Studies show that writing down your pain actually has a positive effect on your immune system. Not only that, it can help with the healing process.
In the following article, we will look at the science behind how the cathartic properties of writing work, as well as some ways to help you get motivated to write.
The positive physical effects of writing on the body were first noticed by James Pennebaker in 1986, who was then the chair of the psychology department at Southern Methodist University.
Pennebaker made this startling discovery while performing a rather simple experiment involving “expressive writing.”
Pennebaker asked a number of test subjects write for fifteen minutes about the worst thing that had ever happened to them in their life.
The subjects were told to open up completely, letting out their innermost thoughts and details regarding this traumatic event. The process was difficult for many students, many of whom broke down crying.
However, students also found the process comforting, and when they were asked if they wanted to stop, always asked to be allowed to continue.
Pennebaker contrasted these students to a control group who wrote about normal things, describing their bedroom, a tree outside, or something equally bland.
He observed these students for six months. After this period of time, he observed that the students writing about something traumatic went to the doctor significantly less.
You can listen to an interview with Pennebaker here.
Pennebroker’s groundbreaking experiment opened up a new field of research called “psychoneuroimmunology,” an area of study that explores how expressive writing actually improves the functioning of our immune systems.
A few days before she turned 61, writer Anne Lamott decided to write down everything she knew for sure. She dives into the nuances of being a human who lives in a confusing, beautiful, emotional world, offering her characteristic life-affirming wisdom and humor on family, writing, the meaning of God, death and more.
In 1986 the psychology professor James Pennebaker discovered something extraordinary, something which would inspire a generation of researchers to conduct several hundred studies. He asked students to spend 15 minutes writing about the biggest trauma of their lives or, if they hadn’t experienced a trauma, their most difficult time.
They were told to let go and to include their deepest thoughts, even if they had never shared these thoughts before. Four days running they did the same thing. It wasn’t easy. Pennebaker told me that roughly one in 20 students would end up crying, but when asked whether they wanted to continue they always did. Meanwhile a control group spent the same number of sessions writing a description of something neutral such a tree or their dorm room.
Studies have shown expressive writing can reduce the amount of times people visit the doctor (Credit: iStock)
Then he waited for six months while monitoring how often the students visited the health centre. The day he saw the results, he left the lab, walked to his friend who was waiting for him in a car and told him he’d found something big. Remarkably, the students who had written about their secret feelings had made significantly fewer trips to the doctor in the subsequent months.
Ever since, the field psychoneuroimmunology has been exploring the link between what’s now known as expressive writing, and the functioning of the immune system. The studies that followed examined the effect of expressive writing on everything from asthma and arthritis to breast cancer and migraines. In a small study conducted in Kansas, for example, it was found that women with breast cancer experienced fewer troublesome symptoms and went for fewer cancer-related appointments in the months after doing expressive writing.
There is one area where the findings are more consistent and that is in the healing of wounds
The aim of the study wasn’t to look at long-term cancer prognosis, and the authors are not suggesting the cancer would be affected. But in the short-term other aspects of the women’s health did seem better than for those in the control group who wrote about the facts surrounding their cancer rather than their feelings about it.
But it doesn’t always work. A meta-analysis by Joanne Fratarolli from the University of California Riverside does demonstrate an effect overall, but a small one. Nevertheless, for an intervention that is free and beneficial, that’s a benefit worth having. Some studies have had disappointing results, but there is one area where the findings are more consistent and that is in the healing of wounds.
In these studies brave volunteers typically do some expressive writing, then some days later they are given a local anaesthetic and then a punch biopsy at the top of their inner arm. The wound is typically 4mm across and heals within a couple of weeks. This healing is monitored and again and again, and it happens faster if people have spent time beforehand writing down their secret thoughts.
Simply imagining a traumatic event and writing a story about it could have health benefits (Credit: iStock)
What does the act of committing words to paper do? Initially it was assumed this simply happened through catharsis, that people felt better because they’d let out their pent-up feelings. But then Pennebaker began looking in detail at the language people used in their writing.
