There are lots of rules at the Brandywine Apartments on Connecticut Avenue NW. You can’t have pets. You can’t leave your car in the front driveway. Visitors have to sign in at the front desk. No loud parties after 10 p.m. on school nights or after midnight on weekends.
There are a few other activities that aren’t expressly prohibited, but probably wouldn’t go over very well in the neat-as-a-pin complex in upper Northwest. Like, say, a massive bonfire. Or a raucous ritual dance calling forth ancient spirits. Tearing apart a chicken’s neck and sprinkling the blood on a sick child is almost certainly on the prohibited list. You can’t even bang a drumwhich is a bit of handicap when you are one of the foremost practitioners of voodoo on the planet.
In his modest two-bedroom apartment in the Brandywine, Max Beauvoir, a once-powerful priest in the world of voodoo, sits on a billowy couch, recounting the unannounced visit from his property manager telling him to stop beating his drum. This never would have happened in Haiti. Drum-beating was the least of what was going on in his voodoo temple.
Still. No matter. All is OK. “It is not a bad life,” the voodoo priest reflects, in a slightly clipped Creole accent, smiling broadly as the central air conditioning soothes him on a humid June afternoon. His belly is well-fed; his cigarettes come in fancy boxes; he certainly wants for nothingespecially in comparison with his youth in Haiti. Elisabeth, his wife, walks in from some shopping with their oldest daughter Estelle, who is visiting from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. His other daughter, Rachel, will be visiting soon as well.
Absent historical context, it isn’t a bad life. All of the conveniences of the modern world are within easy reach. But Beauvoir’s tenure in Haiti casts a strong shadow, eclipsing the picture of Western domestic tranquility. He has his acolytes, and one of the rooms in the apartment is reserved for services, but none of it approaches the kingdom of magic and might Beauvoir (pronounced bo-VWAH) once presided over.
Night after night, Beauvoir’s templethe Peristyle de Mariani, right outside Port-au-Princewould surprise and enchant its visitors. Kennedys and diplomats and Broadway producers would pop in, sitting alongside Haitian peasantry and other voodoo priests from throughout the small nation. From 1974 until 1994, Beauvoir was one of the most respected voodoo priests on the island, enjoying celebrity, power, and great esteem.
His eminence is manifest in both literature and folklore. When Harvard anthropologist Wade Davis came to Haiti in 1982 to research what would become his acclaimed book on Haiti, voodoo, and zombiesThe Serpent and the Rainbowit was Beauvoir to whom he turned for help. When television documentarians visited the island, Beauvoir’s stern, handsome face would inevitably end up representing the religion and culture for the folks at home. He was as comfortable drinking cocktails at embassies as he was slicing open the neck of a live pig (a sacrifice to the goddess of love) in the remotest Haitian villages.
That kind of power and prestige didn’t come without enemies, and in 1994terrified of growing violence against those who practiced voodoo and worried that his opposition to Jean-Bertrand Aristide would target him for a bad endBeauvoir and his wife fled Haiti. Six months later the Beauvoirs moved to Washington, D.C., where some speculate he leads voodoo ceremonies for a mysterious band of Haitians formerly allied with “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the infamous dictator who led a nasty and bloodthirsty regime until 1986. At least one American journalist and one expert on Haiti from the human rights community insist that Beauvoir got a little too chummy with Duvalier’s followers. They suggest his exile is a flight from consequence.
Beauvoir brushes such accusations aside with a wave of his large hand, explaining that his power in Haiti was merely religious and cultural in nature, the kind of leadership he is attempting to re-create in Washington. He has not succeeded in completely replicating what once was. His congregation here is closer to 40 than to the 400 who called the Peristyle their spiritual home.
His ceremonies are not quite what they once were, either. A few weeks ago, Beauvoir attempted to preside over a low-key voodoo ceremony in Rock Creek Park with just a couple of dozen believers and one relatively small drum. But even though it was noon on Sunday, someone filed a noise complaint, and D.C. police came and politely asked him and his flock to disperse. So much for voodoo’s power to bring the world to heel.
Beauvoir says he’s “very limited by the fact that sometimes you need a big fire to do a [voodoo] treatment, and I cannot do that….The Fire Department will not allow that. Or sometimes you need big sacrifices. Sometimes you need drumming and singing vigorously, and even this is also limited….Of course, there’s always the possibility of putting [my patients back] together.” But still, his hands are rather tied.
“It’s not right, really, is it?” says anthropologist and sometime D.C. resident Davis, of Beauvoir’s new, more modest, life. “It’s tragic, really.”
Beauvoir continues to be flown all over the globe by voodoo initiates and believers in nontraditional medicine, but now he barely makes the rent in a life of complete anonymity. He feels and looks out of place here, puttering around in the produce section of the local Giant, meekly apologizing to his building’s property manager. This is a man who traverses the hemisphere to sacrifice animals to omnipotent powers, after all.
But even if he is without drum and without portfolio, it seems likely that somethingfate or a friend or spiritwill thrust him again into power and prominence. The spirits have a way of working for Beauvoir, so, even as he modestly shakes his head at his present circumstances, he remains supremely confident that he will eventually be led back to his people and country and the Peristyle, all of which wait for him hundreds of miles south of his apartment on Connecticut.
