The Book That Changed My Life: A Lifelong Journey

The Book That Changed My LifeWhen I was a sophomore in college, I read the book that changed my life. I was considering a major in religious studies, and took the required foundation course. On our syllabus were books and articles looking at many different religions from various points of view: theological, psychological, historical, sociological, anthropological. One book caught my eye: Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians.

The title intrigued me for a very late-1970s reason. I had tried peyote a few years earlier, as the guest of friends-of-friends on a Navajo reservation. It was the most adventurous drug-related thing I ever had ever done, and I was disappointed (and a little relieved) that nothing happened. But something very powerful did happen when I read Peyote Hunt.

Let me back up and make a confession. As a teenager, I thought I was right about everything. (Shocking, I know.) Specifically, I thought my religion was right. True. The only one. I grew up Jewish in a small city in Pennsylvania. My father was an immigrant and an Orthodox Jew. In a compromise with my mother, he joined the Reform synagogue when they married. My parents brought me up with Shabbat dinners, synagogue every week, and Hebrew school. I had a very positive association with all things Jewish and a quiet confidence that we were right and everyone else — Christians, especially (because that’s who I knew) — were misguided. I felt secretly sorry for them, except on Christmas.

Peyote Hunt was written by a (Jewish) anthropologist named Barbara G. Myerhoff. She lived with the Huichol (they refer to themselves as the Wixáritari), interviewed them, and shared their world, especially the annual hunt for peyote, which they use in their religious ceremonies.

Then came my second (and more potent) experience with peyote.

Somewhere in the middle of the book I had an epiphany: these people truly believe that their religion is right. Just like I believed Judaism was right. And why did I think that I was right and they weren’t? I don’t know how Myerhoff did it, or why exactly I reacted the way I did, but it was as if the world became clear and bright. A veil had been lifted, and I knew that my worldview was no more right than theirs, or anybody’s.

The Huichol people (or Wixáritari) had a truth, and my truth was no more true than their truth.

I cannot overemphasize what a profound, transformative experience reading this book was. It changed forever the way I looked at the world, and at other people and their beliefs. This book started me on a journey I hope never to finish.

I ended up majoring in religious studies, which, it turned out, was perfect preparation for writing the kinds of books I do. The discipline taught me how to ask questions and how to look at a subject or a person from many different angles. It taught me open-mindedness and respect for people’s beliefs, customs, rituals.

Peyote Hunt came out in 1974, and I read it around 1977. I imagine if I read it again I might not have the same reaction. Parts of it might seem dated in the way that some anthropological writing from back then is now. My experience of reading it changed me forever. And for that I will always be grateful. So if you don’t mind I’d like to keep the book on my shelf, closed, and close to my heart.

From the May/June 2018 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference. For more in this series click the tag Book That Changed My Life.
Deborah Heiligman
Deborah Heiligman
Deborah Heiligman is the winner of the 2017 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction for Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers (Godwin/Holt).

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