Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Book Review as Palinode: The Man Who Listens to Horses

A Fair Trade Book

Title: The Man Who Listens to Horses

Author: Monty Roberts

Date: 1996

Publisher: Random House

ISBN: 0-679-45658-9

Length: 259 pages

Illustrations: black and white photo section

Quote: “I’m waiting for his ear to open onto me, for him to start licking and chewing, and them for him to duck his head and run along holding it a few inches off the ground.”

(A palinode is something written to retract something the author wrote before. In the original review of Monty Roberts' later book Horse Sense for People, I said that I hadn't read Roberts accusing his parents of the horrific physical abuse that people were saying he had falsely accused them of. In memory I may have confused The Man Who Listens to Horses with Shy Boy or Horse Whisperer, because The Man Who Listens to Horses contains accusations that Roberts' father was not only an abusive parent but also an unfit police officer. A reader didn't complain, but gave me a copy of this book. Although the earlier review has been corrected, this review is still a palinode. )

Big and dangerous though horses are, they are a prey species, not a predator species. Monty Roberts is famous throughout the English world for having demonstrated that horses reliably use the same body language deer use. Humans are built to use a different body language, but we can learn to use bits of grazing animals’ body language to communicate with horses, deer, and other prey animals without threats and violence.

My parents made a choice that might have been shaped by money concerns, but was soundly based in philosophy. First they—I don’t remember needing much pushing but they certainly encouraged—my brother and me to be “into horses” from the cradle. The majority of the books bought for us were horse stories and, long before we were old enough to ride, books about the care and training of horses. The majority of the toys were model horses. When my parents rented houses where we couldn’t be encouraged to spend afternoons hanging out with horses, they cultivated friends who could help expose us to horses. We heard lots of stories about Mother’s parents having met and bonded because both of them were noted “horse people,” as the most famous one of their ancestors had been.Yet, even when boarding a pony, we were never given a saddle, bridle, or even a halter. The idea was that horses should be friends not slaves to humans (I learned a lot of new words in English from My Friend Flicka, at age seven). If humans had any business telling horses what to do, we wouldn’t need tools but would just be able to ask our big dumb friends to lend their strength to our purposes, and they’d do it, because they liked us. This is true but it works better for some people than for others.

I liked horses, and still do, and spent many pleasant afternoons hanging out with horses. (All horses know that there’s safety in numbers, so, once convinced that other animals aren’t going to attack them, most of the time most horses like to hang out with almost anyone of any species; they particularly appreciate cats who chase mice, and humans who swat flies. Many horses bond with smaller pets--even chickens, and definitely including children.) I did not learn their language intuitively, as my brother did. I did not reach the point of being able to climb on to a neighbor’s untrained Morgan and ride bareback, as my brother did. (I did once suggest to the pony, who’d had a few years to recover from an injury, that she might carry me around a field. The pony lowered her head so that I slid off harmlessly.) I don’t think my brother, who was younger, could have explained how he did what he did if anyone had asked him. I did observe, when I read about Monty Roberts, that he was doing some of the same things my brother used to do..and he’d lived long enough, done those things long enough, to be able to explain them to clueless, “not really horsey,” animal lovers like me.

I had skimmed this book at a public library years before I read and reviewed Horse Sense for People; my own copy of The Man Who Listens to Horses was supplied by a local lurker after that review went live. When I checked other reviews of both books online, however, I had noticed that several people reacted unfavorably to The Man Who Listens to Horses, accusing Roberts of having “lied about” his father, Marvin Roberts.

Well, the son’s an old man known to have used certain memory-altering prescription drugs, and the father is dead, so there’s no way the truth will ever be known, but I have to say that, of the two books, I greatly prefer Roberts’ later one. Both contain the same general information about horses. In his later book Roberts expounds on using that information in relationships with humans—a philosophy of nonviolent, ethical, egalitarian communication that everyone ought to be reading, studying, and practicing. I hate to think of that information being covered up by prejudice...I have to say, though, that in this book, which is meant to be a memoir (accurate or not) rather than a philosophical discourse, Roberts comes across as a less likable person.

The diabolical thing about Prozac Dementia is that it’s very hard, unless a patient has written an extensive memoir before using any of that class of drugs, to sort out the real memories from the pseudomemories. Pseudomemories reported by patients who become violent often involve violent abuse; pseudomemories reported by equally demented but nonviolent patients, like Lauren Slater, can be peaceful and pleasant, as if the patient had actually lived someone else’s life along with his or her own. The more a patient knows, before taking antidepressants, that pseudomemories are a common side effect, the easier it is for a patient, like Slater, to sort them out and be able to appreciate the pseudomemories as fiction. In this best-case outcome, the patient may have brain damage sufficient to produce insanity, yet remain sane and competent. The cancer survivor I’ve nicknamed “Aunt Dotty” lived with drug-induced hallucinations, sometimes annoying but more often entertaining everyone with her “spirit voices,” and remaining competent (and intelligent) despite that trace of “dottiness,” for more than thirty years.If there were more honest discussion of dementia as a side effect in the news media, probably more people would want to work through their depression without psychopharmaceutical “help,” but also more of the people who want antidepressants would be harmlessly “dotty” rather than a constant risk for sudden violence.

