Who Is Afraid of Armpit Hair?

Social scientists will try to measure anything, it seems, and in the most recent issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly, a professor at Arizona State has published a paper that attempts to quantify the disgust women feel with regard to body hair – their own, and that of other women. The scholar, named Breanne Fahs, conducted two experiments. In one, she measured women’s responses to the thought of body hair, asking 20 women how they felt about shaving, not shaving, and about other women’s relative hairiness.

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Respondents said that shaving was a minor inconvenience and a personal choice, but that overall the idea of body hair was revolting. “I think women who don’t shave are a little gross,” said one interviewee, a 22-year-old Caucasian lesbian. “Because sometimes, like if people don’t shave their entire lives, that’s just a little to much to handle for me. I always shave. I don’t like hair. I shave everything.”

In the next experiment, Fahs gave her own students extra credit if they agreed to grow their armpit and leg hair for ten weeks and keep a journal about it. Boyfriends were furious and mothers disapproving. “I constantly thought about my gross hair,” wrote one participant. “I will never ever show anyone my pit hair,” wrote another. Participants felt or were told that they were gross, disgusting, unclean, sloppy, and “ew.” The paper, which has the alliterative title “Perilous Patches and Pitstaches: Imagined Versus Lived Experiences of Women’s Body Hair Growth,” had a feminist perspective, which was, in the author’s words, to “highlight the invisibility of omnipresent sexism directed toward those who violate practices to ‘maintain’ the female body.” The compulsion to shave, in other words, is an example of how women have internalized patriarchal ideals of femininity.

These experiments are interesting mostly in their small-bore attention to a habit so mundane and so universal that most of us don’t give it a second thought. But if one continues in this vein, and scrutinizes with the seriousness of a scientist an issue usually left to beauty editors and waxing professionals, certain provoking questions arise. In an era of widespread porn, when teenagers shrug at the sight of anuses and scrotums and wide-open vaginas, why is disgust at female armpit hair, an anatomical reality so comparatively innocent, so widespread?

What is the psychological basis of that revulsion, and the corresponding need to cleanse, depilate, purify, denude? Is hygiene really the endgame, here? For bacteria do grow in unwashed armpit hair and they can cause a stink. But the answer is, probably not. Evolutionary psychologists remind me that the emotion of disgust – which protects humans by reminding them not to get too close to things that can carry disease, like excrement or corpses — can be triggered by learned prompts as well, a primitive way of preserving cultural norms or in-group or tribal status (i.e. don’t sleep with or date this or that kind of disgusting person).

And in the developed West, revulsion at the sight of female armpit hair has to be cultural, because the places that place the highest value on hairlessness are also those where frequent if not daily bathing is routine. Most pits in 21st century America are not carrying harmful or even particularly smelly bacteria, in other words. And all the evidence you need for that is that most men continue to leave their pits au naturel, and no one fears contagion from them.

An investigation into the nature of our collective disgust seems particularly pressing now, three months after Madonna exposed the growth under her arms in a widely retweeted selfie, as summer weekends make the unveiling of America’s armpits ubiquitous.

So, to start, what is the evolutionary explanation for body hair, particularly in the armpits? Why do humans, who more or less discarded somewhere in the mists of evolutionary time the full suit of hair that blanketed their primate ancestors, retain hair under their arms at all? (Pubic hair has an obvious, protective function, keeping unwanted flotsam from entering sacred zones, but armpits?) And if the hair under one’s arms does have an evolutionary purpose, then what is the psychological  basis of the nearly universal assault against it? In Australia, more than 90 percent of women shave their legs and armpits. In England, 99 percent of women have depilated at some point in their lives. In the U.S., writes Michael Scott Boroughs in 2010 his dissertation for a psychology degree at the University of South Florida, depilation is “so normative that it goes almost unremarked in casual discourse or in the research or casual literature.” Among men, the practice is growing: “data collected from a sample of 118 men at a large southeastern American university resulted in an estimated prevalence of 63.6% for body depilation at one or more body sites.”

There are two main theories about why humans ultimately became hairless. First, because the hair was making us too hot when we foraged for food on the African plains. Second, because ape-like body hair provided a happy haven for vermin, and the bugs were making people sick. Ergo: No hair, no bugs; no bugs, a healthier population. But the hair under our arms, on our legs, and around our genitals persisted, stubbornly announcing its presence around puberty. And something about that hair has disgusted humans for centuries, to the point where religions explicitly command its removal. According to Islamic tradition, the plucking of armpit hair and the shaving of pubic hair is required of an observant Muslim. In Leviticus, a complete body shave is mandated in the treatment of leprosy.

So, humans have a long history of being disgusted at armpit hair even though, in the modern era, that disgust is based more in culture than in any real risk to health. Then what might be its evolutionary purpose? Why didn’t we long ago discard these tufts, along with our tails and the fluff on our shoulders? One theory is that it’s protective against chafing, not unlike a sock or a pair of underwear: “It is probably there by ‘design’ in that it reduces friction between the arm and the torso,” Johan Lundström, a neuroscientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, writes in an email. So that’s useful, though probably not critical in the age of spandex and wicking fabrics.

Here’s the best guess. Armpit hair works as a conveyor of pheromones, those scented molecules that, crucially, abet human mating, by giving each person his or her particular, alluring scent. Armpit hair (and hair around the nipples, and some groin hair) grows atop the sweat glands that produce a body’s natural smells, and it works as a kind of human fragrance diffuser, allowing one’s personal scent to waft into the atmosphere and announce one’s presence (and one’s fertility) to potential mates. “The specific development of hair in these regions (in our otherwise largely naked bodies) is thought to aid the dispersal of odorants in sexually mature humans,” writes Mahmood Bhutta in his 2007 article “Sex and the Nose.” Humans recognize each other by their scent. They can tell, on the basis of scent, whether a sweaty T-shirt belongs to a man or a woman. Women say they feel more relaxed in the presence of male smells. In men, the smell of estrogen lights up an area of the brain that controls erection.

People say body odor matters more than almost anything else when they’re picking sex partners. In a 2001 study published in Evolution and Human Behavior, psychologists found that men and women ranked an attractive body odor at or near the top of the list of other physical traits when selecting a mate. Women put “good smell” above everything else: looks, the sound of their mate’s voice, and the feeling of their mate’s skin. Men put “good smell” second only to looks. Both men and women said they preferred a good natural smell to perfumes or other fragrances.

So if hair conveys smell, and smell is so crucial to mating, then why this insistence on shaving?

