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‘John of God’: Healings by Entities?

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 31.5, September / October 2007

Known as “John of God,” a Brazilian faith healer claims spirits take control of his body to enable him to perform surgeries without anesthesia and other healing procedures. The spiritual center he founded, located in the little town of Abadianian Brazil’s remote central highlands, has been dubbed “the Lourdes of South America” (“Controversial” 2006), while he himself has been called a charlatan and worse (“Is” 2005).

First alerted by a CNN producer to a John of God healing service in Atlanta, I determined to go undercover to get a close look at what was transpiring. I worked with National Geographic Television and Film on a segment for their Is It Real? series program, “Miracle Cures,” which included an analysis of the John of God phenomenon.

John of God

Known in his native Portuguese as João de Deus—“John of God”—João Teixeira de Faria was born in 1942 to poor parents. He grew up unable to stay in school or hold a job. At sixteen, he reportedly discovered his miraculous ability when, in a vision, a woman directed him to a nearby church. There, although he maintains he does not remember what happened, having been entranced, he allegedly performed a miraculous healing.

He thus began a career that impresses the credulous. Claiming to be a medium (one who communicates with spirits of the dead), he insists he is guided by more than thirty entities—although, curiously, João speaks only Portuguese, regardless of which entity is possessing him at a given time. King Solomon was his first entity. Others followed, including Ignatius Loyola, the Spanish noble who founded the Jesuit order in 1540; João’s center is named for him: Casa de Dom Inácio de Loyola. Oswaldo Cruz, a physician who helped eradicate yellow fever, is another alleged entity, along with other past healers, in a sort of spiritist pantheon (“Controversial” 2006; “Is” 2005).

Spiritism is essentially spiritualism, a belief that one can communicate with spirits, but with the added conviction that spirits repeatedly reincarnate in a progression toward enlightenment. In Brazil, which is steeped in superstition and has a climate of belief in African spirits, spiritism has become a powerful religious movement, overlayed onto Catholicism. It may involve mediumistic searches for past lives and even so-called “psychic surgery” (Bragdon 2002, 14—20; Guiley 2000, 360—362).

Supposedly, psychic surgeons open the body paranormally—without surgical instruments or anesthetic—and heal diseases by manipulating vital organs. Typically, they have involved fraudulent practices including sleight of hand. For instance, “tumors” have proved to be pieces of chicken intestines and blood that of a cow (Nickell 1998, 159—162).

John of God, however—styled “João-in-Entity” when supposedly possessed—has a different style. He performs dubious “surgeries” that are either “visible” or “invisible.” The former may involve twisting forceps up a person’s nostrils or using a knife to scrape an eyeball or slice open a fleshy abdomen—all without anesthesia. According to a pro-João book, “In over thirty-five years of the Entity’s surgery, it has been extremely rare for there to be any infections” (Bragdon 2002, 11).

With “invisible surgery,” the entity du jour gives a prayer, after which thousands of “healing entities” busy themselves, allegedly, by operating on an organ, revitalizing a muscle, or otherwise “simultaneously attending to the problems of the people in the room” (Bragdon 2002, 11). Augmenting the sessions are encouragements to meditate, drink water blessed by the entities, and take prescribed herbal remedies.

Investigation:

Figure 2. “John of God” (right)—supposedly possessed by a spirit entity—directs treatments for the afflicted. Seated in the background is the author, ready to undergo an “invisible surgery.”

I had already obtained a ticket to the John of God event in Atlanta when I was contacted by National Geographic Television. We then worked together on an investigation that shed new light on the Brazilian’s claims.

Shrewdly, João’s entities avoided performing “visible surgeries” in Atlanta, where he might have been arrested. I was chosen for an “invisible” procedure as I hobbled by with a cane, wearing the requisite white outfit that, I was told, “helps maintain a higher vibrational frequency” (“John” 2006a; 2006b). I also wore a minor disguise since frequent media appearances have made me more recognizable (see figures 1 and 2).

As I would discover, João is an unlikely miracle worker. A grade-school dropout, he was, reports an admirer, “forced to live as a wanderer, traveling from city to city healing the sick and living from their donations of food” (Pellegrino-Estrich 1995). Because, in Brazil, it is illegal to practice medicine without a license, he has been charged and fined—even jailed briefly. A district attorney who investigated him has reported that João sent her—indirectly, through a relative—death threats. John of God denies that, along with an accusation that he took advantage of one woman who had come to him for healing.

