Book review by Dr. Roland M. Wagner
Kusler, Ruth Wiel and Peggy Sailer O’Neil. Tender Hands: Ruth’s Story of Healing. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 1998.
Ruth Weil Kusler's life-long journey in the healing arts began with her mother, Katharina Fischer, who was a midwife and healer in Neu Glückstal, Odessa district. Sensing that her daughter Ruth also had the gift of "tender hands," the instinctive ability to seek out aches and pains and to soothe them away with her fingers, Katharina passed on the ancient healing methods of prayer, massage, and herbal remedies to her daughter. As I write these words Ruth is approaching her 90th year, and she has spent most of her life carrying on her mother's practice, caring for the sick near Beulah, North Dakota. Her well-earned reputation continues to draw people seeking her advice and treatment.
A lifetime's worth of experience in the healing arts has been condensed into this small booklet (69 pages). The many remedies for the aches and pains of daily life are valuable in and of themselves, but the book also has special interest because of its information on the German folk-healing tradition known as "Braucherei." Ruth's practice is an intriguing case study of how these old traditions have continued to evolve and to adapt to changing circumstances by assimilating other alternative healing traditions.
Ruth's story may strike a note of familiarity to many people who are aware of folk healing traditions around the world. Many are aware, for example, that Mexican-Americans have a similar form of healing known as "curanderismo," which involves the use prayers, blessed candles and oils, holy water, and herbal remedies. Likewise, "santeria," a healing religion born of African traditions, still flourishes throughout the Caribbean. It is less commonly recognized that similar beliefs and practices exist in European folk cultures as well. In modern technological medicine the spiritual and physical worlds are rigidly separated, but in folk medicine these dimensions of experience are inextricably linked.
Braucherei is an ancient tradition of folk-healing practiced by German speaking peoples, with roots extending back into pre-Christian times. It builds upon a bedrock of beliefs and practices that are similar in folk societies throughout most of the world (note, for example, the etymological similarity to the word "brujeria" in Spanish). During the Middle Ages the ancient Germanic healing lore combined with Christianity, an uneasy amalgamation that was always subject to suspicion and scrutiny by Christian clergy. As Ruth notes, the Braucherei chants "worried the local ministers," and some believed that the healing procedures were "witchcraft."
Folk healing traditions, such as Braucherei, should not be dismissed as mere superstition, or as a static body of folklore that has been passed down unchanged from one generation to the next. Certainly there are elements of "sympathetic magic" involved in the ritualism, as commonly described by anthropologists, but the practices also build upon wisdom about holistic medicine accumulated by generations of sharp-eyed pragmatic observers. Braucherei has been a living tradition, and the practice has continued to evolve over time, adopting and absorbing methods and remedies and adjusting to current belief systems.
Ruth's practice of Braucherei, as described in her book, demonstrates this pragmatic openness to the adoption of new healing methods. She cites specific prayers for certain ailments, which recalls the more traditional aspects of Braucherei, but these prayers are not emphasized as a major aspect of her practice as described in this book. Most of her remedies involve the use of well-known healing herbs, such as garlic or chamomile. It is also notable that many non-traditional products are utilized, such as "Knorr's Genuine Hein Fong Essence (green drops)," "Dr. Forni's Alpen-Kreuter," "Smith's Rosebud Salve,"Aspirin tablets," "Clorox bleach," "Epsom salts," "Niacin," and "Vitamin C." Fruits juices are a prominent ingredient in the remedies, but whiskey and Schnapps as well. Ruth's practice of massage has been expanded over the years by the study of bone-setting and reflexology (derived from Oriental folk-medicine, a practice more commonly known as accupressure, described by Ruth as "massaging points on the palms of hands and soles of feet to strengthen and stimulate glands and organ systems"). Interestingly, Ruth notes that a family member, a grand-nephew, is studying at the Palmer School of Chiropractic, which she regards as a continuation of the family healing tradition. At a broader level, Ruth's story is not just of her own practice, but also of the adaptations and modifications in folk healing traditions throughout the world.