The Agency & Faith of the Shunammite Woman

This blog is primarily medically and science-oriented, but I would be remiss if I did not share some of the very important aspects that shape how I see the world from time-to-time. I’m a Christian, and as C.S. Lewis said long ago:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

My world-view is very much impacted by the stories in the Bible, and today I’ve chosen to share one of them with you. The values I have garnered very much inform the way I see and participate in both science and medicine and engage with the people I meet.

Given the age and cultural context surrounding the collective accounts recorded in the Bible, my attention is always peaked when I read about rather impressive and amazing women. There’s Ruth, Esther, Rahab, Sarah, Deborah, Mary the Mother of Jesus, a few other Marys… quite the handful of very interesting women. There’s also that unnamed “Proverbs 31” woman too. They get some pretty good attention. But, as I’ve been reading through 2 Kings, I’ve come across another unnamed, “Shunammite Woman” with a story that really resonates with me. She’s so independent! But more importantly, she teaches me about the value of hospitality, faith, hope, persistence, and obedience. 

Let’s first look at her story.

2 Kings 4:8-17 – Hospitality 

One day Elisha went on to Shunem, where a wealthy woman lived, who urged him to eat some food. So whenever he passed that way, he would turn in there to eat food. And she said to her husband, “Behold now, I know that this is a holy man of God who is continually passing our way. 10 Let us make a small room on the roof with walls and put there for him a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp, so that whenever he comes to us, he can go in there.”

  • The Shunammite woman is a woman of means and is unselfish. She shares what she has with people in need–not because she wants anything in return, but because she has a kind and generous heart. How can we use what we have to bless others?
  • Her husband is present, but she is willing to advise him. She is also married to an unselfish person. She does not always wait for him to make decisions, but respectfully includes him in her own decision-making process. If you have a good idea, you do not have to wait for someone else first to share it. You can be the first one. A wise person recognizes the value in a good idea.

11 One day he came there, and he turned into the chamber and rested there.12 And he said to Gehazi his servant, “Call this Shunammite.” When he had called her, she stood before him. 13 And he said to him, “Say now to her, ‘See, you have taken all this trouble for us; what is to be done for you? Would you have a word spoken on your behalf to the king or to the commander of the army?’” She answered, “I dwell among my own people.” 14 And he said, “What then is to be done for her?” Gehazi answered, “Well, she has no son, and her husband is old.”15 He said, “Call her.” And when he had called her, she stood in the doorway.16 And he said, “At this season, about this time next year, you shall embrace a son.” And she said, “No, my lord, O man of God; do not lie to your servant.” 17 But the woman conceived, and she bore a son about that time the following spring, as Elisha had said to her.

  • When asked by Elisha what he can do for her, she does not make any request. She simply wants to serve. Determined to do something good for her, finally Elisha’s servant says what she lacks–children.
  • The Shunammite woman probably has given up on this prospect of children, and it doesn’t look promising (#oldhusband #erectiledysfunction)
  • Sometimes crazy, unexpectedly amazing things can arise out of generosity beyond our expectations. 

2 Kings 4:8-17 – Faith, Hope and Persistence 

18 When the child had grown, he went out one day to his father among the reapers. 19 And he said to his father, “Oh, my head, my head!” The father said to his servant, “Carry him to his mother.” 20 And when he had lifted him and brought him to his mother, the child sat on her lap till noon, and then he died. 21 And she went up and laid him on the bed of the man of God and shut the door behind him and went out. 22 Then she called to her husband and said, “Send me one of the servants and one of the donkeys, that I may quickly go to the man of God and come back again.” 23 And he said, “Why will you go to him today? It is neither new moon nor Sabbath.” She said, “All is well.” 24 Then she saddled the donkey, and she said to her servant, “Urge the animal on; do not slacken the pace for me unless I tell you.” 25 So she set out and came to the man of God at Mount Carmel.

  • The child grew up and dies from meningitis (?). Imagine how distressing this must have been to her–especially when it was so unlikely for her to have a child in the first place. (SIDE NOTE: isn’t it annoying when you are living your best life, and then you get “Rick-rolled” by God? He gives you something and takes it right back! We are left to grapple with this and discern when to fight and when to accept the losses we experience and move on).
  • Sometimes men do not have all the best ideas! The Shunammite Woman had faith her child could be healed and was ready to do something about it–even when her husband did not. She did not despair saying, “All is well.” She was ready to fight. She gets up in search of help herself. 

When the man of God saw her coming, he said to Gehazi his servant, “Look, there is the Shunammite. 26 Run at once to meet her and say to her, ‘Is all well with you? Is all well with your husband? Is all well with the child?’” And she answered, “All is well.” 27 And when she came to the mountain to the man of God, she caught hold of his feet. And Gehazi came to push her away. But the man of God said, “Leave her alone, for she is in bitter distress, and the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me.” 28 Then she said, “Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, ‘Do not deceive me?’” 29 He said to Gehazi, “Tie up your garment and take my staff in your hand and go. If you meet anyone, do not greet him, and if anyone greets you, do not reply. And lay my staff on the face of the child.” 30 Then the mother of the child said, “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So he arose and followed her. 31 Gehazi went on ahead and laid the staff on the face of the child, but there was no sound or sign of life. Therefore he returned to meet him and told him, “The child has not awakened.”

  • She is honest in her grief asking Elisha why she was given a son for him to be taken away. Bad things can happen to good people for reasons that are difficult to explain or lack concrete explanation. It is okay to wrestle with this. 
  • Thankfully in this story, but not every story, there was hope for this sad news to be changed.

32 When Elisha came into the house, he saw the child lying dead on his bed. 33 So he went in and shut the door behind the two of them and prayed to the Lord.34 Then he went up and lay on the child, putting his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands. And as he stretched himself upon him, the flesh of the child became warm. 35 Then he got up again and walked once back and forth in the house, and went up and stretched himself upon him. The child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes. 36 Then he summoned Gehazi and said, “Call this Shunammite.” So he called her. And when she came to him, he said, “Pick up your son.” 37 She came and fell at his feet, bowing to the ground. Then she picked up her son and went out.

  • Her faith and persistence is rewarded and her child comes back to life.
  • The Shunammite Woman is thankful.

A few chapters later we encounter her again. This time, there had been a famine for many years and she had to leave her land and wealth behind.

2 Kings 8: 1 – 6: Obedience

Elisha talked to the woman whose son he had brought back to life. He said, “You and your family should move to another country, because the Lord has decided that there will be a famine here. It will last for seven years.”

So the woman did what the man of God said. She went with her family to stay in the land of the Philistines for seven years. After seven years she returned from the land of the Philistines.

  • The woman could have stayed in her nice house, but she obeyed Elisha (I guess he is a prophet who resurrected her kid so…)
  • Because she had helped him, she was privy to important information like the coming famine

She went to speak with the king to ask him to help her get back her house and land.

  • She, not her husband, goes to the king to get back what is hers.

The king was talking with Gehazi, the servant of the man of God. The king said to Gehazi, “Please tell me all the great things Elisha has done.”

Gehazi was telling the king about Elisha bringing a dead person back to life. At that same time the woman whose son Elisha brought back to life went to the king. She wanted to ask him to help her get back her house and land. Gehazi said, “My lord and king, this is the woman, and this is the son who Elisha brought back to life.”

The king asked the woman what she wanted, and she told him.

  • She shares her testimony and receives her land again. She does not keep the amazing things God has done for her to herself, but shares it with the king.
  • Sometimes we go through things–whether good or bad so we can share our stories with another person. 

Then the king chose an officer to help her. The king said, “Give to the woman all that belongs to her. And give her all the harvest of her land from the day she left the country until now.”

The Shunammite Woman’s story represents various states of being. Sometimes we are in a situation when we can give. Sometimes we are the ones that need help. What I have learned from this woman is to give what I can, to have faith even when those around me lack it, and to not be afraid to ask for help when I need it. She was so dynamic and active–vigorously making a difference wherever she went. I am so inspired by her story and her faith.

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“Departure of the Shunammite Woman,” Rembrandt
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Shaker Heights: Childhood

For me it seems nearly impossible to track when one memory begins and the other ends. Contained in these many little memories is one large one: the memory of childhood. The first home I can recall was in an old, apartment complex in Shaker Heights, Ohio. It was situated in front of a busy road–Van Aken Road, with scarlet red bricks and rough sidewalks—sidewalks that were so rough that when I took the “poisonous” berries off bushes in attempt to draw on them I skinned my knuckles in the process. The summer’s sound of ice cream truck jingles, quick slaps of jump ropes on the cement ground, and children’s cheers are engraved into my memory. I remember the hot summer walks to the beautiful Shaker Heights Public Library. This former school building has the grandest playground I have ever seen until today! Instead of woodchips, it had the state-of-the-art spongy, recyclable material that we find on today’s playgrounds, and sections of the playground were connected by numerous bridges fostering my imagination. Inside, I can still smell the papery scent of books, see vividly colored bean bags, old, smiling librarians and hear the pleasant silence. Since Shaker, I have not felt the same magic I once did when walking into the children’s section of a library, but seeing the distinct change in color from grey carpet to reds and blues speckled with yellow stars still reminds me of those wondrous years. Those where the years when I’d walk to the library almost everyday during the summer with sticky popsicle stains on my shirt, sandals on my feet, and daffodils dangerously close to the road—so close that my parents feared I’d stray too far to admire them.

