thing theory (2008)

anth g6085

audrey marie santo

megan osborn (columbia university)

Video Link: Is God Working Through Audrey, ABC 20/20


The blinds are opened, and she appears. Children crowd wide-eyed to the front. Someone points a disposable drugstore camera, and clicks. Inside the bedroom, the girl's grandma fusses with the sheets. "They have come to see you, Audrey," she coos. "Don't you look beautiful?" Audrey does not respond. Grandma takes a vacuum hose and suctions mucus from Audrey's nose.

-- The Washington Post, 1998


On August 9, 1987, a three year old girl, Audrey Marie Santo, fell into a swimming pool, lapsed into a coma and was diagnosed with Akinetic Mutism – an unconscious, motionless state.  For twenty years, she remained in this condition and died on April 14, 2007 at the age of twenty-three.  For the twenty years after her accident, Audrey lay motionless and was “on view” to the public in her home and in the community of Worcester, Massachusetts as a holy Catholic victim soul. 

Audrey has become global. She is booked through 1999. She is beautiful. She is precious. She is not in a coma. She is very alive and alert.

-- Apostolate volunteer Mary Cormier

In those twenty years a devotional following, the Apostolate of the Silent Soul, surrounded Audrey.  She was believed to be a holy stigmatic whose intercessions to God had been credited with miraculous healings, bleeding Eucharistic hosts and religious statues crying tears of oil and blood in her presence.  Popular media and academic scholarship has questioned the validity of the miracles.  This study will not analyze the religious implications of Audrey Santo’s miracles in life but will examine how her body and person have blurred the Great Divide between humans and nonhumans.  Bruno Latour argues that humans are constantly engaged in purification rituals that attempt to elevate humans by separating them from nonhumans (Latour 1993).  While Audrey had many human characteristics her position in the world of humans and nonhumans was ambiguous at best.  This is seen as problematic for many due to the sharp divisions made in the 21st century between subjects and objects.    

After her accident, Audrey Santo’s parents flew her to Yugoslavia to visit a shrine.  It was here, her mother says, that Audrey’s “mission” was solidified as a “victim soul” who sacrifices herself to provide hope for the medically incurable.  Although unconscious, the family claims that Audrey interceded with Christ on behalf of the sick and sinners that had visited her.  Intercession and self-sacrifice are common trait amongst victim souls, a religious category which developed in the 19th century.

Unlike victim souls of the past, Audrey’s case is unique because she has not moved or spoken a word since the accident.  While past victim souls articulated that they were, indeed, suffering for others, Audrey’s mission was solely articulated for her by her family and their religious advisors.  The question Mitchell asks, “What do pictures really want,” is equally relevant to the question, “What does Audrey really want?”  There is no answer to this and, it seems, this unconscious girl lived more in the world of objects than the world of subjects. 

You’ll find a variety of views of Audrey here; Audrey is what you make her out to be.

-- Linda Santo

Like a piece of religious or secular art, Audrey’s silent body was presented by those around her as a religious figure.  The family’s garage was converted into a chapel with paintings and statues of devotional saints decorating the walls.  Many of these statues had paper cups affixed to them to collect the oil they “cried” in Audrey’s presence.  Masses were and still are said here and pilgrims are allowed to view the blood stained Eucharistic hosts.  Before her death, devotees were led to a window cut into Audrey’s bedroom framing the gaze upon her body.  Here, Audrey was arranged on her bed of pristine white sheets and pink heart shaped pillows surrounded by stuffed animals.  Her long dark hair (which spilled onto the floor) was tied with a pink bow.  These colors gendered Audrey and were meant to emphasize her purity and eternal childhood innocence.  Surrounding her bed, pilgrims would find statues of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  The religious images surrounding Audrey concealed the prostheses attached to keep her alive.  Instead of seeing the bionic, unconscious body, viewers were presented with a religious-like scene emphasizing purity and sanctity. 

