Issue 294 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


Derrick Jensen’s interview with Samuel Epstein [“An Epidemic of Deception,” March 2000] was compelling and disturbing, and I believed every word of it. But when Jensen asked Epstein what readers can do “on a social and personal level” to combat the poisoning of the environment with carcinogens, Epstein’s answer was less than empowering. He suggested that we not pay our water bills until the utility discloses a list of the contaminants in our water, “find out exactly what chemicals are present” in any waste sites or chemical plants near our homes, and, finally, “get Congress” to block any further appropriations to the National Cancer Institute.

Does Epstein seriously expect us to do these things? Where exactly should we start? By writing letters to Congress? By taking time out of our busy lives to research our local petrochemical plants? By contacting the plants’ public-relations representatives and demanding to speak to someone in charge?

Epstein needs to understand that most people who agree with his message require a few simple, concrete steps to follow, so that we can begin to make a small difference, as opposed to feeling overwhelmed and inadequate to the task at hand.

Marc Polonsky Berkeley, California

The interview with Dr. Samuel Epstein is an insult to the intelligence of your readers. I would caution them always to distrust conspiracy theories. Your ignorant interviewer was overwhelmed by a once fine researcher who has become a charlatan.

Farley R. Cleghorn Silver Spring, Maryland
Samuel Epstein responds:

Polonsky’s concerns as to what a reader can do “on a social and personal level” are well founded. The options are: do nothing; take personal steps to reduce avoidable involuntary exposure to carcinogens; or take personal and political action by supporting activist citizen, environmental, and professional groups and boycotting the American Cancer Society.

Cleghorn’s distrust of conspiracy theories is understandable. The major issue, however, is not a formal, systematic conspiracy, but the cancer establishment’s fixations on molecular biology and damage control (i.e., diagnosis and treatment) and its indifference and even hostility toward cancer prevention. This mindset is compounded by disturbing conflicts of interest, particularly for the American Cancer Society.

The evidence for this is detailed, with full supporting documentation, in my recent article “American Cancer Society: The World’s Wealthiest ‘Nonprofit’ Institution,” which was published in the International Journal of Health Services, a highly prestigious, peer-reviewed public-health policy journal. It is also summarized on my web site, Further evidence is available in my book The Politics of Cancer Revisited (East Ridge Press, 1998). The article itself has just been selected from more than two thousand candidates to receive this year’s Project Censored Award, also known as the Alternative Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism.

Perhaps Cleghorn should review the evidence before calling Jensen “ignorant” — he is one of the most meticulous and responsible journalists I have ever worked with — and me “a once fine researcher who has become a charlatan,” when my views were fully endorsed in a 1992 Washington, D.C., press conference by a coalition of sixty-five leading public-health and cancer-prevention experts, not to mention the past directors of three federal agencies.

Art Myers’s photographs of women who surrendered breasts to cancer [March 2000] was a wonderful, inspiring confirmation of a well-hidden truth in our media-crazed society — that beauty, femininity, and sexuality have little to do with the shape of one’s body.

I lost a breast to cancer five years ago, and my experience prompted a major course adjustment in my life. The change of direction has granted me numerous gifts of the spirit. I feel more beautiful, feminine, and sexual today, at forty-six, than ever before — not because of how I look, but because my experience with life’s uncertainty has taught me that living your life authentically creates beauty and draws all of life’s wonders to you.

Elena Hammond St. Paul, Minnesota

In the March 2000 issue of The Sun, I found the photography by Art Myers offensive. Please cancel my subscription.

Heather Pauli Detroit, Michigan

I found Sy Safransky’s thoughts about his sister’s injury moving and revealing [“Sy Safransky’s Notebook,” March 2000]. But what was your sister really asking of you, Sy? Though I’m just guessing, it seems to me that your theological qualms were not immediately relevant to her request. I believe she was simply asking that you direct your highest and best thoughts to the alleviation of her pain. The way you express those thoughts — whether in the form of prayer to a God who cares for individuals, or simply good thoughts you send her way — isn’t so important.

I know you doubt that anything you do will be of “real” help. I have those doubts, too, but in another’s time of need, they become distractions. They focus our attention on our need for certainty, instead of on the other person’s need for relief. And you already know that the quest for certainty is empty. “With my broken heart,” you write, “I’ll find God. With my yearning for what I can’t have and can never understand.” In one sense, you have already found the divine through your devotedness to the contrary truth, the truth that many of your readers find uncomfortable. Jewish tradition tells us that God’s seal is truth. You publish so much truth, I can tell there must be a lot of God where you are.