In fall, the leaves changed, and the rain, a cool comfort in the summer, became a nuisance. Nonetheless, there was one day when I did not mind it too much. It was my mother’s birthday, and her day off so she decided to take me to the bus stop.  I do not remember too much of her in my early childhood. My maternal grandmother was very hands-on raising me for the first 5 years of my life. Having two parents as resident doctors makes their presence even more poignant in one’s memory because the times when they were not ripped away by work or weary from late night calls were seldom. Some specific details evade me now such as the clothes I was wearing and the faces of the other children at my stop, but the morning my mother walked me to the bus stop, I do remember what I felt: love. With so many details lost in time, I do remember my mother taking a red, velvet ribbon and tying it into my hair. It was the kind of velvet I think of when I rub my hands on a plush Christmas stocking. Perfectly, (and only my mother can do it perfectly) the bow hung on my ponytail, and as I hugged her goodbye and was ushered on to the bus with the other children, my heart was full of joy because for those few moments I had her all to myself. Taking the window seat, I rubbed the fogged up window with my palm so that I could see her as the bus drove away. The condensation was wet and cold like the falling rain. I once told my mother this story, and she could not recall it at all. The memory is somewhere lost in the sea of her mind and it is remarkable. Even though it was her birthday, the true present was given to me.

I remember the tarnished gold “4” to the left side of the green peeled doorframe of the apartment. I am almost certain we had apartment number 4 because a few weeks after I turned four I was astounded by the fact my age finally matched up to the number outside our door. I do not remember what floor we were on and how many steps it took to get there, but if I kept on walking down the cement steps with my older brother and sister, eventually, we’d end up in the basement composed of a washer, dryer and a leaky sink. It was the only place we were allowed to rollerblade in the apartment building.

The first time I entered that apartment, it was before my younger sister, Emi, was born, and I have very few clear memories before that. It almost seems like a dream where only some details remain but no matter how hard I fight, the memories are lost.  It was nearly 21 years ago but remarkably, I remember what I was wearing: a starched white dress with a yellow and red pattern, red shiny buttons (the kind parents fear their children choking on), Knee-high socks with black shoes. My mother held onto my arm as my father walked on ahead with whom I can only imagine to be the realtor. Another fact I know for certain is that I was alone with my parents. As one of four children (and at that time, three children) it must have meant something to me to remember it. Perhaps subconsciously I have had the selfish desire of having them to myself. We walked into the three-bedroom apartment with a large living room. It’s exact size I am uncertain. A child’s memory often makes things much larger than they are for the world seems to swallow them whole.  I used to “ice skate” across the floor with Emi years after. In reality, it was really sock gliding, but the creaky, dusty wooden floor was perfect for our Michelle Kwan-esque “triple axels.” Until this day, when I see open wooden floors, when no one is looking, I do a quick spin on one foot. On that floor, my poor grandmother did her own slipping, sliding, and falling when mischievous Emi poured an entire vat of Johnson & Johnson’s baby oil on it. “Grandmommy” put up a lot with us, but she had a special soft spot for Emi. She used to look at her saying how much she looked like Mark, my grandfather. I feel as though my grandmother represented my childhood. There was so much sweetness and adventure, but there always seemed to be an underground melancholy.

I am not really sure if my grandmother was actually very happy. She was the type of woman who believed duty to be on par with love. Sweet words meant nothing unless hard work lay behind them, but she never did her work grudgingly. Her cooking drew our otherwise antisocial neighbors to our door. She was quite innovative transforming our old, “Sprinkles” yogurt cups into Jell-O containers for after school snacks, baked fresh bread, and even was quite fond of WWF Wrestling on TNT. A sturdy woman with large brown hands I got a few spankings from, she seemed massive to me, but when I look back at her photographs she was actually quite petite. Grandmommy had a stern face that bore the loss of three children in Nigeria, the backward nature of polygamy, a foreign culture, no living friends, and the death of a man she considered her best friend. My mother says that I never got to know her real mom as she still grieved the loss of my grandfather when I knew her.  I learned a few years later that Grandmommy also had a stroke in Shaker Heights, also changing her. It is hard for me to imagine a young, light-hearted grandmother, but when I open my mother’s old photo albums, I see a beautiful young woman with high cheekbones, the smoothest complexion and the softest eyes. Time can be a very cruel thing. Talk of my grandfather seemed to be a no-go subject with Grandmommy, but one day after a confused Sunday school session, I asked her if “Grandpa died on the cross like Jesus?” Surprisingly, she laughed and said, “No. He was sick.”

Nabokov says that existence lies between two cracks of darkness, and the brief wisp of my childhood seemed to end after my grandmother slipped into her second crack of darkness. How does one cling onto a memory? After my grandmother’s passing, my mother used to wear her clothes just to smell her. Some of her scarves are still unwashed after all these years, and if I open the green Rubbermaid bins marked from “Shaker Heights,” I can still smell her scent. I have not done this in years. She was not a woman for strong perfume. Even though one day her scent will die away, she will live on in my memory sealed in the Shaker Heights folder of my brain, locked with my childhood until it sinks back into a sea of nothingness.

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The Physician Scientist, A Force for Change

On April 19, 2018, I gave the keynote speech at the American Society for Clinical Investigation Food & Science Event. Grant Achatz, head chef at the Michelin-star restaurant, Alinea gave the keynote last year, and I certainly had some big shoes to fill. He shared his experience as a patient with head and neck cancer and the impact of physician-scientists in his full recovery. This year, HHMI asked that I speak. Here is the full transcript of the speech, and I’ll share more reflections and photos on the meeting in general very soon. My audience was composed of the ASCI Young Physician Scientist Awardees, HHMI Medical Fellows, ASCI/AAP members who are very senior and established physician-scientists like my PI, George Daley. 

Here, I share my personal journey on why I research sickle cell disease and the real barriers and fears I and many others have to becoming physician scientists. 

***

Good Evening! Thank you George for that kind introduction, Melanie Daub and Dr. Cheung for inviting me to speak, and my family for supporting me and being here tonight. This evening, I will share with you what has motivated me to purse the path of a physician-scientist and what the scientific community can do to maintain the next generation in this sphere.

It has been said that “Our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

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We often find it troubling to think of the world after we are gone. But, Vladmir Nabakov once declared that too seldom do we consider the chasm of darkness before our birth—the anticipation of our mothers and fathers for our arrival, our empty cradle, the names our parents conceived to name us. Forces beyond our control began to chart the projection of our lives before our first breath and the forces within our lives continue propel us forward. So let me go back to the very beginning of my scientific journey. 7 millenia ago when the Saharan Desert was lush and green.

A child was born there with a special mutation that protected he or she from fatal malarial infections, and that child lived long enough to pass that gene on to their children.

Let’s fast forward to the 1980s.

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My parents met in Nigeria, and they were tremendously fashionable.

They got married, and they had 4 children.

A son Olu, 3 daughters (Soton, Emi and me). It was always eventful in my house with frequent trips to Sam’s Club. My childhood was often very joyful, but we as a family have experienced quite some hardships.

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The same year this picture was taken, one of my siblings spent 3 months in the hospital.

Two of them have sickle cell disease. SCD is the most common genetic disorder in the United States and a red blood cell disease due to mutated hemoglobin. Although carrying one allele of the sickle cell mutation is of benefit to those in malaria-endemic regions, as those patients are largely clinically normal, it is a very awful disease for those who carry both genes. The sickle hemoglobin within the cell, polymerizes distorting the cell’s shape. Awkward and stiff, they do not last long in circulation and occlude and damage the internal lining of blood vessels. Oxygen cannot be delivered properly to many tissues causing severe organ damage like stroke and tremendous bone pain. And most patients with functional asplenia are at high risk of deadly infections especially in the developing world.

I learned very early in life that SCD is a force that can transform outwardly healthy-appearing and joyful people into those overwhelmed with pain and illness—a shadow of who they truly are and can become.

On one of my sibling’s last day of 11th grade, 10 minutes into her Spanish final she felt a sharp pain in her lower back. An expert on pain, she knew what was coming. She also knew the inevitable crisis would soon render her indisposed and she was without help. My mother and father were away at work and the rest of us were working or far away in school. She did not go to the ER for reasons I will discuss later.

