‘Matthew, you cannot be sick’
My parents, Doug and Rita Swan, were both raised in the Church of Christ, Scientist, and met through a Christian Science study group at Kansas State Teachers College in 1960. They were very active in the church until 1977, when the events described in the following account took place. My mother wrote the piece in 1979, but never published it until now. — Marsha Swan
On 17 June 1977, after weeks of worrying about our son Matthew, I phone Mrs Jeanne Laitner, our regular practitioner and the most prominent Christian Science teacher in Detroit. Matthew was fifteen months old. He had been an early walker, but for a number of weeks we had noticed that his left leg frequently crumpled under him. Doug and I wondered if he fell down on purpose as a cute trick or had a serious disability. We were afraid because we didn’t know what the problem was, but we were also afraid to call our practitioner because we might thereby make an imaginary problem real. Our church taught that all disease is caused by sin, fear, or ignorance of its theology. We were afraid to mention disease or think about it.
That say Mrs Laitner began her ‘metaphysical’ treatment: prayers arguing that God is good, God created man as His perfect spiritual image. God didn’t make disease, and therefore disease in unreal. A practitioner often directs her metaphysical work to the specific spiritual errors that she believes caused the disease. Disease disappears when the practitioner and patient become fully convinced that God’s goodness is the only power. Practitioners bill their patients for these treatments, which the church claims is a scientific system for healing all diseases without the help or training of a medical doctor. The next morning I called Mrs Laitner back to report that Matthew still had the knee problem and now a fever as well. A few hours later he vomited; soon he was helplessly limp for no apparent reason.
I was abjectly discouraged and frightened. Matthew had already had three terrible fevers. Each time they seemed to be healed by Christian Science, but they kept coming back, each more severe than the last. Jeanne Laitner had cured the first fever within a few hours. The second and third times we had called other practitioners because we didn’t dare tell the preceding one that her healing had not been permanent. By June, though, we had run out of practitioners whom we knew and had to call Jeanne again.
The fever grew worse by the hour. Matthew was not moving. Mrs Laitner had told us not to pray for him ourselves, so I worked on my sewing and waited for her to heal him. By evening, the wait was intolerable. I called Mrs Laitner back and urged upon her the seriousness of the fever. When I asked why a healing didn’t come, she replied, ‘You don’t give up on the arithmetic book just because you can’t work out all the problems.’ She argued that Christian Science was a deep therapy and medicine only superficial. ‘Why, what could medicine do for Matthew?’ she asked. ‘I suppose they would give him a baby aspirin, but you can see that wouldn’t solve the real problem.’ She tried to reassure me: ‘Matthew doesn’t know anything about this,’ she said soothingly. Jeanne said children’s illnesses were often exaggerated by Christian Scientists. She had had ‘many cases like this’ in all her years of practice and it would turn out that the child was just cutting a tooth. She asked us to try not to notice whether Matthew’s temperature was up or down, since Christian Science forbids its adherents to evaluate disease materially.
I went to bed with a conflict of thoughts. On the one hand, my husband and I both had an almost mystical faith in Jeanne Laitner. The Laitners once lived in the house we now owned. They had planted the roses and the strawberry patch in our backyard. The church members adulated them, and Jeanne had achieved what we believed were healings for us. But our baby’s recurring fevers – their violence and suddenness – were terrifying. I struggled to repress my fears.
The next morning, Sunday, was Father’s Day. I rose early and carried Matthew to our bed. ‘Good morning, Christian soldier,’ said Doug. Matthew did not respond with the old sparkle. He seemed to be in a daze. We called Mrs Laitner three times that day for help, and she agreed to continue her treatments.
On Monday morning, Jeanne came for a house call at our request. I think by that time she had realized that Matthew was not just cutting a tooth. She saw me in tears; she saw a child prone, immobile, and expressionless. She stayed fifteen minutes and gave a treatment aloud. Forcefully, she declared, ‘Matthew, you cannot be sick. God is your life. You live in the kingdom of God.’ At the end she declared that there were ‘no false laws of materia medica’ to contradict these truths and that ‘no false parental thought’ could interfere with the treatment. I nodded my head, willing to comply and submit.
When she came to the house again that evening, Matthew was asleep. The three of us talked in the living room. I thanked her warmly for the treatment that morning, mentioning how consecrated and clear it had sounded.
She soon began talking about how silly and frightened her patients were. ‘I’ve learned a lot about disease,’ she said. ‘You just naturally would in this business. And I know that Christian Scientists are nearly always wrong. They always imagine the worst thing. It’s a fascination with fear.’
A fleeting thought crossed my mind that she had come by all her knowledge of disease at her patients’ expense. An image came and went of patients in agony who made it to the emergency room at the last minute.
Later that evening my old friend Bea phoned from Nashville. Towards the end of our conversation, she asked how Matthew was. ‘Oh, just fine,’ I said enthusiastically. I told her what a happy, energetic boy he was. It made me extremely nervous to tell Bea what was plainly a lie. She had asked how Matthew was, and I should have told her the truth. Matthew was drenched with fever; he hadn’t walked, sat, or crawled for three days. I was strongly tempted to call Bea back and tell her how sick he was. But I didn’t. I knew, after all, that Christian Science expected me to say just what I had said. Many times I had heard the church recommend the example of the Shunammite woman whose son had died, yet who had answered ‘It is well’ when Elisha’s servant asked her how the boy was (II Kings 4:26). Matthew was a spiritual idea, as perfect and as healthy as God was causing him to be. I was supposed to believe that, and I did, but it still bothered me to give my Lutheran friend a dishonest answer.
