Healer with the heart of gold
We've heard about self help, now what about cell health? The two are profoundly interlinked, believes Martha Brassil, who survived her own physical and psychological battles while testing her radical theories on herself. The Tralee-born guru has returned to her home town, and tells Patricia Deevy her inspirational story.
WHEN it comes to nutritional experts, the proof of the pudding is in the guru. Tired or tubby and you're going to write them off straightaway, aren't you? By that measure, guru-in-waiting Martha Brassil must know something. Slim, clear-skinned, glossy-haired and fit-looking, the 38-year-old mother of an equally glowing teenage daughter, she radiates serene well-being.
But first, a health warning: this is not the usual before and after story. You know the sort of thing: `How I Shifted My Unshiftable Thunder Thighs By Guzzling Fortified Yak Milk And Alpine Thistle Extract And You Can Too.' Brassil has put years into her obsession with how to live well but by her own admission she is someone who never liked junk food, who is naturally slim, who once tried alcohol for the taste and didn't much like it and who took up yoga while still in college. In other words, she is a woman who has an inbuilt tendency towards fitness and health. Adopting Martha Brassil's ideas will not necessarily turn you into a Martha Brassil.
On the other hand, she does know physical devastation. After her daughter was born 13 years ago she crashed: she lost two stone and had no energy. Her doctor diagnosed burn-out and had nothing much to offer her. A dietary therapist finally got her back on her feet and because she was interested in alternative therapies since student days she decided to study it herself. Her first step was a two-year course in London.
``I continued to study because there was a lot of stuff that didn't ring true,'' she says. She tried out different dietary theories on herself. Her conclusion was that a lot of the advice was one-dimensional. Here she is on the folly of importing dietary fads from other climates: ``The fruit before noon thing is coming from California where it's warm. If you live in a sunny climate you feel like eating lots of fruit because the energy of fruit is cooling to the body.
``What I decided to do was I was going to write a book to record all my findings and to just explain how the different energies of foods, the different energies of supplements, work. You've got to go back to basics.''
Her book, Nutritional Awakening, is still in draft form but large chunks of her ideas can be found on her website. Essentially, she says that since cells are the building blocks of the human body, cell health is the starting point for general health; that feeding the body the wrong foods and supplements over time hardens the cells walls and causes imbalances, deficiencies and rigid thinking; and that by careful examination of diet and lifestyle you can re-engineer cell health and consequently physical and mental health. Her mission declared at the top of her web page is ambitious: ``The liberation of the human being ultimately depends upon the nutritional liberation of the cell.'' If you suspect it might be a bit heavy on the New Age stuff, you'd be right. Proper nutrition is about spiritual as well as physical transformation, she believes.
The spiritual in Brassil is a great believer in fate. For instance, she bumped into Brendan Kennelly in Trinity on the day of the spring equinox, March 21, and got talking to him about her life and interests and then he mentioned her to our editor and it was the summer solstice June 21 when I contacted her to arrange a meeting. The invocation of the pagan calendar must be a throwback to the ancient ancestors her father's people were from north Kerry and her mother's, the O'Driscolls, from south Kerry. But in Tralee in the Sixties and Seventies it was far from equinoxes and solstices she was reared. She is the eldest of seven and with a bacon wholesaling business and a shop to run her parents were are hard-working business people. With her endless reading and dreaming she was a bit of an odd woman out.
After her convent boarding school at Cahir she arrived at UCC to study languages on the cusp of the Eighties. She loved the social whirl but thinking she needed something to slow her down she took up yoga. Her teacher, who was also a natural healer, became a mentor. Like him, she became vegetarian. She even tried the fruit fasting he recommended. ``After day two I was so cold I was in the bath constantly to try to keep warm and I felt murderous after the week. Yet he said: `It's just toxins coming out.' But now it was like that was the foundation for me: my route has always been you make the mistakes yourself and you bloody well find the right answers.''
In a lift in UCC she met her ``fate and destiny'' Eoin Fitzgibbon from Wexford. ``I was in the lift and he came in and he just looked at me and I looked at him and that was it. It's almost like I sort of knew him. I was 18.'' They didn't speak then but shortly afterwards he came to a party in her house in Cork, they got together that night and four days later he asked her to marry him. She said yes.
Towards the end of her college years she met a French sculptor on a train and says he would have been her soul mate but when the road forked, fate kept her with Fitzgibbon. (This year she looked him up in France. He was the sort, she says, who might have killed himself he was so sensitive. ``He was married and he is happy. He brought me to the airport and I said: `I'm so happy that you've found happiness and peace in your life.' `Yes,' he said, `I have. For the moment.''' Somehow you know that Brassil rather likes that wistful qualification. It's her romantic nature.)
WHEN Fitzgibbon went to Dublin to do a Masters degree, she got her first job there teaching a group of physically disabled children. She was paid at the Fás rate of £30 a week. Her next job was for five months in Mountrath and there had been 200 applicants for the post. After that she got two weeks in Cahirciveen and nine hours in Castleisland. That was Ireland in the mid-Eighties. Fitzgibbon had moved to London and though she hated to see herself as the little woman following her man, she realised that there was nothing for her in Ireland.
