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Mad Genius

Caroline Fraser is an ex-Christian Scientist, as am I, so herewith some notes on her brilliant book, a critical history that not only casts a clear, merciless light on the cloud-cuckoo-land of Christian Science, but also certifies her freedom—and mine. She explains at the outset:

I have been a Christian Scientist. I have believed its teachings, prayed its prayers, read its textbook [Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures], honored its beloved Founder and Leader, sung its hymns, and tried to follow its way. I failed—or, rather, Christian Science failed me. I no longer believe in Christian Science. I do, however, believe that it is a profoundly complex experience to be or to have been a Scientist, an experience worth understanding in its own right.

The beloved Founder and Leader of Christian Science was born Mary Morse Baker on July 16, 1821, in Bow, New Hampshire, the sixth child of a bullying Congregationalist farmer. She was sickly from the start and suffered from a parade of seemingly psychosomatic ills that included, Fraser tells us, “spinal irritation, neuralgia, dyspepsia, stomach cankers, and ulcers.” In his book The American Religion, Harold Bloom, who likes to give off sparks, describes Mary Baker as “an extraordinary wreck, a monumental hysteric of classical dimensions, indeed a kind of anthology of nineteenth-century nervous ailments.” Her two early marriages—the first, in 1843, to George Glover, who died a year later, possibly of yellow fever, and the second, in 1853, to Daniel Patterson, who eventually deserted her—were of little help. Neither was her third and last marriage to Asa Gilbert Eddy, who died of heart failure in 1882, five years after he and Eddy were married. It was brought on, she believed, not by a faulty heart but by “malicious animal magnetism,” or MAM, her coverall term for anyone or anything bent on harming her.

In 1862 Eddy wrote Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, a New England hypnotist, self-made therapist, and hands-on healer, and asked him for help with her aching back: “I can sit up but a few minutes at a time. Do you think I can reach you without sinking from the effects of the journey?” But she made it up the stairs to his office in Portland, Maine, and in a week said that she was completely healed. The Christian Science Church, long by nature defensive and nonyielding, has never admitted that Quimby was more than marginally important to Mary Baker Eddy. But, as Fraser shows, Eddy appeared to absorb the rudiments of what would become Christian Science from the intuitive, uneducated Quimby, even to the term “Christian Science,” which he had used in an unpublished article.

Quimby, perhaps fortunately for Eddy, died in 1866, and just nine years later she published the first edition of Science and Health, surely one of the strangest and most unreadable books ever assembled. Perhaps conscious that there was something unruly about Eddy’s prose, her followers were to put the book through no fewer than 432 clarifying editions, not reaching some sort of finality until 1909, the year before Eddy’s death.

Part of Eddy’s basic philosophy can be found on page 475 of Science and Health:

Question.—What is man?

Answer.—Man is not matter; he is not made up of brain, blood, bones, and other material elements. The Scriptures inform us that man is made in the image and likeness of God. Matter is not that likeness. The likeness of Spirit cannot be so unlike Spirit. [Spirit is one of the seven synonyms for God in the book; the others are Mind, Soul, Principle, Life, Truth, and Love. With the help of Science and Health, Scientists have developed their own heavily synonymic language.] Man is spiritual and perfect; and because he is spiritual and perfect, he must be so understood in Christian Science. Man is idea, the image, of Love; he is not physique. He is the compound idea of God, including all right ideas; the generic term for all that reflects God’s image and likeness; the conscious identity of being as found in Science, in which man is the reflection of God, or Mind, and therefore is eternal; that which has no separate mind from God; that which has not a single quality underived from Deity; that which possesses no life, intelligence, nor creative power of his own, but reflects spiritually all that belongs to his Maker.

Or, as Fraser remembers: “At the age of four or five, I gazed at the top of the Sunday school table, at my knees going under it, at the plastic chairs, at the scratchy sisal carpet. The table and the chairs and the carpet and the knees looked real, but they weren’t. They weren’t even there. They were matter, and matter was Error, and Error did not exist.”

Toward the end of his life, Mark Twain wrote a ribald, condemnatory book about Christian Science (possibly the beginning of the Church’s sempiternal defensiveness), pointing out that Mary Baker Eddy was “easily the most baffling and bewildering writer in the literary trade.” But Eddy didn’t build her church entirely on a fervent religious tract. R.C. Bald, a great English scholar Istudied with at Cornell, once said in passing that she was an “organizational genius.” She also had huge Rasputin eyes, huge hypnotic Fulton Sheen eyes, which must have jellied anyone who got in her way.

