Kathryn Stockett Brings The Help Into The Conversation

After finishing The Help by Kathryn Stockett a couple of days ago, I just put the book down and sat still for a few minutes, letting the final remnants of the novel settle into my consciousness. There aren’t very many books that a reader takes with them wherever they go, but from the time I picked up this tale about African American maids who worked in white households in the 1960’s, I was hooked.

In our house, we are demonstrative readers. The better the book, the more lively the reactions, which may range from sighs of disappointment, hmmmphs of disgust, squeals of delight, shouts of outrage, groans of anger, peals of laughter, to an outright monologue, delivered with gusto, as if the author is in earshot.

Ms. Stockett got the full treatment last weekend. By the time I finished reading The Help I was tired. I was worn out from all of the unpredictable twists and turns in the plot. I was emotionally spent from the plainly wrought scenes of black women and the suffering they endured from the white women who employed them. I was psychologically exhausted by the connection between the injustices of yesteryear and the plight of blacks in America today. But it was the good kind of tired.

The most striking thing about the book, narrated in the alternating voices of three women - two of them maids, the third the book’s blond haired protagonist – was the way Stockett, whose book jacket picture suggests a striking physical similarity to the Junior Leaguers she lampooned mercilessly throughout the novel, was able to do such a convincing job of portraying the complex emotions of pre-civil rights era domestic workers in the Deep South.

The whole idea of the book—black women servants telling the good, the bad, and a whole lot of ugly about their relationships with the white families who employed them—made me think “someone finally gets it that we have only talked about race from one perspective in this country.”  The book is a confessional in many ways, with the young, white Skeeter Phelan serving as the vessel through which the maid’s opinion’s are rendered.

As the book went on, though, and the number of maid’s stories Skeeter collected and edited increased, I couldn’t help but groan inwardly as I pictured the raw words of the black maids being edited and revised by the sensibilities of a young, privileged white woman. It was even more ironic that Aibileen, the first black maid to tell her story, and the catalyst for all the maids who followed her, was  a woman who had been writing for “an hour or two a day” for decades, yet ended up helping Skeeter put the book together.

I had no idea how Stockett was going to end the story. It doesn’t seem that she did either – the ending, after such a masterful beginning and middle, left a lot to be desired. There were too many loose ends left dangling, with the last couple of scenes giving me a “tacked on” feeling. But these inconsistencies are just that—inconsistencies—that do not reduce the power of the exchanges between the cover of this book.

Like Skeeter Phelan in the novel, Stockett seems to have sorely underestimated the kind of animosity she was going to get from literary critics who felt it was presumptuous of the author to think she could speak for black people.  But I’m glad Ms. Stockett wrote this book. In a lot ways, its popularity seems to signal that America may be ready to begin taking the next step on the long road to racial equality for all of its citizens—accepting legitimate criticism about America’s racial shortcomings from its minority contingent without reverting to a stance of smug, self satisfied denial.  

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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