This is one of the longest posts you will read in this blog, and certainly among, if not the, most remarkable. It is a letter, not meant for publication, from a dear friend, a former Franciscan confrere and Catholic priest, who was already a physician before becoming a religious and a member of the clergy, who later became an atheist and for many years in Melbourne, a celebrated psychiatrist. He is now 88, and sent me this private letter, out of the blue, just to bring me up to date on what he has been up to. He has kindly permitted me to publish it here, unedited and unabridged. It is spot-on as a post in the current series on Death, but, as you will see, touches other vital subjects as well, including Islam, atheism and the Royal Commission on Catholic Pedophilia – to which he was summoned to testify as a former priest and nationally renowned, practising psychiatrist. Peter writes superb prose. His are the words of a sage, a wise man enjoying the “privilege of being old … not giving a stuff what other people think”. I am honored that he has agreed to share with the highly privileged readers of this blog his profound insights into subjects that are its warp and woof.
Season’s greetings once again. My infrequent communications might have made you think that I have dropped completely off the radar. Far from the truth. I belong to the category of infrequent communicators even though I am a regular reader of all your posts and frequently refer to some of the much older ones. Time is getting on for both of us; you remain one of the very few links that I have with the past. Nearly all my friends and contemporaries in medicine have died. Only two remain, one is having dyalysis three times a week and the other has just had a stroke involving the thalamus which has erased quite a bit of memory. Meanwhile, I am doing quite well for someone about to enter the 88th year of life. And you, if I’m right, are in your 82nd ! I’m not sure why I am still going as well as I am; I suspect it is largely due to genetics. My mother died at 91, her mother, my grandmother, was 98 and her sister, Aunt Tess, was also 98 – I think I am more like my mother. Anyway I have no fear of death anymore. It will be the end of existence and the memories of me will fade completely with the passage of a couple of generations. Anyone who doesn’t believe that, should take a walk through the Melbourne General Cemetery as I did some years ago. It will be like walking back in time. The most recent graves will be filled with fresh flowers; walk on a little further and the flowers will have wilted; further still and the flowers will have long since died; move on a little more and the pitchers will be broken and weeds will be growing in the grave; a little further on and the grave will be sunken, the headstone broken and the cast-iron rails rusting. There will be no sign of anyone having visited the graves. Some names will still be visible but others will have faded completely. Rarely you may see a red poppy in November amidst the time-worn tombstones. That’s the reality of death. It takes courage to accept that we will soon cease to exist and that the memories of us will fade completely within a few generations. Anyway, like you, I rejoice at having been here at all and having contributed to the passing on of the human gene. The chance of ever having been here at all is miniscule – any sperm out the the 500 million per ejaculation could have won the race and recent research demonstrates that they are all different. It could have been someone else. And all this is quite apart from the slight chance of life ever arising at all. So, here’s to the remaining years we have.
Talking of the years we have and old age, I have just started to read a book, published this year, in which you might be interested. My ophthalmic surgeon put me onto it. (I have regular injections into my eye for age-related macular degeneration – and I can still see quite well). It is called “Lifespan” and is written by David Sinclair who holds a professorial chair in Genetics and Ageing at Harvard Medical School. Probably good credentials. He grew up in Sydney and is a graduate in Science from Sydney University. He became interested in ageing early in his scientific career and began by investigating the ageing process in yeasts which contain 23% of our human genes. His interest continued and he is now one of the leading researchers into the ageing process. The book has been a New York Times Bestseller and has lots of accolades. I will wait till I finish it before I give mine. He is not a doctor and it doesn’t display a deep understanding of medicine. Furthermore, he has failed to mention some of the key medical figures over the past 50 years in the subject of ageing, such as Michael Marmott (“The Whitehall Project”) and James Fries of Stanford University Medical School (“The Compression of Morbidity”). It smacks a little bit of “turf wars”, but to quote Donald Trump, “we’ll see what happens”.
