The Tragedy of Michael J. Fox

The Tragedy of Michael J. Fox October 17, 2013

Michael J. Fox then and now

Since Michael J. Fox has recently made a comeback to prime-time television, producing and anchoring a family sitcom as a father with Parkinson’s disease, there’s been a renewed interest in the actor. I thought I would take the opportunity to share some of my own thoughts about his life, his career, his political activism, and of course, his decades-long battle with Parkinson’s. For all children of the 80s, he is forever immortalized as Alex P. Keaton and Marty McFly. For me, his voice alone will always evoke fond childhood memories of Chance, the young canine protagonist of Disney’s Homeward Bound.  On a personal level, he is arguably the best-loved actor in Hollywood. At the same time,  he is (rightly) unpopular with many conservative Christians because of his vigorous campaigns for embryonic stem cell research.

In search of source material that encompassed all that while at the same time going beyond it, I realized I could do no better than Fox’s own memoirs. A verbal prodigy from early childhood, Fox needed nobody to write them for him. His graceful, vivid prose reveals intriguing details about his background, his family, and even his perspective on the Christian faith. As I read his autobiographies and collected other research materials, I was struck by his force of personality, yet keenly felt how tragic his story was in every possible way. When I sat down to capture everything I thought and felt in a single essay, I had to force myself to stop, because I found it all so fascinating. So I hope you all will join me on this little journey, and I hope you find it as thought-provoking as I did. 

Whatever your personal opinion of Michael J. Fox, the one thing nobody can deny is his effortless charisma on the screen. Justly recognized as a comic genius (any one of these clips should convince you), he’s also shown an under-recognized talent for powerful dramatic acting. In the film Casualties of War, he played a young private in Vietnam who witnesses and reports a horrific war crime, attempting to keep his sanity and his moral compass through it all. (Although I have NOT seen the film and am NOT recommending it, to anyone, I do recommend this one clip of his character’s conversation with a chaplain in a bar, because it demonstrates this side of Fox’s talent so brilliantly.) Recently, he guest-starred on another television show—as a paraplegic. Let that sink in for a moment.

Blessed with a face anyone could trust, the Canadian-born actor first rose to fame by managing to make the sarcastic, money-obsessed Alex P. Keaton a lovable fixture of American television on Family Ties. In cult classics Teen Wolf and Back to the Future, he cemented his image as “the boy next door.” The country fell in love with him in large part because he really was that funny, down-to-earth and likable. He met the girl of his dreams on Family Ties, got married, stayed married, and started a family while other celebrity marriages crumbled. In his first memoir Lucky Man (2002), he describes how the couple successfully managed to dodge the press for their wedding, protecting the private sanctity of their commitment. Go ahead and make your own day by watching this montage of their work together:

Then came the diagnosis at age 30: Parkinson’s disease. Progressive. Debilitating. Incurable. At first, it drove Fox to push the bounds of a long-time drinking habit. But through the tough love of his wife, he put away the bottle for good in 1992. He has described Parkinson’s as “the gift that keeps on taking,” because coming to terms with the diagnosis changed and humbled him in so many ways, perhaps even saving his marriage. He returned to TV work in 1996 for the starring role in Spin City, a show that would net him an Emmy, three Golden Globes, and two SAG awards. Although he maintained his debonair exterior for live studio audiences, he was forced to take multiple backstage breaks when his symptoms came on, writhing on the floor and punching holes in the walls until L-dopa drugs took effect.  In 1998, he went public with his condition. Another two years, and he was forced to quit the show.

Fox did not choose to go public lightly. For years, he had mentally distanced himself from other people with the disease. But after his announcement, he began to realize what he represented to those people. He interacted with the larger Parkinson’s community on anonymous chat forums, trying to learn more under the freedom of a nom de plume. (Of course, this became awkward when his new friends asked him what he thought of Michael J. Fox!) Armed with a new sense of responsibility, he proceeded to sift through the numerous solicitations he was now receiving from this organization, and that foundation, and that other foundation. In 1999, he picked the group that was most aggressively pursuing the expansion of government funds for cure research. Within a few weeks, he was preparing a speech before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services (full text here).

