Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
A Conversation with Jodi Picoult
Q: Genetic screening of fetuses is certainly a highly debated issue right
now. Why did you choose to include it in your story? What are your opinions
about this controversial topic? Should parents be able to choose the kinds of
children that they want, within reason?
A: I don't think you can discuss eugenics -- the science of breeding better humans -- unless you consider what it's evolved into. When I was doing research for Second Glance, I was stunned to learn that the home of the American Eugenics Society in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, most recently housed the Human Genome Project. That just seemed remarkably coincidental to me...unless you consider the science behind the two projects: two very admirable scientific endeavors that -- by their very nature -- also have a very slippery slope of moral choices tied to them. I am personally a supporter of stem cell research and gene therapy -- there are too many diseases that could be permanently cured, and too many lives that could be physically improved for me to think otherwise. However, I also realize that you can't think about genetic replacement therapy without wondering what we're going to decide needs replacing -- a cancer cell, of course, we'd all vote to remove...but what about one that makes a baby deaf? What about one that predetermines frailness or short stature or a lack of strength? Is a child who has the potential for heart disease in later life one that you would consider aborting...when it's possible that that particular gene might never manifest itself? It's not too far a leap to a race of genetically engineered humans, and that's a very unsettling thought. What I wanted to illustrate with Second Glance is the acknowledgment that although genetic engineering is an amazing technological advance, there are emotions and moral judgments attached to the science. No matter what side of the debate you're on, people should be talking about it, and carefully weighing each other's opinions -- or we just might end up with the same sort of narrow-minded definition of what makes a "good human" that we saw during the eugenics projects of the 1930s.
Q: Second Glance delves into a very ugly chapter in American history and one that is probably not well known: Vermont's eugenics project of the 1920s and 30s. Tell us about this project and how you learned about it.
A: I have to admit, I learned about it by accident. I was intent on writing a ghost story, and my search for a fictional ghost led me to the Abenaki Indians in Vermont, who often protest development because they allege the land is an ancient burial ground. I started doing a little research on the Abenaki, and found an article from the Boston Globe that discussed the Vermont eugenics project and its effect on the Abenaki, as chronicled in the thesis of a woman named Nancy Gallagher. The more I read, the more stunned I was: In the 1920s and 30s in Burlington, Vermont, a bunch of very progressive thinkers -- doctors, lawyers, university professors -- decided to preserve the state's rural charm by getting rid of the people they didn't think fit the bill...namely, people who weren't white, Protestant Yankees. They began by organizing a survey that mapped out extended "degenerate" families they felt were a drain on the economy, due to repeat stints in poorhouses and mental institutions and prisons. Often, these were Abenaki Indians, French Canadians, and indigent folks. Eventually, a law was passed that supported voluntary sterilization of these individuals. Unfortunately, "voluntary" was not always a matter of free will -- in many cases, only two doctors had to sign off on a case to make it happen. Hundreds of Abenaki Indians and others were sterilized before funding dried up in the late 1930s -- thanks to the Nazis, who credited American eugenics programs with laying the groundwork for their own plans for racial hygiene.
Well, reading this now, you probably feel a bit like I did -- shocked that this happened only seventy years ago, shocked that it happened in America, and shocked that I didn't know about it before. But what really resonated in me was that it continues to happen: Today's debate over mapping the human genome and cloning and gene replacement therapy addresses many of the same issues that were raised by scientists who supported eugenics years ago. I wanted to explore the idea that all sorts of things come back to haunt you -- including history. And I wanted to show that the scientists of the 1920s and 30s were not evil Dr. Frankensteins, but rather progressive thinkers who truly believed they were doing the right thing at that moment. Yet at the same time I wanted to remind people that just because science is measurable and verifiable doesn't mean it's something we should automatically believe in.
When I was doing my research, I found many prickly people. From historians who worried about reopening this can of worms, to Abenaki who wanted to know why, as a white, I thought I had the right to tell this story. I wasn't always sure that I was doing the right thing. In the end, I have always believed that the job of a writer is to make people question their beliefs, and while I am not judging either the eugenicists or the Abenaki in this book, I think people deserve to know what happened, even if it's been coated in a fictional tale. I did not tell this story for the shock value. I told it because I had to.
Q: "Could you love someone so much that, even without meaning to, you hurt them?" This question comes from Ross, early on in the novel. Do you think there is ever such a thing as loving too much? At what point does love become harmful?
A: Gosh, yes, I do believe that this happens all the time. People are constantly hurting the folks they love the most -- by suffocating them with attention, or by not giving them the freedom to grow up and learn who they are, or by thinking they know what's best for the other person and realizing too late this wasn't the case. There are a million and one examples of relationships that have been smothered by too much love, rather than too little. I'd say that love becomes harmful when you keep telling yourself that you've put your loved one first...but in reality, everything you do and say is really about you, and your own fear of being left behind or lost.
Q: In addition to your intensive research into this period of Vermont history, you also conducted a lot of research in ghost hunting or paranormal activity. Is ghost hunting for real? Did you actually go on a ghost hunt?