Summary: A new study reports that for those who wrote emotionally about previous stressful events prior to having a skin biopsy healed faster than those who wrote about factual events.
Source: University of Auckland.
People who wrote emotionally about past stressful events two weeks before having a biopsy had their wound heal faster than people who wrote about factual day to day activities, a study has found.
The study, “The effects of expressive writing before or after punch biopsy on wound healing”, was published in the journal Brain, Behaviour and Immunity.
The research was conducted by Doctoral Candidate Hayley Robinson and Associate Professor Elizabeth Broadbent of the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences. They were joined by Professor Kavita Vedhara of the University of Nottingham and dermatologist Dr Paul Jarrett of Counties Manukau DHB.
The aim of the study was to investigate whether expressive writing could speed the healing of punch biopsy wounds if writing was performed either before or after wounds were made compared to writing about neutral topics.
The study recruited 122 participants from Auckland aged between 18 and 55 years that were randomly allocated to one of four groups, expressive writing pre biopsy or expressive writing post biopsy, or control writing pre biopsy, or control writing post biopsy.
The expressive writing groups were asked to write about their “deepest thoughts and feelings about a traumatic, upsetting experience of your entire life”. Ideally participants were to write about something they had not discussed in great detail with anyone else.
The control groups were asked to write factually about their daily activities.
A dermatologist performed a 4mm punch biopsy to each participant’s inner upper arm.
After 10 days the results showed that 52 percent of the people who had written expressively before the biopsy were healed, while only 27 percent of people who wrote expressively afterward the biopsy had healed.
The results were worse for the two groups that wrote facts without emotion. Only 15 percent in the controlled writing before the biopsy had healed. And for those who wrote about the control topic after the biopsy, only 23 percent had healed.
Hayley says the results suggest that expressive writing has its greatest effects when it occurs prior to an acute wound.
“This is because the writing initially makes you feel worse before you feel better,” she says.
The aim of the study was to investigate whether expressive writing could speed the healing of punch biopsy wounds if writing was performed either before or after wounds were made compared to writing about neutral topics. NeuroscienceNews.com image is for illustrative purposes only.
“So ideally you have finished writing and are starting to feel better during the period when your wound is healing. The results are important because they suggest that when you write is important, not just what you write about.
“Future research needs to look at the effects of expressive writing on the healing of chronic wounds, when writing can only be done after the wound has occurred,” Dr Broadbent says.
About this neuroscience research article
Source: Anna Kellett – University of Auckland Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain. Original Research: Full open access research for “The effects of expressive writing before or after punch biopsy on wound healing” by Hayley Robinson, Paul Jarrett, Kavita Vedhara, Elizabeth Broadbent in Brain, Behaviour and Immunity. Published online March 2017 doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2016.11.025
I read “Women Who Work” so you don’t have to. Ivanka’s “successful businesswoman” reputation is kind of a sham.
Photo Credit: David Shankbone / Flickr Creative Commons
Ivanka Trump’s new book “Women Who Work” is not, as you may have already guessed or read, particularly useful, even compared to other bland corporate tactical manuals. If you are a woman who works — or know one with a graduation or a promotion or a birthday coming up — save your money. The Trump family’s rapacious worldview is in its full glory in this clip job of a so-called monograph; Ivanka (or whoever “architected” this sugar-, fat- and gluten-free life manual) takes the subhead, “Rewriting the Rules for Success,” to an absurdly literal level. The book is not written so much as it is aggregated, borrowed so heavily from certain individual sources that she ought to owe royalties to Sheryl Sandberg and the estate of Stephen Covey, not that they’re any more likely to collect now that her office is in the West Wing instead of Trump Tower. What else is the intellectual work of others but “content” for “Ivanka” to “curate” (“wordsmith,” even!) for her own profit?
