Ever since it was revealed that Lawrence Nasser, a doctor at Michigan State, had been abusing young women, with their own mothers in the room, during putative gynecological exams, which were, for reason unknown and seemingly inexplicable, required to determine their fitness for gymnastics, I have been baffled as to how such a thing could occur. What did their parents believe was happening? Why were they so uniformly silent?
A partial explanation came to mind when I recalled the famous Milgram experiments, where Stanley Milgram demonstrated that all that was needed to obtain a high rate of compliance from participants to the request to deliver electric shocks to subjects, called “learners,” was a lab coat and the seeming authority of being a doctor, with all of its implications of science and societal power. But, still… These girls often had their own parents in the room with them. The participants and learners in the Milgram experiment were unknown to each other. There were certainly no familial bonds involved in those experiments. In the case of the abuse at Michigan State, however, parents stood by quietly as Lawrence Nasser transgressed the boundaries, again and again, of how one human being should interact with another. How was it that even the bonds of motherhood and fatherhood did not stand as a bulwark against his abuse?
This question arose again for me at the meeting of two seemingly unrelated events, the funeral of a friend at the same time that I had been reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Natural Causes. At the funeral, I was powerfully reminded, as I stood staring at the hearse carrying my friend’s body, of the end that we all face, and how, at such a moment, we turn to a priest or pastor, versed in the ways of the gods, a person who seems to stand halfway in another world already, to translate the unknown and unseeable into the seen and understood, so that we can have the illusion of knowing how to save ourselves from the unsavable. We read from a holy book. We listen to the directives from the pastor, dressed in a different set of clothes from ourselves, a costume indicative of his greater authority and closeness to another world. We defer to this person and to the rituals, at least in part, to shield us from that existential unknown, death, and its usual predecessor, sickness.
In the domain of sickness, we tend to defer to a different authority, the doctor, who has become not just someone who can sweep away illness, but who can also, more and more, grant us continuing wellness. Barbar Ehrenreich, in her book, argues that we are so desperate to avoid the truths of death and illness that we are in fact, “killing ourselves” in an attempt to live longer, more perfectly “well,” lives. She contends that the many different purveyors of “wellness”, whether they be doctors, gyms, alternative lifestyles or medicines, holistic medicines, etc., are all prone to sell us services and goods that are, in many cases, contra-indicated by the evidence of scientific trials, should the trials even exist. For example, going to the gym seems like an activity that cannot possibly be bad for us, but it can have its dark side, like narcissistic attention to, and control over, one’s own body. Another example are wellness screenings, administered by doctors, seemingly backed by science, but, in many cases, not well supported by evidentiary trials. In this category, the cases that particularly caught my attention were pelvic exams and pap smears, which all women that I know, and certainly myself as well, have been told that they must have in order to avoid cervical cancer.
It seems reasonable. Who wants cervical cancer? However, as I looked into the matter more, I found a wellspring of troubling data. First, why are we even having pap smears when testing for HPV yields better results? Moreover, in Britain, they have started urine tests for HPV. Or, we could just be administering a vaccine at the age of 11 or 12 to prevent HPV! The British Medical Journal argues that screenings like pap smears do not save lives, chiefly because cancer screenings do not reduce the overall mortality rate. Finally, there is a significant risk of misdiagnosis. With this information, one would think we would approach pap smears in a more thoughtful and cautious manner but instead, most of us are routinely browbeaten into assuming the lithotomy position, enduring what can feel like a rape, all the while asking ourselves how we could be upset at a seeming societal good, the attempt to prevent cervical cancer and prolong our lives? (All of these problematic issues could be mitigated with clearer information and consent forms, but I have not heard of consent forms in this area, and I can say for myself that I did not receive any of this information from my doctor.)
Barbara Ehrenreich calls these moments with our doctors, “rituals of humiliation” backed by a “veneer of science” (and by the way, men can be subjected to them too). We are vulnerable to this treatment because our doctors are clothed in the adornments of science, much like the religious have their own costumes, and are backed by the gods. We give them authority because of their seemingly greater understanding of science, much like we give religious figures authority because of our belief that they understand the gods and/or the metaphysical, better than we and can, therefore, provide us with guidance. In other words, both professions stand at that liminal point of existential dread that we all experience. We are of the nature to get old, to become diseased, and to die. But, religious figures and doctors, each in their own way, stand on the line between our normal, materialistic lives, and these shadowy places of illness, dying, and death that we tend to avoid and fear.
All of which brings me back to those girls in Michigan. If what Barbara Heinrich says is by and large true, one can begin to discern the extra force that could allow loving mothers to nevertheless remain silent as their doctors abused their children in front of their own eyes. So many pressures were being brought to bear. There is the doctor, the so-called authority, with his seemingly greater understanding of science, writ large, that vast domain which can have the power to prolong life and health. There is the fact that most of these mothers had, no doubt, already been trained to silence in the service of their own “health” and their daughters’ “health” during their own journeys through the various, often humiliating, ways in which many doctors embedded in our healthcare system treat their patients. Finally, there is the understandable desire of these mothers to promote their daughters’ athletic careers and chances. Looking at all of these pressures, it suddenly becomes clear that, the question is not, “how could it happen,” but “how could it not happen?” What is remarkable is that *anyone* stood up to it and protested.