"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.
Beginning in July of this year, most everywhere we look, there will be a giant number on our food. The change will affect hundreds of thousands of edible products, and, so, hundreds of millions of people. It will affect the way we think about food for decades. (This update is the first in more than 20 years—so long ago that the FDA earnestly describes its current label design as “iconic.”)
Current nutrition labels, legally required on all packaged foods, are to be be replaced with the explicit purpose of improving people’s health. As Michelle Obama said at the unveiling of the new labels on Friday, “Very soon, you will no longer need a microscope, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition to figure out whether the food you’re buying is actually good for our kids.”
The author Moira Weigel argues that the various courtship rituals of the past hundred-odd years have reflected the labor-market conditions of their day.
Love, it turns out, has always been a lot of work.
While every generation will lament anew the fact that finding love is hard, history seems to indicate that this particular social ritual never gets any easier or less exciting. In Labor of Love, a new book documenting the history of dating in America, Moira Weigel, a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at Yale University, confirms this lament: Since dating was “invented,” it has always been an activity that required a lot of effort.
As part of her research, Weigel read dating-advice books from the 1800s and hundreds of articles on dating from teen and women’s magazines over the years, and she found two common themes: First, there is usually an older part of the population that perceives dating to be “dying,” or, at least, as not being done “appropriately.” Second, Weigel found that the way people date has almost always been tied to the market forces of their era.
Petty political fights distract from the Vermont senator’s goal of a long-lasting movement.
Bernie Sanders’s beliefs have been obvious from the start. He thinks wealthy elites exert too much influence over American politics. He wants the U.S. government to lessen income inequality. He believes climate change is a pressing threat to the world. The clarity and overarching ambition of his agenda has been central to his appeal and expectations-defying political success so far.
If Sanders wants his political revolution to last, he will need to win widespread support for his ideas well into the future. Yet as the primary election draws to a close, the campaign has increasingly made arguments that may undercut the long-term viability of the movement that has coalesced around the Vermont senator.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
The film, released 25 years ago, is best known as an icon of early-’90s feminism. But it feels just as fresh today as it did in 1991.
Thelma & Louise is a movie that, like The Sixth Sense and Casablanca and Citizen Kane and a handful of other classics, is best known for its ending. “Let’s not get caught,” Thelma tells her best-friend-turned-partner-in-crime, after their run from the law ends with their, well, being caught. “Let’s keep going.” And keep going they do—driving their dust-covered Thunderbird (worst-kept spoiler in history alert) right into the Grand Canyon.
Flight, ending in flight: It’s a satisfyingly symbolic conclusion to a film that is laden with symbolism—about feminism, about female friendship, about a world that can have such little use for either. As Callie Khouri, the film’s screenwriter, explained of that final scene: “They flew away, out of this world and into the mass unconscious. Women who are completely free from all the shackles that restrain them have no place in this world. The world is not big enough to support them.”
On the Colorado River, one of America’s largest reservoirs may be doing more harm than good.
Wedged between Arizona and Utah, less than 20 miles up river from the Grand Canyon, a soaring concrete wall nearly the height of two football fields blocks the flow of the Colorado River. There, at Glen Canyon Dam, the river is turned back on itself, drowning more than 200 miles of plasma-red gorges and replacing the Colorado’s free-spirited rapids with an immense lake of flat, still water called Lake Powell, the nation’s second largest reserve.
When Glen Canyon dam was built, in the middle of the last century, giant dams were championed as a silver bullet promising to elevate the American West above its greatest handicap: a perennial shortage of water. These monolithic wonders of engineering would bring wild rivers to heel, produce cheap, clean power, and stockpile water necessary to grow a thriving economy in the middle of the desert. And because they were often remotely located they were rarely questioned.
Why aren’t the critics comparing Donald Trump to a fascist acknowledging that the office he seeks is too powerful?
Wake up, establishment centrists: Donald Trump is coming!
After the Vietnam War and Watergate and the spying scandals uncovered by the Church Committee and the Nixon Administration cronies who nearly firebombed the Brookings Institution, Americans were briefly inclined to rein in executive power—a rebuke to Richard Nixon’s claim that “if the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Powerful committees were created to oversee misconduct-prone spy agencies. The War Powers Resolution revived a legislative check on warmaking. “In 34 years,” Vice President Dick Cheney would lament to ABC News in a January 2002 interview, “I have repeatedly seen an erosion of the powers and the ability of the president of the United States to do his job. I feel an obligation... to pass on our offices in better shape than we found them to our successors."
For centuries, philosophers and theologians have almost unanimously held that civilization as we know it depends on a widespread belief in free will—and that losing this belief could be calamitous. Our codes of ethics, for example, assume that we can freely choose between right and wrong. In the Christian tradition, this is known as “moral liberty”—the capacity to discern and pursue the good, instead of merely being compelled by appetites and desires. The great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant reaffirmed this link between freedom and goodness. If we are not free to choose, he argued, then it would make no sense to say we ought to choose the path of righteousness.
Today, the assumption of free will runs through every aspect of American politics, from welfare provision to criminal law. It permeates the popular culture and underpins the American dream—the belief that anyone can make something of themselves no matter what their start in life. As Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, American “values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”
How a strange face in a random 19th-century newspaper ad became a portal to a forgotten moment in ASCII art history
One of the joys of modern technology is how easy it is to immerse yourself in the past. Every day, more libraries and archives are pushing pieces of their collections online in easily browsable interfaces.