I am not, of course, speaking to Jenny McCarthy, or to Jim Carrey, or to any of the other celebrities who have lent their name to this cause.
I am not, of course, speaking to Andrew Wakefield, who started this whole controversy with his fradulent 1998 Lancet paper.
I am speaking to the people who matter: the mothers and fathers who looking at the MMR vaccine, at the growing number of diagnoses of autism in their country, at the appealing picture presented by the anti-vaxxer movement, and choosing.
Although I could spend the time presented the biological facts (how vaccines really work, that Wakefield has publicly admitted the fradulence of his Lancet paper, the conflict of interest many of those celebrities have in trying to get you in to invest in the anti-vaxxer movement) I am well aware that these facts are not actually what are going to influence you.
Instead, I am going to tell you a story.
Because I am aware that the thing that will influence you, at the end of the day, is the concept of narrative.
You have been told that the narrative of your child’s life goes like this: they were a happy, sociable, talkative little baby. You gave them the MMR vaccine, and now their life is ruined, because they have autism, and it is all your fault, and you must spend the rest of your life trying to fix that mistake.
I want to tell you: every part of that narrative is flawed.
First of all: babies are not sociable creatures. Until the age of two, children are selfish creatures. They do what they do because they know it pleases you, and that is how they stay alive. They smile when they see your face – they smile when they see any face, even one drawn on a balloon – because they know that it is cute and charming and that it will keep them safe. They babble, not because it is them being “social” but because the process of “babbling” is how babies develop speech.
The age of two is around the point when children stop being entirely “me” centered and start developing real social skills; it is also around the point when autism starts to develop; it is also the point at which the MMR vaccine is given.
Here is a story:
One day, I stomped my foot three times on the ground, and then I got a phonecall saying my father was in a car crash. Was my stomping my foot three times responsible for the car crash? Should I cut my foot off to ensure my father stays out of car crashes?
Here is another story:
I have epilepsy. The first time I had a seizure, I was eating my mother’s cheese muffins, and then I had a seizure and vomited them all over the book I was reading. Were the cheese muffins the cause of my seizure? Should I avoid baked goods? Or should I just avoid eating and reading for the rest of my life?
You have been taught that you are responsible for your child’s condition because you dared to believe a trained professional who told you that the MMR vaccine would save your child from measels, mumps and rubella (which it does) and that, because you valued your child’s health, you are now responsible for your child’s autism.
The anger I feel at the people who have made you feel this guilt. Oh, the rage.
I want to tell you: it isn’t your fault.
Why did it happen?
Science doesn’t know.
Sometimes, reality doesn’t have easy answers.
But I can tell you this:
You don’t have to carry that guilt anymore. You don’t have to carry that self-hatred.
Reality does not fit into easy, comfortable narratives.
Sometimes, events follow each other, and we latch onto the patterns and tell ourselves that that happens because of that, because if we narrativize the world, the world becomes under our control, but I need to tell you: it is a flawed and tiny view of the world.
There are no easy answers, and no charming stories that compress easily into a paragraph.
Here is the only truth you really need to know:
You have a beautiful child with autism.
Are you going to protect your children from all the diseases of the world, or allow those diseases to kill and maim them?
What story will you choose to write about your child?
I hope you understand, when it comes to vaccines, this is something you do have control over.