Like Jonestown in slow motion

Caroline Fraser, author of "God's Perfect Child," talks about the casualties of Christian Science's belief in the power of prayer and the media's soft spot for the church.

Published September 1, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Caroline Fraser's "God's Perfect Child" tells the remarkable, sometimes outrageous story of the Christian Science Church's journey from suspect sect to squeaky-clean personification of mid-century American religious do-it-yourself-ism to faltering faith whose aging leaders would like to tap into the current mania for spiritual healing. Her account is an enjoyably dishy story of mismanaged funds, trendy celebrity adherents and internecine warfare, but it has a darker side: the still-mounting body count the church has left in its wake, children who have died as a result of the faith's prohibition against the use of medical care.

Salon Books interviewed Fraser, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., via e-mail.

Your book describes many past examples of how the Christian Science Church energetically attempted to squelch the publication, dissemination and sale of books that are unflattering to Mary Baker Eddy or the church itself. Were you or "God's Perfect Child" the object of similar tactics?

So far, there's been little interference with my book coming from the church. I did hear recently that an editor at the Christian Science Monitor (whom I've never met) approached one of my publisher's representatives at a book fair and informed her that I was "troubled." This is a regrettably common ploy: A previous manager of the church's Committee on Publication (its office of propaganda and press relations) once told a journalist that Tom Simmons, author of a memoir about his Christian Science childhood ("The Unseen Shore"), was an unreliable source on the religion because his life was "falling apart."

The Committee on Publication called my editor at the Atlantic Monthly just before my article about Christian Science was published in 1995, expressing various concerns, and Scientists sent outraged letters after it appeared, many of them detailing healings they'd experienced and one of them going so far as to suggest that I'd nailed the last nails in Christ's hands. Although I'm grateful that the Christian Science Church is not as aggressive in policing its reputation as, say, the Church of Scientology, Christian Scientists, particularly those who work for the Mother Church (headquarters of the movement), are masters of the passive-aggressive style, and I'm sure I haven't heard the last from them.

It also sounds like the church is disabled enough by its recent decline in fortune and membership that it can't really mount the sort of intensive campaign against your book that it did against others several decades ago. Did anyone in your family or personal life who is also a church member attempt to dissuade you from writing either the Atlantic article or this book?

I think it's true that the church has far less influence now over publishers and editors than it did a few decades ago, in part because of the decline of the Monitor and in part because the cachet of Christian Science has largely vanished. Oddly, however, the church continues to retain significant political power. There are currently five members of the U.S. House of Representatives who are practicing Scientists, and the church has convinced Sens. Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy to fight for Medicare coverage for Christian Science "nursing" services, which are essentially religious.

Aside from the Committee on Publication guys, who certainly tried to convince me not to write about Christian Science, no one in my own circle of family or friends has. The only remaining Scientists in my family are my parents; my brother and sister left the faith long ago, as I did. After the Atlantic article, I heard that old friends and acquaintances from my Mercer Island, Wash., church were disappointed by it, but you have to remember how circumspect Scientists generally are; indeed, Mary Baker Eddy's Church Manual forbids members of the church from "unauthorized debating" about the religion. And Scientists believe that talking about illness or misfortune of any kind makes it real, so they tend to be pretty close-mouthed about the things that bother them. I got a letter from my longtime piano teacher, for instance, which gently remonstrated with me, but, like most Scientists, she attempted to persuade me to her point of view by telling me about the healings she's experienced. Another woman from our church told my sister that everyone there still loves me.

It's striking that your own personal experience growing up in the church is an important part of the beginning of the book, but that by the end the book you're a more traditionally removed third-person narrator. I can't help but be curious about your progression from youthful disillusionment to the kind of sustained concern that it takes to write a book like "God's Perfect Child." Can you tell me how you decided on this project and how your feelings about the church may have changed in the writing of it?

The progression in my book from the first person to a wider angle parallels my own progress, I think. As a child, my knowledge about Mary Baker Eddy and the church as an institution was so severely limited that all I really knew about them was what I read in "Science and Health" (Eddy's book) and overheard in the church lobby. I distinctly remember, however, that one day after Sunday school, my teacher took me aside and told me, apropos of nothing, that Mrs. Eddy had never taken morphine and that I shouldn't believe any rumors I might hear. (I now suspect that his remark was inspired by Scribner's 1970 paperback reprinting of Edwin Franden Dakin's critical biography of Eddy, which discusses her morphine use.) Of course, the remark fascinated me, and I ran right out to the public library and tried to find anything that might explain it. I failed then, but my curiosity was reawakened in the early 1990s, long after I thought I'd left Christian Science behind, when reports about dissension in the church began appearing in the national press, in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, on "60 Minutes." I was astonished to discover that my own personal experience of a Sunday School classmate dying was not an isolated instance, that Christian Science children were dying all over the country and their parents were being prosecuted.

