All along Harley Street, charlatans and medical experts have set up side by side with no obvious way to tell them apart. The same wide steps lead up to the same glossy front doors, all with prestigious brass knobs. Each separate house is itself a layered stack of quacks and docs: radiology one floor above absence healing, flower therapy down the corridor from paediatric ENT. The magnificent Harley Street address confers a blessing on every dubious therapy. Perhaps it has a placebo effect all of its own.
I know the street quacks well, or used to. My mother had a horror of antibiotics and would pack us off to Harley Street’s alternative therapists. I remember a mournful young Russian who was said to have treated astronauts. He hovered his healing hands over my wheezing chest — could I feel the heat? Yes. Did I get better? Well… no. There were celebrity homeopaths, kinesiologists, an earnest woman with the brow ridge of a gorilla who explained that with her ‘Vega’ machine she could detect the very first bat-squeaks of disease. If we only bought enough expensive zinc pills we might all live forever.
It was when she died of cancer that the first seeds of doubt began to sprout. Poor lady, but… shouldn’t she have seen it coming? In 2008, on the recommendation of a doctor friend, I read Trick or Treatment by Edzard Ernst, an A-Z of alternative therapies detailing which of them stand up to rigorous, randomised tests. The answer, I’m afraid, is not many. Ernst is especially anxious about the back-crackers: chiropractors who manipulate spines, and osteopaths. I had been sure they were all bona fide doctors, but it turns out they come from the medieval tradition of ‘bone-setting’ via various Victorian mystics. I became a dinner party bore on the subject: ‘You went to the osteopath last week? Oh!’ I’d say. ‘Did you know that they don’t, in the UK, have medical degrees?’ I felt myself a very evidence-based sort of person. This, then, is a story about just how deluded one can be about oneself.
A few weeks ago, nearly a decade after Trick or Treatment, I wheeled my short and stout son off to Harley Street to visit a cranial osteopath in the hope of curing an ear infection. Did the word ‘-cranial’ make me think it more reputable? The truth is, I didn’t think. A great friend had sworn this man did wonders for her babies. They’d have been stunted without him, she said, so I fell into the grip of an ancient and powerful force: maternal fear of missing out for offspring. FOMOFO, let’s call it. Rational thought didn’t stand a chance.
The clinic was reassuringly fancy: all white coats and soft expensive lighting, and my toddler sat naked to his nappy and calm on the white leatherette treatment table. ‘He has dry skin,’ said the therapist. ‘Hmm… this is probably a drainage problem and, actually, can you see, his nose bends to the left?’ Really? But as I stared, yes, it did seem wonky. Help! The osteopath said with a smile: ‘Don’t worry. I can fix it. I’ll manipulate his cranial plates which will help drainage issues. That should help his ears too.’
The guru closed his eyes like a medium at a seance and took my boy’s fat round head in his hands. From between his palms, my son’s eyes met mine with a clear question — are you quite sure about this?
The FOMOFO fog evaporated. Of course I wasn’t sure. I had a sudden and strong desire to shout at the osteopath: ‘Get your hands off my son!’ but what came from my mouth was just a terrified and inadvertent little cough. The therapist looked up: ‘You don’t seem comfortable.’ I began gabbling: ‘I think he’s OK now. I think I’ll wait. I think we’ll come back some other time.’
As I squashed the boy back into his clothes, the therapist began to tell me his miracle story. Every alternative therapist has at least one, passed reverently from patient to prospective patient. One baby he treated, he said, had suddenly uncurled its legs, released from the foetal position for the first time. He looked to me for admiration, but I’d heard the story before. What I wanted to ask, but didn’t, was why the osteopath called himself ‘doctor’ in his flyers and emails when all he had was an arts PhD? In a therapeutic context, that’s almost a con.
On the way home I made a mental checklist to ward against future weakness and the tug of my alternative childhood. First, beware of anyone using the title ‘doctor’ without an actual medical degree. Second, look to the origins of any therapy. If it all began with a wild-eyed 19th-century madman obsessed with energy, then beware.
Thinking back to my Harley Street days, it occurs to me that the flakiest healers were the ones who were quite sure they had a cure for whatever ailment you presented them with, and that every ailment had the same basic cause. I suppose you need that blazing certainty for the placebo effect to work.
Reluctantly, guiltily, I turned to Trick or Treatment’s cranial osteopathy entry. Ernst writes: ‘Even if minute motions between these bones [of the skull] were possible, they would be unlikely to have a significant impact on human health. In other words, craniosacral therapy is biologically implausible. The little research that exists fails to demonstrate that craniosacral therapy is effective in treating any condition. Moreover, therapists struggle to give consistent diagnoses for the same patient, probably because they are attempting to detect a nonexistent phenomenon. Mothers bringing their children to a therapist are sometimes impressed by the positive reaction. This is likely to be a relaxation response caused by the gentle touch and calming manner of the therapist, but these effects are usually shortlived and the treatment can be expensive. There are no conceivable risks, but if severely ill children are treated with craniosacral therapy instead of an effective treatment, the approach becomes life threatening.’
No conceivable risks. I can meet my son’s eye again. And as I do so, I realise with some bewilderment that his nose is quite straight.