Jeanne came for a third house call Tuesday morning. I pointed out a tiny fever blister on Matthew’s upper lip. She gave another treatment aloud, and when she left, Doug said, ‘That’s what I want; that’s what I believe in.’
In the early afternoon, I called Jeanne to report that Matthew was still no better and now there was a little blood in his mouth. Jeanne responded, ‘Well, in the first place, you could be wrong. And, in the second place, if you’re relying radically on God, it doesn’t make any difference what the evidence is.’
She told a story about a woman who had called her recently about her baby. The husband, who was not a Christian Scientist, insisted that the baby be taken to a paediatrician. It turned out that the baby had roseola. The symptoms were a high fever followed by a rash. ‘I thought that was kind of …’ – a pregnant pause – ‘… interesting,’ she said. The Christian Science church instructs practitioners not to refer to the names of diseases, as disease is unreal to God. Jeanne knew better than to give a diagnosis, but she could not resist exhibiting her knowledge and authority. ‘It sounded just like Matthew’s,’ she said, ‘except maybe not as severe. The doctor said not to worry about it. It’s rather common now. And I’m trying to know that Matthew does not have a disease called roseola.’
I had heard about roseola from our daughter Cathy’s nursery school teacher. If Jeanne had looked up the word in a dictionary, she would have known that Matthew did not have roseola.
Later that afternoon, Matthew seemed to be having trouble swallowing, and Doug called Jeanne for the third time that day. She told him that practitioners were asked to notify the Christian Science Committee on Publication about difficult cases of children and she was considering reporting Matthew’s case. ‘In all my years of practice,’ she said mournfully, ‘I’ve only had to do that one other time and that case turned out all right.’
When Jeanne arrived for another house call that evening, I asked her to stay alone in the bedroom with Matthew. ‘He’s just not making progress,’ I said, breaking down in tears again.
‘How do we know how much progress he’s making?’ she replied, again appealing to the supersensory.
When Jeanne came out, she said she was ‘very encouraged tonight. Let’s don’t say he’s not making progress. He is making progress.’ The only things that could have encouraged Jeanne were that Matthew did not appear to be in pain as he lay on the bed lethargically, his trusting eyes looked up at her, and he was not as hot as he had been. He was still unable to smile or laugh, sit, stand, walk or crawl, to do the hundreds of beautiful things he had always done. Why did Jeanne think she saw progress?
Doug and I knuckled under and tried to follow Jeanne’s lead. I took Matthew to the front stoop and held him for hours. The summer evening was cool, and he seemed more relaxed. As a truck went down the street, he said, ‘Guck.’ I was so grateful he could take an interest in it. After putting him to bed, we came downstairs and sang several hymns at the piano. ‘By tomorrow he’ll be walking again,’ I thought.
The next morning I was crushed. Matthew was not moving or responding. I called Jeanne and asked for some thoughts that would promote healing and help me face this discouraging picture when I returned to his room to care for him. She seemed irritated and unable to say anything constructive.
To fill the silence, I said he had seemed a little better after she left the night before. ‘I need that, Rita,’ she said intensely. ‘I worked extremely hard before, during and after that treatment last night.’
I stammered a lame, mollifying reply.
She lost her temper. ‘Well, it would have been nice if you had put the good news first. I find that people who do …’ The threat was obvious: people who do, get their healing, and people who don’t, don’t.
I promised to ‘put the good news first’ from then on. She recovered her control, but was still icy. She didn’t think Matthew was as hot as I claimed nor did she think ‘that little thing’ on his upper lip was anything to worry about. ‘You have to watch your imagination, Rita, or it will run away from you,’ she concluded.
The following morning we found Matthew worse than ever. He was now refusing to eat, which particularly alarmed us. We decided we must either change practitioners or turn to medicine. I was afraid to try a new practitioner. We had been trying so hard to submit to Jeanne’s treatment, to force ourselves to think the way she wanted us to think, that it was almost unbearable to face the idea of another practitioner, who would examine our faith all over again and search for more spiritual problems to reconcile. But I was even more terrified of turning away from Christian Science and the only concept of God I had ever known.
Several of Jeanne’s attitudes were bewildering and discouraging to me. I hoped another practitioner would let us pray for our child, for I had never before heard of a rule against parents praying. It was agonizing to feel this heavy moral obligation to rely on prayer for healing and yet to have our hands tied behind our back. It seems clear to me now that this rule was a strategy for controlling parents’ minds and keeping them in the religion. If we had felt free to pray for Matthew ourselves, I believe we would have quickly concluded that we were not doing the job adequately and would have taken him to a doctor.
Doug had to leave for work at 7.30. We needed to make the crucial decision before then, and we could not turn to anyone for advice. Christian Science forbids medical diagnosis and forbids its practitioners to suggest medical treatment, so we could not ask Jeanne or any of our friends in the church for an opinion. If we had had any friends or relatives in Detroit who could have come and helped us with Matthew’s care or housework, perhaps we could have relaxed and gotten some perspective on the situation. But we had no relatives anywhere near. In any case, Christian Scientists are not supposed to tell anyone but their treating practitioner about physical problems; they fear that other people’s knowledge and concern will obstruct the healing.
