Issue 283 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


In your May 1999 Correspondence section, Wesley J. Smith smites his critics with unwarranted vehemence. The most egregious example is his response to hospice worker Margie Thompson’s letter, in which she offers a perspective on hospice life somewhat bleaker than his own. He counters with his version, which is sentimental to the point of smarminess, and concludes by saying, “I do hope that the patients Thompson works with do not perceive her personal disgust over the difficulties that dying people sometimes face.”

I read the same letter and thought it reflected concern for and empathy with her clients’ predicaments. Thompson speaks directly about some of the less-pleasant aspects of terminal illness, whereas Smith prefers euphemisms. She also speculates that she herself might prefer to opt out. Surely, that does not translate into “personal disgust.” Dying is not necessarily a Disney scenario.

Such moral condescension is one of Smith’s favorite rhetorical devices. In the interview in the February issue [“In the Name of Compassion”], he states that assisted-suicide advocates are, at the very least, “misguided,” and suggests that less-savory forces are really behind the movement: a culture that devalues anyone not young, beautiful, and athletic; a “radical individualism” that displaces communitarian ideals; HMO-inspired pressures for medical cost containment; and perhaps even neo-Nazi notions of eugenics. He warns that legalizing assisted suicide starts us down a slippery slope toward a world where the unfit are routinely euthanized. Without a doubt, Smith’s concerns are valid ones, but his response to criticism demonstrates that moral debates can themselves present a slippery slope. Characterizing those with opposing views as either deluded or morally deficient — without “true” compassion — is the first step downward.

Bob Drury Long Beach, California

As I read Lee Martin’s essay “Not at This Address” in your April 1999 issue, I asked myself, Why is it so bad that Martin’s aging mother gives money and shelter to local kids? Why does our culture automatically read this kind of behavior in the elderly as a sign of dementia or senility? I waited for Martin to see things from his mother’s point of view, to have some sort of epiphany, a flash of insight. There was none. Instead, I read page after page of self-recrimination and self-pity.

Thankfully, I have not yet experienced this kind of decline in my own parents, and my sympathies go out to Martin. But I’m disappointed: this is the first time I’ve read The Sun and felt depressed for all the wrong reasons.

Lia Vella Buffalo, New York

It has been jarring this year to see a succession of good, interesting cover photographs defaced by The Sun. Clearly, these photos were not made especially for The Sun’s cover, but according to their makers’ sensibilities. Imposing a logo and print on any photograph not designed for it degrades the image. Also, unless a photograph is composed in a precise vertical format, it will have to be cropped to fit the new cover design, further altering the artist’s conception.

One of the most attractive things about The Sun had been its respect for all the art appearing in its pages. The previous cover format supported that attitude well; the new one does not.

Allen Zak Columbus, Ohio

K. E. Ellingson’s essay about attempted suicide [“Before and After,” April 1999] is what The Sun is all about: absolutely the best writing around. By expressing her struggles with living, Ellingson gives voice to the rest of us out here who, at times, wonder if survival is overrated. Reading stories by such gifted writers, I feel that I’m not alone, that others find life rather odd at times. The Sun is a lifeline.

Jeanie Mortenson La Jolla, California

When I subscribed, I had hoped your magazine would provide an interesting source of ideas and issues to discuss with my thirteen-year-old daughter, who is always looking for ways to solve the world’s problems. And indeed, Derrick Jensen’s interview with John Stauber [“War on Truth”] and Dan Barker’s “Payday” in the March 1999 issue provoked thought and hope.

Then, in the Readers Write on “Stage Fright,” we were treated to Name Withheld’s narcissistic account of his sexual escapades. I was so offended by the inclusion of such trash in an otherwise fine magazine that I have not even opened the April issue.

Are any of you parents? Do you have any idea how hard it is to show a thirteen-year-old that beauty can exist between men and women? Teens today are already bombarded with an overdose of sexual crassness and innuendo. It’s incredibly difficult for a young person to develop an understanding of her sexual identity when all she sees is the worst side of sex.

Please cancel my subscription.