Two African-Americans and one man from Benin sit patiently in the Brandywine’s lobby, waiting to be summoned by Beauvoir. They have arrived about 10 minutes early for the Sunday voodoo prayer service, but Beauvoir is a man for whom precision is important.
After Beauvoir calls the front desk to signal that he is readyat 11:30 a.m. sharphis visitors walk down the long hallways to suite 328. They’ve come to pray in the Temple of Yehwe, what Beauvoir calls “an offshoot of the Peristyle de Mariani,” which is actually a small converted bedroom rife with ritual objects. Beauvoir greets the three guests at the door, clasping their hands warmly, his booming voice and slyly content smile disarming them.
His skin is smooth and the color of dull mahogany, his frame stocky and slightly expanding around the middle, his white hair lending him even greater authority. The cosmopolitan Beauvoir always seems to be holding back somewhat; he’s warm, but always slightly removed.
He surveys the scene from his thronea white leather armchair that no one else even tries to sit inas congregants slowly spill into the apartment. The regal manner complements his flowing gray African robe and the pointy white leather shoes peeking out underneath.
The room frequently fills with Beauvoir’s phlegmy laugh, the sound of a man who always has a pack of ritzy butts on hand. In Wes Craven’s 1988 film version of The Serpent and the Rainbow, the Beauvoir-ish character was played by Paul Winfield, who came close to his stately yet accessible mien. He is a man who speaks in extremesthings he likes are “fantastic” and “wonderful”and with a touch of the New Age salesman who uses your name over and over in conversation.
Within half an hour, the voodoo initiates have filled the small living room and taken their places on three soft couches, amid Haitian sculptures. Two congregants discuss Beauvoir’s new Web site (www.vodou.org), while behind them a sculpture depicting the voodoo version of Creation pokes out from the middle of a makeshift forest of three large potted plants. Above Beauvoir’s desk a cement-colored sculpture of the three-horned wise man Bosu hangs. The congregants chat, framed by the artifacts, munching on cheese and crackers, Doritos, and grapes.
Beauvoir sits with his oldest daughter Estelle while Elisabeth supervises the food and drink. The doorbell rings; Beauvoir claps his hands twice, and the new guest enters. Many bring gifts for the Beauvoirs, art with voodoo themes that they present with respect. They call the Beauvoirs “Papa” and “Mama.”
Most of the worshipers are black Americans interested in a religion that is more historically “theirs” than either Christianity or Islam, a tradition that dates back to Africa long before slavery. Many come to Beauvoir for more personal reasons, seeking his counsel for direction and motivation. Beauvoir describes some of his flock as “40-year-old men with master’s degrees who are still slaving along in minimum-wage jobs….I am glad to say that it has changed beautifully for them.” Thanks to the spirits they have been able to summon with his assistance, they now have gratifying careers and are happy, he says.
Still other of his worshipers are “in and out of jail, young black men….Since I met them, they have been running an organized life….Some of them are even climbing the ladders of spirituality and doing very well.” Some of his congregants are sick”physically, mentally, addicted to drugs.” He provides them with treatments for their ailments and guidance in how to use their inner spirits.
The service begins when Beauvoir claps his hands: “All right, everybody,” he says. They all shuffle into the teeny temple, which is already crowded with colorful wall hangings, gourds, swords, candles, bottles of liquor and perfume, stools, benches, and 11 small wooden chairs. While the others were milling about and making small-talk, dreadlocked congregant Jeffery Young was making the vévé, the carefully designed symbol on the floor of the temple (which, in my ignorance, reminds me of the symbol for the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, with a couple of snakes tacked on for good measure). Young prostrates himself and kisses the vévé he has painstakingly painted with the chalky powder.
Beauvoir sits against the wall with Estelle and, after everyone has been seated, begins:
“Ayi, booboo,” he says, which translates as
The congregation repeats the tribute: “Ayi, booboo.”
They begin chanting in both Creole and African dialects. Most of the congregants seem to know the words, though a few gaze down at the homemade prayer-book folders. They occasionally stand and spin around, first clockwise, then counterclockwise, then clockwise again. Beauvoir sprays the crowd with a floral perfume. Waves of rapid clap- clap-clapping break at alternating volume and energy. Estelle and her father light various candles, occasionally tapping a dull sword on the floor. A few times during the service, the room is filled with a woo woo woo woo!, remarkably like the sound a kid makes imitating an Indian.
Rachel (pronounced Ra-SHELL), Beauvoir’s youngest daughter, is visiting from Haiti with her new husband. She dances in the hallway by the door to the temple, charming the few late arrivals with her warm embrace and jubilance. Eric Hill, a D.C. stagehand whom Beauvoir has trained to be a voodoo priest, leads many of the prayers as Beauvoir alternately nods his head and furrows his brow.
Despite the Caribbean and African origins of the ceremony, it all seems familiar: a language I barely understand, a weekend morning when I’d rather be outside or nappingI might as well be cooling my heels in synagogue. As the hourlong service progresses, the room divides into the enthusiastic, the quiet, and those who split time between the two moods. Late arrivals poke their heads in sheepishly while the more punctual eagerly accommodate them. One of the two little girls in the room stares at the floor, tired and bored; the other fidgets good-naturedly.
