Dying the Christian Science way: the horror of my father’s last days
August 6, 2019 5:50 AM   Subscribe

Not just a personal story about Christian Science This is a Guardian long read, an excerpt from Caroline Fraser's book: God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church which is now coming out in a new 20th anniversary edition.

From the blurb in the second link: Caroline Fraser, herself raised in a Scientist household, traces the growth of the Church from a small, eccentric sect into a politically powerful and socially respectable religion. She takes us into the closed world of Eddy's followers, who reject modern medicine even at the cost of their children's lives. And she reveals just how Christian Science managed to gain extraordinary legal and congressional approval for its dubious practices.
posted by mumimor (29 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
The Monitor, the public face of the Church, has become a kind of zombie newspaper, laying off 30% of its staff in 2016.

I never understood this - The Christian Science Monitor seemed to be a well-respected newspaper, and I never heard of them running editorials arguing that the material world is an illusion or anything like that. It was owned by the Church, right? Why did they run it? Just to gain respectability?
posted by thelonius at 6:33 AM on August 6, 2019 [3 favorites]


It was owned by the Church, right? Why did they run it? Just to gain respectability?

In the early 1900s, newspapers would breathlessly report on the stories and scandals of the CS church (and many other organizations). Mary Baker Eddy thought that the best way to counter that was with a newspaper that would more or less ignore not just the salacious scandals of the CS church, but salacious scandals entirely. By putting "Christian Science" on the nameplate, the church would be associated with honest, sober journalism.
posted by Etrigan at 7:17 AM on August 6, 2019 [18 favorites]


This part had me in giggles with the weapons-grade shade thrown here:

Black argued that Eddy wanted to keep alive the possibility of defeating mortality, saying, “What would set us apart as a denomination more than raising the dead?” What indeed? Black himself has had ample opportunity to demonstrate it: he died in December 2011, and hasn’t been seen since.
posted by dr_dank at 7:49 AM on August 6, 2019 [14 favorites]


Some serious body horror in the description of her father's death, by the way. I can't imagine.
posted by emjaybee at 7:53 AM on August 6, 2019 [2 favorites]


Here in San Francisco, there are some large CS churches. Most of which are no longer churches as the congregations have died off and the church membership increasingly shrinks. But there is a sort of architectural afterlife as the large church in my neighborhood is now the headquarters of archive.org.
posted by njohnson23 at 8:21 AM on August 6, 2019 [5 favorites]


With an endowment of $680m, one official noted, “We are going to run out of kids before we run out of money. There just aren’t enough Christian Scientists on the planet.”

Yikes, well of course there aren't enough kids because of this organizations policies on just letting children die the second they get hint of illness.

But the reality of the existential crisis remained elusive to church officials. In 2005, Nathan Talbot and J Thomas Black, longtime church leaders who had promoted recklessly irresponsible policies encouraging the medical neglect of children, endorsed ambitious plans for raising the dead.

I just don't get why science is in the name, why even bring it up? Is it supposed to be ironic? Just a diversionary tactic to throw you off their nonsense trail?

Speaking of the more than 50 Christian Science parents or practitioners who have been charged with crimes for allowing children to suffer or die of treatable conditions, Davis promised that “the church of today would not let that happen”. Himself a practitioner, he breezily added that, “In the last year, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called to pray at a patient’s bedside in a hospital.”

This is the sort of thing that makes me against protections for religion. The public is paying for this shit!

On the phone, he wept often, sounding weak or faint. I tried to talk to him about the church’s loosening standards, but he was having none of it, saying a choice had to be made between God and Mammon.

Heartbreaking. The problem with this church, like so many others, is the marriage of God and Mammon. American Christianity is mammon first, god second. Jesus is only in there as a mascot, his teachings are too radical for most churches and people.

Sometime after his death, I dreamed about him. I was alone in a warehouse – a dark, menacing space – and in it my father had dissolved into a miasma, covering the floor with a kind of deadly, toxic slime. Somehow, I was tasked with the problem of cleaning it up, without ever touching it. It was, of course, impossible.

This is a horrifying image, but one that I think applies to too many circumstances today.
posted by GoblinHoney at 8:26 AM on August 6, 2019 [6 favorites]


This has always seemed to be such a strange interpretation of metaphysical dualism—they aren’t monists, in the sense they seem to want to be, since they eat food and recognize that the body can act from mental/metaphysical intentions in the physical world, but intervention to prevent the body from drastically failing in other ways is verboten? I’m a neo-Platonist in my intellectually tender moments, but it seems absurd to deny the experience of physicality regardless of whether it Exists in the independent sense that they argue the mind does. What the hell, I guess I mean.