 In The Man Who Listens to Horses Roberts claims that his father was not only abusive, but a brutal racist who beat a suspect to death mainly for being Black. He doesn’t have a photograph of that—well, there wouldn’t have been one if the incident happened. He does have an old publicity photo of his father posing with Joe Louis and another local police officer. The picture isn’t flattering to any of the three men. Roberts claims that his father harbored hateful thoughts toward the champion boxer. Roberts also describes a different photo—four men, with his father’s arm around Louis—than the one reprinted in the book. Roberts also claims that Louis treated then-young Roberts as a child, saying, “Hit me,” which Roberts says he was afraid to do until Louis grabbed his little hand and knocked it off Louis’s muscular shoulder, then pretending to fall backward and saying “Now you can claim you knocked out Joe Louis.” Which if any of these incidents really happened? Does the photo with the five men in it really exist; was a different photo used in the book because it was lying closer to the front of a file folder? Nobody will ever know.

Roberts’ memories of physical abuse are, however, congruent with the general pattern of Prozac Dementia. For many patients who have not previously had a lot of physical pain, the drug-related pain centers around the crotch and triggers pseudomemories of rape or sodomy. Roberts, however, had painful spine injuries from his years as rodeo rider and Hollywood stuntman, and the abuse he remembers features heavy blows to the spine. He did, in fact, survive many heavy blows to the spine, and some surgeries...but when people with Prozac Dementia have real injuries, their pseudomemories tend to be congruent with their real injuries.

So does Roberts have Prozac Dementia, or was his father a real Jekyll-and-Hyde type who merely seemed almost as kind and gentle as Monty Roberts does, to other people, while privately...Men like that are as real as Prozac Dementia, and it’s not inconceivable that Monty Roberts himself, as well as his father, might have tendencies in that direction. All we know is that both Marvin Roberts and Monty Roberts were able to keep wives, friends, and horses loyal to them for years.

Part of Monty Roberts’ end of that loyalty is probably what’s intended by his saying relatively little about his wife and children in his memoir. Happy memories of animal friends (deer and horses) alternate with not-so-happy memories of humans. Several friends are mentioned only in passing. A nasty lawsuit gets a long chapter, with detailed memories of the “craziness” of the client for whom manic-depressive mood swings were apparently only the beginning. Anyone who has actually spent a night in jail because someone else was being a vindictive piece of pollution can be expected to remember that piece of pollution without affection, and no web sites have been dedicated to the vindication of Hastings Harcourt’s reputation, readers really need these memories? Roberts’ “Other people are cruel to animals and only a few human beings are decent” theme strains a bit here.It may be true, and there may at the time have been someone in California who needed to read all of Roberts’ side of the story, but most readers are likely to wonder why Roberts chose to burden us with memories that are neither pleasant nor instructive to read; wouldn’t these pages have been better filled out with more anecdotes about Roberts’ work in horse movies some of us might remember?

And the animal stories in this book aren’t as well told as they are in Horse Sense for People; less information, overall, and more noticeable repetition. This is the book where the stories are organized in chronological order. Comparing some memoirs with their authors’ philosophical books, I find that some stories work better in chronological order; Roberts’ stories, on the other hand, seem to work better when they’re told in a more concise format with the intention of supporting points in his discourse.

Let’s just say I would have liked this book better if there’d been more about the stunts and movies and less about the people who may or may not have been as nasty as this book makes them sound. Horse Sense for People lacks the deer story, but otherwise seems like the book this book was trying to be. The Man Who Listens to Horses reads like the draft that should have been reconsidered and revised for a few more years.

This is not meant to dispute that Roberts’ accomplishments have been awesome and his philosophy of total nonviolence, of respecting the choices even of animals, deserves much more attention than it’s received. It’s meant to say that Roberts is not primarily a writer, never was, and he did a better job with his material after he’d had a few years to reflect on the shortcomings of his first book.  

So, if you can have only one book by Monty Roberts, get Horse Sense for People. If you’re a serious fan of his or student of human/animal communication, get both books.

The Man Who Listens to Horses is a Fair Trade Book, and would probably fit comfortably into a package alongside Shy Boy and Horse Sense for People for a single $5 shipping charge, bringing the total to $20 ($5 for each of the books) plus $1 per online payment, from which this web site will redirect $2 to Roberts or a charity of his choice. If you buy just one book, the total will be $10 via U.S. postal money order or $11 via online payment, from which Roberts or his charity will get $1.