The only moment of “voodoo”nessmy cinematically conceived version of it, anywaycomes at the end of the service, when Estelle stands and a path is cleared between her and the corner of the room where the spookiest icon in the apartment stands: a sculpture of Baron Samedi, the tuxedo-clad, cigar-smoking skeleton who is guardian of graveyards. Samedi presides over a small altar, which includes two plastic skulls atop a black-patterned tablecloth. Estelle bows before Baron Samedi, saluting him with the clockwise-counterclockwise-clockwise spin. She pours three drops of a mixtureof sugar cane, white rum, leaves, and hot peppersinto a bowl for Samedi, then takes a swig of it herself. The altar is the only item that gives me the spookies, but they linger, and later on I remember not to back into the table.
An hour into the service, as suddenly as it started, Beauvoir says, “Thank you very much,” and it is over. Beauvoir usually gives a 30-minute sermon about halfway through, but family obligations make him a little pressed for time today.
The crowd returns to the living room for a lingering cocktail party-like event that is as much a part of the proceedings as the prayer inside the temple. Beauvoir resumes his place on the white leather chair while the crowd converses and munches on the snacks and a dish of potatoes, cabbage, and carrots that one of the guestsan older Jamaican womanhas brought. Elisabeth breaks out a couple of bottles of white wine from her native France; a third of the room takes advantage of Beauvoir’s very liberal smoking policy.
Soon Beauvoir claps his hands and calls upon individuals to share. Raheem Rafiuddin, a 34-year-old T-shirt vendor who is one of five people who make the weekly trek from Richmond, eagerly goes first, reading a poem that explains the role of the spirits in his life. Since he started to pray with Beauvoir eight months ago, Rafiuddin says, his once-chaotic life has found order. “I had a lot of confusion in my life,” he says, “and a lot of things seem to have balanced themselves out.” Where he once bickered incessantly with his girlfriend of five years, Rafiuddin says voodoo has given him an “ability to understand people”; the two now get along much better and recently became engaged. Voodoo has also given Rafiuddin artistic inspiration: He’s written 100 poems in six months, and, whereas before his wood carvings would just “collect dust,” now he’s actually selling some of them. “It has to be divinely inspired,” he says. “There’s no way I could write the things that I write without it coming through me through my spirit.”
Next, a woman shows the room a 20-minute videotape of her recent dance performance at UDC; Young tries to recall the Gwendolyn Brooks poem “We Real Cool”; Rafiuddin reads another of his poems; Isaac Oviasogie, a performer from Benin, sings a native song. New guests are introduced. Everything and everyone are met with approval and applause. When it becomes clear that the creative steam has evaporated from the room, Beauvoir pronounces, “Very good, everybody. Thank you very much for your attention.”
One of the guests gives the room a 15-minute warning before “Papa has an appointment,” which sounds official and serious but actually entails Beauvoir’s going to a barbecue with his daughters. The guests make the most of their time as the clock ticks down. Phone numbers are exchanged; stories are told; more butts are smoked; the wine is polished off. Hill says that the socializing isn’t just fun, but that each grows stronger for the presence of fellow congregants’ spirits: “Talking to our brothers and sisters, we gain strength from their spirits.” Eventually, the various worshipers start cleaning up; in 15 minutes, the only people who remain are the Beauvoirs.
Voodoo-priest-in-training Hill, 31, has been involved in a few African-based religions in the last 10 years; he finds voodoo more satisfying than the more prominent African-based faiths observed in the U.S., like Yoruba, which has its roots in Nigeria, and Akan, from Ghana. Because so many disparate tribes were brought together on Hispaniola during the slave trade, Haitian voodoo “represents African-Americans more so than any other system that’s in place in Africa now, because it’s an amalgamated mixture of African tribes,” Hill says. “Within those 21 tribes you can find your tribal ancestry….It represents black America more because we come from so many different parts of Africa. You can’t just define us to Nigeria or Ghana. And that has made it more complete to me.”
There is much about the origins of both Haiti and Haitian voodoo that is Black Power in its earliest, purest, incarnation, which Beauvoir suggests is attractive to many black Americans. François Macandal, for instance, was a legendary one-armed fugitive who rebelled against slavery, poisoning plantation wells in Hispaniola in the mid-18th century during an 18-year reign of guerrilla actions against slave owners. And Macandal, it was said, possessed voodoo powers. After he was captured, Macandal swore he would turn into a fly and escape execution; slaves were amazed when, as flames rose around the stake to which he’d been lashed, Macandal escaped. Though the white governor would later go so far as to produce Macandal’s ashes as proof he had been re-captured and killed, slaves were certain that Macandal had prevailed. A new rash of well poisonings did nothing to quash this belief.
Then came Boukman Dutty, who in 1791 began what would become the world’s only successful slave revolt. This, too, was due in no small part to voodoo beliefs: Dutty had convinced his fellow slaves that they would only succeed if they made a pact with the spirits. Though outmanned and out-equipped, the slaves ultimately proved victorious against Napoleon’s army, displaying a determination and energy of almost supernatural origin, according to some historical accounts. “What the Frenchmen could not comprehend was that they were not fighting men,” Beauvoir told an interviewer on the Discovery Channel. “They were fighting spirits.” From this revolt was born the first black republic, one indisputably formed out of voodoo.
