It’s been a couple of years since I visited the National Library of Medicine to study Dr. John B. Calhoun, one of the “inspirations” Robert C. O’Brien (Robert Conly) mentioned as leading to his book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.
I spent a lot of time thinking about what Calhoun was like. I found an interesting person in those records… One who believed “compassion” was the “revolution” that would save humanity. His assignment, to study the effects of overcrowding/lack of privacy on a society’s behavior led to a dire outcome – complete societal collapse.
I did a lot of soul searching, yet again. I suppose it’s because I found what I believed to the corpse of a poisoned mouse on the pavement near my home. Perhaps it was also because I saw an article that Don Bluth wants to resurrect the beauty of hand-drawn animation and it naturally led me to think of Secret of NIMH.
At the risk of starting out sounding like Quint, “You all know me…,” well, you know how I dream of the magnificence of Conly’s book being rendered into film as intended. I think it loses some powerful messages when changed from its original form, as well as going a bit over the top in portraying scientists as mad torturers. On the other hand, I have to admit, I give it mad kudos for getting out the brave message/suggestion that perhaps we don’t have the right or shouldn’t have the right to inflict suffering… even on “rats.” Films are forced to make messages quicker, brighter, faster, and, yes… even darker. This is necessary not just for kids, but for adults, in many cases.
This being said, I have been thinking again about Conly and Calhoun, and what Conly does so well in Mrs. Frisby and in his other books, is raise the alarm about the dangers of the kinds of detachment that can make the wonderfulness of scientific discovery abjectly terrifying.
“Perfectly healthy, except dead.”
That could have summed up in four words what Calhoun’s post-rodent-apocalypse scenarios “clinically” resulted in. Healthy, but dead, rats and mice. Although these mouse/rat worlds were never short of food or water, what they were short of was a way for these creatures to preserve the “unquantifiable,” their ability to function without undue stress or pressure. The colonies broke both in “mental” collapse for the inhabitants, and scientists watched, and did not interfere, as violence and “behavioral instability” led to horrifying results. Whole segments of the populations became withdrawn, others violent, but, eventually, all died. Even the typical burial preparations disappeared in one of the mouse worlds – a situation Calhoun captured “poetically” in a poem dedicated to one of the dying females.
Conly never portrays such anything like this in his books. The rats of NIMH are simply made “smarter” and receive little more than mild shock or quick needle pricks. But it is the “detachment” that makes Dr. Schultz the “bad guy” in Mrs. Frisby. Dr. Schultz isn’t a sadist, but what he is is completely detached. He doesn’t despise the animals – he simply doesn’t acknowledge them as being sentient or worthy of compassion. He criticizes a grad student for getting the gender of a rat wrong when she observes the rat is frightened. But, most of all, it is the end of the book that tells more about how Conly seems to feel: Dr. Schultz, after failing to exterminate the rats of NIMH, notes the dead animals as “perfectly healthy.” Which, of course, they are not. Not now. But, for the experiment’s purposes, for the “reporting” purposes, the rats that he has deliberately caused to die… knowingly…. are “healthy.” Healthy in terms of the Fitzgibbons’ concern about rabies, but also healthy in terms of the only measures of health considered important to the results. Sarah Conly, in her essay “Intelligence and Utopia in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH ,” notes the willingness of the scientists to “attack with cyanide gas a group of rats they believe to be as intelligent as themselves.”
I dedicated my research to Conly because I felt like he got it right. He’s not anti-science – not in any of his books. What he speaks to is the ability of some to turn off feelings and compassion in pursuit of some perceived “better state” of things – the ability to rationalize one’s way through anything at all. He saw past the human desire to simply treat ethics as something that can be reduced to some sort of quantifiable litmus test. Conly didn’t introduce “superhuman” elements into the stories because he needed them to retain the level of “realism” needed to keep the reader actively engaged in trying to question the ethics of the surrounding actions. There was no easy “good” or “evil,” but a seemingly infinite number of shades of human grey.
I find it interesting that Mr. Conly is still challenging me to think about and rethink about the perceptions of “humanity” and “ethics” in his books. Perhaps not many people are comfortable in a world in which things cannot be quickly and easily be categorized…. I am not comfortable in a world where they can be. A false sense of security is no sense of security at all.
Even now, many years later, after the research, I still have trouble figuring out just where I feel Dr. Calhoun fell on the Dr. Schultz scale, and perhaps it is both humbling and important to remember that living with ambiguity is sometimes preferred to living where one is simply “sure of it all.” If we do not closely examine our held beliefs, we may find we believe in nothing solid at all.