"Over all the years that followed, I found myself thinking from time to time of that picture, my hand over the baby's mouth. I knew then, and I still think now, that the right thing to do would have been to kill that baby."
Like a morbid time capsule from the mind of an elder New York psychiatrist, a report surfaced this week in which Dr. Fredric Neuman essentially confesses to criminal breaches of medical ethics. His essay "The Cyclops Child," which appeared on the website of the journal Psychology Today, recounts the dishonesty and cruelty surrounding the brief existence of a child with severe birth defects. Compounding the offenses detailed in the story itself, Dr. Neuman uses dehumanizing terminology -- referring to the infant as a "monster" -- and focuses disproportionately on the hardship endured by hospital staff, as opposed to the dying child (or "it," according to the author). An anachronism of some unadulterated views from a voice of the medicinal community circa 1960, "The Cyclops Child" is an offending document in itself.
I will summarize here the critical facts resurrected by Dr. Neuman, but please do read his entire essay as well. While he withheld the specifics, I estimate that the hospital was St. Vincent's (now closed), and the year was 1959 or 1960 (based on my review of his curriculum vitae). The essay -- which catalogues what would today be considered kidnapping, assault and possibly murder -- shocks our modern sensibilities. "As a person with disabilities, I find this entire post chilling," one of Dr. Neuman's readers wrote. "I hope the NY state medical board investigates the physicians involved and takes appropriate action," chimed in another.
Here's what happened. A mother gave birth to an infant with a fatal developmental defect called holoprosencephaly. Infants born today with this condition are almost unheard of, as most women will opt to abort the pregnancy when the condition is identified on an early ultrasound. Fifty years ago, women didn't have this option. They were treated by obstetricians who felt that they operated on a higher plane than the rest of us, paternalistically keeping information from patients and limiting options however they saw fit. In this case, the obstetrician decided the parents should not know that the baby was born with the condition. Instead, he and the rest of the team lied to the parents, telling them their baby was dead.
A word about this baby's condition, holoprosencephaly. As humans develop in the womb from a bundle of cells into distinct tissues and organs, the nervous system emerges from a structure called the "neural tube." In rare instances that doesn't form appropriately. In the case of holoprosencephaly, a defect in the neural tube occurs at the head, and various midline structures like the brain, eyes, and mouth may not fully form. In this case, Dr. Neuman describes the deformity using "cyclops" -- which is actually a valid medical term, but is used here outside of the appropriate pathological context -- in describing eye tissue that did not separate into two distinct eyes. It is disturbing that the term holoprosencephaly never occurs in his essay.
The baby is treated as an object and given no gender, referred to as "it." In the events that followed there is no indication that he received any palliative treatment, as would be the standard today (comfort care, including pain management).
The hospital staff expected and hoped that the newborn would soon pass away, but he did not. They left the child ignored in the back of the hospital nursery. Doctors and nurses waited for him to starve. An excruciating death watch followed that dragged on for about 13 days, as Dr. Neuman notes in the comments section of his piece. The child's cries anguished nursery staff who kept the dark secret. Dr. Neuman wrote:
"There was a price to be paid. Dying though it might be, the staff still had to tend to it, to change it, to clean it, to hold it in repeated attempts to comfort it. The baby was suffering, and so was everyone else. Earlier, I had caught an aide crying. A couple of nurses had stayed home that day. It was at that point that I began to think about killing the baby."
Dr. Neuman did not kill the baby. But he did torture him at the direction of his senior resident, who asked him to practice a finger amputation procedure on the child:
"The way you treat a baby's extra fingers is to tie a ligature, a string, as tight as you can around the base of the finger. The blood supply is cut off, and after a while the finger falls off.
When I went over to the baby, it was lying quietly in its bed. It did not object when I picked up its hand. But when I tied the ligature around its finger and pulled tightly, it screamed."
