Photo by Robert Burroughs
We form a ‘‘prayer circle ” and exchange what seem to be obligatory hugs.
Eydie Mae Hunsberger’s breasts contain six lumps of cancer. She has come to lecture here at the Hippocrates Health Institute, and she’s generating vitality like a cheerleader at a pep rally. So many people jam the room that some have to sit at her feet; they stare up at the slim body and wonder how the thirty-five-year-old face can belong to a woman of fifty-one. But mostly, they all hang onto Hunsberger’s words, for she’s more than a pep rally mascot, she’s living proof of the faith that lures folks to this Lemon Grove enclave.
Raychel Solomon: “You’re probably toxic, dear.”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Nowadays, Eydie Mae’s mental attitude focuses only on the positive; now only “live,” raw foods pass her lips, and her colon knows the regular kiss of wheatgrass juice. Rut once, she and her husband Am were the typical American couple. “I ate junk foods and the so-called standard American diet for years,” she confesses to the group. “My body gave back to me what I gave to it. ” When she checked into the Hippocrates Health Institute in Boston (six years ago), she was terminally ill, in pain, and taking 300 pills a day.
Joe Prince: "When you think of it, all the fastest animals in the world eat grass.”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Within two weeks she and Arn had learned the Hippocrates program. They had mastered the technique of the cleansing enemas. They’d learned how to sprout legumes, and how to ferment wheat berries, and how to assemble the odd-looking substances into meals. Their minds had accepted the belief that the body’s natural state is one of health. Soon Eydie Mae’s body seemed to begin to accept it, too.
"The program is not for older people: it’s not for diseased people. It’s just for people who want to live!”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Listening to the torrent of inspiration, I sneak glances at the group around me and try to figure out why it makes me uncomfortable. People tell me all the time that their particular organizations include “all types of people,” and usually that’s never accurate; but it dawns on me that this group really does embrace all sorts. In front of me sits a muscular young black man under a wide halo of thick hair; across from him hunches an emaciated old lady in a wheelchair. I can count a middle-aged suburban couple and a young woman in blue jeans and a pudgy, wool-suited business type from Clairemont. True heterogeneity is unsettling; I’m fascinated by whatever unites these disparate individuals.
I cover my plate with mung, alfalfa, lentil, and fenugreek sprouts; sauerkraut; tender greens produced from sunflower seeds and buckwheat. I cover the mound with sauce, another fermented mixture based around avocado.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Some do look seriously ill, and I feel obliged to sniff around for whiffs of cancer quackery, but at the outset the prospect of finding it doesn’t look too promising. The charges for a week’s stay at Hippocrates—ranging from $250 for a private room with a bath, down to as little as $100 for students who work four hours a day — hardly smack of colossal profits; plus, many of the people who fill this room look healthy.
Suddenly I’m struck by the memory of that scene from Sleeper, in which Woody Allen wakes up 200 years from now to be told that mankind has discovered that the real health foods are chocolate sundaes and French Fries. We know so little about nutrition today that it’s just absurdly, hilariously possible that it’s best to eat sundaes rather than soybeans. Yet these defenders of Hippocrates are no longer confused; they’ve found the truth and they’ve even institutionalized it.
It is early Sunday afternoon in the office of Raychel Solomon, and the new guests for the week are arriving. Solomon is the founder and director of Hippocrates West (the only chapter of a parent organization in Boston). She’s a well-coiffed, birdlike woman who flutters about the grounds keeping a sharp eye on everything and indiscriminately hugging members of her flock. It is difficult to imagine what led her to this path for proper living. Once she was a busy San Diego socialite, married to developer Lewis Solomon, mother of prominent attorney Herbert Solomon, publisher for ten years of the Southwestern Jewish Press (now The Heritage). But she says she had always harbored a concern about health and nutrition, and finally she chanced upon Eydie Mae Hunsberger’s autobiography, How I Conquered Cancer Naturally. Responding to the call of the faith, Solomon trained in Boston under the founder of Hippocrates, then returned to open a branch in El Cajon two and a half years ago.
Since then, she says about 1500 people have checked in from all over the world, and in November Solomon moved everything to the larger quarters on three and a half lushly landscaped acres off Central Avenue in Lemon Grove (former home to the Hilltop Chateau retirement complex). The scattered buildings accommodate up to ninety residents at a time, but Solomon has been satisfied with weekly groups of thirty to forty. The educational program repeats every week, but participants are encouraged to stay three weeks in order to fully learn the program and to allow for “complete detoxification.”
