and walls lined with discarded mobility aids, the basilica is still visited as a holy site each year by millions, many of whom believe Brother André’s miracle cures continue to this day, decades after his death.

More recently, a new generation of religious healers has come on the scene. In Toronto, Ahzard Mohammed has performed religious healing through Etobicoke’s Abundant Life Assembly church for more than a decade. Mohammed is ordained, preaches locally and regularly travels North America. He’s reportedly cured deafness and expelled demons, among other miracles. In nearby Hamilton, evangelist Todd Bentley of the Florida Lakeland Revival ministry preached for twelve weeks in 2016, with hundreds of people attending his sermons. Bentley, born in British Columbia, has claimed to perform numerous miracles, including raising the dead and curing blindness and cancer. 

In Canada, at least, the modern climate in which these healers practice is generally much less religious than historical ones. Still, while much of the public has lost faith in religion, new belief systems are gaining traction. Like faith healing, movements like anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, homeopathy and conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 pandemic also show a deep-rooted mistrust, even disbelief, in science and medicine.

Maybe it’s time to consider the possibility that these beliefs have never really been so fringe—maybe they’re just always taking new forms. And rather than dismiss them, it’s crucial that for once we really look at them.

In the morning, I watched through the car window as the sun rose and a breeze made the dew-covered grass dance. Mom and Dad didn’t stir in the front seats until a few hours later, and then Dad got out to sign us in at the mission’s office. We’d been lucky in our timing and wouldn’t wait long. Only a few families were ahead of us.

Patients were required to sign in prior to 8 AM in order to be seen that day. In busy times, they might need to wait until the next day, or the day after that, before consulting the healer. Leaving the grounds under any circumstance was prohibited, unless you were willing to lose your place in line. 

The people in the other cars were also waking from their uncomfortable sleep and stretching before lining up by the office door. Conversations between different families were rare—it wasn’t that sort of place. To me, it had the air of a strict religious summer camp, almost like a stern counsellor might materialize with reprimands at any moment if you didn’t seem sufficiently solemn.

Eventually, we made our way inside. The Dal-Grotto Mission office looked like a campground welcome centre. There was old wooden furniture, a counter where they sold prayer cards and candles, chocolate bars, chips and popsicles. As I explored the main room with Mom and Dad, my anger gave way to a strange curiosity. The walls were a mosaic of papers, many of them yellowed with age, including carefully typewritten letters and handwritten notes. There were also postcards from across the country and brochures written by Edmund Dale stating he could feel power, feel God, and that those who came to him felt it when he touched them.  

As a fifteen-year-old atheist, I remained unconvinced, if a little amused, by the claims. Still, faced with such overwhelming testimonies, almost anyone would feel a little awed, even blessed, to be there, waiting on the healer in this place of miracles. 

We were ushered into the healer’s office, a solemn, dignified old space with a wooden crucifix above the door. Wooden panels adorned with images of Christ. Wooden dressers. Wooden chairs. A wooden desk. In the middle of the desk sat a silver platter overflowing with colourful bills. Next to me, I heard Dad’s sharp intake of breath. Mom said nothing and tried to keep her eyes away from the platter. I kept staring at it. It was still early in the day, 10AM at most. How were there so many bills already? I imagined the healer bringing the money home with him at night and piling it up again first thing in the morning, dragging a large bag over his back like some twisted version of Santa Claus. 

The man who sat behind the desk was in his mid-fifties. He was stocky and clean-shaven with thinning grey hair, dark eye-brows and an easy smile. His white robe suggested the vestment  of a priest, though his seemed less formal. His name was Reverend Richard Dale, he said. He gave us his divine credentials and asked about the nature of my condition.

I thought to myself: Why did he need to diagnose me? If miracles were possible through the hands, as he insisted, couldn’t he tell all this just by touching me?

“Was he dropped as an infant?” the healer asked.

“No!” Mom said, incredulous. “Although—”

“Yes?”

“Well, he did have a big head as a baby,” she said, giving me a cross between a frown and an apologetic smile. “And he hit it pretty much everywhere when he was learning to walk.”

We laughed a little. There were a lot of jokes in the family about my many little bruises and uncoordinated gait when I was a boy.

“You must have faith for the healing to work,” he said, seriously. “All of you. You must believe in me, believe in God, and that He works through me, for you to be healed.” He paused.

“The healing may not be immediate,” he continued. “Sometimes it is, but often these things take time. You may need to return more than once to be healed. Of course, we want it to be now, but God works at his own pace.”

I sat watching the healer, watching his hands. The brochures claimed people felt power the moment those hands touched them.