On its surface, however, the voodoo of Macandal and Dutty bears little resemblance to what goes on in the Temple of Yehwe on Connecticut Avenue NW. The voodoo of the Peristyle de Mariani comes only slightly closer. “There is no comparison” between the two, Beauvoir acknowledges. “[The Temple] is not a peristyle, because people do not dance.”
At his temple in Haiti, six nights a week, at 10 p.m. sharp, Beauvoir would clap his hands and exquisite chaos would reign. This was Beauvoir’s world, where the natural and supernatural intertwined like glowing red sparks floating into the night sky. Picture a bizarre mix of an ancient temple, a touristy cabaret, a sacred, secret voodoo ceremony, and Rick’s Cafe from Casablanca, and you’ll have a vague impression of the Peristyle de Mariani, where up to 450 spectatorsboth lifelong believers and curious, Bermuda shorts-clad touristswould pack the amphitheater each night. They came year-round to witness rites of voodoo (called vodoun by purists) that Beauvoir and his employees at the Peristyle were only too eager to provide.
According to Beauvoir, Davis’ book, and several videotapes, the Peristyle was a place where showbiz and spirituality mixed to very eye-popping effect. The services would begin with the entrance of 30 or so voodoo believers/performers. Their dark sinewy limbs contrasted dramatically with their breezy, snow-white costumes as they spilled onto center stage, where dozens of meticulously designed symbolsthe vévéhad been sprinkled. Drums started beating. Slowly, powerfully, the rhythm built in both dancers and drums. The tempo jumped to hyperspeed, as Beauvoir stepped into the epicenter, the nucleus in a whirl of slightly controlled chaos.
Beauvoir would swig rum from a bottle and spray it from his mouth onto his subjects, four times, once in each direction. The energy of the lithe, muscular men and women around him continued to build until it seemed to spin out into the room, into the crowd of spectators who couldn’t tear their eyes away.
“Lihlihlihlihlihlih!” A woman cried in one videotaped account, her eyes rolling back into her head, possessed by a spirit, or loa. Beauvoir, too, seemed not himself, the quiet and charming Northwest apartment dweller replaced by an entirely new personality, aggressive and dictatorial. One after another of the voodoo believers indicated their possession with amazing acts I wouldn’t believe if I hadn’t seen them for myself on video: One woman grabbed a drinking glass and proceeded to bite off pieces, chewing the sharp shards without any harm coming to her. Others walked on the hot coals of the subsiding fire; some grabbed the glowing coals from the fire and munched them down like muffins.
“Never in the course of my travels in the Amazon had I witnessed a phenomenon as raw or as powerful as the spectacle of vodoun possession” at the Peristyle, wrote Davis in The Serpent and the Rainbow. During one possession, Rachel Beauvoir “embraced the coals…began to lick [a burning stick], with broad lascivious strokes of her tongue.” In another, a “diminutive” woman “tore about the peristyle, lifting large men off the ground to swing them about like children. She grabbed a glass and tore into it with her teeth, swallowing small bits and spitting the rest onto the ground. At one point the mambo [priestess] brought her a live dove; this the hounsis [worshiper] sacrificed by breaking its wings, then tearing the neck apart with her teeth. Apparently the spirits could be greedy, for soon two other hounsis were possessed, and for an extraordinary thirty minutes the peristyle was utter pandemonium….It was only the beginning of an extraordinary night.”
Beauvoir says the glorious excesses of the Peristyle have no place in D.C., even though a 1993 Supreme Court ruling allows Americans to sacrifice animals in religious ceremonies. “It doesn’t go with the mind of the people here. I didn’t come here to start a cultural fight,” he says. On a recent trip to Guadeloupe, he sacrificed a goat and several chickens; the spirits are content with these sporadic offerings, Beauvoir says. But, then again, the mighty spirits who possess him on trips to Guadeloupe and Haiti never do so in D.C. “It is not conducive,” he says.
The spirits aren’t the only ones treating him differently. In the Peristyle, “the atmosphere was one of exchange,” says Beauvoir. On a typical night in Haiti, he would stay up until 4 a.m., listening to and talking with visitors from Africa, Peru, France, Italy. “It was an international forum of great magnitude,” he says. “It was fascinating all the time.” Here in D.C. Beauvoir finds himself serving more as an instructor and counselor. “In D.C. you have more the feeling of giving,” he says. “It is a very pleasant feeling also.”
The “giving” mainly consists of individual sessions with those seeking spiritual advice and what sounds like basic therapy. He spends much of his day on the phone, dispensing advice. With a click of the call-waiting, Beauvoir switches from “Comment ça va?” to “¿Como esta?” to “How are you?” Whether in person or on the phone, these sessions cost $50 each and allow Beauvoir to scrape together enough to make his $1,500-a-month rent.
Back in Haiti, of course, matters of finance were not a concern. The crowds that packed the Peristyle de Mariani more than paid for Beauvoir’s lifestyle, which included the compound containing both his home and the Peristyle, a botanical garden, a jeep, two pet dalmatians, and, at times, patrolling guards armed with automatic weapons.
