patient's fever appeared to be cyclical," recalls Green. "One afternoon, his
temperature spiked, and he started running down the hallway and screaming about
the devils that were causing his illness. He had to be restrained by several
security guards." Alarmed, Green and his colleagues ran a number of blood tests
and consulted a small army of specialists from oncology, rheumatology, and
infectious disease. Still no one could figure out what was wrong. With no way to
help his patient and no explanations, Green sat down with the patient's family
for what he knew would be an uncomfortable conversation. They listened
attentively and then, rather sheepishly, posited their own theory for what was
wrong: The man believed he may have been put under a voodoo curse. The idea
caused a stir among Green and his colleagues. "It was a very bad situation," he
says. "They were upset. We were upset. But we didn't know what to tell them. Not
long after that, the patient died. And we still didn't have a diagnosis."
For Green, the
most troubling thing about losing his patient above and beyond the fact that he
was unable to save him was the possibility that the man perished because he
believed he was doomed. "The will to live is extremely important. And when
it goes," he says, "your health may fall apart." But doctors aren't necessarily
in the business of psychological encouragement, especially when circumstances
are dire and a diagnosis is unclear. It would have been irresponsible perhaps
even unethical for Green to tell his patient not to despair.
specialist who would have had a great deal to say about Green's mysterious
patient is Neite Decimus. Decimus is regarded as Boston's top voodoo priest, the
most well established of the dozen or so who practice in the area. He is a tall,
37-year-old man with smooth black skin, gleaming white teeth, and a meticulously
trimmed goatee. When I first met him, in the lobby of the Kendall Hotel in
downtown Cambridge, he was wearing tapered black pants, a light cotton shirt,
and a heavy gold chain with a cross on it, which he caught me eyeing almost
immediately. "I am not Catholic," he explained in a thick Haitian accent. "I
wear the cross because we in the voodoo faith see Jesus as a prophet." He then
handed me his business card: Neite Decimus For all of your magical needs!
counselor who works the overnight shift at a South Shore mental health facility,
was born and raised in central Haiti and immigrated to the United States in
1997. A few years later, he opened his voodoo practice in Brockton, which has a
sizable Haitian-American community. Technically speaking, Decimus is a
houngan, a voodoo priest whose specialty is healing. He inherited his
"powers" from his father nearly 20 years ago. Houngans rarely, if ever,
invoke curses. Those bent on invoking a voodoo curse must consult with a bókó,
who buys his powers from a secret society. In a sense, these two types of
priests operate almost like plaintiff and defense attorneys eternal adversaries
who function symbiotically. "I only remove curses I don't ever make
them," says Decimus, who claims to eradicate more than 50 each year. "Making
them, of course, is where the money is. People will pay any amount of money to
create a curse. But I always refuse."
which allegedly cause symptoms as varied as skin rashes and marital strife, can
be brought on in three ways: an enemy may level the curse by hiring a bókó;
a person may fail to pay sufficient respect to his or her "spirit protector," a
sort of guardian angel; or a person may bring a curse upon himself or herself by
committing an injustice against someone else. To counter a curse, Decimus
typically prescribes a number of remedies, including prayers and herbal tonics.
Perhaps most importantly, he works as a medium, asking various voodoo spirits to
bless and forgive an afflicted person. In return, Decimus's clients pay a
standard retainer of $200, then an additional $500 fee if he proves successful
in removing the curse. When clients can't afford to pay (and often they can't),
Decimus is ethically obligated, under the voodoo equivalent of the Hippocratic
oath, to help anyway. According to Decimus, his practice earns him less than
$10,000 a year.
Though voodoo is
largely considered taboo among Haitian Americans of which about 40,000 reside in
the Boston area its traditions and superstitions remain deeply ingrained.
Professor Marc Prou, an expert in voodoo and executive director of the Haitian
Studies Association at UMass Boston, discovered this firsthand in the late '80s
and early '90s while working in the Dorchester area with Haitian-born HIV
patients, many of whom believed that they had been cursed. Prou encouraged his
patients to put their faith in modern medicine an option that, more often than
not, was never available to them back home. "Once they saw that these doctors
could really help them," says Prou, "it was an easy sell." Which is to say that
when modern medicine works, it is very persuasive. But if it fails or isn't
available people will often look wherever they can to find hope.
And hope, in a
way, is exactly what Decimus is selling. Many, if not most, of his clients are
despondent when they come to him. They often will have tried numerous
more-traditional therapies without finding relief. Carmel, a Haitian-American
social worker in Dorchester who declined to give her last name, admits that she
has no qualms about referring her most desperate cases to Decimus. "I see people
who have health problems that can't be diagnosed or romantic problems that won't
go away," she says, "and I refer them to Neite."
