Saint Frances, Walking to Her Car

When I told a colleague a few days ago that I was resigning over my dean’s censorship, he said to me somewhat pissily that no one would remember it in a week.

Paradoxically, he said it because he cares about me. He thought I might be overestimating what I could achieve with the resignation, and he was worried about Northwestern coming after me in some nasty fashion. The public response—which has been overwhelming—has proved that both he and I underestimated what it could achieve. The press reportsand the public reaction have been gratifying, clearly signaling people have been energized about academic freedom.

That said, I’ll be glad when this latest media surge is over. I’ll be kind of glad if everyone forgets about it in a week. I thought I was done having Galileo’s Middle Finger decide how I had to live. I thought I was done having my book write me.

In the last 24 hours, I’ve thought again a lot about the mate’s suggestion that I write a mystery novel in which I kill Alice Dreger, then change my name and start a new life. His idea is if anyone comes for Alice Dreger, to solve another problem or make another stand or sort out another controversy, I can say, “She’s dead. You can read about it in this book.”

He knows, I get really tired of being called courageous, heroic, brave. I’ve learned to be gracious about it, and not to tell people who call me those things that they’re being stupid and daft, but now, while I’m doing the Miss America wave during the day, I’m not sleeping at night. When he came home from work tonight, he asked me if I’d exercised. I asked him if going from the couch to the bathroom counted. He took me out for a drink. . . .

I’ve been thinking a lot about Frances Oldham Kelsey, who died a few weeks ago. She was the scientist at the FDA who stopped thalidomide. She is also my patron saint.

When I was deep in the worst of the prenatal dexamethasone vortex, I ended up speaking on it at the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities meeting in San Diego. It was ugly. Larry McCullough was there to attack me, as he had been through other means as well. I thought at that point that he was going to permanently ruin my reputation—that he was going to break me.

During the panel discussion, which consisted mostly of me and Carl Elliott talking about the shit we were going through, much as I tried not to, I started crying. The stress was so unbelievable at that point, I couldn’t not cry. The room was packed, and full of tension, and my crying just seemed to cause a dark precipitation. The place felt disarrayed.

Before the session, I had asked my old friend Andrew Burnett to be my bodyguard. If you know Andrew, you know he’s about a million feet tall, that he’s built like a redwood, and that he’s a calm, completely-centered, Jesus-freak philosopher/minister.

So Andrew stood with me after the talk, as so many people wanted to come up to me and talk about the awfulness they too had been through for trying to call out injustice in medicine. At one point, someone said to me, “You are so brave,” and I collapsed crying in Andrew’s arms, because I felt so not brave.

In the midst of all this, Saint Frances appeared. A woman came to me and said she had been in school with Frances Kelsey’s daughter, and she wanted to tell me a story. The story was this: That although, yes, Frances Kelsey got the medal from President Kennedy for stopping thalidomide, a number of people at the FDA were angry with her for the whole thing. She had been the nail that stuck up. She had been a troublemaker.

This woman told me that she had learned from Kelsey’s daughter that they didn’t punish Kelsey per se. What they did was move her parking space much farther from the building, so that every day, she would have to walk alone much farther.

I loved this story. They don’t kill the messenger; they just make her walk farther alone. . . .

Of course, being an historian, I had to check to see if the story was true. So I wrote to Kelsey’s daughter, Christine Kelsey, through the school this woman mentioned. I had no other way to find her. (Well, I could have asked Larry, my P.I., to find her address, but I thought Christine Kelsey might find that too creepy.) I didn’t hear from her, and I figured I never would.

Then one day, on one awful dex day when I was doing what I did back then—cleaning house when I was mentally well enough to get out of bed, but too mentally messed up to work –I was washing the floor when my phone rang. I said hello.

“This is Christine Kelsey,” said the woman on the other end.

“Who?” I asked.

“Christine Kelsey.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t know who you are.”

“I’m Frances Kelsey’s daughter.”

My first thought was, Oh my god, I’m not dressed for this!

We talked for what I remember to be a long time. She told me that she wasn’t sure if the story about the parking spot was true—it didn’t quite make sense based on which building her mother was housed in then. But, she said, the point of the story was right; while Kennedy gave Kelsey a medal, her professional life wasn’t without backlash for being a troublemaker.

I told Christine, probably too inarticulately, about prenatal dexamethasone, about what was going on, about how I couldn’t believe the FDA was doing what it was doing on this issue. (This was before I found out the FDA official charged with the investigation was in with McCullough’s gang.) She told me that, if what I was saying was true, she thought her mother would be distraught to hear it.

Because I realized Christine would have been a child when her mother was going through what she went through, and because I had a child, I asked her what it had been like for her. She told me, laughing, that her mom was her mom—that like all children, she just expected her mom to come home and make dinner, to be her mom. She sort of suggested to me, in what she was saying, that motherhood gave a sort of order and escape to her Frances’s professional life.

I realized, after we hung up, that Christine Kelsey had handed me a lifeline. I should stop imagining that at the end of all this, even if I was vindicated, there wouldn’t still be a long lonely walk to my car. And I could see my own motherhood—my family life—as a way to have order and escape.

Of course, I must have already naturally realized that on my own; that’s why I was washing the floor. . . .

So I took to thinking, often, about Frances and Christine. I took to recognizing that the long, lonely walk was what you signed up for when you signed up to push against error. And when I found myself walking alone, thinking about dexamethasone, I imagined Saint Frances walking next to me, jangling her keys, thinking about thalidomide. She calmed me. She focused me. She reminded me that not only was my son not a burden, he was actually a route to survival.

People think the dedication of Galileo’s Middle Finger—“To Kepler, who saved his mother”—is a reference to Johannes Kepler, a contemporary of Galileo, who saved his mother from being burned as a witch. It is, in fact, a dedication to my son, whose name is Kepler, who was named after Johannes partly because Johannas saved his mother from being burned as a witch. It is also a veiled dedication to Saint Frances and her daughter Christine and what they taught me.

Last night, I went to a high school water polo game. My son has been acting as the videographer for our high school’s team. I sat with a good friend of mine, the mother of a team member. She said, “It’s kind of remarkable—you’re in the midst of this very public media blitz, and here you are, at the water polo game.”

And I smiled and imagined Saint Frances sitting next to us, relaxed, right, graceful. Good posture; she always has good posture in my imagination.

“No one,” she reassured me, “no one, Alice, will remember your resignation in a week. I promise, you will be thoroughly forgotten.”

And I watched my son watch the game.

An FAQ on my resignation is here.