There is no way a Christian Scientist can harmonize his theology with medical treatment except for a handful of specific exceptions – broken bones, childbirth, dental care – that Mary Baker Eddy found convenient for herself and for avoiding nineteenth-century lawsuits. Eddy’s writings say that medical doctors cause disease and try to dethrone God. She warns that reliance on medical treatment shuts off help from God. The church strictly requires Christian Science practitioners to refuse to give their prayer treatments to anyone who voluntarily accepts medical care. The world of medicine is thus a big, frightening unknown to the Christian Scientist. He doesn’t know any doctors to call. All he can do is dash to a hospital when the pain becomes unbearable. There he must explain why he hasn’t had any medical treatment before. Of course, his Christian Science practitioner does not go with him or take any responsibility for his condition.
Doug voiced the thought, ‘I’m afraid of what medical science will do to him.’ And I had the fear that it might already be too late for a doctor to heal him or that the disease might be something fatal that a doctor could not treat anyway. I knew we were shutting off Christian Science if we went to a doctor and there would be no way to return to it if the doctor could not help.
About five minutes before Doug had to leave for work, we decided to switch practitioners and try just a little longer. Among local practitioners who could visit Matthew, we had only one choice: a Mrs June Ahearn, who had treated one of Matthew’s fevers two months earlier. I asked Mrs Ahearn to begin treatment immediately, explaining that she was the second practitioner on the case and that it was a desperate emergency. She asked me to know that ‘every Christian Science treatment heals’ and that the healing power was divine rather than personal. It sounded like a gracious, wise approach, and I began to relax a little.
Three hours later, I called her back. She said she knew her work was ‘effective’. ‘However,’ she continued, ‘I am getting a strong message of temptation towards materia medica, and I want to ask you quite frankly if there has been any history in your family of resorting to medicine.’ There had been only one case, and I explained it briefly. I had had emergency surgery to remove a rupturing ovarian cyst after six years and hundreds of dollars in Christian Science treatment had failed to correct it. The Laitners had required me to resign from church offices because I had violated the rules of the theology, but this had been kept quiet and I had since been restored to full standing.
‘Materia medica can do nothing for you,’ Mrs Ahearn responded. Our reliance on Christian Science had to be total to get results, she argued. She drew the analogy of a man hanging over a cliff by a tree branch and enjoined us to let go of the branch. In another conversation later that day, she again alluded to the surgery. ‘When you resort to materia medica, you are accepting its laws, and sometimes they can claim to act again in your experience.’
I was terrified by her approach. I felt she was putting a curse on my son, giving his sickness a logical explanation, offering no solution, and yet claiming to accept the job of healing him. The idea that every error I had made would need to be analysed and confronted while my baby lay seriously ill was too much.
‘There are all kinds of discord you could pull out of my life,’ I protested. ‘For example, in March, I went home to visit my folks, encountered a vicious barrage from my father, and took the next plane back to Detroit. But this is an emergency case of a child, and I don’t think we have time to go through my whole autobiography.’
I had made that abortive trip to visit my parents at the request of my mother’s practitioner. My mother was suffering mental breakdowns that went on for a month or more at a time. She stripped naked, rolled in the snow, crawled under beds, and cut her hair to the roots. My youngest brother had to wrestle her away from public view. Her practitioner told me my mother’s problem was just ‘the false world belief of menopause’, but had also asked me to come home. Tormented with guilt and shame, my father considered us a threat. When he picked us up at the airport, he belligerently said he hadn’t invited us and suggested we fly back to Detroit if we didn’t respect him. To spare my children this hostility, we turned back for the airport before getting to my folks’ house. I had been gripped with intense fear for my mother ever since. Every day I did ‘metaphysical work’ to protect our family from the hatred being directed against us. I had a strong sense of vulnerability to evil, a grim foreboding of imminent violence. Christian Science teaches that evil thoughts – ‘malicious animal magnetism’ – have the power to cause disease and disaster.
Later that afternoon I saw clusters of fever blisters inside Matthew’s mouth. During his illness I had been giving him bottles. Now I realized that the nipple was causing him pain because of all those blisters, so I began feeding him milk and orange juice spoonful by tiny spoonful. It took hours, but I was encouraged that he was eating again. I called June back that evening, put the good news first, and said we had ‘a lot to be grateful for’.
The next morning I noticed a terrible problem with Matthew’s spine. If it was moved or even touched, he was in agony. He never cried out, but he appeared to be in horrible pain whenever I moved his back. I had no idea what this problem could be and I reported it to June immediately.
‘Well, I didn’t want to tell you this,’ she replied, ‘but I am working very diligently on the claim of paralysis.’ She gave references from the Christian Science textbook Science and Health that told how to heal the ‘false claim’ of paralysis.
When we were seeing our little signs of good news the day before, Doug had suggested calling Mrs Laitner back. He thought she would be glad to hear of them. Hoping for more improvement, I postponed calling that day, but finally on Friday I called her at her office. She was so shocked to hear my voice that she was silent for a few seconds after I identified myself. I quickly told her that Matthew appeared to be making progress and we thought she would appreciate knowing that.
‘My, my, I should say so,’ she replied in a falsetto voice. There was a long pause. Then she continued, ‘I’m always willing to give the other person credit, but in this case where I had worked so very hard, it wouldn’t be right for another practitioner to come on the case and just heal it.’
Her resentment and jealousy were shocking. We were frightened, too, for we felt our authority figure had a put a curse on our son.
Through several calls that same day, June Ahearn became more aggressive and inquisitive about the argument with my father. It had to be ‘worked out’ in order for Matthew to get his healing, she insisted. I had already protested that this was not a wise approach to an emergency, but now I volunteered to write a conciliatory letter to my father.
‘Well, I know you are willing to do anything that will help little Matthew,’ she said. She told of a case of gallstones that her teacher had healed by getting the patient to confess resentment towards a relative.