Beauvoir never gave voodoo a second thought until he was almost 40 years old. Before that, he was steeped in academia and scientific research. Though he moves slowlyeven during frenetic voodoo ritualsBeauvoir has been a dynamo of activity and accomplishment in worlds quite removed from voodoo. Talk to Beauvoir today, and he’ll tell you that he is on a first-name basis with Ogoun, the spirit of fire and war. But long before he ever said the word “Ogoun,” the esteemed voodoo priest was an esteemed Western-educated biochemist.
When he and his older brother, Frantz, left their native country on Nov. 4, 1956, to pursue American educations, Beauvoir thought he was slamming the door to Haiti behind him for good. Not that his (relatively) middle-class life in Haiti had been so horrific, mind you. Beauvoir’s father had been one of the first blacks to graduate from Temple University Medical School in Philadelphia, and Max and his four brothers and sisters enjoyed a comfortable life in Port-au-Prince.
But with a keen grasp of science, and a strong feeling that he was meant for bigger things, Beauvoir was hungry for better than what the University of Haiti was able to offer. In the U.S., he slaved away at a zipper factory”Believe me,” he says, “that’s hell”so he could get a degree from the City College of New York; Frantz worked at Horn & Hardart when he wasn’t studying architecture at Columbia. They shared a flat on West 116th Street with a rent of $15 a week. By studying during the summers and being allowed to transfer several credits from the University of Haiti, Beauvoir was able to graduate in 1958 with a degree in chemistry. A biology professor had rescued Beauvoir from zipper purgatory, inviting him to work in a lab.
But for every fulfilled American dream, there is a conversely unfulfilling American nightmare. While Max Beauvoir breezed through life, Frantz found himself in constant panic. Running from his menial job to his demanding studies proved debilitating for the elder Beauvoir. Unsure he would make it to graduation, Frantz cruised one-way to a nervous breakdown and never finished Columbia.
His lucky, plucky younger brother, however, flew off to France in 1959 to study at the Sorbonne. By 1962, he had obtained a graduate degree in biochemistry and a beautiful French wife, Elisabeth. Luck had a way of finding Beauvoir wherever he traveled: In 1963, on a randomly chosen vacation trip to Liberia, Beauvoir and his wife happened to arrive during the annual celebration that preceded the Liberian president’s annual six-month sojourn to Austria. The president, William V.S. Tubman, mistaking Beauvoir for the new ambassador from Haiti, approached him during the national parade. After learning of his true identity and his chemistry degree, Tubman promptly offered Beauvoir a position with the government, supervising the mining of a mountain. “The title offered was equivalent to cabinet minister,” Beauvoir says. The pay was decent, and servants doted on the 27-year-old Beauvoir and his wife.
But Beauvoir hated being cooped up in the Third World. The final straw was when he learned of the assassination of President Kennedy through a weathered old newspaper he happened upon in 1964. “I could not believe I was so far from the center of the world,” says Beauvoir. He, Elisabeth, and new daughter Estelle packed up and headed back to the U.S.
At Cornell Medical Center, he supervised a staff synthesizing metabolic steroids; at home, another daughter, Rachel, was born. But Beauvoir was restless, always restless, joining an engineering company that had him set up shop in North Jersey, then a digital equipment company in Massachusetts. His interest in steroids brought him back to Haiti in January 1973 to experiment with hydrocortisone synthesized from plants.
He was in all ways a man of medicine and business, with no time for religion or the superstitions of his native land. He and Elisabeth had even been married by a secular official, the mayor of a French town. But Beauvoir’s indifference to spiritual matters was about to undergo a change.
One night in April 1974, the day before Easter, Beauvoir and his 20 siblings and cousins were called to his maternal grandfather’s deathbed at his home in St-Marc.
Brun Icart, 92, was a powerful man, black as night, with a hooked nose and the manner of a sage. A voodoo priest, Icart was respected nationally as well as in the family. A hushed calm came over the room as the cousins surrounded the old wooden bed. Icart suddenly pointed at Beauvoir, which was quite a surprise. Though Beauvoir had known his grandfather well in his youth, he hadn’t been home for almost 20 years.
“You take over!” the grandfather decreed.
“That’s all there was to it,” Beauvoir says now. “No answer necessary. I felt extremely awkward….In fact, I took it somewhat as a joke. Of my 20 cousins, I was the least prepared.”
The very next day, the aged priest died. As his grandfather was buried, Beauvoir tried to psych himself into his assigned pursuit. He used his experience as a biochemist as a point of entry, deciding he could, at the very least, explore the interesting herbology that was an essential part of voodoo. (Physicians have long been fascinated by the toxicology and chemistry behind “primitive” rites; a decade later, one of Beauvoir’s former colleagues at Cornell, Dr. Nathan Kline, would send Wade Davis down to Haiti to explore the psychopharmacology of the toxins that create zombies.) But Beauvoir would find much more in voodoo than interesting potions.
“I learned avidly, and I became more and more fascinated,” Beauvoir says. He and Elisabeth, who would eventually become a priestess, or mambo, toured the island, learning as they hopped from village to village, “getting more and more exposed to voodoo.”
His eyes opened to voodoo’s allures, proselytizing came naturally. “When you find all those values and culture,” Beauvoir says, “you want to pass it along to your friends.”
