The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy

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Dogs of War: Bronwen Dickey on Pit Bulls

I met Bronwen Dickey at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, N.C., where she read from her first book, Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon. Dickey, a journalist and a contributing editor of Oxford American, spent seven years researching and writing her cultural history of the pit bull, a dog that occupies fraught territory in the American psyche.

A lot of fans were at the reading, and at least one non-fan, a guy who asked Dickey how many dog bite victims she had interviewed. “One,” she said, because only one would agree to talk to her. The guy then wanted to know how many she had asked for interviews. When she replied, “Ten or 15,” the guy scoffed. Dickey tried to move on, but the guy was a dog with a bone: he wouldn’t let go of the fact that she hadn’t spoken to more bite victims.

Finally, other audience members began shouting him down. One called his questions “stupid.” The guy shut up then, and we heard nothing more from him until after the event, when I sat down to interview Dickey. A Durham police officer had been called in to escort her from the store: the guy was waiting for her outside, “ranting and raving and waving fliers,” as the Raleigh News & Observer later reported.

The Millions: Was this the first heckling you’ve had in a reading?

Bronwen Dickey: Yeah. This is the ninth reading I’ve done and everyone has been amazing; they’ve been supportive and asked really good questions. There have definitely been people who are not sure how they felt about the dogs, which is completely fine, but that was the first time this has happened. [It would not be the last. A week after her Regulator reading, an anonymous Facebook group called Pit Bulls and Amputees posted a picture of her house with the caption “What famous author’s home do you think this might be? That’s right! It’s Bronwen Dickey’s residence.”]

TM: Were you just winging it up there or did you anticipate some kind of heckling at some point when you started doing readings?

BD: I anticipated some. There have been a lot of threats online, and a lot of the stores have been called and harassed. Their Facebook pages have been bombed with comments, so I expected that it would happen at some point. When it actually does happen, it throws you for a loop.

TM: One of your overall themes is that the pit bull is a uniquely American dog. Why this is the case?

BD: For one, the American Pit Bull Terrier did start here. Even though the stock was English and Irish, the official breed started here. But mainly because Americans across the board, whether they love or hate them, know about them; most people will have an opinion of them. And because you can trace so much of American history through the pit bull. They were here for the Battle of Gettysburg, the Battle of Normandy, with Helen Keller, with Teddy Roosevelt, all of these incredible moments. There is just this wild story all through it. I think they say a lot about us as a culture.

TM: When did you realize that the story of the pit bull could be a book?

BD: Probably 2012. That was when I was coming across so much of the science, so much of the history, and so many interesting characters that really one magazine piece couldn’t encapsulate it all. I wanted to have the scientific thread, the historical thread, and then the social thread. When I put it all together, there was just so much there.

TM: What other books or writers have you used as a model?

BD: Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men, for sure. Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus, which is about the autism vaccine debacle. A book by Pat Shipman called The Animal Connection. Also Deborah Blum’s The Monkey Wars, which is so good. It really shows an equally sympathetic portrait from both sides — the ethical issues involved in using primates for research. And it doesn’t vilify anyone or make anyone into cartoons. It’s really, really well done.

TM: For humans, it seems, the fear of some animals like spiders and snakes is primal. Do you think that the fear of pit bulls taps into that same primal instinct as well?

BD: Yes, very much so. We’ve gotten so far away from an agricultural lifestyle. So few of us spend any real time in the wilderness anymore that we forget that dogs are capable predators, and they have big teeth and claws and they can do us some damage. We’ve gotten kind of accustomed to thinking of dogs as toys or living stuffed animals. I think that lizard part of our brains is very rattled when we get bitten or a dog growls at us. They’re supposed to be like our surrogate children in some ways and we feel so insulted by it. To them it’s just communication as usual.

TM: What did you find most surprising in your research?

BD: How thin the science was. When I was looking at these papers that had been used to justify the discriminatory laws, these peer-reviewed papers were citing things like Sports Illustrated or National Geographic channel or websites of personal injury lawyers and I just thought in my head, “How did this pass a peer-review board? That’s really frightening.” So that was probably the thing that surprised me the most.

TM: Let’s switch gears a little. In recent years, a number of children of famous writers have published memoirs about their famous writer parents [e.g., Alexandra Styron’s Reading My Father and Erica Heller’s Yossarian Slept Here]. Have you ever had any interest in writing about your father, James Dickey?

BD: I’ve thought about it, but I don’t think I have the necessary perspective on my father yet, and my growing up to be able to write the type of memoir I would want to write. If I do that, it’s going to be many years. I would want to develop a lot more as a writer and also have more of a perspective on my own parents before doing that.

TM: Growing up, did you ever feel like you were expected to be a writer?

BD: I did, especially because my brother Christopher is a journalist. I remember when I was at one of my dad’s readings and met someone who asked “Well, Bronnie” — that’s what everyone called me — “what’s your favorite subject in school?” And I said, “science” and everybody laughed at me, because I was supposed to say something like “reading” or “English.” Everyone thought that, and there was that pressure and I always kind of went a different way, so it’s a little bit ironic that I ended up here.

TM: What was it like writing a book as opposed to the travel pieces and essays you write as a journalist?

BD: Terrifying. It was terrifying. Every single day I thought I couldn’t do it. There was so much self-doubt. There was so much of putting together a book length story that I had no idea how to do. Putting together a 6,000-word piece is nothing compared to putting together a 65,000-word book and threading the narrative that people will follow the whole way. It was really terrifying, but I grew so much as a person, so much as a reporter just by, you know — I was too humiliated to give up, you know? I was too proud, too stubborn, and I wasn’t going to go down that easily.

TM: If your dad were still here, how involved do you think he would have been in the production of your first book?