She opted to fail her Spanish final by not completing it, got her self in the car and drove home. When my siblings have had their crises, I have learned to walk gently into the room, because even the vibrations from the creaking floor can make a difference to someone in such extreme pain. She got herself up to bed, and instead of trying to lie as still as possible, the pain was so excruciating, she could not keep herself from writhing in pain and screaming.

When my parents, physicians, got home, they were able to get her the appropriate pain meds but that still did not help. When you sit with a person in the midst of a sickle cell crisis in this state—even as a physician, you feel tremendously helpless. You can give IV fluids, make sure nothing more sinister is occurring, but pain is completely out of your control. You must wait and hope for it to finally be over. Imagine living your life constantly wondering when a crisis will come? Never knowing what will be impacted whether a vacation, a test or your own wedding. Imagine knowing a crisis will come over and over until the end of your life. Many patients would rather not continue living.

This is unacceptable.

Sickle cell disease, like many other ailments, is the enemy of potential and wholeness. Over the years it has garnered some attention, but in my opinion, not enough as our exposure to it’s basic pathophysiology over the past century is inappropriately disproportionate to the number of therapies and cures generated and available for patients.

How is it that we have known about this disease for more than 100 years but until very recently had no way to treat it beyond the symptoms? We have only two FDA-approved treatments for SCD in adults and one in children. There is no safe, universal cure for patients either. And despite the fact there are 9x more people with sickle cell anemia on earth than cystic fibrosis, for example, it has a ninth of the funding CF does.

These disparities combined with my personal experiences lit a fire in me in college—compelling me to do and know more. I shadowed often in the sickle cell clinics and saw that most care revolved around the management of symptoms rather than the treatment of disease. The lack of curative treatments was jarring and compelling. In the ER, I would hear physicians complain about the sickle cell patients who came asking for Dilaudid not realizing that these patients were opioid dependent because we as physicians had failed in not providing a solution to their problems. I felt a disconnect from the way things are and how they ought to be for these patients. I wondered how my sister would have been treated if she went to the ER in the state she was in that day.

Science enables us to grapple with this disconnect and challenge the status quo to provide solutions for patients. To provide cures for patients. Physicians have such uniquely powerful potential to become compassionate scientists.

I realized in medical school, that I could not resign myself to giving palliative care to sickle cell patients when they are so deserving of a cure. Despite this realization and my heart for sickle cell disease, I honestly lacked the confidence in myself to believe that I could actually make a profound difference as a scientist. Many of the scientists I had met looked nothing like me and seemed too smart and capable to have ever doubted themselves.

Yet, I knew my life’s calling involved sickle cell disease. In the absence of a focused research experience like a PhD program, I suspected that Howard Hughes Medical Fellow Program would provide the opportunity to have a more in-depth exposure to science. I talked with Melanie extensively on the phone, she pointed me to George Daley whom I was super nervous about emailing cold. Much to my surprise and elation, he responded to my email and the rest is history! Working in the Daley Laboratory for nearly two years has been one of the most seminal experiences of my life. Dr. Daley’s commitment to his trainees and willingness to support my research and my dreams has not only been an encouragement but an inspiration. During this time, I have realized with more clarity that I could be a physician-scientist. I could have my work with patients inform my research in profound ways that will benefit them in the future.

The first fellowship year provided me with the intangible gifts of being in a research setting: learning how to troubleshoot, design experiments, ask questions, and actively seek mentorship and support from incredible experts and collaborators. I became increasingly more proficient at culturing red cells derived from induced pluripotent stem cells with the hope of modeling sickle cell anemia with them. By the end of year one, I didn’t feel like I was done in the lab and neither did George. He supported my application for an extension of my HHMI fellowship.

And the second year truly has been rewarding as I have made progress towards producing a manuscript, speaking at conferences and building collaborations.

I cannot emphasize enough the value of a second year of research. My parents at first thought I was a little crazy to take another year from medical school to do this, but I think now they have come around! HHMI Fellows remember that no matter the advice you receive, you are responsible for your own happiness and your own decisions. Seek council but find your inner guide and voice.

All of these experiences described have given me more confidence in pursuing the physician-scientist track in residency and beyond. And, I am sure it has for many of my co-fellows as well as those who have gone before us. But I know many of us also still unsure and a bit afraid of that prospect.

But what happens after I graduate? I leave the halo of the Daley Laboratory and I am back in the real world finding a way to balance rigorous medical training with inquisitive research questions.

Honestly, my fear, which I am sure is shared by many Medical fellows is finding that after 6 years of residency and fellowship, there is no place for us in the research space. That life circumstance has made us lose confidence in our ability to enter this sphere. The competition for funding is too great and protected research time is too little. The lab, a beautiful place, where we have had the chance to play and grow will become a hostile one. The stakes will be higher then as a post doc as we will then consider how we would like to make our impact career-wise.

We learned last year that the average physician scientist is 42 years old when he or she starts their own laboratory. And, the age is increasing. How will that age look in 6 years? Given our current political climate will we still maintain our interest in basic/translational science research funding? Will discovery truly be translated into patient care? Also on a personal note, will the NIH loan repayment program still exist? I took a look at my student loans statement this week while preparing my taxes and all I could do was laugh. It was not happy laughing. Will our financial debt sway us away from academic medicine?

How do we fight these fears and our pessimism? Age matters. Many studies show that the older you get, the less creative you get. Also the older you are the more responsibilities you garner. How can we incentivize young physician-scientists to not give up on research careers when the draws of a higher salary and a more predictable life style are so alluring?

These are the questions for the movers and shakers who have gone before me—incredible forces who have shaped the field before we younger folks stepped into it. How have you been preparing for our arrival?

Despite my fears, I remain sure about the need for physician scientists. The medicine we practice must be evidence-based. The medicine we practice must evolve and improve, with the goal of true healing for all patients.

Inquisitive, young minds are needed to solve today’s problems. They need to be encouraged when frustrated, challenged when complacent, and believed in when lacking in self-belief. Answer our emails. Say hello to us when you can tell we are hovering around trying to talk to you. Give us a chance when you see our enthusiasm but minimal experience. My mentors have done that for me, and I would not be here without them.

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Passion is intrinsic to who we are, but often we need to be filled up by those around us. Whether it is by our families, our faith or our mentors. To more forward, we always must consider those who are behind. We must encourage and make the space for them to join us at the table.

As I close, remember that before our first breath, the world had been preparing for our arrival and for what we are destined to accomplish. And there are so many who are not even here yet who need our help now.

So to those who went before me, remember me. Remember us. Pave the way so that we can one day join you as physician scientists—forces for good in medicine seeking to raise the standard. Who are convicted by the notion of how things are versus how they ought to be- visionaries and innovators daring to see a better world with more cures, more gray hairs and more birthdays.

Thank you.

Miss Rosanwo Goes to Washington

The first time I went to Washington DC, I flew over on a fabulous 8th Grade trip with my class. It was my first sleep-away trip without my parents, and with a lot of young folks on the brink of high school it was a memorable, beautiful time- with a little bit of middle school shenanigans. We roamed from Ford Theater to the Spy Museum to the Archives, Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and presidential memorials with super enthusiastic social studies teachers.

Since then, I’ve been to DC many times–especially for research meetings as an HHMI medical fellow. I love taking their metro. It’s easy to navigate, and more importantly it’s fun to people watch! I see so many commuters in their suits and professional attire on the way to do something seemingly important. It’s like I am on an episode of The West Wing (amazing show!!) and could expect to see Toby, Josh or CJ on their way to Capital Hill.

What I’ve realized now as not simply a tourist to DC, is that the capital is a place of movers and shakers. This should be a natural conclusion as it is the CAPITAL, but I’ve been finally getting that so much powerful, influential STUFF is happening here–and it’s not just on Capital Hill.  In late March, I attended a meeting hosted by the NIH Heart Lung & Blood Program on Accelerating Cures in Hemoglobinopathies: The Cure Sickle Cell Initiative. 

I went to the meeting with my boss and was able to listen to and dialogue with national leaders in sickle cell disease. This event was one of the most inspiring and hopeful meetings I’ve had the chance to attend. What’s the goal? To see a real and broadly available cure for sickle cell disease in 5 years. After knowing about SCD for over 100 years this goal is lofty but long-over due.

How Can Sickle Cell Disease Be Cured? 

Matthew Porteus, succinctly described the current methods/strategies to cure sickle cell disease, and he broke it up into two major factions. “Beta-globin” focused and “Gamma-globin” focused. Does this already sound confusing? Not to worry! Let me back up and explain. Take a look at the diagram and caption below.