The director looks thin but healthy; however, I find she won’t tell me if she had once been sick. Talk of illness promotes a negative mental attitude, and this is a Hippocrates no-no. Solomon even makes new guests sign an application in which they promise to “always be cheerful. ... I will not speak about any present illness or past illnesses to anyone. ” It continues: “I recognize the fact that the institute is not able to offer special medical or health care to any individual and serves mainly in the capacity of teaching a philosophy of living involving fasting and diet.”
Someone appears at the door, a woman named Diane. Her age is impossible to guess. Her body sags, overweight, but she has the face of a ten-year-old-boy, and she informs Solomon that she has no home address. She’s here, she announces, because she’s gone through the Boston program, but she’s since transgressed; she wants to return to the fold. Carbohydrates are her nemesis.
“I ate seven pints of ice cream once in one day. . . . It’s like being an alcoholic. ”
“Oh, Diane,” Solomon murmurs in mixed disgust and sympathy.
A few minutes later, an efficient-looking middle-aged woman appears. She looks affluent, wears glasses, and her center-parted hair pulls back into a bun. She tells Solomon that she and her husband have just returned from three weeks in Mexico, where they’d sought a cure for his cancer-ravaged liver. Friends had highly recommended Hippocrates, and now she wants to know what it involves.
“Well, it’s all nutritional,” Solomon tells her.
“Oh, it’s nutritional?” She seems to be expecting to hear specific promises and looks disappointed when they’re not forthcoming. “Well, of course my husband has been diagnosed as terminal, and he’s taking a lot of painkillers. What do you say about that?”
“We do recommend that when you’re at the institute you stop all painkillers,” Solomon warns her. “Because, you know, it’s poison. “The woman nods. “If you’re putting it in faster than the body can eliminate it, you’re not going to get very far. But we find that the wheatgrass does seem to help the pain.”
The woman hesitates; she asks whether she could take some wheatberries home. Solomon interrupts. “But if he’s terminal, isn’t time of the essence? . . . We’ve had people who’ve been told they’re terminal and we’ve seen some remarkable things. ”
“Have you had much luck with liver cancer?” the woman asks, brightening up.
“It doesn't really matter what it is, whether it’s arthritis or migraines or cancer,” Solomon replies, adding that health is natural. “If you get the system working properly, the body will cure itself.”
Others drift in throughout the afternoon: an older blue-collar couple from Portland, a young British woman who walks in nursing her two-year-old daughter, another couple inquiring about Solomon’s track record with something that sounds like “lupus hematosis.”
How do they all find out about this place?” 1 ask Solomon during a short break in the parade.
“Talk to them yourself and ask them,” she invites me.
Early Tuesday afternoon I return, primed to spend the next day and a half among the inmates. 1 arrive too late for lunch. Plates are already being cleared away from the dining room. “I’ve also missed the morning’s class on digestion, but I’m just in time for what promises to be a highlight of the week, a critical lecture on elimination.
Leading the session is a glowing blond named Linda, who stands in front of several colored charts of the colon. The table next to her displays a sinister-looking bucket, a catheter, and a tube of K-Y Jelly. After a brief, matter-of-fact lecture on organs of elimination, she buckles right down to the nitty gritty. “First take a deep breath and prepare yourself and relax, because mainly it is the idea of an enema that is disconcerting, or some old experience. And you find that as you take responsibility as an adult and do it in a correct way.
it’s not that big a deal.”
She launches into a lurid description of putrefaction, which she says can impact the large intestine. She warns, “Believe me, what you can get out of the colon is amazing. So don’t be surprised at what you see come out! ” Step by step, she describes the procedure for evacuating the wastes. Expressions in the room vary from grim concentration to rapt attention. Then Linda explains how everyone should follow the enema with a wheatgrass “implant,” using the colon catheter to introduce four ounces of wheatgrass juice into the newly cleaned organ. “Hold the wheatgrass for twenty minutes, then expel it.”
She doesn’t have to explain the wheat-grass to this group. People here venerate wheatgrass; it’s a cornerstone of the Hippocrates program, which was assembled more than forty years ago by an eastern Lithuanian immigrant named Ann Wigmore. Wigmore reportedly learned most of the secrets of natural living at a young age, from the knee of her grandmother, a folk doctor whose repertoire included burying little Ann in warm swamp mud and patching up wounded soldiers with stale rye-straw bread-and-goat- milk poultices. But by the time Ann moved to America, she had forgotten the principles of her youth until deteriorating health finally prodded her back to the basics. Once there, she assembled the program of spiritual principles, exercise, and diet, and discovered the wonders of wheatgrass (‘ ‘the green sprouts of ordinary wheat. . . which subsequent events suggested was capable of helping Mother Nature to mend shattered health and to extend the life span”).