In the 1970s, a registered herbalist and acupuncturist named Ted Kaptchuk was running a small practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After having a meaningful conversation with a patient and physically examining them, he’d begin writing them a herbal prescription. As he wrote, he noticed that some patients appeared to immediately relax and experience less pain. In certain cases, they even left his office with more mobility than they’d had coming in. They hadn’t received any real treatment, and yet they seemed drastically improved. 

The pattern made Kaptchuk worry that he might be a psychic healer. But rather than lean into that belief, he made the leap to traditional medicine and became a professor at Harvard Medical School. Now, he’s a leading researcher on healing rituals and the placebo effect. 

Simply put, a placebo is anything that, scientifically speaking, should have no effect; medically, it isn’t a “real” procedure or treatment. Think homeopathy or kissing a child’s bruised knee. A placebo effect, on the other hand, is a process where the individual experiences a psychological or physical reaction to a placebo. It’s the mind or body responding in a way that makes the placebo treatment appear to have a real impact—which it sometimes can. These effects can simply be an impression of improvement, or they can involve concrete changes like faster recovery time or significant pain relief. Placebos may not be“real” treatments, but placebo effects are a scientific fact. 

For most Western doctors and researchers, the explanation for alternative medicine seems simple: if a treatment provides some relief but can’t be quantified or proven scientifically, it functions on placebo effects. Even though this might help some people—in certain cases it can be a good complementary tool—they would say it shouldn’t be considered a legitimate healing treatment from a medical perspective. 

The problem is that when it comes to placebo effects, there isn’t a clear divide between alternative and Western medicine: placebo effects occur in Western medicine as well. According to the research of Kaptchuk and his colleagues, these effects come from specific parts of the patient-practitioner interaction. Normally, a visit to the doctor is charged with what anthropologists call “performative efficacy,” the verbal and physical performance of care. The ingredients of this performance are the same in traditional and alternative medicine: power of belief, imagination, symbols, meaning, expectation, persuasion and self-perception. 

A visit to a doctor is a healing ritual, too. The medical practitioner doesn’t have the authority of the supernatural, but does have the authority of science. That, for some, can be as confounding and mysterious as scripture. According to Kaptchuk, healing rituals work through cultural mythos. Symbolically charged elements like costumes and iconography play a key role in helping the receptive patient experience a ritual in an affecting way. Instead of a priest’s robe or a pastor’s cassock and collar, the doctor wears a white jacket. Tools like a stethoscope or MRI can gain fantastical characteristics as they reveal the secrets of the body. The patient’s belief, or lack thereof, in their physician’s knowledge can directly affect their confidence in the diagnosis. And the association of the doctor’s office with care can trigger a sensation of healing even before the administration of a treatment. 

To Kaptchuk and many of his colleagues, placebo effects raise a dilemma, a clinical, scientific and ethical one: what constitutes “legitimate healing” when treatments that have no basis in science seem to benefit patients?

Many patients who pursue alternative medicine—and particularly faith healing—are utterly convinced of the efficacy, or even miraculous nature, of their treatment. To them, the body’s reactions are magical, a result of faith, not science or psychology.

In part, this is because alternative medicine “offers a charged constellation of expectations,” writes Kaptchuk. “[Its] romantic vision is inhabited by benevolent and intentional forces ... that are unrestrained by the laws of normative physics. An exaggerated notion of the possible readily elicits the patients’ magical anticipation.” That anticipation can be particularly powerful in part because it centres the individual’s own role in its fulfillment. “For any of these religious approaches, genuine ‘faith’ is required in exchange for the promised effectiveness,” Kaptchuk writes. In other words, there’s an emphasis on the patient’s personal responsibility when it comes to healing.

Faith healing has even come up during the Covid-19 crisis. Right-wing Christian preachers like televangelist Kenneth Copeland in Texas have advocated faith as the magical solution to the pandemic. Others, like evangelist Chris Lindberg of Deadwood, Alberta, have encouraged Christians to congregate for worship, saying, “God will protect us and use us to shake this nation.” (At least twenty-nine confirmed Covid-19 cases have been connected to one religious event Lindberg hosted.) In these worldviews, the individual believer’s relationship to their faith can directly change the outcome of events, especially in times of crisis—or illness—where miracles are needed.

Believing in cures can be a good thing, but the dangers can go even beyond the obvious. Taken to its logical conclusion, it means believing that anybody who has enough faith can be healed. This approach relegates disability and illness almost entirely to the realm of the magical, the supernatural. It places tremendous responsibility on the individual for factors which are often out of their control. And for everyone else, regardless of their health, it allows them to avoid facing realities they’d rather not see.

