IT WAS LARGELY A BOOK ABOUT EVIL, the Holocaust and one man’s decades-long obsession with finding the most genocidal tyrant to ever walk planet Earth. In 1982, literary critic and essayist George Steiner took his fixation with Adolph Hitler and delivered The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H., a daring and disturbing philosophical fantasy about one man’s belief that Hitler had survived World War II and the destruction of Germany. In the novel’s opening pages, the Führer is discovered in the jungles of South America. He is an old man and looks a lot like the images we recall of a wild-eyed Saddam after he emerged from his subterranean existence and was forced into the arms of his American captors.
While I have not read Portage for over 25 years, the most memorable passages of the book explore German sensibilities during the war itself, in a time when Nazism began to eviscerate human rights and human lives. The Germany Steiner richly details is one of societal dualities; on the one hand, the nation had been considered among the most culturally rich societies on earth; yet from this beauty, there existed a dark and inescapable brutality that was evident for all to see.
As we know, Germany offered the world the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, the late Middle Age art of Albrecht Dürer, and technological achievements such as automobiles with gas-powered combustible engines. They even developed one of the finest university systems in the world, so how, Steiner asks, did these people — rich with wealth, culture, education and technology, allow this horror to occur?
In one very powerful chapter, Steiner meticulously paints a portrait of the country’s elite, perched at windows far above a popular theatre, as they witness the extermination of commoners and Jews on the streets below the playhouse. The same people who “shed tears during a tragic play,” Steiner wrote, displayed an odd ambivalence to the tragedies of real people crying for help as the Nazi atrocities unfolded.
I am reminded of Steiner’s work once again because as I approach the two year anniversary of my documentary GENERATION RX — a film about the wanton use of psychotropic drugs among children and teens — I realise that the same indifference abounds as it pertains to the health and futures of our young people. Every day — for two years — I have been bombarded with horrifying letters and tales of real people affected by the trauma these powerful drugs have caused. . .and they keep coming. . .from parents and teachers and students and loved ones.
Yet, there is silence — from doctors who should know better, from educators, from elected officials , government agencies, and yes, most horridly of all, from the media.
In the wake of this realisation, I will admit to be absolutely stunned at how little North Americans understand about the drugs they are forcing down the throats of so many young Galileo’s. For reasons of public politeness, we bow before profit-based science and ignore the journalistic cowardice which surrounds us. This “disconnect” between what medicine has told us about ADHD, bipolar and the “plague of mental illness” — and the reality of the life-changing harm these drugs often inflict, is a gulf so wide that it is, well, maddening.
JUST THIS MORNING, I received a phone call from a health food storeowner and nutritionist. Every day, she is approached by parents who are desperate to find help for their beloved children as the side effects of ADHD drugs, antipsychotics and antidepressants take their toll. They have tried every drug the “experts” have recommended, only to see their loved ones slip further away. . .drunk with dark images and in need of help.
She told me the tragic tale of yet another teenager whose health has been stolen from him by the deadly thief called methylphenidate, or Ritalin. One year ago, the young man apparently possessed the good looks of a soap opera star, and teenage girls swooned as he walked the halls of his high school. He was a superior athlete and student, but that was all prior to him being diagnosed with ADHD.
Ten months later, his weight has dropped to around 100 pounds and there is a real possibility he could die while under a doctor’s “care.”
Since Methylphenidate was classified in the U.S. under the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances as a Schedule II drug, we can’t say we didn’t realise the dangers. Many times since that seminal report, methylphenidate has been characterized as “Speed” — as highly addictive and risky. In 1971, despite the warnings, psychiatrists and MDs began using speed for the pre-ADHD condition called “Minimal Brain Dysfunction.” By doing so, they ignored the potential for abuse, for addiction, and of atrophy of the vital organs, especially the heart.
IN THE HEALTHFOOD STORE, the young man was extremely sick by the time his parents finally decided they needed another opinion. Worried to death about their son — and saying they were not sure if he would live to see his next birthday — they pleaded to speak with the owner and nutritionist. They had followed the advice of their doctor and psychiatrist , they told her, but their son continued to decline.
The owner explained to the parents that her store could be shut down by Health Canada for simply speaking with them about ADHD, pulled them into her office and then continued in whispered tones. The methylphenidate, she said, had taught the boy’s body not to eat. “This child is starving,” she told the mom, noting that Ritalin, with its cocaine and speed-like properties, was the obvious culprit. “But the psychiatrist diagnosed his lack of appetite as depression,” the mother said. “So they added an antidepressant to his regimen.”
A few weeks after taking antidepressants, the mother said between sobs, the young man uttered aloud, “I just don’t want to live like this anymore.”
The parents stood before the health food store owner with tears streaming down their cheeks. It is a scene she has witnessed innumerable times since the 1990s, and each time she discusses disease conditions like this, she never knows for sure whether the people standing before her are undercover agents for Health Canada. . .or just what they appear to be: people in distress. . .people in need of answers.
When I produced Generation RX, I did so to arm parents with the facts they need in order to make a fully informed choice about healthcare. I produced the film to amplify the ‘cries from the street’ — to give a voice to those who are being ignored by society at large, and to provide the tools to enable parents to fight back if necessary.
But I wonder — in this age of neuroscience — if we haven’t brought George Steiner’s commiserations to life? Whether we’d shed tears watching It’s a Wonderful Life, but not for real the traumas of a tortured child or his parents?
Will futurists ask, “How did these people, rich with culture, education and technology allow this horror to occur?”
Like Steiner’s book, though, one thing is very clear: citizens of this planet must choose — whether to exercise our freedoms in ways that do not conform to the wishes of those in power — or whether to take part in a history from which we avert our eyes. . .away from the horrors on the streets below.