The Lemon Grove students are studying Wigmore’s program, unadulterated. As part of it, they’re urged to drink three ounces of the undiluted fluid twice a day and to give themselves two wheatgrass implants following the method Linda is describing. Everyone takes notes eagerly and she urges them on. “Have fun doing your enemas!” she concludes.
One student, a sturdy young black man named Joe Prince, interrupts the flow. He’s a world-class athlete, a sprinter, and he’s obviously developing doubts. He describes his chagrin this morning at finding that he lacked the energy to train as usual. “It just seems like this diet and the enemas and everything are geared toward older people,” he complains hesitantly.
“No. Don’t get your purposes confused,” Linda answers him in a firm tone. “If you’re on the Hippocrates program. you are healing and cleansing the organs of your body. You couidn’t keep up that level of activity when you’re healing and cleansing. Sometimes you feel just as weak as a baby. At the time you resume I’m sure you will go back at a higher level. Then you could probably eat less than anybody, run further, and excrete less. The program is not for older people: it’s not for diseased people. It’s just for people who want to live!”
After the session, Joe explains that he’s entered the program at the urging of the middle-aged couple with whom he lives, raw food devotees from Corona Del Mar. They ’re obviously concerned about Joe’s history of cancer. He tells me how it was diagnosed in his abdomen four years ago (when he was twenty), just one day after he had run the second fastest hundred-yard dash in the nation. The next day he’d found himself on the operating table. Now, apparently cancer-free, Joe had set his sights on the 1980 Olympic gold medal for the 200-meter, but the comeback road had been tortuous. So he’d grown understandably alarmed when the sudden switch from his meat-and-potatoes diet had cost him six pounds in less than two days.
Nonetheless, he says he plans to stick it out, at the very least out of gratitude to his benefactors. ‘‘Perseverance has always been my strongest point. I’m not a quitter. . . . And when you think of it, all the fastest animals in the world eat grass.”
I return to my dormitory to meet my two roommates, Diane, the compulsive ice cream eater, and Melanie. The latter, a Hungarian-born resident of Vancouver, has made the pilgrimage to Lemon Grove because she wants to assemble an advanced degree in holistic health care. She looks too husky to be surviving entirely on raw foods, and she has a refreshingly down-to-earth sense of humor. She tells me that she can barely stomach the wheat-grass; it’s clear she won’t continue drinking it after she leaves here.
When dinner finally rolls around at 6:30, a small group first assembles in the living room of the main building. No smells of cooking food greet us as we form a ‘‘prayer circle ” and exchange what seem to be obligatory hugs. Then I grab a plate and silverware and get my first good look at the meal.
The only conventional vegetables in sight—slices of raw carrots, radishes, and green beans—cover one woefully inadequate-looking tray. To my further dismay, everyone seems to be restraining themselves to taking just a few pieces, less than half of what I’d normally devour as an appetizer. But the only acceptable course of action is to follow suit and cover the bare regions of my plate with the remaining offerings: mung, alfalfa, lentil, and fenugreek sprouts; sauerkraut; tender greens produced from sunflower seeds and buckwheat. I cover the mound with sauce, another fermented mixture based around avocado, then proceed to one of the larger wooden tables.
I like sprouts, so most of the tastes don’t come as much of a shock, although the sunflower greens have a strong, exotic flavor. I find myself clearing the plate in an alarmingly short time, yet I’m too embarrassed to return for more, particularly since the majority of my table companions are finishing the first day of a three-day juice fast.
Most of them are white-haired, older women who all appear to be in glowing good health, one from Jacumba, another from Hillcrcst, a couple from the Newport Beach area. Next to me sits one seventy-two-year-old woman from the Bay Area who could easily pass for fifty-five. She preaches happily to the whole table, and proudly shows me her teeth, which she claims have been growing in more thickly since she first underwent a new therapy technique called rebirthing. On her right sits her husband, a shadow-thin man who quickly escapes to the living room.
An evening lecture has been cancelled, so there’s nothing to do but move from one person to another, interviewing them like suspects in some mystery story. The tale I collect from one resident particularly shakes me. She’s Janice, the British-born woman with the little girl, who lives with her husband in a rented Clairemont house. Extremely thin, she looks sallow, but she had seemed too young for me to believe that she was seriously ill. Yet she tells me four doctors have diagnosed with certainty that she’s got an advanced case of breast cancer.
