I did not initially have a post planned for today, but a friend recently shared an article about Liz Heywood and her stand against religious abuse (you can read more about her story on her blog). I mostly skimmed the article, Ms. Heywood tends to make a regular appearance when I google for former-CS as the Heywood Testimony to the Obama Administration, February 26, 2010 is widely shared.
I would like to think Ms. Heywood’s story is uncommon, as the testimony is not an easy, or pleasant read. While the end result – a partially amputated leg – may be rare, I have seen the events that led up to it play out in various scenarios both in my life, and the lives of my fellow Christian Scientists. It starts with how the problem is perceived and what action is, or is not taken:
… my swollen, stiff knee as a mortal illusion to be corrected through prayer. ….. My mother called a Christian Science practical nurse to help care for me*a nurse trained by the church in strictly non-medical methods, forbidden to diagnose disease or dispense medicine.
Most of us are second or third generation Christian Scientists, raised exclusively in Christian Science with little or no exposure to doctors/medicine. Most of us, at one time or another, could probably write the next sentence ourselves:
… I believed only prayer could help me: I never expected or even wanted medical treatment.
A little further down we are reminded what the Mother Church/the CS movement has lobbied so hard for: legal exemption for parents who choose to withhold medical treatment for their children.
I remember clearly the agony and anguish I felt as a child. I remember that no adult stepped forward to end it. The law authorized my parents’ decision to leave me untreated, and the sanction of the law discouraged others from doing what is right.
I feel very fortunate to have made it through my childhood without any serious illness or injury. Beyond a bought of chicken pox, some superficially nasty scrapes when I fell off of bicycles and scooters I was fairly lucky that most of my problems could truly be solved by ice cream and band-aids.
It was in my early twenties at Principia when I first truly encountered a “serious physical challenge” of the variety that should probably have required an urgent-care clinic. It was finals week and I bumped my chin on my bunk bed. I didn’t think much of it, until my jaw began to swell quite painfully.
I immediately contacted my RC, and a CS nurse came over to take me to Cox Cottage (the CS-nurse headquarters at Principia). She led me to one of the back rooms, told me I could get into bed and listen to the Bible Lesson or other authorized CS-material. I attempted to explain I had an abscessed tooth which needed to drain.* The CS nurse looked at me like I had two heads, she informed me they were “not equipped” to handle such situations, and I was then left alone.
I called my professors to let them know I was on the “in list” at Cox, it was during finals, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t really believe me. You can be “in” at Cox for a variety of reasons, it mostly just counts as an “excused” absence, and (in theory) you have to check in with your RC and be put on the “official” list.**
After about an hour I decided I could be just as miserable in my own bed. I got up to leave, but was convinced to stay by the CSN who made me lunch – grilled cheese and a milkshake. I managed to leave after that, reminding her that I had finals to take and had to finish packing and flying home shortly there after. I made it to most of my finals (although some had to be “made up” at a slightly later time than they’d been scheduled). I’m sure my professors and fellow students noticed my badly swollen jaw, but they said nothing. I then spent the night in surreal hallucinations.
I was fortunate, at some point in the night the abscess began to drain, the pressure was relived and the swelling began to subside. I “borrowed” some antibacterial mouthwash from one of the women in my dorm, and had my mother schedule a dental appointment for the first day after I got home.
My dentist was HORRIFIED at what had happened. I was lectured that such infections could cause enough swelling to crush my windpipe or cause blood poisoning, either of which, could have killed me. They managed to “save” what was left of the tooth with a root canal.
At the time I was dating a guy who was not a Christian Scientist. He too was horrified at what had happened. Why had no one at Prin said anything or offered to help? Simple, my swollen jaw was a mortal illusion to be corrected through prayer. The CS Nurse, while very sweet, is trained by the church in strictly non-medical methods, forbidden to diagnose disease or dispense medicine, and was completely useless. I also didn’t quite realize how dangerous the situation was, I knew I was uncomfortable, I knew I should get to a dentist ASAP, but really, what’s another day or two?