A: Like I said, the ghost story element came first. And to tell you the truth, I thought I might be able to fudge some of the ghost stuff, instead of being the research guru I tend to be. But then I realized I would indeed hear from every reader in the country who has seen a ghost to tell me I got it all wrong, and I decided I'd try to find someone who could, with authority, tell me about ghost hunting. I looked on the Internet, and found the Atlantic Paranormal Society (www.the-atlantic-paranormal-society.com), or TAPS, and left an email for each of the founders. I figured it might take a while to find someone who believed in ghosts, but no, I had responses from all of the guys within hours. Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson were more than happy to speak to me about paranormal investigation. They suggested that I come down to Rhode Island, where they are based, so that they could take me out on a ghost hunt.
This was particularly interesting. I mean, here I was telling my children at night there's no such thing as ghosts...but dressing in black and heading out to an abandoned New England mental institution in the dead of a January night with a bunch of paranormal investigators. The building was boarded up -- it had been the pool room, and I could see the empty in-ground pool full of leaves and debris. In the background, too, I saw what looked like fireflies -- something the paranormal investigators said were globules, or energy changing form. Afterward, we walked across a field where one of the buildings had burned to the ground, with patients inside. I was walking with a sensitive (someone who can "feel" ghosts). It was very cold out, and very clear, and our breath was visible in front of us. Suddenly all the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Before I could even mention this to my walking buddy, he lifted a digital camera and held it up between our shoulders, backward. Although, to the naked eye, nothing was behind us, in the viewfinder of the camera was a misty white wraith. A ghost hunter will tell you that sometimes ghosts can affect film or digital photography because of heat or magnetic energy.
From here we went on a real, live, ghost-hunting call. A couple just over the border in Massachusetts had -- they thought -- a ghost. They wanted TAPS to come confirm it. What truly impressed me about this group was that they made fun of themselves plenty -- Ghostbusters jokes abounded -- and they didn't charge their "clients." No one, they believed, should be penalized for having a ghost; in my mind, it meant they weren't out to find something just for the money.
The house was small, and the bumps and thumps the inhabitants had heard were in the attic, a small third-floor room with a little door and a padlock. The TAPS guys gave me the only key, and then set a video camera up in the middle of the attic. Often this way they will catch something -- more globules, noise, voices. The attic was swept absolutely clean; there was nothing paranormal to be seen. I was the last one out of the room, and I padlocked it behind me, then slipped the key into my pocket. As the others went downstairs to talk, I checked in the bedrooms of the couples' two children -- both were sleeping comfortably in cribs, in rooms that were completely clean and orderly. Downstairs, the couple described hearing calliope music at 2:00 A.M., only to find a child's toy piano on the attic stairs. Coming home and finding all the faucets running or the cereal boxes knocked out of the cabinets, contents spilled. Rooms that got, suddenly, twenty degrees colder. After listening for a while, I said I was going back upstairs. Again, I ducked into the room of the first child. Now, lining the carpet on the edge of the crib, there were six pennies that had not been there before, all dated between 1968 and 1973. I picked them up and put them in my pocket and went into the next child's room to find the same thing -- six pennies, all dated between those years. Finally I went to the attic, took out the key, unlocked the padlock, and flipped on the lights to find a handful of pennies beneath the video camera, all dated between 1968 and 1973. I can't tell you that there was a ghost there, but I can tell you that if you look in your wallet, you'll be hard-pressed to find a single penny with that date on it, much less twenty-five.
Q: On your website, in an author's note about this book, you say that you had wanted to write a ghost story for a long time. What is it about this particular genre that appealed to you? Is there something about the world of the paranormal that you thought would make for a rich metaphor? Do you believe in ghosts yourself?
A: What I love about ghosts is that -- like most things in our lives -- they come back to haunt us. I thought tying this into a piece of historical fiction where that was also the case would be great fun. It wasn't the gothic, frightening ghost story I wanted to write, but the one that makes even the dubious reader think, "Well, now that she put it that way, I suppose it makes a certain sort of sense."
Do I believe in ghosts? Well, I believe there is a lot in this world we don't understand. And that seeing ghosts is often an all-or-nothing thing; people don't believe until they see one, and then -- bam! -- they're convinced. Did I see Casper, personally? Nope. But I did see things I could not reasonably explain, and that leads me to believe that ghosts are certainly possible. One of the most enjoyable parts of writing Second Glance was exploring the nature of belief. We're predisposed to think that if there isn't scientific proof, something doesn't exist. But science isn't always right...and proof can't always be measured in a beaker or a lab test. People say you can't believe in a ghost, because you can't see it or touch it or capture it. By that criterion, though, those people have to say that love doesn't exist, either...and yet most of us have experienced that in some form or another.
Q: Second Glance is a deft example of mixing fact with fiction and the present with the past. How did you so smoothly combine these elements in this novel?
