Alzheimers, rats and dog love

Readers react to Jennifer Foote Sweeney's "A Cruel Choice" and to Creature Features.

Published March 7, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Read "A Cruel Choice" by Jennifer Foote Sweeney.

The adage "just because you can doesn't always mean you should" applies here, but it's also certainly something the medical community (in its search for "breakthroughs," research grants and fame) has no perception of. One must look at the Andrea and Russell Yates case in Texas to see where this country's feeling of "entitlement to children" can lead. Having a child is a privilege, not a right ...

-- Vanessa Moore

I'm not sure words can suffice in expressing my outrage, my sheer and utter contempt for Ms. Foote Sweeney's viewpoint and her blatantly ignorant article. As a woman with a birth defect, a birth defect for which no medical source knows the cause (and which therefore could possibly pass down through my gene pool), I can tell Ms. Sweeney that neither she nor anyone else shall look down upon me from their ivory tower of "medical perfection" and express their distaste for my procreating -- defining that "selfish choice" basically as child neglect. How dare you, lady?

First, your points are misleading and ludicrous. Since when is allowable adoption a litmus test for a good parent? In Florida, for example, a gay person can't adopt a child. Does that mean gays wouldn't make good parents?

Second, exactly what guarantees have you deluded yourself into thinking this life provides? My father was an alcoholic, and I would happily have traded him for a few good years with a man who was kind to me and loving, even if that meant he would fall into early dementia.

Life isn't fair. And defining a life as worthy merely on whether or not a person has a fully functioning parent is to negate a good portion of the population. I suppose in your mind, it is better to have a fully functioning parent that beats and molests their child, or at least emotionally abuses their child, than to have one with whom you can no longer converse.

In your Ozzie and Harriet world, we would all be born to both a mother and a father, no one would get sick, and no parent would die (I suppose the ultimate "child exploitation"). I don't know what realm of reality you exist in, but it's not the one the rest of the population inhabits. Third, it is so very kind of you to allow the rest of us the legally binding (at least until Bush gets his grimy paws into the mire) ability to choose whether or not to bring a fetus to term. However, your elitist argument harks back to the days of arguments against biracial children (oh, the horror of the life they will endure), bi-religious families (how can two parents of different religions possibly raise spiritual children?), gay couples (What? No mom and dad?) and the ultimate argument of arguments: Poor people really shouldn't bring children into the world, as they don't have the money to provide a "worthwhile" life. Why don't we the people just hand over to you the power to pick and choose which of us you deem acceptable to have children? That way there would be no child neglect in the world we live in. Lastly, Ms. Foote Sweeney, define for the "unwashed" of us exactly which birth defects you believe are allowable under your system. I would deem your attitude of contempt and superiority a much more damaging defect than anything physical.

-- Jennifer Dunckley

Even though she clearly states that the parents of this child have not been interviewed, Ms. Foote Sweeney has no problems passing holier-than-thou judgment on the motives of this family. I personally think that, in light of the tragedy that has befallen this woman's family, they are not unwarranted in wanting to continue the family line without this genetic curse. I daresay that these afflicted relatives would be glad to know that their family lives on without this curse. The lives and memories of this family will reside in this new child, as will a testament of the parent's love. The nuances of such a decision are certainly beyond me and very clearly beyond the article's author as well.

-- John Kuhn

I honestly have no idea what Jennifer Foote Sweeney has managed to get so upset about. The mother destined to descend into early Alzheimer's is married, after all, and the child will still have a parent to raise her after the Alzheimer's sets in. Presumably the woman's husband loves her and wants to have a child with her. If they'd gone and had the child themselves without outside assistance, which they certainly could have done, this wouldn't be news. Instead, they bother to make sure that their child won't contract the same early-onset Alzheimer's, and suddenly, ooh, they're amoral. Please.

-- Francis Heaney

Jennifer Foote Sweeney neglected one crucial point in her piece: The woman in question is herself a geneticist, if I am reading other news reports correctly.

What would be the crueler choice? To have a child with her husband without the procedure and let nature play Russian roulette? Or to leave her husband with nothing of her? I don't know this woman, but I say "Right on! Tell fate to take a flying leap!"

The history of humanity, the courage of humanity, is daring to overcome nature. To inflict a child with one disease in order to instill protection from another is folly against common sense. Edward Jenner would have been hanged if that boy died after exposure to cowpox. Go look at the handbills and protests of the times aimed at Jenner.

Didn't the Wright brothers and other flight experimenters have families at risk when they ventured into their claptrap machines?

Hasn't every man who has left his wife and children over the centuries to defend freedom done so at the risk of shattering personal cost to those he left behind?