I didn’t believe in the power of Dale’s hands, not really, but I was young, in terrible pain, and I believed I might get better, somehow. I had the confidence of an angry teenager when I claimed religion and its tenets were irrational, but a small part of me, the part raised on Christian miracles, hoped I might somehow be wrong.

I gripped the chair, watched the concentration on Dale’s face. I waited expectantly as he touched my head. Then, yes, there was something. Pressure. The healer shifted forward slightly, and I could feel the weight of him as he pressed against me. 

“Yes. Yes, I see the damage,” he said, “like small black holes.” He hummed a little and closed his eyes. For a moment, I too closed my eyes and listened, focused on the pressure, on the potential of the ritual.

When I failed to experience even the slightest tingle or warmth or transfer of energy, when absolutely nothing happened, I opened my eyes and sat there, listening to the healer hum quietly while staring at the platter overflowing with money. 

“How are you now?”

“I feel—”

“Yes?”

“—the same.” 

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Well, we’ll work on that.” 

The mood felt different than when we left most other treatments that year. Mom was the eternal optimist, prone to tears of relief whenever we left a doctor or alternative healing practitioner who promised to resolve my crisis. I was her boy, and she wanted them to help me be free of my pain. Dad hoped for the same, but he came out of meetings with a quiet intensity, and he almost always reserved judgment for later. 

“Come here,” Dad said, a few steps from the car. I thought he meant to hug me. Instead, he put his palm on my forehead and pretended to focus.

“You are healed!” he proclaimed. I laughed. 

“Dé, don’t! That’s disrespectful!” Mom didn’t seem concerned about the healer overhearing—she was looking at the other cars, the families waiting there expectantly.

“Oh, come on, Gin,” he said as we got in. “He’s a charlatan.” 

“Don’t,” Mom said. From the tone, it seemed she meant don’t do that here rather than don’t do that at all. Dad gave me a conspiratorial grin.

I considered Dale’s parting instructions during our drive home. He had told us to begin mailing him Polaroids so he could continue my treatment in between physical visits. Simply by touching the photographs, he said, he could focus the divine energy he channelled out to the patient, wherever they were. But it had to be a Polaroid, and it could only feature one person, otherwise the energy would get muddled and the process would fail. 

The Polaroids were a feature Dale implemented at the Dal-Grotto Mission, according to Dimmock. Before those, Dale’s father sold prayer cards to patients unable to attend in person, a tradition his son maintained. But the Polaroids proved even more popular. Through them, he said he could help people at a distance with anything from illness to business decisions. The Polaroids often came with cash donations. 

When our session came to an end, Dale had explained how, like Jesus, he asks for nothing for his miraculous work—but that donations were appreciated, all while gesturing to the platter of bills. Dad paid the healer by contributing two twenties. I could tell Dad resented giving even that much from the way he worked to control his breathing. Payment might not have been necessary, but a service had been rendered, and Dad always paid what he owed.

After the donation, the healer suggested we consider buying his healing herbs and supplements. Very powerful, very exclusive, and very affordable, he explained. They were available for purchase at the counter, with the prayer cards and chocolate bars. 

I would later learn just how central donations are to many faith healing practices. After his Hamilton sermons, Todd Bentley asked attendees for donations in the range of $100 to $1,200. A 1954 Maclean’s article reported that Joseph Anatole Desfossés, an infamous Canadian faith healer who practiced across Canada for several decades, well into the 1970s, made over $100,000 yearly in donations. 

Among some groups, approaches to faith healing almost resemble multi-level marketing. Christian Scientists—whose religion is founded on “primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing”—hold that illness is an illusion. Their healing rituals convince the patient that they are not truly sick, but that their displaced spiritual focus and sinful behaviour has made them manifest symptoms. Miraculous exploits, therefore, are not innate but learned. There are dozens of Christian Science churches and societies across Canada. For just a $100 fee, anyone can attend a twelve-session training program and go on to be hired for their healing services.

These ideas are also spreading in more liberal churches and synagogues. In BC, an organization called the Healing Pathway, an incorporated ministry under the United Church of Canada, offers training in faith-based healing and energy practices meant to “reclaim the Christian roots that were the foundation of the church.” There are nearly one hundred ministries associated with Healing Pathway across Canada. Another, Healing Room Ministries—founded by the Ontarian-born Pentecostal leader John G. Lake in 1915—runs faith healing centres and trainings in many provinces and around the world. They are set up like doctors’ offices and provide both walk-in and scheduled “intensive care” sessions.

