Note: Earlier today, Jenny McCarthy was officially named as a new co-host of the popular daytime talk show The View. As many people have already noted, this is an extremely unfortunate move on ABC’s part: It’s giving the network’s imprimatur to someone who has worked, methodically and relentlessly, to undermine public health.
In (dis)honor of McCarthy’s new perch, I’ve decided to post a chapter of my book The Panic Virus titled “Jenny McCarthy’s Mommy Instinct” on the blog. Since it’s well over 5,000 words, I broke it up; this part (the third of four) is about McCarthy’s efforts to legitimize the scientific fringe. Part 1 was about the McCarthy’s rise to fame and her embrace of the “Crystal Children” philosophy, Part 2 details McCarthy’s use of Oprah Winfrey’s megaphone, and the final installment is about the danger of following Jenny’s advice.
McCarthy’s sudden ubiquity did more than give families affected by autism hope for a miracle cure—it also further legitimized a movement that still had not completely shed its reputation as being on the scientific fringe. Dan Olmsted, a former UPI reporter who is one of the editors of the Age of Autism blog, gives McCarthy credit for singlehandedly pushing vaccine skeptics into the mainstream: “To anybody who comes to this issue from the environmental and recovery side of this debate—the idea that something happened to these kids, and it’s probably a toxic exposure—Jenny McCarthy is the biggest thing to happen since the word autism was coined.”
The media’s willingness to indulge McCarthy’s campaign and its disinclination to provide an accurate representation of the issues at stake continued unabated in 2008. On World Autism Awareness Day that April, Larry King devoted his full hour-long broadcast to “Jenny McCarthy’s Autism Fight.” Also appearing on the show that evening were David Kirby and Jay Gordon, the celebrity pediatrician who’d been treating Evan ever since McCarthy became convinced he’d been harmed by the MMR vaccine. Together, the trio repeatedly shouted down David Tayloe, the president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Gordon: David Kirby’s book is entitled Evidence of Harm, okay? The evidence is there. We have to address the evidence. We do not have respect for the instincts of our parents. We don’t have respect for the immune system. The immune system is a complicated, complicated system in the body, complex—
Tayloe: But you need scientific evidence that— gordon: You need to prove it’s safe!
Kirby: There is a bill in Congress to study vaccinated versus unvaccinated populations in this country. Doctor, would you support that legislation? Would you?
Tayloe: W e support—
Kirby: D o you?
Tayloe: W e are not afraid of the truth at the American Academy of Pediatrics—
McCarthy: Well, will you support the unvaccinated/vaccinated study?
Two months later, McCarthy and Jim Carrey led a “Green Our Vaccines” rally in Washington that also featured Gordon and included a keynote address by Robert Kennedy. (In the TACA press release announcing the rally, Ackerman appeared to confuse Kennedy with his uncle, Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy: “Having Senator Kennedy as part of the supporters for the Green Our Vaccines Rally is an honor.”) McCarthy’s rally-related appearances on Good Morning America and Fox News’ On the Record with Greta Van Susteren didn’t even feature anyone representing an opposing viewpoint.
By that time, McCarthy’s autism activism had become a full-time job. She’d taken over Generation Rescue, which was rebranded as “Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey’s Autism Organization.” (After the couple’s split in the spring of 2010, the Web site was listed either as “Jenny McCarthy’s Generation Rescue” or “Jenny McCarthy’s Autism Organization.”) By the end of the year, she’d published Mother Warriors: A Nation of Parents Healing Autism Against All Odds and signed a deal with the licensing agency Brand Sense to create Too Good by Jenny, a line of non toxic products ranging from bedding to cleaning supplies that “will be positioned as providing safe, non-toxic surroundings for children.” She’d also launched Teach2Talk Academy, a school for autistic children, and developed a series of Teach2Talk DVDs designed to improve autistic children’s “imagination” and “empathy toward others” by having them mimic what they see on screen.
The following spring, just as had been the case the year before, McCarthy was booked as the keynote speaker at the annual Autism- One conference at the Westin O’Hare. A half-hour before she was scheduled to appear, most of the seats in the Westin’s 7,400-squarefoot Grand Ballroom had already been claimed. Twenty minutes later, people were sitting two and three deep along the walls and in the aisles. Before the start of the main event, the restless audience had to sit through a presentation by Sarah Clifford Scheflen, the thirty-one year-old speech pathologist who was the co‑founder of Teach2Talk. (In April 2010, Teach2Talk Academy was closed after McCarthy and Scheflen parted ways due to “different visions for the school.”) Scheflen appreciated that putting autistic children in front of a TV might seem to some to be a counterintuitive way to teach children with developmental disorders how to interact appropriately with actual human beings. “People always ask me, ‘Why, Sarah? Why does it work with the TV and not one-on-one?’ ” she said. “Children tend to be strong visual learners. . . . Sometimes I get distracted when I see two pairs of shoes on the floor, and I think that’s what happens when kids come into my office.” A handful of people in the audience chuckled, although most seemed nonplussed by Scheflen’s comparison. “So I would show the child the prerecorded model and then the child would watch the video and imitate that—because most children learn through imitation.”
