Earlier this year at the hospital, where I am in training as a psychiatry resident, some colleagues were discussing the case of a young woman who had presented with worsening headaches. On CT scan she’d been found to have a meningioma, an often curable tumor of the membranes covering the brain. The prognosis was excellent, and she was offered surgery. She refused, instead flying to the Philippines, where a folk healer—a “psychic surgeon,” to use the term of trade—pressed on her forehead, extracted a dripping gobbet of flesh, and pronounced her cured.
The discussion was charged, running from the failures of modern medicine to ethical quandaries of how to counsel a patient seeking alternative therapies, to the power of the placebo (the tumor hadn’t vanished on followup CT, but she still claimed to feel relief). At the time, however, I was mostly unsettled by a memory. Ten years earlier, traveling in Brazil, I had heard again and again the story of another miracle surgeon. I remembered only the most extraordinary details of the case: the healer, a peasant with no medical training, was said to enter trances in which a spirit guided him as he operated on thousands of patients, from the destitute and hopeless of the nearby villages, to patients as prominent as the Brazilian president’s daughter.
Although I remembered little else, his fame was such that even in 2012, some forty years after his death, it wasn’t difficult to flesh out more details of his story. Jose Pedro de Freitas, known by his nickname Zé Arigó was born in 1921 or 1922 at a farm site six kilometers outside the town of Congonhas do Campo, in the mountainous state of Minas Gerais. As a young man, he was different, tormented by headaches and a strange white light, and then, as he grew older, dreams. In these, he found himself in an unfamiliar chamber, watching gowned and aproned figures speaking a foreign tongue. One night, a severe, stout, bald man, frock buttoned to his chin—a monster, Arigó would later say separated himself from the others, identified himself as Dr. Adolph Fritz, a German killed in World War I, and announced that he’d selected Arigó to carry out his earthly work. That night of revelation, Arigó awoke screaming. He sought help from doctors and the local priest—to no avail. It was only when he obeyed the surgeon that the nightmares ceased. Speaking German (a language he had never learned) and operating without anesthesia or antisepsis, Arigó used any tool at hand—butcher knives, scissors, rusty garden shears. He removed tumors and kidney stones, scarcely shedding blood. He cured blindness by sliding a blade high behind the orbit. Other times, like Jesus and the paralytic at Capernaum, Arigó simply commanded an illness to desist. As word of his successes spread, visitors began to arrive, first the ill and then others: incredulous doctors from São Paulo, foreign parapsychologists, journalists. And then, in 1956, carrying a charge of charlatanism, the police.
For the next fifteen years, Arigó would be alternatively arrested, tried, imprisoned, then rehabilitated to massive, adoring crowds. He would submit to videotaping to try to expose some sleight of hand and to electroencephalograms to look for seizures. He would be attacked by the Brazilian Medical Association as a fraud and ridiculed as a schizophrenic. Nor did the “Arigó wars” end with his death; only months after Arigó's Chevy Opala collided with a truck on a rainy mountain road, Dr. Fritz returned to guide other healers, as he continues to do today.