The answer, it seems, is embedded deep in the evolutionary nature of disgust. And in the central role sex plays in the evolutionary story. Disgust is a protective reflex, writes Daniel Kelly, author of Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust, in an email. “The heart of this particular emotion’s primary job or core mission is to protect us from infectious diseases, and keep us away from the types of critters – microbes and parasites – that transmit them.” Its opposite is pleasure, or attraction. And no human experience evokes more intense pleasure, or disgust, than sex. People are drawn to and repelled by sex and sex acts in equal measure. “It’s always a delicate dance with sex and disgust. Maybe if the underarm hair as mate selection relevant scent carrier idea is right, we’re just seeing another facet of the ongoing back and forth,” Kelly writes.

Evolutionarily speaking, sex is the whole game. Sex with the wrong person can kill you and your genetic line – through disease, infertility, misfortune. With the right person, it can assure that your genes are transmitted to the next generation. Armpit hair signals sex because it grows during puberty and is one of the first signs of maturity (and fertility). And it signals sex because it transmits the scents that lead to mating. It triggers disgust because it reminds humans how dangerous sex can be. And that’s why we shave it off. Because armpit hair betrays the western fantasy about sex, which is that sex is fun, pleasurable, innocent, and inconsequential, a fantasy that elides the evolutionary truth. The revulsion at armpit hair might be evolution’s way of saying “proceed with caution,” and its removal one less barrier to cross.

Does Family Medical History Matter to a Health Nut?

Last winter, while reporting a feature for this magazine, I was sitting in the Stanford office of Atul Butte, a pediatrician-slash-computer-scientist-slash-wunderkind, and he was touting the promise of the personal genetics revolution. Health care is on the brink of being totally transformed by the insights given to medicine by being able to see, and increasingly understand, the human genome, including new insights about how the genes that cause disease do (or don’t) get expressed. As he talked, one very particular question struck me like lightening and has stuck with me ever since. The medical establishment has long regarded the family-history questionnaire — the endless checklist you fill out at the doctor’s office — as a Rosetta Stone for an individual’s predisposition to disease. But given everything that science is learning about how gene mutations correspond to disease and everything that public health officials now know about how lifestyle and environment, especially diet and exercise, correlate to good health, and everything researchers are gleaning about how genes and the environment interact, just how useful is that ancestral information anyway?

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Let’s consider the negative case first. You may share certain genetic predispositions for disease with your grandmother, but it’s not intuitively clear that the health of that grandmother should be a reliable guide to your future health: Genes are activated by complex, environmental factors and your grandmother lived in an entirely different world from yours — without the Cheesecake Factory and a Burger King at every rest stop, yes, but also without FitBits and Spin classes and a kale smoothie on every menu. Back then, people smoked — and I mean smoked. Like, several packs a day of unfiltered cigarettes smoked, inside and with the windows closed. (Even if your grandmother didn’t, she was probably surrounded all day by people who did.) And unless your ancestors were Greek fisherpeople, you are basically sure to have had ancestors who, for at least a couple of generations, indulged in their fair share of such American pleasures as the two-martini lunch, the all-you-can-eat buffet, and cheese fries. People so desperately want meaningful health prognostications that they look to the past to tell the future, but “your grandmother was eating steak every night back then,” Butte told me. If someone did that today, and died from a heart attack at 65, no one would be looking at heredity for a cause. Given all that, how much bearing does it have on your own future health, really, to know whether your grandma died of diabetes or lung disease?

It’s a convincing argument. And besides, Butte added in a later email, it’s not clear how well people remember or understand the diseases of their forebears. It can be impossible to tease truth out of disease data recollected in the present by patients with unreliable memories about people who died or were sick in the past, at a time when medicine was considerably more crude. “I certainly speculate,” Buttewrote, “that family histories don’t make much sense given how little diseases were diagnosed or properly labeled back then.”

How do we know what grandma actually died of? It wasn’t so long ago that epilepsy was called “falling sickness” and tuberculosis “consumption,” but how many of us remember — or are even aware of — the meanings of those synonyms when answering questionnaires in the doctor’s office? And then there is the fact that politeness kept certain families from ever knowing for sure what made loved ones sick. On my mother’s side, a great-grandmother died on the operating table from what in my family was euphemistically referred to as “female trouble” — which may mean I have inherited a predisposition for cervical cancer, uterine cancer, or ovarian cancer. Or it may mean she died during a botched abortion, in which case I’m all good in the hereditary female trouble zones, but aghast at the other narrative questions that arise.

Because of how patchy family histories can be, and because they are so pressed for time, and because there’s no consensus on what comprises a family medical history anyway, only 63 percent of family doctors take a family history on three quarters of their patients, according to a study published a decade ago in The Journal of General Internal Medicine. When these doctors do ask about family health conditions, they devote three minutes on average to the chore on a first-time visit and two minutes subsequently. The evidence was building: It seemed to me more and more obvious that family histories would soon become a relic of medicine’s past, like leeches — or blood-letting.

But of course there is positive case for family histories, too. Armed with my hypothesis that dramatically changed environments and personal habits make them obsolete, I started shopping it around. First stop was my own brother, a pulmonologist at a hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and an expert in critical care. I am a humanities geek, and with the brashness of the neophyte, I tossed my question at him. “Family histories,” I posed. “Useless and out of date?”

My brother, usually an even-tempered type, practically reached out and throttled me through Gmail. Family history is crucial, he wrote, for diagnostic and screening purposes. “Does this patient who is short of breath have asthma? If they meet some criteria for asthma but not others, but their mother, brothers, and grandfather have asthma, then the diagnosis is more likely to be asthma in their case.” Doctors know to screen a 40-year-old for colon cancer if they know that patient’s parent or grandparent developed colon cancer at a young age and they know to test for diabetes if diabetes runs in the family. For my brother, a practicing physian who actually sees really sick people every day, a family history is a useful, if not entirely foolproof or definitive, piece of information that contributes to his decision on what to do next.

Certain scientists go even further. Joe Nadeau is a geneticist who runs a lab at the Pacific Northwest Diabetes Research Institute. The explosion of scientific knowledge about the genetic workings of disease actually argues for more attention to family medical history, not less, because “What happens in your family is an approximation of what happens to you,” he told me. “The conventional family history is still the best predictor of disease risk.” But it’s the reason Nadeau believes this that’s most interesting: not that he thinks environmental factors are trivial, but that they have become actually baked into our genes.