Alfred Gell discusses the Hindu practice of wrapping of the living child kumari when she is consecrated as the goddess Durga.  Until the child reaches purity, she is the living image of Durga.  Audrey is similarly wrapped in images of childhood innocence and purity linking her to the Virgin Mary and other female saints.  Gell argues there is little difference between the consecration of the kumari and any other idol, except that “the kumari can walk, and talk . . . “ (Gell 1998: 152).  Audrey cannot do either of these thus, perhaps, aligning her more on the side of religious objects than humans.

Before the viewing window in the Santo’s garage was constructed, visitors could touch the body of Audrey and some tried to cut locks of her hair to take with them.  After the partition was installed, the Santos displayed Audrey relics in the chapel including tissues stained with her blood and tears, her hair bows, etc. along with family pictures and poems dedicated to Audrey.  The distance visitors maintained from Audrey’s bedside also emphasized the privileged position of those who had access to Audrey.  Michael Rowlands, in his examination of the Fon (a chief in Cameroon), argues that some people (and things) are perceived as more material than others.   Objects that emanate from the Fon are considered denser than from other persons.  Bodily fluids of the Fon (like saliva) can affect change; his materiality grants a greater presence in the material world.  Devotees believe objects emanating (and taken) from Audrey’s person do the same and they tried to take pieces of her with them to heal those who could not make the pilgrimage to Worcester.  The Apostolate of the Silent Soul also offers gifts of cotton balls soaked with the mysterious oil that oozes from the religious figures to all who visit the home and those who write in for one.  On their website, devotees can send money for Audrey photographs, magnets and the like.  Particularly interesting is the inclusion of crucifixes for sale that were placed in Audrey’s bedroom.  Thus, Audrey’s body (through hair, tears, blood) and her presence (through oil and proximity to objects) are commodities either stolen from her person or sold or given as gifts by her caretakers.  The still body of Audrey was also photographed, touched and treated as an object of considerable devotion. 

In 1998, ten years after her accident, Audrey appeared on display before thousands at a local college stadium.  Following this public display and devotional mass, the Catholic diocese of Central Massachusetts limited public access to Audrey due to the controversial devotion she had attracted.  The miracles were under review by the Church at the time of her death in 2007.  Alfred Gell examines the use of Christian relics in medieval times.  Reliquary heads, containing the remains of saints, supposedly used in ceremonies by the Knights Templar, raised official suspicion within the Church (Gell 142).  The worship of Audrey (who is not canonized) in the 21st century, similarly raises great suspicion in official Church circles.  Both Gell and Patrick Geary studied the relevance of the physical remains of saints as relics in Medieval Europe.  The holy body was necessary to imbue churches, statues and the mass with God’s presence.  Gell notes that the use of relics in religious art and architecture raised questions of how to manage the “transition between the religious image as a ‘mere’ manufactured thing and a vehicle of power, capable of acting intentionally and responding to the intentions of devotees” (Gell 1998: 143).   Likewise, the Catholic Church today is trying to manage the legacy of an unconscious girl fulfilling the same role as these religious art icons.  As a religious object, Audrey is a vehicle of power, but as a human, she lacked agency 

Igor Kopytoff has written about the commoditization of the body especially that of the slave.  He argues that:

Marginality and ambiguity of status are at the core of the slave’s social identity . . . slavery is not seen as a fixed and unitary status, but as a process of social transformation that involves a succession of phases and changes in status, some of which merge with other statuses that we in the West consider far removed from slavery. (Kopytoff 1986: 65)

One can argue that Audrey’s social identity as a human or commodity was marginal and ambiguous.  Throughout her life her status as child, healer, daughter, miracle worker and commodity were meshed and altered the way she was perceived as both an object and subject. 

While there is not a great deal of literature on cases similar to Audrey Santo, Luc de Heusch has written much about sacred kingship and the worship of the “fetish-body” in many African civilizations and his work provides a good point of comparison with Audrey’s situation.

