Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Sick

The Prime of Miss Elizabeth Hoover

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Yesterday, as I was working on my post for this blog, I found myself thinking about the first time that I ever heard of Lyme disease, which, naturally, was on The Simpsons. In the episode “Lisa’s Substitute,” which first aired on April 25, 1991, Lisa’s teacher, Miss Hoover, tells the class: “Children, I won’t be staying long. I just came from the doctor, and I have Lyme disease.” As Principal Skinner cheerfully explains: “Lyme disease is spread by small parasites called ‘ticks.’ When a diseased tick attaches itself to you, it begins sucking your blood. Malignant spirochetes infect your bloodstream, eventually spreading to your spinal fluid and on into the brain.” At the end of the second act, however, Miss Hoover unexpectedly returns, and I’ve never forgotten her explanation for her sudden recovery:

Miss Hoover: You see, class, my Lyme disease turned out to be psychosomatic.
Ralph: Does that mean you’re crazy?
Janie: It means she was faking it.
Miss Hoover: No, actually, it was a little of both. Sometimes, when a disease is in all the magazines and on all the news shows, it’s only natural that you think you have it.

And while it might seem excessive to criticize a television episode that first aired over a quarter of a century ago, it’s hard to read these lines after Porochista Khakpour’s memoir Sick without wishing that this particular joke didn’t exist.

In its chronic form, Lyme disease remains controversial, but like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, it’s an important element in the long, complicated history of women having trouble finding doctors who will take their pain seriously. As Lidija Haas writes in The New Yorker:

There’s a class of illnesses—multi-symptomatic, chronic, hard to diagnose—that remain associated with suffering women and disbelieving experts. Lyme disease, symptoms of which can afflict patients years after the initial tick bite, appears to be one…[The musician Kathleen Hanna] describes an experience common to many sufferers from chronic illness—that of being dismissed as an unreliable witness to what is happening inside her. Since no single medical condition, a doctor once told her, could plausibly affect so many different systems—neurological, respiratory, gastrointestinal—she must be having a panic attack…As in so many other areas of American life, women of color often endure the most extreme versions of this problem.

It goes without saying that when “Lisa’s Substitute” was written, there weren’t any women on the writing staff of The Simpsons, although even if there were, it might not have made a difference. In her recent memoir Just the Funny Parts, Nell Scovell, who worked as a freelance television writer in the early nineties, memorably describes the feeling of walking into the “all-male” Simpsons writing room, which was “welcoming, but also intimidating.” It’s hard to imagine these writers, so many of them undeniably brilliant, thinking twice about making a joke like this—and it’s frankly hard to see them rejecting it now, when it might only lead to attacks from people who, in Matt Groening’s words, “love to pretend they’re offended.”

I’m not saying that there are any subjects that should be excluded from comedic consideration, or that The Simpsons can’t joke about Lyme disease. But as I look back at the classic years of my favorite television show of all time, I’m starting to see a pattern that troubles me, and it goes far beyond Apu. I’m tempted to call it “punching down,” but it’s worse. It’s a tendency to pick what seem at the time like safe targets, and to focus with uncanny precision on comic gray areas that allow for certain forms of transgression. I know that I quoted this statement just a couple of months ago, but I can’t resist repeating what producer Bill Oakley says of Greg Daniels’s pitch about an episode on racism in Springfield:

Do you remember this? Something about Homer and Dr. Hibbert? Well, you pitched it several times and I think we were just…It was some exploration of the concept of race in Springfield, and we just said, you know, we don’t think this is the forum. The Simpsons can’t be the right forum to deal with racism.

He was probably right. But when you look at the few racially charged jokes that the show actually made, the characters involved weren’t black, but quite specifically “brown,” or members of groups that occupy a liminal space in our cultural understanding of race: Apu, Akira, Bumblebee Man. (I know that Akira was technically whiter than anybody else, but you get my drift.) By contrast, the show was very cautious when it came to its black characters. Apart from Dr. Hibbert, who was derived from Bill Cosby, the show’s only recurring black faces were Carl and Officer Lou, the latter of whom is so unmemorable that I had to look him up to make sure that he wasn’t Officer Eddie. And both Carl and Lou were given effectively the same voice by Hank Azaria, the defining feature of which was that it was nondescript as humanly possible.

I’m not necessarily criticizing the show’s treatment of race, but the unconscious conservatism that carefully avoided potentially controversial areas while lavishing attention on targets that seemed unobjectionable. It’s hard to imagine a version of the show that would have dared to employ such stereotypes, even ironically, on Carl, Lou, or even Judge Snyder, who was so racially undefined that he was occasionally colored as white. (The show’s most transgressive black figures, Drederick Tatum and Lucius Sweet, were so transparently modeled on real people that they barely even qualified as characters. As Homer once said: “You know Lucius Sweet? He’s one of the biggest names in boxing! He’s exactly as rich and as famous as Don King, and he looks just like him, too!” And I’m not even going to talk about “Bleeding Gums” Murphy.) That joke about Miss Hoover is starting to feel much the same way, and if it took two decades for my own sensibilities to catch up with that fact, it’s for the same reasons that we’re finally taking a harder look at Apu. And if I speak as a fan, it isn’t to qualify these thoughts, but to get at the heart of why I feel obliged to write about them at all. We’re all shaped by popular culture, and I can honestly say of The Simpsons, as Jack Kerouac writes in On the Road: “All my actions since then have been dictated automatically to my subconscious by this horrible osmotic experience.” The show’s later seasons are reflexively dismissed as lazy, derivative, and reliant on easy jokes, but we still venerate its golden years. Yet if The Simpsons has gradually degraded under the watch of many of its original writers and producers, this implies that we’re only seeing the logical culmination—or eruption—of something that was there all along, afflicting its viewers years after the original bite. We all believed that The Simpsons, in its prime, was making us smarter. But what if it was just psychosomatic?