I always presumed it was a serious case of the Empiricisms that prevented them from intervening in medical cases, that the body was all you get and so changing it in visible ways was going against the deity. But denying it as relevant while leaving food on the lips of the dying is just...bad metaphysics.
posted by zinful at 9:31 AM on August 6, 2019 [8 favorites]


I just don't get why science is in the name, why even bring it up? Is it supposed to be ironic? Just a diversionary tactic to throw you off their nonsense trail?
I think that when Eddy started the cult, science itself wasn't that clear a category. This was before antibiotics or safe surgery. Women were dying in childbirth all the time, and it was dangerous to go to the hospital because of all the infections. Lot's of crazy stuff was happening in the name of science. Maybe it made sense then, I find it really difficult to understand religions, and particularly new religions, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt given the context.
posted by mumimor at 9:34 AM on August 6, 2019 [2 favorites]


I don’t mean to sound like the mysteries of religion are inherently bad, by the way. But this perpetuation of suffering from an attempt at a complex system of argument which both doesn’t even work logically and is anti Christian denies their name twice, and offends this philosopher not because it’s in the name of god, but because it’s a grotesque twisting of both sides of the spiritual successors to this system.
posted by zinful at 9:36 AM on August 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


...Ashley King, who lay in bed for months with a tumour on her leg that grew to 104cm in circumference before she died, in June 1988.
Greater than a meter in circumference? Can that be accurate?

This article mentions the same case but describes the tumour as 'bigger than a basketball'.
posted by Evstar at 9:41 AM on August 6, 2019


Mrs Mars is paid to sing for a local Christian Scientist church. The church she originally sang for shut down after the membership had dwindled to just 5 members. It was not unusual for her to arrive on Sunday morning and sing to an empty room.

The people seem lovely, but always have terrible health issues and often rather alarming visible growths. I learned first hand what a goiter looks like, for example.
posted by Eddie Mars at 9:54 AM on August 6, 2019 [6 favorites]


Some of the core beliefs sound more interesting than I realised, but it’s impossible to disagree with zinful - they’ve been built on to create a system that makes no sense at all and seems wilfully damaging.
posted by Segundus at 9:57 AM on August 6, 2019


Greater than a meter in circumference? Can that be accurate?

Apparently so.
LA Times, Prayers, Parental Duty : Child Deaths Put Faith on Trial, Jun 27, 1989:
In Paradise Valley, Ariz., John and Catherine King are charged with felony child abuse for the June 5, 1988, bone cancer death of their 12-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Ashley King. According to prosecutor K. C. Scull, the girl’s parents relied solely on prayer to heal a leg tumor that ballooned to 41 inches in circumference and fractured her thigh in two places during her 7-month illness.
41 inches, 104.14 cm, considerably larger than a size 7 basketball - 29.5 in (75 cm).
posted by zamboni at 10:20 AM on August 6, 2019 [8 favorites]


My Grandmother was a member of the Church of Christ, Scientist. She suffered a broken leg playing volleyball in her 60s, and her refusal to allow doctors to do anything more than put it back in place resulted in a bowed leg and painful walking for the rest of her life. She lived to be 92, and in the final years of her life suffered immensely from congestive heart failure, for which she would accept only the barest treatment. Watching her die was immensely difficult.

(Aside: She was also very gentle and kind. She and Mr. Rogers shared a Pittsburgh accent that I'll always associate with kindness and compassion).

My Dad recognized the church for what it was, and although he didn't practice himself, he still carries with him an wariness of medical treatment that will harm him as he enters old age. And between a childhood lack of insurance, and my Dad's medical wariness (my Mom's too, although that was mostly a result of mental illness), it's rubbed of on me, too.

I'm getting better about going to doctors early when problems occur, and I'm certainly better about it than either of my parents. Even so, the church has inflicted harm that will last generations beyond its last adherents. Good riddance.
posted by Zuph at 10:21 AM on August 6, 2019 [11 favorites]


Christ, her poor father. A Paleolithic tribe would have looked after one of their own with more care and wisdom than he received.

Recently, I have sometimes had a chance for a long walk around the reflecting pool at the Christian Science headquarters. It's a beautiful place, and it's been under renovation. As I walked around it, I would think: is this okay? Am I complicit if I enjoy this? Now, I don't think I will anymore, unless some other entity buys it.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:24 AM on August 6, 2019


it was dangerous to go to the hospital because of all the infections

It still is. 1 in 4 surgical patients will get a infection from the hospital they are at.

Which is not to say you should avoid medicine. You just should know that medical intervention comes with a risk. Also you should try and be an outpatient as much as you possibly can.
posted by srboisvert at 10:30 AM on August 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


My father had a toe infection that caused a cascade of issues that ultimately resulted in his death. But he was never in pain and steps were taken to try to save him. I can't imagine how anyone calling themselves "Christian" could stand there and let someone die from something like this.
posted by tommasz at 10:37 AM on August 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


...Ashley King, who lay in bed for months with a tumour on her leg that grew to 104cm in circumference before she died, in June 1988.
Greater than a meter in circumference? Can that be accurate?

This article mentions the same case but describes the tumour as 'bigger than a basketball'.


A NBA basketball has a circumference of 74cm so a sphere that looks slightly larger than a basketball can very easily be a meter.