He began holding intimate ceremonies for his family and friends. But the three tables soon became crowded, and the $3 attendees would each chip in for whiskey became a $10 admission fee, and it “got huge,” and the Peristyle de Mariani was born. An attraction of fascinating authenticity for tourists and the elite, and a cultural center for the nation’s legitimate priests, priestesses, and other voodoo adherents, the Peristyle, according to Beauvoir, boomed in a matter of months.
Though he loved all things cultural about the religion that had been thrust upon him, Beauvoir wasn’t a complete believer until 1976, soon after he had been initiated as a priest. One day, at around 11 a.m., he began participating in a voodoo ceremony. All of a sudden it was 5 p.m.
“What happened?” he asked.
He had been possessed, came the reply.
And from that moment on, voodoo meant much more to Beauvoir than just wild dances, entertaining company, admirable values, and a decent way to make a buck. The spirit who entered him that day has been with him ever since.
Beyond that, Beauvoir is at a loss to explain why a thoroughly secular, Western-educated biochemist could suddenly find himself practicing a religion Westerners regard alternately as superstitious, foolish, terrifying, and primitive.
In Haiti, voodoo is woven into the fabric of the day to day, but in America, everything about it is exoticflesh-eating zombies, witch doctors, and a topless, totally possessed Lisa Bonet. Magic or nonsense belongs to the eye of the beholderabsent historical and cultural context, what would we think of the kneeling altar boy who washes down a stale wafer and cheap red wine that somewhere near his small intestine turn into the body and blood of a 2,000-year-old prophet?
Western derision of voodoo can be traced to long before George Bush dismissed Reaganomics as “voodoo economics,” well before Hollywood started cranking out eerie voodoo thrillers like Angel Heart or its precursors such as 1943’s I Walked With a Zombie.
Davis attributes much of the American prejudice against the religion to the host of sensationalized books “packed with references to cult objects such as voodoo dolls that didn’t even exist” that were published “during the years of the American occupation (1915-1934)…[when] every Marine above the rank of captain seemed to land a publishing contract. There were many of these books, and each one conveyed an important message to the American publicany country where such abominations took place could find its salvation only through military occupation.”
(This pattern repeated itself in 1994 after the U.S. invasion of Haiti, when the Weekly World News featured a cover snapshot showing the face of Satan clearly molded in smoke billowing from the chaos of Haitian streets. The snapshot was supposedly taken by one of the invading Marines, interestingly enough.)
Davis’ excursions to Haiti in the 1980s led him to believe that the theology behind the myths of cannibalistic zombies is actually quite benign. “Spirit possession is not a pathology,” he says of the moments when voodoo initiates are possessed by spirits. “It is a moment of divine grace, when an individual actually becomes a god.” Possession is symbolic of voodoo’s essential idea, that the spirits of God are in everythingreality, religion, ants, plants, birth, death.
And now they were in Max Beauvoir.
In Haiti, as in many countries, the line between politics and religion is murky and indecipherable. And the religious identity of the country is no more straightforwardthere is a saying that Haiti is “80 percent Catholic, 20 percent Protestant, and 100 percent voodoo.” François “Papa Doc” Duvalier was elected to rule Haiti in 1957, after Beauvoir left Haiti, and died in 1971, before Beauvoir returned. And yet, because Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” made use of voodoo whenever it suited their political ends, Beauvoir, as its leading priest, continues to this day to be tainted with the stink of the dictator who died when Beauvoir was living in Stow, Mass. Amy Wilentz, a former contributor to the Village Voice and The Nation, in The Rainy Season, an assessment of post-Duvalier life in Haiti, maintains that Beauvoir was “on good terms with Papa Doc.”
“That is impossible,” Beauvoir says. He explains that he wasn’t in Haiti for even one minute of Papa Doc’s rule.
Wilentz’s book goes on to criticize Beauvoir for far more than just a friendship with one of the Caribbean’s most brutal dictators. The Rainy Season describes Beauvoir as having “the oily manner of a man whom you wouldn’t want to leave alone with your money or your child.” It holds him up as symbolic of the kind of voodoo priest who was abusing his religious respect, accusing him of “bullying appropriation of the land behind his property” as well as having “associations with the Tontons Macoute,” Papa Doc’s brutal rural militia that slaughtered members of the mulatto elite in the 1960s. Wilentz writes that Beauvoir opposed a literacy program, insinuating that he wanted to keep the lower castes uneducated to preserve his prosperous life.
Carl AndersonHaitian co-group leader for Amnesty International USAalso condemns Beauvoir, whom he’s never met. Amnesty International’s position echoes Wilentz’s because they’re standing in the same camp: Both Amnesty International and Wilentz believe that, whatever criticisms may be leveled against Jean-Bertrand Aristidethe former Catholic priest and immediate past president of Haitithe human rights record under his watch was loads better than under any of his immediate predecessors. Both Amnesty International and Wilentz desire a Haiti free of the sickening violence that characterized the rules of both Duvaliers, as well as that of the various military juntas that ruled on and off between 1986 and 1994. Since Beauvoir always opposed Aristide’s rule, they say, he was not on the side of the angels.
“Some of these voodoo priests had expropriated land and had exploited peasants,” Anderson says. “When Beauvoir criticizes the peasants and says, ‘They’re just being radicalized by Aristide,’ maybe what happened is peasants had been exploited by people like Beauvoir.”