Why does Nadeau believe this? Because his subspecialty is epigenetics, the investigation of how (and under what circumstances) the environment and our experiences — diet, nutrition, famine, trauma, exercise, love, stress, exposure to toxins, pollution, poverty — activate or suppress the genes that trigger disease. And one of the most mind-blowing discoveries in epigenetics over the past ten years has been this one: Humans don’t inherit only their genes from their ancestors. They also inherit the residual effects of some of their grandparents’ life experiences on those genes. If your grandfather lived through a childhood trauma or did a lot of drugs or experienced starvation or had a parent with depression, those events likely made marks on his genes that may have been passed along to you — and not just superficially in the way your father was raised and nurtured and the way he raised and nurtured you, but at the level of your cells, making you biologically more or less vulnerable to cardiovascular disease, obesity, addiction, or depression. “Inherited molecules other than DNA,” reads Nadeau’s website, contribute to “phenotypic variation and disease risk.”

Evolution holds that species change slowly, over thousands of years, thanks to random genetic mutations that occur, eventually, across populations if they’re advantageous to the species itself. Our genes, therefore, are more or less stable; my DNA connects me, indisputably, to my Ashkenazi relatives a thousand years ago and it contains some information about my vulnerability to disease, based on gene mutations I have inherited down the line. But genes can also be “marked” by the various proteins they’re wrapped in or bundled with — scientists talk about these proteins having the ability to turn genes “on” or “off” — in reaction to the environment around them. (The classic example here is this: When one identical twin has schizophrenia, the other twin will have it just 50 percent of the time. Twins may have the exact same DNA, but their environments differ, switching on the disease just half the time.) Now a growing body of research indicates that the “markers” are sometimes hereditary, too. (The questions of when, why, and in what circumstances represent the frontier of epigenetics.)

A man who lived through a famine as a prepubescent boy may have children and grandchildren who are less likely than other people to die of cardiovascular disease and stroke. A man who suffered child abuse may be likelier to have a son who commits suicide. A male rat exposed to a powerful toxin has generations of male children with low fertility, even though those children were not exposed to the toxin themselves. A female rat who is not nurturing has children with an overactive anxiety response. And these are not just “nurture” effects, the result of a particular parenting style. In rats and plants (and in suicide victims), scientists have looked at the cells of the study subjects and found their gene markers to be stuck in the “on” position.

All of which suggests that the conventional family medical history is not only relevant, it probably doesn’t go far enough. Your own health may rest on knowing whether your grandfather worked in a coal mine or survived the Holocaust, whether your grandmother was an only child or one of 12, whether your mother picked fruit or lived near a Superfund site. Even as you rigorously adhere to a Paleo regimen, your body may still think you’re starving or smoking or eating your grandmother’s pork-and-dumplings diet. “Maybe the old saw of ‘we are what we eat’ doesn’t go far enough,” writes Nessa Carey in her 2012 book The Epigenetics Revolution. “Maybe we’re also what our parents ate and what their parents ate before them.”

If you’re even a casual kind of health nut or fitness freak, you probably believe that you can defy your genetic destiny — that your devotion to a Paleo diet and a Spinning regimen is going to save you not just from your grandfather’s wheeze and his potbelly but also his fatal heart attack. But on the question of just how much of your health is in your own hands, and how much you’re actually trapped not only by your grandpa’s genes, but also by his unhealthy personal habits, you probably have less control than you think.

Does Stress During Pregnancy Really Cause Autism?

For some of us, stress is not an occasional condition, but a way of life. When friends tell us to “just relax,” they might as well be telling us to be taller or shorter or somebody else. And when we become pregnant? Nothing changes. We are fiercely anxious: fat, under-slept, and cranky, awaiting every blood test and ultrasound with the avidity of lionesses, and dissecting the results with the stamina of coding geeks. When friends tell us to “just relax,” we lash out. My first-world stress is not going to hurt my baby, we insist. At this particular moment, when I cannot drink, smoke, have coffee, eat sushi, soft cheeses, or deli meats, when my life is about to change forever, let me at least have my stress, a relic of my former self.

How irritating, then, when science seems to agree with those friends: High levels of stress can hurt your baby. Maternal stress has long been known to be associated with pre-term delivery and low birth weight, and can lead to psychological problems in children later in life (an increased risk of schizophrenia, behavioral problems, and possibly low IQ). And a study published in March in the New England Journal of Medicine concludes what has long been suspected: Autism, too, has its roots in abnormal brain development in utero abnormal development that could possibly be caused by stress.

But wait: just what kind of stress are we talking about here? Princeton molecular biologist Sam Wang argued recently that stress is “a highly underappreciated prenatal risk” for autism. But thankfully he went into a lot more detail in analyzing a variety of different factors, assigning each a “risk ratio” reflecting the increased risk represented by a particular environmental factor (a ratio of two means double the risk, of four means quadruple). Emigrating to a new country registers a ratio of 2.3, getting caught in a hurricane zone during the second half of a pregnancy registers about 3, as does maternal post-traumatic stress during pregnancy. (For comparison, premature birth has a ratio of about 5.3 and an injury to the baby’s cerebellum at birth close to 40.)

These are not, you might notice, garden-variety “stresses.” This is more like “trauma.” And while autism has long been considered a yuppie disease, rare among diseases for disproportionately afflicting the affluent and educated, that conventional wisdom is under reconsideration. A 2012 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry measured rates of autism against socioeconomic status. To test whether the high rates of autism among the affluent in the U.S. were a results of selection bias — richer people see the doctor more and get their kids screened more frequently and thus receive more ASD diagnoses — researchers looked at a group of half a million kids in Stockholm, where free universal health care removes the imbalance between richer and poorer in the realm of diagnostic testing. They found higher rates of autism among the poorer families and among families whose parents were manual laborers. Which makes sense: Isn’t it, in fact, much more stressful to be poor than rich?

In 2012, after looking at large groups of pregnant women and their babies in England and Sweden, psychiatrists at the University of Bristol found no clear association between maternal stress and autism risk. They looked at Swedish women who, while pregnant, experienced a death in the family, had a serious accident, or received a diagnosis of a life-threatening disease. They looked at English women who, while pregnant, experienced one of 40 different stressful life events — everything from “you argued with your partner” to “you were in trouble with the law.” “We found no evidence of any relationships between prenatal life events and offspring autism spectrum disorders,” the authors wrote.  “The evidence supporting the relationship between psychological stress in pregnancy and ASD in human studies is limited and inconsistent.” The English questionnaire did not ask expectant mothers whether they had stress about their stress, but based on the evidence, the effects of such first-world overthinking is probably no more harmful to a developing fetus than the occasional mouthful of unapproved cheese.

Chirlane McCray’s City

Bill de Blasio has called her the love of his life, his partner, his No. 1 adviser. and that’s not the half of it.

