Late at night, during a phone call that I place without the knowledge of my hosts, my brother asks me if there was a moment when I realized that I had to leave Mogliazze as quickly as possible. Was there a moment when everything around me fell into the surreal clarity that I was not safe?
My arrival at the Piacenza train station coincides with the arrival of a foot of snow. Martino, the older of two children in my host family, picks me up for the normally short trip to his family’s organic farm – Agr. Coop. Mogliazze. He points out the growing presence of industrial agriculture as we drive towards the Alpinines, emphasizing the importance of helping small farms to survive. I completely agree with him. Each turn brings us higher into the mountains. Leaving the last small village behind, we arrive after nearly an hour of carefully climbing to our destination at 800 meters – the road ends, and we park the car. It is the most beautiful place where I have ever set foot.
Mogliazze is a collection of about a half-dozen large stone buildings with slate roofs; leaning against a mossy wall, I can watch the occasional cloud drift through valley below. I have planned to stay on as a volunteer for two weeks, and my initial impressions have me sold that that this is a fantastic idea. I’ll help to produce good food from healthy soil, learn new kinds of work, and enjoy the quiet of the mountains – I am ready to settle in.
My roommate, Sebastiano, eagerly shows me around Mogliazze and we strike up a friendship as soon as we meet. After a couple of hours working and chatting, we come back to our room and hang out as I unpack. The first thing I notice on Seba’s desk is a worn copy of Primo Levi’s "Survival in Auschwitz," in the original Italian (originally titled “If This Be A Man" –“Se Questo E Un Uomo”). When I ask him about it, he explains that he has many Jewish and Israeli friends, and this book deeply impacted him. He has read it several times. Seba asks if I knew that Auschwitz Liberation Day was the previous Thursday. I do – I visited Sauchsenhausen concentration camp that day. Our conversations are honest, laid-back, and consistently interesting.
After dinner, Seba explains that Pierro is a doctor famous throughout northern Italy for his “Blood-Group Theory”. As Seba talks, I begin to understand the completeness of the doctor’s philosophy: Pierro believes that he can prevent and cure any disease through creating individualized dietary plans, based almost entirely on a patient’s blood group. That first evening, I had seen him writing out paper after paper at the kitchen table, and Seba says that he was creating these dietary prescriptions. The cookbook next to hearth, authored by his daughter Esther, is a compilation of his recipes for different blood groups. Esther’s older brother, Martino, is in school for bio-medicine, planning to follow in his father’s footsteps. Velia, the wife, runs the farm while Pierro is seeing patients three days per week. Not sold on the idea, but interested in learning more and ready to help regardless, I go to sleep.
We do not talk too much as we work, and I come to deeply enjoy the relaxed atmosphere. I wake up at 7:30 (almost) every day, and work 6-10 hours. With each task, I can immediately see the fruits of my labor: bags of dried apples, large piles of freshly cut firewood, and stacks of neatly labeled herbal medicines (of dubious effectiveness, but “work is work” I say to myself). I read my philosophy books and practice Hebrew in the evenings, hang out with Seba, and go to bed by midnight each day. I learn that another volunteer had been there for a year and a half, and one for several months. I start to feel a bit uneasy because everyone else seems to believe fully in Pierro’s medicine, but I am happy. I come to enjoy the relaxed pace of life, the wonderful food, and especially my friendship with Seba. For my first lunch, Esther had cooked a wild-mushroom risotto that I will remember for the rest of my life – far and beyond the best Italian food I have ever tasted.
Four days in, I call my family for the first time since arriving, and return to the room just past midnight. I start changing in to my pajamas, and am about to turn out the light. Seba wakes with a start. He pulls on his clothes, grabs an orange folder, straps on his boots, and briskly disappears out the door, grimacing – all within 45 seconds. I barely have a chance to ask if he is OK. I can’t sleep, so I write in my journal. The next morning, I wake up with a small infection at the back of my lower gum. Seba says he has been to the hospital with Pierro and Velia, spending the night throwing up and heeled over. He returned to the room at 6am. He says that he is OK, and looks genuinely content. I assume that everything is alright and I am glad that he plans on resting throughout the day.