‘‘But I won’t let them do a biopsy,” she says calmly, ‘‘because you know every time they do one you only get more lumps. Besides, what good would it do?” Instead, she’d discovered Eydie Mae Hunsberger’s testimony and had checked into Hippocrates in desperation. Today she looks worse than she did on Sunday.
She says the juice fast and enemas are exhausting her, but her faith in the program remains unshaken. In fact, she points out that a month ago she had been in such pain that she hadn’t been able to pick up her daughter. Then she’d begun eating raw foods three weeks before entering the institute (though she’d been a vegetarian, she had cooked her food). ‘‘And I began to feel better almost immediately. I felt more clear-headed, and also, the pain started withdrawing.” I ask her how she thinks she ’ll know if the program is working, since she refuses to consult a doctor.
"I think I ’ll know by the way I feel, also by the appearance of the lumps.”
That night Diane and Melanie and I all turn out our bedside lights by 10:15. Sleepiness has overwhelmed my roommates, and my stomach is wrestling with hunger. I’m up by 7:30 the next morning, however, to join the “polarity” exercise class.
Only about eight of us turn out for the series of yoga-type exercises, and half those in the group don’t make it through each of them. For me the high point comes when we each slowly massage our own feet, and Elizabeth, the instructor, points out the “reflex areas.” (Reflexology teaches that different parts of the feet correspond to various parts of the body, and stimulation can produce beneficial effects.)
“Ouch! That hurts! What’s this, Elizabeth?” cries one older woman, pointing to the ball of her foot.
“That's the thyroid. Now really work on it,” the instructor declares sagely. Another woman hits so many sore spots on her feet that she seems ready to give up, declaring that her entire body is a mess.
At 8:30 we stop for breakfast, where cut watermelon is the only dish. I’m relieved that everyone at least seems to be piling his plate high, and the melon tastes delicious compared to the watermelon-rind juice being sipped by those who are fasting. Gossip spices up the meal at my table when one old man whispers that he heard my roommate Diane confessing a transgression to Solomon the day before. “She said she'd broken down and gone out and eaten seven tacos,” he declares.The audacity of the relapse takes our breath away.
Diane betrays no signs of guilt, but she doesn’t join the rest of us for that morning’s wheatgrass-planting class, which assembles at the growing area in back of my dormitory. There we meet Henry, sullen and middle-aged, who speaks with a pronounced Scandinavian accent and wears an American Health Spas T-shirt featuring a picture of a body builder. He curtly orders his listeners to hold their questions to the end. and announces he won’t speak loudly because he has a sore throat. So we cluster around to hear, straining to catch his words as he launches into a complex lecture on soil preparation.
This session is supposed to teach us all how to grow our own vital greens, both the wheatgrass and the table greens of buckwheat and sunflower. Henry dumps a pound of soaked wheat seed to cover an eighteen-inch flat of dirt, then leads us into the “dark room,” where the seeds germinate for the first few days. Then we move on to “The Cathedral,” a shaded outdoor section sheltering row upon row of luxuriant emerald wheatgrass. Each flat of it looks as if it might have been cut from some monster golf course, thick and rich and hardy. I notice that The Cathedral ironically overlooks a Burger King in the valley below us.
When Henry finally gets rid of us, I face an anxious moment; I’ve got to taste the wheatgrass juice myself. In the juicing room, students are frantically shoving the greenery into electric grinders and cranking manual ones, hurrying to squeeze out four ounces for their intestinal implants before lunch time nears. The electric machines thrum like hungry beasts, but the smell in the room overpowers everything. It’s a moist, penetrating odor, like freshly cut lawn, intensely concentrated. By the time the room empties. I’m fighting serious doubts. But I extract about an ounce of Ann Wigmore’s elixir, then carry it to a solitary outpost to sample it.
The opaque liquid falls somewhere between Kelly and forest green and has the consistency of milk; it is topped with lime-colored froth. I ready my tongue, try not to inhale the smell, and when I finally sip it, the taste is even stronger than I had anticipated. I’m shocked at its sweetness, a cloying, nauseating sweetness, which departs to leave a stubborn, bitter aftertaste. I try it once more, then break down completely and dump the remaining liquid on the ground.
On the way to lunch, I run into Raychel Solomon and tell her about my negative reaction. Her comments are clipped and sour. “You’re probably toxic, dear,” she says patronizingly. “Whenever I get toxic I find I can’t hold it down, but normally I think it’s just fine.”
