The Withering Child


Gould, J. A.


1993 The University of Georgia Press

John Gould, takes his wife, an Episcopal priest, and his 2 sons, Sam 1 1/2 years old and Gardner, 5 years old, to England where he hopes to sabbatical for a year. During the 2 months that they manage to stay in the land of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy, 5 year old Gardner loses about a third of his weight. His syndrome consisted of refusing to eat, vomiting regularly, and a peculiar habit of screaming at night with terrible leg cramps and stomachaches. Consultations with the English National Health Care System are not helpful or satisfactory. That health care system and English food are mildly indicted. One item of interest to me, the astute pediatrician, was the mention that they managed to get some apple juice laced with some kind of liquid vitamins into him every night just before bedtime. Apple juice can have sorbitol, a sugar that can cause grief akin to lactose intolerance. Since he always had screaming fits at night this is suspicious. Also they eventually try to get antibiotics into him against the advice of the English doctors. This couldn't possibly have helped. Antibiotic gastrointestinal side effects are notorious. Finally, screaming fits is not the usual presentation of non-organic failure to thrive. His family found it hard not to ascribe his problems to emotional pain that must have been so bad that it beat his hunger. Gardner winds up so miserable and weak that he can't walk. Fearing for his life, they pack up and return home to the States, whereupon young Gardner immediately starts to eat and gain and be happy and normal.

He could have died. Thirty-three percent weight loss is scary. A 40% weight loss in an averagely built child is usually incompatible with survival. After he's home and all better, Gardner's bewildered parents obtain expensive counseling and diagnoses like "characterological" problems and "borderline ADD."
But the highest truth that John Gould achieves is, "A parent's control over a child is limited..."

All of these authors sound similar in three ways. They grapple with conflicting information; they proclaim that everybody is misguided and wrong about obesity; they come up with a simple solution - that's also wrong.

A different tact, that is no more helpful, is provided by Micheal Gard and Jan Wright and Bruce Ross in The Obesity Epidemic, Science, Morality and Ideology published in 2005 by Routledge, London. These authors are Australian university physical education teachers.

This book is ponderous and befuddling. They use words like "contextualization." The thesis is "that the 'obesity epidemic' is, as much as anything else a social idea (or an ideology), constructed at the intersection of scientific knowledge and a complex of culturally-based beliefs, values and ideas." p168. The 'obesity epidemic' is always in quotes. These authors don't quite disagree with the observation that we're all getting fatter. It is just that the causes and consequences of the 'obesity epidemic' are wrong or overblown. That's fair enough.

The other culprit is science. They explain several evils of the science;

  • The science of obesity is abundant and ballooning but not leading anywhere. We're not getting informed.
  • Contrary to popular belief that science should take away the stigma of obesity, it is contributing to it because science is telling us that obesity is dangerous.
  • Science is mechanistic and treats humans as if they are machines. -And finally scientists are not scientific but moralistic and ideological. These last two contentions seem to contradict each other; or else another (unmentioned) evil of science is that it is schizophrenic.

I also have been frustrated by investigators who show something or fail to show something and then in the discussion section say that things must not really be that way. They feel that since they have contradicted their preconceptions that they must have done something wrong. But we should hope that science, and even human scientists, are correctable by the scientific method. Science is not so bad. I like science.