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Alternative Realities

Martin Krafft
On Alternatives (March 2022)
Inward Light

I met Rachel Heisham Bieri in Missoula, Montana, four months after she had been given a terminal cancer diagnosis. She was forty-five then, only fifteen years older than I was, though she was already a grandmother. Doctors had given her two months to live.

We met through a Facebook hiking group and built a friendship based on outdoor adventures and a shared love of barefoot hiking.

Rachel didn’t like to talk about the diagnosis, and when she did, she did so dismissively. She was determined not to die. She said that the doctors were wrong. She didn’t have cancer. She had parasites.

It was relatively easy to believe her during the early months of our friendship. She gallivanted up mountains and through creeks, keeping the occasional bouts of pain away with a constant supply of weed. We hiked to hot springs and kayaked lakes, an unlikely pair of friends from very different backgrounds. I had grown up with enough privilege to attend a private high school, college, and then a master’s program. A farm girl from Pennsylvania, Rachel grew up without running water much of the time and just scraped by through high school. She married soon after her high school graduation, to her first abusive husband.

Rachel reminded me of my free-spirited grandmother, also the subject of some of my creative works. As a budding filmmaker, I asked if I could make a documentary about her. She said yes. I started filming, even though I had significant technical gaps in my filmmaking abilities. I was mostly self-taught and hadn’t been very studious in my efforts to master my camera. When I left Montana that winter, I had a collection of haphazard footage, nowhere near enough to make into a documentary. Rachel’s pain had been getting worse. We parted in tears, not sure that we would ever see each other again.

We kept in touch. Rachel was determined to stay alive. I made plans to go back to Montana the following summer to continue filming. I bought a new camera, lens, and two recording devices to get better audio. When I returned to Montana in June, Rachel was still alive, still hiking, still adventuring. She’d had one health scare the month before, but still she pressed on.

We took trips to Glacier National Park and Hungry Horse Reservoir. However, this summer was different from our carefree adventures of the previous year. Rachel’s pain was never far away. Her family, who had been staying with her the previous winter, had gone back to Kansas. I felt a growing sense of responsibility for Rachel’s medical condition.

“Can you please go to the doctor?” I asked her.

“Doctors are trying to kill me.”

“They’re not trying to kill you.”

“I’m on a list. A list of people that doctors are trying to kill.”

“You can at least go hear what they have to say.”

“I’ve got parasites. Why don’t you believe me?”

“You might have parasites, but you should talk to a doctor anyway.”

“I’ve already talked to a doctor.”

“Talk to a different doctor.”

After my constant badgering, she finally agreed to go to the doctors.

“Well, you’re still here,” the doctor said, “so maybe your previous diagnosis wasn’t right.”

Rachel was overjoyed, though the doctor had not done any tests. I, too, got caught up in her joy. Maybe she was not dying. We went on a hike afterwards.

She agreed to go back for another test, and then another. Then it came time to do a biopsy. She balked. The previous doctors had told her that treatment would only extend her life by a couple years at best. A biopsy would require doctors to cut her open. She had been through previous surgeries, previous biopsies. She was fed up with Western medicine. But I encouraged her, her family encouraged her, and finally, she agreed.

I drove her to the appointment. When she came out of that surgery, she was furious. The doctor had told her that he would not cut into her old scar, but he did. She could barely walk for the next few days, and after that, her condition deteriorated.

“That surgery is going to kill me,” she said.
I feared she was right.

As all of this was going on, I was trying to make a film about Rachel’s journey. I continually faced fraught decisions about whether this would be a good time to film. Do I film when she cried out in pain? Do I film when she went off on a conspiracy-theory-laden tirade? Moments when I wanted to film often gave way to the practical demands of our friendship. I needed to drive her to the doctor’s. I needed to cook her food. I needed to take out her dogs. Our friendship or the film? When it came down to it, our friendship took precedence. What made these decisions even harder was that I kept making mistakes with my new equipment. But I kept on filming as much as circumstances permitted.

On top of all that, I was feeling guilty about having urged Rachel to agree to the surgery for the biopsy. I had not trusted her intuition. Instead, I had dismissed her aversion to surgery because I considered her claims about parasites to be ridiculous. Although she had years of experience dealing with doctors through previous bouts of cancer, her alternative reality was not one to which I could bring myself to give credence.

When we went back to the doctor to hear the results of the biopsy, Rachel was in extreme pain. Horrible pain. One of her tumors had eaten a hole in her hip bone. I had never seen anyone in that much pain. And the pain just kept on going.

“It looks like ovarian cancer,” the doctor said.

“I don’t have ovaries anymore.”

“Unfortunately, you can still get ovarian cancer if just one cell is left.”

Multiple doctors came to see her. They offered her hospice. She was not interested. Even though she was barely able to move, she would not admit to the possibility of death. She would not even let me fill her prescription for painkillers.

“They make me constipated,” she said. “They have yeast in them. Yeast will kill me.”

Determined to live, Rachel pursued alternative treatments. She drank food-grade hydrogen peroxide and rubbed a UV light over her leg for hours at a time. She ordered mushroom pills with what little money she had.