On Saturday Matthew was gnashing his teeth wildly. We tried to hard to make him comfortable and strained our imaginations to provide the most appealing nourishment for him. I tried to keep up his interest in his favourite old toys and books, but he expressed no pleasure in anything. So many times I lifted him tenderly to a pillow, held him in the rocking chair, and sang the hymn ‘Mother’s Evening Prayer’, willing every promise in it to come true for Matthew. He looked up at me with a fixed, glassy, solemn stare, with absolute trust and yet no glimmer of the old joy. I took extravagant care to avoid jostling his spine, but if I lifted his bottom even half an inch to get a wet diaper out, an expression of excruciating pain would come over his face.
That afternoon I set about writing the letter to my father. I spent hours praying and reading in Mrs Eddy’s books until I felt it was something I really wanted to do. After I had carried out her wishes, Mrs Ahearn never repeated her promise of good healing results from it. My father never answered the letter.
Through the evening, June reiterated her most common theme. She knew her work was effective; her devotion would have its fruition. Like Mrs Laitner, she also began arguing that we had to surrender control of our baby to her. ‘You don’t have to stand over Matthew like a hawk, watching every time he moves a toe. I have been very successful in my work. I am able to do the work.’ She complained repeatedly of the fear she detected in our thinking.
When June had first taken the case, we had brought up the idea of a house call. She said she didn’t need to see Matthew because her business was understanding him as a spiritual idea. From then on, I was afraid to show any disagreement with her attitude by asking for a house call. When I phoned her on Sunday morning, though, June offered to stop by after church. That morning, before June arrived, I broke down completely. I sobbed on the floor and shouted, ‘He is just a baby,’ over and over.
When the Ahearns came, I asked June to be with Matthew alone in his room. After some time, she called for me. Her voice was so insistent and excited that I thought maybe he had been instantaneously healed. I hurried up the stairs. It turned out that Matthew had grabbed both her thumbs and she thought this was ‘so cute’. She went on gushing enthusiastically about how beautiful he looked, ‘just like a little rose lying there’.
I looked at her in wonder. Couldn’t she see that Matthew’s desperate, clenched grasp on those thumbs was not the normal activity of a fifteen-month- old child?
Later that day, I told her on the phone exactly how anguished and out of control I had been before she came. ‘Really?’ she said. ‘I didn’t catch any hint of that at all when I was there.’ I also blurted out how frightened I was about the first practitioner’s jealousy. That was a bad mistake, for Mrs Ahearn loved nothing better than ‘handling’ the mental malpractice directed against her. She professed to know exactly which practitioner I meant. We had a lot of ‘kooks’ in our church, and it had always been run by a clique, she said.
About midnight, Matthew began screaming. I stayed up with him helplessly. At 1.15 I called June for urgent treatment. She said that things had come along so beautifully when she first took the case, but now she wondered if the other practitioner’s mental malpractice was wrecking her work.
I stayed up all night with him, and Doug soon joined me. Matthew’s screams came closer together. They were squeals of intense pain and protest. I clung tenaciously to the most quoted statement in Science and Health: ‘Divine Love has always met and always will meet every human need.’ The screams went on. Doug and I could not bear them, and we made a firm decision for medical treatment.
We called June Ahearn with our decision. She insisted again that she had ‘complete confidence’ in her work and was ‘absolutely positive’ that the healing was taking place.
‘But it’s not morally right for me to continue with Christian Science when I’m no longer expecting a healing by it,’ I protested. ‘When I go into Matthew’s room, I just expect to see those thin little arms and frozen face again.’
Doug raised the possibility that Matthew might be suffering from a contagious disease, and said that for the protection of the community it should be medically diagnosed, but June pooh-poohed that explicitly. ‘You’re too concerned about what the community thinks,’ she said. ‘When your neighbours’ children are sick, you don’t expect them to come ask your opinion about how they should be treated. Why should you care what their opinion is of the form of treatment you choose for your child?’
She quoted Mrs Eddy’s famous statement on the evils of a medical diagnosis and prophesied a ‘long, hard road’ back to Christian Science if we turned to medicine. She complained bitterly about my calling the first practitioner back, as she herself was ‘very well qualified’, though we didn’t seem to appreciate that. Then she suggested getting a Christian Science ‘nurse’ to come in and help care for Matthew. ‘A Christian Science nurse is very careful not to interfere with the work of the practitioner, and that’s what you and Doug are doing,’ she said.
We had listened to her for too long; our firm decision for medical treatment was worn away and, in complete exhaustion, we decided to try this new suggestion. After several calls, we were told a nurse would be sent out to evaluate Matthew and, if need was determined, the nursing home would try to find a home aide for us. The nurse on the phone asked what the problem was. I told of my baby’s terribly high fever and now his ‘nervous breakdown’. ‘Your husband?’ she asked, puzzled. ‘No, my son,’ I replied. ‘Who, you?’ she asked this time. She must have wondered how a baby could have a nervous breakdown, but I didn’t know what else to call it. Matthew was a horrible picture, not screaming any more, but emaciated and deranged. Trying to avoid jostling his back, I carried Matthew on his crib mattress down to the basement, where it was cooler. It was now taking me at least four hours of concentrated effort to get a small amount of food down him each day. I held a strawberry before his face, telling him about it over and over. After many minutes, he began to extend his hand towards it. With excruciating effort, he coordinated his hand to the strawberry and with equally painful effort got it to his mouth and chomped it mechanically. It would be the last thing I knew that he comprehended on earth.
At this point I noticed that the stiffness in his spine was gone. I was not elated about this, but it was a strange, sudden change.