This woman is voting for life and hope, the hope that in 10 years biotech's rapidly accelerating "seven-league boots" strides of progress will sweep past this crushing horror she faces, hope that her legacy of love, courage, and sacrifice will be a treasure for the young adults she may never have an opportunity to know.

-- J.J. Brannon

I was struck by the tone of your author's response to the couple who chose to have a baby knowing that the mother will soon be struck with early onset Alzheimer's. Your author "mourns" the birth of the baby, because the baby will have painful memories of her mother's illness. The author's thesis is that the parents are cruel to give birth to this child and that the child should never have been born.

Speaking for the baby, I have to say "Screw you, lady" to your author. I'm a recovering alcoholic. My childhood was a mess. My mother was a drunk. My father beat the crap out of us regularly. I tried to commit suicide three times before I turned 15. My high school and college years are stormy. And yet, if I had known all that before I was born, I would still choose my life. I got over my childhood. I'm happily married, recovering and have a job I love. I'm planning to have kids. I've reconciled my relationship with my parents. Given a choice, I would choose my whole life, even with all of its pain and messiness.

No one lives a life without pain or family tragedy. Period. To suggest that the only families who can guarantee a "perfect childhood" should bring children in this world fetishizes an oversimplified view of childhood. Most children live a world in which they rapidly lose their innocence. To a certain extent, parents exist to help their children lose that innocence in a protected environment, so that they don't get too hurt when they leave the nest. In addition to the simple joys of childhood, most children learn that the world is a frightening place and that there are hard truths in it. Pets die. Grandparents die. Parents get sick. The teacher doesn't like you. Little girls are kidnapped from their beds, murdered and left in a field. People fly airplanes into large buildings and kill thousands. It's a hard, cruel world.

It's also a beautiful world. People fall in love daily. They create beauty through art and music and dance. They find beauty in nature. They struggle to help others live better, happier lives. They struggle to excel in sports, and sometimes they succeed. They laugh and make love and enjoy a really good California roll at the local sushi joint.

To be born is to be given the opportunity to experience both the struggle and joy of being human. Just because one source of this pain in this baby's life is known doesn't mean that she should not be born. She has a father who will love her when her mother becomes sick. She will go to school and fall in love and have a life. Whether it is a good life or a bad one will ultimately depend on her, but I don't count her choices any less than my own or anyone's for having a happy life.

-- Name withheld by request

I usually agree with Ms. Foote Sweeney, but I feel she is way off the mark here. First of all, carrying a gene does not guarantee you will come down with the disease. By her logic, none of us should have kids because surely all of us are "destined" for some disease or another. Should diabetics be "allowed" to have children? What about overweight people who no doubt are putting their future heart health in danger? One day genetic testing will be so widespread that each one of us will know what defective genes we carry. Perhaps we should just all be sterilized now. I bet the author would vigorously defend the right of an HIV-positive woman to bear children. How is this different?

-- Sharon Fargo

Thank God someone is talking about parents' responsibilities to their children. All too often, people do not really think about how they are going to raise their children. Do they think, am I responsible enough, am I nurturing enough, patient enough, generous enough, confident enough, strong enough, to raise a child? Do I have the financial resources? Considering the people I see mistreating their children on the subway every day, I think not. We don't need any more fucked-up, unhappy people in this country. Think before you procreate!

-- Brett Glass

Jennifer Foote Sweeney may as well mourn for all unborn children, because we all come into a world steeped in loss. Can anybody guarantee their newborn child that they will be around in four or five years, that they won't suffer some debilitating accident or terminal illness? She suggests that this woman's choice to have a baby is cruel. I say it's life.

Many children grow up in devastating circumstances, but these don't, in and of themselves, preclude the possibilities of joy and love. Likewise, the idealized vision of what parents should be (i.e., parents our society deems suitable to adopt) does not guarantee that a child will grow up happy and well adjusted.

In many ways we treat children like porcelain figurines, and I think we underestimate what they can adapt themselves to and grow from, especially with a strong support system of family and friends around them. While I am saddened by this couple's situation, I cannot bring myself to call their choice indefensible. To me, it seems hopeful, giving, life-affirming.

Ms. Foote Sweeney seems so focused on trashing the self-absorbed mother and money-grubbing doctor that she tells us little or nothing of the couple's support system (this is a couple, after all; the husband is only mentioned in passing). By the end of this article, we really don't know this couple at all, only that what they're doing is "wrong." Instead of what could have been a portrait of a family struggling to grasp the inevitable difficulties of their situation, the author has offered a shallow and self-righteous indictment of them, resting her case on anecdotal evidence and thoughtless conjecture.