That was the same hearing where he first heard a doctor utter the magic words: five to ten years. With enough funding, Parkinson’s might well be cured in five to ten years. Fox was stunned. He would never have guessed, but then he wasn’t an expert, and here was this Expert with a capital “E,” saying it could be done. Hope pulsed through him. He had to do something. That same year, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research was born.

The following years saw Fox immersing himself in fund-raising and political activism, not only for Parkinson’s research but research that he was told could cure a plethora of diseases, including Huntington’s, multiple sclerosis, juvenile diabetes, and ALS, among others. I’m speaking, of course, of embryonic stem cell research. With the encouragement of his more “scientific” friends, he confidently presented hope for cures as “not ‘if,’ but ‘when’.” However, they predictably came to view George W. Bush as a hindrance to their efforts and the progress of Science in general. You can sense Fox’s personal bitterness towards Bush in his second memoir Always Looking Up (2009), which describes Bush’s 2001 compromise as a “head-fake.”  (In fairness, there is a lesson for Bush here: Giving in a little bit will never satisfy the other side. It’ll only make them all the more mad when you don’t go all the way. This is a lesson the Republican party has never really learned.) The foundation sought out and backed sympathetic congressional candidates, mostly Democrats, plus a few “might as well be Democrats” like Arlen Specter.

But the sad truth, the central tragedy of all Fox’s activism, is that he was manipulated. Oh, certainly not unwillingly. After all, he was the one who called the politicians. And yet, he was fed half-truths and outright lies by supposed professionals who knew better. His famous Claire McCaskill ad never fails to reduce me to tears, but not for the same reasons it reduced everyone else to tears. They wept because they felt compassion for him, and they were proud of his cause. I weep because I feel compassion for him, and I see his cause for what it truly was—not only a violation of life, but a violation of true scientific integrity.

As even liberal bioethicist Art Caplan will tell you frankly, embryonic stem cell research was over-hyped for political gain. For example, Caplan admits that any researcher worth his salt would have laughed at the notion that stem cell research ever had a hope of curing Alzheimer’s disease. Apparently nobody told Michael J. Fox, who repeatedly named Alzheimer’s victims as among those ostensibly victimized by Bush and the Republicans’ resistance to Science. He spoke breathlessly of how the projected success of the research was “informed by the collective knowledge of the nation’s most brilliant medical scientists and researchers.” Even its embarrassing failures were smoothed over as “one step forward, two steps back.” In one interview, he downplayed the discovery of brain tumors in mice as “some tissue residue… which is not ideal.” One wonders if that drink had been sweetened before it ever reached Fox’s lips.

Was Michael J. Fox a sucker? A dull-witted dupe? On the contrary, few adjectives could describe Michael J. Fox worse than “dull-witted.” He writes like an angel. His conversational vocabulary is about ten times as large as the average college student’s writing vocabulary—at a conservative estimate. Did I mention he was a high-school drop-out? The phrase “useful idiot” is often misunderstood to imply that the person in question is a literal idiot, but this is certainly not the case here.

Was Michael J. Fox an evil man? Was he cynically playing the American people along with the rest of ESCR’s snake-oil salesmen? I believe Michael J. Fox was sincere. But I also believe he made his own choice.

For all the deception surrounding him, he knew, as everyone knew, what embryonic stem cell research meant for embyros. Still, he was content with the same tedious, “period at the end of this sentence” cliches with which liberal activists have bored us for years. That warm, open personality became very cold whenever he spoke directly about embryos. They were dismissed as “clumps of cells,” and nothing more. In Always Looking Up, he sanctimoniously claims to sympathize with people who have a principled ethical objection to the research, saying that he and they are each “frustrated” in their own way and thus can find common ground for respect. But that “respect” is lacking when he lambastes Bush’s Snowflake Babies as political manipulation (while defensively insisting that a boy who spoke about his juvenile diabetes at a pro-stem-cell rally was not manipulated). He gives himself away when he recalls watching Bush’s 2006 veto on national television, mouth sour and tight-lipped, eyes hardened, contemptuous at the implication that “a healthy Tanner Barton and an adopted embryo are mutually exclusive.” Even while he decries Rush Limbaugh as a “bully” for clumsily accusing him of manipulating his symptoms for the McCaskill ad, Fox fails to recognize the bully within himself.

