Charnyn was late to work again today. I should probably talk with her, see if something’s going on in her life? I’m terrible at that stuff, though. Maybe make Dylan or Anne Marie do it.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I got involved in this research. It’s so hard to pick out the decisions that led me here. And that worries me. It doesn’t make me feel like I’m in control of my career.
Yesterday was crazy. I walk in and Charnyn’s in tears and Natalie is standing there berating her! I almost pitched a fit. It was so clearly out of line. But I took a lot of slow deep breaths and asked Natalie to step into the lunch room, and it turns out that Charnyn was just late again. So I explained very slowly and calmly that I would speak with Charnyn myself, but that I didn’t think Natalie’s response had been appropriate, and of course she makes it very clear to me that Parker’s on her side. Why do we have to have these stupid factions? I have to say, though, not thrilled with the whole breaking down in tears thing.
So that’s a good hour of work time wasted. Add to that the time I spent trying to sensitively discern whether Char was okay, etc., which I’m terrible at; she hedged, but I get the feeling that something’s up with her. She looks awful—with the short hair and the very prominent cheekbones and jawline, she can get a kind of skull look when she’s unhappy.
And we’re working now on a series of really unpleasant malformations. Mine is like when the maple trees drop their seedpods, the little green propeller things. When I was a kid I would slit the pods open with my fingernail, and inside there would be a tiny, crumpled, unready, pale green tissue, like an embryonic leaf. And that’s how my thing is all over. Crumpled up, crippled. Like a glob with deep wrinkles, almost folds or fissures, covered with lanugo, and a thing like a face on one end. You can definitely see the noseholes and the mouth, and you can tell where the eyes should be, but either they aren’t there or they’re gummed shut. I’m not really interested in that part; what I’m supposed to be investigating are the flippers and the wings. I don’t like these ones, the very large malformations. They’re part of the reason I want to move into a more administrative or research-design position, rather than directly carrying out the work.
Okay, so how I got here. My first research job was with Internal Solutions. Corporate research with government applications and funding. (This is one of my pet peeves: how none of the “activists” understand the complexities of how government and private research intertwine.) This was a fantastic job, looking at the very earliest stages of genetic malformation so that we could prevent it for both standard births and parents who’d chosen enhancements. I know the rewards—the prize grants, but more importantly the respect we got from everyone around us, from the media, from my family—were one reason I stayed in this field. Everyone loves you when you’re making their children better; almost everyone, anyway.
I moved to my second job because I wanted to work with Charnyn, and because the intellectual challenge was greater. Char worked, at that time, for a military subcontractor. I’d always been a little skeptical of the military stuff (influenced by the atmosphere in college, I think, willing to give too much credibility to the activists), but Char spoke my language. We presented on the same panel at a conference on enhancement applications, and afterward she took me out for drinks and pitched me on switching jobs. She allayed most of my fears: She promised that I wouldn’t be pressured to come to “politically correct” conclusions, that I would have a high degree of autonomy, that I would have the time to follow the best and most current research in my field. She pointed to politically unpopular stances her company had taken. For example, I remember she said they were the first ones to cast cold water on the idea of motor control enhancement in the first three weeks. That impressed me because as soon as I’d heard that proposal I’d thought it was ridiculous; we didn’t know enough to do that at the time. Thinking about it, I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t kept up on the best research. I don’t think I could give a competent opinion now on how early we could start motor control work. I should know that stuff. Another reason to move into research design.
At any rate, Char said all the right things. Maybe more importantly, she was hilarious—she did impressions of the other panelists, and she told great stories about growing up in rural South Carolina. She’d been a punk rocker in high school and college, and I think that did more than anything to sell me on her company; she was clearly not some corporate conformist. We talked about our favorite punk bands, and the stupid cliques in the “scene,” and how strange it felt to be highfalutin research scientists when inside we still felt like rowdy, dissatisfied punk girls. So a month later, I started on her team at INext Azarian.