As strongly as
he believes in the power of voodoo, Decimus does not think of himself as a
replacement for mainstream care so much as a backup. If a client exhibits
symptoms of heart disease, cancer, or diabetes, Decimus sends him or her
directly to a hospital. The range of cases he handles is nonetheless
considerable. Recently he treated a woman who had been suffering from a severe
rash over much of her body for nearly two years. Doctors at both Beth Israel and
Brigham and Women's hospitals were unable to diagnose the ailment. Decimus cured
her in a matter of months. Another patient describes how Decimus eliminated her
chronic back and stomach pains. Others told me about what Decimus had done to
heal their psyches. One client, who travels twice a year from Florida to see
him, explained that Decimus helped her cope with, and distance herself from, an
abusive husband. "He is like a therapist and a voodoo priest all wrapped up in
one," she says. (It's a fitting summation: Decimus is currently pursuing a
master's degree in psychology at Bridgewater State College.) Another man swears
his depression, suicidal tendencies, and bad luck began to turn around the
moment he learned about Decimus's practice. After just one phone call, the man
says, his life returned to normal. Time and again, Decimus's clients told me a
similar story: They came to him feeling at a loss. He diagnosed, then removed, a
curse. And before long, their worries disappeared.
As it turns out,
doctors have been studying the interplay of voodoo, hope, and mainstream
medicine since as far back as the 1920s. Dr. Walter B. Cannon, who taught at
Harvard Medical School, spent a good deal of his spare time researching the
history of voodoo and other forms of witchcraft. In 1942, he published a
landmark paper called "‘Voodoo' Death." In it, he cites a number of well
documented cases in which cursed men and women died of fright unless they were
given the hope of a remedy. One chilling section details an aboriginal curse
invoked by pointing a bone: "The man who discovers that he is being boned by an
enemy is, indeed, a pitiable sight…. From this time onwards he sickens and
frets, refusing to eat and keeping aloof from the daily affairs of the tribe.
Unless help is forthcoming in the shape of a counter-charm…his death is only a
matter of a comparatively short time." Fifteen years later, C.P. Richter,
another medical academic who studied the notion of voodoo death, conducted a
series of experiments on wild rats, placing them in small jars partially filled
with water. The rats were in no danger of drowning, but there was no way for
them to escape. In short, it was a hopeless situation. Many died within hours.
Richter believed that the animals had essentially given up, and speculated that
victims of voodoo death basically do the same thing.
studies dovetail with present-day researchers' growing interest in how hope
affects life expectancy. Their findings indicate a strong correlation between
hopelessness and mortality. According to a study published in the journal
Psychosomatic Medicine, men who described themselves as feeling hopeless
were at significantly higher risk of dying from cancer, heart attacks, and most
curiously even violence. In another study, conducted between 1992 and 1996,
roughly 800 senior citizens filled out surveys describing their level of
optimism; by 1999, the mortality rate among the self-described hopeless subjects
was almost three times higher than among the hopeful. Putting hard scientific
data to what has long been accepted folk wisdom, the New England Journal of
Medicine recently reported that a person's risk of death is significantly
higher during the year following the illness of a spouse. Neurologist Dr. Martin
Samuels, also of Harvard Medical School, has devoted the past 25 years to
studying the mind-body connection that causes otherwise healthy people to die
suddenly from fright.
breakthroughs in genetics and bioengineering hurtle medicine toward new
frontiers, the fact is that a lot of patients, regardless of their ethnic
background, continue to want to trust their fate to a higher power. According to
a Newsweek poll, 72 percent of Americans think praying to God can cure
someone of an illness, even if doctors say death is imminent. In another survey,
psychologist Kenneth Pargament of Bowling Green State University spent two years
following some 600 patients dealing with diseases ranging from cancer to
gastrointestinal disorders. He found that those who wondered if God had
abandoned them, questioned God's love, or thought the devil had a role in their
illness were nearly 30 percent more likely to die than their counterparts.
and others like them, have health officials looking seriously at the healing
power of hope: This year, a division of the National Institutes of Health is
using its $112 million budget to explore faith-based health initiatives and
alternative medicine. The nation's medical schools are following suit; more than
two-thirds now offer courses in health and spirituality.
In an ideal
world, Decimus says, he would work in cooperation with doctors as a specialist,
not unlike an acupuncturist or a homeopath, called in when experts are stumped.
But the medical community isn't ready to take that leap; to their toughest
critics, faith healers like Decimus are scam artists peddling placebos to the
distraught. At one point, near the end of our conversation, I asked him what he
says to those skeptics, and whether he can help them, too, despite their doubts.
"When things get bad when things get out of control most people believe in
voodoo," he replied calmly. "And then I am always there to help."
published in Boston Magazine, September 2006.