In the evening a nurse named Mrs Mohn came by to assess the situation. She was a new face on the scene, comforting and soothing as I sat in tears on the floor trying to get Matthew to eat homemade pudding. She quoted Mrs Eddy’s dictum that fever was just fear. Her little boy had been sick for a long time too. She promised to get us a home aide the next day, if possible, and concluded, ‘I think you’re doing everything right.’ After all the harassment from June Ahearn, Mrs Mohn’s words were a relief, and our spirits were lifted by this new idea of getting a home aide.
Around nine that evening I was rocking Matthew in his room and trying to feed him again. His face, tilted towards mine, was distorted. His eyes would not blink. They were bugged-out and bloodshot. It was just too horrible. I put him back in his crib and called Mrs Ahearn.
She lost her temper completely: ‘I’m not going to be one of those practitioners who brag about working for hours over and over. I’ve done my work on this case for the day and that’s that. Now it’s only been an hour and a half since you called about the healing in the spine. He can’t possibly be in bad shape. It’s you and Doug with your fear that are putting a handle on this and holding this whole thing up.’
I was too frozen with despair to think of a reply. ‘Well, okay,’ I said mechanically and hung up.
The next morning Matthew was in the same awful condition. I called June and repeated my description of his face and eyes. She suggested that I not call her so often. ‘Now I’m always glad to get your reports. But you really don’t have to call so many times a day. I’m handling this case, and I won’t let up.’
On Tuesday morning Matthew’s old favourite, the garbage truck, rumbled by. I took him to the window and said ‘guck’ a few times, but he showed no comprehension or interest. I obeyed June’s wishes about not calling that day. There was nothing new to report anyway. Matthew had no more screams of pain. He just moaned incoherently.
We kept expecting the home aide to show up on our doorstep any minute. Late in the afternoon, a Mrs Schwaben called from Royal Oak and offered to come Friday and Saturday. I was appalled and begged her to come sooner. She finally said she thought she could make it on Thursday.
That evening I told June with forced cheer that she should be pleased since I hadn’t called her for ten hours. I told her that Matthew’s condition was unchanged: he still seemed deranged and delirious. His head seemed fixed to the right. June replied, ‘Christ is the head of the body.’ Also that evening she started in again on materia medica, though neither Doug nor I had mentioned it since Monday morning. The church needed to purify itself of wavering members who turned to materia medica. Sometimes these people were given high appointments. One had resorted to surgery. She wished I had come to her about my cyst problem because she had ‘seen so many of those cases healed’.
She advised us to ‘include Matthew in the daily activity’. We should put him on a blanket near us, set a favourite toy before him, and ‘give him something to strive for’. Tirelessly, Cathy played peekaboo with his favourite crocheted ‘blanky’. I coaxed him again and again with the familiar phrase, ‘Isn’t it wonderful what big sister do?’ He took no interest. It was clear something was horribly wrong. Why should he suddenly need to relearn how to grab a toy? Christian Science had accomplished something: the painful stiffness was gone from his spine. But if the healing was on its way, why was Matthew so deranged? How could a fever be that severe? How could this terrible illness come out of nowhere? I could not grasp any connections between the symptoms nor imagine any physiological cause. The mystery immobilized me with the Christian Science logic that the disease was purely a projection of my own ‘wrong thinking’. My despair about my mother’s mental illness had caused this strange mental illness to come upon my baby.
Wednesday morning I reported the same dreadful symptoms to June: endless moaning, gnashing of teeth, delirium.
‘Well, maybe he’s gritting his teeth because he’s planning some great achievement,’ she suggested. ‘Why don’t you take the positive interpretation of the evidence?’ Also, it was a ‘pacifier’ for children to moan when they were sick – nothing to be alarmed about.
By that time, Matthew was not swallowing. Mrs Ahearn weighed this issue legalistically. ‘Well, the Mother Church does say that if a patient is not eating, he can be given intravenous feeding, which would usually mean hospitalization. But I would say that as long as Matthew is able to take some nourishment, he should not be taken to a hospital. He must be able to swallow or the food would never go down.’
That afternoon he began having convulsions. I called June, then held him in my arms and talked to him until he finally relaxed. I called June back, thanked her for her help, and said how fortunate it was she had been home then. She offered to stop by with her husband after church that night. Doug and Cathy went to church, too, and got back to our house before the Ahearns. Doug told me that a member had testified to her son’s recovery from the symptoms of mononucleosis under Christian Science treatment.
The Ahearns arrived. June followed us up to Matthew’s room, where we found him thrashing his limbs about. She also wanted to tell me about the testimony, though she couldn’t remember the name of the disease.
‘Couldn’t we go into another room?’ I pleaded. ‘I don’t like this talk about sickness in Matthew’s room.’ But she paid no attention and babbled on about how sick the boy had been and about this wonderful Christian Science healing.
She turned to Matthew. ‘Well, hey, what a lot of progress here. Look how active he is. Everything looks lovely now.’ Then she added judiciously, ‘Except the head,’ as if Matthew were a piece of furniture.
‘Is there any intelligence directing that movement?’ I asked. My tone was level and not hostile, but inside I was desperate, wondering how she could call this picture ‘progress’.
‘Yes, if there’s movement, Divine Mind is directing it,’ she replied.
She was enthusiastic about how much better he looked now. ‘Why, on Sunday he was completely lethargic. He could hardly move.’ I remembered how wonderful she thought he had looked on Sunday, and I realized with sinking heart the cheapness of her words. ‘He’s trying to get up now,’ she said excitedly.