Cammie Doty Hillsboro, Oregon

I read with great interest your March 1999 interview “War on Truth: The Secret Battle for the American Mind,” but I was dismayed by the news that former surgeon general C. Everett Koop opposed the Big Green referendum. Was there a reason for this that was not mentioned in the article? I ask because Koop has been one of my very few heroes. Though personally opposed to abortion and under pressure from pro-lifers to stretch the truth, he refused to proclaim that women who’d had abortions were more subject to depression and anxiety than women who had carried to term. And when asked whether one could contract AIDS at the Communion rail, Koop said, “Well, I suppose they could, but I can’t imagine why a person would want to make such a spectacle of himself!” I’m a bit devastated to learn that he compromised his principles in the case of the Big Green referendum. Isn’t there any more to this story?

Pam Hanna Nashville, Tennessee
John Stauber responds:

I, too, respect many of the stands C. Everett Koop has taken. At the same time, I’m disgusted by his willingness to flack for pesticides and genetically engineered foods, and to issue misleading statements discounting the risks of mad-cow disease. Apparently, Koop doesn’t see these as contradictions that compromise his principles, but I would encourage anyone who does to share their thoughts with him directly; maybe he will be swayed.

It is precisely because Koop is a hero to many that businesses crave his endorsement. On food-related issues, he has had a long relationship with the PR firm Hill & Knowlton, the propagandists who perpetrated the “baby-killing” scam during the Gulf War and who regularly represent brutal dictatorships, tobacco giants, chemical manufacturers, and genetic-engineering firms such as Monsanto. One might hope that the distinguished doctor would at least find better company to keep.

My wife and I were considering dropping our subscription, because we were tired of reading stories by people who seem to think that drug and alcohol abuse are a normal part of everyday life. Sometimes I think The Sun pines for the old hippie counterculture days.

But then I read the March 1999 issue, and I remembered why we subscribed in the first place. The interview with John Stauber and the essays by Thomas Frank [“Liberation Marketing and the Culture Trust”] and Dan Barker were the kind that make me change the way I think. And the stories “Stepguy,” by Jennifer Wortham, and “Fritz’s Heart,” by Sybil Smith, were sensitive, tender, and filled with insight. “Fritz’s Heart” should be required reading for all health professionals who care for older people. Writing like this just can’t be found in any other publication.

Frank Snope Barnegat Light, New Jersey

I am a fifty-seven-year-old woman who was sexually abused from age four until age eleven by an older first cousin. The photographs by Rita Bernstein in the February 1999 issue of The Sun instantly brought back those difficult memories — especially the inside-back-cover photo of an innocent young girl looking down at what could be violated genitals.

Bernstein should approach her “intimate relationships” with more caution.

M. Ann Hupp Huntington, Indiana
Rita Bernstein responds:

Strong photographs, like all good art, engage the viewer’s emotions and invite a multitude of interpretations. We tend to look at them through the lens of our own experience; we see what we know or want or fear. M. Ann Hupp bears an especially heavy burden, and I imagine that many images trigger memories of her trauma and abuse. But intimate relationships of the sort I depict can also be tender and supportive; and the inevitable ambivalence, disappointment, and conflict that accompany them are very different from the exploitation and damage that Hupp suffered.

I read Violet Snow’s essay on skinning a fox [“The Fox,” December 1998] with a mix of apprehension, fascination, and recognition. Many years ago, my lover and I found a great blue heron that had been killed by a storm. We lived on a bay and often saw herons patiently scouting the waters. We took this one home and touched its feathers, marveling at the variety and hues. With a pocketknife, we cut the wings from the body and the head from its long neck. The beak was a remarkable yellow-orange. We spread the wings on a board and hung them over the wood stove to dry. There was awe in our actions. We admired the bird and hoped it would become a guardian spirit to us.

In truth, cutting up the bird blessed neither us nor it. We discovered it was illegal to even have the wings, so we took them off the wall. They remain in a closet to this day, an uncomfortable reminder that we had no real understanding of the animal we were desecrating.

A number of years later, I moved to the mountains and became intrigued by foxes. They would sneak past my new lover and me on our nightly walks. One night, we were driving up the canyon and saw a fox in the headlights. It looked up at us, hesitated, then fled. A second fox lay in the middle of the road, evidently hit by a car. We pulled over and together carried the fox into the snow, where we admired it by the car’s headlights: how surprisingly small and sharp its nose; how long and gorgeous its tail, how soft its burnt umber fur. Somewhere, perhaps, its mate watched us.

The mystery of that moment has stayed with me longer than those stolen wings.

Lesley Reed Vashon Island, Washington
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