Ivanka is not an original thinker; this is not news. So it comes as little surprise that she is not a gifted — or even passably average for her genre — writer, either. In her NPR review, Annalisa Quinn aptly likens reading the book to “eating scented cotton balls,” and I would thank the American culture to immediately stop placing any automatic, unqualified premium value on prestigious prep school and Ivy League educations, as every podunk public school graduate I know has a better grasp of Toni Morrison and Charlotte Perkins Gilman than Ivanka Trump does, despite her expensive degrees.
A more fitting label for this perfect-bound Pinterest board would be “Women Who Work for Me, Ivanka Trump,” as they appear to be the only relevant audience. The focus is mainly on what has worked for her in her career, which is as idiosyncratic as her personal life has been, and what kinds of people she is drawn to when she builds a team. So if you work for Ivanka Trump but still don’t understand her alien ways, or some day want to sell some harmless clutches to whichever mid-range department store will still do business with you, this book is likely quite useful. Spout back all of the platitudes about building a “one-life corporate culture,” show up with “DREAM and DO” doodled on your file folder, and you’re in.
But for all of her nonsense about the “quiet, deliberate, and essential” so-called “workplace revolution” she claims to be launching, Ivanka is not up-ending what she calls “the old-fashioned ‘work warrior’ mentality” that demands long hours at the office as the only proof that employees are sufficiently dedicated to making money for their corporate overlords. What she’s advocating — Millennial Pinkified, self-actualized personal contentment wrapped around a tireless pitbull level of commitment to achieving corporate goals — is even more sinister. In her world, #WomenWhoWork and depart the office at 6 p.m. are still “leaving early” — the so-called Trump administration advocate for working parents obviously has no idea what time many daycares close — and they’re also expected to be back on at night and on the weekends, grinding away after they fulfill their Ivanka-modeled 20 scheduled minutes of quality time with their children or partners at home.
Ivanka’s obliviousness at her own privilege, despite lip service to acknowledging her many blessings, continues to dazzle. She holds up her Shabbat time with her family — sundown Friday to sundown Saturday — as an example of aspirational restorative time, and no doubt it is. Show me a couple that works the kinds of hours Ivanka and Jared do — even those without kids — that doesn’t have to use some of their non-working hours to run necessary errands or tidy up or get caught up on something other than leisure time, and I’ll show you a family wealthy enough to pay a full-time domestic staff to handle everything for them that isn’t personal exercise, family fun time and mandatory biweekly date nights. (Bullet journal note to self: An app to disrupt mandatory biweekly date nights? Siri but for sex?)
In Ivanka’s world, you can either “[turn] on ‘Real Housewives’ and [sit] in front of the TV eating a giant bowl of pasta with a glass of wine” — counterproductive! — or “meditate, soak in the tub, exercise, or take a long walk” at the end of a day to unwind. There’s a third option, too: “I simply turn off my devices, go into my kids’ room, and just watch them sleep.” Only a person who has never wondered if she could get her clean laundry put away before it cycled through to dirty again could offer only these options with a straight face.
Despite her heavy focus on working mothers in this book (though she is careful to always include those who are not parents yet and those who have chosen not to be, because you never leave a potential customer out!), it’s not until page 154 that the words “my nanny” appear, despite the many passages devoted to balancing motherhood with a demanding job. I don’t believe I saw it again until the acknowledgments, in which she thanks not only the nannies, Bridget and Dorothy, who helped raise her and her brothers as her own mother Ivana worked, but also “Liza and Xixi, who are helping me raise my own children, thank you for being a part of our extended family and enabling me to do what I do.” Employing two nannies has to be a cornerstone of the Ivanka Method; burying the full acknowledgment of that literally in the acknowledgments section is beyond disingenuous.
So Ivanka Trump is wealthy and privileged and shameless about pretending her hard work has been the key secret to her success; this is not news. But what this book does highlight is that her “successful businesswoman” image is also a hollow sham.After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in 2004, she worked briefly for another real estate development company, Forest City Enterprises. She nods to this in an anecdote about turning down a job at Vogue, which Anna Wintour offered her personally, because she just loves real estate so much. In 2005, she went to work for her father at the Trump Organization. She stayed with the family business even as she founded her own fashion and lifestyle company, and now she has followed the family business right into the White House. Ivanka glosses over quite deftly in her book that she has spent all of one year, tops, working for someone who is not herself or her father, and it shows.
