An Interview with Lucia Greenhouse about her memoir, fathermothergod
Q: How old were you when your parents became Christian Scientists? Did you attend church with them regularly?
A: My parents converted to Christian Science before my earliest memory, so for me, my family's religion was something immutable, constant. For my parents, however, their conversion marked what could only be described as a radical departure, especially for my mother: her father was a doctor, her mother had been a registered nurse, and her brother was a plastic surgeon.
To hear them tell it, my father was first introduced to Christian Science as a boy during World War II, when his family was living in Fort Worth, Texas, where his stepfather was stationed in the Army. My grandmother - whose own mother had "dabbled in Christian Science" earlier in the century - enrolled my father in the local Christian Science Sunday school when my father began having terrible recurring nightmares.
Many years later, when my sister, brother and I were small children, our parents "turned to Christian Science" because a pediatrician said that my brother "had weak ankles and bad asthma, and might never lead an active boy's life." Within a few days of contacting a Christian Science practitioner, Sherman was "healed." As a child, this family lore was for me unquestionable truth.
I attended Christian Science Sunday school every week without fail. While my cousins, who were not Christian Scientists, got to plant bean seeds in Dixie Cups and watch them sprout at the Episcopal Sunday School, we studied the weekly Bible lesson, whose subject might be "Love" or "God" or "Probation after Death." The most daunting of all Weekly Bible Lessons was "Ancient and Modern Necromancy, alias Mesmerism and Hypnotism, Denounced." It came up in the cycle of Bible Lessons twice a year, and each time it did, our Sunday school teacher spent the better part of the hour trying, in vain, to parse its meaning for us while we struggled, with glazed eyes and fidgety fingers, to pay attention.
Wednesday evening testimony meetings were a "special treat" that ended with a trip to Baskin Robbins and a later bedtime.
Q: You got chicken pox as a child. What did your parents tell you was wrong with you? How did that square with what you had learned in school about germs?
A: Did I get chicken pox? According to my parents, I did not get chicken pox. The itchy blisters were error, an illusion, unreal, like a mirage: the image of water shimmering in the arid desert. And the spots, which we were told weren't itchy - even though they itched like crazy - were likewise not contagious, because there was no such thing as contagion. (Curiously though, my sister's non-bout preceded mine by several days). What my parents were telling me didn't square with what I was learning in school and on television (Lysol kills germs, but I knew there was no such thing as germs.) Over time I began to question these contradictions, but not as a young child. That I ended up with only a few spots, and my sister suffered with significantly more, was evidence to me only that my understanding of Man's God-given perfection was greater than my sister's.
Q: Your father was a Christian Science practitioner. What is a practitioner?
A: When a Christian Scientist is faced with a problem (for example an illness or injury; unemployment; a shaky marriage;) instead of paying a visit to a doctor or a therapist or minister (there are no clergy in the Christian Science Church), he or she will engage the services of a Christian Science practitioner, who will pray for a healing on the patient's behalf. He or she (Christian Science was an early, equal opportunity calling) will suggest readings from the Bible and the Church's textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. He will counsel the patient on ways to better understand Man's true nature as the perfect Child of God, which cannot be sick. Together, they may sing hymns from the Christian Science hymnal. The fees for being treated by a Christian Science practitioner are determined by the individual healer, but range generally, from $15 to $75 per day.
The mission of Christian Science, according to the Church, is to restore the healing practices of the early Christians. Christian Scientists eschew medical care, so the role of a Christian Science practitioner is perhaps best understood as analogous to the role of a medicine man in certain tribal societies, with a few notable differences: the cost of treatment by a Christian Science practitioner is tax-deductible, and a note from a Christian Science practitioner can, in some jurisdictions, excuse a "patient" from jury duty.
Q: I was surprised to learn that there are Christian Science boarding schools. Why don't Christian Scientists just go to regular boarding schools?
A: Christian Scientists are fully integrated into mainstream society, so they do go to regular boarding schools, and public schools and private schools. But there is also the option of a Christian Science education. For three years I attended Claremont, an all-girls boarding school for Christian Scientists outside of London, England with my sister; my brother attended a nearby Christian Science boarding school for boys called Fan Court. My sister also studied at Principia, a co-ed Christian Science boarding school in St. Louis, MO. Principia College, in nearby Elsah, IL is an accredited four-year liberal arts college for Christian Scientists.