Remember visual circumference judgment is tricky and people do poorly at it. They also often confuse it with diameter.
posted by srboisvert at 10:37 AM on August 6, 2019 [6 favorites]


This part had me in giggles with the weapons-grade shade thrown here

I would highly recommend, then, also searching out any of Mark Twain's writing about Christian Scientists or Eddy.
posted by eviemath at 11:03 AM on August 6, 2019 [5 favorites]


Christian Science by Mark Twain.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:47 AM on August 6, 2019 [3 favorites]


Former Monkee Mike Nesmith is a Christian Scientist. He was raised in that church, which his mother joined after she experienced what she believed was a miraculous healing. I've read his autobiography, and he says that he uses both modern medicine and Christian Science healing and that one thing people don't understand about Christian Science is that it does not prohibit seeking medical care. Nesmith also got medical care after he had to cancel the final stops in a recent tour.

I'm not a member of the Christian Science church or even a fan of that religion, and I'm not saying that Mike Nesmith speaks for all Christian Scientists, but I would not take this one article by someone (understandably) angry at that church as the last word on it.
posted by FencingGal at 12:16 PM on August 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


In Paradise Valley, Ariz., John and Catherine King are charged with felony child abuse for the June 5, 1988, bone cancer death of their 12-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Ashley King. According to prosecutor K. C. Scull, the girl’s parents relied solely on prayer to heal a leg tumor that ballooned to 41 inches in circumference and fractured her thigh in two places during her 7-month illness.

Holy shit.

And you're right. I was confusing circumference and diameter.
posted by Evstar at 1:18 PM on August 6, 2019 [2 favorites]


I think that when Eddy started the cult, science itself wasn't that clear a category. This was before antibiotics or safe surgery. Women were dying in childbirth all the time, and it was dangerous to go to the hospital because of all the infections.

I actually read Science and Health, Christian Science's foundational text, as part of my grad degree, and it's striking how close Eddy comes to being right about stuff (but the margin by which she misses makes a lot of difference. She notes at one point that she used to practice homeopathy, and that often a patient would get better even though she had diluted the 'medicine' until it was nothing but water. The problem was that, at the time of her writing, the placebo effect was not a known phenomenon. So she's giving patients drops of water and telling them that it's medicine, and they're getting better! In the context of the knowledge she had available to her at the time, concluding that all sickness is actually a manifestation of the mind isn't all that outlandish of a response.

People pushing this stuff on their kids now, on the other hand, absolutely should know better.
posted by Ragged Richard at 6:44 PM on August 6, 2019 [4 favorites]


Christian Science is from right around the same time as homeopathy, when medicine, as it was, was at best a crap shoot, usually causing more harm than not. The death rate from infections from surgery was high, even if the surgeries were successful (they were reaching the point where they were starting to be). It was a good half-century before the germ theory and over a century away from antibiotics. They come from a time where doing something that did not actively harm the body was better than whatever the apprentice doctor who traveled the county might propose.

Both kill people these days. But if you understand them through the lens of the time in which they started, you can understand why they were popular at the time. Unfortunately, both long outlived their usefulness. And at least a homeopath won't tell you not to get surgery for a broken leg.
posted by Hactar at 6:48 PM on August 6, 2019 [3 favorites]


His foot fell off in early April

Just thinking about having to say or write this sentence is horrifying.
posted by bendy at 8:41 PM on August 6, 2019 [5 favorites]


this shit is covered by Medicare. Wtf.
posted by sio42 at 4:54 AM on August 7, 2019


It's very easy for any cult to say they don't "prohibit" things and another thing entirely to acknowledge the social pressures from within the cult that make accessing those things impossible.

This man allowed his foot to fall clean off rather than get medical care and died in unspeakable agony abetted by caretakers who did everything but take care of him. Just because they didn't physically restrain him to stop him from accessing medical care doesn't mean the whole philosophy isn't coercive.
posted by lydhre at 6:02 AM on August 7, 2019 [6 favorites]


I'm not saying that Mike Nesmith speaks for all Christian Scientists, but I would not take this one article by someone (understandably) angry at that church as the last word on it.
Bollocks to this. Nesmith is, at best, an apologist for a dangerous cult directly responsible for the preventable deaths of many, many people.
posted by uberchet at 6:52 AM on August 7, 2019 [6 favorites]


Nesmith is apparently practicing Christian Science Lite. Which is not all that different from the A-listers like Tom Cruise or Elisabeth Moss who practice Scientology Lite. Good for them I guess, but they're serving to legitimize the entire organization with their participation. Would they be worse if they were more actively proselytizing the more militant, aggressively metastasizing forms of their religion? Of course. There's always ways to be a shittier human being.

But "well yeah the people I hang out with do shitty stuff but I, personally have never done the really shitty stuff myself, I just, you know, like to hang out with them" is a pretty low bar. Zero points awarded.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:18 PM on August 7, 2019 [1 favorite]


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