INext was an okay place to work. Char made it fun; and Dylan. The work itself… well, I really didn’t see this at the time, but I think the turning point for me, at least—I don’t know about Char and Dylan—came when Jacob left. Jacob was the only married member of our research team—the hours make it hard. His wife was a small, suspicious, porcelain-pretty woman named Asha, who disliked the company, the work, and the amount of time it required of her husband. It was a running joke in the office, how Asha gritted her teeth to put up with us. She carefully selected one or two INext people for each dinner party they held. I was on her okay list; Char (because of her position as a recruiter, I think) and Dylan (because of his flamboyance?) never got invited. Jacob was apologetic about it, but we all knew he had to take her side, and in some ways I think we (especially the women) found it charming that he was loyal to her in the face of embarrassment in front of his colleagues and possible problems for his career advancement.
He left for religious reasons—they were Jewish. He tried to talk to me about it, but honestly, I didn’t know what to say. If that’s how you feel, you obviously aren’t cut out for the work—I don’t mean that in a belittling way, just that you shouldn’t do something that feels wrong to you. (Now I sound like Dylan. He’s very “follow your bliss.” I always wondered why I should trust my bliss—who says it knows the way?)
It wasn’t so much that the team suffered from the withdrawal of Jacob’s skills, though that obviously did happen. It was more that I think we all resented him for putting it in our face, the way the activist minority feel about our work. It changed the atmosphere in the lab. We were more defensive. We blamed Asha, I think—the joking about her got a lot harsher during the lag period when Jacob had given his notice but hadn’t yet finished out his contract—but we also blamed Jacob, and I know I felt betrayed. We had a very “team” atmosphere, cultivated by Charnyn, which made up for some of the difficulties of the work, and Jacob had poisoned it. And we couldn’t even blame him, because he was so sincere! I think that was the killer, maybe—we all felt bad for resenting him. The sniping at Asha in her absence was part of our attempt to convince ourselves that Jacob didn’t really disapprove of us, the team hadn’t really failed. I’m surprised I didn’t see that at the time.
So when we got the offer to merge our research section with a directly military project, we were all enthusiastic. It meant a slight pay cut, but better facilities, and, well, something new.
I’m just realizing that I want to talk a little bit about the activists, but Anne Marie is having an apartment-warming party and I don’t want to be more than fashionably late. I’ll try to write tomorrow.
Anne Marie’s party was fun enough. I felt a bit like a third wheel. Her friends are much more interested in politics, some Capitol Hill people, some magazine people. For me, with politics, I always feel like the ground sinks and shifts under my feet as soon as I try to walk one step forward from where I am. Complicated and detail-specific and you don’t know who to trust. That’s a big thing for me, not knowing who to trust; it came out at the party because I found myself falling back so often on things I’d heard Char or Dylan say.
So, I said I wanted to write about the activists. I’m not sure now. Yesterday I really felt like they had influenced my career—like I had set my jaw, all heroic, and said, “I will not be moved!” But now I think I was a bit carried away. Still, I said I would write about them, so here we go.
They started irritating me in college. My junior year, a gang of them started up a new group, and they held protests and so forth. But they didn’t know anything! I tried arguing with them a couple of times. First of all, they lived in some political never-neverland. They wanted to abolish the military, or at least military science. Then, they didn’t know what they were talking about. They thought that all research funding was fungible, but even then I knew that there were some projects where money was fungible and some with very specific, targeted funding, with firewalls, and they just wouldn’t acknowledge that that was possible. Anyone who had any connection to gen-mal research was tainted, in their eyes, no matter how tangential the connection. They tried to get the university to sever its contract with Aramark for pity’s sake—the food service!—because Aramark had a GMO crop division that partnered with a company that did gen-mal.
And they didn’t know the science. I would stand there—in the rain one time!—and patiently explain that they had the stages of genetic malformation all wrong, that they were wrong about the rates of natural enhancement versus natural degeneration, that they had this idealized romantic conception of “mutants” who looked just like you and me except Special. And it was like reading a textbook to a Persian cat. You could rattle off the numbers and it would make no impression at all. Because they didn’t trust you—there’s that thing again. Why I hate politics. It’s all about who you trust.