She sat down in the rocking chair where I had breastfed my child for eleven months, held him thousands of times, and shared the strongest bond of love we have on earth. A thin little smile was on her face. She had won. She was ready to tell us how she had done it.
‘Two claims particularly came to my thought,’ she said. ‘One was paralysis and the other was rheumatic fever.’ She had handled each of them very diligently, she told me.
I asked her to take Matthew from the crib, hold him, and give treatment for him in the room alone since she claimed our parental fears were the problem. As we left, I saw her trying to get him to stand on the floor. He was thrashing about frantically in all directions. He was no more able to coordinate the mental and physical skills of standing than June Ahearn could have flown to the moon.
The next morning Cathy came in and sat by Matthew on our bed for several minutes. Finally, she could stand it no longer. ‘My brother is going crazy,’ she said and turned sadly away. She had been such a brave Christian Scientist until then. I waited for better news as long as I could and then called June with the same old story. Matthew was moaning incoherently, deranged and delirious.
‘Well, how mentally active was Matthew before?’ she asked impatiently.
The question tore my heart out. Matthew had always been such a bright, happy, robust boy. He banged on the piano so enthusiastically that his chubby bottom left the bench. He slid down the stairs on his tummy at top speed. He climbed the ladder of the highest slide all by himself. He flooded our days with the ecstasy of discovery and achievement, desire and fulfilment. Now, suddenly, he had lost recognition of everything. We didn’t know how or why. But to ask how ‘mentally active’ he was before he got sick! I managed to control my anguish enough to say that he had always been very bright.
‘I never knew him very well,’ June replied indifferently.
That was an understatement. She’d never had children of her own. Judging by her perception of Matthew, she seemed to assume that all babies were irrational and uncoordinated. She had no concept that a fifteen-month-old child would act differently from a newborn infant.
She turned to a new subject. ‘Maybe Matthew has a broken bone in his neck. I remember you said he fell off the bed once.’ She then pointed out that Christian Scientists were allowed to have bones set by a doctor.
I didn’t think that was Matthew’s problem, but expressed interest nonetheless.
‘Don’t tell them about the fever and all this other,’ she advised. ‘Just say that he fell off the bed and you’d like him checked for a broken bone.’
Something snapped inside me. At last there was a legitimate way to get Matthew to a doctor. We could do something besides wait for the nurse, who had just called to say that she couldn’t make it on Thursday after all, and grovel before June Ahearn. We called a paediatrician in the phone book for an appointment; his receptionist recommended we go to a hospital.
Doug drove me and the children to St John’s Hospital. I walked into the emergency room with Matthew in my arms. Without question or comment, someone led me past the desk and the many other people waiting for treatment to an examining room. In less than a minute, six nurses were surrounding Matthew.
A doctor asked how long Matthew had been this way, ‘not responding’. His voice was kind; he only wanted information. But I stared at him in shock and could not say anything. Really, Matthew had not been responding for twelve days.
‘How could life be that simple?’ I thought. A child who is sick should be made well. Was I really allowed to take account of my baby’s suffering and do something about it? A strong conviction swept over me that what we had been through under Christian Science did not have to be tolerated. Finally I stammered out my prepared statement that I wanted him checked for a broken bone.
After several tries, I reached June Ahearn with our news. ‘I didn’t tell you to take him to the hospital,’ she practically shrieked. Her biggest concern was that the church would accuse her of suggesting medical treatment.
When I returned to Matthew, a Dr Sharon Knepfler asked us questions. Eventually we confessed we were Christian Scientists, as it was the only explanation for allowing our child’s health to deteriorate to this point.
When Dr Knepfler came back, she told us she believed Matthew had meningitis. He had a brain abscess, extreme pressure within the brain, and haemorrhaging out the eyes. It was the most profound shock of my life to hear her and a Dr Gunderson explain how this disease was causing all the symptoms we had seen. I finally understood that disease was a physical fact with physical explanations.
The doctors asked us to sign papers consenting to neurosurgery that would relieve pressure on the brain. It sounded horrible. Doug asked if we could have an hour to drive out to our practitioner’s house and discuss it with her. Dr Knepfler didn’t think we had that much time, and finally she said they would go to the courts to secure an order for surgery. We assumed the courts would grant the order, our practitioner was furious with us, and we wanted help for Matthew, so we signed.
I called June back with this news. She immediately dropped the case, as the church orders practitioners to do, but the malice about it was her own: ‘This just shows your temptation to resort to materia medica that I have seen all along. Now I thought we had worked that out, but evidently we hadn’t. I think this is something you and Doug have done on your own.’
I told her of the potential court order, and she said the doctors were ‘vindictive’. She also asked what their diagnosis was. I was very upset that she expected such information after she had refused to pray for him. Christian Science practitioners claim they don’t need to learn anything from medical science, but they were all eager enough to pick up bits of information from our experience.
She offered to pray for ‘the family’, but not for Matthew, as if she could separate one from the other. June Ahearn looked like a vicious maniac to me now, and I didn’t want her praying for us. But I was still afraid of her, so I hung up without commenting on her offer.
Dr Knepfler had arranged a room near the operating room where our practitioner could be with us to pray for Matthew. As the evening wore on, it became increasingly obvious that no practitioner was coming. We were too afraid of Christian Science to explain to her what had happened. Finally Dr Knepfler said, ‘I know something else I could do for you. We have a priest who knows about all the different religions. Would you like him to be with you?’ We said we would.
The neurosurgeon found ‘a very advanced case of meningitis’ with ‘multiple brain abscesses’ and ‘a generalized infection throughout the brain’. He did not think Matthew would ‘make it’, he said. We went home and took turns praying through the night. We were on our own now.
