“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” – Joan Didion
Even after decades of clinical experience I am still struck by the sometimes random and sometimes cruel nature of the occurrence of genetic and congenital conditions. You meet a family with 3 successive children with a profoundly serious recessive condition and the next carrier couple that you see have 6 unaffected children. A grandmother watches her husband, son, and grandchildren die from Li-Fraumeni cancers, and then you encounter a TP53 mutation in a young woman with breast cancer and a family history devoid of other cancers. A gene panel reveals that a woman has dodged a BRCA1 mutation in a pedigree overflowing with breast cancer – but she has a pathogenic APC mutation and not a single relative with colon cancer or polyposis. An adopted woman learns she is pregnant the same day she is contacted for the first time by her biological family and told that her biological father just died of Huntington disease.
We consult the Codex of OMIM or the Oracle of Bayes, and then tell scientific stories of skewed mendelian ratios or stochastic processes (Literal translation: Shit happens), stories as much for ourselves as for our patients. My favorite (non)explanatory story is “a multifactorial combination of genetic and environmental factors.” Come on, please. What human trait is not the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors? We can wind up committing the original sin of genetic counseling – responding only with cold, meaningless facts to patients’ cris de coeur for comfort, validation and acknowledgment of their emotional states, their quest for a psychologically meaningful understanding and acceptance of their situation, and the need to make sense of their suddenly upturned lives. We should be forgiven though. Genetic counselors are only human and who among us is without sin? None of us were immaculately conceived.**
Patients will fill this void with their own stories. It was that stress in my life. They used to spray insecticide all the time in my neighborhood and now every house on my block has someone with cancer. Then there are the somewhat morally judgmental plaints – I am a vegan, I exercise daily, and put no poisons in my body; my sister eats only fast food, smokes, drinks, and has a new boyfriend every weekend, but I am the one who gets cancer and it’s just not fair. Or it must have been the manufacturing plant down the road with that awful chemical smell (How come no one ever lays the blame on pleasing aromas like cinnamon buns in the oven, freshly roasted coffee, or the sensual curry infused scent of an Indian kitchen?).
If Joseph Campbell was right, mythopoesis is as innate as erythropoiesis. Our minds can’t help but tell stories like our marrow can’t help but make blood. So let me offer my own mythological explanation of the epidemiology and distribution of genetic and congenital disorders – Pedigrus Rex, the god and ruler of pedigrees. Pedigrus is definitely in the classic Greco-Roman tradition of a powerful god ready to unleash his power at a mere whim or perception of insult, without the slightest thought to consequences. As much Zeus as Trickster.
Sometimes he is benevolent. Let’s see, I will render that woman pregnant after she has given up, exhausted from years of unsuccessful fertility treatments. Sometimes he is terribly unkind (Pedigrus Wrecks?). Hmmm, I think I will give a tetralogy of Fallot to that baby with severe ichthyosis. Hey, why not introduce yet another common mutation in another gene to the Ashkenazim? Sometimes he is astonishingly trivial in his malevolence, like making my pedigree software malfunction after having entered a hugely complex family history. Usually, though, he is emotionally indifferent, just going about his business of indiscriminately sowing the seeds of sadness, joy, shock, and love into the soil of human reproduction. We may try to appease him with sacrifices in our temples or try to understand his motives by consulting seers and prophets in our clinics. Mostly, though, he is beyond comprehension and placation.
This is not to lessen the importance of providing medical and scientific explanations. Many patients want technical information and often that is why they come to us. The beam of knowledge sheds some light for them but does not fully illuminate. They will integrate the scientific story into their own narrative – but on their own terms. It is only part of what they are seeking. Our duty to patients is not discharged once we have given them a recurrence risk or a name to their child’s condition. We need to help them create a psychologically meaningful narrative, a life story, that helps them cope and adapt to their situations, to grow and move on.
The Greek tragedies teach us that we have the ability transform sadness into love, shock into acceptance, fragility into strength, denial into hope. Suffering (pathos) turns into recognition (anagnorisis) and reversal (peripeteia). Humanity trumps divinity by telling stories that work emotional miracles. We can all be greater than gods.
“Mythology, in other words, is psychology misread as biography, history, and cosmology.”
― Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
Thanks to Emily Singh for help with the graphics.
** Let me digress here and correct a common “mythconception” about the term Immaculate Conception. Most people use the term to describe a conception that occurred without the benefit of sexual intercourse. This is quite incorrect; this is confusing Immaculate Conception with Divine Conception. Immaculate Conception refers to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and not to the conception of Jesus. In Roman Catholic doctrine, Mary, who was the product of conjugal relations between her parents Joachim and Anne after years of infertility, was the only human ever conceived without Original Sin on her soul, i.e., she was immaculately conceived. Jesus, on the other hand, was the product of Divine Conception by the Holy Spirit. He could not have been conceived in the usual style because that would have tainted him with Original Sin, a trait he would have inherited from Mary’ s husband Joseph. Mary learned of her pregnancy at The Annunciation, traditionally 9 months before Christmas on March 25th, when the Angel Gabriel announced to her that “the Holy Spirit would come upon thee” resulting in the miracle of divine conception in Mary’s virginal womb that was unblemished by sin or sex, and without Joseph’s, er, assistance (Joseph had his own visit from an angel who sort of explained the situation to him. So you might understand why Joseph was deserving of sainthood.).