I check in on Seba throughout the day, and continue with my routine through the first week. The highlights of life at Mogliazze far outweigh my queasy lack of confidence in the medical effectiveness of everything that I am helping to produce. Pierro even teaches me how to herd sheep! I will always remember that afternoon very fondly; relaxing in the pasture, watching over Pierro’s flock, I gladly soak in the breathtaking mountain vistas. I don’t want my friends, family, or teachers to know that I am having second thoughts about my farm choice, so I write a blog-post highlighting my most enjoyable memories and the stunning natural beauty.
During Shabbat, Pierro and Velia are happy to grant me a full day of rest. I start working again on Sunday. My gum has swollen from the infection that began on Thursday morning, and the aching has spread farther back and down to my limphnode. I had tried to fix the problem with more careful brushing and saltwater washes, but realize that it is time to call my dentist at home for advice. I had the same problem about three years ago, and Dr. Finkelstein immediately prescribed prescription-strength mouthwash and penicillin. I resolve to call him as soon as business opens in America after the weekend. Over that weekend, I had not mentioned anything about my gum to Pierro, and worry that I will cause disrespect by calling a different doctor.
I go to work as normal that Monday morning, anxiously waiting until 3pm when Dr. Finkelstein’s office opens at home. He says that salt water rinses will be OK for immediate treatment, but that I should see a doctor as soon as possible in order to obtain antibiotics. They sell a proper mouthwash over the counter here, so I can easily get that in a Pharmacy. If it spreads farther, then it could become very serious. A gum infection might sound rather unimportant, but like any serious infection it is painful and has the potential to grow rapidly.
I call my mother to tell her that I have a small infection, but that everything is under control (a white lie). Truthfully, I am deeply concerned about how Pierro will react. I have noticed that no one here questions Pierro’s medical practice, not even in polite curiosity. I asked him about once, and he laughed off my question, explaining that some cars run on diesel, others on gasoline. It is dangerous to put the wrong fuel into your body.
I politely approach Velia, Pierro’s wife. She is more comfortable with English, and more outgoing in general, so we have a closer relationship than Pierro and I. I explain as clearly as I can, eventually with the help of Seba, that I need to see a doctor at their earliest convenience - preferably that night, but the next day would be OK. She eventually agrees that Seba can give me a ride to the nearest hospital (only 8km, but 400+ meters of descent), and he will help to translate my needs into Italian when we arrive. For all of our differences, I really like Seba. He believes in Pierro’s medicine, and does not consider himself to be scientifically minded, but he is a very warm, compassionate, intelligent guy. I can see concern enter his eyes; I had helped him while he was sick, and he is ready to help me.
As Seba translates my request to Velia, her apparent disinterest slightly troubles me. I had been living with them for eight days, working, eating, and relaxing together. Velia had always laughed and smiled as we tried to understand each other, between her broken English and my choppy Spanish-informed Italian. Rather than appearing worried by my infection, as I had expected, she looks frustrated. I assume that this odd reaction has to do with car-related logistics. So I go to brush my teeth and collect my medical papers. As I am gathering my things, I hear a heated altercation below my window.
Seba walks sheepishly over as I emerge with my bag. Doctor Mozzi (Pierro) had said that I only need one doctor, and he will take responsibility for my medical care whilst I am in his home. If I want to go to the hospital, I can walk there (a very bad idea, as the sun is already low in the late-afternoon). He has taken me under his medical custody; suddenly, my gum infection is only part of the problem.
I walk with Seba to the Kitchen, and he translates my explanation that I signed up to be Pierro’s agricultural volunteer, not to be his patient. I carefully and politely explain that I fully respect his medical capabilities, but that I would rather follow my trusted doctor at home. I am grateful for his hospitality, but I am a man capable of making medical decisions for myself. The conversation turns into a debate, ending with him yelling at me, three times in a row: “You are a vegan, and now you need drugs!” He does not mean pharmaceuticals.
Returning to the phone, I confer with the friendly hygienist at Doctor Finkelstein’s office. I ask what she thinks the timeline is for treatment: It should be alright to wait a day or two, but I should definitely increase saltwater rinses. I should get on penicillin as quickly as I can, and if the infection is not fully abated then I should seek further treatment when I arrive in Israel. She can tell that I find my situation painfully amusing. I give only cursory details.
