Hands: Ruth's Story of Healing
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
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.