Still, it is heart-breaking to see how whole-heartedly he embraced the myth common to all liberal propaganda—that not only was ESCR the future of medical research, but the hope it gave people was the true embodiment of the American spirit. This interview clip speaks volumes (full transcript here):

What is crueler? To not have hope or to have hope? And it’s not false hope, it’s a very informed hope. I mean, it’s hope that’s informed by the opinion of our leading scientists, almost to the point of unanimity… will it be a straight path to victory? Probably not, probably you’ll have stutter steps along the way… you know, it’s a process. It’s how this country was built. It’s what we do. I don’t want to get too corny about it, but isn’t that what the person in the harbor with the thing… [waves aloft an imaginary torch]? It’s about hope! And so to characterize hope as some kind of malady or some kind of flaw of character or national weakness is to me really counter to what this country is about.

So, in the final analysis, we see Michael J. Fox for what he is: Not a stupid man, not an evil man, but a man of the left. And the crowning irony? He himself finally admitted in May of last year that ESCR will likely not cure anything within his lifetime. Other research and therapies, he now realizes, are closer to that goal. We can be glad that Fox has finally come to understand the truth, yet recognize the double tragedy of a man who gives up his soul to gain nothing in return.

At this point you might be wondering where Christianity enters into this story. It actually enters into the story many years before all of this unfolded. As a 9-year-old boy, Fox got his first taste of hell-fire and brimstone preaching on a church bus parked at a carnival. The speaker was, with great relish, comparing Hell to the sensation of a thousand hot matches burning your skin—to an audience of children. Needless to say, Fox was already out of there by the time the speaker got to the “good news” part. However, Fox’s older reflections on this moment (from his second memoir) are unintentionally profound, as he theorizes about why the speaker focused more on Hell than on Heaven:

For a nine-year-old, heaven existed just outside of that Bible bus—the distance of a few steps it took to reach the midway and the rides, noise, mystery and mayhem of a summer’s day. Beyond the fair, there were a thousand further iterations of heaven–camping trips and hockey games, leaning forward in social studies class to get the full effect of whatever shampoo that pretty girl who sat in front of me was using. It never occurred to me that any of these pleasures were a reward for being a pretty good kid, any more than I needed to restructure my life just to avoid being spit-roasted on a subterranean barbecue.

Poignantly, Fox stumbles towards a very real truth—that these earthly joys are not earned but given, as a foretaste of glory divine—only to turn his back on the gift-Giver.

However, God sent Fox a new friend in 7th grade: Russell, a church-going kid whose devout Baptist family welcomed Fox with open arms. A somewhat rascally teenager, he was impressed with their kindness and personal integrity. They struck him differently from the televangelists he saw on The 700 Club, who held an ironic fascination for the budding comedian. There was nothing phony about the hymns Russell’s family sang to pass the time on long road trips. There was nothing staged in the way they climbed up a hill on Easter morning to raise a wooden cross and worship by the light of the rising sun.

But in the end, the seed did not take root. After a mutual friend committed suicide, Fox grew less interested in the messages and sermons he heard. He never lost his respect for Russell’s family, but at the same time he never truly embraced the gospel. In later years, Russell would remind him of a fleeting “conversion” moment which Fox puts down to “a rapidly growing and spiritual interest” in the pretty girl who led him through the motions. However, Fox never forgot what Russ had offered him, occasionally giving back to Russ’s family ministry in gospel music.

