Thursday, February 12, 2009


Broken cutters, broken saws,
Broken buckles, broken laws,
Broken bodies, broken bones,
Broken voices on broken phones.
Take a deep breath, feel like you're chokin’,
Everything is broken.
– Bob Dylan, “Everything Is Broken

The first person I ever helped to rescue killed himself, years later, after being accused of molesting children.

What do you do with that? How do you make sense of it?

This past week has offered a number of strange and maybe-not-so-coincidental connections, which started with “The Smell of Fear,” a Did a Cat Shit In Here piece about the link between fear responses and the protein underlying mad cow disease and CJD, the human brain-wasting disease. They ended with my vivid memory of a chilly morning in the woods of New Hampshire, the smell of a little survival fire hanging in the air, when a search team I led saved someone who may have gone on to hurt people.

It begins with Prp-Sc, a mangled version of Prp-C, itself a protein produced in the brain but until recently having no known function. Prp-Sc is a bizarre type of infectious agent called a prion — no living thing, no parasite with its own agenda, but rather a protein that folds incorrectly. Such a small thing, a single protein molecule: but Prp-Sc has a terrible ability to cause its “healthy” Prp-C neighbors also to misfold, the end result being a tangle of broken protein that kills brain cells.

Slowly, inch by inch, a human being — or a sheep, or a cow, or a deer — goes away. Never to return.


Well, nature doesn’t create anything for no reason. The simplest explanation, perhaps, is that Prp-C has a function so important that having it is worth the risk of it converting to its harmful Prp-Sc alter ego. And Bruno Lob√£o-Soares and colleagues at the University of Sao Paulo found a hum dinger of an important function: mice that lacked it failed to display the normal fear of a nearby predator.

Now, fear responses are often triggered by smells. But the connection to smell turned out to be far stronger than that: Claire E. Le Pichon and crew at Columbia University and elsewhere have now reported evidence that mice without Prp-C lose their sense of smell. They lag behind normal mice at finding hidden cookes; they can’t find cookies any better than a strain of mice known to have no sense of smell; and reintroducing Prp-C into the brain restores their sniffers. The mutation seems to disconnect activity in the brain’s olfactory bulb from the rhythm of breathing — normally they’re pretty much synchronized — and generally dampens the normal electrical oscillations in that vital first routing point of the sense of smell.


Well, we have two further connections: one predictable, if frustrating; the other blindsided me, and brought me back to that New England hillside.

As reported on Pet Connection — rapidly becoming a go-to source for information on both pet and human food safety — the FDA is playing down the potential risk that meat from an elk with chronic wasting disease may have entered the food chain. Now, I’m no FDA basher: the story of how rookie FDA medical officer Frances Oldham Kelsey stretched her authority to the breaking point to prevent thalidomide from being given to pregnant women in the U.S. is a hero’s tale that screams for a dramatic treatment, and ought to be told to our young around the cooking fire. It set a tone that, despite wobbles, has kept the FDA in the “drug cops” role, protecting us from the most egregious effects of over-eager (to be charitable) pharmaceutical salesmen.

Still, whether we’re talking poisoned dog food, peanut products for human consumption, or E. coli-tainted spinach, I think it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the FDA still doesn’t get food safety right (mainly because of scant funding).

The system is ... broken.

And finally, what did my wondering eyes encounter in the January 22 issue of Nature but an obituary of Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, the microbiologist who led the team that discovered prions. Gajdusek’s discovery hasn’t paid off yet — we still don’t know enough about prions and how they cause disease — but when we do come up with an agent that can rescue people from the long, slow dissolution of self that prions threaten, it’s a good bet that his work will underlie it.

Thing is, Daniel Carleton Gajdusek was also a convicted child molester. Something about him, if you trust the courts, was undeniably broken.

What do you do with that? How do you make sense of it? Is anybody going to refuse his elderly parents a treatment based on these discoveries because of what and who their discoverer was?