Within fifteen minutes of the start of Scheflen’s presentation, murmured conversations had begun to break out throughout the hall. After a series of glitches with the hotel’s AV system, a visibly flustered Scheflen began to peer offstage. “So, um, I think Miss Jenny—is she here?” Indeed she was. Scheflen quickly wrapped up, and when McCarthy stepped out from the wings, the crowd erupted. One woman started hopping up and down like a teenager at a Taylor Swift concert, shouting over and over, “We love you Jenny!”
McCarthy was dressed casually—she had on a pink zip-up sweater and jeans, and her hair was pulled into a tight ponytail—and when she took the stage, she started clapping along with the audience. “How many people are back from last year?” Hundreds of hands shoot up. “I love it! We have an overflow crowd in the other room, so I’ll give a shout out to them.” Then, in lieu of a prepared speech, McCarthy told the audience she’d rather answer questions they had about her journey.
“ ‘Jenny,’ ” she said, reading off a note card, “Will you please repeat the five steps you said last year? That was a huge help to us.’ ” That, McCarthy explained, was a reference to checklist she keeps on her refrigerator. “The first one I call cleaning the bucket. All these kids have a bucket of toxins, infections, funguses,” she said. Before they can treat their children effectively, McCarthy explained, parents needed to properly identify the problem: “PLEASE go and get allergy testing. If you want to know what kind, it’s in my book.” Step two is cleaning out the fungus: “A lot of these kids are malnourished . . . please, please don’t forget about that.” Step three is detoxification, either using chelation or any number of other therapies. “You know, I’ve been getting glutathione IVs every weekend because I’m starting to take care of myself,” she said. (Glutathione is a naturally occuring antioxidant that is depleted in patients with wasting diseases such as sepsis, cancer, and AIDS. There has never been a clinical trial on the effects of glutathione infusions in healthy humans or developmentally disabled children.) “I was a cold sore, herpes monster. . . . I was a mess. I started glutathione and in the last three months I haven’t had a cold sore.”
After acknowledging the irony of her next recommendation, McCarthy explained that step four was drugs. “Even though some of us are so angry at the pharmaceutical companies,” she said, “I’m grateful for the medicine that we do need to get our kids better.” According to McCarthy, antifungals and antivirals were especially important; in fact, she said she knew one child who fully recovered from autism in less than three months as a result of antiviral therapy.
Finally, there was step five: positive thinking. “I love that one more than anything,” McCarthy said, because it demonstrates the power parents have to change their lives. “If you think, ‘My kid is going to get better,’ he’s going to get better. If you keep thinking, ‘My kid is going to be sick,’ he’s going to be sick.” (Presumably, a more detailed explanation of how that process worked was provided at one of the conference’s earlier lectures, which covered a philosophy that involves wishing your way to better health.)
“I’ve come to trust other parents more than anyone during this journey,” McCarthy said. “I salute you all for being here today, and for believing and trusting and working on your child, for spending the money and the time and the tears on autism.” There are so many people, McCarthy said, who don’t come to these conferences, a fact that left her dumbfounded. “It breaks my heart,” she said, when she meets the parents of a child with autism and “they still refuse to do anything.”
What McCarthy seemed to be saying was that it broke her heart when parents refused to do everything: buy books and DVDs; try chelation and hyperbaric chambers; take supplements, make gluten-free meals, and eat organic chickens; march on Washington, write elected officials, and sign petitions; use DAN! doctors, travel across the country for treatment at special clinics, and ignore anyone who suggests otherwise . . . and if none of that works, start all over again.
Besides being expensive and exhausting, one disadvantage of that approach is that it’s impossible to know if any of it actually does any good. An indiscriminate attitude toward treatment also makes it hard to determine what changes are due to the natural rhythms of disease: Temporary ailments by definition get better and the symptoms of lifelong conditions almost always wax and wane, which means that even the most far-fetched cure is bound to look like a winner every now and again. In his book Innumeracy, the mathematician John Allen Paulos describes how proponents of pseudoscientific therapies rely on this reality to shade their products in the best light possible. “To take advantage of the natural ups and downs of any disease (as well as of any placebo effect),” Paulos writes, “it’s best to begin your worthless treatment when the patient is getting worse. In this way, anything that happens can more easily be attributed to your wonderful and probably expensive intervention. If the patient improves, you take credit; if he remains stable, your treatment stopped his downward course. On the other hand, if the patient worsens, the dosage or intensity of the treatment was not great enough; if he dies, he delayed too long in coming to you.”