And the more I learned about the history of the church, its rigidity and inflexibility, the more I began to discount the received wisdom it gives out, particularly the argument that Christian Scientists, with their healing "system," are giving their children "the best possible care." They're not. If there's a villain in the book, it's the church itself, and the people who unthinkingly tend and obey it, like bees with their queen. On the other hand, I grew to admire the Christian Science dissidents who at least think for themselves.

Another inspiration for taking on the project was the maddening phenomenon of people like Larry Dossey and Herbert Benson rising up in the '90s and simplistically touting the "power of prayer." Dossey and Benson, along with others of their ilk, have embraced Christian Science while knowing next to nothing about it, and their ignorance of the history of what they're promoting could have real consequences in peoples' lives.

Your comments about Larry Dossey and Herbert Benson raise an interesting point. Is your objection to the "power of prayer" philosophy that it provides too much cover for the dangerous doctrines of the Christian Scientists, or do you have larger objections to the very principles of that movement? After all, not all of the power-of-prayer crowd advocate renouncing standard medical care, and it seems like the peril in Christian Science is its insistence that you can't use both.

My problem is not with prayer itself but with the marketing of prayer. It's true that folks like Dossey, Benson and Andrew Weil commonly deliver caveats suggesting that patients shouldn't throw out traditional medicine (I think it's Dale Matthews, another power-of-prayer doc, who advises "prayer and Prozac"). But their willingness to use their authority as medical doctors to promote prayer as a form of treatment is troubling. So is their uncritical acceptance of things like Christian Science (which discourages the use of all what they call "materia medica," as many of these doctors seem to have forgotten). Larry Dossey admiringly cites the "research," if I can even call it that, of two Scientists in Oregon who prayed over some petri dishes and were so disturbed by the Christian Science Church's rejection of their "evidence" that they subsequently killed themselves. The power-of-prayer movement is so amorphous -- driven largely by bestselling self-improvement books -- that it's doubtful that it has any well-defined principles, or standards, at all. I suspect that the main goal of many of those involved is simply to make money.

I certainly don't mean to mock or belittle prayer. As I argue in the book, it may have wondrous effects for many people, but it is intangible and unquantifiable, so it doesn't lend itself to scientific study. Indeed, many of the studies that have been done suggesting that there's a link between prayer or church-going and improved health have been bankrolled by a single organization, the Templeton Foundation, which is devoted to promoting "spiritual information through science," a fact that calls into question the objectivity of its findings. Fortunately, most religious people accept medicine as a gift from God and reap the benefits of both realms.

The similarities between the histories of Christian Science and Scientology are striking.

Yes, the parallels between Christian Science and Scientology are fascinating. While the Christian Science Church was never as litigious as the Church of Scientology, Christian Science was once terrifically controversial, just as Scientology is today. Mary Baker Eddy was a notorious figure, and she and her teachings were the target of contemptuous books and articles by Mark Twain and others. A century ago, Christian Science was as scandalous as Scientology is now, but, largely through the influence of its newspaper, the Monitor, Scientists managed to calm society's fears and grow ever more respectable. Christian Science also managed to impress people with its own celebrities and millionaires: George Getty, the founder of the Getty fortune, was a Scientist, as was Lady Astor. As I discuss in the book, Christian Science became hugely popular in Hollywood in the 1930s and '40s.

It strikes me that Scientology's reputation is now roughly at the juncture where Christian Science found itself during the latter part of Eddy's lifetime. It still remains troubling to the public, but it's successfully legitimizing itself. A street in Hollywood has been renamed L. Ron Hubbard Boulevard. And Scientology won its epic battle for tax-exempt status with the IRS. So it's halfway to respectability, but it remains to be seen if its celebrity associations with stars like John Travolta and Tom Cruise can carry it further.

What about the child cases? They seem to me to be more damning to the Christian Science Church than anything, really, that Scientology has done. How do you think Christian Science's public image now stands as a result of those hugely publicized cases?

Of course the child cases are damning, but you're so right that it's other groups, including Scientology, that are seen as the real threats. A prosecutor in California who handled one of the child cases told reporters that Christian Science is like Jonestown in slow motion, and he was right. But the American public is so conflicted about parental rights, the rights of children and the issue of religious freedom that it tends to be queasy about the spectacle of faith-healing parents on trial, particularly Christian Scientists, who are usually white, middle- to upper-class and prominent members of their communities with no prior criminal records. Americans are squeamish about anything that seems to punish people for their religious beliefs. Of course, I don't think these trials were about the parents' First Amendment rights to religious freedom; I think they were about the violation of their children's rights to life itself.