I have just attended the 35th Melbourne Skeptics weekend. There was nothing new and it was a little disappointing. There tends to be an over-emphasis on entertainment, along the lines of showing how stupid people can be (as if I wasn’t already aware of that). However their quarterly magazine has some interesting and more enlightening material. I just get the digital copy on my iPad. While I’m on the subject of non-belief, I have just bought three copies of Richard Dawkins’ “Outgrowing God” for my three eldest granddaughters. All my boys are atheists and I hope this will help them to encourage their children to think rationally and gather evidence. I have only scanned the book which is really “The God Delusion” for kids. I think that the best way to promote the cause is to teach children according to reason and evidence from an early age.
Changing the subject to Islam, I have just read Ed Husain’s “The House of Islam”. No, I am not thinking of becoming a convert. My interest was mainly to see what are the psychological and sociological determinants of this bizarre religion. Husain is a British-born moderate Muslim and outlines all the contemporary problems with Islam. At the same time, the book reveals to a psychiatrist more than it intends. It is quite interesting and worth reading – a look from the inside. This leads me onto something that I have you to thank for. You may remember some years ago drawing my attention to Boualem Sansal’s “2084 – La Fin du Monde”. I purchased a copy in French but found that my French was not good enough for reading except very slowly. It was just too arduous so I have been waiting for the English translation which is now available and has just arrived from Book Depository. It will be my reading for Summer at “zeee beeech”. It is a parody on Islam although I’m not sure that Moslems get it. It has always interested me how religions and in particular Roman Catholics and Islamists don’t get satire, which is probably a good thing or there would be a fatwa issued against him.
Keep your eye out for the ABC’s “Revelations”, due about the middle of next year. It will be three hour-long programs on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. It is being directed by Sarah Ferguson who has been the presenter for “Four Corners”, but has recently taken up a position as the ABC’s foreign correspondent in China. Sarah and one of her associates came to talk to me over a long lunch in our apartment earlier this year. They came back after a couple of months with a cameraman and interview questions. She has interviewed as many of the Catholic clergy of that time as possible, as well as some priests still in jail for paedophilia. Journalists always have an agenda, and I have always been somewhat sceptical (sic : British spelling) as a result of seeing “soundbites” from interviews edited differently from the context in which they were originally presented. In any case it will certainly be a “revelation”. Apart from my clinical experience in the psychiatry of paedophilia, and having seen a couple of priests who were paedophiles, I read “In the Closet of the Vatican” by Frederic Martel, a French journalist. The book has just been published simultaneously in nine languages and I obtained it hot off the press. No doubt you have read it. It is certainly an eye-opener although nothing I hadn’t known about in some degtee, and certainly not to the extent that Martel has revealed. She asked me why I did not treat paedophile priests. My answer, which will probably be one of the soundbites, was “I don’t do therapy to cover crimes”. Towards the end of the interview I was asked about my current belief. When I said that “what you see is all there is, and when you die you cease to exist like all other living things”, the cameraman gasped and Alison McClymont (assistant to Sarah) said ” What will all your friends and family think when they hear that on television ? ” I indicated that that would be their problem not mine. So while I have made no secret of it, I will be nationally “outed” on TV. One of the great privileges of being old is not giving a stuff what other people think.
Well, old friend, that’s about it for the time being. We hope you have a joyful celebration of the coming season with your family and friends. You will probably have snow, as so many of our Christmas cards show. In reality, we will be inhaling the smoke of bushfires in temperatures nearing 40°C. Gerda and I are taking all the family to have Christmas lunch at the Glenferrie Hotel – our apartment is not big enough to celebrate Christmas lunch. We are very happy here though, and living is problem-free.
I doubt if I will travel far again. Over 85, travel insurance – if you can get it – is very expensive. I don’t want the family to be subjected to the cost of bringing me back in a coffin. Not really concerned actually !
Best wishes till next time.
P.S. Gerda sends her love ”