In my case, while I felt prayer could help mitigate some of the fear, it was also a dental issue, I have struggled for years with dental issues and had never been able to pray about them with any level of success. I needed and expected medical treatment, but at Principia getting access to medical care is nearly impossible and anything other than radically relying on Christian Science is frowned upon from the highest levels.
I also wouldn’t have know where to start. I didn’t have a car, I didn’t trust my RC, my friends and I had finals, I didn’t have any sort of health insurance (much less dental coverage), and the idea of finding a dentist in rural Illinois, getting there, paying for it all, and making it home at the end of the term felt like insurmountable obstacles.
In Ms. Heywood’s case it was the law that authorized her parents’ decision to leave her untreated, and the sanction of the law discouraged others from doing what was right. In mine, I was in my very early twenties, legally an adult, but the culture at Principia treated us like wayward children, and essentially forbid anyone from stepping up and offering assistance beyond “would you like some soup?” or “I’ll pray for you.” The culture at Prin also kept me from reaching out for much-needed physical aid, who could I trust with my dark secret: I needed to get to a dentist, this was a problem I could not simply pray away. Even acknowledging that I would be unable to heal the problem while on the Prin campus felt wrong.
Of course the Church has answers for these perplexing issues. The Ithica Journal quotes the representative for the Christian Science Committee on Publication for New York State:
“Christian Scientists make their own decision regarding their health care,” said Paul Hannesson, the Christian Science Committee on Publication for New York State. “There is no church protocol that requires them to use a spiritual solution.
“Many Christian Scientists do rely on prayer and their spiritual understanding of what that means in terms of their health because it works for them,” Hannesson said. “However, the church doesn’t take a position that they must use that solution in all cases to be a member of the church.” (emphasis mine)
Yes, Christian Scientists do make their own decisions regarding their health care. How convenient that they point this out, and of course the church has no requirement to use a spiritual solution. No one is saying you can not take medication, or seek medical care in a time of need (you’ll just be required to withdraw from Principia for a term/however long you need to be relying on medication), and you’ll just be ostracized from the community.
The Mother Church may take the warm-fuzzy “no church protocol” stance, but the reality is that people who are raised in Christian Science are taught to EXPECT HEALING. Amazing, miraculous, PHYSICAL HEALINGS. There is an ENTIRE CHAPTER in Science & Health devoted to HEALINGS and every Journal, Sentinal, CS Lecture and pamphlet at some level come back to the HEALING POWER of Christian Science.
This is WHAT CHRISTIAN SCIENCE IS ABOUT, rediscovering the “long lost power of HEALING” just like Jesus did. Official “church protocol” may say otherwise, but Ms. Eddy is quite clear through out Science and Health and other works that CS is all about healing, and one can not “mix” the material and spiritual. The church has gone so far as to TRADEMARK “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” around a cross and crown – this is what is EXPECTED of Christian Scientists, and everyone is made very aware of it from their first day in Sunday School forward.
If a person chooses to rely on spiritual methods and the healing never occurs than it is hardly the fault of the Church, they never told the person they had no other options. They just provided the resources and framework for the belief structure, decades of literature to support the idea of spiritual healing, a self-enforcing culture of radial-reliance and compliance.
Christian Science claims to encourage people to think, Ms. Eddy opens S&H with a quote about “the time for thinkers has come” – and you are promised as long as you are thinking good, true, and “spiritually right” thoughts you will experience amazing healings – and the amazing ability to heal others. If you’re not “knowing the truth” or getting distracted by the material then you’re opening yourself up to error, mortal mind, and the various problems associated with it – you’re bringing the problems on yourself. It isn’t the Church’s fault you’re not at an appropriate spiritual level to recognize the Truth and heal yourself, after all, they have decades of testimonies of people who managed just that, there must be something wrong with you.
The Church not having any “official protocol” is nothing but a cop-out to avoid being sued out of existence. Sure a Christian Scientist may visit a doctor, they’re allowed to, but they don’t want to, they WANT to experience the “amazing power of prayer” and they know if they only know the truth a little better, and read the books a little more, and pray a little harder it will happen.
Except when it doesn’t, and then it (sometimes) makes the news.
** There are so many issues with this system, I don’t even know where to start.