Last week's New Yorker had a fascinating article titled The Poverty Clinic. The story centers on a clinic in Bayview-Hunter's Point, the poorest and most dangerous neighborhood in San Francisco. I was immediately glad to see that the New Yorker was casting its gaze over to my neck of the woods, even if it was for such a depressing topic. The article addresses the chronic, seemingly intractable problems of urban poverty, focusing on the health conditions that plague many black children in urban neighborhoods: asthma, hyperactivity, etc.
When I got deeper into the article, though, I started tripping out. It took me a while to make the connection: the article's thesis was eerily similar to the "crazy" theories of Dr. Wilhelm Reich, which I had encountered in Robert Anton Wilson's "Wilhelm Reich in Hell". Reich advanced a theory that he called the Emotional Plague: the idea was that a singular illness afflicted the human race, one that spanned psychology, sociology, and biology. The emotional plague is imprinted on us in childhood, it makes us neurotic, causes disease and war and crime, and we pass it on to our children. The ideas caused Reich to lose his credentials, his freedom, and his legacy to the forces of censorship.
Well, amazingly enough, there is actually evidence now that emotional trauma can have effects much like what Reich had predicted. The article talks about a study covering Adverse Childhood Experiences, also known as ACE. The study by Kaiser Permanente found an astonishing level of correlation between early childhood trauma (parents who fight, family members who use drugs, emotional neglect, etc.) and later adult disease (diabetes, heart problems, and, yes, cancer). To some degree these links are already expected: emotional abuse in childhood can lead to adult depression, which can help lead to, say, smoking, which increases cancer risks. But even when they accounted for such intermediate risk factors, the Kaiser researchers found a huge and otherwise unexplainable correlation between ACE indicators and adult disease.
Contemporary research has developed a working theory to help explain this. All humans have hormonal responses to stress. This is an evolutionary, adaptive trait: when we feel threatened, our bodies flood our systems with chemicals: they make us more alert, prepare our bodies for healing, heighten our immunity, and so on. In the short term, this is helpful; however, when it happens frequently, especially in children, it can affect the body in permanent ways. Affected people might feel constantly anxious, or might not recognize when they're in danger; their systems don't work right, which causes physiological problems that lead to later diseases.
I was particularly affected by the Bayview-Hunter's Point physician who described what she observed in her community. Kids in the projects experienced broken family lives, which caused them to act out in social situations. When they started school, ten of the thirty kids in a class might be hyperactive; only ten kids are "infected", but all thirty are affected. When they become teenagers, these kids are more likely to have sex early, more likely to attach to abusive partners, and so they start raising another generation of kids who experience stress in childhood, and so are affected by the same hormonal and physiological symptoms.
To me, that sounds an awful lot like an emotional plague. A virus that propagates across social and biological boundaries. It's weird and creepy and depressing. At the same time, I'm fascinated that Reich might, in the long run, be recognized as a visionary instead of a kook.