Wilentz’s accusations against Beauvoir enrage Davis, for whom Beauvoir served as an exemplary host. “It’s just totally not true,” Davis says. “This is a classic case of a journalist wanting to make his or her mark by exploiting the subject of her inquiry. Was Max a guy who embodied all the contradictions of Haiti? Yes. But essentially he was just a guy with a lot of charm who really loved voodoo. This was a man who is utterly benign.” Davis attributes Wilentz’s harsh assessment of Beauvoir to her inclination to support Aristide. “My guess is that Amy Wilentz embraced the Aristide movement, a movement in which voodoo became problematic since it was so associated with the corrupt Duvalier regimes.”
Beauvoir “is suave and sophisticated and charming, and you could look at all that and say. ‘This is slick,’” Davis says. “You could look at what’s going on at the Peristyleif your lens is colored the right wayand say, ‘Who is this guy pretending to be a houngan [voodoo priest] running a nightclub?’ Is that what he was doing? I’d say no. But Beauvoir himself is a very complex character. Anyone scratching a living from the back of Haiti is in some sense an opportunist. Is there something of the huckster in Max, in the same way there’s something of the huckster in Rick from Casablanca? Sure. Just to make a living there you have to take your opportunities and run with them….But he was no Duvalierist.”
Beauvoir brushes aside all of Wilentz’s claims. Wilentz was in favor of Aristide, he says, and anyone who opposed Aristidelike himwas viewed through that narrow lens. “She was making propaganda.” While it is true that Beauvoir long opposed the rule of the former Catholic priest, it was not because he supported the Duvaliers, he says. “Haiti is a voodoo country, and a Catholic priest cannot bring a solution to the problem,” he explains. He adds that the Duvaliers were Christians who exploited voodoo symbols, thus fostering anti-voodoo sentiment both in Haiti and abroad. Papa Doc was a “horrible dictator” who misused voodoo by, for example, dressing in the black attire of Baron Samedi, Beauvoir says. Baby Docwho, according to Beauvoir, caused great racial strifewas even worse. Any accusation that he was ever allied with Tontons Macoute is ludicrous, Beauvoir says. And he never opposed literacy, only the anti-voodoo Catholic propaganda that was an essential part of the program in question.
Beauvoir says he eventually became a target of religiously inspired violence, not some spontaneous uprising of the peasantry trying to reclaim land rightfully theirs, as Wilentz accuses. The Peristyle de Mariani was attacked in early May 1986 in the context of a much larger attack on voodoo priests throughout the island, the Dechoukaj, which Beauvoir has intimated was initiated by the Vatican. “There has been the horrible desire to kill vodounists, and the [Catholic] priests and the pastors have made that the goal of their life,” he says.
This hostility to voodoo, not any allegiance to discredited dictators, is why Beauvoir fled Haiti after the U.S. announced its intention to send troops in 1994. Beauvoir was on the last American Airlines flight to leave the island that year before the U.S. embargo on flights began. “I’m not against change,” Beauvoir says. “But this policy imposed is not going to hold.” He was worried that Aristide or his supporters would kill him. “You never know what would have happened,” he says. “Aristide was coming with super power: 23,000 American troops who don’t know [me] and don’t respect [me], these 18-year-old boys with big weapons.”
Four years after the U.S. invasion, Beauvoir remains just as skeptical of his safety were he to return today for more than a brief visit. “I’m convinced they are going to be looking for scapegoats. And I am a logical scapegoat,” he says. “What good would it be for [me] to become a dead hero?”
Beauvoir’s professional history in biochemistry makes another allegation seem inexplicable. In 1988, according to Wilentz, Beauvoir claimed to have a cure for AIDS. “I found it astounding at the time that someone so smooth was saying such an irresponsible thing,” she says. “Other houngans way less sophisticated, who never knew it was a virus…said they had a cure for it. [But] they were hucksters and shysters and liars; Max seemed to be above that. But then, suddenly, he wasn’t.”
Wilentz adds that Beauvoir’s claim came relatively early, and that Beauvoirmaster of realms both spiritual and biochemicalmay have truly thought that he was on to something, unlike the “hucksters” exploiting Haiti’s AIDS epidemic for profit. Even in Wilentz’s original account in The Rainy Season, Beauvoir, ever the prudent scientist, cautioned her that it wasn’t yet time to share news of his discovery with the world: “‘We wouldn’t want to be premature, would we?’” he said. “‘I want to make sure that it is generally successful, you see.’”
When I ask Beauvoir if he ever made such a claim, he shakes his head at the mention of Amy Wilentz, a reporter he deems “nasty” and “dishonest.” “Nobody has a cure for AIDS,” he says. “I do not have a cure for AIDS….I never claimed that I did.” He has treated around 50 patients with the disease, as far back as 1988, and many of them “are still around and functioning” though “many of them are dead, also. More than 50 percent. And, surely, if I had a cure, I would have cured them.”
His treatments for AIDS and other illnesses are a combination of the physical and the spiritual, not unlike holistic medicine. Beauvoir, in fact, is gaining a reputation among naturopathic healers in the U.S.; this month he was flown by the International Healing Arts Institute of Traditional Medicine to Portland, Ore., where he conducted healing seminars for the founders and taught classes in his methods. “He’s been my teacher for many years,” says Gale Kurtz, a self-described “traditional healer” who is partially responsible for starting the institute and has asked Beauvoir to serve on its board as a vice president. “He’s got just wonderful healing power.” Kurtz says that the Institute hopes to open a branch in Haiti soon.