A: When you write something with any sort of historical relevance there is such an awesome responsibility attached to it, a driving need to get it one hundred percent accurate. But in this case, especially, the theme of history repeating itself made diving into the past absolutely necessary. I had a very hard time deciding whether or not to use the names of some of the real players in the eugenics project -- like Harry Perkins, for example. He exists in the book, but as a character who is talked about and never met. The main cast is all imaginary, so that their issues and tangles and choices come from my imagination.
The fluidity between the past and the present was really based in the characters of Lia and Meredith. Lia's link is obvious, but Meredith's ties are more intellectual. As a preimplantation genetic diagnostician, she is the modern-day incarnation of yesterday's eugenicist: a woman who uses science to do good, by employing techniques that -- in the wrong hands -- could be devastating. While I was working on Second Glance I had a lot of arguments with a friend of mine, a medical researcher who does not support stem cell research. I do. The problem isn't the science, in my opinion; it's in who decides what's "normal" or "optimal" or "valuable." The eugenicist's desire to make the world a better place wasn't faulty in and of itself -- it was the way they chose to define "better" -- and this is the sort of work ethic I tried to instill in the character of Meredith. Her presence in this book was as a foil to the character of Spencer Pike: Readers could literally hold Meredith's comments about her work up to Spencer's actions and find it more difficult to dismiss him as an outright villain. It's easy to look at history with 20/20 hindsight and know that we made some pretty awful mistakes, it's another to read about history and to be reminded that in some capacity, we're on the verge of making the same mistakes today, if we aren't careful.
Q: At one point, Lia poses the question "[W]hen you don't admit out loud that something awful has happened, who is to say it ever did?" Say a little bit about the power of words in your novels. Do you think it is necessary for people to talk about their traumatic experiences to move on from them? What is the danger in just pretending that something never happened?
A: Back before I knew I was going to write novels for a living, I studied them as an English major. Some of the most incredible writers, to me, were the ones that said nothing at all and managed to get their points across. (Take a look at Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," for example -- a short story about abortion in which neither the word nor the operation itself is ever mentioned. Or Isak Dinesen's verbally rich short stories as compared to her biography, Out of Africa, in which she uses the sparsest language when discussing the greatest love of her life.) Now, when I write, there are always places where words break down -- places where what a character needs to communicate is simply too rich or too difficult to fit into the vessels that are words. Sometimes talking about an experience will dilute it, make it less powerful than it was -- such as the scene where Shelby literally loses the power of speech after she and Eli make love for the first time. Silences, in many spots of my books, are also the spots where the most happens to change a character -- and this is certainly the case for Lia Beaumont, who has an entire history that was never admitted aloud.
Q: Your novels certainly have met with great critical success. Do you have any sense of who your readers are? Are they ever in your mind as you write?
A: Oh, yeah, I know all of you, and I'm watching you when you flip to the last page to read the ending first! Just kidding. I don't write for my audience, I write for myself, because if I'm intrigued I know I'm going to get all of my readers intrigued, by default. It has been my good fortune, however, to have a following that allows me to go wherever the heck I want to go. There are mystery writers I know who feel very boxed in by their series character, or even by their genre. I'm lucky enough to be able to write about Amish for one book and then leap to witchcraft for another and then toss in some ghost hunting and then add a dollop of medical ethics...whatever suits my fancy at the time. I do think I have a good sense of my readers. I get hundreds of fan letters a week via email -- from both men and women -- and many devoted readers turn out to meet me at book signings. I think that my readers are people who like to exercise their brains -- they don't want to digest the same story over and over; they love a mix of mystery and drama and suspense and love story; they enjoy learning something they might not have known along the way -- and most importantly, they take my characters to heart as much as I do, often thinking about them long after the book's ended. I routinely say that I am the luckiest writer on the planet, because I really think I have the cream of the crop of available readers.
Q: In what ways was the experience of writing this book different from writing your other books?
A: Of all my books, this was the most technically difficult to write. First, there are a lot of characters, so many that at the beginning it can be confusing -- and I worried about that for the reader. I knew if they stuck with the book, it was all going to come clear, but there was a certain amount of juggling of point-of-view involved. Moreover, the plot itself felt like I was performing brain surgery -- setting up all these open plugs in the first part so that I could join them to their resolutions in the last part. There are so many twists and turns in Second Glance, and that was doubly difficult, because when you write about history there's a sense of inherent closure and expectation. You read the book, and you think you know what's coming...but in fact, you don't. What I've heard over and over about this particular book is: "I didn't know how you were going to pull all this off...but you did." I consider that a tremendous compliment!
Q: Do you ever imagine the future for the characters in your books? Where do you see the characters from Second Glance in ten years? Are they happy and healthy?
A: The interesting thing about this book is that in spite of the fact that it examines death from many angles, it feels pretty uplifting to me. I think we'd all like to think that Ethan gets cured -- maybe thanks to genetic diagnosticians like Meredith. That Shelby and Eli get married and live happily in Comtosook. In my mind, Ross puts the past to rest enough to focus on his future...one that includes Meredith and Lucy. And as for Lia? Well, I imagine her waiting on the other side when Az crosses over; and I like to think of them holding hands as they walk toward that light the paranormal investigators say we all have waiting for us.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Washington Square Press. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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