The next morning Doug called June and asked her to discontinue her ‘treatment for the family’, which was distasteful to us both. June said patronizingly that she wouldn’t tell anyone that we took Matthew to a hospital.
We then called Jeanne Laitner to obtain the phone number of Mr Dean Joki, sole member of the local Christian Science Committee on Publication. Jeanne asked if we had said ‘a lot about Christian Science’ at the hospital. Then she asked, ever so casually, as if she couldn’t have cared less, ‘Did they give it a name?’
We called the number we’d been given and explained the situation to Mr Joki’s secretary. She advised, ‘I think the main thing to handle is fear, because of all those claims the medical people would try to put on him.’
The next day, Mr Joki phoned us. He talked about the advantages of having a practitioner continue prayer for the family.
Doug told him, ‘I am very repentant that I let that poor baby suffer on under Christian Science as long as I did. He couldn’t even swallow or blink his eyes.’
‘Oh, come now,’ Mr Joki snapped, ‘that kind of resentment isn’t going to heal anything.’
We still brought our Christian Science books to our comatose child in the intensive care unit. We read, whispered, prayed, and cried over him for hours every day, whether our church believed it was right or not. I still hoped that some practitioner would be willing to pray for Matthew, especially since we were under threat of a court order. Saturday night I called a practitioner named Robert Jeffrey, whom I knew as a religious counsellor at Wayne State University. I spent about forty-five minutes begging him to take Matthew’s case. He declined. He said the only kind of prayer he knew how to pray was Christian Science prayer, which would work against the assumptions of the doctors.
On Tuesday an EEG showed almost no activity left in Matthew’s brain and ‘irreversible brain damage’. The doctors took him off two of his four medications since he didn’t ‘need them anymore’. The idea came to me that I might be able to persuade them to take Matthew off the other two drugs also and then if Matthew were not getting any medication, I might be able to persuade a Christian Science practitioner to pray for him.
I called Robert Jeffrey back. Still he refused to pray for Matthew, this time because of the respirator. I was surprised. I argued that no one was expecting a respirator to heal Matthew. But Mr Jeffrey said that, if he took the case, he would have to know the baby’s life was not dependent upon chemicals or machines; it was dependent only on God. He also voiced concern about who would get the credit for a healing if a Christian Science practitioner prayed for a patient under medical care. He argued that Matthew was surrounded by conflicting minds in the hospital, whereas Mrs Eddy says we should be alone with God and the sick when treating disease.
‘Jesus healed people in crowds,’ I replied.
‘Yes, he did,’ Mr Jeffrey retorted, ‘and he healed the ones who were willing to make some sacrifices to get to him. Like the palsied man; his friends climbed up on the roof and lowered him on ropes to get him to Jesus. You have to be willing to make a fool of yourself in the eyes of the world to get help from Christian Science. You have to be willing to incur the opprobrium of the world to stand up for your religious convictions.’
That morning Dr Knepfler had seen me coming to Matthew’s bed with my Christian Science literature in hand. ‘Is your church giving you any support yet?’ she asked softly. I was still afraid of depriving Matthew of any good thing Christian Science might yet do for him, so I lied a ‘yes’. Now, winding up my fruitless pleading with Mr Jeffrey, I related the incident to him, and said I really wondered if my church was giving us any support.
He defended the church. ‘We’re giving you the only support there really is by turning you back to God.’
An hour later, he called us. He said he would ‘rather err on the side of mercy’ and take the case just for the night, if we would come to his office for a conference the next day. We agreed and thanked him warmly.
At his office on Wednesday, Mr Jeffrey argued for our getting Matthew off the respirator and out of the hospital. ‘Look at Karen Quinlan’s case,’ he said. ‘The doctors thought she couldn’t survive without a respirator. If there’s one exception to a law, it isn’t a law, and yet they say medical science has laws.’
Taking Matthew out of the hospital at that stage made no sense to us. ‘Would you just get all prayed up, march into the hospital, and insist on taking the baby out?’ I asked doubtfully.
‘Oh, I can’t tell you what to do,’ he answered with a bland smile.
He was, however, setting a very high price for giving his prayers. Like June Ahearn, he used the example of a person hanging over a cliff and demanded that we let go of the branch. We had to give up every shred of faith in chemicals and machines to get help from Christian Science. But he never made any professions of his own faith. He did not promise he could heal Matthew if we staged a showdown with the hospital. As we stood up to go, Mr Jeffrey reminded us that he was dropping the case. ‘I cannot work with all those minds,’ he said.
Matthew died at about 1 a.m., 7 July 1977.
Our neighbours and colleagues gave us the first persuasive glimmer of divine mercy in the awful nightmare. We had to face them and take responsibility for the defeat of our beliefs and our love. Erecting no punitive barriers, they shared our grief. They took up a collection, raising $600 to help us with our medical bills, for which we, of course, had no insurance because we had been taught that buying insurance conceded that disease and death were real.
By contrast, the primary issue for local Christian Scientists was the threat to their church. Their theology prevented them from helping a church member with his ‘material need’ for money or even from sending flowers to a funeral – which could, of course, also not take place in the church building. The rhetoric was purely defensive, especially from the church power brokers.
Matthew’s first two practitioners both phoned after his death. June Ahearn professed her shock at the news, justifying herself once more for dropping the case, bemoaning the way ‘materia medica really can scare you’, and insisting that ‘Matthew did have relief when I was working for him; the pain left his spine.’ Jeanne Laitner, who had declined our invitation to attend Matthew’s funeral, called in September. Tenaciously, she clung to the ‘progress’ she had seen that Tuesday night and heard of on Wednesday morning after she had demanded I ‘put the good news first’ in order to get a healing.