Take these nuggets of advice about how to “bond with your boss”:
Take a cue from those around you. When your boss shares something that was pivotal early in her career, that’s an opportunity for you to respond in kind.
* * *
Ask questions. Inquire about her previous career history; ask her how she got to where she is today.
* * *
Think you deserve a promotion? Hoping for more than a cost-of-living raise? Broaching these topics in a setting that’s warmer and more casual than her office will take the pressure off you both; continuing the dialogue in a more formal way at review time will alleviate the need to try to cover everything in one sitting.
In Ivanka’s experience, the boss is either her — this is how to get on her good side — or Donald Trump, her own father, in which case flattering him with questions about his early successes and finding opportunities to remind him of how good she is at her job are the pathways to impressing him.
“Broaching these topics in a setting that’s warmer and more casual than her office will take the pressure off you both” is great advice if your boss is a woman with whom you are also chummy but it is potentially fraught and even lousy advice if a Woman Who Work’s boss is a man, as statistics tell us he is quite likely to be.
Ivanka has clearly never personally weighed the pros and cons of the optics of asking for a promotion or a raise from a man she is not related to “in a setting that’s warmer and more casual” than the office. She certainly didn’t “curate” any wisdom from Ellen Pao, who might have something to say about how corporate bonding can put women at a professional disadvantage. The clear advantage of working for daddy is that nobody is going to accuse you of sleeping with the boss, or trying to, in order to land a promotion or a raise — and you would have no reason to suspect that the boss has any sketchy motives for wanting to hang out “in a setting that’s warmer and more casual than the office” when you’re related to him.
This is not to say male bosses and female subordinates can’t break Mike Pence’s retrograde rules with no fear of harassment or gossip — of course they can and do. I personally have been friends with male bosses with no weirdness, innuendo, or actionable offenses, and surely many readers have as well. But to not even connect her advice to the realities of sexism and harassment women continue to face in the workplace and how to deal with them if or when they arise in a book aimed at working women, especially when your father has Fox News blaring in the background 24-7 as a reminder, is laughably naïve. In Ivanka’s world, you just “prove your worth,” and automatically you are paid as much as your male counterparts, or actually you deserve to make more than Eric because you’re two years older, Daddy, and it’s only fair.
“While I believe every woman should thoughtfully architect a life she’ll love and actively work toward achieving her goals,” the book states, “we must also be flexible, adaptable, and realistic about the fact that our passions, interests, priorities, and relationships shift.” Nowhere in the book does Ivanka address, for example, what happens when access to affordable health coverage for self-employed female entrepreneurs with pre-existing conditions “shifts” after it proves “flexible” in the eyes of Republican leaders, or how to negotiate a raise or higher project rates to off-set the costs if your insurer decides your pregnancy is a pre-existing condition. (Yes, this book was wordsmithed before the House voted last week to replace the Affordable Care Act, but Ivanka was a key strategist of her father’s campaign, which ran on the promise of doing just that.) Of course, forget about advice on how to discreetly schedule several days out of the office for an out-of-town abortion when the only appointment you can get within the legal timeframe is in another state that mandates a counseling appointment and a waiting period, and it’s November and you’ve already used up your vacation days for the year.
I amtired ofwriting aboutIvankaTrump. You may well be tired of reading about her, too. If her father had not won the election with her help, and if Ivanka had then not taken a federal job as an adviser to the president, “Women Who Work” would be just another forgettable remainder table staple a month after graduation season ends. But she is supposed to be the advocate for workplace issues facing women in an administration that has already proven itself to be friendly to forces hostile to us. What Ivanka doesn’t know could hurt us all — and this book reveals just how extensive her lack of knowledge and context truly is.
“Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” philosopher Alan Watts wrote in the 1950s as he contemplated the interconnected nature of the universe. What we may now see as an elemental truth of existence was then a notion both foreign and frightening to the Western mind. But it was a scientist, not a philosopher, who levered this monumental shift in consciousness: Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964), a Copernicus of biology who ejected the human animal from its hubristic place at the center of Earth’s ecological cosmos and recast it as one of myriad organisms, all worthy of wonder, all imbued with life and reality. Her lyrical writing rendered her not a mere translator of the natural world, but an alchemist transmuting the steel of science into the gold of wonder. The message of her iconic Silent Spring (public library) rippled across public policy and the population imagination — it led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, inspired generations of activists, and led Joni Mitchell to write a lyric as timeless as “I don’t care about spots on my apples / Leave me the birds and the bees / Please!”
A woman scientist without a Ph.D. or an academic affiliation became the most powerful voice of resistance against ruinous public policy mitigated by the self-interest of government and industry, against the hauteur and short-sightedness threatening to destroy this precious pale blue dot which we, along with countless other animals, call home.
Carson had grown up in a picturesque but impoverished village in Pennsylvania. It was there, amid a tumultuous family environment, that she fell in love with nature and grew particularly enchanted with birds. A voracious reader and gifted writer from a young age, she became a published author at the age of ten, when a story of hers appeared in a children’s literary magazine. She entered the Pennsylvania College for Women with the intention of becoming a writer, but a zestful zoology professor — herself a rare specimen as a female scientist in that era — rendered young Carson besotted with biology. A scholarship allowed her to pursue a Master’s degree in zoology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University, but when her already impecunious family fell on hard times during the Great Depression, she was forced to leave the university in search of a full-time paying job before completing her doctorate.
After working as a lab assistant for a while, she began writing for the Baltimore Sun and was eventually hired as a junior aquatic biologist for what would later become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Her uncommon gift for writing was soon recognized and Carson was tasked with editing other scientists’ field reports, then promoted to editor in chief for the entire agency. Out of this necessity to reconcile science and writing was born her self-invention as a scientist who refused to give up on writing and a writer who refused to give up on science — the same refusal that marks today’s greatest poets of science.
When her older sister died in 1937, thirty-year-old Carson was left the sole provider for their mother and her two orphaned nieces. That year, she was asked to write a brochure for the Fisheries Bureau. When she turned in something infinitely more poetic than her supervisor had envisioned, he asked her to rewrite the brochure but encouraged her to submit the piece as an essay for The Atlantic Monthly. She did. It was accepted and published as Undersea — a first of its kind, immensely lyrical journey into the science of the ocean floor inviting an understanding of Earth from a nonhuman perspective. Readers and publishers were instantly smitten, and Carson expanded her Atlantic article into her first book, The Sea Around Her — the culmination of a decade of her oceanographic research, which rendered her an overnight literary success.
Against towering cultural odds, these books about the sea established her — once a destitute girl from landlocked Pennsylvania — as the most celebrated science writer of her time.
But the more Carson studied and wrote about nature, the more cautious she became of humanity’s rampant quest to dominate it. Witnessing the devastation of the atomic bomb awakened her to the unintended consequences of science unmoored from morality, of a hysterical enthusiasm for technology that deafened humanity to the inner voice of ethics. In her 1952 acceptance speech for the John Burroughs Medal, she concretized her credo:
It seems reasonable to believe — and I do believe — that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.
One of the consequences of wartime science and technology was the widespread use of DDT, initially intended for protecting soldiers from malaria-bearing mosquitoes. After the end of the war, the toxic chemical was lauded as a miracle substance. People were sprayed down with DDT to ward off disease and airplanes doused agricultural plots in order to decimate pest and maximize crop yield. It was neither uncommon nor disquieting to see a class of schoolchildren eating their lunch while an airplane aiming at a nearby field sprinkled them with DDT. A sort of blind faith enveloped the use of these pesticides, with an indifferent government and an incurious public raising no questions about their unintended consequences.
