On the dangers of reading.

On the dangers of reading.

During most of human evolution, children died regularly.  In some cultures, the risk was so high that children weren’t named until they’d survived their second birthday.

But the advent of modern medicine – vaccines, antibiotics, sterile technique – has dramatically reduced childhood mortality.  Wealthy parents in the U.S. expect their children to survive.  And yet, this expectation can increase anxiety.  Families are smaller; children are less replaceable.  Parents pour so much of themselves into children’s early years that we’d be devastated if something went wrong.

And so modern parents hover.  Rather than letting children roam free, comforted by the thought that out of six kids, surely one will be fine, wealthy parents in the U.S. strive to control the development of their one or two offspring.

In the book On Immunity, Eula Biss describes how difficult it can be to relinquish that control.

CaptureI already practiced some intuitive toxicology before my pregnancy, but I became thoroughly immersed in it after my son was born.  As long as a child takes only breast milk, I discovered, one can enjoy the illusion of a closed system, a body that is not yet in dialogue with the impurities of farm and factory.  Caught up in the romance of the untainted body, I remember feeling agony when my son drank water for the first time.  “Unclean!  Unclean!” my mind screamed.

Because I didn’t breastfeed my child, I glossed over this passage when I first read it.  Even early on, I sometimes used water to dilute the milk that my partner pumped at work – when my kid was thirsty, I needed to offer something.

But I found myself thinking about this passage recently, when our eldest learned to read.  Our family loves books – we’ve probably read to our children for an hour or more each day, and they spend more time flipping through the pages on their own.

When I read to my kids, I reflexively alter texts.  In our version of James Marshall’s Fox on the Job, Fox had a bicycle accident while showing off for “his friends,” not “the girls.”  In Fox is Famous, a character bemoans the challenges of baton twirling by saying “I’m just not good at this yet,” that (unprinted) final word used to convey a growth mindset.

Go_dog_go_hat.jpgAnd our kids would probably be puzzled by Raquel D’Apice’s essay about Go Dog Go because the voices I’ve used while reading led them to assume that the pink poodle was a fashionable male asking a female friend for advice (“Well, maybe he doesn’t have a mirror at home,” I explained when N was curious, “Why does he keep asking that?”).

I could control the stereotypes that my children were fed.

But books are dangerous!  At the beginning of summer, our eldest learned how to read.  A week later, I hid all the Calvin and Hobbes.  She loves these!  So do I.  But four is too young to really understand concepts like “irony” or “anti-hero” – her behavior promptly tanked in mimicry of Calvin.

About a week after that, I hid the Peanuts.  And Garfield (“He shouldn’t kick Odie off the table, right?  Just like you shouldn’t have hit your sibling”).

She loves comics, but the only books we kept out were good, wholesome Mutts by vegan artist Patrick McDonnell.

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And I hid others, like James Howe’s Howliday Inn (too scary – she could hardly sleep that night).  We look over the front-page headlines of our local newspaper before deciding whether it can be left on the table.

Like Viet Thanh Nguyen, I’ve felt a little sad to see my child venture off into the intellectual world of books without me.  I still worry what she’s ready for.

For much of human history, the paternal impulse to restrict access to books was blatantly evil.  The medieval Christian church was reticent to use local languages because then poor people could interpret religious precepts for themselves.  And the written word was considered exceptionally dangerous in the U.S.  It was illegal to teach literacy to the people who were being tortured on sweltering plantations.

I’d like to think that my motivation for wanting to sculpt my child’s library is more benign.  More akin, perhaps, to the scientists dismayed when the untrained general public dabble with misleadingly curated excerpts from research journals.

On Immunity documents the efforts that Eula Biss made to learn about vaccination.  She writes that:

vaccinationUnvaccinated children, a 2004 analysis of CDC data reveals, are more likely to be white, to have an older married mother with a college education, and to live in a household with an income of $75,000 or more – like my child.

The mothers I knew began debating whether or not to vaccinate our children against the novel influenza virus long before any vaccine became available to us.

Another mother said that her child had screamed frighteningly all night following her first vaccination and she would not risk another vaccination of any kind.

Although many of these women have received extensive schooling in the humanities, and clearly care deeply for their offspring, they are putting lives at risk, including those of their own children.

It’s possible to remain ignorant even after extensive schooling.

Cattle_herdWhen my son was six months old, at the peak of the H1N1 flu pandemic, another mother told me that she did not believe in herd immunity.  It was only a theory, she said, and one that applied mainly to cows.  That herd immunity was subject to belief had not yet occurred to me, though there is clearly something of the occult in the idea of an invisible cloak of protection cast over the entire population.

In Biss’s social circle, people doubted demonstrable principles.  Herd immunity, like the theory of evolution, is not only correct, it is the mathematical implication of uncontroversial assumptions.  In the case of herd immunity, that viral diseases are communicable and that severe symptoms tend to make a virus more contagious.  In the case of evolution, that the DNA replication process producing gametes has a non-zero error rate, that heritable DNA gives rise to traits, and that individuals with different traits might have different numbers of offspring (perhaps because one critter was eaten as a child, whereas the other survived).

