An excerpt from The Empathy Academy.
It might be tempting to choose an easier path, Monty thought, but amid the stress, pain, and tragedy, there were also triumphs: A patient’s seizures stop. A CT scan is clear. He remembered resuscitating Mrs. Caldwell and feeling a wave of relief upon hearing the soft, subtle beep of her revived heartbeat. To protect life was a calling. A life in medicine wasn’t just a commitment to technical excellence but also moral excellence. We don’t choose medicine. It chooses us. Monty felt as if medicine was calling him.
Sonja walked down a long hallway in Moralis Laboratories. Medical journals featuring company scientists hung along the red brick walls. The labs she passed were filled with marble-topped benches covered in notebooks, Petri dishes, and bottles full of colored chemicals.
Sonja turned a corner and saw Edwin’s parents sitting in two chairs outside of her office. Mrs. Thompson stepped forward eagerly and cupped her hands around Sonja’s. The woman looked starstruck, and Sonja reminded herself that she had achieved some level of fame. Nothing made her happier than to know that her school held such promise in the eyes of others.
Mrs. Thompson adjusted her stylish cat-eyed glasses. “We’re so glad you could find time in your schedule to meet with us, Dr. Woodward. Nothing seems to work for Edwin.”
This type of meeting hadn’t been presented to the prep school superintendents or congressmen. From the perspective of a politician or a school administrator, Woodward Academy was a no-brainer. Solve a problem before it becomes a problem. But not all parents had been eager to ship their children to Sonja’s summer science experiment. If someone’s child inherited problematic genes, what did that say about the parent? Most parents, though, welcomed the intervention. Many had long been managing their children’s behavioral issues. For people like the Thompsons, Sonja was their only hope.
Mr. Thompson folded his tweed jacket over one arm. “We weren’t exactly surprised when Edwin tested positive.”
“Edwin’s plagiarism case at school was so embarrassing for us,” Mrs. Thompson added. “We’re good parents. We taught him right from wrong.”
“Maybe military prep school would have been better for him,” Mr. Thompson said. “Something more regimented, more disciplined.”
“We were so relieved when we heard he’d been accepted to Woodward,” Mrs. Thompson continued as though her husband hadn’t spoken. “We were even happier to know that there are other options available.”
Sonja stood and gestured toward the door with one hand. “Let’s go into the lab. I want to show you the alternative.”
The parents followed her into a lab space. The stinging scent of antiseptic hung in the air, along with a faint hissing as the room maintained its negative air pressure. Sonja stopped in front of a bulky machine that sat on one bench. The device held four inverted test tubes.
“As I said over the phone, this device would be a last resort, reserved only for those students who don’t respond to our curriculum.”
The parents curiously bobbed around the machine.
Mrs. Thompson cleared her throat. “What is it?”
“This is CRISPR technology.” Sonja pressed a button on the back of the machine, and it hummed to life. “It allows us to target genes with great precision and turn them off or on at will.”
Mrs. Thompson fiddled with one of her pearl earrings.
Recognizing the need for clarification, Sonja turned to meet the mother’s eyes. “Think about a tomato, Mrs. Thompson. There are genes that code for a tomato’s redness, but if we used CRISPR to silence the ‘red’ genes in a tomato, it would lose its color.”
“How does this relate to my son, Dr. Woodward?” Mr. Thompson asked.
Sonja nodded. “Our genes code for eye color, height, intelligence, but there are also groups of genes responsible for complicated traits involving human behavior, including one’s capacity for empathy. CRISPR technology allows us to turn on what we call the ’empathy genes.'”
Mrs. Thompson looked at her husband.
“It’s entirely safe, I can assure you both.”
Sonja knew the Thompsons didn’t understand the technical details, but it didn’t matter. They just wanted to know that Edwin wouldn’t humiliate them again. A highly educated scientist wearing a white lab coat was telling them that their son could be “fixed,” and that was all they needed to know.
At that moment, Palmer entered the lab. He was wearing a defiant grin. “That’s right. Just switch a few of Edwin’s genes on and, presto, he’s cured.”
The Thompsons looked at each other, then at Sonja.
Sonja spoke quickly to manage the damage control.
“You’ll have to excuse our resident psychiatrist. Dr. Reid favors the humanities over the sciences.”
Palmer shook his head. “Human beings are more than their genes.” He turned to face the parents. “If you don’t mind, could I ask you some questions about Edwin?”
The mother shrugged. “If you think it will help.”
Sonja clenched her fists, but she couldn’t justify interfering now.
“Did Edwin show a lack of empathy in childhood?” Palmer asked.
Mr. Thompson didn’t need long to find an answer. “Edwin used to steal toys from his friends, and he never seemed to feel guilty about it.”
“At what age?”
“Throughout his childhood,” Mr. Thompson answered, “but it began around four or five years old, if I had to guess.”
“That age is typically when we see a child’s sense of morality develop—their understanding of right and wrong.” Palmer tilted his head. “How about your household, Mrs. Thompson?”
The mother glanced at Sonja, startled. “What do you mean, Dr. Reid?”
“Any physical or psychological abuse? Did the two of you ever separate? Did either of you abuse alcohol or suffer from mental illness? What losses did Edwin experience in his early life?”
Mr. Thompson grunted, looking unimpressed. “Why is any of this relevant?”
“It’s important to understand the developmental conditions to which Edwin was exposed. Adverse childhood experiences have been linked with negative mental and physical health outcomes in adulthood.”
The father wrapped his arm around his wife, pulling her close. “We don’t look into the past too much in our household, Dr. Reid.”
“Provided it’s not causing any dysfunction in one’s life, I think that’s fine, but Edwin has behavioral issues. After looking at his medical history, I see that he’s suffering from anxiety. With such dysfunctions, we can usually follow a thread back to trauma in early development.”
The father turned to Sonja. “What’s happening here? What good is any of this?”
Sonja stepped forward. “I’m afraid it’s getting late.” She led the Thompsons to the door where Mr. Aldrich was waiting. “I appreciate you both visiting and considering this option. Mr. Aldrich will lead you out and drive you to your hotel.”
“Do you think Dr. Reid could be right?” Mrs. Thompson asked. “That we need to examine events from childhood?”
Sonja shook her head. “You’ll have to excuse Palmer, Mrs. Thompson.” He has trouble knowing where the education ends and the medicine begins.”
“We love our boy,” Mr. Thompson said.
Sonja placed a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll take good care of Edwin.”
As the parents left, Palmer waved. “A pleasure meeting you both.”
Sonja held her smile until the Thompsons turned a corner and disappeared. Then she spun around and glared at Palmer. “Never challenge me like that in front of parents. It was unprofessional, and it undermines my authority.”
Palmer didn’t appear intimidated. “We won’t help these kids if we don’t address the root causes of their problems.”
“Save the lessons for the classroom, Palmer. We’re under a lot of pressure to make sure this program works. You think this lab, this school—your job—will be around if this first batch of students doesn’t respond to the curriculum?”
Palmer let out a deep sigh. “These students are more than their predispositions.”
Sonja raised a hand to silence him. “Just focus on your lesson plans, Palmer. If we don’t see progress in the classroom, we will fix the problem in the lab. And, if that time comes, I will call on you, Dr. Reid.”
“I’m an academic, not a scientist.”
“You’re a medical doctor, a licensed psychiatrist, are you not?”
Palmer nodded, gritting his teeth.
“If I tell you to throw the switch on this machine, you will do it.”
“Why do you want me to administer the treatment?”
“You’ll establish bonds with these kids,” Sonja said. “They’ll trust you, and that makes you the best man for the job.”
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