Letters of the week

Readers call Jason D. Hill a eugenicist, provide testimonials on the joy of antidepressants and tell the parents of cyberbullies to rein in their kids.

Published July 13, 2001 9:06PM (EDT)

Cyber slammed

By Amy Benfer

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The article "Cyber slammed" was both thought-provoking and upsetting. Almost nothing was said about the parents in these cases (except the fact that a mother was slightly acid-burned -- I assume she recovered without saying a word).

When I was a kid I made an anonymous phone call to let a little girl in our class know exactly what I felt about her. Well, my grandma was right there and when she realized what I was doing, I caught it. I remember not really understanding how mean it was to do such a thing until she said something about it -- then I was so ashamed I cannot remember doing anything like that again.

Maybe I'm behind the times, but the focus of this article seems a little misplaced. It may be true that kids are suing schools, administrators and other kids to defend their right to free speech, and that school officials are being forced to act very cautiously regarding these issues. However, I cannot really imagine kids suing anyone without the help of their parents, both financially and legally.

Who are these parents who allow their kids to treat other human beings any way they want to? Who are these parents who sue administrators before they talk to their kids about their responsibilities towards their peers? Why don't school officials call parents first? Or maybe they do and that's just not what this story was about.

-- Alice Moore

After thoroughly reading the article about students bullying each other using Internet message boards as a medium for communication, I was helped to reach several conclusions, both about schools, and about families.

Nobody ever suspended the proverbial popular cheerleader for spreading nasty rumors about the isolated nerd girl that nobody liked. This is because suing someone simply for stating their opinion, whether true or not, is both frivolous and wrong. Whether or not the statements are horribly cruel, and whether or not other people believe them and spread them around, there eventually comes a point in time when the nerd girl has to finally reach the conclusion that the other students are wrong for doing that, and that they're only making themselves look crueler in the eyes of their peers.

I may be a little jaded, since I speak from personal experience when I say this, but eventually, the students will grow bored and do something else, and go back to ignoring the nerd girl. It may hurt, but in the end, it helps the nerd girl distinguish who her true friends are. That's the way classroom politics goes.

As for parent and teacher intervention, how will students learn to cope with criticism and unfounded rumors in the real world, if all they have to do is cry to their parents and pull the lawsuit card? The only thing lawsuit threats do is teach the students that it's okay to threaten someone with a lawsuit if they say something that you don't like or agree with. And, frankly, I see enough of that on the Internet today, without needing more encouragement of it from overzealous parents.

Don't misunderstand me. There is always a point when bullying or rumors go too far, and I'm in full support of schools intervening on students' behalf. I just don't think that suspensions without hearings is the best solution to the problem, since that seems to be the quickest way to a courtroom battleground. Conferences are much more discreet, but I myself am not aware of any prior action taken on any school's behalf before the incidents in question took place. Suspensions are not the answer, and will do nothing but inflame the problem, both for the student, and for the school itself.

Schools need to grow up and not mention Columbine for every single student dispute that ever happens. This means you, Mr. Superintendent.

These parents need to grow up and learn to stop acting like children, crying to their lawyers every time someone does something or says something that they don't like. When a bottle of acid is being thrown in your face, it's one thing, but when your daughter's name is written on a bathroom wall in an illicit way, you don't hire a handwriting expert and have the perpetrator arrested for defamatory comments.

-- Christina Rose

Save lives! Defy nature!

By Jason D. Hill

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Jason D. Hill sounds like he is ready to join Pat Robertson in China. I have just one question about his Modest Proposal for the new millennium: Since no one seems able to agree, from year to year and month to month, how to define good parenting, who exactly is going to decide who gets to have children and who doesn't? If I pass the test this year, but fail it next year as the requirements change, does that mean der Führer und das Vaterland will take come and take away my children?

Thank you, Assistant Professor Hill, for voluntarily removing yourself from the gene pool. Still, I worry about you teaching philosophy to people who so obviously disgust you.

-- Jeff Crook

Such a ridiculous rant on such a serious subject. Could you find no one better suited to write about this? The author talks about the collapse of serious devotional parenting, which, he says, coincides with the the rise of two-working-parent families. I guess he thinks men can never be devoted parents, since they work and all.

The fact is, most parents I know are devoted to their children, to a incredible degree. I'm only guessing, but I think the ungodly pressure put upon this Texan woman to be a perfect homeschooling baby-machine (coupled with severe mental illness) might have put her over the edge. I have never wanted to kill my kids, ever. I've never even entertained the thought. Indeed, like most parents, I would throw myself in front of a train to save them from the slightest harm. Yeah, I bet they'll complain about me to their college professors, too, but so what: that's what young adults do, blame their parents.

As for the author, I'm glad this man had no children. His obvious temper and quickness to judge betrays the fact he would have been a lousy one.

-- Dorothy Nixon

Jason Hill, have you been reading my mind? How encouraging it was to read what needs to be shouted but is only mentioned in whispers.