Fox’s adult experiences with religion were far more “progressive.” Always Looking Up describes a meeting with the notorious Bishop Carlton D. Pearson, who perniciously implied that people like Russ only wanted Fox to be saved so they could parade him on their TV shows as a “score” for Jesus. Fox also talks a good deal about Judaism, as his wife is Jewish by birth. However, her American Reform brand of the faith bears about as much resemblance to actual Judaism as Pearson’s faith bears to Christianity. Yet what might be called the “outer trappings” of Judaism fascinate Fox. Going to the synagogue feels cool. Hanukkah gives him warm fuzzies. He’s proud that his children are Jewish and growing up in a Jewish-observant home. In fact, as he humorously recalls, it was he and not his wife who insisted that firstborn son Sam be circumcised:

I surprised myself by very calmly and clearly making my point. “…You’re Jewish, and he’s Jewish. He’s part of a culture and a continuum that I can’t even pretend to understand… So let me put it this way: If the doctor does it now, I’ll go in the room with the two of them, and I’ll hold him… I’ll look him in the eye and give him something to scream at. But in thirteen years, if he decides he wants to have a bar mitzvah and he’s not circumcised, then you are going to be in that room with him. I’m going to Vegas.”

Fox and Pollan's Jewish wedding
Fox and Pollan’s Jewish wedding

Fox also acknowledges the existence of some “higher power,” though he’s content to leave it undefined. This passage is another tragic half cadence on the way to the truth:

Parkinson’s and alcohol took a sledgehammer to any illusions I may have had that I was in control.  I came to accept that any disease or condition beyond my control is, in effect, a power greater than myself.  To survive this destructive energy, I must look to an even higher power.  For my purposes, I need neither define it nor have others define it for me, only accept its existence.  It is evident in Tracy’s love and inexhaustible friendship, the toothless gap in Esme’s smile, Aquinnah’s grace, Schuyler’s grit, Sam’s intrepid curiosity.  So much to savor, so much to be grateful for.  And since I’m not sure of the address to which to send my gratitude, I put it out there in everything I do.

It’s easy to admire Fox’s perseverance, optimism and strength of will. At the end of this interview, a visibly moved Larry King says hoarsely, “You… you’re a hero.” What heart could fail to melt as Fox mutters something self-deprecating and shyly looks away to shake Larry’s hand? When he did a workshop for the Actors’ Studio, an aspiring actress shared her own struggles with neurological disease in the Q & A session. Fox offered the perfect balance of empathy, encouragement and practicality in his reply to her.

Imagine how powerfully God could use these gifts if Fox surrendered them to Him. Fox has decided that choosing Christianity would take away his freedom, but in truth, it would release him to be more truly himself than ever before. His secularized way of finding meaning and beauty in life is a good imitation of the real thing, but in the end, it is only that—an imitation. As Christians, we want Fox to be saved for his sake, knowing that Christ was the only answer when he cried out in his lowest ebb, and remains the only answer now that he believes himself satisfied.

Let us pray that God will make a saint of him yet.

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  • Lydia

    Excellent essay.
    I can’t help wondering: Now that ESCR is likely to be federally funded for the foreseeable future, and it looks like Fox will live long enough to see that five to ten years for predicted CURES!, will he change his mind if and when ESCR does not provide a cure for Parkinson’s, even with U.S. federal funding? Nor, I predict, for any neurodegenerative disease.
    Btw, the most promising recent research, though still far from human trials, for both Alzheimer’s and possibly Parkinson’s is a drug therapy recently tested in mice which had an induced condition like Alzheimer’s. It has nothing whatever to do with embryonic stem cells, nor for that matter with any stem cells.

  • Actually, Fox has come out and admitted that ESCR won’t cure anything any time soon and other therapies are more promising. I was planning to put that in the post but forgot in my haste to publish it. So thanks for reminding me. Everyone, I added that detail and updated the post accordingly.

  • Fox has come out and admitted that ESCR won’t cure anything any time soon and other therapies are more promising.
    Has he ever publicly apologized for misleading the public about the promise of ESCR, and for allowing himself to be misled because he failed in due diligence? Or would he consider this unnecessary since the misinformation would have resulted in, at worst, a bunch of ‘periods at the end of the sentence’ being destroyed?