But that’s not the whole reason I bring this up. Here, in the interest of fairness and in-context understanding, I present the entirety of the relevant paragraph of the obit:

“Eccentricity was the source of Gajdusek's genius as a scientist, and of his notoriety late in life. In 1997, he was imprisoned on a child molestation charge involving one of the more than 50 Micronesian and Melanesian children he had adopted and brought to the United States. On his release in 1998 he moved to Europe, which he regarded as less puritanical than his home country.”

“Eccentricity?” “Puritanical?”

I think — I hope — that implicit in this paragraph was the author’s belief that the charges were unjust, and Gajdusek wasn’t in fact guilty of molesting a child. The author is from the Netherlands, to which Gajdusek emigrated after getting out of prison, and so there may be an issue of understanding the full implications of the English text, however well the author may speak the language.

I view this more as an utter failure of editing: How can an editor encounter that paragraph and not jot, in the requisite blue ink, “Please clarify — this sounds like you’re making an apologia for child molestation”?

Would it be impertinent to suggest that the editorial process here was ... well, broken?

I’m sure interested in checking out Nature’s Correspondence section in the coming weeks.

But returning to my original question: How do you make sense of all of this? I guess it depends on what kind of sense you’re looking for. If you want the sense that science can offer, then it has to do with the difficult tradeoffs in evolving complex organisms. Somehow, the crucial function of Prp-C — the structure that its chemical function dictates — brings with it the potential to go rogue. Somehow, giving a human being powerful reproductive urges brings with it the potential for those urges to be appallingly misdirected. (And that is my link to today’s celebration of Darwin’s birthday.) [1]

The problem with what the scientific explanation can offer us lies precisely in its objectivity. We don’t want child molestation to be a matter of objectivity; we want those who commit it to be evil, we want to judge. But in the words of Colonel Kurtz:

“You have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that; but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means.”

What is it like to be broken? How, if we ever reduce the phenomenon of human misbehavior to a matter of chemistry, do we make sense of that?

But I’m ready to answer my first question. My answer may be a nonsensical, fuzzy mix of Hegel and Tolkien. But it got me through the long nights after the phone call that told me of Scott’s suicide, and I still draw from it. The fact is that I’m not smart or wise or good enough to make the call of who lives and dies; I’m broken myself, in my own, hopefully small ways, and that gives me no right to ask, certainly not before the fact, whether this or that lost person is “worthy” of being found.

We do our best to find them, to bring the lost sheep home, because that’s what human beings, as broken as we may be, do. If you need more meaning than that, you’ll have to look elsewhere.


Gina Spadafori said...

"The first person I ever helped to rescue killed himself, years later, after being accused of molesting children."

That is one of the best first lines of a potential novel I have ever read.

Ken Chiacchia said...

I've been kicking the idea around, but we'll have to see. Short stories I can sell -- novels are another thing entirely.

Anonymous said...

Ken, there's no sense to be made of it, unless you want to go with Paul Simon's half-facetious lines in "Slip-Sliding Away:" God only knows. God makes his plan. The information's not available to the mortal man.

All we can do is, as the old hymn has it, "Trust and Obey." You did the right thing; you rescued a person in trouble. What they later did with their life is not your responsibility.

That being said... I think people do bear some responsibility for what they do with their circumstances, whatever those circumstances are. A guy can't help, perhaps, being born with some brain structure or chemistry that inclines him toward child molesting. But he has free will as to what to do with that. One pedophile makes a conscious effort to stay away from children. Another applies to work as a scoutmaster or with the Big Brother program.

We can't know someone else's circumstances. I don't know what I would have done if, as C.S. Lewis put it, I was saddled with the background and upbringing, and then the nearly unlimited power, of a Himmler. I'm not allowed to judge others. I can, on the other hand, judge their actions, and take steps to protect myself and the community. The distinction between loving the sinner and hating the sin is a very real one, however silly it might seem to a lot of people.

I expect this was a very costly essay for you to write. Hang in there, mi amigo. You're one of the people helping the rest of us to get through this unintelligible life. I know you help me.