But the people making ignorant decisions in Biss’s social circle certainly don’t think of themselves as ignorant.  After all, they’re trying their best to stay informed.  They aren’t scientists, but they read.  They look up information, ingest it as best they can, and try to make good decisions.

When people read (and spin) articles in scientific journals without putting forth the effort to understand what the data really mean, they create an incentive for scientists to hide their findings.  Sometimes there are caveats to the truth.  For instance, each year’s flu vaccine is often much less effective than other vaccinations.  Some years, the flu vaccine is dramatically ineffective.

I read that report – then went and got my vaccination.

If people are using papers like this as propaganda, though – trying, for whatever reason, to convince people not to get vaccinated (you want an evil conspiracy theory?  Vaccines are cheap, and they prevent deadly, expensive illnesses.  Are wealthy imbeciles recommending you forgo vaccination simply so that you’ll need to pay for more medical care?) – it stifles scientific discourse.

Every scientist knows that vaccines are helpful.  They write papers about the rare failures in order to make vaccines even more helpful.  But nobody wants to provide fodder for the ignoramuses to distort.

Roald Dahl wrote an open letter urging parents to have their children vaccinated.  He describes his own family’s tragedy – before a vaccine was developed, his seven-year-old daughter died of measles.  He thought she was getting better; he was wrong.

Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.

I feel all sleepy,” she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious.  In twelve hours, she was dead.

Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was James and the Giant Peach.  That was when she was still alive.  The second was The BFG, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles.  You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books.  And I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.

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On minotaurs (and whether or not mothers are the root of all maladies).

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While reading Eula Biss’s On Immunity, I was often reminded of Rebecca Kukla’s Mass Hysteria.  Both works analyze the permeability of bodies, especially mothers and children, while drawing from literature, philosophy, and medicine.  Their major divergence is in tone; Kukla’s work can veer academic (which I enjoy, being a pedantic fuddyduddy myself); Biss’s writing is much more accessible.  A great choice, in my opinion, since Biss seems to have a strong social justice motivation for her work.  The fact that her writing is so consistently chatty and approachable, and that the work as a whole is structured with snack-sized chapters perfect for reading while a napping baby was sprawled atop my chest, seems essential for reaching her intended audience.

I felt the works were most similar in sections discussing putative moral shortcomings in mothers and the way those ills could be passed along to children, either physically through the womb or breastmilk, or psychologically through maternal behavior.  Here’s Biss on the litany of ill-conceived castigations that have been applied to women, which I think of collectively as the “blame the mother” hypotheses:

In the twentieth century, psychologists blamed schizophrenia on overbearing mothers who smothered their children.  Homosexuality, categorized as a mental illness until 1973, was blamed on anxious mothers who coddled their children.  Autism, according to the prevailing theory of the 1950s, was blamed on cold, insensitive “refrigerator mothers.”  Even now, mothers provide “a convenient missing link in germ theory,” as the psychotherapist Janna Malamud Smith observes.  “If it is not viral or bacteria,” she quips, “it must be maternal.”

These are all relatively modern theories — we have to delve slightly deeper into medical history to reach my favorite “blame the mother” hypothesis: the maternal imagination theory that purportedly explained birth defects.

9780312427733I first learned about this theory from Jeffrey Eugenides’s wonderful novel Middlesex.  If you haven’t read it yet, you’re in for a treat!  As in, why waste your time reading this essay?  Go read his book!  Soon!  Now!

But if you’re still here (I should finish writing this essay, after all, in case you’re at work or something and stuck sitting at a computer), you’ll get only a small taste.

In this passage, Eugenides shows a doctor explaining the causes of birth defects to a nervous expectant mother; the doctor blusters forth with a charming (and in my opinion very true to life) lack of emotional intelligence.  He’s so pleased with his own erudition that he doesn’t even notice the burgeoning worries of his patient — the fearful mother is bearing her brother’s child.

Sourmelina let out an exasperated sigh and wiped her mouth with her napkin.  There was a strained silence.  Dr. Philobosian, pouring himself another glass of wine, rushed in.

“Birth is a fascinating subject.  Take deformities, for instance.  People used to think they were caused by maternal imagination.  During the conjugal act, whatever the mother happened to look at or think about would affect the child.  There’s a story in Damascene about a woman who had a picture of John the Baptist over her bed.  Wearing the traditional hair shirt.  In the throes of passion, the poor woman happened to glance up at this portrait.  Nine months later, her baby was born–furry as a bear!”  The doctor laughed, enjoying himself, sipping more wine.

“That can’t happen, can it?”  Desdemona, suddenly alarmed, wanted to know.

But Dr. Philobosian was on a roll.  “There’s another story about a woman who touched a toad while making love.  Her baby came out with pop eyes and covered with warts.”

“This is in a book you read?” Desdemona’s voice was tight.