  • Pingback: Southern Gospel Yankee… | Apologia()

  • Not quite. He still believes they were justified in pushing for the research, but that it’s only now that they’ve encountered these “problems” that it seems to have failed. However, I’m not sure even he knows just how far back the problems extended and that the research was over-hyped from day one.

  • James

    I enjoyed the Article. I do have to say, I am not impressed by the writer who believes the only way to save Michael is to have him baptized christian. I’ve known far worse people who sit in church every Sunday that are revered by those around them. It’s funny how Christians alike discriminate against those who don’t break bread with them. I would have to say Jesus himself would frown on such.

  • “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life; no man comes to the father but through me.'” John 14:6

  • Ken

    I did like the article, and I can understand James’ reaction. As a believer in Christ, I have been taught to love everyone regardless of whether or not they are Christian, Muslim, etc. It doesn’t matter whether you go to church on sundays, only on special occasions, or never at all. It doesn’t matter if they are straight, bi-sexual, or gay. Jesus Loves everyone, regardless of who they are, what they believe, or how they live their lives. This doesn’t mean I agree with Michael J. Fox’s beliefs, or that I support the wrong things that he or anyone does(including my own shortcomings). Many people tell Christians that we are wrong in judging people, that it goes against our own “rules.” However, there is a difference between falsly judging someone and recognizing a person’s faults. In fact, making a good, factual judgment is a good thing, as Jesus himself said in John 7:24 “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.” This is where many people make an error. The writer of this article was just in recognizing the faults of Fox, however, he/she was respectful and did not condemn Fox. I would also like to point out that while we know what Fox has expressed in interviews and his books, only God knows what is truly in Fox’s heart. So what should we followers of the Jesus Way do regarding Michael J. Fox? Love him! Pray for him! Ask God to overlook his trespasses as God overlooks our own! None of us are righteous, not even one: Jesus told us this! Michael J Fox is a genuinely good person, just as I believe all humans are, deep down. Apply what I have said to anyone you meet: love the unbelievers, love them with all your heart! Jesus didn’t come to save those who where righteous, he came for the sinners! He came for people like Michael J. Fox! He came for you, and me! He came for everyone. I have taken a long time in writing this, and I hope I have not offended anyone, but I will say I stand firm in my beliefs and what I have written. I send my love to all, and may you have peace in your lives!
    God Bless All!

  • Thanks Ken, I appreciate your reading and commenting. I need to clarify though that I don’t believe Fox will be saved unless he actively repents to God. I also need to clarify that just because there are things I can like and appreciate about someone, that doesn’t make us all “basically good.” Biblically, that’s not really correct. We’re all basically evil at bottom. That’s the whole reason Jesus even needed to save us. Thanks again.

  • Ken

    I understand what you’re saying. Jesus does tell us he is the only way to the Father. We have to go through him, point and blank. We have up until the moment we die to repent and accept Jesus, however, and I hope at some point Fox does accept Jesus for his sake, and for God. And as far as the view of whether or not we are basically good and evil, in my research and study of the bible, there is evidence for both. Jesus did tell us we are the children of the devil. Once we reach the age of accountability, that understanding of right from wrong, we have to accept Jesus because it is impossible for any human being to make himself right with God; Only Jesus can guide us through the narrow gates. Perhaps what I should have said was that we all have the opportunity and the chance to be good people. Did that help you understand my point? We are saved by grace and not by works, but at the same time the bible also tell us we will be judged according to our works. So it goes both ways; God gives us no middle ground. We have to accept Jesus, but at the same time, once we accept Jesus we can’t just go and do whatever we darn well please. Jesus told us to be like him, after all. I have started in another direction from my original point, and I apologize. I also apologize for not citing book chapters and verses, I am away from the home right now and unfrortunately I don’t have them memorized, but I have them marked in my bible and I am furthering my study every day. Please know that what I say is only after years of hard study of the bible and trying to be the person God wants me to be. I am not saying these things half-heartedly, and without knowledge of where I’m coming from. I actually plan to soon start my Master of Arts degree in Theology, God willing. I know God will guide us all in the right direction.
    Peace and love,

  • Thanks for the clarification, and God bless. Yes, that’s an interesting verse about “being judged according to our works” isn’t it? I’d like to see some of the “Jesus + Nothing = Everything” crowd chew on that one for a bit.