The casualty contact

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In early 1956, writing in a confidential memo intended to be seen only by members of the inner circle of the Church of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard laid out three methods for finding new recruits. The first, which he claimed to have successfully tested in Washington, D.C., was to place a newspaper ad that began: “Personal counseling. I will talk to anyone for you about anything.” Any respondents could be screened over the phone—although Hubbard cautioned against “talk[ing] to the person in such a way as to ease the problem”—and encouraged to join a weekly group therapy session. Another approach was based on a similar advertisement that was allegedly placed by Hubbard and his wife Mary Sue in Wichita toward the end of 1951. As Hubbard described it:

The exact wording of the ad was as follows: “Polio victims. A research foundation, investigating polio desires volunteers suffering from the after effects of that illness to call for examination at address.” When the people arrived usually with a phone interview first, they were immediately given about three hours of auditing…We did this for polio victims, arthritics and were about to do it for asthmatics when the surging success of the project frightened various individuals who had other plans for dianetics…The interesting hooker [sic] in this ad is that anyone suffering from a lasting illness is suffering from it so as to attract attention and bring about an examination of it. These people will go on being examined endlessly.

He concluded: “If I merely wanted a fortune out of Scientology…[I] would have continued to run this ad and run a clinic and school to care for its resultant callers.”

But perhaps the most striking—and morally questionable—proposal was one that Hubbard called “Casualty Contact,” which involved going actively after potential patients, or preclears, rather than waiting for them to take the initiative. The center of activity was again the local newspaper:

Every day in the daily papers one discovers people who have been victimized one way or the other by life. It does not much matter whether that victimizing is in the manner of mental or physical injury. It does matter that the newspapers have a full parade of oddities in terms of accident, illness and bereavement occurring at a constant parade before the eyes. The essence of “Casualty Contact” is good filing…One takes every daily paper he can get his hands on and cuts from it every story whereby he might have a preclear. He either has the address in the story itself or he gets the address as a minister from the newspaper. As speedily as possible he makes a personal call on the bereaved or injured person…He should represent himself to the person or the person’s family as a minister whose compassion was compelled by the newspaper story concerning the person. He should then enter the presence of the person and give a nominal assist, leave his card which states exactly where church services are held every Sunday.

And the part that really catches my eye is the statement that “it does not much matter” whether the target’s suffering is mental or physical. As long as it leaves a person vulnerable to an approach from the church, it can and should be exploited.

I was reminded of this after reading an excerpt from the novelist Porochista Khakpour’s new memoir Sick, which chronicles her experiences with Lyme disease. At one point, after her family and friends continue to doubt that she’s suffering from anything at all, she contacts a drug treatment program on the advice of a friend:

I called them and I got the founder, who immediately looked me up and treated me as a VIP. She kept assuring me, “You know, we handle quite a lot of celebrities here so you’ll fit right in with us.” They sent me their supplements—whey powder and sour cherry juice and all sorts of other natural products that were said to have superpowers, at very high prices—and gave me a daily schedule and told me I needed to call them all the time and stay in close touch for support and medial monitoring. I was suddenly talking to a network of doctors all over the country, who were giving me all sorts of advice without seeing me…They also sent me their book, their founder’s self-published memoir. I read through it, inspired, but I started to find some things familiar. It reminded me of snippets I’d heard about Scientology and all the emphasis on purity and detox and drug-free lifestyles started to click for me. I realized that they might all be Scientologists—that all through it were codes and analogies that pointed to Scientology and that certainly an anti-meds group might be linked to Scientology.

Khakpour finally confronted the founder, who responded over the phone: “It’s really inappropriate to ask about this. I want you to think about why you are asking, why you’d bother me with this.” The founder hung up, and Khakpour never heard from her again—although she still can’t get off the group’s mailing list.

Based on publicly available information, it isn’t whether the organization in question is truly affiliated with Scientology, but their methods certainly seem familiar, along with the needs that they subtly aim to fulfill. Just before she contacts them, Khakpour finds herself wondering: “Where to find community, my people?” The need for human contact, or simply to be believed, can render us vulnerable to what the critic Lidija Haas calls “quack treatments,” or to even more insidious approaches. As I read Khakpour’s account, I reflected that if Hubbard were still alive today, he might recommend that the church actively seek out patients who had been diagnosed with Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and other poorly understood medical conditions—and I may have been on to something. In a post at The Underground Bunker, the journalist Rod Keller profiles one of the few known medical doctors who is also openly a member of the church, noting that his practice is apparently “devoted to the treatment of Lyme disease, or more specifically, chronic Lyme disease.” Even more remarkable is a recent study at the University of Albany that examined the effect of Hubbard’s “detoxification” treatment on Gulf War Syndrome, which shares many characteristics with the conditions that I’ve listed above. (It’s associated with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, and it was long the object of skepticism as to whether it existed at all. The treatment, which consists of saunas, exercise, and doses of niacin, seems to be a simple repackaging of Hubbard’s earlier programs for drug addiction and radiation poisoning. And at least one of the doctors associated with the study is a prominent Scientologist who has also done work on chronic fatigue syndrome.) These amount to just a handful of data points, and further investigation is undoubtedly needed. But the pattern that they evoke is suggestive. If the Church of Scientology were proactively seeking a large and potentially lucrative group of patients, this is exactly what it would be doing. As Hubbard wrote back in 1956: “I can tell you the wrong thing to do about a practice—do nothing. These will work, and success is ahead of you.”

Written by nevalalee

June 7, 2018 at 9:17 am

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