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Dialogue on Doc Reeser

On Haiti-L, May, 1995

Date: Sat, 13 May 1995 00:00:31 -0400 (EDT)
From: Frederick Knobloch <fknobloc@ccat.sas.upenn.edu>
To: Bob Corbett <bcorbett@crl.com>
Subject: Re: Reflections from a faster: May 11, 1995


Patrick Jamieson asks about Doc Reeser. Katherine Dunham speaks of him many times in her book, ISLAND POSSESSED. On page 18, she introduces him by saying: Doc Reeser had been a ship's pharmacist and when the Marines settled in Haiti, supposedly with intentions to bring peace to the troubled island, Doc's genuine interest in things and people indigenous won him a post at Pont Beudette, on whose outskirts there was an asylum for the insane, ....

Page 19: Doc Reeser had set himself up and been accepted far and wide by houngans, the priests of vaudun, the Haitian Arada-Dahomean cult religion sometimes known as voodoo, as a horse of Guede, a human to be mounted or entered into or become embodied in Guede, sometimes transferring to Baron Samedi, both gods being governors of the dead and of cemeteries. Both Baron Samedi and Papa Guede are bon viveurs: it was convenient for Doc because he could drink as much clairin - raw white rum - as he wished and indulge in certain extrvagances of behavior and obscenities which most of the gods of the pantheon would not tolerate in their mounts.

Outside the sanctuary where only the high-category priests and priestesses sang softly and clapped their hands and intoned litanies among themselves Doc would hold forth, splashing rum in a tin cup with movements less and less coordinated, telling tales less and less articulate, forcing a mama drum from between the legs of her sweat-dripping riser to demonstrate his own skill at drum beating: snatching a sacred rattle, the ason from Al place, head man after the high priest houngan. Doc could become ridiculouus in a need to participate, even to those of us who loved him. All the while he would be working up on a possession. In the years that I knew Doc I was never certain that he had at any time been chosen as a horse, It may have been pure exhibitionism, or the need to belong to something accessible yet always inaccessible, to identify, or simply the quantities of rum consumed before, during, and after each ceremony or dance or pretext of ceremony, that created his seeming state of trance. Or, giving Doc a certain due, and seeing things from a more detached but more mystified point of view, perhaps I should say that Papa Guede and Baron Samedi [page 20] had truly decided to bring to this dusty plains community on the outskirts of the Cul-de-Sac some evidence of desegregation and nonpreference in evidencing themselves in the white Marine Doc.

Being seen at ceremonies with Doc created no barrier for my studies. Much of the time it helped, because whether or not he was believed or was accepted into the deepest of the mysteries, being a white American and a Marine at that, whether he was led home flat plastered on clairin by his mistress, Cecile, or whether, on rampage of possession, he broke up the crossrods rum shop, Doc was loved by everyone, everywhere in Haiti, of all colors, except perhaps Dumarsais Estime, if he was noticed by him at all. Dumarais Estime was, because of several personal experiences, to be related later, very much against the color white, and all the more so since he was courting me at the time of my initiation into the vaudun. As President of the Chamber of Deputies, he was placed in a delicate position because of my association with Doc, with Fred, and with the vaudun.

In those days Doc was a real person, not just the CARACTERE he became later. That would have been in the days of his first discovery of Haiti, in those early years before he began to doubt himself and the surrealistic world around him and before alcohol had dulled his histrionic and anecdotal aptitudes and a rather crafty poor white trash quality took over where a good and sensitive soul had started out. Perhaps this later personality took over after he had gone back from Haiti and spent time in Florida. Perhaps Haiti was all just too much for him, or the dipping in magic, as in the case of his predecessor, the one he realy hoped to emulate, the creator of the myth of the Magic Island, William Seabrook.

There are many other mentions of him throughout the book.

Mary Arnett

Date: Sat, 13 May 1995 09:41:13 -0700 (PDT)
From: Bob Corbett <bcorbett@crl.com>
Subject: More on Doc Reeser
Message-Id: <Pine.SUN.3.91.950513093620.21400D@crl11.crl.com>

Once again, a few notes on sources. In the post below Wendy Cochran mentions the difficulty of finding Katherin Dunham's book. Not even libraries are a great source. The copy from my own library is one that disgarded from a library in Wisconsin, so perhaps libraries are not even keeping their copies! However, as I mentioned yesterday, Dunham's book was re-released last year in paper by U. of Chicago Press. Also, the other book Wendy mentions, Hurston's book TELL MY HORSE is also available in paper, having been rereleased a couple of years ago. I must admint I did not like that book, finding it much too pretentious, pompous and unscholarly! But that may say more about me than the book!



Below is Wendy's post.

Date: Sat, 13 May 1995 08:57:44 -0700 (PDT)
From: Wendy Ellen Cochran <wcochra@netcom.com>
To: Bob Corbett <bcorbett@crl.com>
Subject: Re: More on Doc Reeser

I managed to get hold of Island Possessed after several tries. Mostly the book had been taken and not returned from public libraries in San Diego. It is a book worth finding as is Tell My Horse by Zora Neal Hurston although I don't remember if she mentions Doc. I found both books quite similar.

As a researcher, practioner who has gone into Cuba and returning this summer I have always wondered why the elders permit outsiders to participate, learn and record. It is my perception that as the great elders and masters die off there is a certain sense of urgency to get things recorded, filmed, documented like the other great religions of the world so they can take their proper place in the considerations of world religions and can be passed down to the future generations who have far more technological opportunities than the elders ever could have imagined. This is only my guess. And where Doc stood in all this sounds a bit more casual.

wendyellen (wcochra@netcom.com)

Date: 13 May 95 17:03:55 EDT
From: Patrick Jamieson &$60;72234.3354@compuserve.com>
To: bcorbett@crl.comDat
Subject: More on Doc Reeser

Many thanks to Mary Arnett for the info about Doc Reeser/Reser. (In STRANGE ALTARS, Marcus Bach calls him Reser; In ISLAND POSSESSED, Katherine Dunham apparently calls him Reeser. But I'm sure they're referring to the same man.) I'll have to locate a copy of ISLAND POSSESSED.

Bach paints a much more flattering picture. There is no hint of the exhibitionist/drunk seen in the passages quoted from Dunham. But perhaps it should be noted that Bach's book was published 17 years before Dunham's--1952 vs. 1969. Both pictures may be accurate.

If anyone knows of any other sources on Reeser/Reser, I'd be delighted to be made aware of them.

Patrick Jamieson