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Over the course of our development,  we make different types of hemoglobin, the special protein in our red blood cells that binds oxygen. Hemoglobin is a complex protein molecule made of 2 dimer chains of amino acids (4 subunits total, a tetramer). From conception until 3 months in utero, we make “epsilon” embryonic hemoglobin (HbE), following that until around birth we make, “gamma” fetal hemoglobin (HbF). The mutation in sickle cell disease is found in adult hemoglobin’s “beta”-globin chain (HbB). We start predominately making this hemoglobin around birth and then it increases as we reach 15 months old (after birth). Red blood cells are made in various places in our bodies over time from the yolk sack, the liver and finally the bone marrow–where we make them now.

Since the mutation in sickle cell disease is not seen in the gamma globin (HbF) but only in the adult version, scientists have been very interested in the “molecular switch” that turns on adult globins. If we can find away to turn it off then we can keep people with sickle cell disease from presenting a diseased phenotype! BCL11A, a transcription factor, is the molecular switch that turns on the transcription (the conversion of DNA –> mRNA) of the adult globin genes.

Beta-globin-Focused Approaches to a Cure

The approaches below are about either getting new beta-globin or correcting the already present beta-globin mutation in the cells. The goal is to get a patient to a point where their disease is virtually silent–even if they still carry the mutation. People who carry one mutated copy of the sickle cell gene (those with the sickle cell “trait”) are essentially healthy.

  1. Getting NEW stem cells via a bone marrow transplant (BMT). This is a procedure where you receive new “hematopoietic” or “blood” stem cells from a genetically similar donor (usually). It’s really important for you to have a similar immune system to your donor because your body will view those cells as “foreign” and attack them if they look too different. The bone marrow, where blood stem cells are made, is wiped out with radiation,  chemotherapy suppresses your immune system and then new blood stem cells are added. This is the most common “cure” for sickle cell disease, and the first successful treatment was in 1984. So what’s the problem? Too few donors. Only 15% of kids with sickle cell disease have a sibling-matched donor appropriate for them. Additionally, the chemo and radiation make this procedure very dangerous and there is a 25% mortality rate with BMT.  
  2. Gene Correction via “genome editing.” We can use a technology called, “CRISPR” which acts like a targeted “molecular scissors” to cut a patient’s mutated DNA and correct their own stem cells. The mutation in sickle cell is very simple, and you can replace the bad DNA with good DNA. What are the barriers? It is very difficult to correct EVERY stem cell. Scientists are still investigating ways to make this process more efficient. How many stem cells need to be fixed in a patient? Some studies say 2% are needed for therapeutic benefit and some say greater than 20%. 
  3. Gene Addition via “lentiviral gene therapy.”  This method uses a patient’s OWN stem cells for therapy as well, but instead of using CRISPR to edit, they can add genes carrying fetal hemoglobin to the cells by infecting them with a virus containing the “good DNA.” This is very cool, and I was able to meet a patient who was cured using this method! Barriers? It is very difficult to harvest health stem cells from patients. Those who have sickle cell disease have inflamed bone marrows from the damage the sickle cells do to that environment. As a result, the cells retrieved are not very healthy and may not respond well to virus infection. Another issue is that reproducible viral transduction is difficult! Imagine all the times you meet someone with a cold. Do you catch their virus every time? No! Sometimes the cells do not “catch” this virus either. 

Gamma-globin-Focused Approaches to a Cure

  1. These approaches focus more on turning off the “molecular switch” I discussed before, BCL11A. There is currently a new clinical trial at Boston Children’s Hospital looking to target BCL11A by erythroid (red blood cell) specific shRNA knockdown (aka using an RNA that blocks gene expression to block BCL11A synthesis). They will infect patient blood stem cells with a virus containing this shBCL11A construct. BCL11A has a role that is important in making B cells (a type of white blood cell) so this construct is very cool because it doesn’t just target BCL11A but an erythroid “enhancer” region that is specific to BCL11A expression in red blood cells.
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Basics of Gene Therapy

2. HPFH There are some “lucky” people with SCD who virtually have no disease because they naturally make a lot of HbF. Unlike most people, their fetal hemoglobin expression does not taper off after they are born, but continues at a higher level than normal. This is called “hereditary persistence of fetal hemoglobin” or HPFH. Scientists are also looking at the additional mutations these patients have and seeing if they can induce them in others using CRISPR-Cas9, the “molecular scissors” from before.

3. Small Molecules. Research is underway to make small molecules/medication that can target BCL11A and increase HbF without transplant. This could be like taking a pill.

No method is perfect so research is essential to optimizing each strategy so there can be multiple cures for sickle cell disease!

Getting Discoveries to the Clinic 

It was so amazing for me to hear patients who were cured of SCD share their stories at this meeting. The first patient to receive the lentivirus HbF treatment was there, and a woman who had a half-match who was cured via a regular BMT was also present. I had a chance to speak with the woman and she was so warm and encouraging and filled with so much JOY. On the other hand, some patients were there who had received BMTs but had adverse outcomes and were still uncured. I’m so glad their voices were also included.

There are so many barriers to getting a cure universalized. 

  1. Need to improve the preparation regimens for BMT. The chemo-radiation is very toxic and stem cell homing to the bone marrow needs to be faster.
  2. Cultural divide with necessity of transplant. With better sickle cell management, kids are living into adulthood and requiring organ damage later on. It’s wonderful that survival is better at this stage, but ideally children should be cured before their first stroke or the organs are damaged beyond repair. If BMTs stay dangerous (5-10% mortality in sibling-matched kids) less parents will be willing to take the risk. Additionally, physicians who would normally offer this to their leukemia patients, may be wary about offering BMT to their “okay” SCD patients.
  3. More clinical trials need and more patients. We can only know if these other methods could work if we have clinical trials. For very real and profound reasons, patients are apprehensive about being research.  The African-American community has had a history of exploitation by the medical field. Read this on the Tuskegee Study.

The goal of this meeting was to discuss ways to cure every three year old in the world. The hope is that real cures can be seen in the US in 5 years. Discovery is hard but implementation is even harder. Equity and distribution are certainly issues down the road. Most patients in the world with SCD are not close to academic medical centers like Boston Children’s Hospital, but in West and Central Africa.

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My notes from the meeting

 

Patients, families health care providers, and community organizations will need to join forces together if a cure for SCD can be realized. Many of the physician leaders were called to start a SCD registry for their patients in preparation for future clinical trials.  My PI, told me to talk to everyone I could. “Expect to be a leader in Sickle Cell Disease,” he told me. My hope is to one day become one.

It was inspirational to have his support and invitation to have a seat at this table. To listen. To learn. It was such an honor to be a part of this discussion about sickle cell–to see the desire for us to “Use the C word” according to NIH Director, Francis Collins.

What’s the C word?

Cure.

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Excited to be around the SCD movers and shakers

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Alternative Fact of “Amicable” Uncoupling

I first would like to report that I am not particularly invested in the personal lives of most celebrities (as much as I judge their fashion sense)–especially Channing Tatum and Jenna Tatum (and Gwen and Coldplay guy). I’ve never seen Step Up and have zero interest. I did love She’s the Man and think it’s Channing’s best work. Jenna is an amazing dancer and choreographer. Their place as public figures makes them an easy example to discuss many of the issues within our society.

I’m not an expert on marriage seeing as I haven’t been married myself, but I do know quite a bit about bullshit.

I think people who are in the pre-marital phase can separate with no hard feelings–especially before getting too invested and having children and etc. Realizing you are not ready for something serious with them, not compatible, have no deep feelings for them are reasons to not continue. However, to me, after you are married, the reasons for separation have to be MUCH more serious. Getting married and staying married is a lot of work and energy so getting a divorce is serious.

Yesterday, the Tatums decided to call it quits. Following the Paltrow-Martin divorce I thought we had already seen the most ridiculous of divorce announcements, but I stand corrected. Here we go:

“We’re living in an incredible moment in time, but it’s also a time where truth can easily get distorted into ‘alternative facts’ 😉 So we want to share the truth so you know that if you didn’t read it here then it’s most certainly fiction.

We have lovingly chosen to separate as a couple. We fell deeply in love so many years ago and have had a magical journey together. Absolutely nothing has changed about how much we love one another, but love is a beautiful adventure that is taking us on different paths for now. There are no secrets nor salacious events at the root of our decision—just two best-friends realizing it’s time to take some space and help each other live the most joyous, fulfilled lives as possible. We are still a family and will alway be loving dedicated parents to Everly. We won’t be commenting beyond this, and we thank you all in advance for respecting our family’s privacy. Sending lots of love to everyone, 

Chan & Jenna”

Here are some interesting bits for me:

Alt-Fact #1: “Lovingly separate” 

What? If you can lovingly separate, can’t you get back together? “Love” in theory is what brought you two together, right? Love brings people together–not apart and y’all are married! If you still are deeply in love with each other, you stay together.