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For those entranced by the de Blasio–family fairy tale, in which a tall, goofy white dude married to a tiny, black former lesbian runs for mayor of a city managed for a dozen years by a plutocrat inhospitable to the couple’s leftist politics, then improbably wins, in a landslide, thanks in part to a very modern family campaign portrait showcasing two teenage children, both of whom have eye-catching hair, the political theater of May 6 seemed so exemplary as to be almost surreal. Outside Washington, D.C., before a standing ovation of mental-health professionals, the de Blasios’ daughter, Chiara, who is 19, received an award of recognition from the outgoing secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius. The recognition was for her having spoken out: At Christmastime, just before her father was inaugurated and with the support of his campaign staff, Chiara had recorded a confessional YouTube clip in which she described herself as a pot and alcohol abuser. On the morning of the press conference, she published a wrenching essay describing her disease: years of depression and anxiety leading to regular reliance on substances. Even now, Chiara wrote, in recovery, she has to make herself “get out of bed even when I really, really don’t want to.”

In a supremely self-conscious display of parental support, Bill de Blasio and Chirlane McCray introduced their daughter to the crowd, expressing admiration for her courage and personal strength. “This is a very special day for our family,” said McCray, reading from a teleprompter. “I am not just proud of her, I am in awe.” Mayor de Blasio stood by his wife, nodding fondly, and when she was done, they shared a little arm squeeze. Then their daughter came out in a navy dress, and the trio took time out for what in my house is called “a family hug.” Chiara spoke for just a few moments, and she was smiling—glowing in the spotlight. But she trembled like a flower in the breeze.

It was all very authentic, and therefore gripping—unprecedented candor from a political family of unprecedented symbolic dynamism. No one knows better than de Blasio himself the degree to which his charismatic big-tent family had made him mayor—had boosted his unlikely ascent during a crowded Democratic primary and elevated him, a career local pol with a left-of-left orientation, into not just an electoral inevitability but a major figure on the national stage. And into something more, too: by virtue of that family, a seeming sentinel of a new political era, defined not just by the class politics the de Blasios share with Elizabeth Warren but also by the cultural ones they embody better than any diversity ad—black, white, gay, straight, Afroed and ear-gauged, all under one roof, a hologram of a liberal utopia, yes, but also regular Joes, with a plain vinyl-sided house in Brooklyn and gym memberships at the Y, two hardworking parents and their smart, mouthy kids, looking to each other first and last for mutual love and support. All of which makes it impossible not to wonder, watching Chiara this month or Dante during the campaign, to what extent this was simply an enviably positive, progressive family living out loud, celebrating its private loves and personal triumphs for all to see. And to what extent we were admiring a politically deft performance.

The best explanation for Chiara’s appearance was standing right beside her that day—a diminutive, dark-skinned woman with braids, who once wore a nose ring only slightly less ostentatious than her daughter’s, and who did something very similar when she herself was young, publishing a roughly 5,000-word declaration in Essence titled “I Am a Lesbian,” aimed at making other queer women of color feel less alone.

That essay—passionate, radical, subaltern, queer—is an unusual fact in the biography of a political spouse, but the gesture it contains is at the very heart of McCray’s worldview, which has come to govern her household, which has come to govern the city. McCray came of age at a time and in a place when speaking out about who you are, making declarations of identity despite convention and in defiance of taboos, was the bravest thing a person—in particular, a black woman—could do. Over the course of her adult life, spent in and out and on the margins of the public sphere, identity politics has become something of a pejorative term, the name given to demeaning performances of political victimhood, but for McCray and her contemporaries it has always been an imperative, the purest kind of activism, the most powerful weapon against injustice, and a sort of prerequisite for political engagement of any kind: How else does one make one’s needs known, if not by first making oneself heard? “Be the truth,” she exhorted in a poem she posted to Tumblr in April, “the knife / that cuts through the lies.” For her, self-expression is politics just as much as acts of government or legislation are, even in a city that can seem deracinated by corporatist values. Perhaps more so, since McCray believes in the power of political symbolism to awaken, agitate, and ennoble. In that way, she is both a throwback to an earlier era and an anachronism who has found an unlikely second moment. For her, political theater is not theater, it is politics proper—the way a society expresses its values and the way it shapes those values, in the image of ideal future generations who grow to model them.

The mayor has called Chirlane McCray the love of his life, his partner, his No. 1 adviser. When he’s being charming, he says he defers to Chirlane in all things. Others have called McCray his “conscience,” “a voice for the voiceless,” “someone who talks and listens to everyday New Yorkers.” In various day jobs since she moved to New York in 1977, McCray has worked in magazine publishing and as a freelance writer, as a speechwriter for city officials and as a public-relations consultant, but her professional résumé falls very far short of defining her role in Mayor de Blasio’s life and this city. “Understand Chirlane, and you’ll understand me,” he has said.

The de Blasios have been described as virtual co-mayors, and though their staff bristles at the term—“The mayor is the mayor,” says Emma Wolfe, a key aide—the couple refer often to their “partnership.” “We do everything as a couple—we think as a couple,” the mayor said last week. “We act [as a couple] in terms of everything we try to do for this world.” During the campaign, de Blasio put McCray’s name at the top of the org chart—alongside his, and above senior staff and everyone else. Staffers worried about how that perception would reflect on the candidate himself—that it would make him seem weak, even cuckolded, says someone who worked on the campaign. But “I don’t remember anyone saying, ‘Don’t call her your partner,’ ” because that would be unthinkable in de Blasio’s world. Those who have worked closely with the couple at City Hall describe McCray’s role as really two roles: optics guru and political conscience. But that description undersells her brief. She has conducted job interviews for important hires along with her husband; almost every commissioner, as well as much of the Gracie Mansion staff, has been vetted by her. She is at Bill’s side for most public appearances and is called to his office in scheduled and unscheduled meetings all the time. (She recently joked with her staff that she wished she and her husband could wear bracelets that beeped when they needed each ­other.) McCray says the administration’s ­priorities are her own—inequality, affordable housing, paid sick leave, after-school programs, hospitals. She was the face of its signature initiative, universal pre-K, making dozens of appearances to generate support and delivering the rallying cry that pre-K was “the defining civil-rights issue of our day.” When the de Blasio administration emerged from the battle, it was McCray who recorded an ad claiming victory and thanking New Yorkers for their support. Probably most significantly, she is also in charge of the Mayor’s Fund, a public-private philanthropic partnership that distributes tens of millions of dollars annually to initiatives reflecting the administration’s priorities. That responsibility is significant enough that her predecessor in the role, Michael Bloomberg’s deputy mayor Patti Harris, was called, by Crain’s, the fourth-most-powerful woman in the city. Not to take anything away from Harris, but she was not also married to the mayor, functionally his first political adviser, or celebrated as his moral conscience.

