Let The Dogs Bark

The quite-possibly true story of a human guinea pig who bit the hand that drew his blood.

Published July 14, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

when Robert Helms started his zine back in the spring of 1996, he intended it to be a more or less clandestine resource guide for fellow members of his lowly profession -- a place where those who made their living as human research subjects could share with one another the "strange humor (and) special cares" of their careers in medicine.

"The goal of this 'zine' is to give guinea pigs a forum wherein information and thoughts can be shared away from the ears and eyeballs of a medical staff," Helms wrote in an opening editorial in the first issue of Guinea Pig Zero. "As Don Corleone so aptly put it, 'Never tell anyone outside the family what you're thinking.'"

Well, Guinea Pig Zero is no longer simply a family affair. Earlier this summer, the zine -- or more precisely, excerpts of the zine that ran in Harper's magazine -- caught the eye of some medical officials (and their lawyers). Now Helms is facing a libel suit.

In the second issue of GPZ, you see, Helms wrote up "report cards" for several medical research facilities. Though several got glowing recommendations, and grades of A or A-plus, a couple others got panned. The institution getting the lowest grade -- "a big, fat F" -- was Philadelphia's MCP/Hahnemann School of Medicine (now known as Allegheny-Medical College of Pennsylvania). "This unit's problems overwhelm us in their number," the report card began. "We suggest that this hell-hole be shut down for good!" it ended. The Harper's excerpts detailed some of the alleged problems: "They keep you waiting for half an hour for a simple blood draw. Sometimes they're sloppy with injections ... They don't give you a copy of the research protocol unless you ask for it."

Though no one outside the family seemed to have noticed the review when it ran in GPZ in August 1996, Allegheny hopped into action once these accusations made their appearance in Harper's in June of this year. Prominent Philadelphia lawyer Richard Sprague, representing Allegheny, accused Harper's of running "false (and) defamatory (and) malicious" statements about "outstanding institutions of impeccable reputations." Sprague demanded that copies of the magazine be withdrawn from newsstands, and that "a retraction and apology" be sent immediately to the magazine's 200,000 subscribers. (That, by the way, is about 200 times the number of readers GPZ reaches.)

Though Harper's issued a small "clarification," noting that additional information about Allegheny's consent procedures had come to light since the piece had run, they did not recall their newsstand copies.

Helms wasn't interested in backing down either. Though he concedes that at least one small inaccuracy was introduced into his report card by editors at Harper's, he maintains that his pieces were truthful accounts, based on his own experience and that of other guinea pigs he spoke to. "The fact of the matter is that I wrote only the truth," he contends in the latest issue of GPZ, "and left out what I was unable to verify." And the threat of a lawsuit hasn't kept him from writing more about studies conducted at Allegheny. "Let the dogs bark," Helms writes of the legal threats. "If they make too much noise, I'll make them eat crow."

So now Helms finds himself (along with Harper's and its publisher) the target of a libel suit. Last week, he says, legal papers were delivered to him by someone he described as "a guy on a Harley, dressed as a biker." (A spokesman for Harper's said he hadn't seen the papers and could not comment.)

Though Helms is hardly thrilled to be accused of libel, the suit suggests that his writings have hit a nerve. Despite the seemingly bizarre nature of his little zine and the "strange humor" it displays, Helms sees GPZ as a serious tool for labor advocacy of a sort. Originally inspired by "job zines" like Dishwasher and Temp Slave, GPZ reflects a labor activism borne of what Marx might have called the ultimate form of alienated labor.

Guinea pigging, after all, is a job most people would see as only a step or two above "assistant crack whore" in the top 10 list of least favorite jobs. Like whores, guinea pigs rent out their bodies one assignment at a time, to be poked and prodded by people who don't always care if it hurts. The job description for human guinea pig is much like W.H. Auden's description of wounded soldiers in the Spanish Civil War: They are and suffer; that is all they do. Nevertheless, it's a job that attracts more than a few people, from adventurous students to cops on vacation. Helms estimates there are several hundred thousand Americans who've been guinea pigs at some point in their lives. In Philadelphia, with its high concentration of research centers, he estimates there are perhaps 4,000 on the local lists, and 300-400 who've made a sort of career of guinea pigging.

Sometimes, guinea pigs suffer little more than boredom. Other times, they're forced to endure elaborate and painful medical incursions into their various orifices -- and then some. "(The technician) turned to me with the business end of a black plastic cable that had to be a good inch in diameter, and said, 'Open wide,'" one anonymous guinea pig recalls in the third issue of GPZ. "The next five minutes or so weren't good ones. I spent them curled into a tight fetus pose trying to heave my guts out, with a cable snaking around my stomach."

Others find ways to rise above the humiliation. Rather than surrender his soul to corporate America, aspiring novelist and songwriter Jay Sand explains in an account of a sleep study in the current GPZ, he decided merely to sell his body to science. This route, he assured himself, was a "more prudent" one than that taken by your garden variety prostitute. "I would sell my body not to slobbering johns who assail the street whore with their unkempt organs," he explained, "but to slick, white-coat neuropsychologists who use thrice sterilized catheters, electrodes and ... invasive thermometers to get what they want."

There's a certain kind of liberation in a job that truly sucks, like being a guinea pig. It demands nothing much more from you than mere endurance. You rent out your body, and no more than a portion of your mind; some jobs require no more than your telephone voice. Sure, these jobs deliver a pounding to your dignity -- you have to kowtow to moronic managers and irate customers and sometimes even impatient nurses -- but you always hold a bit of your dignity in reserve. It's not a real job, after all.

Ironically, at a time in which labor unions seem about as relevant to our future as the 8-track tape, it may be that the jobs that are barely jobs at all are the ones that will inspire the most fervent activism -- even if, so far, the most that temp slaves and dishwashers and guinea pigs have brought us is a bit of on-the-job sabotage and a few lively zines. Still, as GPZ makes clear, a good zine can get you heard. And in an age of spin, that counts for an awful lot.

By David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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