Kudos to This American Life

by Michelle Meyer, Bioethics Program Faculty

A few weeks ago, I blogged about a recent episode of This American Life (TAL), “Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde,” about the quest of one Dr. Gilmer (Benjamin) to understand why another, beloved Dr. Gilmer (Vince), had brutally murdered his own father after hearing voices that compelled him to do so. The episode ends (spoiler alert) with the revelation that Vince suffers from Huntington’s, a rare, neurodegenerative disease that causes progressive physicial, cognitive, and psychological deterioration.

Listeners, it seemed to me, could naturally conclude from the episode that it was Vince’s Huntington’s that had caused him to murder his father. That might or might not be true in this particular case. Huntington’s can cause behavioral and mood changes, including irritability, aggression and belligerence. It can also cause (less often) psychosis. But even if Huntington’s caused Vince to murder his father, or somehow contributed to the murder, the extreme violence that Vince displayed — strangling his father, then sawing off his father’s fingertips to preclude identification — is in no way typical of the Huntington’s population as a whole. And so what most troubled me most about the episode was its failure to note just how rare this kind of extreme violence is among those with Huntington’s, just as it is very rare among human beings generally. And so I wrote to TAL, requesting a clarification.

I’m happy to report that the TAL producer for the episode, Sarah Koenig — who had not intended to suggest any causal link between Vince’s murder of his father and his Huntington’s, much less between murder and Huntginton’s more generally — has issued a clarification on the show’s blog, and promises to make a similar clarification in the episode itself, should they ever re-air it. Kudos to TAL, and many thanks to Sarah for being incredibly gracious in our exchanges.

One clarification deserves another. In my earlier blog post, I also worried that some listeners might  conclude that Vince’s father was similarly driven to commit horrific acts of sexual abuse on Vince and his sister because he, too, was (presumably) suffering from Huntington’s (an autosomal dominant genetic disease). Although I think that a listener who didn’t know better could reasonably conclude that Huntington’s causes people to become sexual predators almost as easily as they could conclude from the episode that Huntington’s causes people to become murderers, nothing in the episode suggests that Sarah, Benjamin Gilmer, or anyone else at TAL believe that Huntington’s causes sexual abuse, or that they intended for listeners to reach that conclusion. I regret anything in my earlier post that suggested otherwise.

Again, I’m very grateful to Sarah and everyone else at TAL for hearing me (and other listeners) out and for agreeing to make the clarification — and just in time for HD Awareness Month!

[The contents of this blog are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

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