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June 17, 2024

Book Review: The Mark of Voodoo

By Alexandra Queen

Caulder, Sharon. Mark of Voodoo. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications: 2002.

Mark of Voodoo promises all the right ingredients for a sensational read. The chef-author skimps on the quality in the cooking, however, leaving the reader with a book that seems more disappointing than it really is because of how good it could have been.

Author Sharon Caulder is an impressively educated woman, with two Ph.D.'s and credentials in at least four other fields, including education and neuroscience. The book is an account of her time spent living with the Voodoo people of the Republic of Benin and her initiation into the Voodoo culture and religion as a chief. The book is also touted to contain a wealth of anthropological details of the culture and rituals of the Voodoo people. Before the first ten pages are up, however, Dr. Caulder shatters her credibility. While the book probably has some limited academic value, your best bet is to toss objectivity out the window and enjoy it as a good, trashy, pseudo-intellectual bodice ripper.

Sharon Caulder starts out with an account of a Voodoo ritual from her childhood that is clearly child abuse, involving animal torture and other murkier issues. Her interpretation of the event and her use of scandal, sex and violence as a device to hook a reader's interest leaves the reader seriously doubting the credibility of the rest of the book. Another lurid account of sexual depravity and violence follows soon after — this depiction of Dr. Caulder's conception, we learn, was not passed down from a witnessing congregation member or relative, but was related to Dr. Caulder by her own spirit, which she was talking to in another dimension. Combine that with the blunt manner in which the author talks about her "psychic and intuitive gifts", her use of "clairvoyant abilities" to translate foreign languages during her stay in Benin, and her ability to levitate or fly and you end up with a book that needs to be read with more than one grain of salt.

The crowning point for me was just over halfway through the book. Caulder has told how she ventured alone to the village of Ouidah where she doesn't speak the language, met the supreme voodoo chief, agreed to pay him $6000 to be initiated into the voodoo religion, whereupon she is "suddenly" found to be endowed with the qualities of a potential voodoo chief. Going a step further, she relays how she supports many of the locals with food and financial gifts, begins sleeping with the supreme chief on nights when he isn't busy with his "deities" (even though monogamy is a point they argue about through the course of the book and never do agree on), narrowly foils at least one attempt by the supreme chief to pimp her out, and starts paying for the supreme chief to build a nicer house elsewhere. After all this, Caulder actually spends several paragraphs talking about how lucky she felt to have ended up meeting the supreme chief and not one of the other, less scrupulous voodoo chiefs in the village, who might have tried to take advantage of her. Um... did she have anything left to take advantage of that hadn't been already? Cultural relativity aside, Dr. Caulder's credentials obviously didn't include any zoology, because looking like a duck and quacking like a duck didn't seem to mean much to her.

There was some academic merit to the book, although not really in the places it promised there would be. The accounts of the voodoo rituals and religious concepts were not very objective or particularly well recorded or analyzed. Although Caulder visits several different cultures — a more isolated Voodoo village, and several Muslim practitioners of local folk religion — her most revealing picture is that of every day life in Ouidah, where the people struggle with combining modern ways with tradition in a third world setting.

Caulder does not seem to be as interested in studying the people as she is in putting her own new-age interpretation on what she is experiencing. She does raise the point that she was attempting to approach her time there from a more holistic, experiential perspective rather than try to interpret things from a western frame of mind. However, even though "objectivity" and "analysis" are hallmarks of western thought, there is something to be said for maintaining an objective stance in relation to western thought and one's own possibly flawed interpretation. There is also something to be said for organizing one's observations a little more usefully. As it stands, the impression is not that Caulder had a more open mind than most westerners, but that she was as close-mindedly trapped in her new-age interpretations of events as the researchers she did not want to emulate. Still, by reading between the lines of Caulder's account, there is still a good amount of detail and information, even if it is in raw form.

Caulder's book reads less like a thesis and more like a diary. The emphasis is not on scholarly details, but on Caulder's experiences: her impressions, her thoughts, her "crushes" and feelings, how tough she feels she was and how she didn't let people take advantage of her (seriously). It is not really a book about the voodoo religion or the voodoo people, but a book about Sharon Caulder. However... Sharon Caulder is an interesting person who has done some very interesting things, and if you abandon the book cover's promises of an intellectual, anthropological work and read Mark of Voodoo as "an experiential journey of self-discovery", then you will likely find it both interesting and enjoyable. Kind of like a bodice-ripper/romance, but with enough academic overtones to justify reading it as "study" instead of just trashy escapism. So, read it with a grain of salt, and expect it to be more like a pulp fiction novella then a text book, but by all means, do read Mark of Voodoo.

Overall grade: A, for sheer, lurid, interesting detail. Unless you're looking for an objective study. In which case, D+.

Article © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-05-16
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