When I come back into the kitchen after the phone call, Pierro eagerly tells me that I caused the inflammation mostly on Saturday. I had eaten couscous and tomatoes that day. He gives me a list of what foods to eat, and what foods not to eat. I politely tell him that I will try his advice for 24 hours, and if it does not work then I will see another doctor – he nods reluctantly. So I will eat potatoes and white beans for a day, I say to myself, then I can go to a real doctor.
As Pierro prescribes my diet, he notices that my hands are cold. I just came inside, and I am also rather nervous – so this is hardly surprising. He asks: “Do you want to have hot hands?” Confused, not sure what to say, I nod slowly. He tells me to eat a plum and then suck on the pit for ten minutes, until my hands warm up. Being inside, my hands do warm up – next to the fireplace. Pierro quietly comes over to me, and gingerly examines my hands, turning them over in his own. He smiles widely from behind his long white beard, and motions others over. He shows them my hands. Look! The treatment has worked!
Pierro gives a short speech. He explains to everyone in the kitchen that he has warmed up my hands. His medicine works. Marvelous as this may seem, it is but a small feat for the potent plum. This humble fruit can also cure Parkinson’s in a space of 15 minutes! Pierro animatedly pretends that he has Parkinsons, and then his shaking arms stabilized – he is cured!
I remain polite, but it is a struggle. I force down a chuckle. At Mogliazze, you do not disagree with Pierro. You certainly don’t laugh about Pierro's plums!
I return to my room immediately after dinner that night, too frustrated to remain a silent patsy in Pierro’s kitchen. I cannot remember a time when I felt more uncomfortable, more frustrated. Each interaction with Pierro has pulled the knot in my stomach tighter. I write down the vast majority of these details that night, crystallizing them in writing, so that my memory will not rearrange them.
Seba returns to the room after two hours – much longer than normal. He appears frustrated, but calm. As he takes off his shoes, I stop typing and we fall into conversation. He asks how I feel – “Frustrated”. He explains that Pierro and Velia are very angry with me. They are extremely upset that I contacted my doctor at home. As we speak, Velia is probably on the phone with Esther, who arranges the WWOOF volunteers, livid that she allowed another f***ing American to visit. We always bring them trouble. The knot in my stomach might squeeze dinner back up.
Me giving them trouble? This idea is simultaneously nauseating and hilarious! I’ve had it.
I tell Seba I am going to see a doctor the next day, no matter what Pierro thinks. Seba sighs heavily – they told him to tell me that tickets to the hospital only go one way. I slam my computer shut. Can I at least get a ride?! Seba silently shakes his head: if anyone wants to see the doctor (save for a broken bone or clear emergency) then they are packing their bags and walking. Mogliazze policy. When you are here, Pierro is your Doctor. I make sure to ask Seba, very explicitly, if I understand him correctly. I do.
Then, Seba tells me his story. We are sitting in our cozy, rustic room, relaxing by the fire, and he wants me to stay at Mogliazze. He tells me what happened the previous week, when he was sick, throwing up in the night. He had wanted to visit the hospital too. He asked for a ride, and Pierro refused. He started walking. It was 1am. There had been a large blizzard, just days earlier, and the road down the mountain was covered in snow and ice: 8km, and 400m of descent. Pierro followed him as he walked:
Pierro told me, ‘think about this carefully: you could slip and fall off of the road, and no one would know where you are. Do you want to take that risk, or do you want to stay here and trust me?He tells me this story, entirely relaxed, smiling, explaining how Pierro cured him:
We walked back up the mountain, and Pierro fed me hot water all night. I kept throwing up, and then I was all better. I thought I needed to go to the hospital. I didn’t. David: you should believe in Pierro. He can help you.This is the moment that my brother would ask about over the phone the next evening. Seba’s delight with his situation deeply frightens me: he had been given the choice of lying frozen at the side of the road on a dark mountainside, or allowing Pierro to treat to him. Pierro wants me to accept the simple beauty of the mountains, the simple satisfaction of my work, the simplicity of his diet, the authority of his command. Consciously or not, he uses the remoteness of the location and the treacherous road to enforce his will. Seba’s story is not unique. He tells me other stories just like his own; everyone comes back up the mountain, he says, everyone realizes Pierro is right.
I am going to pack my bags. I need to get OUT of here. I am not safe at Mogliazze – nobody is. I signed up to plant vegetables - I never signed up to accept vegetables as the only legitimate medicine!
