The true story of William McGuire, an innocent in an age of cynicism, and a stranger in a strange land, who must find his own way in Homo sapiens society, as told by himself.
Chapter 1. I am William McGuire
I am William McGuire. I would say, ‘Call me Bill,’ in the vein of Mr. Melville and his Ishmael, but it would make a worse joke of all this from the start. It is enough that my life has already been made into a farce.
I am going to tell some things you should not know. Private matters really. But I am going to tell you what I can of these things because they are already a part of what many might think they know, and most of that is untrue. Simply, this is the story of what has actually happened. It’s a history that is not so complicated, in the end. And this is an effort to unmake that joke.
Please forgive the gaps. My notes have never been kept faithfully. What I offer here are those parts I think relevant. But to appreciate what I want to tell you now, I believe you should learn all of what follows, just as I did. There is at least some order to that process. I make no pretense of being a reporter.
My father, as it were, is Edward H. McGuire, a Professor of Microbiology at Harvard University, Emeritus. My mother, Mary Eleanor Rice, was for many years a Professor of Linguistics at MIT. Myself? I am nothing of the sort. I did graduate from Boston University with a degree in history, but only just barely and after seven years. I dropped out twice along the way. You may have seen something about me in the news on a few occasions before. But none of that matters now.
A little more than a year ago, I received a call from my mother. It was early in the morning and I work late so I was groggy. She wanted to see me. Her tone was grave. I didn’t argue. She had been in remission from breast cancer for two years, but that was after two previous bouts, and I had a sense of what she wanted to say.
She was never over-weight, even in her prime, but she looked so horribly thin when she opened the door. I suppose that recognition was on my face. She pursed her lips just a little, in a ghost of the expressions of disapproval she used to direct at me nearly every day. She was wearing a long cream-white robe that revealed the knobs of her shoulder bones and a blue scarf that, without the familiar coal-black hair beneath, made her head look very small. She had been slightly stooped for years, due to osteoporosis I think, from her first cancer treatments. I bent and kissed her on the cheek, but she didn’t really move to offer the usual feigned kiss in return. Either she was already too weary to make the effort, or her mind was on what she was going to talk to me about. She always had that kind of focus. Everything else around her became secondary to what was on her brain.
She might have been brilliant. I don’t know. I don’t really understand the work she did in linguistics. The semiotics as much as the semantics. She has her name on a couple of texts concerning the evolutionary fertilization of biolinguistics by the algorithms of computer languages. Artificial languages seem pointless to me when we cannot communicate in the languages we have. No matter, I suppose.
She stepped aside like I was a visiting repairman and pointed to the couch.
It was a very nice apartment by some standards. Bright. Mostly off-white. Like such extra care facilities always are. Just the one bedroom, living room and kitchen. Her favorite photographs by Maurice Salvo were on the wall. Enlarged in black and white, they made the room feel even colder than it actually was. Most of her books were already gone. Given away. Only the one shelf behind her desk gave hint of what work had occupied her life.
She had never been one for small talk. She started right in even before she sat in the chair by her desk.
She spoke slowly, almost carefully, “I wanted to tell you something.”
“Is it about your health?”
“Two things, actually . . . No, I think you know about my health. That’s a foregone conclusion, isn’t it? . . . No, it’s about you. Things you should know about.”
Always a bad host, she would have forgotten to offer me something to drink in any case, but she was licking her lips so I spoke up.
“Can I get you something? Anything?”
“No . . . Yes. There is a glass of mineral water on the counter. You can get me that. There isn’t much else, I’m afraid. I’ve been ordering from the service lately. I don’t have the energy to cook. No! As a matter of fact, there’s half a bottle of scotch I bought the last time I found out I was in remission. There’s that, if you’d like it.”
I brought her the water. She was never one to drink beer in any case, so I didn’t look in the fridge and I poured myself a couple ounces of scotch in a wine glass — the only glass I saw in the cupboard — and sat down again on the couch.
“So, tell me what I should know about myself.”
A flinch of an eyebrow. “Everything.”
I said, “We can agree on that, at least. But I haven’t been doing so well with that project on my own.”
“It may not be your fault.”