We never set foot in a Christian Science church again, except to ask for our membership to be withdrawn a few days after Matthew’s death. It was three months before the church agreed to do so, and they made many efforts to talk us out of leaving. ‘Just grit your teeth and forget about this,’ Bill Laitner, Jeanne’s brother-in-law, said the day after Matthew died. ‘Didn’t the doctors tell you he had something terminal?’ asked the Board Chairman in surprise. Surely Matthew’s death in the hospital was evidence that medical science couldn’t heal him either. ‘Six or eight children’ had died in a meningitis epidemic forty miles away, despite ‘the best medical treatment in the world’. Christian Science had healed a boy of meningitis in an adjacent suburb. The Christian Scientists were instant experts on meningitis.
Church members called us to give accounts of others who had lost children. We needed to be shaken out of our myopic self-pity. We learned that both Robert Jeffrey and Dean Joki had lost children. Mrs Jeffrey’s grief had caused a dire skin condition that took her six years to heal, but ‘she was willing to work it out in Science’. Her disease was cited as evidence that I needed ‘Science now like [I’d] never needed it before’. Dean Joki provided an even more stolid model of fidelity. He had come to a church Board meeting the very day his son died and didn’t tell the church about his loss.
Another tactic of the church members was to reassure us that they weren’t critical of us. They never dared explain what they weren’t critical of – that we had failed to demonstrate Christian Science, or that we had taken Matthew to doctors. Three practitioners enjoined us not to give up on the arithmetic book just because it was taking us longer than others to work the problems.
The rhetoric from the Christian Scientists always missed the main point, which our friends in other faiths could sense immediately: we had lost our son. That fact was more important to us than whether the church criticized or forgave us, whether hundreds of medical patients died of meningitis, whether Christian Science was a foolproof panacea or littered with tragedies.
I remember Matthew putting my finger on a light switch when he was unable to turn it on himself. I remember him trying to stretch his arms up to us while he lay delirious with fever. ‘That little boy trusted me for everything,’ I said to many Christian Scientists who called. They all rejected our idea of parental obligation. One even spoke of the ‘old parents’ syndrome’ as a false belief we had to abandon.
As it turned out, the story of the ‘little boy’ whom Christian Science healed of meningitis was the final push that helped us overcome the efforts to keep us in the Church.
I inquired to the Christian Science Reading Room in the town where the meningitis healing had supposedly taken place, and a week later the mother called me with her story. Her son Danny had contracted a viral meningitis when he was seventeen years old. Because his father was not a Christian Scientist, Danny was taken to the hospital after several days of illness. He was put in a dark room and fed glucose. Jeanne Laitner continued with Christian Science treatment because he was not on medication. The mother believed that this treatment, declaring the unreality of disease, thwarted the doctors’ efforts to grow a culture. She also believed that Christian Science rescued Danny from a usually fatal phase of the meningitis and made medication unnecessary before they got to the hospital.
It was a bewildering testimony. Danny’s treatment sounded so different from what we had been told by Matthew’s doctors. I had to know whether Christian Science had indeed healed this case of meningitis. Maybe Matthew’s death was our fault for not being pure enough.
I went to the Wayne State Science Library and read about meningitis in a pathology textbook. Matthew’s meningitis was caused by a bacterium, Haemophilus influenzae. Danny’s was an aseptic viral meningitis, which is not treated with antibiotics and usually has a much more benign course. News of Danny’s recovery had been spread through the church as proof that Christian Science could have healed Matthew, but the comparison was pure fraud. I was so relieved that I sat on the floor in the stacks labouring through the medical terminology several times more. I knew then that we were out of Christian Science forever.
The knowledge gained from the textbook encouraged us to discuss our experience with doctors and learn more. We now think Matthew’s persistent problem with his left knee was caused by infection, and that his first three severe fevers were evidence of an invasion by Haemophilus influenzae and an upper-respiratory infection that later caused meningitis.
Matthew was the substance of our dreams, and we are incomplete without him. There was, though, a kind of courage in his pristine ecstasy and love that remains a guiding star to develop new values to live by. Shaking off the isolation and grovelling subservience of our previous religion, we mustered the courage to take our seven-year-old daughter for her first immunizations. We try to live in the present. We work for the changes in child protection laws that are possible and keep involved with broader concerns of the community too. A baby daughter has recently joined us with her own precious ways of commemorating Matthew. He has left a generous legacy.
In 1979, the year my mother wrote this account, my parents appeared on ‘Donahue’, then the most watched daytime talk-show in the U.S. As far as we know, they were the first parents to speak voluntarily in public about losing a child because of their religious beliefs, and the response was overwhelming. Of the six hundred letters they received, the admonitions and threats were greatly outnumbered by letters of sympathy, several of which urged them to start an organization and pledged emotional and financial support for the idea. My parents went on to form a non-profit organization, Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (www.childrenshealthcare.org).
CHILD works in coalition with state organizations to advocate laws that require all parents to provide necessary medical care for children regardless of their religious beliefs. So far its campaigning has helped bring about improvements in the child-protection laws of fourteen U.S. states. My mother still continues with this work, testifying before state legislatures, offering support to others who have left a faith-healing religion, assisting with child-abuse investigations and publishing articles in scholarly journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine, Pediatrics, Advances in Pediatrics, and Quinnipiac Health Law Journal. — MS
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 37 Winter 2009–10