Reviewed by Michael KisorMutant Message Down Under is the controversial tale of author Marlo Morgan's alleged odyssey in the Australian Outback. It tells of her invitation – or perhaps "abduction" – by an Australian Aboriginal tribe (the Real People) to accompany them on a "Walkabout." Originally published as non-fiction, this book was long ago re-released as a work of fiction. Morgan maintains that the events depicted in the book are, nonetheless, factual and actually occurred. However the reader should be advised that her claims are unlikely. Furthermore, they have stirred up quite a bit of controversy in Australia. Morgan is charged with racism and gross misrepresentation of Aboriginal culture. We have previously given this book a strong recommendation, but in light of feedback from Australians offended by this book, we feel it appropriate to share some of their criticisms here, and let the reader judge for himself/herself how they might feel about supporting this book.
Is the book a work of fiction? Morgan's story is plausible, but unlikely (when viewed with a critical eye). It is best to view this book as a work of fiction, especially as regards the depiction of Aboriginal culture (which is the focal point of the debate). Skeptics claim she reclassified the book as she has no proof to offer which supports her claims. Morgan says the book was reclassified as fiction because she was more interested in protecting the anonymity of the individuals she writes about than proving her account true. No doubt continued controversy over this issue helps create interest in her book and fuel demand for Morgan as a speaker.
My impression is that Morgan doesn't care whether you believe her book is factual or fictional, however she has been consistent in implying it's factual. Morgan appears to have benefited from her claims of authenticity by virtue of the controversy it creates, which in turn may fuel sales of her book and create demand for Morgan as a public speaker. In this regard, her critics may actually be doing more to promote Morgan and her book than the best staged PR campaign ever could.
Morgan's tale challenges the reader throughout the book. If the reader approaches the book as non-fiction, then he or she is challenged to believe that certain events could have actually occurred, even though they might seem implausible at first, and in the process challenges the reader's worldview to expand to consider possibilities beyond the ordinary. If read as a work of fiction, the tale becomes a mythical metaphor through which to view western culture, and challenges the reader to reconsider the wisdom of the path our society is following, and to view western society from a different perspective and perhaps in a different light. The reader who is unsure which way to approach this book has the benefit of both approaches. In any event, the book may challenge any reader to start thinking about those aspects of our culture which negatively impact the environment and ourselves as individuals, and encourage the reader to become aware of our cultural chauvinism, to set it aside, and begin to view other cultures (particularly so called "primitive" cultures) with a new found respect. Morgan's critics seem to miss that this is what the book is really about.
However the reader should understand that Morgan is charged with misrepresenting Australian Aboriginal culture. While this is a bit hard to prove, given that there is no single monolithic culture but rather a vast array of some 500 or more individual cultures (much like the case with Native American tribes/cultures), it is probably fair to say that the Aboriginal culture depicted by Morgan, if not utterly fictitious, is certainly obscure and not representative of the preponderance of Australian Aboriginal cultures. As such, the reader is cautioned to view Morgan's representation of Australian Aboriginal culture in the same skeptical light as one should view Hollywood Westerns.
It should be noted, however, that Morgan's critics allege that this book is somehow harmful to the indigenous people of Australia by misrepresenting Aboriginal culture. If this charge is true, then indeed the book does a disservice to both the native peoples of Australia as well as the reader. However the book is in no way slanderous, as the Aboriginal people are depicted as mystical, gentle, wise souls. Native Americans should be so lucky; they have been systematically slandered, maligned and defamed for over a century by a whole genre of books, movies and television shows known as The Western. Native Americans have been victims of a far worse distortion of their culture for a very long time. Even so, that does not justify Morgan misrepresenting Aboriginal culture, if indeed that is the case with this book.
It is difficult for this reviewer, sitting a third of the way around the globe from Australia, to know who is telling the truth. Both sides have made compelling arguments, and both have holes in their stories. When first contacted by the some of Morgan's critics in the mid-to-late 1990's, my initial impression was that they were white racists out to discredit Morgan because she portrayed the Aboriginal people in a positive light. After seeing the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympic Games and learning that white Australia seems to be genuinely undergoing a transformation of its historically poor view and treatment of its indigenous peoples, this reviewer must allow the possibility that the anti-Morgan campaign is indeed a sincere effort.