“Maybe. But I’m not one for the blame game. You and Father gave me a lot of advantages in life. I chose my own road. I have to live with it.”
She pursed her lips. The criticism implied in my words was ignored.
“I mean that you might have issues you do not understand.”
Now, at that instant, my thinking stopped cold. Over the years, there has always been some undercurrent of matters they would not speak to me about. I had formed my own ideas long before, of course.
Some of my first memories were of a small room at MIT, no more than a booth, with no one else and no sound, just the lights and the large colorful buttons, and my mother’s voice coming from somewhere I couldn’t see. I hated it. I know it was MIT because I remember the walk to the building along the river, holding Mother’s hand.
By the time I was fourteen, I was sure I was adopted.
About that same time, I managed to find a copy of my birth certificate. I think it was in Mother’s personal file in her closet. My mother had given birth to me by cesarean section at Brigham’s Hospital. There was no doubt about that. And my father’s name was listed right there on the proper line following hers. But things had been said in strange ways that always seemed to carry another load of mischief, if you know what I mean. Especially when my parents argued.
After they divorced, all that stopped and I had not really thought about it for years.
There were other matters to concern me then. But you have to understand. I was taller than my father by the time I was fourteen. I was twice his weight by the time I was in college. I am not particularly fat. I try to stay in shape. I work at it. If nothing else, out of self-preservation. After I won the wrestling championship my freshman year at BU, there seemed to be something of a sport around town in finding fellows to challenge me. Big guys just make easy targets.
Simply put, I don’t look like either of my parents.
I suppose she was probably watching my face. She stopped and looked at me with what passes for pity in her own way. The way she would look at a hungry dog, really. She might take away a totally incorrect conclusion, but she is a good observer. That is the scientist in her, I suppose. After jamming up altogether, my own thoughts were suddenly racing. I knew just then that I was going to learn about the one thing that had always lurked at the back of my mind. Why was I different?
She sighed. That weariness of sound was her habit long before she became ill. “Maybe three things, then. The first is that I am dying. The medical review board has denied my request for additional treatment for the cancer.”
What should be said? “I’m sorry. Knowing you, I’m sure you’ve tried everything you can.”
She was shaking her head, as if to say this was not the matter of importance. “Yes. I believe so. Secondly, you should know that you are not my child. Not actually.”
I did not say anything to that. I think I just released my own lungful of breath — a lifetime of breath held back, waiting.
“You see, it was just an experiment, to start. You have to understand. Twenty-eight years ago, your father and I were having an affair. He was already a full professor at Harvard then, and married. I hadn’t gotten tenure yet at MIT. It was your father’s idea that we should try an experiment and I was foolish enough to go along.” She paused. I supposed to reflect on the event. “I believe his wife had already refused. He denied that, so it must be true . . . In any case, I agreed to become a surrogate — to carry a child that your father — more your step-father, actually — had essentially invented in his lab.”
She had run right to the point. No elaboration. No niceties or detail that might have taken the edges off. No. Not my mother. Right to the point.
“I was an experiment.”
“Essentially. Your father knew what he was doing. For him it was not an experiment. It was just a procedure. The experiment was in the result. He thought that would come later.”
“Just to see.”
“To play with a human life?”
“It was science. We just wanted to know.”
“And you are telling me this now? You’re dying, and this is your confession? That you’ve played with a human life? With my life?”
“Well, . . . More than one. We aborted the first. I got cold feet . . . I’ve always had cold feet, you know. It’s especially terrible now . . . But we tried again. Edward was so passionate about it. You have to understand. And I was in love. And curious too. He agreed to get a divorce and marry me if I would agree to have the child. So you were actually a love child! Don’t you see?”
The subject of love seemed totally inappropriate to me just then.
“Actually, I don’t. If it wasn’t for Aunt Jane, I might never have known what love was.”
That got her out of her own planned course. She reacted abruptly then. “Hah! Jane Dunne. That stupid woman! She was hired to care for you. Just a nanny! It’s always bothered me that you call her ‘Aunt.’ She didn’t really care about you. It was a paycheck. That and the fact that your father wanted to get her in bed, at least once, I believe.”