And the church has done everything it can, with some success, to reinforce the notion that the parents (rather than the kids who lost their lives) were the real victims, running full page ads in the Boston Globe during the manslaughter trial of the Twitchells (for the death of their 2-year-old son Robyn) announcing that prayer was being prosecuted in Boston. Just as Congress has accepted the church's number of published testimonials as scientific fact, so some journalists have accepted the church's argument that its parents do the best they can for their children. Earlier this month, for example, Diane Sawyer, on "20/20," introduced a segment on a faith-healing sect in Oregon that, in the last 35 years, has buried 78 kids, many of whom would have lived with medical intervention. Sawyer issued a specific apologia for Scientists, saying, "In serious situations, many [faith healers], most notably Christian Scientists, will seek outside help," an observation that isn't at all accurate but indicates how confused journalists have become about Christian Science, largely because of misinformation proceeding from the church.

Philip Zaleski's review of "God's Perfect Child" in the Aug. 22 New York Times Book Review contains a line that I can imagine you found irksome: "The Christian Science archives contain over 50,000 testimonials of spiritual cures; horrific tales of child deaths cannot explain away these apparent successes." This seems like a deliberate misreading of your book, which does criticize the testimonials, but not on the grounds of the child cases. Can you respond to that?

I was astonished at that sentence. To suggest that I was using details of the suffering and deaths of Christian Science children to "explain away" anything seems a perverse misrepresentation. But I'm almost more troubled by the blithe acceptance of 50,000 Christian Science testimonies as "apparent successes." Do sheer numbers imply moral authority or scientific accuracy? If millions of people believe they've been abducted by aliens, does that mean such abductions really happened? Zaleski also ignores my analysis of the testimonies and the reasons why they're unreliable as scientific evidence or even, in some instances, verifiable anecdotes.

Could you review, briefly, your arguments challenging the testimonials, that is, the accounts of healings that the Christian Science Church uses to bolster claims for the legitimacy of its treatment? Zaleski is not the first to accept the church's statement that they've been "corroborated."

Christian Science testimonies that are published in the church periodicals are "corroborated" (or "verified," in the church's words) only by three other friends or family members (usually Scientists themselves) "who can vouch for the integrity of the testifier or know of the healing." As sociologists have noted, these testimonies are brief, anecdotal accounts, often of "healings" that took place years, if not decades, ago. (And some healings, significantly, are reported to have taken a long time, sometimes years.) Many of the healings are of self-diagnosed conditions that undoubtedly corrected themselves on their own (warts, bumps, scratches, pains, minor burns, relationship problems, job problems, etc.). Some contain allusions to diagnoses by medical professionals, but no medical or hospital records, physicians' names or specific data accompany the published testimonies, so it is impossible to verify them independently. Some testimonies contain misleading or false information.

Moreover, and perhaps most damningly, the church keeps no records of the deaths of Christian Scientists, children or adults, and it publishes no testimonies about Christian Science failures (some of which are documented in my book), so the church's loss rate is impossible to calculate. And it has never allowed any independent researcher to study Christian Science. So, from a scientific point of view, these anecdotal, self-selected and self-reported accounts are meaningless. As I say in the book, they are testimonies of faith, of religious belief. They are not evidence.

How would you prefer to see the illnesses of Christian Science children handled? Would you favor government intervention, and to what degree?

What I'd like to see is the removal of religious exemption laws from all state statutes. This special class of laws protecting faith-healers from the consequences of their actions endangers children and seems to be a clear violation of the First Amendment. I see no reason why a system similar to those in place in Canada, England and other European countries wouldn't work here. In those countries, parents are required to provide their kids with routine medical care, and, from what I hear, doctors have been quite flexible in working with parents to provide the least aggressive or intrusive forms of care.

No one, including me, is arguing that Scientists should stop taking their kids to Sunday school or teaching them about their religious heritage or beliefs. They absolutely have a right to do that. But they don't have the right to martyr their kids. The church's refusal to consider any kind of compromise or to engage in discussion about the rights of their children seems deeply unreasonable to me. I once asked a Christian Scientist who had worked for the Committee on Publication why American Scientists are so vehemently opposed to any system that would require medical care for children. He said it was because Christian Science branch churches in countries with such requirements had been weakened by them. His answer, and the church's policies over the past century, indicate that Scientists value the health of their church over the health of their children. In my view, if Christian Scientists really want to practice the love that they preach, they should reconsider their position on this.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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