I think the next thing I should try to figure out with this diary is how I ended up in charge of the lab, and specifically, what that means about what’s up with Charnyn. But I want to watch Fox now, my Wednesday shows are starting.
I am so mad I could bite someone.
Today got off to a thrilling start when on the way to the subway I spotted the latest issue of Time at the newsstand. Pretty undersea picture—deep orange and pink hues like a liquid sunset. And floating in this primordial world, a thing like a child with wings.
Here’s the thing: It was the most manipulative cover image you could imagine. Plump limbs, skin tinted artificially pink, cupid’s-bow lips curved in a thoughtless smile, tiny snubnose. And wings. The nubby wings sprouted from the shoulder blades, with no damage or cannibalization to the upper limbs, something I have never seen. And in thick white type just beneath the puffy baby fist, the caption, “The Face of Gen-Mal?”
Note the cop-out punctuation.
I didn’t want to buy it—didn’t want to give them my money—but I needed to know what was in the story, and I didn’t want to stand there reading it in public at the newsstand. I didn’t want to treat it as if it were respectable journalism rather than emotional pornography. So I bought a copy and shoved it into my bag.
Well, off to the haven of the workplace, you know? Where we’re all in this together? Except Charnyn comes in a half hour late, pale, sweating like a fever victim, dulled voice and blunted eyes, ramshackle. And laboring jerkily around the lab like a daggone crosstown bus.
And of course, I’m still working on the winged subject. A real winged gen-mal, not this movie star happy baby on the magazine covers. Nice how they don’t show the deformed face, or the flippers.
Just before lunch I go to the bathroom. And in the next stall, there’s Charnyn, being sick. Thank you for confirming all my suspicions. A week ago I would have been disappointed, but now I’m just disgusted, annoyed, and sad. I didn’t say anything, just did my business and left.
I guess now I know how I ended up head of the lab. We had about three great months, right after the move to the military lab, and then it was as if Char just lost interest. As if something punctured her and her motivation started leaking away. She didn’t push for research grants, so I did the applications. She seemed nonplussed when we talked to her about new project proposals or budget fights. At first she hid behind the claim that she just wanted to focus on the science, not the paperwork. But then she started coming in late, missing days of work, and it started to become clear that she was just losing it. Breaking up like a radio signal.
It’s hard to remember what she was like, that night in the hotel bar when she wooed me away to INext. Passionate, focused, completely herself. It’s hard to think about that now.
Dylan invited me and Anne Marie to a party tomorrow night. Just like Dylan to party in the middle of the week and turn up fresh and sassy the next morning, 8:30 on the nail. I’ll go, though; I need an excuse to make me talk to him about Char. I really can’t address her on my own. I don’t want him to do my dirty work—I’ll talk to her, in the end—but if I can ascertain that he already knows about the problem, I want to get his advice on dealing with her. I think that’s the way to do it.
I still haven’t read the Time story. I guess I should do it now. Bedtime story. “Once upon a time there was a perfect little child just like you, only with lovely soft wings—but then the nasty scientists came and ate him!”
Peaceful day in the lab. Doesn’t change my opinion about what I have to do; but still, it was so good to get a break from all the drama.
Char on time; subdued, but working steady. Natalie and Parker at HQ, out of our hair. Dylan rambling around the lab singing some old-timey song—“Just give me five, ten, fifteen minutes of your love!” Anne Marie teasing him—“It’s fifteen hours, you dog!” And him teasing back—“Hey, girl, fifteen minutes is all you need to know just how amazing I really am!” Very retro, very three months ago.
And me, and my misshapen “angel.”
I spent all day on the wings. The flippers I’ve mostly analyzed already. The wings are thick and sturdy at the base, where they meet the shoulders, but they get weak and lumpy and wrong toward the tips. The thing looks kind of like a mangled bat that went through a car wash. The wings should have been arms; or, I guess, the arms should have been wings. Instead it’s nothing neither way, each kind of limb cannibalizing the other’s tissues. It’s a mess.