Christian Scientists live closeted lives. Very few read The New Yorker or Time or The New York Review. Nor are they likely to read “obnoxious books” that deal with ideas and flesh and death. Instead, they read their once-superlative paper, the Christian Science Monitor, and such weekly and monthly Church publications as the Journal and the Sentinel. Every morning they are commanded to do their Church-chosen “lesson,” made up of selections from the Bible and correlating passages from Science and Health. Midweek, they attend the Wednesday Evening Meeting, at which testimonies of Christian Science healings are given. Sundays are taken up by Sunday school and the Sunday service, a dry, robotic affair run by two “readers,” who intone selections from the Bible and Science and Health. The congregation sings several of Mrs. Eddy’s wooden hymns and a lonely soprano or baritone sings more hymns. There is no sermon, no warmth, no sense of a group of human beings truly thanking their Lord for being. (Think of a black country church meeting, in which the preacher exults, singers shout gospel songs, maybe accompanied by a trombone and piano, and the brothers and sisters jiggle and dance and fall into states of ecstasy—an overflowing of musical and religious beauty.)

Christian Scientists, of course, are not allowed to use medicine, doctors, or hospitals; when they fall ill, they call a practitioner, a Church-accredited man or woman, who consults a massive Church-organized concordance, finds the appropriate passages in Science and Health, and studies and prays and meditates on the Truth of whatever the ailment purports to be. Sometimes the practitioner visits the patient, but more often he or she works from his or her office or home. (For a time, my mother, who dabbled in both Science and medicine, spent her summers in New Hampshire, and whenever she felt poorly, she would call a cousin in New York, who was a practitioner. Because he was also enraptured with her, he would go to work on the problem at once. Christian Scientists are not supposed to drink, but later on that day she’d have a couple of old-fashioneds and call him back to say that she felt much better.)

What finally drove Caroline Fraser and me out of this airless world was what V.S. Pritchett, who was also raised in Christian Science, came to understand as a young man. “He had followed his father’s religion during adolescence,” Fraser writes, “but quickly left it behind during his struggle to become a writer, recognizing that there was no way to reconcile Christian Science—with its absolute unwillingness to countenance the physical life of the body, not to mention death—with art and literature.” When I first went to Cornell, I was still loosely in the fold, and one evening at some sort of Science get-together, perhaps at a reader’s house, I sat down at his piano before things got started and began playing some boogie-woogie. The host rushed up and shouted, “No! No! We don’t allow that kind of music in this house. Stop!” I did, and that was the beginning of my escape.

The heart of Christian Science theology is the belief that all illness can be healed through prayer and the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy. And at the heart of God’s Perfect Child are Fraser’s detailed and often horrifying descriptions of several celebrated cases in which Christian Science children died because they were denied medical help by their fruitlessly praying parents. But first she elaborates, in a funny and irrefutable passage, on what it was like in Christian Science Sunday school:

There were hardly any decorations. There were no toys. We were not there to have fun. We were there to fight off Mortal Mind, where Error came from. Mortal Mind had gotten inside our heads, under our hair. Divine Mind was All Powerful but kept getting away from us. We couldn’t keep our Mortal Minds on the Divine Mind. We were full of Error. Mary Baker Eddy was there to remind us.

It was hard to keep the whole thing straight, so we had to pray a lot and study, study, study. Mortal Mind was thinking we were hurt when we fell down. Mortal Mind was accidents. Mortal Mind was forgetting to go to the bathroom before Sunday school and wetting our pants. Mortal Mind was being jealous or hateful or nasty. Mortal Mind was having a tantrum. Mortal Mind was crying.

The hardest thing to understand about Mortal Mind was the fact that it didn’t exist. We tried hard to know that Divine Mind was All and that there wasn’t any room left for bad, old Mortal Mind. If we could know that we were Divine Mind, everything would get better. We’d stop crying. We wouldn’t even want to cry. We’d never do anything wrong or feel bad, even if someone punched us or pulled our hair. Even if somebody did those things, we could squeeze our eyes shut and know that we were God’s Perfect Child.

The first case Fraser describes involved a twelve-year-old boy in her Sunday school named Michael Schram. On Sunday, September 9, 1979, he complained of a bellyache. His mother contacted the family practitioner. Michael, still in pain, stayed home from school the next three days, was dragged to Wednesday Evening Meeting by his mother, and on Thursday began vomiting. “On Thursday night,” Fraser writes, “he got up, washed his face, brushed his teeth, and got back in bed. He told his mother, ‘It’s all better, Mommy.’ Then he died.” His mother did not call a funeral home for over two days because she and her practitioner were praying over Michael in hopes he would rise from the dead. An autopsy revealed that he had died of a ruptured appendix. The local prosecutor, citing “a lack of proof that [his mother and the healer] were aware the kid was going to die,” never filed any charges.

Fraser gives far more space to Douglas and Rita Swan, whose story “provides a rare and remarkably complete view of the theological and psychological pressures that can combine to bind Christian Science parents in a kind of paralysis, an inability to take action to save a child’s life.”In 1974, the Swans, both raised in Science and both well educated, moved to Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where they had their second child, Matthew. During the pregnancy, Rita Swan had considerable pain and bleeding, and after the birth it was discovered that she had a dangerous cyst on one ovary. (Christian Scientists are, strangely, allowed to have obstetrical help during childbirth—although Mary Baker Eddy believed that one day Scientists would experience immaculate conception and painless births.) She called her practitioner, but the pain persisted, and finally she went to a hospital and had the cyst removed. Because of this, she was put on probation by her branch church and forbidden to do committee work and teach Sunday school.