“I feel that science and its domain is quite limited to what falls under the senses,” says Beauvoir. “As far as science is concerned,” he says, nothing exists outside the realm of the senses. “From a voodoo perspective we feel that [things are] good within the domain of science. But…life is much larger and includes many, many facts that are beyond the borders of the scientific domain.”
Beauvoir says that in Haiti there are 10 times as many voodoo priests as there are physicians, and the former biochemist says his schedule in D.C. is filled with the 140 or so calls he receives each week asking for medical advice. Beauvoir’s treatments for physical ailments usually involve “leaves, plants, and herbs.” When the complaints are minor, his cures are proportionally mild: A woman who phones complaining of kidney problems is instructed to drink water boiled with lettuce and corn-husk hair and drained through a sieve. (Beauvoir also urges her to re-commence taking her prescribed kidney medication.)
But when he needs to heal the spiritually sickthose battling melancholy, severe depression, anxiety, or even schizophreniathe laws and mores of Washington, D.C., preclude his normal procedures. In Haiti, Beauvoir would treat those possessed by bad spirits by transferring the unwelcome spirits into a chicken: He would break the chicken’s wing and touch the sick person’s arm, then do the same with the other wing. Then, with his hands, Beauvoir would snap the chicken’s neck and place it against the patient’s neck, “transferring the loa from the body of the person into the body of the chicken.” Conversely, if the patient were suffering from low energy and “needed some kind of a booster,” he would tear apart the chicken’s neck and sprinkle its blood on the individual, “tak[ing] the spirit of the animal and adding it to that of the person.” He would perform at least one of these rituals a week, to great success. “It does work, 100 percent,” he says. “It always works.”
But chickensdead, alive, or maimedaren’t part of Beauvoir’s bag of tricks locally. It just wouldn’t do to walk through the climate-controlled, carpeted halls of the Brandywine apartments lugging a bag of live hens back to the Temple of Yehwe, feathers flying, neighbors rising from their armchairs to see what all the clucking was about. Two or three times a year, he says, he and a patient “hop in a plane, go to Haiti, do [their] thing, and come back.” But here in D.C., he is limited to what he can do in his apartment without his property manager bitching about the noise.
D.C. wasn’t his original destination. That last American Airlines flight took Beauvoir and his wife from Port-au-Prince to New York City, where they stayed with former members of his Mariani flock. But Max Beauvoir the voodoo priest didn’t fare as well in New York as his earlier incarnations as student and biochemist.
“I found [New York City] to be not very social,” Beauvoir says. “There are lots of people, but everyone is moving in his own direction, and very rarely do two of them touch each other.”
He looked aroundCalifornia, Chicago, Detroiteventually ending up in Northwest Washington. Wilentz suggests that D.C. is home to a number of Duvalierists who, she speculates, may pray with Beauvoir. Beauvoir cryptically refers to a number of ambassadors, diplomats, bankers, and others who pray with him privately, but refuses to say any more about them.
Why D.C.? Why not New Orleans? I ask him, thinking of the vast Creole and voodoo cultures down in Louisiana. (And, I confess, Angel Heart.) Beauvoir smiles. He didn’t know about New Orleans, says the well-traveled man who has lived much of his life in New York City, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and now D.C. That a citizen of the world, not to mention a pre-eminent practitioner of voodoo, would never have heard that New Orleans is a city that enjoys the occasional hen-whacking is not credible.
“If I had a chance today, I would have chosen it,” he maintains. “But I think Washington is second only to New Orleans.”
Beauvoir says he finds our most secular of cities to be “a very spiritual town….Rock Creek Park is a fantastically spiritual place. You sense spirits there that you don’t sense in Central Park.” Additionally, Beauvoir insists that he feels “a sense of security in Washington, D.C., that I don’t find anywhere else. When I sit right here, I feel secure.” He hopes one day to find a church on 16th Street to house the Temple of Yehwe.
Of everything that Beauvoir has told me during our visitshis possessions by spirits, his repudiation of the Duvaliers, his cures for schizophrenics that involve the mutilation of chickensit is only this, this half-hearted endorsement of Washington, D.C., that I dismiss out of hand.
Whether or not he satisfies the spiritual needs of a band of exiled Duvalierists, Beauvoir tangibly longs to return home, to a land where community is valued before the individual, where his Peristyle provides an atmosphere of pomp and craziness, where he is revered and not anonymous.
His wait for a Port-au-Prince ticker-tape parade might be a long one: Aristide ally René Préval was elected to a five-year term in December 1995, and Aristide is expected to win election once again, in the year 2000. For Beauvoir to be fully welcome again in his native land, support for his enemy the Catholic priest must erode. Their fortunes are in see-saw opposition, and it’s Aristide’s turn to fly up in the air as Beauvoir’s ass hits the hard dirt.
Beauvoir’s current incarnation as a spiritualist running an extremely modest study group in the U.S. capital isn’t what he had in mind when he left his home and church. But it will do for now.
“I am an optimist,” Beauvoir says, taking a long drag on his Dunhill cigarette. “But to say I’m happy? No, I’m not.”CP