  • Ken

    Yes, God bless you too! A lot of people don’t realize that Jesus was very critical about how we should live! But, because we have accepted Him, if we screw up every now and then, He shows us mercy. God is not an “Indian Giver” as a old friend of mine used to say. The point is, again, that there is no middle ground; there are no extremes. Jesus expects a lot out of us, sometimes it seems like too much, but He is also merciful and understands we are only human. We need only submit ourselves unto him.

  • Excellent article- thank you for posting 🙂

  • Thanks!

  • Jeff

    What a gross and slanderous essay. It’s your god or the highway, as it is with most religious people. I truly find it sickening when you say things like Fox needs to be “saved”, let Fox have his own beliefs. He doesn’t need “saving”, nor can he be saved by the non existent “god” you worship.
    I think you need to educate yourself on embryonic stem cell research. They use left over embryos from fertility treatments (with the consent of the patient) that otherwise would have been destroyed and served no purpose.. But by all means let’s not push to develop breakthrough cures for a wide variety of debilitating diseases in the name of god. Let’s just let those embryos die and serve no actual purpose! So let me get this straight, it’s unethical to use a cluster of cells that will otherwise be discarded and wasted, to try and develop breakthrough medical treatments for people who are suffering. It sounds to me like you are the unethical one. And here you are trying to slander Michael J Fox because he’s not a Christian and also supported research that is trying to cure major diseases. You are terribly misinformed.

  • Michael J. Fox himself has admitted that other options now appear more scientifically fruitful. How do you account for this? Moreover, you are contradicting yourself when you refer to letting embryos “die” in one sentence and then refer to them as a “clump of cells” in the next. The science is settled on this. But perhaps you would shift the goalposts and say it doesn’t matter anyway. In any case, nothing I’ve said here is remotely slanderous. Thanks for the comment.

  • Jeff, I personally wish to thank you for letting us know just how REAL and TRUE, the Word of God/Jesus (2 Peter3:3 and Jude 1:18) are especially in light of Mr. Foxe’s personal situations, which according to “God’s Word” DO NOT keep him from ‘responding’ (Romans 10:14-21 God has an “answer for EVERY excuse”, even yours so NONE of us will get around it with lies or deception) to God’s “call” to the knock on his (your heart’s door).
    Sadly, all the stem cell research in the world won’t change anything with us sinful humans, when it’s REALLY a God changed, Holy Spirit filled, heart and mind that’s actually NEEDED here.
    Also, one last time “ONLY one time in the whole Bible, is the word religion used in a good way (James 1:27)”. Lastly, we’ll keep Mr. Fox in prayer and his family (his wife is Jewish so there’s still hope for her to find out about Yeshua HaMashiach too) as well, and throw in some for you too (even if you don’t want or didn’t ask for them).

  • Sam

    This is uncharitable, judgemental and I sincerely hope he never reads this. Christianity will give him no comfort. However supporting research and awareness into this tragic condition (which surely would not exist if there was a loving God) will give him purpose. Seriously I read things like this and It makes me even more certain that I don’t want to be a part of organised religion.

  • JLV

    Romans 1:28-32
    By God’s grace you will not give an account to “organized religion” but to the Alpha and the Omega. Please don’t respond to the correct diagnosis of the fallen (helpless) sin nature but rather the only hope any of us has – the Lamb of God. Repent and you will be saved. Acts 3:19.

  • Kim

    Hopefully he has a true relation with God now since this was written. There is so much healing that could be had if only we believe. Mountains could be moved with a word and faith. Read the bible and it tells of Jesus’s healings’ and what he says we can also do in His name.

  • anne

    Read from the book of Daniel and you will understand what faith and belief in something greater than yourself, your Maker, will save you from. No one else can influence you in this, it only can come from your own heart, that one which was created by none other than the One who will lead us to our true destiny, be it good or otherwise. We have been given the gift of reason to make that choice.