-- Paul Lorentz

What a perfectly silly editorial! The piece begins with a false premise and reaches a predictably shaky conclusion. Contrary to what the writer would like to believe, the only "opportunity to spare a child completely" that any of us will ever have is not to have a child at all. Life will not spare any of us, children or otherwise. Because this woman knows her fate is not relevant. If anything, it gives her and her husband and perhaps even her child time to plan, to prepare, and to mourn, together. Parenthood is always a gamble. How many babies were born into suddenly fatherless homes after Sept. 11? How many infants have lost their mothers, dying to deliver them? Car accidents, cancers, diseases, heart attacks, strokes -- the risks are endless, and mostly unpredicted. Most parents, or parents to be, don't assume they will die suddenly and leave their children devastated, yet this happens every single day. To suggest that this family should be chastised because they have acknowledged this reality is ludicrous. To suggest that a slow parental decline is inherently worse for a child to experience than a sudden loss is foolishness. How can you measure the depth of any such emotional blow? Would you honestly turn to the children who lost parents on Sept. 11 and say, "Well, at least that was quick!"

Finally, not many of us are spared parental decline anyway. Even if our parents happily live into old age, we will see them slowly fade before our eyes. My mother buried her mother last year, after a long, debilitating illness, one that left my grandmother bedridden in the end, incontinent, and not always able to recognize the family who gathered around her at the end. Though she was 83 and my mother 58, it was no easier to handle. My mother's so-called mature age did not make her feel any more prepared to witness the changes that swept over her mother.

Spare a child completely? Rather, Salon, spare me.

-- R. Edwards

Many people lose parents at a young age. When you see these people, do you cluck your tongue and say "Gosh, if only they'd been lucky enough not to have been born, they wouldn't have had to go through that"?

But we all eventually lose our parents, and I don't believe there is an age when it's less painful. It seems, in your eyes, that the loving mother the child will have for her first few years isn't worth enduring the pain of watching her die. Better the child never be born, you say.

But if you're never born, you never have the opportunity to know your parents at all. I guess that's the ultimate question we face in life -- is it worth loving someone, when at some point one of you will have to watch that person die?

Your answer seems to be no. Which seems to me to say more about a lack of appreciation for the love between a parent and child than a concern for the suffering of that child.

-- Aaron Butler

Read "A tail of treachery" by Erika Raskin.

You are just so droll. I love it. What a great title that would be for a children's story or even an allegory for adults. But from my experience with rats, the greedy Wall Street inside trader who can pay many tens of millions of dollars in fines out-of-pocket has much more in common with the rat than any philosopher. Years ago when my son was still a boy, one of his newspaper route customers called and offered us a pet that her daughter could not take to college. It was a brown rattus norvegicus. Though it looked like any common sewer rat it was quite domesticated. The previous owner would take it for rides in her car and it would perch on her shoulder as it wrinkled up its little whiskery nose at the crack in the window, savoring the scents of the larger world outside. He was named Lester and came to be quite a favorite with my daughter.

One night our husky/terrier mix, Bob, was scratching at her door. I heard the TV on in her room and it was late after bedtime. I rapped and got no answer. So I entered and found she had fallen asleep on the floor while playing with Lester and he had curled up for warmth at the hollow of her throat beneath her chin. After she woke up groggily I scolded her for her carelessness. When the door opened Bob made a mad dash to dispatch Lester and the only thing saving the innocent rat from an early death was Bob's tail. I grabbed Bob by the tail as his fangs snapped in the air scant millimeters from Lester's innocently twitching whiskers. Getting one arm around the dog, I scooped up the rat and got him back into the 10-gallon fish tank used for his terrarium. He scampered playfully about his glassy home, none the worse for his near escape from the canine grim reaper.

It is an apt comparison between the rat and the stock trader (or the CEO who sells his stock while freezing sales for his hardworking serfs) in that a rat will risk his all to greedily stockpile reserves of food greater than his needs. Lester's tank came complete with a Hartz Mountain Hamster Town. This was a maze of ladders, wheels, tubes and elbow joints to give him a playground that far surpasses in ingenuity any McDonald's Playtown. Bob was so intent on catching Lester that the tank was put up out of the dog's reach on a highboy dresser. That Lester was in mortal danger from Bob's sanguine attentions there was no doubt. When taken out for romps in the woods Bob would again and again prove his terrier heritage on rodents much larger than house rats. I have seen him victorious in mortal combats with groundhogs in the spring when they leave their dens to find mates. Somehow he even managed to get between a muskrat and the creek to chalk up another quick kill. One foggy night in late autumn he chased an opossum right back to me. This marsupial is the most primitive of mammals and it saw me as the greater threat, so it opened up a tooth-lined jaw and made fierce beastly threats in my direction. To keep it from ripping out my ankles I whipped at it with Bob's leash (I would use the leash to get him out into the woods, then set him loose to run). Thus distracted from the real threat of Bob, it turned its back to him, allowing him to dash in and seize its body in his jaws. He opened and closed his teeth rapidly and repeatedly from tail to throat of the unfortunate creature. My pity for the opossum was somewhat assuaged by my own gaze down its toothy maw. Just a few steps above the reptile on the evolutionary ladder, this animal has dental equipment much more like a crocodile than I care to get close to.

