When I was just a kid, maybe eight years old, my mom got a call from Tommy Degan’s mom. Tommy and I lived four houses apart, and along with several other pals, we played together daily. We pretty much always got along, and Mrs. Degan knew me well. But she was distressed by Tommy’s report of one recent visit to our house. And to our bookshelves.
It seems I had shared some pictures from my doctor father’s medical books. I had focussed on illustrations of bizarre and frightening diseases (of course), and chief among these were photos of African men who, because they suffered from a particularly grotesque brand of elephantiasis, were forced, if they were to leave their homes at all, to carry their horribly engorged genitals in wheelbarrows. Such images had titillated me, not because I cared much about genitals at that time, but because I was chillingly enthralled by any awful suggestion that the world could turn traitor on my body, or on those of my friends. Testes as large as sides of beef certainly fit the bill. I knew that Tommy would share my hair-raising thrill at the sight of balls that filled a barrow.
Tommy was indeed excited, even to the point of telling his mother all about it. And that inspired his mother’s call to mine.
I was not privy to that conversation, but I knew its upshot. After consulting my father (and perhaps after viewing the relevant illustrations herself), my mother told Mrs. Degan that, should she want to protect her child from medical pictures of medical realities, she should, if at all possible, make sure that Tommy never came inside our house again. My mother explained that the books on our shelves were available to her children, and to all their friends. She and my father were not in the business of keeping science from anyone’s kids. I actually don’t know how Mrs. Degan responded. I do know that Tommy and I remained playmates.
I can’t help but be proud of my mother—as if I should take credit for the woman she was.
I think my mother shared this story with me quite soon after Mrs. Degan complained. I think she believed that even an eight-year-old was entitled to know that I had corrupted no one at all by sharing truths I’d discovered while rambling through library shelves. I certainly know that she had thus affirmed my exploratory impulse, my looking for answers to any questions, for any truths that I could find.
I’ve long since lost touch with Tommy Degan. His parents divorced when he and I were in fourth grade, long before divorce was socially acceptable, much less the norm. My family moved away from their neighborhood soon afterward, and I, in various towns we moved through, became increasingly comfortable with the fact that we didn’t always think like everyone around us. That difference didn’t make us special, didn’t make us superior. But it made us independent. We thought for ourselves.
What other way is there to think?