In my memoir, fathermothergod, I remark about the extraordinary fact that in my three years at Claremont, I do not recall a serious illness or accident among the student body. There was not a nurse on campus or a doctor on call (but there was ready access to Christian Science practitioners.) I do not remember stomach viruses or even nasty colds scourging the dormitories.
However, the same cannot be said about Principia College. In 1985, there was an outbreak of measles on the campus, and three people died. The same year, there was another outbreak of measles at a camp for Christian Scientists, and while there were no deaths, the threat to public health was real, as the outbreak in both cases occur red among an unimmunized population.
Q: You describe being gradually cut off from your mother as she grew increasingly ill. And your father also limited access to her. Why?
A: In Christian Science, there is a concept known as "mental malpractice" which stipulates that the negative, evil, or ignorant thoughts of one person can negatively impact the health of an-other. For this reason, when a Christian Scientist becomes ill, it is common practice that he or she removes himself mentally and physically from the company of others, especially those who are not sympathetic to Christian Science. My mother spent several months at Tenacre, a Christian Science nursing facility in Princeton, New Jersey. At first, we were allowed to visit. As my mother grew sicker and sicker - despite the fact that she was being "treated" by another journal-listed Christian Science practitioner and teacher in addition to my father - my brother and sister and I were allowed less and less contact with her. Phone calls were restricted. Eventually, our visits were curtailed altogether, as we were thought to be part of the problem, a cause of our mother's illness.
Q: Your uncle, Ham, was also a Christian Scientist. But then he left the faith. Why?
A: A favorite "uncle" of mine, Ham Lynch, was brought into Christian Science by my father, when I was about eight years old. Some ten years later, Ham withdrew his membership, when he noticed that relatively young Christian Scientists - fifty to sixty year olds - were "dropping like flies," yet nobody would discuss it. His departure from the church drove a wedge between Ham and my parents.
Q: What is it about Christian Science that is so attractive to some people? Do you have any theories?
A: I often ask myself what explains the appeal of Christian Science to educated, intelligent people today. How is it that Henry Paulson - former Chairman of Goldman Sachs and Secretary of the Treasury charged with bringing our country back from the brink of fiscal ruin - believes in the fundamental precepts of a Christian Science: namely, that "there is no life, truth, intelligence or substance in matter..." and that "matter is unreal?" The fascination with Christian Science at the end of the nineteenth century makes some sense. Mary Baker Eddy's "discovery" of this science of Christian healing came at a time when the culture was abuzz with the power of the mind, hypnotism and the like. (Hypnotists and mesmerists crisscrossed the countryside of New England like traveling sales men). Transcendentalism - also a product of New England, had made its appearance just decades before. And of course, medical science was still quite primitive. The first x-ray image of a human body part was not taken until 1895, in Germany, and the discovery of penicillin was still a quarter of a century away.
While the Church does not make public information about the size of its membership, it is widely believed to be dropping precipitously. Comparing the number of branch churches listed in the Christian Science Journals of twenty-five years ago to the listings today is one indication of a church in decline, as is the number of journal-listed practitioners. But the websites of the Church paint an entirely different picture.
Interestingly, while the number of branch churches in the United States is falling, Christian Science has made some in roads in other parts of the world. For example, there are three new Christian Science boarding schools in Africa, which makes me wonder if there hasn't been a calculated shift on the part of the Christian Science headquarters to focus on developing countries, where quality healthcare is not readily available. Here in the United States, the Church has attempted to position its methods as an alternative to traditional medicine, along the lines of acupuncture or homeopathy. Its lobbying arm has aggressively pursued the inclusion of Christian Science treatments in Obama's healthcare plan.
But why, when I recently attended a Wednesday noon testimony meeting at the Mother Church in Boston (the Christian Science Headquarters), did I find that young, vibrant, articulate adults, men and women of all ethnicities, were well-represented in the congregation? One reason is that the main offices of the Christian Science Monitor are right across the street, and while church membership is not a prerequisite for employment, many Christian Scientists do work there. But as I sat and listened to the service (which, given my history, might have unnerved me but surprisingly didn't: the service was an oasis of tranquility and silence in the center of bustling Boston) it occurred to me that the Church may be hoping, and positioning itself, as a "low-cost" alternative to medicine, in this current climate of economic uncertainty.
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