In January of 1958, Carson received a letter from an old writer friend named Olga Owens Huckins, alerting her that the aerial spraying of DDT had devastated a local wildlife sanctuary. Huckins described the ghastly deaths of birds, claws clutched to their breasts and bills agape in agony. This local tragedy was the final straw in Carson’s decade-long collection of what she called her “poison-spray material” — a dossier of evidence for the harmful, often deadly effects of toxic chemicals on wildlife and human life. That May, she signed a contract with Houghton Mifflin for what would become Silent Spring in 1962 — the firestarter of a book that ignited the conservation movement and awakened the modern environmental consciousness.
But the book also spurred violent pushback from those most culpable in the destruction of nature — a heedless government that had turned a willfully blind eye to its regulatory responsibilities and an avaricious agricultural and chemical industry determined to maximize profits at all costs. Those inconvenienced by the truths Carson exposed immediately attacked her for her indictment against elected officials’ and corporations’ deliberate deafness to fact. They used every means at their disposal — a propaganda campaign designed to discredit her, litigious bullying of her publisher, and the most frequent accusation of all: that of being a woman. Former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, who would later become Prophet of the Mormon Church, asked: “Why a spinster with no children was so concerned about genetics?” He didn’t hesitate to offer his own theory: because she was a Communist. (The lazy hand-grenade of “spinster” was often hurled at Carson in an attempt to erode her credibility, as if there were any correlation between a scientist’s home life and her expertise — never mind that, as it happened, Carson did have one of the most richly rewarding relationships a human being could hope for, albeit not the kind that conformed to the era’s narrow accepted modalities.)
Carson withstood the criticism with composure and confidence, shielded by the integrity of her facts. But another battle raged invisible to the public eye — she was dying.
She had been diagnosed with cancer in 1960, which had metastasized due to her doctor’s negligence. In 1963, when Silent Spring stirred President Kennedy’s attention and he summoned a Congressional hearing to investigate and regulate the use of pesticides, Carson didn’t hesitate to testify even as her body was giving out from the debilitating pain of the disease and the wearying radiation treatments. With her testimony as a pillar, JFK and his Science Advisory Committee invalidated her critics’ arguments, heeded Carson’s cautionary call to reason, and created the first federal policies designed to protect the planet.
Carson endured the attacks — those of her cancer and those of her critics — with unwavering heroism. She saw the former with a biologist’s calm acceptance of the cycle of life and had anticipated the latter all along. She was a spirited idealist, but she wasn’t a naïve one — from the outset, she was acutely aware that her book was a clarion call for nothing less than a revolution and that it was her moral duty to be the revolutionary she felt called to be. Just a month after signing the book contract, she articulates this awareness in a letter found in Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952–1964 (public library) — the record of her beautiful and unclassifiable relationship with her dearest friend and beloved.
Carson writes to Freeman:
I know you dread the unpleasantness that will inevitably be associated with [the book’s] publication. That I can understand, darling. But it is something I have taken into account; it will not surprise me! You do know, I think, how deeply I believe in the importance of what I am doing. Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent… It is, in the deepest sense, a privilege as well as a duty to have the opportunity to speak out — to many thousands of people — on something so important.
In that sense, the eventual title of Silent Spring was a dual commentary on how human hubris is robbing Earth of its symphonic aliveness and on the moral inadmissibility of remaining silent about the destructive forces driving this loss. Carson upheld that sense of duty while confronting her own creaturely finitude as she underwent rounds of grueling cancer treatment. In a letter to Freeman from the autumn of 1959, she reports:
Mostly, I feel fairly good but I do realize that after several days of concentrated work on the book I’m suddenly no good at all for several more. Some people assume only physical work is tiring — I guess because they use their minds little! Friday night … my exhaustion invaded every cell of my body, I think, and really kept me from sleeping well all night.
And yet mind rose over matter as Carson mobilized every neuron to keep up with her creative vitality. In another letter from the same month, she writes to Freeman about her “happiness in the progress of The Book”:
The other day someone asked Leonard Bernstein about his inexhaustible energy and he said “I have no more energy than anyone who loves what he is doing.” Well, I’m afraid mine has to be recharged at times, but anyway I do seem just now to be riding the crest of a wave of enthusiasm and creativity, and although I’m going to bed late and often rising in very dim light to get in an hour of thinking and organizing before my household stirs, my weariness seems easily banished.
