A lamentation for an antivaxxer

At Respectful Insolence, Orac struggles to respond to “A disturbing post on an anti-vaccine blog.”

The anti-vaccine movement rejects the medical science behind childhood vaccination, believing it to be linked somehow to autism. They used to be able to point to a single study — never replicated and often refuted — that claimed to support this belief, but that study has since been shown to have been based on fraudulent data.

Like most followers of science-rejecting ideologies, anti-vaxxers have to find some way to explain away the objective facts that contradict their claims. And like most science-rejecting ideologues, they do this by theorizing the existence of a vast and nefarious scientific conspiracy.

But the anti-vaxxers differ from other science-rejecting ideologues — climate deniers, young-earth creationists, flat-earthers, Annunaki scholars, dowsers, homeopaths, tea partiers, supply-siders, etc. — in one important way. For those other conspiracy-theorist cranks, the rejection of fact and science remains fairly abstract. They’re all at least dimly semi-aware that they’re play-acting. Having chosen their pose, they work to maintain it and that work cannot be done without the hazy recognition on some level that they are, in fact, posing and pretending.

The anti-vaccine crowd come to their rejection of fact and science from a different starting point. They come from a place of pain. Their choice to reject science is still a choice, and no such choice can ever be wholly unconscious, but they’re not choosing that choice for the pleasurable emotional or financial rewards those others are seeking — for the warm buzz of smug superiority, or the illusory sense of significance, or the affirmation that comes from joining any exclusionary club of like-minded others. The anti-vaxxers are instead seeking a respite from real pain, and they’re desperately seeking the promise of solutions to a situation that science tells them cannot be solved.

In short, they’re usually the parents of a child with autism — a child whose suffering they cannot reach or understand or end. And so they want a cure, or the promise of a cure, however implausible and unproven.

And failing that, they want someone to blame.

All of that — the pain, the desperation and the need to blame someone — is palpable in the post Orac writes about, a long, rambling, disturbed and disturbing rant by an anti-vaccine blogger named Kent.

Kent writes of “Dark Forces” whom he is sure are the cause of his child’s suffering. He quotes an imprecatory Psalm, calling on God to strike down the evil conspiracy of doctors and scientists and drugmakers. He compares them to the villain in Stephen King’s The Stand while comparing himself to the heroes of that epic tale of a confrontation between the children of light and the children of darkness.

That last bit echoes the fantasy role-playing games that underlies all such unreal ideologies. It’s the same Melon morality — the desire to feel righteous by portraying others as extremely wicked. It’s the same desperate need to imagine oneself as heroic, significant and living in “the most critical time in the history of the world.”

But for Kent this isn’t just an indulgent hobby or a way of stroking his ego with a self-righteously judgmental bumper sticker that sets him apart from the unheroic masses. For him this is a defense against the inescapable and inexplicable unfairness of his family’s daily life.

And Kent has become too invested in this fantasy to be able to escape it without great pain. For him, as for so many others caught up in such fantasies, pretense has become habit to the extent that his whole identity, his whole sense of self, had been shaped by the narrative he has constructed to rewrite his world. His investment in that narrative has gone far beyond the uncostly allegiance of bumper stickers or attending conferences, as Orac explains, noting that he has taken issue with Kent previously due to his:

… subjecting of his autistic daughter to what I consider to be rank quackery, for example, stem cell quackery in Costa Rica in which dubious doctors injected what they claim to be stem cells into the cerebrospinal fluid via lumbar puncture. … When I first heard about this, I was totally appalled, unable to understand how a parent could keep subjecting a child to invasive medical procedures with no value at all. Not just that, I couldn’t understand how [Kent] could borrow $15,000 from his daughter’s grandparents in order to travel to Costa Rica to let strange doctors stick large needles into her spine to inject who knows what into the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes her brain and spinal cord. While I can almost understand the desperation, even then, knowing what I know, I can’t imagine paying so much for such a useless intervention that might even be harmful.

Having spent so much money and having committed to committing such deeds — to subjecting his beloved daughter to such fruitless ordeals — Kent now is in too deep to walk away. As Macbeth put it: “I am in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

Liberation for Kent will be more than tedious. It will require him to be broken down and rebuilt. But by this point his identity, his habits and his history have become so wholly bound up in his fantasy that such a breaking down would be devastating — so devastating that I fear the rebuilding might not be possible.

What I found most compelling in Orac’s post was the almost pastoral tone of compassion for Kent. Orac finds Kent’s rant frightening — and it is frightening, hinting at violence, calling for divine violence, and setting the stage for potential human violence with all that talk of “Dark Forces” that must be dealt with. Kent’s post reads like one of those notes found by police in the apartment of some disturbed fanatic following a deadly spree. You can’t read it without worrying about what he might be planning or preparing to do.

But Orac also looks past that to see the pain and misery of this miserable man. And having seen that misery, Orac expresses the hope that somehow, someone will be able to reach him and to — for want of a better word — minister to him. That’s my word, not Orac’s, but that is what Kent needs. He needs someone to shepherd him through what will be a painful and difficult process of dismantling the false identity he has constructed so that a new identity can be rebuilt, one based on reality rather than illusion.

Helping people like Kent escape from the misery they have trapped themselves in is a pastoral mission, but let me also try to describe it in less sectarian terms. Kent needs what AA calls a sponsor. He needs someone to walk beside him, to remind him in unvarnished terms of the hard path that is his only hope for escaping the self-destructive path he’s on now. Think of Steve Earle guiding Bubbles on The Wire, or of Furious Francis helping Don Gately in Infinite Jest.

That metaphor suggests what I think is the only way that people like Kent may be saved from themselves. What they need, I think, is something like AA to help them escape their self-destructive habit, a mechanism that can support them with patience and honesty while ceaselessly confronting them with the reality they’ve worked so hard for so long to deny.

My hope for Kent is the same as my hope for all such people trapped in such destructive habits. I hope that he survives the rock bottom that’s waiting for him, and I hope that he doesn’t hurt too many other people on his way there.

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