The killing fields

As I left the credits of the film “Noah” rolling on the dark screen of the theater behind, a stranger standing outside in the hallway searched my face and asked: “Well, how was it?”

I paused momentarily to reflect, then offered the first words that came to mind: “It was…well — different.”

Back home I spent the remainder of the evening combing through a number of reviews online. Many of them sought to address the discrepancies between the biblical story of the Great Flood and the artistic rendition on the big screen. Most reviewers recognized that poetic license is what art forms are all about; a few weren’t as lenient.

Afterwards, as I revisited the original biblical narrative, the subject of violence crept to the forefront of my mind. The cinematic version is packed with violence — anguished screams, broken bodies, blood seeping up from the ground — all of it conjured up by scriptwriters Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel; yet there is ample precedent for their imaginings in the biblical text.

“And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Gen. 6:5)

“The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.” (Gen. 6:11)

“…the earth [was] filled with violence through them [mankind]…” (Gen. 6:13)

On the big screen dramatic tension is heightened through the contention of the dark Tubal-Cain (here the slayer of Lamech, Noah’s father), Ham (Noah’s son) and Noah himself. Prior to boarding the ark, Ham sets out to seek a wife in the camp of men, but in the violent interlude his efforts are thwarted. In Ham’s eyes his father becomes the scapegoat. Tubal-Cain uses this incident to plant the seeds of revenge in the adolescent’s mind. “If you are a man, you can kill,” he tells the youth. The implication is clear: prove your manhood by slaying your father.

Noah is portrayed as the good father who loves his wife and children and rescues the wounded girl Ila. In an ironic twist, the barren Ila conceives; yet Noah remains convinced that mankind’s annihilation is the will of God. Even though provision has been made for the salvation of his immediate family, Noah prophesies their future demise. Only the birds and animals will be left to repopulate the new earth. To these ends Noah swears to cut down Ila’s baby at birth if it should be female. In the words of Genesis: “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Gen. 8:21)

Those who would live by the sword die by the sword — “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” — but despite his flawed character, the hand of the good father is stayed.

Justice may be served, but in this cinematic version it is grace that prevails.


Graceful movements

The human body has always held a certain fascination for me since my preadolescent days.

During my 6th grade year one of the many paperback books I purchased through the Scholastic Book Club was Wonders of the Human Body by Anthony Ravielli. I spent countless evening hours pouring over the drawings and diagrams, reading through the text as though it were a sacred scripture. Looking back, I’m convinced that the words and pictures in that small tome seeded the roots of passion for a career in clinical medicine. Ravielli’s book still sits on the shelf in my study, wedged between Stuart Little and The Writer’s Mind.

•   •   •

When I open the exam room door, I find her leaning against the edge of the exam table, holding an open book in her hands, flanked on either side by her daughters, their faces mesmerized by the story she’s been reading to them.

Quickly, she finishes up the last few lines and closes the big book. “That’s it for now; Doctor’s here.”

The closed book breaks the spell. The little girls sigh and shift closer to their mother.

“It’s all right; the doctor is our friend,” she says. “He’s just going to look into your ears and mouth and listen to your chest to make sure that you haven’t got anything more than a cold.” Then she turns to me with a radiant smile and says, “Nice to see you.”

I smile back; then with my questions I proceed to gather the salient points of the medical history and perform an abbreviated medical exam. The girls are quiet, a bit shy, somewhat reticent to comply; but with some gentle coaxing from their mother the task is soon completed. I reassure her that her daughters have the sniffles — nothing serious, nothing that would require prescription medication.

“That’s what we like to hear,” she says, beaming that radiant smile. She strokes the girls’ long hair and simultaneously lays her arms across their shoulders. “Doctor says that in a couple of days you’ll be fine. Now, let’s put the books back into the box before we leave for the next kids that come in.”

I hold the door open for this threesome as they step out into the hallway, the mother shepherding the two little girls back down the corridor. To the untrained eye her limp is barely perceptible. If I didn’t know her medical history, most likely I would not suspect that she is a bilateral amputee, having lost both legs below the knee because of massive intractable lymphedema when she was a little girl herself.

In pediatric practice I see a fair number of adolescent girls who have been taking dancing lessons since their preschool days. Many of them are quite good, having learned the refined movements of point and ballet to such an extent that they seem to move effortlessly across the floor.

But none of them, I reflect, seem to move with the underlying grace of this young mother.

“Notes from a Healer” — True Grit

Two identical surnames appear back to back on my morning patient roster: a sister and brother, both scheduled for physical examinations. I haven’t seen either one for several years. When economic times are hard, the family income only goes so far. You cut corners where you can. If the kids aren’t sick, why bring them to the doctor? more»

My latest installment of Notes from a HealerTrue Grit — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online journal fostering discussion about the culture of medicine, medical care, and experiences of illness. Interested readers can access a list of editorial board members and regular contributors here.