In the 1970s, when Bill and Chirlane came of age, it would have been very hard to imagine that a marriage to an African-­American feminist with radical activist politics and a queer past would have been anything but politically devastating for an ambitious white politician. But what’s so remarkable about the de Blasio era is not that Chirlane is the mayor’s spouse. It’s that she is such an unambiguous asset, and with him a vision of a hopeful, hipster egalitarian future. Chirlane’s approval ratings have registered higher than de Blasio’s, and it’s partly to her credit that the mayor polls so well among blacks; that’s one reason why even when his ratings took a dive in March, they only fell to 39 percent.

McCray knows all this. Having spent decades in PR and as a speechwriter, she understands well how image-making works and the power of political symbolism, even as someone basically new to center stage and uncomfortable there. Which may be why, on the day Chiara accepted her award, Chirlane tweeted a photo. Chirlane is on the left, smiling shyly, and Chiara is on the right. Wedged between them, looking very pale, is Hillary Clinton, a former boss of de Blasio’s and the presumptive Democratic nominee for president in 2016. It is unclear whose spotlight is shining on whom.

Chirlane McCray is not, by temperament, a people pleaser, though she makes a pointed distinction between quiet and shy: “Some people are just quiet—they don’t need to be talking all the time and aren’t extroverted, but they’re not necessarily afraid to talk,” she told me in one of several interviews over the past few weeks. “I’m not really a shy person. I don’t think I would have managed to get this far if I were.”

With strangers, McCray can be reserved, careful to remain in control of her own story—“measured” is how one old friend puts it. So I was surprised when, at our first meeting, she came inside from the rain and shook my hand so warmly. Her eyes sparkled. We were at the Little Purity diner near her house in Park Slope, where I also live, and the two of us, both neighborhood parents, chatted with ease about high-stakes testing and public schools, the hassles presented by spring vacation for working parents, and where’s the best takeout—she likes the Chinese restaurant Red & Hot II on Seventh and Mr. Falafel near the Barnes and Noble. “I don’t think you can overestimate how many changes have occurred in my life and Bill’s in the last 130 days,” she said later, admitting that she’s in mourning for the time, not so long ago, when she had time to drink tea with her friends in Park Slope and care for her garden there.

McCray is at heart a New Englander, having grown up among flinty people with uncompromising values—Puritan is, weirdly, the word that kept coming to mind as I sat with her, an African-American woman who has written paeans to sensual pleasure and long ago stopped going to church. Her great-grandmother moved from Barbados to New Hampshire to work for a family who needed domestic help. “She could not possibly have known how cold it was in Claremont, New Hampshire,” McCray joked in a recent speech. “I know she had never been there.” In 1964, when she was 10, McCray and her family moved from Springfield, Massachusetts, to a nearly all-white suburb, Longmeadow, known for its excellent schools. ­McCray was always the only black kid in her class, and often the only one in the school, where she was not bullied or harassed as much as treated (by other kids and teachers alike) as though she were entirely invisible. And when, at home, young Chirlane mentioned that she yearned for a friend, her parents rebuked her. “You’re not here to be popular; you’re here to get a good education,” she has remembered them saying. “You didn’t complain to our parents at home,” her sister Cynthia Davis reiterated to a reporter. “You were just expected to deal with life as it came.”

All New Yorkers, including Chirlane McCray, mythologize their arrival in New York. She landed in Manhattan after Wellesley College (“How many different kinds of women there were!” she says of her college years, and still, “I didn’t belong”) in the summer of 1977. She had two potential job contacts, a place to sleep, and $35 in her pocket. It was “the summer of Sam,” she recollects, “the summer of the blackout.” It was two years since Gerald Ford had told New York to drop dead, and the city was emptying out—its white middle class, anyway. But it was a thrilling time to be a young, black lesbian and feminist with literary aspirations. Two years earlier, Ntozake Shange had mounted her play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Alice Walker would publish The Color Purple in the years ahead. Excluded from mainstream white feminism, black women were also diminished by the male leaders of the Black Power movement who prioritized their own virility and sexuality at the expense of their sisters’. “The only kind of sexuality that was really celebrated was black male sexuality,” remembers Marcia Ann Gillespie, who was editor of Essence from 1971 to 1980. “The black male sex machine. The great lover. The great penis. This was celebrated. There was nothing about women. Our sexuality.”

A particular group of women revolted, creating their own activist scene out of their own experience, and McCray was among them, women of color who were also (mostly) gay or bisexual, gathering in homes and bars and coffee shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn and Staten Island and elsewhere, writing essays and staging plays and performing their poems, starting theater companies and dance troupes and political performance-art collectives like the Salsa Soul Sisters and the Flamboyant Ladies Theater Company. (McCray was briefly an editor of the Salsa Soul Gayzette.) Within these groups, African-dance classes anchored everyone’s weeks; in studios downtown, women would appropriate the realm traditionally reserved for men: As their friends danced, they would drum. The mantras were clear, and McCray absorbed them: The personal was political—all of it, even something as private and intimate as sex, was outward-facing activism. “Women were trying to say, ‘This is who I am fully. I am black and female and a lesbian’—or what we would call today queer—‘and I am trying to live fully as I am,’ ” remembers Alexis De Veaux, the biographer of the poet Audre Lorde. De Veaux remembers McCray from that time as “kind of on the quiet side”—still a little unsure, perhaps, of how she might best perform her own identity in a way that could alter the world around her. “If I were beautiful, I could be angry and cute,” McCray wrote in a poem called “I Used to Think,” “instead of an evil, pouting mammy bitch.”

It would have been a coup for any young woman to score a job at Redbook, where McCray started working in 1977. It was the intellectual women’s magazine, having published fiction by Mary Gordon and Jane Smiley and articles by Betty Friedan, and staffed by pathbreaking women who understood keenly the art of the political gesture. In 1970, a band of Redbook editors took a stand by wearing pants to work, and Sey Chassler, the magazine’s editor, was convinced by a scholar to use she instead of he in print as the generic pronoun. A couple of years later, he persuaded dozens of magazines to simultaneously publish articles on the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. McCray was young but made her home there—though what co-workers remember, mostly, is how soft-spoken she was. Frances Ruffin remembers lots of editorial assistants working at Redbook at the time. “They were all very smart. Chirlane was the quietest.”

