To the Editors:
Caroline Fraser has emerged as the scourge of mind healing and a media expert on Christian Science. Fraser presents Christian Science as a perverse cult, a psychological aberration, and the legislative cutting edge of a New Age juggernaut she claims is crushing America. Now on the pretext of reviewing my biography [NYR, April 27], she is permitted yet another riff on the old theme.
Fraser chooses to open her review by describing as “ambiguous” the use in my Preface of Mark Twain’s description of Eddy as “in several ways…the most interesting woman that ever lived, and the most extraordinary.” By ambiguous I think Fraser means duplicitous since she goes on to claim that Mark Twain’s 1907 book Christian Science is “one of the most harshly critical works ever published about Eddy and the religion of faith healing she founded.” Well, here Fraser herself is not ambiguous but misleading since she implies that Mark Twain’s views on Christian Science match her own. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As I fully acknowledge in my book, Mark Twain wrote several scathing attacks on the woman he believed Mary Baker Eddy to be. Twain was indeed deeply ambivalent about Mary Baker Eddy the leader and the woman and highly critical of the Church of Christ, Scientist. But he was also enthusiastic about Christian Science. I quote: “For the thing back of it is wholly gracious and beautiful: the power, through loving mercifulness and compassion, to heal fleshly ills and pains and griefs—all—with a word, with a touch of the hand! This power was given by the Saviour to the Disciples, and to all the converted. All—every one. It was exercised for generations afterwards. Any Christian who was in earnest and not a make-believe, not a policy-Christian, not a Christian for revenue only, had the healing power, and could cure with it any disease or any hurt or damage possible to human flesh and bone. These things are true, or they are not. If they were true seventeen and eighteen and nineteen centuries ago it would be difficult to satisfactorily explain why or how or by what argument that power should be non-existent in Christians now.” (Christian Science, 1907 version, Book 2, Chapter 15, p. 284 of the Oxford Mark Twain.) I would say that this is pretty unambiguously pro-CS.
Fraser writes: “By all accounts, Mary’s childhood was plagued by illness—spells of weakness, seizures of nerves or temper.” Well, perhaps in all accounts except mine, which unfortunately is the book under review. To recapitulate a complicated issue, it is now established that the oft-cited description of little Mary Baker frothing at the mouth and catatonic was invented more or less out of whole cloth by Burton Hendrick, a McClure’s Magazine staffer charged with ghostwriting the first installment of the muckraking Milmine biography of Eddy. “These fits or hysterical attacks,” Hendrick/ Milmine wrote portentously, “are important in the estimate of Mary Baker and her career. Mrs. Eddy was subject to them continuously for many years” (McClure’s Magazine, Vol. 28, No. 3, January 1907, p. 236). And they were important, though not, as Hendrick implied, because they provided the key to Mrs. Eddy’s character and beliefs. The “Milmine” biography came out at precisely the time the eighty-five-year-old Mrs. Eddy was having to prove her sanity in the Next Friends Suit. Launched and initially funded by Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, this suit attempted to put Eddy’s person and her assets in the hands of her estranged relatives. The extensive documentation in the New Hampshire Historical Society shows that the Next Frienders were in direct communication with the McClure’s reporters and that they fed each other material. In a strange loop of fact and fiction, Hendrick’s invented account of Eddy’s childhood hysteria both gave rise to and relied upon the legal claims being made in the all too real contemporaneous competency suit.
Sadly for the Next Frienders, Eddy was neither mad nor incompetent, and she masterminded a brilliant legal strategy to scotch the suit. Judges, lawyers, journalists, alienists, emerged from interviews with her awed at her commanding presence, her brilliance, wit, humor, and command of fact. Historically, however, Eddy has fared less well. Famous and apparently reliable scholars from Pierre Janet down through Stefan Zweig to Harold Bloom have assumed the “Milmine” child-hysteria passage was authenticated, firsthand testimony, and built upon it to argue that Christian Science was merely the vapors of a perhaps congenitally demented mind. Thus, whenever a biographical account of Eddy, such as Fraser’s in God’s Perfect Child, introduces the theme of hysteria, I smell not only an ill-informed, perverse zealotry but also misogyny. Hysteria, womb disease, has been seen as an archetypally female complaint and has become a feminist issue. After all, does Harold Bloom, whose armchair diagnosis of Eddy’s “monumental,” “classical” hysteria Fraser likes to quote, accuse Joseph Smith of hysteria-triggered dementia because Smith had interviews with an angel?