Through a special ritual of enthronement, a particular person, whose political power varies enormously, is conferred with a unique property best understood by considering that the holder is transformed into a ‘fetish-body.’  These persons . . . may not in fact rule over any kingdom and their authority may simply consist of an enhanced moral status.  (de Heusch 1997: 213)

Using the example of the Lwembe figure of Nyakyusa of Tanzania, de Heusch explains how this Lwembe, a renowned person, lives as a recluse and is seen to guarantee the prosperity of the country because his body is the seat of the power of growth.  Before becoming gravely ill, he is ritually strangled, and nails and locks of hair are removed and buried to maintain the power of the body (ibid 215).  In recounting other examples, de Heusch remarks that what lies common to sacred kingship in Africa is the restriction of movement and liberty of the sacred person.  The person is essentially a captive of the group that worships them (ibid 216).  There are several similarities to the selection and treatment of the sacred king and Audrey Santo.  Audrey, presented by her parents as an eternal innocent child, was deemed to have a moral authority and pureness that aligned her with the saints and God’s favor and purportedly gave her the power to heal.  Audrey’s movement was restricted by her medical condition but also by her caretakers who chose when and how she would be displayed.  Also, as in the examples of the sacred kings, Audrey’s body was viewed as a source of power and bodily relics were important ways to receive her healing presence. 

Another example of the motionless, sacred body is provided by Maurice Godelier who looks at sacred objects in his book, The Enigma of the Gift.  He recounts a rite amongst the Baruya that involved sacrificing a young father during periods of drought and famine.  The victim was chosen by the chiefs and lured into a trap by his best friend.  There, he was tied to a tree and his arms and legs would be broken making him immobile.  They would kill him by sticking seven bat-bone needles into his kidneys, his lungs, his neck and his head.  Finally, his heart was torn out and wrapped in leaves and taken to cult houses where it was passed over the flames of a fire. The men would smear themselves with the victim’s blood in order for their gardens to grow.  The remainder of the blood was used to feed the insects that destroyed the crops.  The body was cooked but not eaten and the bones were distributed to the clans who buried them near their villages.  Godelier writes, “the strength of objects lies in their capacity to materialize the invisible, to represent the unrepresentable.  And it is the sacred object which most completely fulfills this function” (Godelier 1999: 109).  Similarly, Audrey’s motionless body and bodily fluids were treated as relics that materialized God’s presence and healing properties.  While Audrey was not murdered and did not die for her body to become a sacred object, her presence floated between the world of the living and the dead.  Her followers believe she self-sacrificed for others and choose to be in her condition.

Joe Nickell, an investigator for the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, questioned the decency of displaying Audrey during her life.   He posed, was this exploitation of someone who could neither speak nor act for herself?  For Nickell, the presentation of Audrey’s body was a violation of her dignity as a human being.  He argues she was treated as a commodity; something less than human.  Audrey’s family and followers believe Audrey was conscious and choose to “sacrifice” herself for others.  One can still visit the house where Audrey once lived.  Was this a case of a holy mystic exerting her agency to heal others and to change the world or is it a case of an exploited person being used as a devotional object?  Kopytoff, like Latour, addresses the division of the person and thing and asks where that line lays.   If Audrey were conscious and allowed people to view her, touch her and take home tissues stained with her tears would there be any controversy?   Is there only controversy because of the created divide between humans and objects?



De Heusch, Luc, 1997. “The Symbolic Mechanisms of Sacred Kingship: Rediscovering Frazer.” The Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 3, No. 2, (June 1997), pp. 213-232.

Gell, A. 1998. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. New York: Clarendon Press.

Godelier, Maurice, 1999. The Enigma of the Gift. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kopytoff, Igor, 1988. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” The Social Life of Things. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Latour, B. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Miller, Daniel, 2005. “Introduction.” Materiality. Durham: Duke University Press.

Mitchell, W. J. T. 2005. What Do Pictures Want? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rodgers, Susan, 2006. “The Sacramental Body of Audrey Santo.”  Performing Catholic, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rowlands, Michael, 2005. “A Materialist Approach to Materiality.” Materiality, Durham: Duke University Press.

Schmaltz, Michael, 2006. “Performing the Miraculous in Central Massachusetts.”  Performing Catholic, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Washington, Gene. “Tears for Audrey.” The Washington Post, July 19, 1998.