I am a Texas court-appointed guardian ad litem for children in CPS custody. In my current case, the mother is 25 and has 5 children she can't take care of. Nothing will keep her from getting pregnant again, not even the termination of her parental rights. Based on experience, I fully expect her to have more children. Those of us who work in protective services are truly like the boy sticking his finger in the dyke. If nothing changes, our society will only worsen due to the abundance of unwanted, unplanned, unsupervised poor souls.

-- Denise Havard

I'm sure Hill's article will receive a tidal wave of angry response, but I found it a refreshing counterattack to the constant barrage of procreation propaganda we're treated to in the news and in advertising these days. There's nothing outlandish in suggesting that people, rich and poor, should give serious thought to how many children they can reasonably support. Why is birth control so rarely mentioned, and never advertised?

I did take exception to one thing in Hill's article, however. People who take dogs to animal shelters should not do so with a clear conscience. They should feel guilty as hell.

-- Elizabeth Bass

I offer my congratulations to Salon and my heartfelt thanks for printing Professor Hill's piece. I have rarely seen as much sense spoken in the mainstream press on the subject of parenthood in our culture. The acquisitive incompetence and complete abdication of personal responsibility seen in contemporary American parents almost guarantees us a population of near-animals in 2020, a society of youth for whom self-gratification conquers every taboo.

This perceived entitlement to have babies at any age and cost, to bloat our wombs with fertility drugs and reap a bumper crop of statistical freaks, is the ultimate in überconsumerism, and is destroying our planet. For the childfree, the trendy baby-making frenzy is a horror flick, churning along to the shrill soundtrack of parental demands that the public assume any actual parenting duties and shoulder the blame for their personal failures. I could not agree more with Professor Hill. Serial breeding must stop.

-- Gaby Kaplan

Charming. Jason D. Hill says that his friend needs a dose of "critical thinking 101" and then proceeds to present hackneyed, uncritical misanthropic cliches as an "argument" riddled with internal contradictions and lacking any semblance of logical reasoning.

Andrea Yates, who is reported to have been psychotic, is compared to the rest of us who "judiciously" (that is, sanely) reject our darker impulses. On the other hand, her anomalous case is presented as evidence in support of some kind of national eugenics program. Is she a monster or are we all? Both, according to Hill. He admits he is "childless by choice" but presumes to know better than those of us with children, including his friend the "yuppie juggling fatherhood," what the emotional strains and burdens of being a parent are like.

The real problem, according to Hill, is, of course, feminism: "families with two working parents" are presumed to be unable to provide "serious devotional parenting." Parents -- that is, mothers -- ought to "devote everything, and I mean everything" to their children. What Hill means is that women should quit their jobs and stay home. Isn't that what Andrea Yates did?

So "kids in America hate their parents." Two questions. First, if they do, could that their hatred comes from the same unrealistic expectations that Hill has, that all parents should be perfect and children with imperfect parents ought never to have been born? And second, has Hill, Freudian that he is, considered the possibility that he might be projecting onto his students a hatred for their parents that they don't actually feel? Maybe it is Hill -- not his students, his friends, and society in general -- who really has a problem.

-- Tedra Osell

Some 20 years ago, my aunt killed herself and her three children, ages 10, 13, and 16. She had diabetes that was eating away at her body, and by the time of the murders, her mind couldn't handle her physical deterioration.

No one knew at the time of her children's births that their deaths would come so soon. My uncle knew she was depressed over her condition, but had no idea that the loss of his entire family would be the end result.

According to Jason Hill, she should never have even tried to have any children. Well, Mr. Hill, where's that crystal ball that tells us who's going to be a fit parent and who's going to fall apart and kill? I don't know the details of what my aunt's and uncle's family life was in those 16 years of being married with children, but neither you nor anyone else could have predicted in 1966 that my cousins wouldn't be happy, healthy adults contributing to society.

Yes, most children have problems with their parents to some extent. Some even hate them and will never forgive them for the way they were raised. But I don't believe that anyone would say that they should never have been born. I know my uncle would never say that about his children.

-- Name withheld

A history of failure

By Amy Benfer

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I agree with Mr. Levine that modern American society has evolved into something unlivable for a good segment of the population. The "canary in a coal mine" analolgy comes to mind. Those more fragile psychically give a warning sign to the rest that all is not well.

But it is wrong and very irresponsible to attack psychiatry this way. I am someone who has experienced the horror of living inside a mind gone out of control with bipolar disorder, and have felt the blessed relief of treatment with the right combinations of medications. I don't see how returning to an agrarian village society would have prevented or cured a condition like mine, or like the one suffered by that poor woman in Texas.

-- Lisa Majersky

I don't know why Salon's editors considered Bruce Levine's hissy fit about antidepressants to be news. To me, it read like scraps from the tables of Thomas Szasz and Peter Breggin, both of whom have been peddling much the same line of crap for decades.

The only novelty is Levine's fuzzy invocation of some lost, pre-industrial Arcadia in which everything was made right through marathon group hugging or some such thing. He can spare us the auld lang syne. "Melancholy," as it used to be called, has been common as weeds, and just as hard to kill, since time immemorial.