BD: Oh, I’m sure he would have tried to be very involved. He would have tried to be, and in that small way I’m glad he’s not because I know he would have had a lot of opinions about everything and it probably would have been harder for me to find my own voice. He would have been very well intentioned, but I’m sure he would have been overbearing.

TM: Back to pit bulls for a final question. A lot of people will read your book and think, “Okay, some people are afraid of pit bulls. Some people don’t like them as pets. So what?” What’s your big “so what?” in your defense and exploration of pit bulls? Why bring it to our attention?

BD: Some people, like our friend here [the heckler], probably think I’m trying to push pit bulls on people or advocate for them, or that I think they’re better than other dogs. Really, I’m very much neutral. I certainly don’t think they’re any worse, but I don’t think they’re any better either. People can hate them, this is America, they can feel however they want. Where I think it becomes important is where we start making laws that are discriminating against people, because it’s the people who are suffering the most when they can’t find housing or insurance, or they’re kind of pushed to the margins of society in this way that isn’t fair. It isn’t based on science. There is no reason why anyone should live in a place where animal control officers can come to your house and seize your dog and euthanize your dog based on the way it looks when it hasn’t done anything wrong. That should be something that is frightening to all of us. We need to think critically about all of the stereotypes we’re confronted with; this is only one small case study in how to do that.

Letters in the Wind: A Writer’s Evolution

The first time I learned what it means to be really good at something was in high school, on a golf course, with my hands cracked raw in the cold. I was on the 17th hole at Cape Arundel, a short, tricky course on the coast of Maine where the Bushes played in the summer. But as I stood there contemplating my tee shot in a hard wind off the Atlantic, all the glorious rounds I’d played on long August days felt very far away; I was who-knows-how-many strokes over par, my swing disintegrating in the elements.

Not everyone’s game fell apart that day. When I finished my round I was surprised to learn that several of the state’s best players had managed to turn in good scores. The pudgy, towheaded Ben Daughan had been atop the leaderboard at junior golf events all summer and he was there again that day, just a few shots over par even in weather better suited to a snowball fight. Upon seeing his score, I remember thinking that real ability thrives regardless of conditions.

I had that same thought in mind when, four years ago, I decided to make a career as a writer. My first assignment was a book review for The New York Observer — Jon Meacham’s American Lion. I spent six anguished days working virtually nonstop to squeeze out barely 900 words. Most of that time I spent in a high pulse-rate pace around my apartment, waiting for conditions to clear just enough to let out a sentence. I realized that my writing at age 28 was a lot like my golf game as a teenager: a single gust of wind and it went to Hell.

Around that same time I met Seth Mnookin, then a contributing editor at Vanity Fair with a best-selling book to his name. I emailed him, cold, looking for advice about starting a freelance career. He replied with a friendly admonition (Journalism is dying! Run away!) and a few weeks after we first talked, asked me if I wanted to help him write his next book, the contract for which had just been finalized with Simon & Schuster.

Over the next 20 months, I spent more time talking with Seth than I did with my wife. His book was about the spurious but dogged idea that vaccines cause autism. He lived in New York, I lived in Philadelphia, and during our first year together I transcribed interviews, summarized journal articles, and tracked down contact information while he flew around the country to autism conferences, tried to wrangle a conversation with actress-turned-anti-vaccine-crusader Jenny McCarthy, and put together a rough outline for the book.

I kept waiting for the day when Seth would start to actually write the book. It came, finally, in October, five months before the manuscript was due. I’d always imagined writing a book as a meditation, but what followed was more of an ecstatic experience.

Seth kept long hours at his rented desk in a freelancers’ office in Manhattan. Often he’d send me a rough draft of a chapter in the early evening and tell me he was going out for air and some Chinese food. I’d work on the trouble spots he’d called to my attention — usually transition sentences, or synonyms for words like “increasingly” that we’d already used a dozen times, or working on the order of a few knotty paragraphs. I’d send the text back to him before I went to bed and wince at the thought of the long night that awaited him. But when I woke up the next morning and checked on the chapter, I’d always find that Seth had managed to knock things straight. He did this day after day, for months on end, with deadlines close, his professional reputation on the line, his first child born in the middle of it all.

And from watching this I learned that a real writer shouldn’t need a cup of tea at his side or a cabin with a view of the ocean or things just so in his own mind in order to get his work done.

My work with Seth on The Panic Virus, as it came to be called, ended in the middle of 2010 and I went on trying to make it as a writer. Most of my assignments were short pieces for college alumni magazines or book reviews for The Christian Science Monitor.  Over time I found that my palms weren’t sweating as much when I sat down at my computer, and that I’d learned to do just enough of the writing process automatically to give me room to think as I wrote.

Around that same time I remember watching tennis’s U.S. Open. It was a windy day in Flushing and all the players were complaining about how it had been impossible to serve given the conditions. Then Roger Federer entered Arthur Ashe Stadium and aced out his opponent. Afterwards he was asked how he’d been able to serve so well in such bad weather. I remember Federer looking amused, like the question made no sense. “I’ve practiced my serve a whole lot my whole career,” he replied. “If I can’t serve in the wind I’ve got a problem. You can wake me up at two or four in the morning I can still hit serves.”

I’ve tried writing in the middle of the night and the results usually aren’t good. But four years in as a writer, I’m less sensitive to my surroundings than I used to be. Just before Christmas, I was hired by The Boston Globe to write the paper’s “Brainiac” ideas blog. I’m writing 10 pieces a week, often about unfamiliar topics; four years ago I would have had a heart attack contemplating this kind of job, but now I feel practiced enough to do it well. I still can’t write like Seth, or like Federer can serve, or that kid Ben could golf, but I find that at least I can apply consistently the talent I have.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

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