I can’t let them know that I am leaving (four days early). At best, it would mean a very ugly departure. At worst, it would mean I am staying. At the least, I need a strong mouthwash. So I follow Pierro’s diet for 36 hours. I let him think that I believe in him. Then, at first light on a Wednesday morning, Seba and I drive down the mountain. He believes in my right to leave, and fully understands why I don’t want Pierro to know. We get breakfast twice, and spend three hours talking about what has happened before he sees me off on the bus to Piaccenza. He does believe in Pierro’s medicine, but he also says that my departure inspired him to think for himself; Pierro’s dictatorial behavior disappoints him.
My brother has booked me a last-minute hostel in Rome, and I get an express train that would take me there as fast as possible. I had told my family just enough information for them to know I needed their help, but not enough to scare them. I call my mom as soon as I have cell phone reception, and we use up all of my minutes.
I arrive in Rome, and call a handful of close friends and my family with an internet phone, and tell them everything. I am safe, I am in a hostel in Rome, but they need to hear this story. Then I call my Professor, Cindy Frantz, a social psychologist at Oberlin College who I has been my teacher for the past two semesters. Stunned, she agrees with analysis that I defected from a low-level, but very real cult. Mogliazze met almost all the criterion:
--Charismatic authoritarian leader
--Likeable, warm members
--Brainwashing techniques/indoctrination: believe in the plum, believe in Pierro
--Required sacrifice: restricted access to the outside world, e.g. medical care
--Isolated, remote location: allows the cult to define reality, creates homogenous society, limits outside influence (a tool for controlling movement as well)
--Deception: when you sign up, there is no mention that you will need to denounce western medicine if you fall ill – I signed up to plant carrots!!
(source: Social Psychology Lecture,"Obedience and Influence," Professor Cindy Frantz, Oberlin College. Spring, 2010.)
When Professor Frantz compares Pierro’s plum speech to the eerily similar tactics of Jim Jones, the infamous leader of Jonestown, I feel simultaneously much better and much, much worse. I am not a vengeful person, but Pierro must be stopped. Somebody could become hurt. Pierro never acts with violence himself, but he cleverly uses the forces of nature and his remote location in violent ways. Whether or not he is doing so on purpose, the fact remains the same: Mogliazze policy. Rationally speaking, it is shocking that no one has become very hurt before – as far as I know.
Two days later, I have settled into enjoying Rome. Seba was supposed to have emailed me an update about what had happened after my departure from Mogliazze. He had agreed to translate the letter I left for Pierro and Velia, a letter that pulled no punches. I haven’t heard from him, so I call Mogliazze to make sure he is OK. Pierro picks up the phone, and he figures out who it is. The only word I understand is “Bastardo.” They let Seba talk to me for a few minutes – he is OK right now.
When I tell this story to friends and family, it is reassuring to hear everyone respond with shocked disbelief. When everybody around me was irrational, it was hard to know if I might not be the one who had lost his mind. I became paranoid against myself. I would look out the window at the most beautiful sunrise I had ever seen, and I would want to accept that everything around me was OK. Pierro would smile as he showed me what foods I should eat, and I didn’t want to make him angry by politely disagreeing. I wanted to believe that I wasn’t paranoid. But paranoia was healthy. It was the only way to react. I had to leave.
...if you believe in it, it is a religion or perhaps The religion; and if you do not care one way or another about it, it is a sect; but if you fear and hate it, it is a cult.
-- Leo Pfeffer
Please note: I am sharing this story as a factual account that offers valuable lessons. As I explain in the story, I wrote these details down as they unfolded, recording them in my journal with meticulous accuracy. Over the past two weeks, I have woven together previously disconnected writing, and attempted to create an honest thread of my emotions throughout the experience. I would never have unwittingly entered into such a situation given the choice, but I have come to appreciate experience. I hope that you will learn as much as I have from this story; consider the moral importance of an independant and critical mind.
Of course, please feel free to be in touch if you have any questions or comments about what happenned.
I lived in the room up the stars, with the door on the balcony.
Bags packed, ready to go.
Seba and I spent the morning of my departure walking around Bobbio, until I left on the bus. Everything interesting was closed, but we enjoyed a long walk and two good breakfasts.