One day, when Matthew was eight months old, he developed a fever. The practitioner did his work, and the fever disappeared. Not long after, the boy came down with another fever, and again recovered, apparently with the practitioner’s help. The Swans testified about the “healing” at a Wednesday Evening Meeting. Still another round of fever and “healing” took place. Then, on June 18, 1977, Matthew came down with a fever he was never to recover from. On one of several visits to the Swan’s house, the practitioner told the child, now fifteen months old, “Matthew, God is your life. God didn’t make disease, and disease is unreal.” The fever persisted, and the Swans, terrified, wondered if they should seek medical help. “We knew,” Rita Swan told Fraser, “that if we went to a doctor we couldn’t get Christian Science treatment, that our thinking would be contaminated…. We decided to try another practitioner for a day and a night.” At the end of a week of fever, Matthew began moaning incoherently, and not long after he had convulsions and began gnashing his teeth. Finally, against the second practitioner’s wishes, they took Matthew to St. John’s Hospital in Detroit. He was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, and operated on. He survived the operation, but died on July 7.

The Swans dropped out of Christian Science, and eventually founded CHILD (Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty), and unsuccessfully sued the Mother Church and the two practitioners they had used. A Science practitioner named J. Thomas Black gave a deposition at the trial in which he said:

Whenever Christian Science is properly applied it heals. The patient, the parents, apparently from what I have thus far read, were much more intent on physical healing than on spiritual growth and moral regeneration. [Christian Science] was therefore misapplied.

Black is now president of the Christian Science Church in Boston, as well as the First Reader in the Mother Church.

In 1989, the Church announced that fifty-four thousand testimonies of healing had been recorded during the twentieth century in the various Science periodicals. The same year it published An Empirical Analysis of Medical Evidence in the Christian Science Testimonies of Healing, 1969-1988. The Church itemized several hundred healings (forty-two tumors, sixteen cases of polio, sixty-eight cases of tuberculosis, thirty-eight cases of pneumonia, etc.). But, Fraser says:

Since the diagnoses were reported by patients, not by the medical professionals involved, and were not accompanied by pertinent medical data—patient’s charts, test results, and the like—virtually no credible scientific conclusions can be drawn from such a list.

She also points out that the Church ignores cases in which healing does not occur. She continues:

This remarkable qualification—one the Church has rarely, if ever, acknowledged in print—captures the essential, central, inescapable problem in all the scientific claims of the Christian Science Church. In order to present Christian Science treatment as effective, the Church and its members have simply eliminated the negative…. Christian Scientists have, at least in their own minds, willed it into oblivion.

In a letter to the Concord Monitor, written in 1902, Mary Baker Eddy, who believed that she and Jesus were firmly linked, claimed that “Christian Science is destined to become the one and only religion and therapeutics on this planet.” Although Mrs. Eddy was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1995, along with Elizabeth Dole and Ella Fitzgerald, the truth is that the Christian Science movement is shrinking. The Mother Church in Boston has been severely shaken by financial problems brought on by misguided and overambitious attempts at expansion. When the Church first became a power ninety years ago, medicine in this country was still in its Dark Ages—thus my maternal grandmother, dead of tuberculosis in 1912, at the age of thirty-eight. Indeed, the inadequacy of medicine inadvertently gave the nostrum of spiritual healing great impetus, and, anyway, Transcendentalism had been afloat in New England for decades. But the great and widely available medical advances of the past sixty or seventy years have gradually enshrouded the Church’s claims of spiritual healing; they now seem archaic and unproved and even dangerous. God’s Perfect Child makes this resoundingly clear. The book is an admirable piece of work: the prose is steady, elegant, and witty, the research is deep and persuasive, and the tone throughout is one of sad but graceful necessity.

The reactions to Fraser’s book have been predictable—excellent reviews from non-Scientists and carping, mean-spirited, and defensive responses from Scientists. (See Fraser’s detailed “Afterword” in the paperback of God’s Perfect Child.) Gary A. Jones, a high Church official, calls the book “rancorous.” An unsigned review in the Christian Science Monitor spills over with words like “virulent,” “mocking,” “sarcastic,” “angry,” and “intemperate.” And the Mailing Fund, a mildly dissident Christian Science group, talks in its somewhat muddled newsletter of the “hatefulness and bravado of [the book’s] tone,” and later suggests, by indirection, that the book is “evil.” That old magician Martin Gardner reviewed the book in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, and in a letter replying to Jones’s criticisms of his review he bluntly sets everything straight: “Christian Science,” he writes, “is a non-Christian, nonscientific cult.”

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