Of Mice and Men: In Memoriam of Christopher Hitchens

This is a guest post by Anne Crumpacker. Anne is a former public school teacher with a passion for fostering critical thinking and innovation in young people. Her blog SocraticMama.com is a collection of snippets, treats, and tales chosen to nurture imagination and logic for both children and their grown ups.

Why did you decide it was important to ask a question of Hitchens?

Because I had just found out that he was dying, and he’s a brilliant man. And I felt that his knowledge of the world shouldn’t be wasted, and that someone should continue what he started.

Where will he go when he dies?

Nowhere.

Mason Crumpacker (center) with Christopher Hitchens (right)

The adults in the editorial office exchanged shocked looks. I don’t know what motivated the reporter to ask a nine-year-old such an indelicate question, but I do know that I am responsible for her brutal answer. As an atheist, I had taught my daughter that we all go “nowhere” when we die. And she understood that Christopher Hitchens would not be an exception.

In October our family attended the Texas Freethought Convention, where Richard Dawkins presented his eponymous award to Hitchens, then under treatment for stage four esophageal cancer. Hitchens was not slated to speak that night, but felt strong enough to make a few short remarks and field questions from the audience. My daughter Mason worked her way to the microphone and asked, “What books should I read?”

It was then that Hitchens, moved, asked to meet with her after the presentation, despite his obvious fatigue.

The story of their impromptu exchange began on Dr. Jerry Coyne’s blog Why Evolution is True and then went viral. Readers delighted in the “soft-side” of Hitchens, but they shouldn’t have been so amazed. Although “Hitch” had publicly cultivated an image of a biting social critic — privately he had three children of his own. I don’t know anything about Hitchens’ personal life or inner thoughts, but as a parent I hope he loved his children, his children loved him in return, and he had talked to them about his own belief that we go “nowhere” when we die. All responsible parents discuss mortality their children. It is our obligation when we bring them into this ephemeral mess called “life.” That way, from early childhood, we understand that the night is coming.

When Mason was born I made her three silent promises: to love her, care for her, and always tell her the truth. I suspect I am not am unique in these pledges. As a result, I have been savagely honest with her throughout the years, even when it was very difficult. I began as a Christian parent, but as Mason grew and started to question me about life, my faith crumbled. I tried the old stories I had grown up on, but I found myself admitting they no longer rang true. My questions trumped the old answers and I was unwilling to explain the mysteries of life with spiritual metaphors. But, how could I talk honestly about the certitude of death with my only child?

One of the simplest ways of teaching small children about death is allowing them to care for living things. By age seven, Mason had already killed several plants by neglect and raised ants, ladybugs, butterflies, goldfish, and frogs. That Christmas, Santa Claus brought Mason a small, white mouse. She named him “Blinker” after a character in a children’s novel. Blinker was smelly, but he never failed to entertain. In February of the following year, I went upstairs to clean Mason’s room and found Blinker in a fetal ball, weakened, but still breathing. I took him out of his cage and held him in the palm of my hand. I tried to warm him and give him some water, but he closed his eyes. His tiny paw trembled and then he was gone. It was as if he had held on until he could be petted one last time.

At first I cried softly, but soon I was sobbing. My husband and Mason overheard me and rushed in to find me standing with Blinker still in my hand in near hysterics. Naturally, Mason was upset that her mouse was dead, but my overreaction alarmed her more. In January I had lost a good friend, a mother of one of Mason’s classmates, to cancer. The death of this tiny creature forced me to confront a multitude of painful truths I had been avoiding.

It may sound absurd, but I knew there was no mouse heaven. Blinker was a dead mouse. He had gone ”nowhere.” And, since I accept that we are an evolved species of mammals, it followed that my friend had gone “nowhere” as well.

I suppose you can be an atheist and still believe in an afterlife, but I have yet to meet one who does. Of course, I don’t know what happens after death, but to my mind eternal life seems too good to be true.

I was not living as an open atheist until Mason’s meeting with Christopher Hitchens. I would probably still be closeted if the Houston Chronicle hadn’t reported our full names, but it doesn’t matter. I am happy finally expressing my doubts openly. It is interesting, however, that the single most upsetting part of my worldview to my friends and family is my disbelief in any sort of hereafter. It seems fine to deny the Creation, the Flood, the Nativity, and even the Resurrection, but how can I believe in the Nietzschean abyss? How? It is immaterial — the abyss believes in me.

I want to promise Mason that I will always be there for her, but my atheism doesn’t allow me that comfort. All I can hope to achieve is to prepare her for our ultimate separation. We speak of courage, and we relish our brief time together. I teach her that life is about connecting and letting go. Our community can take comfort in Christopher Hitchens’ example of how to confront death with dignity and rationalism.

This Christmas, Mason has asked for a hamster. Santa Claus will not disappoint her.

[Note from Hemant: In case you’re wondering what Mason has to say about all of this, she sent me this statement:

In my heart, when I first heard that Mr. Hitchens had passed away, I was too shocked to speak. I would like to say that even though Mr. Hitchens has passed away, he still exists in our hearts and minds and, of course, through his writing.


About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Jadesrayne

    Anne is doing a great job parenting! I am excited and nervous to approach the subject with my son in the coming years.