Alt-Fact#2: “Fell deeply in love”

So did you fall deeply out of it? If so, that would be the most honest thing about this statement. 

Alt-Fact #3: “Absolutely nothing has changed about how much we love each other.” 

If so, then why did Channing move out? Did he out grow the bed? Help please! 

Alt-Fact #4: “Love is taking us on different paths now.” 

Can I see a copy of your vows? Most have something about continue on the same path together for as long as you both shall live. 

Alt-Fact#5: “No secrets nor salacious events” 

So what you are saying is no one cheated? No abuse? What is a salacious event? Something must of happened for you to decide to change your situation. 

Alt-Fact#6: “Two best friends” 

Nah. You are not best friends. Your spouse should be your best person, but if you have babies with that person and get married, and they move out…that is a relationship in crisis. That platonic best friends thing is…not accurate. 

The most ironic bit about their statement is the fact they discussed ALTERNATIVE FACTS as a cute dig at the Trump Administration. I will not lie, we live in an Orwellian world, and Trump has exposed that with many of his toxic lies. But, we were a post-truth world LONG before he came into office. And, one of the biggest falsehoods is this idea of amicable divorce.

I’m gonna translate those alternative facts into facts now… 

Fact 1: “We are separating because we can no longer bear to live with each other because we do not want to.”

Fact 2: “We did not fall deeply in love. We enjoyed each other’s company but did not love each other sacrificially. What we had was something superficial.”

Fact 3: “A lot has changed. We no longer want to be married to each other.”

Fact 4: “Love is not taking us anywhere. We both are taking ourselves on different paths now–away from each other.”

Fact 5: “We really do not have a good reason to separate.”

Fact 6: “We are two separated spouses.”

Once again, I’m not trying to pick on these two specifically because they are particularly horrible people. They seem decent and fine in many ways. But, I think for us to move forward as a society we should question all the alternative facts we may be accepting not just the ones spouted by oompa loompas with bad comb-overs.

Stay woke. Speak truth.

I hope for the best for these two. Divorce sucks! Let’s not paint it any other way.

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Get Up and Try Again

First, let this song below be your soundtrack to this blog post.

Playing it?

We are ready to begin.

FAILURE, BY DEFINITION, IS A “LACK OF SUCCESS.”

I believe that fear of failure creates more failures than anything else. Fear keeps us from even trying, and the best way for something to not be successful is to never try it. That’s 100% guaranteed. You see this inside and outside the laboratory.

You can set up an experiment, and it can fail even if you had a great set up. Believe me, I get this. Sometimes the experiments that seem like a long-shot and doomed end up working. No matter what the case may be, if you have a good idea, that experiment is usually worth it. Often scientists can think themselves out of a good question because they are afraid. This can keep them from being great.

Red blood cell or “erythroid”  differentiation is actually a little finicky. It’s pretty easy to drive CD34+/CD45+ (blood stem cells) down the erythroid lineage to the orthochromatic normoblast stage (last step before a red blood cell enucleates).

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But for whatever reason, it is really hard to get the cell to go from the normblast stage to the reticulocyte stage in a dish. ENUCLEATION IS TRICKY!

After trying again. Failing. Trying again. I’ve found a way to get this process to happen more often, and in these attempts and failures, I have acquired a lot of determination.

In September, I wanted to acquire a new collaborator. I won’t add too many details, but he was pretty skeptical of my data. At the get go, I felt I was fighting a losing battle. It did not feel good in the moment, but it was such an important experience. I walked a way feeling pretty defeated–especially because I’m pretty getting people to believe in what I am trying to do.

Skepticism and criticism can refine you if they do not break you. 

At some point, you have to show and share your ideas with a skeptic. The peer review process exists because when we are criticized, we are challenged to become more rigorous.

Yesterday, I presented to him again and it was like night and day. The fundamental story I showed him was the same, but the combination of my confidence (I presented A LOT in the fall and winter) + new data reeled him in and convinced him. After our first meeting, I honesty felt like packing my bags and going back to Cleveland. I felt nearly convinced that I did not have what I thought I had. He had told me so. But, I picked myself back up. I tried again. Yesterday, he told me not to go back to Cleveland. But yeah, I gotta get this degree so NO. 😉

I have been learning over and over that failure is often not intrinsic to the situation itself, but the people involved. You can see this in a lot of broken marriages. It is really hard to forgive someone who has wronged you. It can be much easier to walk away.  It is really hard to sacrificially love someone when it is inconvenient. It is much easier to walk away.

In friendships, the stakes are even lower. If you have no kids or didn’t legally bind yourself to you BFF, why invest? Just find someone more fun to hang with or forget people altogether!

Serena Williams, one of the best if not the best tennis player of all time will be making another comeback (post having her daughter) tomorrow. She has 39 grand slams (more than any other active player right now) I love this quote from her, and it’s been my Facebook cover photo in the past:

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I started watching tennis seriously during my sophomore year of high school in 2008. Serena was at a lower point in her career. She was not well conditioned, suffered from injury and also was still clearly grieving the death of her oldest sister, Yetunde Price. One of my favorite moments of her career was this time–not just the “Serena Slam” period. It was this period because you can clearly see her processing and working through some of her worst moments. You can clearly see how a champion finds her footing on shaky ground. Watching her re-emerge again and again and AGAIN at 36 years of age (same age as Roger Federer FYI) has been beautiful and inspiring (she’s been World no. 1 six times). After every loss, she reformats and figures out how to make it better and tries again.

Let me tell you something you already know…. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! – Rocky Balboa in Rocky Balboa 

I’m writing this post for whoever needs to hear it. What do you need to pick your self up to do? Are you afraid of failing again? It’s okay. Try again.

I’m about to try some new experiments. They may fail.

Anybody who has ever been has failed.

Anybody who has ever been great has failed and tried again.

 

 

“Have you come willingly?”: About Women, Sex & Fairy Tales

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Sleeping Beauty needs an awakening in more ways than one

 

If fairy tales are about anything, they are about the attainment of sexual maturity. More often than not, “the happily ever after,” especially in the Grimm’s Tales, is linked to a marriage or the union of a man and woman. The necessary event that makes this possible is attainment of sexual maturity for the female. Intriguingly, the road to this very important moment has surprising variation from tale-to-tale. Sometimes the girl is not ready to share her bed or is unwillingly devoured by a rouge wolf. In other instances, time slowly passes leading to the ripening of her beauty and the inevitable appearance of a suitor. What does this archetypical woman look like? Is she a silent, beautiful object waiting to be kissed or taken upon a king’s horse? Or, is she wild, needing to be tamed?  Child psychoanalyst, Bruno Bettleheim, wrote in, The Uses of Enchantment, that fairy tales enrich the lives of children by “clarifying” their emotions and “stimulating” their imaginations. He believed that introducing children to fairy stories, better prepared children for their lives ahead of them.  Here, I will discuss many tales dealing with the issue of sexual maturation. Although some tales may set little girls at ease or excite them for what is to come in their lives, fairy tales also show that the journey to womanhood can be violent, abrupt and change course against a woman’s wishes—exciting and sobering altogether.

Chapter 1: When They Aren’t Ready 

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When you really don’t have time for frogs who want to marry you…

There is something bittersweet about leaving childhood behind. It is this bittersweet-ness that is so apparent in the Frog-King and Little Red Cap. These tales tell of little girls either unwilling or not ready for the sexual maturation forced upon them.

The Frog-King, or Iron Henry is the first tale in the complete set of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It begins with the youngest daughter of a king playing with a golden ball near a fountain. She drops the golden ball into the fountain, and is consoled while weeping by a frog. He promises to retrieve her ball if she gives him her love.

“Let me be your companion and play-fellow, and sit by you at your little table, and eat off your little golden plate, and drink out of your little cup, and sleep in your little bed.”

Without giving a moment to think about the gravity of his request, and also underestimating the frog’s power to make her keep her promise, she consents, unknowingly ending her childhood.

The Frog-King is not truly about true love between a charming frog and a princess who sees his deeper beauty, but a girl pressured into an unwanted union. The King’s Daughter is disgusted with what she describes as an “odious frog,” and does not intend to keep her promise if not for the parental pressure from her father. She feared the touch of the cold frog “which was now to sleep in her pretty, clean little bed.” At the climax of the story, the King’s Daughter does not grow accustomed to the cold frog or even love him, but throws him against the wall in a fit of rage. She wanted to remain a girl with her own bed, plate, and cup. Perhaps, there was something about that emotional release and his transformation that readied her to accept the prince with “kind and beautiful eyes.” Following that transformation they, “went to sleep.”