The newborn finally died. The parents of the child never knew of the suffering or the needless procedure. Dr. Neuman still believes he should have euthanized the child:
Over all the years that followed, I found myself thinking from time to time of that picture, my hand over the baby's mouth. I knew then, and I still think now, that the right thing to do would have been to kill that baby. It wasn't really a baby; it just sounded like a baby--that's what I tell myself. But I would like to stop thinking about it. After all, the whole thing happened over fifty years ago.
I'd compare Dr. Neuman's sickening tale to the work of Edgar Allen Poe, except that Dr. Neuman has not written a piece of creative fiction. This is the truth, we're told. So, has Psychology Today just published potential evidence in a trial for murder?
That's possible, but in no way probable, says Professor Martin Guggenheim of the New York University School of Law. Despite the fact that the statute of limitations doesn't run out on homicide, Guggenheim can't imagine a city prosecutor being interested in the case today. "Particularly because St. Vincent's is no more, I'd be more than a bit surprised if a prosecutor would do anything about this," Guggenheim says. All the other crimes - the kidnapping, the assault, the lies - are far too dated to be actionable.
Disability scholar Rebecca Garden, who teaches medical bioethics at Upstate Medical University, points out that despite the prevailing 1960's attitudes in this essay, deciding when life is worth living is still a contested issue. Disability rights advocates are still dealing with this on a daily basis. In this context, she feels Dr. Neuman's blog post is "distressing on many levels."
"This piece seems to be a complex and conflicted mix of confession, provocation, and defense or apologia," Professor Garden told me. Parts of "The Cylops Child" are written in the present tense. There is a passage where Dr. Neuman suggests that an obstetrician could smother such a baby. His observation that "such things happen" isn't confined to the past, Garden observes.
How can we fathom Dr. Neuman repeatedly describing this child as a monster? According to Laurence McCullough of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine, we're merely witnessing equally valid discourse from another era. Our modern scientific understanding that such developmental anomalies are errors of reproductive development derived from our evolutionary biology carries little human meaning, Prof. McCullough points out. A monster was considered "a portent sent by the Gods to punish transgression."
At least that's something people can somehow grasp and justify. "What may, at first, strike us as a wrong-headed or even repellent discourse of the past... turns out to have a distinct advantage over our own," McCullough says.
Though I would like to think of "The Cyclops Child" as a dusty artifact, it nonetheless appeared on my computer in 2012, from the mind of person living contemporaneously. I find myself trying to construct a narrative around it, to explain and contain it. Maybe Professor McCullough is right that "human scale" explanations at least offer us a framework to comprehend the things that distress us.
Alright, then. I'll believe the essay is a monstrosity published by the Gods to punish one doctor's fifty-year-old transgression.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Neuroscientist James Fallon discovered through his work that he has the brain of a psychopath, and subsequently learned a lot about the role of genes in personality and how his brain affects his life.
In 2005, James Fallon's life started to resemble the plot of a well-honed joke or big-screen thriller: A neuroscientist is working in his laboratory one day when he thinks he has stumbled upon a big mistake. He is researching Alzheimer's and using his healthy family members' brain scans as a control, while simultaneously reviewing the fMRIs of murderous psychopaths for a side project. It appears, though, that one of the killers' scans has been shuffled into the wrong batch.
The scans are anonymously labeled, so the researcher has a technician break the code to identify the individual in his family, and place his or her scan in its proper place. When he sees the results, however, Fallon immediately orders the technician to double check the code. But no mistake has been made: The brain scan that mirrors those of the psychopaths is his own.
Without the financial support that many white families can provide, minority young people have to continually make sacrifices that set them back.
He died on a Saturday.
My mother and I had planned to pick my dad up from the hospital for a trip to the park. He loved to sit and watch families stroll by as we chatted about oak trees, Kona coffee, and the mysteries of God. This time, the park would miss him.
His skin, smooth and brown like the outside of an avocado seed, glistened with sweat as he struggled to take his last breaths.
In that next year, I graduated from grad school, got a new job, and looked forward to saving for a down payment on my first home, a dream I had always had, but found lofty. I pulled up a blank spreadsheet and made a line item called “House Fund.”