So Lester was indeed living in mortal peril in the same house with Bob. Yet Lester was so sweet and docile that you could more than feed him from your hand. Just to entertain visitors with a delectable frisson, I often arranged one tube of the Hamster Town to hang out off the edge of the dresser at the level of my chin. Lester then squeezed his ratly bulk up through the narrow tunnels to come to the end of the open tube. Then, hanging by his back legs and anchored by his tail, he would reach out over the void of empty space to take a crunchy nugget of dog food from my pursed lips. He would do this again and again until our guests grew tired of shrieking, "Eyuwww! How gross!" Yet all the while he performed this aerial act, Bob would be sitting at my feet howling his doggy executioner's song. His howl was a bit like a warbling yodel, "OwrrlOwrrllOwrrl." Lester had to be aware of Bob's cruel intentions, yet he made one death-defying trip after another to add to his horde of kibble. When it came time to clean Lester's home, we never failed to find close to five pounds of moldering dog food buried beneath a pile of urine-soaked cedar shavings. Now consider both the hard work and extreme risk Lester went through to accumulate such a pile. It was more than he could ever use, so why did he risk death to gather it all? Was this all the ratly equivalent to human thrill seeking?

So what was going through his ratty little brain while stretching out above Bob's snapping jaws to reach for just one more kernel of dog food that he had no real need for? Is the same instinct operating somewhere beneath the conscious level in the head of the wealthy inside trader, the CEO practicing creative accounting, or the celebrities who invest in third world sweatshops? Events like this prove that Darwin was more than correct. Before Man could descend from the ape, he had to descend from the rodent.

-- Gorden Russell

The author closes her tirade against the pesky rodents by noting that she's noticed snakes near her new home, and that she doesn't like them either. But snakes eat rats! So I hope the author will take heart.

-- Solveig Singleton

I have a simple solution for anyone who has trouble with rodents: Get a cat or two. Not only are they much more appealing (and environmentally sound) than exterminators, they also actually work. In each of my last two apartments, there has been exactly one mouse encounter. Mouse comes in. Cats catch mouse. Mouse lets out death cry, warning other nearby mice of the presence of cats. Mice never set foot in my apartment again.

-- Dan Edmonds

When I read the title and tag-line to this article, I knew that I wasn't going to read it. Usually, I like to at least skim most of the articles on Salon's site during the course of the day, but this one ... I just knew that I didn't want anything to do with it. Of course, afternoons in the office often drag. I had already perused the site, and I was content to just do some busywork until knock-off time. But unfortunately, my curiosity got the better of me, and my attention wandered to the "rodent" article I had been avoiding all day. I clicked on the red link -- it seemed to be pulsating like an overburdened artery -- and read the story with one eye open, the other caught in an anxious twitch that still lingers as I write this letter. Why did I bow to my curious nature? Why couldn't I have been content with an hour of simple busywork? I live in an apartment in Boston, and I've had a few problems with mice ... But dear God! (They can come up through the toilet?!) Thank you, Ms. Raskin, for plummeting me into at least a week of restless nights, anxiety attacks, and nervous glances toward the floorboards that will undoubtedly leave my neck ravaged and my mind in shreds. At least your perseverence and ability to adapt in the face of so many unlucky encounters gives me some sense of comfort -- but not much.

-- MJH

Oh my, Ms. Raskin is hysterical! Thanks for the fun. I'm so sick of all the terrible news. This piece hit the spot.

-- Honour Iantosca

Read "The existence of dog" by Elena Sigman.

While Elena Sigman's attitudes about dogs may have changed for the better, she still is misinformed about one of their characteristics. Dogs do not have "deep, deep fur," as they do not have pelts. Instead dogs have skin follicles, and like humans, they grow hair on their bodies, only they have much more of it.

-- Timothy Moerke

Halleluja, sister, and welcome to our wet-nosed club.

-- Emily F.

By Salon Staff

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