While the case for Morgan is not as weak as her critics contend, it is also not bulletproof. But the same can be said about Morgan's critics. Sometimes, both sides sound like characters in some cheesy daytime melodrama. Morgan cites Aboriginal elder Burnum Burnum as a character witness. Indeed, this reviewer heard a radio interview with Morgan and Burnum. Critics claim Burnum Burnum was never an elder, and that he recanted his support for Morgan before his death (claims this reviewer has been unable to verify). Then there's the allegation that Morgan apologized for her book in 1996. One account tells of a group of Aboriginal elders who obtained a government grant to travel to the United States to confront Marlo Morgan (and stop a Hollywood film deal). Purportedly they obtained a very reluctant apology from Morgan, which was aired on radio in Australia (but not in the US). A different version of this story purports that actor Steven Seagal called Marlo Morgan on the phone and obtained the apology. But if either account is true, Morgan must have forgotten about it because a couple years latter she did another interview purporting the truth of her book.
Quite frankly, it is hard to believe either side completely. Morgan's story requires a leap of faith to accept as fact, and many aspects of it have all the earmarks of a work of fiction. Yet her critics allegations, taken as a collective, lack consistency, are largely unsubstantiated, and even approach the tone of an urban legend in many instances. But in some ways, their task is a bit like nailing jelly to a tree: It is impossible to unambiguously refute Morgan's account because there are more than 500 Aboriginal tribes. Undoubtedly each tribe is unique and diverse, with its own distinct culture, just as is the case with North American tribes. While many tribes may resemble one another, some will be quite different from others. Which brings up an interesting point: Even if Morgan's account is true, at best it could only represent a portion of the total of Australian Aboriginal culture. For this reason alone, the reader would be well advised to not construe Morgan's book as representative of Aboriginal culture.
Of all Morgan's critics who have eMailed this reviewer, the one who best articulated his case had this to say:
Surely aborigines have the right to speak out about what is being done in their own name. Surely they deserve to be taken seriously about their own traditions and spirituality, especially with regard to what contravenes tribal law and what is a respectful or disrespectful presentation of the teachings they have chosen to share. To me it looks like a form of cultural arrogance to assume westerners have the right to use spiritual teachings of other cultures in which ever way suits our purposes.Some very valid points. The reader should understand that there is a great deal of controversy concerning the authenticity of Mutant Message Down Under, that it is very likely a work of fiction, and that it has been charged with distorting and misrepresenting Aboriginal culture and its people. If the reader is interested in learning more about Aboriginal culture (as might be the case after reading Morgan's book), he or she is encouraged by this reviewer to seek out other sources of information regarding Aboriginal culture. Indeed, this reviewer believes we have much to learn from and benefit by the study of so called "primitive" culutures, such as Australian Aborigines, Native Americans, the peoples of Africa and many other peoples (both contemporary and historic).
Aborigines have survived genocide and are still struggling for their physical and cultural survival, and now, because of Marlo Morgan's lies, millions of people around the world believe that the last authentic aborigines are soon to voluntarily die out.
I understand that aborigines sometimes sound a bit strident, but they have only survived because of their courage, tenacity and self respect in the face of constant mistreatment from white society.
I encourage you to reconsider your support for this process of cultural theft and profiteering from the respect Australian aborigines have earned for themselves world-wide.
