Book Review: 'If It Sounds Like a Quack… A Journey to the Fringes of American Medicine,' Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling | Books | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Book Review: 'If It Sounds Like a Quack… A Journey to the Fringes of American Medicine,' Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

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Published June 14, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling - COURTESY OF KIMBERLY HONGOLTZ
  • Courtesy Of Kimberly Hongoltz
  • Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Do you remember when the president of the United States went on national TV and suggested that bleach injections might be a viable safeguard against COVID-19? Vershire journalist Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling does. And in his new book, If It Sounds Like a Quack... A Journey to the Fringes of American Medicine, the Pulitzer Prize finalist is here to show us that that unprecedented moment in American history should have come as no surprise.

Far from being a spontaneous product of Donald Trump's imagination, Hongoltz-Hetling argues, the bleach cure represented the victory of an "increasingly sophisticated network of quacks" who have built a "shadow health empire" on Americans' distrust of conventional medicine.

The author shows how advocates of "medical freedom" have used the internet to get rich offering the public "One True Cures" that they claim will eliminate the need for those pesky doctors. In brief, punchy chapters, Hongoltz-Hetling traces six case studies of 21st-century One True Cure promoters, with solutions ranging from faith healing to lasers to leeches. The narrative that emerges is alternately hilarious and horrifying.

Take the story of the bleach cure. It began back in the 1990s when a man named Jim Humble, who describes himself as a billion-year-old alien, developed a disinfectant-based drink that he believed could cure malaria and cancer. By 2020, the "alien" and his human partner, Mark Grenon, were getting rich off his Miracle Mineral Solution. Pandemic fears sent sales through the roof, and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration obtained a court injunction against the business. Grenon penned a desperate plea to the president.

Was this the inspiration for Trump's press conference monologue? While we'll never know, the makers of Miracle Mineral Solution claimed the president's words as a lucrative endorsement. Not long afterward, another One True Cure peddler profiled in the book — Robert Young, who attributes all diseases to pH imbalance — announced his theory that coronavirus vaccines contain nanoparticles that turn people into zombies.

It's easy to dismiss such beliefs as absurd, just as it was easy — until January 6, 2021, anyway — for mainstream media to dismiss the QAnon conspiracy theory. But Hongoltz-Hetling argues that we should pay serious attention to modern quackery, first because it has real, tragic consequences and second because of what it reveals about the ills of the medical system it attempts to replace.

If It Sounds Like a Quack... A Journey to the Fringes of American Medicine by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, PublicAffairs, 323 pages. $29. - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • If It Sounds Like a Quack... A Journey to the Fringes of American Medicine by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, PublicAffairs, 323 pages. $29.

Dawn Kali, one of Young's devotees, felt those consequences firsthand. After years of the nondoctor's treatments failed to stop the spread of her cancer, she sued him and won $26 million as compensation for the decades of life she had lost.

In one of the book's most revelatory passages, Kali describes to the author how she feels finally getting hospital treatment after years of hanging out at Young's chummy desert retreat. "Spiritually," Hongoltz-Hetling writes, "there was nothing positive about the [hospital] experience, no sustenance, no warmth, no humanity." Kali endures the cold anonymity of modern health care, though, because she now knows its treatments actually work.

To understand the ascendance of quacks, the author suggests, we have to understand what they offer to their "patients" that doctors and hospitals don't. The stories of One True Cure purveyors are entertaining slices of Americana. But they also reveal larger institutional problems: the physician shortage, the rise of profit-driven medicine, the powerlessness of regulators to stop the wildfire spread of online misinformation. Hongoltz-Hetling writes:

I see the evolution of One True Cure peddlers—from lone outlaws, to swarms of scofflaws and organized freedom fighters, to organizers of a near-dominant paradigm that led to a revolution-minded storming of the nation's capitol—as the embodiment of the flaws of the medical establishment and governmental institutions.

That's a strong indictment from someone who writes in such a freewheeling style. As in his previous book, A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (and Some Bears), Hongoltz-Hetling has serious points to make, but he's equally focused on spinning amusing tales of human delusion and misbehavior. By splitting the stories of his six quacks into short, alternating chapters, rather than completing each one before moving to the next, he deploys a literary tactic less common in journalism than in best-selling thrillers. The method works, though — many of his chapters end on cliff-hangers, encouraging readers to keep turning pages and perhaps even to skip ahead.

More sober journalists may scoff at some of Hongoltz-Hetling's stylistic choices. He refers to Humble throughout as "the alien in Jim Humble's skin" and to Trump as "the former game show host." He tells his subjects' stories with jaunty, novelistic freedom: "In fact, if you could put great into a bottle, well then, Young's life would have been a whole bottleful of great." And he has an off-putting habit of tossing Lewis Carroll nonsense words such as "brillig" and "frabjous" into his sentences to underscore the absurdity of the looking-glass world in which the quacks reign supreme.

All this playfulness has a point, however. When the cheesy jokes stop and Hongoltz-Hetling gets serious, he often turns around and implicates himself — and his readers — for our eagerness to laugh off his subject. In an extended account of attending a faith healing workshop in Florida, the author mocks both himself and the participants, detailing his own awkward efforts to blend in and conceal his journalistic agenda. He writes:

I walked out of the church with a Cheshire Cat smile on my face, thinking of the lunacy I had just witnessed. I wondered whether the public would be more likely to prevent the deaths of innocent victims by confronting faith healers at every turn? Or would understanding and empathy be more effective?

A moment later, however, "My smile faded," Hongoltz-Hetling writes, as he realizes that he has neither confronted the faith healers nor attempted to sway them with empathy. Instead, he has passively observed them, despite his knowledge of at least one case in which reliance on faith healing led to a child's death.

A One True Cure for quackery remains elusive. If there's a more effective way to challenge anti-science thinking than the agonizingly slow machinery of the FDA and the justice system, Hongoltz-Hetling hasn't found it. But his portraits do offer empathy as well as satire, exploring the multitude of reasons besides the obvious one (money) that motivate people to set themselves up as healers.

When we relegate looking-glass views of the world to fodder for ironic Twitter threads, Hongoltz-Hetling suggests, we become part of the problem. "Perhaps," he concludes his faith healing anecdote, "that's how One True Cures get out of hand in the first place."

From If It Sounds Like a Quack... A Journey to the Fringes of American Medicine

When the sellers of the One True Cures began to identify as medical-freedom advocates, the change in messaging and tone didn't raise any immediate alarms at the FDA and the other enforcement agencies tasked with protecting the health of the American public. Enforcement agents didn't care about political rhetoric and stances of potential fraudsters. They simply went on pounding away at the violators, as they always had. That's what guiding documents like the Operations Manual told them to do.

But a small minority of public health officials did see the downsides of their own inherent stodginess and were beginning to realize that being mind-numbingly boring was an impediment to influencing an American public that, in the digital age, wanted its important information to be sugarcoated with entertainment value.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Bad Healings | Book review: If It Sounds Like a Quack... A Journey to the Fringes of American Medicine, Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling"

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