On March 31, 1986, after five years together, the couple married. ``On the first of April I just thought: `I've made a mistake. Fools' Day.' It was just maybe a premonition. I got pregnant in the May, with Aisling.''
Brassil's premonition turned out to be right: the marriage ended a decade later. Aisling's birth was followed by exhaustion and a tortured search for healing before finding dietary therapy. ``I was absolutely obsessed with learning all this stuff.''
The obvious point, which Brassil sees, is whether the results of obsession and years of experimentation and training will bear rigorous scrutiny. ``A lot of the stuff I can feel with my own body, but you need to have the scientific back-up. I need to be able to prove the theories because you won't have credibility if people say, `Oh, you felt this' or `You felt that'. Having said that, I did all the research myself so I have all the scientific back-up for all of this. I have all the data and stuff.''
During those years of crisis in her health and in her marriage she often felt overwhelmed: ``It was like as if all the obstacles came and I'd just clear this one and something else came along. It was the greatest learning experience of my life; there's no other way to describe it. From 26 until well into my 30s.
``I used to think, `What's the point in me learning all this when nothing seems to be working out for me?' It's almost like seeing two and two and it could never make four for you. But I think it just taught me patience. I used to think: `Just stop struggling.'''
Towards the latter years of their marriage, she and Fitzgibbon shared a house but not their lives.
``Finally, I reached the point where I thought: `This is it. I'm definitely going for a divorce.'''
She decided that living in England would keep the wounds open and she needed to come home. Three years ago they sat down to sort out their stuff. ``It's like: `I can't bear not to see your things around the place.' We just bawled for the entire weekend but there was no going back. You know when you've reached the end.''
She arrived in Tralee with her 10-year-old daughter and crates of research material and books. Home has provided a safe cocoon. ``I've had now three years away from the marriage and I do feel ready to meet somebody else. But in the beginning Christmas especially it just hurts your heart. However, I went to a wedding at Easter time, and the pain was gone.''
She moved into her sister's house, advertised for business and was surprised, after over 10 years away, to discover how open people were to her ideas. Now she gets clients by word of mouth.
Alongside the serious writing, she has also started a novel. She emails chapters to two sisters who are travelling in Australia. ``I want to bring heart into the work and by writing the novel I can access that. The book itself is quite poetic because I can't keep it dry, because I'm not scientific by nature. The novel has got me more in touch with writing about feelings.''
The novel is about a girl who decides to become ``a born-again virgin'' in order to attract a husband and then it goes into her past and how she became so promiscuous. ``All the time she's looking for her ideal man but really it's the guy that she meets in the beginning. I'm trying to make out that there is a difference between a husband and a man. And it's like, at this stage in my life I don't want a husband. I think I want a man. I've had the provider and the security and the stability. If you don't want a husband you're much more open to somebody with imagination.''
Her 13-year-old daughter keeps her right on men. ``Oh, good Lord, she guards me. She is my chastity belt. `What are you doing getting dressed up? Where do you think you're going?'''
So does Kerry morality: ``When you're divorced down in Kerry well, according to some friends of my mother, they think you've got a sign that says `I'm available'.''
In short, meeting a man is a tiresome business. She wonders too if men know themselves any more. ``The man is not fulfilling his role of feeling like a powerful male in his own right whereas the women can feel their sense of power. The men, in order to be accepted, have to be like these little effeminate do-gooders and I think they're living a lie. They're disconnected from their own nature. Not to say that they've got to be these macho people, but they've gone from one extreme to the other. I wouldn't be attracted to these effeminate types.''
This reminds her of research suggesting a link between male homosexuality and the men's mothers' use of the contraceptive pill.
You can't, she suggests, be too careful about what you put into your body. Aisling didn't get the usual baby vaccinations but was given drops at Manchester's homeopathic hospital and was landed into houses where they had measles in the hope that she would catch them and build up her immunity naturally. (Despite the public health campaign, Brassil insists that diseases such as measles were killers years ago because people were malnourished and had poor living conditions.)
What if Brassil was diagnosed with cancer herself?
She doesn't hesitate: ``I'd go this path. Definitely. I wouldn't even think.''
Completely rejecting, say,chemotherapy?
``I would go along my own path. At the end of the day I think it's unwise for people to say: `There's no way I'd do that.' But I couldn't see it myself because I feel I know my own body.''
And what if someone came to her wanting treatment?
``I would treat them. I couldn't say I'm treating the cancer because that's against the law as such, d'you know what I mean? I have treated people who I haven't met until after they've had the cancers and they've come to me and they've been on that drug Tamoxifen which can have a desperate effect on their lives. Once they're on that drug you can't actually treat them because it's so suppressive. So they have come off the Tamoxifen and they're fine. Perfect. Because a lot of cancer at the end of the day is diet.''
ON the long road ahead of her, as she trips across the minefield that goes with setting yourself up as any kind of expert in the face of a formidable establishment, Brassil at least has confidence.
``I knew, even when I was younger, that my life was never going to be ordinary and it never was. Sometimes with the not-very-happy-after ending it's more interesting and it gives you a happier life at the end of the day.''
* Martha Brassil's website is at www.cell-free.com
By HUGH LEONARD