It turned up in my dream last weekend, I didn’t mention that. Creepy dream, walking along the side of a road (in the Shenandoah Valley, I think now), passing all these huge, wet, silver-scaled fish—all decapitated. I remember how sticky, pasty, the bright red blood was. I don’t remember how the flipper subject came into it, but I know it was in there somewhere. I really don’t like that thing taking up space in my head.
After work, Anne Marie and I hit Dylan’s party. It wasn’t quite what I expected—more a sedate cocktail hour than the rocknroller night I’d expected from Dylan. Too bad really. I’d kind of wanted a change from the same old. We three were the only scientists there; the rest of the crowd was political, mostly journalists. Really not my scene. So of course, I managed to plow right into yet another political argument.
I was getting a beer from the fridge, and I had to duck in between two men arguing about violent movies. Both were in their late twenties, thirty at the most, making me the old one. One of them, the hip one (why are hipsters always skinny?), was insisting that violent movies didn’t really affect the audience, since it’s all presented as fantasy, and box-office is dependent on consumer demand, so if people are watching violent movies it’s because they have some preexisting desire to see the action. The other guy, short and chubby with sandy hair, said that the media—fiction and non-fiction alike—was the place where a culture told itself stories (or something like that, I don’t remember his exact deal). And those stories shaped society’s moral beliefs. So change the stories, and you change the culture. “That’s kind of why I got into journalism in the first place,” he said.
That’s what caught my attention, I think. I’d been thinking about journalism a lot lately, because of that stupid Time cover. It’s pretty obvious to me how that cover fits into a “cultural narrative.”
So I jump in and say that I agree with the sandy-haired guy, I think people in the media have a lot of influence and they need to be more responsible about how they use it, etc. Probably came off as some strident person just wandering through the party looking for an argument, pretty much the opposite of the truth.
Both of them were very friendly, but hipster-boy challenged me, “Oh, you don’t really think the media control people’s thoughts, right? I mean, nobody walks out of action thrillers thinking it’s okay to just shoot people in the head. People’s moral beliefs are stronger than that.”
So I said something like, Sure, but that’s murder—I mean, he was picking an extreme example. But there are all kinds of other… blah blah blah, we were off to the races, and I was tangled in this almost hour-long argument about the “cultural construction of morality” or whatever. In other words, exactly what I didn’t want to happen to my evening. Oh well, could’ve been worse. I could’ve ended up having to defend my line of work to some anti.
I talked less toward the end of the conversation, and Dylan spotted me leaning against the kitchen counter and looking, I guess, tired or something. He played knight in shining beer can and whisked me away. The three of us ended up tucked away in a corner, drinking (mostly the other two—it’s not really my thing) and commiserating about being the only science people in the crowd.
That got us talking about how we’d decided to do this work, which was pretty interesting. I knew most of Anne Marie’s story, but I’d never heard Dylan talk about it before—the motivations behind it.
My motivation was definitely the most boring of the three of us. I do gen-mal because I’m really good at it. I mean, yes, I think it’s good and necessary work, but when you come down to it I do it because I can.
That’s sort of like Dylan’s explanation, but not quite—his is a little cooler, a little more “Dylan.” He said working on this kind of research, where we have so few answers, where what we do could seriously reshape society, made him feel like when you’re driving really fast, out ahead of everything, when you’re free. He said that knowing he was good at gen-mal made him feel like he was moving faster than everyone else in the world.
AM was like, “Hm, that’s pretty cool, but it’s a lot more… theoretical than the reason I got into this field.” And she told Dylan about how her mother had one pregnancy end in a malformation. It’s a really harrowing story. I don’t think AM would have told it if she hadn’t been at least a little drunk. Her mother had a rough labor, they put her under, and when she came to she didn’t have a baby, just a form verifying that the malformation had occurred. She’d gone in for an ultrasound early in the pregnancy and everything had seemed fine, but malformation can happen at any stage of pregnancy, even in early infancy. That must be the worst—to give birth, to think you have a baby, and then to see it warp until it has to be destroyed. That’s just about too awful to think about.