“There is a lot of jealousy. People talk,” he says defensively. “What dictates is the conscience toward God.” Noting his apparent wealth, some critics say his “healings” are merely a front to make him a rich man (“Is” 2005).

Certainly, his procedures are a sham. The twisting of forceps up a pilgrim’s nose is an old circus and carnival sideshow stunt, explained in my book Secrets of the Sideshows (Nickell 2005, 238—241). Looking far more tortuous than it is, the feat depends on the fact that, unknown to many people, there is a sinus cavity that extends horizontally from the nostrils over the roof of the mouth to a surprising distance—enough to accommodate a spike, icepick, or other implement used in the “Human Blockhead” act.

At my instigation, National Geographic filmed a performance of such an act at the Washington, D.C., showbar Palace of Wonders, operated by carny impresario (and friend) James Taylor. Our blockhead was “Swami Yomahmi,” a.k.a. Stephon Walker, whom I introduced with my best carny-sideshow spiel. Walker even cranked a rotating drill bit into his nose. He also used a blunt knife to scrape the white part of his eyeball and acknowledged that such stunts look more risky than they are.

A surgeon who commented on John of God’s incisions stated that they were superficial (little more than skin deep, apparently) and would not be expected either to bleed very much or even to cause much initial pain. The same is true of scraping the white of the eye or inserting something into the nasal cavity (“Controversial” 2006). Physicians affiliated with the Skeptical Inquirer voiced similar opinions. The brief nasal procedure occasionally leaves someone’s nose bleeding, but his or her body’s own healing mechanisms will no doubt repair the minor injury. The bottom line regarding the procedures is that they are pseudosurgeries that have no objective medical benefit other than the well-known placebo effect.

Furthermore, the “holy water” that “João-in-Entity” blesses and that supposedly helps effect cures is ordinary water. I provided a specially labeled bottle I had purchased in Atlanta, and National Geographic had it tested at a major D.C.-area facility, the Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission. It was found to have no unusual properties and to be entirely unremarkable (“Miracle” 2006).1

As to João-in-Entity’s herbal remedies, actually only a single herb is prescribed, but those seeking aid are told that the entities are able to use it to help cure a wide variety of ailments (“Miracle Cures” 2006). The herb is one of the many varieties of passionflower, a mystical plant associated with Jesus’ crucifixion, and it has been used since ancient times as a “sedative, nervine and antispasmodic.” Herbalists say it soothes the nervous system and produces restful sleep that brightens one’s outlook (Lucas 1972, 128—129). Small wonder it would be the drug of choice for a “healing” center to distribute widely.

Many people offer testimonials as to the beneficial effects they have supposedly received at the hands of John of God. In fact, however, the successes attributed to the entities may be nothing more than what occurs at other alleged miracle sites, like Lourdes, where the vast majority of supplicants remain uncured. Since such “healings” are typically held to be miraculous because they are “medically inexplicable,” claimants are engaging in the logical fallacy of “arguing from ignorance”—that is, drawing a conclusion from a lack of knowledge. Touted healings may actually be attributable to such factors as misdiagnosis, spontaneous remission, psychosomatic conditions, prior medical treatment, the body’s own healing power, and other effects (Nickell 1998, 133—137).

Consider, for example, the case of Matthew Ireland, a pilgrim from Guilford, Vermont, whose doctor told him he had a type of brain tumor that was fast-growing and inoperable. After two years of radiation treatments and chemotherapy, Ireland made three visits to John of God. Subsequent MRI testing did show that the tumor mass had shrunk by fifty percent, but it was not gone as the entity had claimed. Ireland’s former oncologist attributes the partial success to the aggressive radiation treatment and concedes it is possible that the specific type of tumor may have been misdiagnosed (“Miracle” 2006; “Is” 2005).

Often, at healing services like those of John of God in Brazil, pilgrims’ emotions may trigger the release of endorphins, brain-produced substances that reduce sensitivity to pain. They may thus believe and act as if they have been miraculously healed—even throwing away their crutches—whereas later investigation reveals their situation to be as bad, or worse, than before (Nickell 1998, 136). However, I did note that, at the Atlanta John of God event, those who came with walkers, crutches, and wheelchairs left with them. Sadly, the entities had not taken away their afflictions, only their money.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to my wife, Diana Harris, not only for her forbearance but also her direct assistance in this project. I am also grateful to Isham Randolph and others from National Geographic Television and Film for their professional work, as well as to Timothy Binga, the director of CFI Libraries, and Lauren Becker, then CFI’s assistant director of communications, for research assistance.

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References

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.