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
Places like St. Louis and New York City were once similarly prosperous. Then, 30 years ago, the United States turned its back on the policies that had been encouraging parity.
Despite all the attention focused these days on the fortunes of the “1 percent,” debates over inequality still tend to ignore one of its most politically destabilizing and economically destructive forms. This is the growing, and historically unprecedented, economic divide that has emerged in recent decades among the different regions of the United States.
Until the early 1980s, a long-running feature of American history was the gradual convergence of income across regions. The trend goes back to at least the 1840s, but grew particularly strong during the middle decades of the 20th century. This was, in part, a result of the South catching up with the North in its economic development. As late as 1940, per-capita income in Mississippi, for example, was still less than one-quarter that of Connecticut. Over the next 40 years, Mississippians saw their incomes rise much faster than did residents of Connecticut, until by 1980 the gap in income had shrunk to 58 percent.
“Wanting and not wanting the same thing at the same time is a baseline condition of human consciousness.”
Gary Noesner is a former FBI hostage negotiator. For part of the 51-day standoff outside the Branch Davidian religious compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, he was the strategic coordinator for negotiations with the compound’s leader, David Koresh. This siege ended in infamous tragedy: The FBI launched a tear-gas attack on the compound, which burned to the ground, killing 76 people inside. But before Noesner was rotated out of his position as the siege’s head negotiator, he and his team secured the release of 35 people.
Jamie Holmes, a Future Tense Fellow at New America, spoke to Noesner for his new book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. “My experience suggests,” Noesner told Holmes, “that in the overwhelming majority of these cases, people are confused and ambivalent. Part of them wants to die, part of them wants to live. Part of them wants to surrender, part of them doesn’t want to surrender.” And good negotiators, Noesner says, are “people who can dwell fairly effectively in the areas of gray, in the uncertainties and ambiguities of life.”
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Nuts-and-bolts Washington coverage has shifted to subscription-based publications, while the capitol’s traditional outlets have shrunk.
Back in 2009, I had a job with a Washington, D.C.-based newsletter called Water Policy Report. It wasn’t exactly a household name, but I was covering Congress, the federal courts, and the Environmental Protection Agency—a definite step up from the greased-pig-catching contests and crime-blotter stories I had chased at a community newspaper on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, my first job out of college.
One of my responsibilities at the newsletter was to check the Federal Register—the official portal that government agencies use to inform the public about regulatory actions. In December of that year I noticed an item that said that the Environmental Protection Agency had decided that existing pollution controls for offshore oil-drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico were adequate, and that there wasn’t enough pollution coming from those platforms to warrant further review or action.
A Chicago cop now faces murder charges—but will anyone hold his colleagues, his superiors, and elected officials accountable for their failures?
Thanks to clear video evidence, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged this week with first-degree murder for shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Nevertheless, thousands of people took to the city’s streets on Friday in protest. And that is as it should be.
The needlessness of the killing is clear and unambiguous:
Yet that dash-cam footage was suppressed for more than a year by authorities citing an investigation. “There was no mystery, no dead-end leads to pursue, no ambiguity about who fired the shots,” Eric Zorn wrote in The Chicago Tribune. “Who was pursuing justice and the truth? What were they doing? Who were they talking to? With whom were they meeting? What were they trying to figure out for 400 days?”
It was widely seen as a counter-argument to claims that poor people are "to blame" for bad decisions and a rebuke to policies that withhold money from the poorest families unless they behave in a certain way. After all, if being poor leads to bad decision-making (as opposed to the other way around), then giving cash should alleviate the cognitive burdens of poverty, all on its own.
Sometimes, science doesn't stick without a proper anecdote, and "Why I Make Terrible Decisions," a comment published on Gawker's Kinja platform by a person in poverty, is a devastating illustration of the Science study. I've bolded what I found the most moving, insightful portions, but it's a moving and insightful testimony all the way through.