“I Am a Lesbian,” published in 1979, was a quiet girl’s scream, and a coming out on multiple levels: a declaration of sexual preference and a fierce insistence on being heard, damn the consequences. In it, McCray describes falling in love with a woman in her freshman year in college, exploring her sexuality through relationships, literature, parties, politics, and gay bars, and, in a final devastating lament, her desire that her father accept her for who she is. She wrote the essay, she says near the opening, because even though she “fears the monster of conformity will rear its angry head and devour me … I’m weary of playing games, and hiding and being afraid.”

Marcia Ann Gillespie was the editor who published the essay in Essence. “It was brave,” she says. “It was by a fierce, brave woman who was not ashamed to say, ‘I am a woman who loves women.’ ” But Gillespie was also about a decade older than McCray and remembers having the minutest maternal hesitation about McCray’s uncompromising certainty. “I thought, She’s so young. She’s going to have a long life.

The De Blasios’ meet-cute story has become part of the family myth. She was working in the Dinkins administration, needed some information to write a press release, and sought out the man who had it. He saw her and was bowled over—heard angels singing, is how he puts it. She resisted, he persisted, and in 1994 they were married in Prospect Park.

But what did she see in him? She was nearly seven years older than he was and pushing 40, having spent her adulthood in relationships with women, working at jobs with little glamour, not much more established than she had been at 25, and here was this person who loved her, immediately, who shared her aspirations for changing the world—for living politics. For the girl from Springfield who was told not to complain about not having friends, Bill de Blasio must have been a relief, as comfortable as an easy chair. Early on in their courtship, Bill insisted that Chirlane meet his aunts and his mother, elderly, formal Italian women who lived in Hastings. McCray was charmed, not just by the ladies, whom de Blasio called the Three Graces, but by her boyfriend’s respect for the women who raised him and his determination to share his love for her with them. “That moved me,” she says. “It really did.” People who knew McCray in her early years and then fell out of touch are struck at how she has bloomed, how the young woman who once wrote that “the poem will surely come out wrong, / like me” has now “stepped forward,” says De Veaux, “a beautiful black woman, just exquisite-looking.” Her friend Karla Schickele puts it more succinctly: “She’s into him.”

Chiara was born in December 1994, seven months after the wedding, when Bill was working on Francisco Diaz’s state assembly campaign. McCray had always imagined a life with children, but as with so many women the reality of motherhood—the loss of independence, the relentlessness of the responsibility—was difficult. “I was 40 years old. I had a life. Especially with Chiara—will we feel guilt forever more? Of course, yes. But the truth is, I could not spend every day with her. I didn’t want to do that. I looked for all kinds of reason not to do it. I love her. I have thousands of photos of her—every 1-month birthday, 2-month birthday. But I’ve been working since I was 14, and that part of me is me. It took a long time for me to get into ‘I’m taking care of kids,’ and what that means.”

By the time Dante was born in 1997—the same year de Blasio started working for the Clinton administration as a regional director for HUD—Chirlane had mostly assumed the role of the default parent. She stopped working full-time for several years, and even when she resumed, it was she who was usually at after-school pickup at 6 p.m. “The kids came first,” she says. It was then that de Blasio’s ascent in Democratic politics began in earnest—first running Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign and then winning a City Council seat to represent brownstone Brooklyn. In 2005, Bill and Chirlane decided to move their mothers, both in failing health, into a house that de Blasio’s mother, Maria Wilhelm, owned down the street. Katharine McCray, who had multiple myeloma, occupied the top floor, and Wilhelm, who suffered from heart ailments, lived below. It fell largely to Chirlane to coordinate “the grandmas’ ” care, keeping track of the coming and going of home health aides, driving them to doctors’ appointments, rushing to the emergency room as needed. It was, she remembers, one of the most difficult periods of her life.

The weight of all that family responsibility, though, made it easier for McCray to shoulder her new role as mother, wife, and caretaker. She was committed. But it was also the case that, for all her lifelong diligence and toughness, McCray had never been someone who defined herself primarily through her work—in fact, she often defined herself against it, as someone animated by fiercely held values rather than self-interested ambition. Her friends from the time describe a devoted and relaxed parent, autonomous within her sphere. Bill wasn’t around too much; Carol Joyner, who befriended McCray when their daughters were in diapers, remembers only a couple of occasions over a decade when the families, including husbands, socialized together. “Chirlane and I were together with the kids; [the husbands] were together doing politics,” remembers Joyner. But when she did see Bill and Chirlane interact, she found them relaxed and affectionate. “Some couples are really intense and wear you down,” Joyner observes, but Bill and Chirlane aren’t like that. With Bill so often at work, Chirlane built around herself a different kind of women’s world, centered on her kids, their friends, and other mothers in the neighborhood. As a much younger woman, she knew a group of feminist writers called Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, so called because women’s lives are so often revealed in that place; by the early 2000s, the kitchen table was no metaphor but a reality lived every day. In the evenings, McCray would also sit around the table with her husband, who by then was beginning to consider higher office, talking through political imperatives surfaced by her own experience: how to afford child care; how to get kids through the harrowing years of middle school; how to coordinate elder care without going insane. “It’s such a natural thing to talk shop,” she says. “We would say, ‘How could this be better? If we had our dream world, how would this work?’ ”

McCray went back to government work in 2002, after Dante had begun elementary school, and spent several years alongside Schickele, when the two women were speechwriters for then-comptroller Bill Thompson. Schickele remembers McCray as an easy colleague: fun-loving, hardworking, alert to the absurdities of city politics, and low on ego. She was a working mother who did her job well and went home. Uninterested in the spotlight for herself, she was suited to speechwriting. “When I knew her, she was the opposite of public,” Schickele says. “No one was sticking a microphone in her face, and she didn’t carry herself like someone who expected to have a microphone put in her face.”

McCray is not comfortable with labels, but if she will accede to any, it would be “outsider”: the black girl in the white town; the outspoken lesbian drawing disapproval within her own family; the advocate who hopes to give voice to the voiceless; the feminist married to the powerful man. (Even her definitions of sexual attraction are category-busting: “I am more than just a label,” she told Essence last year. “Labels put people in boxes, and those boxes are shaped like coffins.”) Three years ago, McCray was a woman on the outside of politics, laboring in marketing at Maimonides hospital in Brooklyn. When I meet her for a second time, she is surrounded by all the trappings of insider power—deep within the bowels of City Hall, managed by a crew of handlers and a security detail, some of whom refer to her deferentially as “the First Lady.” But she says nothing has to change; she is, and has always been, a nonconformist, and “I can’t help who I am,” she tells me. “Government is not just about maintaining the status quo. It’s about helping people’s lives to work.” Just because you have influence, “I don’t think you have to be conventional or rigid. The only thing that’s different is that we’re in positions of power now, where we have the tools to actually make things better for people.”