To conclude, Fraser weakens her attack on spiritual healing and New Age ideology when she shaves the biographical truth about Mary Baker Eddy. When she dismisses my book as one more hagiography because many Christian Scientists are buying it, she is making a preemptive strike against a competitor in the publishing stakes. Caveant NYRB lector lectrixque!
Caroline Fraser replies:
Gillian Gill is a careless reader. As I pointed out in my review, she misquotes Twain at the beginning of her book and, without explanation, rearranges his sentences in an attempt to have him seem to endorse her subject, Mary Baker Eddy. Here she does it again, lifting Twain’s encomium to primitive Christianity from his text and insisting that it is offered in praise of Christian Science. As a careful reader can discern, however, the healing power of the early Christians is “the thing back of it” that Twain is praising, not Christian Science itself; he goes on, a sentence after the quotation that Gill cites, to describe Eddy, the discoverer and founder of Christian Science, as “grasping, sordid, penurious, famishing for everything she sees—money, power, glory—vain, untruthful, jealous, despotic, arrogant, insolent, pitiless…illiterate, shallow, incapable of reasoning outside of commercial lines, immeasurably selfish.” He argues that only her own followers, who are “prejudiced witnesses,” see her as “patient, gentle, loving, compassionate, noble-hearted, unselfish, sinless, widely cultured, splendidly equipped mentally, a profound thinker, an able writer, a divine personage.” In his book, Twain praises Christian Science only in the most backhanded and ironic way, as an ideal cure for illnesses that exist only in imagination. He also asks, “Would the Scientist kill off a good many patients? I think so.” Both the passage that Gill cites and the book that contains it are far from “pretty unambiguously pro-CS.”
As for little Mary Baker’s much-belabored fits, I didn’t claim that she had any. All biographical accounts, however, must contend with Eddy’s strange reminiscences about her early days, reminiscences which describe an unusual set of crises for a child: she heard voices; she voluntarily starved herself; she was struck with fever during a theological dispute with her father; she and her family continually feared that she was dying of dyspepsia, among other things. Gill vehemently denies that any of these childhood experiences point to hysteria, but in her book—oddly enough for someone so troubled by what she sees as the misogynist implications of the term—she diagnoses Eddy during her second marriage as “a hysteric” with symptoms such as “frothing at the mouth and lengthy periods of unconsciousness.” But Gill’s preoccupation with this “feminist issue,” however inconsistent, is beside the point. Most criticism of Eddy’s career—including mine and Bloom’s—focuses not on her childhood or any assumption that she was “congenitally demented,” whatever that means, but on her adult behavior and writings. It isn’t necessary to “shave the truth” about Eddy’s life in order to demonstrate that during her long career, she was obsessed with dark sexual anxieties about her enemies and overwhelmed by fears that she was under constant mental and physical attack from “malicious animal magnetism.” Such traits are graphically displayed in the many revisions of her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, which is compulsively repetitive, replete with literally hundreds of denials of sin, sickness, bodily sensations, and death.
Nor did I call Gill’s biography a hagiography. I did point out that Gill took the unusual step, while claiming to be free from Church interference, of allowing a researcher paid by the Church’s Board of Directors to fact-check her manuscript.
Nor did Gill’s relationship to the Church end with the publication of her book. After initially condemning it as “unbalanced” and marred by “errors,” the Church subsequently championed the book, apparently finding it a useful retort to more critical works, including my own (God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church, published last August). In September, on Larry King Live, Virginia Harris, currently the chair of the Church’s Board of Directors, declared Gill’s book “very good…very fair.” Shortly thereafter, an advertisement in the Church’s weekly religious periodical, the Christian Science Sentinel, announced that the book would be offered for sale in Church reading rooms, among the books of its Mary Baker Eddy: Twentieth-Century Biographers Series. The series was conceived in the 1990s when the Church made the controversial decision to publish a book by a long-deceased, dissident Scientist (The Destiny of The Mother Church, by Bliss Knapp, which argued for Eddy’s divinity) in order to comply with the terms of bequests made by Knapp and his family, which amounted to over ninety million dollars, at a time when the Church was facing bankruptcy and losing membership at a rapid rate. If Gill, seeing her book displayed among these hagiographical works, thought it might encourage “many” Christian Scientists to read it, she might well have heeded Larry King, who bluntly captured the public perception of one major problem facing the Church: “This always drives me nuts. Whenever I go into a town that’s kind of rich…there’s a Christian Science reading room. And two things are going on: Nobody is in there, and there’s books in the window.”
June 29, 2000