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Mutant Message Down Under

Newspaper article #2

Another Story Grows in the Telling
Fightback: Aborigines Take on an American Bestselling Author Over Her Mutant Message


A group of six aborigines, outraged by what American author Marlo Morgan wrote in her 1991 bestseller, Mutant Message Down Under, is taking its grievances to the United States. They plan to put their side of the story through radio and TV appearances, including the mega-rating Oprah Winfrey talk show, and their expenses will be met by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

Critics of New Age literature must have thought someone was pulling their legs when the comically titled tome, a "fictionalized" account of Morgan's travels in the Australian desert with a tribe of unnamed Aborigines, hit the stands. But, as half a million sales in the US alone attest, New Age converts have embraced her "mutant message".

The 59-year-old ex-acupuncturist from Kansas has now released a slim volume, Making the Message Mine, billed as "a companion experiential response book to the New York Times bestseller". She is also working on a second volume to Mutant Message and has sold film rights, for a sum rumored to be $1.8 million, to United Artists.

But the strong reader appeal of Morgan's inner journey into the inhospitable desert with the "real people", as she calls them, entirely escaped West Australian Aborigine Robert Eggington when he read the book. He says he felt physically sick. "It's false, a fabricated fantasy on her part, [yet] people around the world are obviously buying it as a true account." The head of the Perth-based Dumbartung Aboriginal Organisation, Eggington decided it was time for Aborigines to speak out on the airwaves of Morgan's native country.

After transcripts of the book were sent to communities scattered across the interior and joint meetings held from Darwin down to Adelaide, it was agreed that a delegation of six elder spokespeople from the Northern Territory, the Kimberley region and southern Western Australia should travel to the US next month. Eggington's group has done its home-work, producing a 90-page document setting out its objections to the book - a copy of which has been sent to the producers of Oprah. It even commissioned an expert assessment by Dr John Stanton, from the University of Western Australia's Berndt Museum of Anthropology. Parts of his report make hilarious reading, like his references to Morgan's text in which an elder takes off "a long leather tube of platypus hide" and another eats "kangaroo, wild horse, termites, anteaters, even crocodile...". Stanton observes dryly that such a melange of animals is "not bad for the Pitjantjara and Yankuntjatjara [desert] heartland she had just referred to". In another section, a desert dweller's birth is recalled as happening "over a sandpit lined with the ultra-soft fiur of a rare albino koala".

Stanton concludes that Morgan's book seriously insults the religious beliefs of desert Aborigines…is condescending in the extreme…and reflects more of the author's personal experiences with the North American context than those of Australia".

Australian anthropologist Professor Dianne Bell agrees; last month she passed through Perth to confer with Eggington and his group on their proposed US campaign. There's certainly merit in putting an Aboriginal face, and voice, forward", she says. "If they can get the attention of the [Hollywood] entertainment industry, it might have an impact."

Bell endorses Eggington's conviction that Mutant Message's versions of Aboriginality are pernicious and damaging. "Even when you tell people it's geographically, physically, ethnographically impossible, they still want to hold on to what they take to be a 'beautiful message', Bell says. Eggington objects to Morgan's "moulding of Aboriginal culture to fit her personal fantasy", and finds references to a "regal black swan elder" both implausible and offensive. "The dreaming stories of the origin of the black swan are here, in the Canning River area of Perth", he points out.

Eggington adds he is resigned to the inevitable fact that more controversy equals more publicity for Morgan's book. "It's already been in the Top 5 for 28 weeks in the States ... [but] I feel strongly about the whole way Aboriginal culture is being exploited and appropriated. Marlo Morgan's not the only one; other commercial authors have done it, without any clearance."

Eggington's group wants to exert pressure on governments to hasten the protection of cultural heritage through some form of legislation. "At present, there's nothing," he says. "That's what enables people like Morgan to just take knowledge and formulate this sort of book."

The Dumbartung organisation can already claim some success in stopping grotesque examples of "misappropriation or abuse of Aboriginal culture". In its office, a "board of dishonour" displays a dozen offenders, including disposable placemats with Western Desert paintings and symbols printed on them by the McDonald's hamburger chain (since withdrawn) so children could doodle on them.

Morgan's response to attacks on her book has generally been to insist that her experiences were real, although she refuses to divulge any details that might prove whether events actually happened. In a rare direct reply, Morgan sent a letter in May to a magazine that ran a biting review of her book, written by Eggington. Her letter concluded: "If [Eggington] truly believes his spirit was stolen by 186 pages ... then so be it. I am at peace with my actions, my writing, my intentions, my training and my Creator. Sincerely, Marlo Morgan".

From The Bulletin September 26, 1995 p. 38.

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