So what would she like to do? McCray is uncomfortable listing priorities, saying it’s too soon to talk about specifics, that she’s been so busy, and that she’s listening carefully to the advice of the commissioners and other city leaders. Instead, she points to the de Blasio platform, which she says holds all the clues. “Universal pre-K. Yes, we’ve got it; now we have to make it a success. That’s a huge job. After-school programs. Huge,” she says emphatically, recollecting how the YMCA of Greater Springfield was her second home as a child. “You know, because of our family, mental health is going to be big in some way, shape, or form. I don’t know exactly how, but it will be in there. And neighborhoods. That means affordable housing and the things that go along with that. Those are huge. They will definitely inform what I do, however I do it. But in my way.”

Her biggest achievement so far has been in staffing, helping hand-pick the people who will actually run the city and staging the new optics of power in the de Blasio era. McCray was adamant that the de Blasio administration field the most diverse leadership team New York City had ever seen. Now, of the dozen senior staff the mayor meets with each morning, six are women. Only three are white men. Of the 80 or so commissioners, deputy mayors, and agency heads de Blasio has hired, more than half are women. McCray’s own communications director, Rebecca Katz, is a white woman who went to a mostly black elementary school. Her chief of staff, Rachel Noerdlinger, is an African-­American woman adopted and raised by white parents. McCray is busy revitalizing the city’s Commission on Women, Noerdlinger says; first up is hiring the executive director.

For McCray, feminism is not so much about the fulfillment of personal ambition as it is about helping women to get the basic things they need. “My mother worked for this place called Phelon for a while,” she says—a job, at an electronics factory, that she made Chirlane promise to keep secret from her classmates. “When I was very young, she went on strike. Yeah, she went on strike a couple of times. She put on her pants, and it was a big deal to wear pants. Right? It was like, ‘Why’re you wearing pants, Mommy?’ ” It’s a powerful image, and a double one—the hardworking mother dressed for a fight, and her daughter, 50 years later, conjuring up the images in an interview inside City Hall.

“I don’t think it’s about ‘leaning in,’ ” she says. “In this day and age, it comes down to improving life, for girls especially, young girls—improving the numbers of opportunities, the kind of opportunities. But it’s not just about opportunities anymore. Violence against women is a huge issue. A good feminist should be working on that—making the world a safer place for girls and women, wherever they live. Economic opportunity is hugely important. That’s why paid sick leave was so important. But we’ve got so many women who are employed as teachers, nurses, health aides, fast-food workers, and don’t have access to child care, can’t afford child care. I mean, that’s an issue that feminists should be working on. We have to think about the state of women in a more holistic way going forward. We can’t be segregated by class and race as we have been. Because even the women at the top can do something about violence against women, right?”

I wonder aloud whether, even now as she holds the opportunity to make real change in New York, she misses the community she found there in her 20s, with its vibrancy, idealism, and sense of purpose—and McCray, who has been deliberately eating a salad, practically jumps out of her seat. “I do! I really do!” Her eyes shine. “It’s just kind of strange, like, What’s happened?” She cites a couple of factors—“people disagreeing about issues,” “people hooking up and getting married,” “tenure.” “But what happened?” she asks. “You got me.”

One answer is easy: The city changed. In the New York of her activist youth, ­McCray remembers, “things were so accessible. There were places you could go. Where would you go now? Everything costs money. You don’t have the same access. After the ’60s, ’70s, you couldn’t protest. They’d developed ways to deal with it. Remember? I mean, the government grew more sophisticated. And it’s not just that people changed, but government and the status quo changed—kind of clamped down. The city grew less open and welcoming. People grew, and grew up.” She pauses. “But I think there’s something happening. I think things go in cycles, and it’s been a long period of quiet,” she says. “I think it’s time again.”

Staffers at City Hall call McCray the mayor’s Mophie, after the iPhone case: One entirely covers the ­other; they are inseparable. She is his gut check, his sounding board. Universally, friends of the de Blasios refute the idea it’s McCray who’s running the show. It’s not like that, they say. De Blasio and McCray “clearly treasure the thing they have. They clearly get a lot of joy out of each other. Once you get that part, then the dynamic with the mayor is a lot more clear and a lot less foreign,” says Emma Wolfe.

People who know the couple describe them as like-minded professionals; their “partnership” takes the form of incessant marital patter, similar to what two doctors or two lawyers would do. It’s always tempting to analyze another marriage—­especially a public one—based on appearances. And de Blasio and McCray invite such assessments, even as they shake them off, because their image is so central to their appeal. From outsiders, I’ve heard everything from “She wears the pants” to “He’s elevating her out of gratitude,” but the truth seems, as always, more complicated, even alchemical. De Blasio can be indecisive, insiders say, and she is resolute; he turns to her when he’s uncertain. One resonant analysis has McCray, the true believer, keeping de Blasio, the pragmatist, focused on their mutual ideals, but McCray herself laughs that off. “I think we’re both a mix of idealism and pragmatism,” she says. “And which one of us is which can change at any time. Sometimes I bring him down to reality, and sometimes he brings me back to reality.”

Unlike other First Ladies, McCray isn’t known as a meddler, though she will call staffers on occasion and offer unsolicited thoughts. One person who interviewed for a top-level job was surprised, in meeting her, that she was so unassuming—not the Svengali that the grapevine had promised. She was smart and listened carefully. She had her husband’s ear. But she wasn’t a hard-bitten strategist brimming with solutions.

In a world of strivers, McCray is an odd person to have gained so much power. Unlike Michelle Obama or Hillary Clinton, she isn’t a careerist, and her circuitous path through life can make her ascent seem accidental or, her skeptics might say, undeserved. Her résumé doesn’t sparkle; in fact, as some close to City Hall have grumbled, it makes it seem as though she can’t even keep a job, and that some of the ones she has gotten, like her gig at Maimonides, were thanks in part to her husband. For all their closeness and commitment to one another, de Blasio is a much more traditional politician—deal-making, arm-twisting, glad-handing. His career has been spent climbing the ladder of party politics; the ladder has never been McCray’s thing.

Practically speaking, of course, McCray has a new job, at the Mayor’s Fund. In her supervision of that money, she is in a listening phase, meeting with commissioners about pet projects and underfunded initiatives and doing a lot of thinking about how to order her concerns: elder care, incarcerated youth, victims of domestic violence, families with disabled children. On a recent afternoon at City Hall, she was hearing pitches. First, Rose Pierre-Louis, who runs the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, came in and ran through her to-do list: Raise awareness, focus especially on elder abuse and abuse within communities where spousal rape and beating are considered cultural norms. McCray sat mostly quietly, eating soup out of a takeout carton, occasionally nodding her assent.

