I’ve been blessed with a remarkable child. Easy-going, good-natured, highly verbal for his age, and a goddamn joy to be around. He’s also adorably cute. But even still, with a well-functioning child whose demands are reasonable of a normal two-year old, it can occasionally get exhausting. Parents need periodic breaks from LEGO, Eric Carle, or Hot Wheels, even if it’s only to transfer their attention to work. And any parent that tells you otherwise is either the most patient and accommodating person in the world, or already a little on the brain-dead side. Of course, even the most trying days are worth it all, because his eyes light up and he yells “Daaaadddy” when you walk into the room, or because he’ll occasionally crawl up on top of you and fall asleep during the middle of the afternoon while you’re watching football together.
But imagine a child-rearing scenario with ten or fifteen times the effort, and hardly any of the reward. In fact, the reward may simply be a few minutes in between tantrums. On the very best of days, he may sit a few moments by himself, or even speak your name. I suspect that, for a lot of parents of autistic children, that’s the way it goes. You have to give up everything — aspirations, time with your spouse, and even a life of your own — to care for a child who loudly demands and demands and demands.
That’s the situation that the Isaacson family is faced with in Horse Boy. When the parents of five-year-old Rowen discover that he’s autistic, it’s almost as though a child has died. They have to grieve over not the loss of the child, but the loss of their vision of the future. They’re forced to restructure their lives, and spend a large percentage of their day just trying to deal with their child’s bowel movements in between four-hour tantrums, hours in which the Isaacsons can’t engage with their son or reach an emotional place where they can console him. It’s an unimaginable scenario for me. I’m far too selfish a person to think that I could give up my sense of self, my identity, my life in order to constantly observe a situation I can’t control.
In Horse Boy, human rights activist Rupert Isaacson and his wife Kristen Neff, a psych professor, struggle with the dysfunction of their autistic child. However, Rupert stumbles upon a discovery one day, while riding horses with his son — Rowen is calmed by their presence. So the Isaacsons decide, after a little research, to go to Mongolia, where horses and — yes — shamans are still an everyday part of life.
How desperate must parents be to make a trek across Mongolia with a five-year-old autistic child?
But those are the stirring lengths that these parents are willing to go not just for their child’s well being, but presumably (though it’s unspoken) a taste of a little freedom. The weeks-long journey itself is a little weird (ritual floggings?), kind of scary, and completely off the grid. Through it all, the parents are cautiously optimistic, though Kristen remains skeptical up to the end, when a shaman does a trick on their son.
Does it work? Does Rowen leave Mongolia in a better place? Do his parents finally find some peace? Watch Michel Orion Scott’s painfully personal, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes inspiring, and always beautiful documentary to find out. It’s a beautiful odyssey, both enlightening and transformative.