While there are legitimate reasons to doubt the authenticity of Morgan's tale, it is hard to view her tale as harmful to the indigenous people of Australia, so long as the reader understands it may not accurately represent Aboriginal culture. If her account is indeed pure fiction, then the worst which could be said about it is that it is a benign distortion of Aboriginal culture to the rest of the world. Native Americans have endured far worse as they have been systematically maligned and defamed for a century in a whole genre of books, movies and television shows known as The Western. They have been victims of a far worse distortion of their culture for a very long time. Be all that as it may, however, Morgan's book has been classified as fiction for a number of years now, and some of the events of the book are so fantastic (to the "western" mind) that the average reader is unlikely to view it as anything other than pure fiction anyhow. When viewed in that context, it is more likely Morgan's book will create curiosity about Aboriginal culture and inspire the reader to seek out more information on it. Rather than spend energy on criticizing Morgan's book, the indigenous people of Australia would be better served writing about their true culture and putting that forth to the world.
In Morgan's narrative we learn about the Real People (as she says the tribe calls themselves). We see their gentle wisdom, and come to respect them as an enlightened, sophisticated and wise people with a culture quite possibly surpassing our own. This, perhaps, accounts for some of the skepticism and controversy surrounding the authenticity of this book. Our society has its share of chauvinists, and it would not bode well with them that another society, especially a "primitive" society, could in any way surpass our own. But still the people Morgan writes of live in a society where crime does not exist, where each individual's welfare and personal development is important to all, where everybody's needs are met, and where life is lived in harmony with the land. What is more, the Real People claim that their culture is some 50,000 years old (and Archaeologists confirm that Australia has been inhabited at least this long by aborigines). If true, this would make Australian Aboriginal culture the world's oldest known culture. Such an ancient culture would be most impressive, and its longevity would yield valuable lessons to our modern societies. It would very much be a point of pride, not shame.
Many of the events depicted in Mutant Message Down Under seem so fantastic and "magical" as to be rejected out-of-hand by many (if not most) readers. But the truly objective reader will not be so quick to dismiss such accounts. Contemporary science has its share of "magic." One only needs to read a Quantum Physics textbook to delve into the strange, mystical world of sub-atomic particles. None of the seemingly extra-ordinary events depicted in Mutant Message Down Under can be refuted by modern science, although 19th century science (still the science of the general public) would be less willing to accept many of these events. It is, in fact, amazing how harmonious Morgan's account of extra-ordinary events are with the new science of the 20th and 21st centuries, and how much they dovetail with some of the newer research in medicine and human consciousness. Even so this, in and of itself, does not validate Morgan's account.
Many readers will want to believe that the Mutant Message Down Under is a true story, in part because we "Mutants" have much to learn from these Real People. There is something that these people have managed to preserve in their culture which we have lost in ours. They prove that there is hope for our race and for the future of this planet. If it is merely a work of fiction – a complete fabrication – then at least it provides us with an interesting and inspiring story, and a great deal of fodder for some deep philosophical thinking. Either way, you cannot lose. I highly recommend this book for it's thought provoking tale, provided you refrain from assuming it accurately represents Aboriginal culture.
It should be noted that there are many similarities between Morgan's account of the indigenous peoples of Australia and those of North America. Some have suggested that Morgan's "Real People" were indeed based on native North Americans, and not on Australian Aborigines, and that Mutant Message Down Under is a total fabrication. What's interesting is that at least one North American tribe, the Hopi, refer to themselves as the "Real People," and other North American tribes may as well. Several South American tribes have similar references to themselves. It's not clear whether this supports Morgan's critics, or if it suggests a commonality between the "primitive" peoples of the world, in much the same way that there is a commonality (at the core) among the religions of the world.
While this reviewer personally remains undecided if Morgan's account is fictional or actual, in the interests of balance the reader may wish to read this rather lengthy, albeit prejudiced, repudiation of Morgan. While this web page certainly should be viewed with a critical eye, buried within this tome are some difficult questions for Morgan nonetheless. Assuming that this critic's claims can be verified, it does manage to cast some doubt upon Morgan's claims of authenticity. However, the tone of this critic is not unlike those who claim that the United States never landed on the moon, or that the Holocaust never occurred. Time and distance have a way of giving rise to uncertainty in life. I'm not suggesting that Morgan's account is comparable to either of these other two events, merely that the more extra-ordinary an event, the more likely some skeptic will rise up to attack it (regardless of its merits).
