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Homeopathy and the City: Dirty Bargains

by Elizabeth Kaye(more info)

listed in homeopathy, originally published in issue 137 - July 2007

Brixton: Summer. I walk down Railton Road, humming a little ditty by Eminem with which I am intimately acquainted, due to my son’s habit of playing it relentlessly at home lest we forget that, although we may think we live in leafy suburbia, the ghetto is just around the corner. As I move out of the path of an oncoming wino, I half-trip over some picture frames left on the pavement in a discarded heap. The glass is missing but they look like oak.

I pull the least damaged ones out of the pile. They are big and beautiful, and covered in cobwebby stuff, but  otherwise sound. I reckon, with one on each shoulder, I should be able to manage as far as Max’s house, then a cab home. I gird myself and look at my watch. I am late, but Max will not have noticed.

The lift splutters to a halt on the top floor. In the corridor there is a strong smell of pee and smoke from a recent spliff that hangs heavily in the air. Max’s door is open, and I struggle through with my picture frames to find him at his computer, his back towards me and the outside world. He turns his head, and looks me up and down. I realize from his expression that I am probably a bit dishevelled, sweaty from the effort of lugging two large rectangles of oak all the way down Railton Road. “Be with you in a minute,’’ he says, turning back to the computer. “So, what you got there, anyway?”

I feel suddenly exhausted from my exertion and hope the throbbing in my right shoulder will stop soon. I am grimy and damp, yet part of me is alight with the promise of my latest find.

“Dirty bargains,” I reply, and am just about to start recounting the lucky stumbling over of these beautiful pieces of wood when he slams his palm down on the desk.

“Fantastic!” he exclaims. “I’ve been sitting here all morning searching for the language of the city and you walk in with the perfect phrase.” He’s still got his back to me. I am thirsty. “Dirty bargains…” he types.

“Do I get a credit?” I ask. “Do I at least get something to drink?”

After lunch, we sit on Max’s balcony discussing his search for his birth mother. Apparently, he now has the address where she currently lives, but he is too scared to go there, or even write. He has filled in a lot of missing details since we last met, and leads me through a projected scenario of shock, recrimination, guilt, and continued psychic and emotional pain should he attempt to contact her. As I listen, trying to imagine what it is like to not know who your parents are, to lack a genealogical context, I appreciate how hard it is to visualize absence. I settle for the image of a mantelpiece full of family photographs, except the photos themselves are missing, the frames are empty.

“Isn’t it a little dangerous to sit with your back to an open door round here?” I ask. “Most people seem to have grilles and double mortise locks.”

“What’s the worst that can happen; I die in a hail of bullets?”

He smiles ironically and tries to manoeuvre his wheelchair past his plant pots and my outstretched legs. “Dessert?”

As I wheel him towards the kitchen, we pass my picture frames, now propped up against his desk. I’d temporarily forgotten about my new acquisitions and feel a jolt of pleasure at the sight of them.  A moment later, I feel a rush of helplessness as I look over the top of Max’s dark, curly head at his desk piled high with pamphlets on disability benefits and literature from The Adoption Society.

“Who was it who said the family is the void out of which you emerge and to which you must inevitably return in some kind of nihilistic surrender,” I murmur, not realizing I am thinking out loud.

“Well, whoever it was I doubt they said “kind of”, Max replies, running his finger through the cobwebby dust on top of one of the frames. As he directs me towards the strawberries lying in a colander in the sink, I suddenly realize my mistake. It is not the empty space within the frame that is the problem for Max – he can fill any space with the sheer force of his beautiful, wise and elaborate self. It’s that the frame itself is missing.

One of the major areas of enquiry in a homeopathic case-taking is the patient’s family medical history. No surprises there, as the acknowledgement of the relevance of inherited susceptibilities has resulted in the biggest scientific project of our time, the mapping of human genes. However, we Homeopaths take the information our patients give us concerning their parents, grandparents and siblings and use it somewhat differently to the medics. The patterns which make sense to us are those concerning the function of energy, and we see relationships between different physical conditions and events which, in the reductionist mindset of allopathic medicine, are unconnected. The discernment of a thread moving through generations of a family helps us to understand the causes of illness and the obstacles to cure. The fact that homeopathy provides remedies to counteract these obstacles is one reason why it is so effective at treating chronic conditions, and why it is able to strengthen the individual constitutional state.

Patients who have been adopted inevitably have a big blank in this area of their case notes. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter too much, though of course it matters to them. When Max took the bullet in his spinal cord during a savage mugging, it may have made sense to have previously known that his mother had been a teenage junkie who had given him away because she feared her pimp would brutalize him, but would it have stopped the bullet? One function of energy is to be perverse and, consequently, destructive.
Drug addiction and gun crime are homeopathic bedfellows, as well as sociological ones. Was there an inevitability to Max’s current situation, beyond the rational, statistical map concerning street warfare and young black men in the inner city? Could homeopathy have intervened? To claim that it could is to invite ridicule and accusations of being away with the fairies, so I’ll keep quiet, save to say that I have seen enough examples of destructive tendencies transform through homeopathic treatment into creative ones to wish I had known Max before he was felled – like an oak tree in the forest.

“I’m giving you my frames,’’ I say decisively, wiping strawberry juice from my chin.

“What for? I don’t have any pictures.”

“You’re a work in progress. You can fill them with yourself. Or… maybe… one for each parent, or… before and after, or…”

Max laughs at my desperation. He’s seen it all before, a thousand times. “Rub my feet for me, will you. They get so swollen in the heat.”

I gently raise one of his legs onto my lap and work my thumbs into the sole of his foot.

“Any idea when you’ll be getting a transfer to the ground floor?”

“I’ve got to learn to appear less self-sufficient first. Hard, when I have been doing it all my life. I cope too well, it counts against me.”

“Max, you’re a playwright. Just be dramatic.”

“You’re appallingly flippant sometimes, you know,” he says “Not much of a bedside manner”.

I continue to knead his foot and his puffy ankles, reflecting on how far Max travels daily without even leaving his flat. I am ashamed of the memory of my tiredness as I carried the oak frames through the street, a pleasant handicap to have had at the time and one of my own choosing.

“Look at it like this,” I suggest. “Your mother had to make dirty bargains to survive. The currency she dealt in wasn’t her choice. She did her best. Now you need to forgive, and to figure out what else you need in order to get out of the chair.”

Surprised at my own lucidity and its emphatic quality, I replace his leg and go in search of a hammer and nails.

“The drill’s in the cupboard by the front door”, he calls out. “Next to the ladder.”

Without pausing to wonder why Max could possibly need a ladder, I busy myself choosing the ideal spots for the two frames. My presumption that I know what he needs gives me a vigour which sees them up on the wall in no time. They look faintly absurd of course, framing pieces of blank wall. I’m covered in brick dust.

“Come and see,” I call, but he doesn’t answer. He’s fallen asleep in the sun. I find a pencil on his desk and write “Max is here,” on the wall inside one of the frames, “…and here,” inside the other. Then I put the tools away, wash the dishes, shake the dust from my hair and get ready to leave. Standing in the corridor, sniffing the rank air, I debate whether to close the front door. My baser instincts tell me that I should, my finer ones instruct me to leave it open. Max sleeps on in the sun.


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About Elizabeth Kaye

Elizabeth Kaye qualified as a homeopath in 1998 and works in London, both in private practice and as part of a team delivering low-cost complementary therapies through a publicly funded agency. She can be contacted on

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