I don’t think he ever accomplished that. I am thankful that Jane held him off as long as she did. He would have fired her for good as soon as he accomplished his goal. That’s the way Father is. Jane had been my real mother, from the time I was two until I was fourteen.
“You’re wrong about that. But then, it looks like you were wrong about a lot of things.”
“No! We were right! Your father was right. The experiment worked! We proved that it could be done! Successfully. You were born a healthy baby. You are a healthy intelligent human being!”
What do you say to such blindness?
“That’s not science. It is done every day. The old fashioned way. A million times a day, all over the world.”
“But in your case, it is.”
“Because . . . Because you are not of the same sub-species as everyone else.”
This was not what I expected, even in the few moments after realizing what they had done. I cannot even tell you what thought was in my brain at the instant she said ‘sub-species.’ Whatever it was, it was blown away.
“What are you talking about?”
“What about my DNA?”
I can hear my voice now. Like it was something overheard in another room. My own mind was that far away.
What could I have said? I probably didn’t breathe for over a minute. It’s scary how I can sometimes forget to breathe. She shook her head, shrugged the knobs on those thin shoulders, and shook her head again. She waited for me to say something. And I did finally speak.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me before? Didn’t you ever think something like this would matter to me? Didn’t you tell anyone else? Ever?”
“No! Not unless your father did. Maybe he told one of his young women in the biology department that he was giving hands-on lessons to.”
No other question seemed more important.
“Because it was the challenge of the moment. Someone was going to do it first. Why not us?”
“No. I meant why did you keep it a secret?”
“Because it was illegal. Don’t you understand? There were laws against such things. There still are. It would have ruined both of our careers if it was ever known.”
“Then why do it?”
“It was just the timing. You see, it was not actually illegal when we started. Just discouraged. And your father couldn’t believe they would stop him once it was done. He wanted to be the first. He wanted that feather in his bonnet. But come down to it, it was a matter of federal funding for the University. They would have cut off the entire biology department. Hundreds of millions of dollars.”
She shrugged again.
“Now it doesn’t matter.”
“To you. It doesn’t matter to you. It’s still all about you. And Father. Still! The ethics of what you did doesn’t matter to you even today!”
She squinted at me in pained patience, the way she always did to students too slow on the uptake.
“It’s not the same now. The labs are so poorly operated at Harvard that they couldn’t even attempt it now. It’s all pro-forma. The government tells us what they want to hear and we provide the evidence. There is no excellence anymore. But then — Then! There was still competition! There was a lab in Zurich that was already working with a similar concept. And another at the University of Amsterdam. The Dutch had most of the body of the child found frozen in that glacier in the Caucasus. It was in the papers then. Your father had already purchased viable material from another find — from the Russians, he said. And we never really knew what the Chinese were doing, but I believe it was with something they uncovered in Tibet.” She shrugged. “Whatever it was, it didn’t come to anything.” She shook her head again as if all of that should be obvious. “Then there was the team at the University of Leeds. Rumor had it they finally brought a fetus to term. So you see, when we started, it was a whole new field . . . And then the politics changed. Overnight! The U.N. got involved. There were stories in the papers with an ‘artist’s conception of the face of the frozen child.’ Congress attached a measure to an appropriation bill. And just like that, it was against the law. All that work was suddenly forbidden . . .Your father couldn’t just throw it away. It was years of research. He was working on some way around it, but that never happened. So we did it in secret. It was our secret.” A smile flinched at her wan cheeks. “I remember we were sitting on the stone wall down at the Charles River late one night. We’d been drinking wine. We were both giggling and fooling around. Your father was talking about winning the Nobel Prize. And I said, what about me? What do I get? He said, ‘You get to be the mother of the Nobel Prize!’ Well, I jumped right up to object to that, but I slipped and fell in. I almost drowned. Your father jumped in to save me — to save his experiment, actually, but he was useless. An MIT security guard pulled me out. I was in the hospital when they told me that I was pregnant. I didn’t even know . . . So we married. And we kept or experiment a secret. Surely, the politics would change again, we thought. Then we heard that the Dutch government had destroyed the fetus at UVA. That would have happened to us, you understand. You would never have been born!”
That was a thought that had some merit.
Cover by Tom Canty.