The King’s Daughter’s journey to sexual maturity was unwanted and even disgusted her. Her rage not only released the Frog King from his curse but also brought on her own sexual maturation. This is evidenced by a night with recently transformed prince. No more golden balls were needed for this princess.  In the case of Little Red Cap, her sexual maturation was brought on not by the violence she performed but received.

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Caught in bed with a wolf 

Little Red Cap, also known as Little Red Riding Hood, is a tale of a little girl who takes food to her ailing grandmother through a forest. Red’s mother warns her to stay on the path, yet while on the path, she meets a wolf. The wolf first takes advantage of her naiveté and convinces her to veer from the path to look at the forest flowers. While straying from the path, the cunning “Old sinner” runs to Red’s grandmother’s house. This is where the story diverges in many of its’ retellings. In the Grimms’ tale, the wolf physically devours the grandmother and puts on her clothing. After Red Caps’ several questions about her “grandmother’s” physical appearance, she is physically eaten as well. Both grandmother and Red are only freed when the huntsman cuts them out in a cesarean section-like nature. Red is reborn, and when another wolf reappears, she wittily dispatches of him.

Charles Perrault’s version is much more overtly sexual. The wolf does not put on the grandmother’s clothing. He asks Red to join him in bed after disguising his voice. The virginal Red obeys, takes off her clothes and enters into bed. Again, after Red naively questions her “grandmother” about her appearance, the wolf “threw himself upon” Red and “ate her up.”

Perrault’s moral is very dark: pretty young girls should be wary of wolves which “are not all” of the same kind.” There is no happy ending for the girl who finds herself in bed with a wolf-no matter what he looks like. Another hidden message may be that roguish men will always seek to disguise their true nature, and if a woman does not see this, she will pay the price. Rape is often not the subject of stories for children. This is what makes Perrault’s tale especially sinister.

Both the Frog King and Little Red Cap illustrate a reality that women who are not “ready” may still be sought after. Their endings vary. Sometimes, she is forced to grow up, grows cynical; sometimes she is devoured in more ways than one. In these stories, the transition to sexual maturity is rapid, but other tales illustrate a slower passage of time.

Chapter 2: The Passage of Time and Sexual Readiness 

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The bear and the beast

From frightful, black beast to loving playmate to “King’s son,” the transformation of the bear in Snow-White and Rose-Red, is certainly of note. But, he is not the only character who changes. Snow-white and Rose-red, two daughters of a poor widow, have their own journeys to sexual maturation. The bear is the salient catalyst.

The evening when the sisters first let the bear in their little cottage, “Rose-red screamed and sprang back” and “Snow-white hid herself behind her mother’s bed.” Their (sexually mature) mother was unafraid when she heard him speak and beckoned the girls to come to him. Unlike the Frog King, the bear did not demand affection from the girls but won it as time passed, and they grew.

The day the bear left their home for the entire summer, marked change in the girls—especially Snow-white. She was, “quite sorry at his departure, as she unbolted the door for him.” Shortly after his exit, the girls were sent by their mother into the forest to collect firewood, and came face-to-face with the wicked dwarf that cursed the King’s son. They are saved from the cursing dwarf by the bear. When the bear reappeared growling, the girls ran away until they recognized his voice when he called out, “Snow-white and Rose-red, do not be afraid; wait, I will come with you.” As they waited, “his bearskin fell off, and he stood there a handsome man, clothed all in gold.”

In the forest, Snow-White and Rose-red did not need their mother to calm them and had finally reached the point of sexual maturation. In fact, from this point on, their mother is strangely absent from the story. Snow-white married the King’s son, and Rose-red, his brother. The freedom to roam the forest, away from their childhood home, was an important facet of their journey to sexual maturity—that and the passage of time. But, in other tales, when women lack such “freedom” to move, wander and be active, their maturation still is inevitable.

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Whoops! You’re a man! 

 

One such tale is Rapunzel. Rapunzel, whose parents exchanged her for rampion (rapunzel) plants, was the “most beautiful child under the sun.” Aware of the child’s beauty, Dame Gothel, who acquired the girl, wished to freeze Rapunzel’s innocence, blocking her sexual maturation. In renditions such as the musical, Into the Woods, Gothel wanted to keep Rapunzel with her out of Gothel’s own loneliness, but her motivations in Grimm’s 1857 tale are less clear. Gothel may simply be a predator that preys on the desperation of others, trapping her victims into undesirable situations.

Two years after shutting Rapunzel in the tower (age 13-14), the “King’s son” predictably passes by. Although he could not see “the most beautiful child under the sun,” this could not stop their inevitable union. He heard her charming voice singing from up high in the tower, and his heart was “stirred.” When, he tricked her into casting down her hair, and he climbed up to meet her, she was naturally terrified. But, the first man she had ever met made quite the impression.

“Rapunzel lost her fear, and when he asked her if she would take him for husband, and she saw that he was young and handsome, she thought: ‘He will love me more than old Dame Gothel does’.”

Something about Rapunzel made her accept this stranger, and perhaps it was her sexual readiness—even if she did not consciously recognize it herself. The time was right.

They plotted their escape, but Rapunzel’s own mouth betrays her when she tells Gothel that she outweighed the prince. Outraged by Rapunzel’s betrayal, Gothel exclaims,

“Ah! You wicked child. What do I hear you say! I thought I separated you from all the world and you have deceived me!”

Gothel then cut off her hair, a symbol of her beauty and sexual purity, blinds the prince, and casts them both from the tower. They are reunited years later.

Rapunzel’s revelation of the prince’s presence here differs, however, from the 1812 version, in profound ways. The earlier edition of the Grimm’s tales had more obvious mentions of sex and violence than in the later 1857 edition. Instead of foolishly speaking of the Prince, Rapunzel’s loss of virginity is clearly revealed to Dame Gothel. In the 1812 story[1],

“The fairy did not discover anything until one day when Rapunzel began talking to her and said, ‘Tell me, Mother Gothel, why do you think my clothes have become too tight for me and no longer fit?’”

Still maintaining some child-like innocence, Rapunzel was unaware of what was causing the changes to her body. Clearly, she enjoyed her meetings with the “young king,” but neither of them seemed to discuss the potential consequences of their unions. The celibate Gothel in this version may not only be incensed at Rapunzel’s behavior but disgusted with Rapunzel’s sexual adventurousness.

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She dead but she fine

 

Another tale in which a mother abhors her daughter’s sexual maturation is the famous, Little Snow-White. The  “patriarchal” mirror that hung on the Queen’s wall in Snow-White was the judge of beauty. Often the Queen, Snow-white’s stepmother, would ask the mirror for his opinion on the Queen’s beauty in comparison to the entire land. She was usually content with the response: “Thou, O Queen, art the fairest of all!” But, when Snow-white reached seven years of age, the norm was destabilized. The mirror finally professed the painful words:

“Thou art fairer than all who are here, Lady Queen. But more beautiful still is Snow-white, as I ween.”

Envy consumed the Queen and drove her to seek out her stepdaughter’s death. Feminist literary critics, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, have endeavored to make sense of the Queen’s profound envy. They found that in extreme patriarchy women often turn on each other. Traditionally, the mother views the daughter as a threat with her “budding sexuality,” but the envy the Queen actions—numerous attempts at murder—seems even extreme for this view. Gilbert and Gubar posit that the Queen’s hatred stems from her very nature that counter’s Snow-white’s (Gilbert & Gubar 293). Even without the mirror, the Queen would have acted wickedly. On the other hand, even in death, Snow-white’s beauty was enough to capture the fancy of a passing prince. Similarly, the Silent Women in the Norwegian and German “Swan Brothers” stories were so lovely that passing kings put them upon their horses and took them home. The Queen, however, is active, scheming and thinking, and Snow-white with her “absolute chastity” and “frozen innocence” is destined to take the place of the Queen (Gilbert & Gubar 295).

Whatever happens to the girl after she has attained sexual maturity—when her “frozen innocence” has melted away? Is the little Snow-white destined to become “the queen” herself? Many of the fairy stories analyzed in this essay end shortly after the female protagonist reaches sexual maturity. Perhaps, the story of Snow-white shows us the dark end for our female protagonists, and the dangers of holding on to the past. The passage of time is inevitable. Just as the ripening of a woman’s beauty may be outside her control, so is its waning, and if women hold on to what they are sure to lose, they may gain madness in return.

Snow-white, Rose-red, Rapunzel, the Silent princesses and “little” Snow-white are all women to be desired. With time, they came of age with very little of their own resistance, but some women in fairy tales fight back against the inevitable.