Her mother never found out what kind of malformation it had been. A lot of hospitals keep that information sealed, so not even the person it happened to ever knows. I guess they think it’s easier to heal if you can’t picture the malformation, if it’s all kind of hazy. I know AM disagrees with that, and I definitely respect her opinion—but I have some problems, emotionally, just doing research on the bigger malformations. It’s just a visceral reaction. I can’t even imagine how I’d react if it were my own pregnancy. (To be honest, I think this work has put me off having a child. We see all the horrible things that can go wrong.)
So AM’s story made us pretty quiet. But I think we all felt much closer—even closer than when we’d first switched over from INext.
I felt like it would be a good time to talk about Char. So I kind of hinted around it, said I’d noticed her behavior changing, and whether they’d noticed a problem.
Dylan snorted, gave this kind of fake tough-guy wince, and said, “You mean besides the fact that she’s a drunk?” Anne Marie looked down at her hands, but I could tell from her face that she’d known too. (I really should have talked to them about this earlier. …So much for my supposed “leadership skills.”)
Dylan thought we had no choice but to pressure her into a temporary leave of absence, and try to get her into some kind of program. He thought Anne Marie and I would be the best people to break it to her. AM wondered if we couldn’t just let her know that we thought she had a problem, and give her a chance to shape up. But Dylan used his status as the partier, the one with much more experience with drugs and alcohol, to convince us that Char needed something more than just a warning.
At this point, I’ve made up my mind. I’ll deal with Char, because that’s my responsibility as the head of our lab, but I’m getting out as soon as I can. Yeah, I do this work well. But it’s making me crazy. Creepy winged things, personnel problems. No thanks. I’m going to find somewhere that’ll let me use my research talents, but without the issues. Not admin. Ideally, research design.
I’m going to fix my resume tomorrow and start sending it out after work. I guess by that time I’ll have dealt with Char.
New job, new diary. I feel wasteful just ditching the old one, but hey, it was only a two-dollar comp book. And it’s served its purpose. I’ve got my career under control now.
I still feel a little conflicted about all the unfinished business I left at the old lab. I know Dylan thinks I abandoned them. He’s disappointed in me—thinks the going got tough, so I cut and ran. Plus now he has to work in a lab with only one person he actually likes. I know he thinks if I’d stayed, I could’ve kept Parker and Natalie from getting Char fired.
Maybe. I would have fought that, and I’m good at bureaucratic jujitsu. But that’s exactly the kind of thing that made me leave in the first place. I was good at office politics, but I hated it: That isn’t what I wanted from science.
I still work for the government; funny how I used to be almost ashamed of doing government science, instead of seeing it as a chance to serve my country, to serve something bigger than the profit motive. But now, instead of hands-on research—hours in the lab under those eye-killing fluorescents, the yellowing chemical smells that cling to your clothes, sharp implements, teasing muscle away from bone—I work in research design. Other people do the dirty work of investigating my questions and hunches.
It’s especially exciting because I’m working on survivable gen-mals, something I really didn’t know much about before. So I’m getting to learn all kinds of new things. It’s reshaping my understanding of how genetic malformation works and how we can prevent it. I never realized how many mals survive their distortion—from a personal perspective that’s horrible, of course, but from a research perspective it’s fascinating. The results we’ve been getting from the vivisections are, I feel sure, putting us on the track to preventing malformation for good.
Intellectual excitement, service to others—and romance! I went on a date last night with this guy Michael, who does human resources for our department. He taught me how to eat with chopsticks. Corny! But very cute.
That’s the sort of thing that makes me so glad I left the lab. I don’t think I could have enjoyed a simple, cute gesture like that before. All the drama in the lab was making me cynical, hard. I felt like the ground was buckling under me and I had to be hard and fast just to keep from falling. But now I can relax. Right before I left the lab, I started having nightmares: huge, silver-scaled fish, or small animals, all decapitated. The dreams were coated in thick, pasty, unnatural, dull red blood. I haven’t had one of those dreams in weeks.
And it’s incredibly refreshing to date someone who understands how important our work is. Someone who understands science.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She is a Yale alumna and blogs at eve-tushnet.blogspot.com.