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book cover
Sapo in My Soul: The Matsés Frog Medicine
by Peter Gorman
Gorman Bench Press 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by David Bey, 10/18/2017

Humans do the darnedest things. For instance, somewhere in the upper Amazon, long ago, some clever soul got it into his head that it’d be a good idea to burn his arm with a hot stick and rub poisonous frog slime into the exposed wound. As anyone who has ever tried the procedure can tell you, what follows can be just about the single most unpleasant and uncomfortable twenty minutes of a person’s life. Recipients of frog medicine––known variously as sapo (Spanish for “toad”), kambo (as it’s sometimes called in Brazil) or simply “frogging”–– can expect to tremble, sweat, vomit profusely, have their faces swell up to not un-frog-like proportions, then fall exhausted laying in torpor for some time, often too weak to move. The procedure leaves on the body a semi-permanent pattern of pale round scars, which, taken outside of their native context, can make for an awkward talking point when wearing a tank top. Indeed, upon describing the experience to the uninitiated, even the processes’ most enthusiastic of proponents are often hard-pressed to articulate why anyone would possibly want to do such a thing. The short answer is that afterwards one feels great ––it’s a cleansing, purgative, reset-mechanism of the first order––though for some it is unclear whether this is because exposure to the amphibian exudate itself confers an elevated state of well-being, or if one simply feels elated to have made it through the experience and to no longer be frog-sick.

In its traditional context, frog medicine is used for purposes of hunting and healing. It is often taken as a means of preparation before going out in search of game, as well as a cure for anything from serious illness to general doldrums (or even as punishment for recalcitrance in children). Not to be confused with the famous 5-MeO-DMT–containing Bufo alvarius toad of the Sonoran desert, the frog medicine in question here comes from Phyllomedusa bicolor, or the “Giant Monkey Tree Frog”, whose skin excretions confer no visions, dissolve no egos, and whose use by humans seems to have a lot more to do with eating bitter ––an idiom familiar to students of Chinese martial arts, roughly translating to the-endurance-of-discomfort-which-makes-one-into-a-badass ––than any kind of shamanistic experience likely to inspire a revolution in countercultural graphic design. Largely, it is a medicine that appeals to extremophiles, those who think that twenty minutes of feeling violently ill is a small price to pay in the pursuit of self-improvement.

In the interests of full disclosure I must confess I am a big fan of the medicine, as the decorative scar patterns on both my shoulders will show. Even still, I am myself often almost totally at a loss when trying to convince others of either the medicine’s intrinsic appeal or even the basic soundness of mind implied in trying it or advocating for its use. For this reason, I have long awaited the appearance of a good book to which I could direct people interested in the subject. Sapo in My Soul: The Matsés Frog Medicine by Peter Gorman, sub-subtitled The story of the Western world’s discovery of Sapo/Kambo and a guidebook to using the medicine traditionally, is, unfortunately, not that book.

Simply put, Sapo in My Soul is a mess. I find the prose clunky and uninspired. Its organization of chapters and sections jumps around in time and theme to an extent that could seem almost Modernist, if it were easier to figure out. The narrative contains some of the most preposterous moral and ethical lapses I’ve ever seen admitted to in a personal memoir. Sapo in My Soul is self-published, and it shows in the worst way. Self-publication can be a powerful way of getting high quality, courageous material out there––especially from marginalized points of view such as the drug culture––but to do so puts a heavy burden of responsibility on the writer to not make a mess of things. Indeed, what’s missing here is one of the single most essential functions of having an editor: keeping the author from embarrassing himself.

Despite the bold claim on its front cover, the book is not the story of “the Western world’s” discovery of frog medicine. It can claim to be the story of the first time a first-person account of frogging appeared in popular print journalism in English. As a point I will have to concede, it is indeed quite possible that the only reason I’ve got scars on my arm is because Peter Gorman has scars on his. Nevertheless, Gorman makes the claim that his account constitutes the “first recorded human use of the medicine called sapo.” He does so despite the fact that the book was published in 2015, when even the most cursory of internet searching reveals mention of publications discussing use of Phyllomedusa bicolor via topical burns going back at least to a missionary report from 1925, or of its usage having already made it into urban centers in Brazil by the 1960s.

Gorman’s two main arguments for personal priority are that no one who had previously written about sapo had tried it themselves, which may well be true, and that he feels it was his early ’90s reportage on frog use among the Matsés Indians of the Peruvian Amazon which single-handedly generated the “international buzz” on the subject and inaugurated scientific research into the properties of “frog sweat.” Considering that at least one other writer (anthropologist Katharine Milton) both wrote on the subject and submitted scientific samples independently from Gorman, this claim warrants examination. Gorman may have acted as a significant catalyst for the spread of frog medicine outside the Amazon, but whether or not he is the sole cause for it is another matter.

Since its discovery by the research departments of major drug companies, Phyllomedusa bicolor has gone on to yield a pharmacological peptide-bonanza, and in the ensuing scramble for rights and patents many have cried foul, theft and biopiracy. With regard to this controversy, in a tour de force of porous reasoning, Gorman would have it that the global rights to frog medicine––despite indigenous groups in other parts of the Amazon having used it for untold generations––should go to the group he wrote about, solely on the grounds of his having written about them.