    • Rich Wilson

      I think a lot of parenting is driven by the child, especially in Anne/Mason’s case!  The parenting part comes in understanding that, in my case, he isn’t me, and facilitating him, not me.

    • Bonnie Taylor

      I agree, Anne is doing a great job. It is hard to be honest with children, especially when they look up to us and we have to tell them, “I don’t know all the answers”.  Teaching a child to value all life and to be mindful that it is usually too short is a wonderful gift. So many people take their loved ones for granted! A child who understands mortality will be so much more compassionate and appreciative.

  • http://twitter.com/CoboWowbo Cobo Wowbo

    The following paragraph is repeated twice: It may sound absurd, but I knew there was no mouse heaven. Blinker was a dead mouse. He had gone ”nowhere.” And, since I accept that we are an evolved species of mammals, it followed that my friend had gone “nowhere” as well.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Fixed. Thanks!

  • Mikimanojlovic

    So, I guess it’s ok to lie about Santa Claus :)

    • Rich Wilson

      That’s one that has me on the fence.  I think the Santa Myth is starting to crack with my almost-5 son, and I’m sure not putting any duct tape on it.  Santa led me to atheism at 4.

      Interesting study says:

      When researchers questioned children who had stopped believing in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny–a milestone they reached around the age of 7–kids reported feeling pleased. 

      That made me feel a little  less guilty about perpetuating the conspiracy.  I haven’t come out and broken it myself, but I’ve handed him the hammer and chisel.  I figure I’ll let him take the final blow.

    • Anonymous

      Lie, childhood fantasy… potato, po-TAH-to.  I talked to my 11yo son just yesterday about this.  He said he has nothing but fond memories of Santa, whom he clung (mostly for the “extra”gifts) until he was 7… cookies and milk and letter and all. He stated emphatically that he was not traumatized in the slightest. 

      When he finally gave it up, we explained that we are ALL “Santa” in our selfless giving on a yearround basis, just during the holiday season, we give it a name and Coke advertising executives gave him a face.  We still each reserve a gift “from Santa” for each other, and that is one of his favorite gifts to give.  For an only child (me and my son), Santa adds a little joy that maybe larger families may have merely by the group aspect, I don’t know.  But we will never regret “doing Santa” with our son.

  • http://profiles.google.com/robertbos Rob Bos

    If you don’t mind a couple of cents, get a pair of rats.  They live a tetch longer than hamsters and are a lot more robust and social. I and SWMBO have many fond memories of pet rats, and the two we have right now are a lot of fun.

    • Michael Appleman

      Yeah rats are actually quite good pets. Much better than evil hamsters. They are quite smart and social. If you know what you are doing, its no problem to teach them simple tricks like you would a dog.

      • http://DocAtheist.wordpress.com/ DocAtheist

        Did you find a gender preference?  I had very sweet, trainable female rats (the last few were retired breeders).  Having heard that male rats were more aggressive, and having seen what appeared to be a bit of that, I didn’t really want to try them, but a friend had a single male rat (no females) and he seemed quite nice.

        • Michael Appleman

          I’ve never had rats myself. I just have had several friends with them. So I don’t know anything that specific, sorry :p

  • Jetson

    I was at that conference myself, as those events unfolded.  I can also say that my preconceptions of the “tougher” side of Hitch were erased after he spoke.  I was truly thinking that this man has more compassion for humans than most people I know.  During the time that he spoke, his brain was as sharp as ever, but his body was not cooperating.  I could only imagine that he was suffering in ways that only those in that stage can describe.  I was sad, and I was very happy to be in his presence, and to experience his personality first hand.

    When I heard of his death, I was most definitely upset about the news.  He will be missed, and the world will be better having his work to look at into the future.  We need more people like him.

  • Stevebowen

    I love this. My 12 yr old daughter has been raised to think critically and is now the darling of her RE class as the only atheist with a coherent argument to offer. This is england by the way, so not too much controversy to be had.
    Santa: I am a firm believer in the myth of Santa, every child should have him, the easter bunny and the tooth fairy too. Why? Because they are so obviously bogus that by the time a child is , oh 7 or so they will harbour doubts about their existence. Most will then go through a phase of humouring he grown-ups in order to reap the rewards but have understood the deceipt. It’s like innoculation, santa today, god tomorrow.

  • Anonymous

    Since I wasn’t raised with Santa, I was never tempted in the least to lie to my son about him. My son always knew his gifts (whenever and wherever he got them) came from the giver. I wasn’t intentionally training my son to be an atheist, but he turned out that way. He was always aware of the fantasies foisted on children, but never fell for them.

  • Michael Appleman

    Mason’s quote reminded me of a song.

    sweetest of all lies
    one of everlasting life
    No one wants to die
    but we do, so we hide
    What you fail to realize
    is there’s no need to fear
    you live on in the hearts and minds
    of those who hold you dear, who are right here

    “I know The Reaper” by Machinae Supremacy

  • Anonymous

    I’m guessing bringing up an atheist daughter is a lot more fufilling when she’s as obviously bright as Mason is. Plenty of teenagers can’t express themselves that well.

  • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Tom Lawson

    Anne is now on Twitter if you want to follow her. She’s at

    https://twitter.com/#!/Phaenarete0042


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