A REAL THANATOS SYNDROME
Abortion, Academe & the American Psychiatric Association

March 1992By Patricia Wesley

Patricia Wesley, M.D., is a practicing psychiatrist and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine at Yale University.

Father Simon Rinaldo Smith, the crazy old priest/forest ranger in Walker Percy's The Thanatos Syndrome, warns psychiatrist Tom More that someone is running free in Louisiana, doing funny things to language. Words are being emptied of content and severed from their referents. Father Smith reasons: “If it is a fact that words are deprived of their meaning, does it not follow that there is a depriver?” Only the word sign for Jews has not been evacuated of content. Only physical signs, like smoke, can be relied upon to point to a reality, like a forest fire. Even then, as Fr. Smith demonstrates, he needs another ranger in a different part of the forest to help plot the coordinates of the fire, and get its precise location.

Fr. Smith warns Tom that he too is being cut off from his origin as a healer:
“You are an able psychiatrist, on the whole a decent, generous, humanitarian person in the abstract sense of the word. You know what is going to happen to you?”

“What?”

“You are a member of the first generation of doctors in the history of medicine to turn their backs on the oath of Hippocrates and kill millions of old useless people, unborn children, born malformed children, for the good of mankind — and to do so without a single murmur from one of you. Not a single letter of protest in the august New England Journal of Medicine. And do you know what you're going to end up doing?…You're going to end up killing Jews.”
Here, Fr. Smith is reminding Tom, and us, that when words are severed from their referents, and when the physical reality of an unborn child becomes the abstraction of “the products of conception,” we know the depriver is hard at work, and being damned successful too.


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