Readers hoping to learn more about the science and medicine of frogging are unlikely to find much here they couldn’t learn from a few minutes spent with a decent search engine. The book’s section entitled “the science of sapo” consists of abstracts from a selection of scientific journal publications without benefit of interpretation or explanation. Instead, this section is put forth as an opaque wall of jargon whose very impenetrability would seem to suffice for Gorman in establishing his arguments’ bio-medical bona fides. Apart from these abstracts, the author elsewhere offers his own personal theories concerning frogging’s medical effects and potential, wherein justification for most of his assertions doesn’t proceed much further than an “I have a hunch” level of insight.

So far as anthropological accuracy goes, while Gorman has spent a good amount of time among the Matsés, by his own admission, communication with them was largely conducted in broken Spanish, augmented by the participants waving their hands in the air. Apart from a few phrases, Gorman would appear to not speak Matsés (the Panoan-family language spoken by the Matsés), nor did any of his travelling companions, so caveat emptor on that score.

To be clear, I am casting no aspersions as to the extent of Gorman’s genuine expertise with the technique. I respect that he learned it straight from the source, and have no reason to doubt his ability to administer sapo skillfully to himself or others. What I do feel compelled to question is his ability to make meaningful statements about why or how the relevant phenomena function the way they do.

This review may seem surprisingly harsh so far, but I’m going to argue such harshness is fair. Moreover, I’m going to let Gorman do the arguing for me, by quoting verbatim what must be the most damning paragraph in his entire book, in which Gorman admits to robbing impoverished villagers at gunpoint in order to secure gasoline for his personal convenience. This he did not only once, but over twenty times after discovering that the man he and his companion had hired to take them down the river had neither fuel nor oars in his boat, and had been planning to drift to their destination with the current. Instead, as Gorman relates:

Moises came up with a new plan: He said that nearly everyone, or at least every village, had a chainsaw and a little gasoline for emergencies. We would simply ask to borrow what they had and then repay it later. We’d buy it in the first place we could in Brazil or Colombia, then send it back upriver with the boat owner. The first huts we stopped at said they had no gasoline. Moises told me he thought they were lying. He went to the boat, got our shotgun, returned, pointed it at the men in the village and ordered them to give us their gasoline. They did. And that became our modus operandi at over 20 little villages along the way downriver. Generally I held the gun while Moises explained that I would use it, and they’d be smart to just hand over the gasoline. They did ––just a gallon or two, but enough to make it the next few hours downstream.

Not to worry, though. Lest we confuse him with some sort of brazen thug, Gorman assures readers that:

A day later we reached the small Brazilian city of Atalaya, where we ran into a man Moises and I knew from Iquitos who was selling gasoline on the river. We bought two 55-gallon drums and gave them to the boat owner with instructions to return double whatever gasoline was had taken from everyone, and he was to keep the remainder. He was thrilled.

Yeah, I’ll bet he was thrilled. He presumably got to keep all the gasoline…especially considering he’d have been ill-advised to ever show his face again at any of the sites his passengers had ripped off at gunpoint. In any event it’s not as if Gorman or his accomplice stuck around to find out.

Reading this passage in Sapo in My Soul was the point at which Gorman totally lost me as a reader. What leaves me flabbergasted is the absence of any shred of awareness on Gorman’s part as to how repellent his account might seem to his readers––to say nothing of any reflection that his actions may have constituted a totally shit thing to do. Extra troubling is that this is from a man who spent over three decades working as an investigative journalist.

Gorman clearly fancies himself to be frog medicine’s Gordon Wasson, the American amateur mycologist who “discovered” the practice of psilocybin mushroom rituals among the Mazatec in the 1950s. Readers familiar with the regrettable fate of Wasson’s primary informant, Maria Sabina––whose home was ultimately burned down by vengeful locals after her confidences in Wasson had been repaid with the disastrous attentions of the outside world––may note an uncanny echo of Sabina’s tragedy expressed, unwittingly, in Gorman’s account of the impact of at least one of his trips on the people who opened up to him. After attempting to join a Matsés travelling expedition from which he was forced to beat a hasty retreat in disgrace, Gorman and his companion were tracked back to their hosts’ village by a jaguar, whereupon a young boy was attacked and killed, and the villagers were obliged to burn their homes and move camp to forestall further predation. Once again in Gorman’s words:

We had meant to walk with a light footprint while with the Matsés. Instead we caused the death of a young teen, the burning of two villages, and as I learned on later visits, the deaths of three or four elderly Matsés who did not survive the move to the new camp and the work involved in clearing the forest to build it.

Way to go, Peter Gorman.

Frogging is emphatically not for everyone. However, like many experiences that can be extremely challenging, it can offer a lot to those willing to endure it. Nevertheless, despite his role in helping to popularize the practice, Peter Gorman’s book on the subject of frog medicine is not one I can really recommend. More than anything else, the experience of reading Sapo in My Soul is reminiscent of being stuck for many hours in some foreign expat bar, listening to a rambling tale told by a crashing bore who is as in love with the sound of his own voice as he is unaware that the story he thinks he’s telling bears scant resemblance to the one his audience perceives. The whole thing leaves a bad taste in the mouth, not unlike the yucky taste produced by frog medicine itself.

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