I pray that you will be more at ease with the divine already present within and around you. Wait, maybe I shouldn’t pray that! Maybe your genius in life is to recognize and publish the truth even when you are uncomfortable with it. Maybe the best prayer is “God, help Sy to find whatever it is he needs.”

Rabbi Stephen Forstein Kalamazoo, Michigan

Alex Mindt [“Free Spirits,” February 2000] is a good enough writer to be dangerous. His writing is sufficiently vivid to lead the reader to believe that the situations in his story are real, part of the author’s actual experience. I hope not. I hope the cruelty and lack of understanding toward the mentally ill father in the story are the result of poor research, and not autobiographical.

Mindt’s story refers to and utilizes real misperceptions held by many who attempt to “make sense of” psychotic behavior. The primary psychological defense mechanism of someone with bipolar disorder is denial, usually accompanied by intellectualization and rationalization. A person stabilized by medication, for example, might conclude that, because he’s stable, the disease must not exist, and therefore the medication can be stopped. The protagonist in Mindt’s story flippantly labels the results of such denial as “pride” that blinds his father to his illness. This trivializes the terrifying and debilitating effects of the disease and passes moral judgment on the ill person.

Part of the problem for professionals and family members alike in keeping bipolar people on their medications is that they miss the excitement and energy the manic state provides. Labeling mood stabilizers “a little too effective” and the condition of a properly medicated bipolar “horribly apathetic” doesn’t help. Such comments are often the impetus for the bored, stabilized patient to choose mania and psychosis. “After all, my family finds me apathetic” is a rationalization I have heard many times from bipolars. Yet, after going off their medication, they have lost their home and income, spent their savings, and been disavowed by those same relatives.

Mindt’s story reveals no comprehension of bipolar disorder, nor compassion for the father who is unable to “keep the world in place.” The finale in which the son forces the father to revisit “the scene of the crime” is played out all too often in reality. The demands made on the ill father for answers and explanations regarding past irrational behavior are not in any way justified. How can one demand a rational explanation from a person whose illness produces irrational thought processes?

This story is especially disquieting to me because I know it does not have to be this way — though it often is. Family members and even the most treatment-resistant patients can be helped to find small areas of common ground between them. Usually, this requires the assistance of a professional who understands the dynamics between patients and family. Mindt’s protagonist has clearly had no such help. Sadly enough, in real life he probably would not, due to the lack of funding to expand programs that have proven effective in helping the homeless mentally ill.

Brad Burdin Pensacola, Florida
Alex Mindt responds:

Brad Burdin’s analysis of both bipolar disorder and the dynamics of families with a mentally ill member is right on. And I can assure him that “Free Spirits” was not poorly researched. His letter alone can attest to that. Almost everything he says is corroborated in the story.

“Free Spirits” is a work of fiction told from the point of view of an unwitting, wounded, and frustrated son who has only recently come back into his father’s life. Given the circumstances, he would almost certainly label his father’s denial as pride. Burdin states that bipolars often say their families find them apathetic, just like the son does in the story. Furthermore, the demands the son places on the father may not be justified, but they are realistic, as Burdin himself attests.

My job as a writer, particularly when writing in the first person, is to be true to that character’s experience, not to be the purveyor of fairness and justice. If the son is ignorant, petty, and cruel, there are reasons for that. Hopefully readers can understand and feel compassion for the son, even if they don’t like him, even if they disagree with the way he handles situations and perceives the world. Characters in fiction do not always behave admirably. Like all of us, they are struggling to connect, to understand the world and their place in it.

“Free Spirits” is not an exposé on, nor an essay about, bipolar disorder. It is a story told by a son who is attempting to come to terms with the pain caused by his father’s mental illness. “Perhaps it would help me understand my father in some way,” the son says at the beginning of the story. He is ultimately trying to connect with his father and thus reclaim a part of himself. Yes, he expects too much from his father, but don’t we all, whether our parents are mentally ill or not?

Burdin finds the story disquieting. He should. He says, “It does not have to be this way — though it often is.” Yes, sadly, it is.

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