Since these organizations mostly perform their work in private spaces, it’s easy to dismiss them as contained belief systems, irrelevant to the broader public. But public institutions in Canada are also validating them, and not only churches. Several universities, including the University of Manitoba, McMaster University and Carleton University, offer staff benefits coverage for paramedical services, including Christian Science practitioners. The support from academic institutions (some of which have medical schools) is disconcerting—not only because it legitimizes what is often a willful disbelief in science and medicine, but also because these practices pose serious dangers for sick and disabled people.

I wonder at its current state, the Dal-Grotto Mission—if the field has gone to seed, if the chapel and the prayer altar are more weathered than when I last saw them. The property must look forlorn, with its empty parking lot. The mission abruptly ceased operations in 2009, following a police investigation. A woman who’d been Dale’s patient was treated in hospital and accused him of sexual assault and extortion. Dale was acquitted in 2010, but the mission, it seems, never reopened. 

This is part of a broader pattern among faith healers—accusations of abuse and exploitation. Three years after Dale’s acquittal, a similar case was unfolding four hours north of the Dal-Grotto Mission in New Liskeard, Ontario. Claude Provencher, a faith healer who worked out of his home, was convicted of multiple accounts of sexual assault of one of his patients, Trina Breault. Provencher was already a registered sex offender at the time, previously convicted of sexually assaulting two former clients.

Provencher’s treatments involved running his fingers, which he called “Jesus’s scalpels,” over the naked bodies of patients in order to receive God’s instructions, and then applying painful pressure to correct the body “as the Lord instructed.” Some parents allowed the healer to treat their underage daughters naked. Around the time of Breault’s visit, he was seeing about eighty clients a week, according to an investigation by CTV’s W5.

In interviews with CTV following the charges, Provencher was unrepentant, explaining that public disbelief and persecution were the cost of doing the Lord’s work. And various patients came to his defense, including members of Breault’s own family, who remained convinced the man had healed them. Provencher was sentenced to a year in prison, though after twenty-two breaches of parole, he got an additional year of prison time.

Breault perfectly captured the danger posed by a man like Provencher in an interview with the Globe and Mail. “Really, he has the best setup for a sex offender,” she said. “He takes the most vulnerable people and manipulates them into thinking he’s their only hope. And he does it slowly, so by the time he’s doing awful stuff to you, you’re thinking, ‘I chose to be here.’”

Shortly after Provencher’s conviction, in 2016, CBC News reported on a Sufi religious healer in Mississauga who had committed multiple sexual offences against a fifteen-year-old girl and a twenty-year-old woman. Police believed there were more unreported cases.

In January 2020, British Columbia-born Todd Bentley announced he would be establishing his own school to spread his teachings. A group of American Charismatic and Pentecostal ministers had recently called Bentley unfit for ministry due to what they saw as numerous immoral abuses of power—like sexting people to whom he was ministering—over a span of fifteen years. Still, they attested to Bentley’s divine gifts and didn’t condemn his methods of healing, which have reportedly included kneeing a man in the gut to cure his colon cancer and kicking a cancer-stricken woman in the face. At one point, he reportedly held up a woman whom he called “crippled” and banged her legs violently against a stage.

Faith healing is afforded certain protections under religious freedoms, which vary from country to country, province to state. Charges are rarely brought against faith healers unless they involve criminal behaviour such as sexual violence, extortion, fraud, or the death of a child due to negligence. These freedoms can grant tremendous power to abusers, con men and charlatans.

Previously, the Ontario Provincial Police had visited the Dal-Grotto Mission in 1963 to investigate Dale’s father after a patient, Basil Tracey, died from a deadly stroke a week after visiting the mission, after reducing her insulin dosage. The next year, Dale replaced his father and began his long tenure as the Dal-Grotto Mission healer.

If adult patients are deemed of sound mind, they’re held responsible for their actions and decisions, which largely indemnify faith healers in cases where the patient dies in their care. In 2002, Micheline Theberge, a patient of Claude Provencher, died of a cancerous tumour in her abdomen after the healer convinced her to be treated by him exclusively. Three years after her death, the Quebec College of Physicians and Surgeons managed to have Provencher fined for the “illegal practice of medicine.” The amount: a mere $1,200.

Most often, the harm caused by faith healing is more insidious. Alice Wong, a disability rights activist who served as a member of the National Council on Disability in the US, recalls being brought to a preaching practice as a child. Wong, a wheelchair and ventilator user who can stand assisted, recounts in an essay how the preacher prayed over her, and how afterwards the crowd erupted in a frenzy when she was made to stand as proof of the healing. Imani Barbarin, another prominent American disability rights activist, has spoken about how she’s had complete strangers grab her arm in the middle of the street and pray over her. 