Stirring her household was Roger — the nine-year-old orphan son of Carson’s niece, whom she had adopted and was single-parenting, doing all the necessary cooking, cleaning, and housework while writing Silent Spring and undergoing endless medical treatments. All of this she did with unwavering devotion to the writing and the larger sense of moral obligation that animated her. In early March of 1961, in the midst of another incapacitating radiation round, she writes to Freeman:
About the book, I sometimes have a feeling (maybe 100% wishful thinking) that perhaps this long period away from active work will give me the perspective that was so hard to attain, the ability to see the woods in the midst of the confusing multitude of trees.
With an eye to Albert Schweitzer’s famous 1954 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which appeared under the title “The Problem of Peace” and made the unnerving assertion that “we should all of us realize that we are guilty of inhumanity” in reflecting on the circumstances that led to the two world wars, she adds:
Sometimes … I want [the book] to be a much shortened and simplified statement, doing for this subject (if this isn’t too presumptuous a comparison) what Schweitzer did in his Nobel Prize address for the allied subject of radiation.
In June of that year, Carson shares with Freeman a possible opening sentence, which didn’t end up being the final one but which nonetheless synthesizes the essence of her groundbreaking book:
This is a book about man’s war against nature, and because man is part of nature it is also inevitably a book about man’s war against himself.
At that point, Carson was considering The War Against Nature and At War with Nature as possible titles, but settled on Silent Spring in September — a title inspired by Keats, Carson’s favorite poet: “The sedge is withered from the lake, / And no birds sing.”
Four months later, in January of 1962, she reports to Freeman the completion of her Herculean feat:
I achieved the goal of sending the 15 chapters to Marie [Rodell, Carson’s literary agent] — like reaching the last station before the summit of Everest.
Rodell had sent a copy of the manuscript to longtime New Yorker editor William Shawn, who gave Carson the greatest and most gratifying surprise of her life. Struggling to override her typical self-effacing humility, she relays the episode to Freeman:
Last night about 9 o’clock the phone rang and a mild voice said, “This is William Shawn.” If I talk to you tonight you will know what he said and I’m sure you can understand what it meant to me. Shamelessly, I’ll repeat some of his words — “a brilliant achievement” — “you have made it literature” “full of beauty and loveliness and depth of feeling.” … I suddenly feel full of what Lois once called “a happy turbulence.”
After Roger was asleep I took Jeffie [Carson’s cat] into the study and played the Beethoven violin concerto — one of my favorites, you know. And suddenly the tensions of four years were broken and I got down and put my arms around Jeffie and let the tears come. With his little warm, rough tongue he told me that he understood. I think I let you see last summer what my deeper feelings are about this when I said I could never again listen happily to a thrush song if I had not done all I could. And last night the thoughts of all the birds and other creatures and the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness, that now I had done what I could — I had been able to complete it — now it had its own life!
Silent Spring was published on September 27, 1962 and adrenalized a new public awareness of the fragile interconnectedness of this living world. Several months later, CBS host Eric Sevareid captured its impact most succinctly in lauding Carson as “a voice of warning and a fire under the government.” In the book, she struck a mighty match:
When the public protests, confronted with some obvious evidence … it is fed little tranquilizing pills of half truth.
How tragic to observe that in the half-century since, our so-called leaders have devolved from half-truths to “alternative facts” — that is, to whole untruths that fail the ultimate criterion for truth: a correspondence with reality.
Carson, who was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, never lived to see the sea change of policy and public awareness that her book precipitated. Today, as a new crop of political and corporate interests threatens her hard-won legacy of environmental consciousness, I think of that piercing Adrienne Rich line channeling the great 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, another scientist who fundamentally revolutionized our understanding of the universe and our place in it: “Let me not seem to have lived in vain.”
Let’s not let Rachel Carson seem to have lived in vain.