In fairness to Morgan and her publisher, it should be noted that for several printings (and years) now, Mutant Message Down Under has been classified as a work of fiction. The enigma of the authenticity of the depicted events, or if this book has any basis in cultural fact, remains as perplexing as ever and may never be satisfactorily answered. But ultimately this question is unimportant: I still recommend Mutant Message Down Under because, even if it is pure fiction, it's underlying message remains valid and thought provoking.
We had finished our meal for the day. The fire was a soft glow of embers, and occasional sparks rose into the surrounding limitless sky. Several of us sat in a circle around the flickering patterns. These people, like many Native American tribes, believe when you are sitting in a circle it is very important that you observe the other members of the group, most especially the person sitting directly opposite you. That person is a spirit reflection of yourself. The things you see in that individual that you admire are qualities within yourself that you wish to make more dominant. The actions, appearances, and behavior that you do not like are things about yourself that need working on. You cannot recognize what you deem to be good or bad in others unless you yourself have the same strengths and weaknesses at some level of your being. Only the degree of self-discipline and self-expression differ. They believe the only way a person ever truly changes anything about himself is by his own decision, and that everyone has the ability to change anything he wants to about his personality. There is no limit to what you can release and what you can acquire. They also believe the only true influence you have on anyone else is by your own life, how you act, what you do. Believing this way makes the tribal members committed every day to being better persons.
I was sitting across from Sewing Master. Her head bent as she gave serious concentration to the repair job at hand. Earlier in the day, Great Stone Hunter had come to her after the water vessel he carried around his waist belt suddenly fell to the ground. It was not the kangaroo bladder filled with our precious cargo that wore out, only the leather strap holding it to his side.
Sewing Master cut the natural thread with her teeth. They were worn smooth and about half their original height. Raising her head from the working posture, she said, "It is interesting, Mutants and aging. Jobs one grows too old to perform. Limited usefulness."
"Never too old for worth," someone added.
"It seems business has become a hazard to Mutants. Your businesses were started so people could get better items collectively than they could get for themselves and as a method to express individual talent, and become part of your money system. But now the goal of business is to stay in business. It seems so strange to us because we see the product as a real thing, and people as real things, but business isn't real. A business is only an idea, only an agreement, yet the goal of business is to stay in business regardless. Such beliefs are difficult to understand," Sewing Master commented.
So I told them about the free-enterprise system of government, private ownership, corporations, stocks and bonds, unemployment benefits, social security, and unions. I told them what I knew about the Russian form of government, and how the Chinese and Japanese economies differ. I have lectured in Denmark, Brazil, Europe, and Sri Lanka, so I shared what I knew about life in those places.
We talked about industry and products. They all agreed, automobiles were handy objects of transportation. Being a slave to the payment of it, however, and possibly being involved in an accident where you would most certainly have a confrontation to settle, possibly creating an enemy, and sharing the limited desert water with four wheels and a seat, wasn't worth it, in their opinion. Besides they are never in a hurry.
I looked at Sewing Master sitting across from me. She had many remarkable traits I admired. She was well versed on the history of the world and even on current events, yet she did not read or write. She was creative. I noticed she offered to make the necessary repair for Great Stone Hunter before he asked. She was a woman with a purpose; she lived that purpose. It seemed true; I could learn from observing the one sitting opposite me in the circle.
I wondered what she thought of me. When we formed a circle, someone always sat opposite me but there was never a big rush for the position. One major flaw, I knew, was asking too many questions. I needed to remember that these people shared openly, so when the time was right, I would be included. I probably sounded like some pesty child.
After we had retired for the night, I was still thinking about her remarks. Business is not real, it is just an agreement, yet the goal of business is to stay in business regardless of the outcome on the people or the product and services! That was quite an astute observation for someone who has never read a newspaper, seen a television, or listened to the radio. At that moment I wished the entire world could hear this woman.
Maybe instead of calling this place the Outback, they should consider it the center of human concern.
This page was last updated on 18-February-2008