“Pare’s On Monsters and Marvels has most of this.  The Church got into it, too.  In his Embryological Sacra, Cangiamilla recommended intra-uterine baptisms.  Suppose you were worried that you might be carrying a monstrous baby.  Well, there was a cure for that.  You simply filled a syringe with holy water and baptized the infant before it was born.”

“Don’t worry, Desdemona,” Lefty said, seeing how anxious she looked.  “Doctors don’t think that anymore.”

“Of course not,” said Dr. Philobosian.  “All this nonsense comes from the Dark Ages.  We know now that most birth deformities result from the consanguinity of the parents.”

“From the what?” asked Desdemona.

“From families intermarrying.”

Desdemona went white.

“Causes all kinds of problems.  Imbecility.  Hemophilia.  Look at the Romanovs.  Look at any royal family.  Mutants, all of them.”

3wombsTo me, that’s a great medical hypothesis.  Not the idea that consanguinity causes birth defects; that’s too commonly understood, and too true, to be a lot of fun.  But maternal imagination?  A fine piece of work.  Doctors, out of prudishness, refused to examine women’s bodies.  Then, in their ignorance, they claimed those bodies were malleable and consisted primarily of empty space that the women’s organs could migrate through (i.e. “hysteria,” from “hustera” meaning womb, a disease in which the uterus has wandered too far.  Like a parasitic worm, perhaps, if it reaches her brain the womb might cause a woman to say crazy things).  And so they logically assumed, hey, if women’s bodies are such porous, malleable things, and babies are growing inside them, then anything a mother does or even thinks might affect the baby!

Brilliant logic, right?

Here’s a snippet of Kulka’s perspicacious analysis about how the maternal imagination theory related to the culture of the times:

This cluster of anxieties is sometimes intertwined with other familiar social anxieties that circulate around reproduction.  In a fascinating twist, Sadler warns that the child of an adulteress may still look like her husband because she may have been thinking about him during coitus.  In this case, anxieties about how paternity can be secured intersect with anxieties about the maternal imagination, through the warning that fathers cannot even trust family resemblance as a marker of proper paternity.  This example doubles the call to carefully police women’s appetites: her wayward cravings may betray her husband and her child at once.  Sadler also cites a commonly mentioned report of a woman who “conceived and brought forth an Ethiopian” because she looked at a painting of a black man during conception, thereby adding anxieties surrounding racial purity to the mix of concerns.  Women’s cravings and imagination can thus deform and denature both the kinship order and the racial order, along with the order of their children’s bodies, in ways that normal, external controls over sexual activity cannot prevent.

Tight bind, eh?  If your baby looks “wrong,” it’s your fault: you, as a mother, must’ve somehow sinned.  You saw something you should not have seen.  You ate something you should not have eaten.  You made yourself impure.  And even if your baby looks “right,” there’s a chance that you’re bad anyway, that you somehow cheated and used virtuous thoughts while sinning in order to conceal your crimes.

Here is another passage from Kukla wherein she presents — from an ostensibly-scientific medical text! — a list of maternal-derived illnesses even broader and more morally-castigating than was delineated by Biss:

The seventeenth-century textbooks are particularly concerned about and often organized around the possibility of deformed births, with a special focus on the dangers of the impure, permeated womb.  Sadler’s book, for instance, is organized primarily as a list of ways in which the womb can fail to maintain its purity and its integrity–the womb here leaks and ‘weeps,’ and various ‘corrupt humours’ flow in and out of it, making nothing more ‘perilous’ to the body than the ‘ill-affected womb.’  Many of the works go into elaborate detail, describing and often visually representing famous cases of monstrous births.  Monstrous births could be the product of weak seed or impure blood, of conception during menstruation, of the woman fertilizing herself with her own seed (!), or, most importantly and consistently, of maternal ingestions of sights and substances that could pollute or deform the womb.  In justifying the need for careful knowledge and monitoring of the maternal body, in the preface of his book, Sadler warns us: “From the womb come convulsions, epilepsies, apoplexies, palseys, hecticke fevers, dropsies, malignant ulcers, and to bee short, there is no disease so ill but may proceed from the evil quality of it.”

CaptureGiven that my novel is primarily about violence against women, especially as has been affected in the name of science, I couldn’t resist incorporating the theory of maternal imagination.  For linguistic reasons (and because the traditional myth impugns women and their appetites still further), the problem children in my work are minotaurs.

Surprisingly, the old medical texts do not specifically address monsters from mythology, but it’s not much of a stretch to imagine one of those books containing explicit warnings about women and bestiality.  Or that barns be kept out of the sight line of bedroom windows.  Or that pregnant women stay away from farms in general.  In a time when medical texts posited the sponge-like permeability of women, risk must have seemed to be everywhere.

Of course, doctors could have checked.  Perhaps they would have noticed that human women in all variety of circumstances were giving birth to perfectly normal human babies.

But where’s the fun in that?  And, worse, if it did turn out that women’s thoughts were no more dangerous than men’s, how would you argue that they needed to be shielded from dangers like the pursuit of meaningful professions?