When you leave the U.S.A, you always wonder what you’re missing back home. I remember living in Spain in 1997 and somehow coming across a Rolling Stone cover of Jenny McCarthy squirting mustard on a hot dog. I thought, darn, I’m missing that?
Fast forward ten years, and Jenny McCarthy is having her own displacement trauma as she watches her kid get the measles-mumps-rubella vaccination. Or as she told Oprah that year, “Boom! Soul, gone from his eyes.”
Sometimes, people ask me if I think a vaccine caused my son’s autism, or what I think of McCarthy’s advocacy. In terms of the proper response, I pretty much agree with everything Frank Bruni writes here. I only have one little thing to add.
On some level, I empathize with Jenny McCarthy, even if she was wrong. It’s scary to authorize the injection of anything into your child. If my experiences with autism have taught me anything, it’s that there are many, many things doctors DO NOT KNOW. My pediatrician told me Dar did not have autism (when he was 18 months old) because of his terrific way with eye contact. Wrong. Doctors have expressed a lot of hope for Dar to turn the corner about this or that. Wrong.
What do we really know about everything? They say to read food labels. Okay, I just read one. What does that tell me? This is a scary world and it often feels like we’re two steps away from getting hit with an accidental chemical over-dose like Lily Tomlin in “The Incredible Shrinking Woman.”
Now, if you’re reading this and you’re my real-life friend, you know Dar’s full first name. You know which historical figure he was named after. So just keep that in mind as you read this sentence: I wince when people link things to facebook from the site “I fucking love science.” Because there’s something way too audacious and certain about that. “I fucking love” as though to say: in your face, anyone who doubts what science shows. Now, you don’t have to walk me through a definition of science (a quest for truth, always looking to be falsifiable, etc.); I got it, I know it as well as you do. Yes, science is great. You don’t have to – no, let me change that, you don’t get to – convince me of that, not if you know my son’s name. But people are not crazy to have a few doubts, either. True science accumulates data, it doesn’t rule out things as much as some people seem to think it does.
Did a vaccine cause Dar’s autism? I say no, but I don’t know 100%. I don’t need you to link me to some site like “How do vaccines cause autism?”. Stop being proud when we really need to acknowledge shades of grey.
Do vaccines cause autism? Well, almost certainly not. Did a butterfly in China just cause me to cough five minutes ago? Probably not that either, but you’d be surprised how many liberals want to believe the second one and not the first. I guess Ashton Kutcher movies are more convincing than Jenny McCarthy appearances.
I do think we have to go forward assuming that vaccines don’t cause autism, just as we go forward assuming cell phones don’t cause cancer (are we crazy on that?), just as we go forward assuming organic foods are healthy for mind and body.
It would probably also be good to re-examine our penchant for taking life advice from celebrities. Fairly sure scientific data doesn’t support that.
But on a weird level, I get where McCarthy was coming from. She was a concerned Mom, not an ideological agitator. In her case, I call that understandable McCarthyite hysteria. I forgive her.