Derek Newman-Stille, who teaches feminist and disability studies at Trent University in Peterborough and uses a walker, told me about a stranger who similarly grabbed their body in a coffee shop and began “healing” their spine without prompting or permission, an experience they called “incredibly invasive.” It was only one of many instances where people have attempted to “fix” them. 

These misguided attempts at healing aren’t just carried out by religious people or practitioners. I’ve never met another Richard Dale, but I’ve found his line of thinking at every turn. Disabled and chronically ill people are constantly told our conditions exist because of a lack of belief, or effort, or willpower. A better attitude will cure you, or yoga, or a new diet. Abled people, religious or not, remain convinced they can heal us, and will try to do so, whether we welcome it or not. This happens everywhere from houses of worship to doctors’ offices, rehabilitation centres and care homes, to places entirely unrelated to treatment like schools, parks and restaurants. 

There is a bigger truth here, too. According to Newman-Stille, all this magical thinking occurs “partially because society sees disability as something broken and incomplete in us.” 

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, a disability organizer and educator based between the US and Toronto, writes that in medical, healing spaces and beyond, assumptions abound that “disabled and sick folks are sad people longing to be ‘normal,’ that a cure is always the goal, and that disabled people are objects who have no knowledge of our bodies.” In truth, she writes, “most sick and disabled people I know approach healing wanting specific things—less pain, less anxiety, more flexibility—but not usually to become able-bodied. And many of us don’t feel automatically comfortable going to healing spaces at all because of our histories of being seen as freaks, scrutinized, infantilized and patronized with ‘what happened?’, prayed over, and asked ‘have you tried acupuncture?’ or a million other ‘miracle cures.’”

We are repeatedly presented with cures and placed in compromised positions where we are encouraged—even forced—to believe in those miraculous solutions, often by the most well-intentioned people. It’s an exhausting and invalidating pattern.

And it shows how many abled people find it preferable, consciously or unconsciously, to blame disabled and chronically ill people for our circumstances, or preach supernatural cures, instead of building a world that accommodates us, or working with us, or respecting us as we are. Accepting reality.

After my visit to the Dal-Grotto Mission, there was no reprieve, however small, no miraculous lifting of the veil of pain. I had another convulsive episode within a week, and sleep continued to elude me. There was little relief until over a decade later, when specialists finally found a combination of medication that improved the quality of my life, and even then, it was by degrees.

Back then, even with my objections to religion, I couldn’t help but wonder if things might have gone differently if I’d had faith. That is the insidiousness of this approach: its failure creates doubt, lays blame on the patient. It can nag at you with the thought that perhaps you deserve to suffer, a concept many true believers reinforce.

Even now, as a disabled man in my early thirties, men like Dale, Provencher and Bentley terrify me. As a teenager, I wanted to believe in a simple human explanation—greed—to think that people like them only exploit others’ desperation for personal gain. And undoubtedly some do just that. Such people can be hated in an uncomplicated way.

But I also know from the hundreds of testimonies that others believed in Dale. Even after his death in 2017, a dozen people commented on his online obituary to say that he’d healed them, that he was an angel sent from God, that he worked miracles. It made me wonder whether he truly believed in himself. It must feel unfathomably powerful to consider oneself an instrument of God. And it must also be easy, then, for healers to dismiss their many failures, those they couldn’t seem to help, those who died. It was simply part of the divine plan, or that those people lacked faith in the healer, in God. 

Mom and Dad reluctantly turned to faith healing out of a desire to provide me with whatever care they could. But I can’t help but imagine another scenario, where they tried faith healing out of genuine belief, or where I experienced a placebo effect from the encounter. My parents likely would have become converts of Dale, proclaimed his gifts far and wide, as their friends did, the couple who’d recommended us to the mission and remained convinced Dale was supernaturally gifted, despite the fact that the man’s mother ultimately died of complications related to cancer.

That wasn’t how things ended up for us. It took years for me to accept the reality of my body, and it took even longer for Mom and Dad. But our search for miracle cures did end, understanding came, and with it a happier, healthier dynamic for all of us.

Even so, for a while after our visit to the Dal-Grotto Mission, the struggle with that reality remained. Despite our disbelief in Dale, my parents borrowed a Polaroid camera so they could send him pictures for further treatment. And in my own desperation and vulnerability, I let them.

Dominik Parisien’s debut poetry collection, Side Effects May Include Strangers, was published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in fall 2020. His writing has recently appeared in PRISM International, Quill & Quire and the Literary Review of Canada. Parisien is a disabled, bisexual French Canadian. He lives in Toronto.