Lunch differs little from the previous dinner, except there’s a different sauce, no sauerkraut, and instead of the vegetable slices, we can select a finely diced mixture 'that looks like organic confetti. My curiosity about the institute is beginning to dwindle, but I decide to stay for the 1:30 lecture—everything we always wanted to know about sprouting.
Carol, the instructor, is one of the staff members. All the staff members are thin, intense-looking young people who’ve been so impressed by the program that they decide to commit at least six months of their lives to it. Because the weather is beautiful, Carol sets up chairs on the lawn, then dispenses detailed directions for producing the food. "I feel most of the sprouts like being in the glass jars.'’ she tells us.
“Alfalfas like to be touched; they like to be moved. Whereas mungs like to be in one place and they like a little pressure.”
I've been here for twenty-six hours and my learning curve is beginning to plateau, so I seek out Solomon to thank her for her hospitality. “Well, what do you think of our institute?" she presses me. ‘ ‘Can't you see the change in some people just from Sunday?”
I don’t know quite what to say. Some of the people look happy and healthy, but others still look ill. and one or two of those on fasts, such as Janice, look worse than they did when they checked in. I think of one woman whom Solomon had told me had been crying when she checked in. She now looks content and healthy, but someone else has since told me that the woman's husband (and not she) had been the ill one. I mention this to Solomon, and her smile instantly turns frosty. “We don't talk about illness here, dear,” she reminds me pointedly.
Driving home. I think of my conversation with Elizabeth Kellogg, who'd flown in from Kansas City to enroll in the institute. Elizabeth was another whose looks deceived; at thirty-nine she could have passed for twenty-eight. A welfare office employee, she’d told me that she was divorced and free of the responsibility of caring for her nineteen-year-old son. “My whole life is physical fitness and nutrition,” she had said with absolute seriousness. “I have two interests in life, and that’s them.”
While planning her vacation, a chiropractor boyfriend had told her about Hippocrates, and the more she thought about it, the more the idea appealed to her. Three days into the program, she'd told me she was very impressed by it. “I'm very drained but I know I’m really detoxifying.” Yet Elizabeth was unsure whether she’d continue with it after she returned home. “After all, I work a forty-hour week and I just wonder about spending all this time. I know I couldn’t do anything in the morning, and when you come home at night there’s only so much time then. Plus, I do like having some social life. You just can’t say, ‘Sorry, I can’t go out tonight, I have to give myself an enema.’ That’s bizarre!
“I do know one thing,” she had mused. “I know if I was sick—if I had cancer, or high blood pressure, or a heart condition — I’d follow the program without hesitation. I would do anything to stay in peak, prime physical condition. But I’m healthy and I’m just trying to decide how much sacrifice I’m willing to accept. I don’t know how bad off I am.”
Then she had mentioned something which had startled me. She’d pointed out that she thought she was the only person enrolled who was perfectly healthy.
"What about Gloria?” 1 had countered, thinking of one radiant older woman who’d sat at my dinner table.
“Gloria has cancer.” she had told me. As Elizabeth pointed out other maladies I hadn’t noticed, 1 found one answer to my initial question, it turns out that most — not merely a few — of the people who come to this program do so with death and illness nipping at their heels. It takes a personal crisis to lead them to the dietary extreme. But that’s still not a satisfying conclusion, for there are others, like Elizabeth and Melanie and the staff members, who come merely seeking greater health. And even if there were none of them at all, even if everyone who came to the program was ill, it would still prove nothing about the intrinsic value of eating raw foods, maintaining a positive outlook on life, or consuming wheatgrass juice.
In fact, there are no easy conclusions; I still wonder about cancer quackery. I’m convinced that Raychel Solomon sincerely believes the program can save people, and I’m also convinced she’s not preying upon the desperate. Yet the program also is badly, blatantly presented not just as a cure for cancer, but as a cure for everything; if you follow it, your ills will fade, its defenders believe. Is that practicing medicine without proper authority? How can it be, when diet, mental attitudes, and enemas aren’t really medicine, by definition?
And will one’s ills fade? I know that some people seem to derive value from the program and endorse it wholeheartedly, but I know that others, such as Joe Prince, the athlete, now have misgivings. (Later I found that Joe dropped out after two weeks instead of three. Although he admitted that his introduction to raw foods had been valuable, he had lost seventeen pounds and concluded. "The people, to me, are more afraid of dying than anything. ”) Most importantly, I know that a definitive answer to the fundamental question—What is the best health regimen?—will not be found in anecdotes and twenty-six-hour inspections.