Journalist Chip Brown starts out his strange and surprising first book with some entertaining incidents from the dubious past of the healing arts. Take, for example, the treatment King Charles II of England received from his physicians in 1685. After suffering what was either a stroke or a heart attack, he was bled and given purgatives, enemas and sneezing powder; his scalp was blistered and his feet plastered with a mixture of pitch and pigeon crap. Not surprisingly, he didn't survive the treatment.
But it's only after the author has securely strapped the reader in with this gallery of medical mistakes that he reveals his real goal: a defense of New Age healing. Brown, a former Washington Post staff writer, first turned his attention to spiritual and psychic healing in 1993, when he landed an assignment from the New Yorker to write about how a New Age guru named Barbara Brennan was making scads of money off soft-headed East Hamptonites in kooky, touchy-feely holistic healing seminars. Armed with an expense account and a good deal of curiosity, he traveled to Long Island to observe some of these odd performances, in which Brennan claimed to channel spirit guides and to knit invisible energy fields on patients' chakras. Given his own chakra alignment as a freebie, Brown found, to his astonishment, that whatever it was that Brennan was doing actually made him feel better.
Intrigued, he hooked up with a student healer, a failed novelist named Rachel, and in the course of his continuing "treatment" she and others told him a few surprising things about himself: that his body had sword wounds sustained from previous lives, that "energy spiders" (whatever they are) were lodged in his astral back and that extraterrestrials were observing our world from an implant in his right eye.
Brown displays a jokey embarrassment as he relates -- and eventually begins to at least half-believe -- what his psychic friends tell him. And it's this embarrassment that keeps his account readable as he makes the unlikely transition from cynic to believer; he doesn't beat the reader over the head. (In attempting to prove that he's a normal enough guy, he also fills us in on his love life and even his investments.)
Still, a lot of this material is hard to take. Brown seems to think that by taking modern medicine down a peg in his first chapter he's raised the plausibility level of New Age thinking. He hasn't -- though he does have a point when he observes that not much of this stuff is substantially weirder than what he was raised to believe as a Catholic. Sailing cleanly off the deep end of what most of us consider reality hasn't hampered his ability to write. But ultimately, "Afterwards, You're A Genius" will be enjoyable for those who already believe; it won't persuade those who don't. Words can only go so far.