As someone currently taking -- and benefitting from -- three of Levine's devil drugs, let me assure your readers that they render one anything but numb. He is right only in describing what these drugs do chemically. They are neurotransmitter enhancers. In most people with "depression," consumption of one or another of these drugs is highly correlated with relief of the intractable blues. Perhaps "depression" is not a simple matter of low neurotransmitter levels, but jacking them up seems to help a lot of people and that is certainly nothing to sneer at. An elegant and "true" cure for depression may be out there somewhere, but palliation in the meantime is no small achievement. It sure beats sitting around the campfire singing "Kumbayah."

In my own case, I was not depressed, per se. I was cranky and easily frustrated or angered. I was also having increasing difficulty remembering things. My "mellowness," for lack of a better word, as well as my long- and short-term memory and my ability to concentrate have all improved markedly on my demon cocktail. Sexual side effects sometimes manifest themselves, but I use my brain many more hours a week than my gonads. Good enough, until something better comes along.

As for postpartum depression, I don't know what it is or whether it is similar to garden-variety depression and neither does Levine. The one thing I'm sure of is that it doesn't come from suddenly noticing that child care is a lot of work. If this were so, it would hit hardest with a first child. Andrea Yates had five.

What triggered her psychotic break, neither Levine nor anyone else knows. Even assuming it was her meds, though, an effect like this is obviously very rare. A woman killing her five children is such a big story, precisely because it is so singular. There are many more deaths per year from allergies to antibiotics, yet no one seriously suggests that antibiotics are frivolous and unneeded.

Bottom line: the body is a hugely complicated chemical plant. Why is it so odd to suppose chemical causes for its ills or to find chemical palliatives and cures for same? If boosting one or more neurotransmitters will fix depression and it takes a pill to make this happen, what's wrong with taking the pill? We don't tell diabetics or hemophiliacs to "just cheer up" or to "walk it off." What makes depression so special?

-- Dick Eagleson

While I agree in general with Bruce E. Levine's assertion that Americans have pathologized many ordinary states of mind in recent years, I have also personally benefitted from the SSRI Zoloft. In my case, the drug was almost instantly effective in eliminating a lifetime of panic attacks and obsessive thinking. I am a 50-year-old male writer and was concerned that taking this drug would make me feel numb, but I have not experienced this side effect. Zoloft has affected my sleep cycles -- though it sometimes takes me longer to get to sleep than it used to, now I actually sleep through the night and wake rested. I have experienced no ticks or sexual dysfunction.

I don't think the debate about depression and related psychological states is much advanced by the shrill-sounding accusations made by Levine any more than it is by the bland assurances of the pharmaceutical industry and its fellow travelers in the medical profession. Clearly, states such as depression and episodes of irrational panic are produced by a mixture of somatic, mental and environmental factors. Psychoactive drugs like SSRIs are not a panacea, but they can be effective in restoring a person's sense of balance and well-being.

But far from being "numbed," the use of an SSRI literally returned me to myself. No doubt others will have had different experiences and reactions; no doubt these drugs are over-prescribed. It seems obvious, however, that when carefully prescribed and consciously chosen, this class of drugs can be extremely useful.

-- Joseph Duemer

Bruce Levine's jeremiad against the use of psychotropic drugs is a ludicrous overreaction. Is it just possible, do you suppose, that some psychotropic drugs, used under some circumstances, might promote and enhance the welfare and autonomy of patients instead of always being worse than the alternatives? I can think of several reasons why we should be suspicious of Mr. Levine's claims.

1) In my experience, untreated depression often leads people to self-medicate with blunderbuss legal and illegal psychotropic drugs like marijuana or alcohol, such that the realistic choice they present us with is one of which drugs they will take, not whether they will take drugs at all. If the choice is between Prozac dependency or alcoholism, then I think we have plenty of reason to prefer Prozac.

2) Why is this presented as a "gender issue"? Plenty of adult men are treated with psychotropic drugs. Are the rich white men conspiring to medicate themselves as well? If differentially and systematically overmedicating women is a distinctive problem, then at the very least the reader is entitled to some comparative statistics on how much more likely it is that women rather than men will be medicated.

3) Levine's suggestion that overmedicating is a capitalist conspiracy intended to keep the ladies working and shopping is a classic case of what social scientists call a "functionalist" argument. In showing how some phenomenon fulfills a function or satisfies some powerful interest we are relieved of the duty of providing actual evidence to prove that the function or the interest is the CAUSE of the phenomenon.

4) Why is Levine so convinced that psychotropic drugs violate the autonomy of the user? As far as I can tell, people are not forcibly medicated with Prozac and Wellbutrin. In fact, these drugs increase the scope for autonomy and choice.

5) Although I have never used one of the class of drugs Levine discusses, I have spent a great deal of time with people who do, and by and large they don't seem to be uniform or zombified or changed in any fundamental way. In my experience, people are just a little less depressed, a little less anxious, a little happier: just enough to make it possible for them to live a flourishing life.

-- Matthew Kocher

By Salon Staff

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