Chapter 3: They Come Unwillingly 

The King’s Daughter from the Frog King and Little Red Cap were to be pitied because they were not primed for sexual relationships, but sometimes women of the appropriate age are unwilling to progress into a marriage. The price for this behavior in such patriarchal societies is a time of suffering and shame. In King Thrushbeard and Hakon Grizzlebeard the princesses are haughty, immature, and pompous.

Hacon Grizzlebeard and King Thrushbeard begin in nearly identical ways. The first:

“Once on a time there was a Princess who was so proud and pert that no suitor was good enough for her… though she was so proud, still new suitors kept on coming to the palace, for she was a beauty, the wicked hussy!”

The second:

“A king had a daughter who was beautiful beyond all measure, but so proud and haughty withal that no suitor was good enough for her.”

These fussy princesses were old enough to be desired but refused to be sexually ready, mocking the beards (symbolic of manhood) in two of their most suitable suitors: Grizzlebeard and Thrushbeard. In these fairy tales, princesses with such “proud” natures were unable to be appropriate judges of their own sexual readiness and had to be tamed—each in different ways.

In Hacon Grizzlebeard, the rejected Grizzlebeard swears to himself that the princess will pay for her mockery and shames her. He masquerades as poor beggar selling golden objects. Much like the young King’s Daughter from The Frog King, the princess is also fond of gold. She asks if they are for sale and he replies,

“No; it isn’t for sale, but if I may have leave to sleep outside your bed-room door to-night, I’ll give it you.”

Unlike the young King’s Daughter in The Frog King, the princess is wise enough to consider the offer. It seemed safe enough, but alas, the beggar found his way into the girl’s bed. She gave birth, months later. The irony in the Princess’ situation is that she fought so hardily against marriage, but in the end received exactly what she feared: marriage. Her misplaced sexual maturation brought on her own disgrace. Fearing her father’s scorn, she follows the beggar home, is quickly domesticated, and humbled until Grizzlebeard is satisfied in marrying her.

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Not ready for beards and manhood?

In King Thrushbeard, both the princess’ father and Thrushbeard seem to work together in the taming of the princess. When Thrushbeard appears, also disguised as a beggar, the princess’ father proclaims,

“I have taken an oath to give you to the very first beggar-man, and I will keep it.”

Over the course of the story, the princess regrets her rejection of Thrushbeard and is also domesticated and lowered into service as a kitchen maid in Thrushbeard’s true palace. Once satisfied by her humiliation, Thrushbeard reveals himself to her. The tamed shrew weeps bitterly saying,

“I have done a great wrong, and am not worthy to be your wife.”

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In All-fur a woman escapes her incestuous father but faces extreme hardship

These women were guilty of wanting control of their sexual maturation processes. In the world of the fairy tale, this often does not work. All-fur is an interesting exception. When a widower-king’s daughter grew and he saw that, “in every respect she was like his late wife, and suddenly felt a violent love for her,” the princess, Allerleirauh fled. She is not characterized as a “wicked hussy” for her rejection, but her escape from the Electra complex is not easy. This time, she disguises herself in fur, and is mistaken for and hunted like an animal in the forest of another king. She works in the kitchen living in a new kingdom “in great wretchedness.” In the end, her true beauty is recognized, and she is married to the king of the land, safe from her incestuous father. But, her suffering is extraordinary. In piloting her own journey to sexual maturation, she still found herself in circumstances in which she was at the mercy of other men. These princess-taming tales, reveal that when women come unwillingly to the marriage bed, their lives will be all the harder for it. It may be easier to just come willingly.

Chapter 4: When They Come Willingly 

“True love” is a phrase often used in the discussion on fairy tales, but I believe it is truly rare in the fairy tale. The King’s Daughter in The Frog-King violently threw her soon-to-be mate against a wall. Snow-white and Rose-red were both fond of the bear but only one could have him. The king’s son in Rapunzel was the first man she ever saw and a convenient marriage to him represented freedom from her cage-tower. Little Snow-white was dead when her prince saw her for the first time, and the taming of the shrew tales are so full of shaming that it is hard to regard either of these stories as “true love” stories. However, the beast tales, Beauty and the Beast and White-Bear-King-Valemon are some of the most-beloved stories of true love and sexual maturation. The women in these tales come willingly.

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“Have you come willingly?” 

In Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s story, Beauty and the Beast, a merchant has three sons and three pretty daughters—the youngest, Beauty, the most beautiful of all. Beauty is her father’s favorite, and only requests a rose from him on one of his merchant travels. Unbeknownst to him, satisfying his daughter’s request of a rose brought about her sexual maturation. In a large forest, he plucks a rose from the Beast’s grounds. Bettleheim analyzed in The Uses of Enchantment,

“His doing so symbolizes both his love for her and also an anticipation of her losing her maidenhood, as the broken flower—particularly the broken rose—is a symbol for the loss of virginity”(Bettleheim 306).

The price for this offense is either his death or a daughter in exchange. Out of love for her father, and a brave determination, Beauty takes her father’s place. In Madame de Villeneuve’s tale[1], once at the Beast’s palace the following scene unfolds:

“Good evening, old man. Good evening, Beauty.”

The merchant was too terrified to reply, but Beauty answered sweetly, “Good evening, Beast,”

“Have you come willingly?” asked the Beast. “Will you be content to stay here when your father goes away?”

Beauty answered bravely that she was quite prepared to stay.

The Beast, pleased, sent the merchant away with chest of gold (a bride price).

Even though Beauty came willingly, she went on to gently reject the Beast’s nightly marriage proposals, still pining away for her father. Only after the Beast releases her for a week’s time to see her father, does Beauty realize her love for the Beast and how “she can no longer live without it and wants to marry it” (Bettleheim 306). The Beast nearly dying of heartbreak (since her wicked sisters detain her for longer than a week) is transformed into a Prince, and they happily celebrate her marriage.

As Beauty reached the point of sexual maturation she had to make a choice between childhood and womanhood. Although she initially wavered, she came to realize how satisfying it is to come willingly to a man she loves.

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“Have you ever sat softer, have you ever seen clearer?” 

The White-Bear-King-Valemon illustrates the transformation of a girlish princess dreaming of her wedding day to a devoted wife and mother. The King’s Daughter dreamed of a golden wreath. In Norwegian culture, virginal brides wore this gold wreath. She pined away for the particular wreath she dreamed of so much that the wreaths her doting father had made for her (naturally) would not suffice. She was not satisfied with what her father could give her, but what a white bear possessed: the exact golden wreath. She wished to purchase it but “No! It wasn’t to be had for money, but only in return for herself.” The King’s Daughter believed that her life was not worth living without the wreath and giving herself to him would at least satisfy her in getting what she wanted.

The King’s Daughter was ready for marriage, and when the bear came to collect her, her father sent his other daughters first. When her sisters sat on the bear’s back on the way to the wood where he lived, he asked,

“Have you ever sat softer, have you ever seen clearer?”

They childishly responded, “Yes, on my mother’s lap I sat softer, in my father’s court I saw clearer,” and the Bear-king returned them back to their parents. Only the “fair and sweet” King’s Daughter exclaimed in response to his question, “No, never!”  The satisfied bear-king took her, and although a bear by day, he conveniently transformed into a handsome man at night to be with his sexually-ready bride. The story does not end there.

Over the next three years of marriage, she bore three children that the Bear-king took away from her promptly after their births. Depressed, she wished to return to her parents, and unknowingly, began a quest to rescue her husband from the curse that trapped him within a bear’s body. As she searched for her husband, the King’s Daughter was determined to find him—even when those she met on the road told her that, “You’ll never catch up with him again.” But, she does, aids in his escape, and reunites with the children her husband hid away so that they could help her find him. (Research this story! I leave a lot of details out!)

In both Beauty and the Beast and White-Bear-King-Valemon, the girls and their fathers realize according to Bettleheim, that through marriage to a “beast” they didn’t have to suffer some beastly experience. Bettleheim claimed that,

“The story tells that their anxieties are unfounded. What was feared to be a beastly experience turns out to be one of deep humanity and love”(Bettleheim, 306).

Growing up can be a frightening reality for children, but these beast tales demonstrate that all though relationships change, growth can also be beautifully satisfying.

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Bear by day; man by night!

CONCLUSION

German poet, Friedrich Schiller once said,

“Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life.”

These stories have the power to introduce children to the realities of adulthood. In these posts, I have analyzed fairy stories about sexual maturation of females. Chapter 1, “When The Aren’t Ready,” elucidates the deep meaning concerning the frustration, violence, and cynicism of sexual maturation. In addition, the inevitability and futility of fighting against time and aging was explored in the second chapter, “The Passage of Time & Sexual Readiness.”Chapter 3, “They Come Unwillingly” described the suffering and shame women face in a patriarchal society when they are unwillingly to “progress” towards a life of marriage. The final chapter, “They Come Willingly,” tells of the beauty of true love and free will found in the “beast tales,” Beauty and the Beast and White-Bear-King-Valemon. Sex and personal growth take on varying forms both in reality and in the world of the fairy tale. Fairy tales do not always sugarcoat this matter, for, sex can be both lovely and violently unwanted. Through this analysis, it is evident that fairy tales, although fantastical, are grounded in much of what society considers a woman’s maturation.