“I’m sorry I told you to get the surgery,” I said.

“It’s ok.”

But her face did not look ok. I pondered her alternative reality. She was anti-science. Anti-science was bad, I thought. Anti-science was stupid. I considered her conspiracies to be attempts to delude herself that she was not dying. But today, the reality seems more complicated.

“You don’t have parasites,” I told her, fed up by yet another of her conspiracy tirades. “Or if you do, that’s not what’s hurting you so much.”

“Let me believe what I want to believe,” she said. “I need to believe what I want to believe. You need to believe me.”

This was the only time that she ever admitted the potential artificiality of her beliefs. In doing so, she made me realize that her conspiracies offered her a lifeline. They gave her hope. They gave her belief in her ability to heal. When she said she did not want to get the surgery, she knew intuitively what the doctors would say, again, upon getting the results from the biopsy: that she was still dying. She did not want to get cut open just to make it possible to hear those words again.

Although I am a Quaker, I had not seen that of Spirit in Rachel. Or at least, I had not seen it fully. I had negated the wisdom of her lived experience in favor of my own views. I trusted in science, though my own scientific knowledge was quite limited. I believed in the institution of science with a certainty bordering arrogance. She followed her own Inner Light, even when that Light was dismissed by everyone around her, including me. I had encouraged her to make a decision based on my values, but that decision ran against her values. The decision caused her pain, and I felt guilty about that pain. At the same time, I realized that she was going to experience pain whatever course of action she took.

But even though I came to recognize Rachel’s experience as a legitimate form of wisdom, I did not begin agreeing with all of her choices. I disagreed with her choice to drink hydrogen peroxide and her choice not to get the COVID vaccine.

I disagreed with her blanket denial of the possibility of death, while acknowledging that I have no idea how I would act in her situation. I like to think I would be more open to facing death, but I do not know that yet. Which parts of death was she most afraid of? I tried to ask her, but she was dismissive of the question, as if to answer it would be the first, fatal chink in her armor.

I could only speculate. I assumed that her denial of death was partly shaped by previous traumas in her life. She was a domestic violence survivor, and I thought that experience must have made it hard for her to open up to the world. She had needed to be closed off for so long that her spirit had only found its way to a broader Spirit in spurts. She was still learning how to heal, and her cancer diagnosis threatened to cut short that learning. Healing of the soul cannot be rushed. What happens when it must be?

I do not know. I want Rachel to live, and if she cannot live, I want her to heal her soul. I still believe in Rachel’s ability to keep fighting, if she wants to. She is the most stubborn person I have ever met. Ironically, her stubbornness also interferes with her soul healing.

As I became increasingly involved in Rachel’s life, I got to know her daughter, Alisha. Rachel struggled as a mother. She struggled with an alcohol addiction, poverty, and unstable romantic relationships. Alisha does not have much patience for her mother’s shortcomings. Both women are incredibly headstrong. Each believes she is right and the other is wrong. As long as they are both determined to be right, they cannot heal. They are both living in their alternative realities, not leaving space for overlap.

As a Quaker, my faith has been tested by my friendship with Rachel. My testimony to see that of Spirit in everyone has been tested. That testimony has not been easy to witness with Rachel – not when she has ranted about COVID-related population-control plots, not when she has entirely refused to make any preparations for her death, not each time she has raged at the mere mention of her daughter.

And yet, I can also see Rachel’s difficult behaviors as opportunities for me to learn. If I can learn to see Rachel with a tender, unflinching gaze, I learn to see myself more clearly, too. Learning to accept Rachel’s delusions gives me some strength and insight for gently nudging my own delusions a little closer towards the Light. I am learning that my faith is robust, stronger than I ever knew, a guidepost.

I want to complete this documentary, to make it the best work of art that I can, in spite of all its technical challenges, and to build community around its creation. Where the film goes next, I don’t know.

I got off the phone with Rachel tonight and she is in horrific pain again. I am in New York. She is in Kansas. There is little I can do to support her now, besides encouraging her. I no longer try to convince her to take any particular course of action. Instead, I am choosing to trust her judgment, whatever that judgment may be. As I fundraise to be able to finish the film, I designate part of that money to go to Rachel, for her to spend how she chooses. She uses the money to buy RSO oil, a cannabis derivative, that has fewer side effects than conventional painkillers.

I am starting to organize a series of community conversations about my film-in-progress. These will be monthly screenings where Friends can move into the space of the film’s creation. Together, we will reflect on the themes of the film. Together, we will move towards stripping away the facades of our own righteousness.  ~~~

Friends can email me at director[AT]martinkrafft[DOT]com to learn more about the progress of my film and to be invited to the monthly screenings. More funds are needed to finish the film. Friends can support the film’s creation at: www.fundrazr.com/terminaldoc

Martin Krafft is an artist, writer, community organizer, and lifelong Friend. In recent years, he has attended Pima Friends Meeting in Tucson (IMYM) and Missoula Friends Meeting (NPYM).

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