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Rapunzel et al. happily ever after

Charmed by Lois & Clark

What can I say? I’m a child of the 90’s and love Superman. It is my favorite superhero mythology–probably because I’ve known the most of about it for the longest time. (X-Men is a close second, and I adore Christopher Nolan’s Batman but not the mythology as much).

But, I must say that one of my favorite Superman spin-offs is Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.  This ‘93 television show starring Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher was a huge favorite of my three siblings and I growing up. And, I have recently discovered its greatness! Check out the delightful 90s intro. 

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Thanks Warner Bros!

It’s a joy to watch Lois & Clark because it grants us a human perspective of Superman and Lois Lane. We see him primarly as Clark Kent. Not the geeky, weak klutz in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (although THE MOVE IS THE BOMB. CHRISTOPHER REEVE WAS THE ORIGINAL). In the 70’s film, Clark was not real. He was a cover, an act. The tanned, confident Superman was the true man, but in this show, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Clark Kent is Superman, and Superman is Clark Kent. He is incredibly passionate about his work as a reporter and saving lives, and never does the viewer wonder which man is real and which one is an act. He has travelled the world and knows plenty. However, there is still so much for him to learn about his origins and the world around him. His growth in knowledge  gives him buckets of humanity. Clark is confident, kind, and smolders behind those horn-rimmed glasses which makes life even more complicated for Lois Lane. Kent is actually a contender for Lois’s heart, and she falls for him just as hard as she falls for Superman, thank goodness!

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As for Lois, Teri Hatcher is the BEST Lois Lane so far. Period. All the others (especially Kate Bosworth in the woeful Superman Returns)  just seemed like the archetypal “fiesty women” and lacked a depth and charm. You wonder what Superman sees in them in the first place. Not this Lois, however! She’s rocks the power suit, is intelligent, stubborn, beautiful, trained in self-defense, and his best friend. It’s easy to see why Kent is so taken by her. He isn’t in love with just a Superman fangirl.

Lastly, perhaps the best part of Lois & Clark besides the amazing chemistry between the leads is the constant presence of Clark’s parents, John & Martha Kent. Jonathan Kent is still alive, and they are the cutest and funniest couple. Instead of flying north to the Fortress of Solitude in times of need, all he needs to do is fly home to Smallville to hear wisdom from his folks.

You can watch online with iTunes and the works!

Get ready to be charmed by the Kryptonian and a snappy reporter!

Sabrina vs Sabrina

Some movies should not be re-made–especially iconic ones.

I pray that people never remake Gone with the Wind, The Godfather, Rocky, Roman Holiday, Ben-Hur, Lord of the Rings and generally anything with Audrey Hepburn. She was delightful and it really is unfair for any woman to follow in her footsteps. Sabrina (1954) starring Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart is no exception.

For those who haven’t seen either movie, Sabrina is about a daughter of a chauffeur to a very wealthy New Yorker tycoon family on Long Island. They are called “by the name of Larrabee.” The family has two sons. Linus, the elder one, is a responsible business man, and David, the younger, is basically a lazy ladies man and general scoundrel.  Sabrina  has always been infatuated with David since childhood, but he pretty much ignores her life.

So, Sabrina’s father sends her off to Paris to Le Cordon Bleu cookery school so she can get skilled and get over David. She comes back from Paris knowing how to make a soufflé and also very stylish. Both take notice. David because she looks fabulous, and Linus because (she looks fabulous) AND because David (who is now engaged to a woman/heir to a wealthy company) is noticing. Linus doesn’t want his merger screwed up so tries to keep David and Sabrina apart. The rest…you should find out for yourself! Both are on Netflix!

This rant/post may be long overdue because the remake came almost 20 years ago in 1995 starring Julia Ormond and Harrison Ford, but I watched the remake this week and need a therapeutic release.

Let me breakdown the problems with the remake.

1.) Julia Ormond, Julia Ormond, Julia Ormond

Audrey Hepburn’s posh accident that you couldn’t appropriately place did not really both you because it was Audrey Hepburn. She was charming, fashionable and charismatic. Julia Ormond was just awkward and her “charming” Sabrina was just trying so hard!!! Also her ugly jerry curl…Lord have MERCY!

Example of Julia Ormond’s “I am trying to be charming”-ness

Example of Audrey Hepburn just being charming

2.) The Fashion

The 1990s were a bad time for fashion in many ways so I understand, but really it didn’t even look like they were TRYING.

The scene when Sabrina returns to the states is important because we see her new look. We are supposed to be wow-ed.

Here is Hepburn:

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This, my friends, is iconic. She looks so natural with that poodle too. She also wore those earrings in several scenes and with different outfits, making it  her “trademark” in the movie.

Julia Ormond: 

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The shades here are a nice touch though. I will say that. BUUUT This is an ugly interview suit and old-lady-at-church Sunday hat. Honestly, they could have done a variation on Hepburn’s with 90s shoulder pads, and I wouldn’t have complained. I promise!

3.) The dialogue 

Hepburn’s Sabrina challenged Linus (Bogart) to live life to the fullest in the most charming of ways. Example:  

Sabrina Fairchild: Maybe you should go to Paris, Linus.

Linus Larrabee: To Paris?

Sabrina Fairchild: It helped me a lot. Have you ever been there?

Linus Larrabee: [thinks] Oh, yes. Yes. Once. I was there for thirty-five minutes.

Sabrina Fairchild: Thirty-five MINUTES?

Linus Larrabee: Changing planes. I was on my way to Iraq on an oil deal.

Sabrina Fairchild: Oh, but Paris isn’t for changing planes, it’s… it’s for changing your outlook, for… for throwing open the windows and letting in… letting in la vie en rose.

Linus Larrabee: [sadly] Paris is for lovers. Maybe that’s why I stayed only thirty-five minutes.

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Ormond’s Sabrina was so preachy and annoying!!!

Sabrina: Don’t you ever look out the window?

Linus Larrabee: When do I have time?

Sabrina: What happened to all that time we saved taking the helicopter?

Linus Larrabee: [lightheartedly] I’m storing it up.

Sabrina: [seriously] No, you’re not.

Linus Larrabee: [pause] So, your little poem – what does it mean?

Sabrina: It’s the story of a water sprite who saved a virgin from a fate worse than death.

Linus Larrabee: And Sabrina’s the virgin.

Sabrina: [quietly] Sabrina’s the savior.

Okay, Sabrina why don’t you just come and save us all since you get life so much. *eye roll*

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I don’t want to be a complete “Negative Nancy” so I’ll also include some things the movie did well.

1.) Removal of suicide attempt

So the night before Sabrina is supposed to go to Paris in the 1954 version, she tries to kill her self using carbon monoxide car exhaust because she is so depressed about David. That’s really extreme so I liked how in the 1995 movie she just goes up to his room and does something embarrassing.

2.) Larrabee mom was in charge

In the 1995 movie, Maude Larrabee actually build up the Larrabee empire not Oliver Larrabee (the father in 1954 film). That’s kind of progressive and cool!

3.) Harrison Ford wasn’t too bad

Yeah, Harrison Ford is always playing grouchy men so he was well cast to play Linus.

4.) I like that Sabrina goes to Paris to study photography.

She has a skill independent of serving people. However, the point of her becoming a cook in the earlier film is to the cement the difference between her and the Larrabee brothers (she being “the help” and them you know…“richies”).

Okay, back to “Negative Nancy”…why is David ever considered by Sabrina? He never looks THAT good, and she saw him constantly with other women. 

Check this quote from the 1995 movie. Please forgive the horrible dialogue.

Sabrina: You’re very photogenic.

Linus:  It’s because I’m handsome.

Sabrina: No, that’s not it.

Linus: But not as handsome as David

Sabrina: Nobody is as handsome as David. Even David. [WHAAAAT DOES THAT MEAN?]

Actually Harrison Ford, I don’t think Greg Kinnear was that much better looking than you.

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And William Holden doesn’t look that good either…better than Humphrey Bogart, but Bogart had that old man swag/“gravitas.” Fun fact: Holden and Hepburn were once an item and it started around the making of this movie!

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Sabrina (1995) wasn’t the worst thing I’ve seen, but it shouldn’t have been made because it didn’t contribute or improve upon much from the first movie. In fact, it is worse.

Ormond’s Sabrina told Linus that, “Sometimes more isn’t better. It’s just more.”

Well, sometimes new isn’t better. It’s just new.