Next up was Mary Bassett, the city’s new health commissioner, a woman who spent nearly 20 years as a health advocate in Zimbabwe. Her priority, she explained, is to promote better health, neighborhood by neighborhood, deploying battalions of community health workers to the poorest areas—who can knock on doors and in face-to-face meetings help people improve their eating and exercise habits and cut back on tobacco use. Bassett was a passionate ambassador and a font of relevant survey data; it was only when the conversation turned to maternity-leave policies that I realized that nearly every person around the conference table was female. We were white, black, Hispanic, biracial; gay and straight; 30-something and pushing 70. And there we all were, at Chirlane ­McCray’s kitchen table. All eyes on her—quiet, as she says, but not shy. When she spoke, finally, she agreed with the room—current maternity-leave policies “are not acceptable,” she said. Then, as if not wanting to be part of an easy consensus, she paused and changed the subject: to mass incarceration, drug laws, and the life expectancy of African-American men. “What are we going to do about our boys?” she asked.

At the end of the meeting, Bassett, who is tall and gangly, rose, and before she left the conference room, she turned to the First Lady, who was still seated, and smiled. “You have a great brand,” she said. “I’m sure you never imagined that.”

Does Being Anxious Make Us More Moral?

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One of the distinctive peculiarities of anxious people, observed by clinicians and documented in medical literature, is this: They fervently believe in the power of their own anxiety.

The insomnia, the perseverating, the self-loathing, and the obsession with an uncertain future — the anxious justify these behaviors the way the superstitious rely on their use of lucky charms and amulets as protection against potentially devastating outcomes. (If I worry enough about it in advance, I won’t get fired/cancer/sent to the poorhouse.) Among other things, this makes the functionally anxious notoriously difficult to treat. They actually believe that their condition makes them superior to other people: more driven, more able to endure without sleep, more able to gauge the future, more efficient. “Without anxiety, little would be accomplished,” a psychiatrist told Scott Stossel in his 2013 book My Age of Anxiety.

Now the anxious have another reason to uphold the virtues of their ailment: People with anxious relationship patterns have greater “concern for harm, unfairness, and impurity,” reports a study published recently in Social Psychological and Personality Science. They are, in other words, more moral in their thinking.

The new study focuses on people with attachment anxiety, which is the kind of anxiety that results from having been inconsistently cuddled and cared for as an infant and endures throughout life as a template for all intimate relationships. This may sound like watered-down Freud, but in fact, psychologists do believe it is one legitimate cause of enduring anxiety about intimate relationships. These are the people who, when they do find themselves with a romantic partner, are constantly “worried about being taken advantage of,” the kind who always ask, “Don’t you love me anymore?” explains the study’s lead author Spassena Koleva, a psychologist at USC, who cautions that links between moral concerns and moral behavior have not yet been established.

From a sample of about 8,000 people, the researchers sorted those with attachment anxiety from those with another disorder called attachment avoidance (people whose caregivers never picked them up or cuddled them), and from those with secure attachments. Then they asked respondents to answer questions designed to elicit a moral response. For example, is it okay to throw a sick person off a lifeboat to save the lives of the others within it?

Researchers already knew that people with attachment anxiety tend to possess an overabundance of empathy; they’re the kind of people who, Koleva says, feel hurt when they see a mother striking a child and who want to vomit at the sight of another person’s puke. They also knew that the anxious mindset — the constant ruminating over potential dangers — leads to a mental inflexibility, a preference for predictability over uncertainty. The question the researchers wanted to examine was this: Did this mental rigidity, mediated by empathy, give anxious people a more highly developed sense of morality? And the answer was yes.

Especially on moral questions related to fairness (like cheating) and avoidance of harm to others, anxious people expressed the most concern. In the study, those with anxious attachment styles were more likely than the other groups to say “yes” to “Ideally, everyone in society would end up with roughly the same amount of money,” and “no” to “A criminal should be made to suffer in the same way that his victim suffered.”

A recent wave of popular moral psychology (led by Jonathan Haidt) has focused on political differences — the ways in which the right and the left see the world through different moral lenses. This study could be the beginning of a different approach, Koleva says, a way of understanding human morality through the more intimate context of social relationships. Anxious people tend to be very sensitive; they’re hurt when they’re treated in a way that they regard as morally wrong, and they tend to be judgmental and uncompassionate toward what they see as other people’s immoral behavior. (They are especially disgusted by what the psychologists call physical impurity: grossed out by promiscuity, gluttony, and alcoholism, for example.) Anxious people are those who keep score in intimate relationships, and are constantly disappointed when their intimate partners fail to live up to their view of the way things should be. Their moralism leads, as a consequence, to “a lot of relationship dissatisfaction,” Koleva says. But that dissatisfaction might just be a laboratory for high standards out in the world.

The Google of Spit

Anne Wojcicki wants to bring health care into its sci-fi, Big Data era. First, she’ll need your DNA. Then comes vanquishing the FDA.

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When Eugenia Brin was young and still living in Moscow, her beloved aunt Serafima received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Serafima was just 50 years old, with no access to effective treatment, so Brin cared for her in the way of close families, going after work to her apartment to bathe her and prepare her meals. “I loved her very much,” she says. “I watched her deteriorate, and it was pretty awful.” When Brin joined the Jewish exodus from the Soviet Union, immigrating to College Park, Maryland, in 1979, she began mailing therapeutic doses of synthetic dopamine to her aunt, but Serafima, unsure of when the next batch would arrive, hoarded the medicine, never using enough of it to bring much relief.

As she neared her own 50th birthday, Eugenia noticed her left foot beginning to drag. Parkinson’s is only inherited in about 10 percent of cases, scientists believe, and when Eugenia was diagnosed in 1998, she became “extremely upset,” she says. Like her aunt, she was young to be contemplating the disease, a relentless degeneration of neurons that ultimately throttles the muscles and creates hallucinations in the brain: “It does not stop,” she tells me. But Brin was also a parent, and like all good parents she felt responsible for her children’s future. If she had inherited Parkinson’s, she could also pass it on. One of her sons, Sam, was 11 years old. The other one, Sergey, had just founded Google.

At that moment, Google had three employees and was run from a garage in Menlo Park belonging to an advertising executive named Susan Wojcicki. In time, Wojcicki would become Google employee No. 16, and her younger sister, Anne, a health-care industry analyst, would marry Sergey and have two children, prospective heirs to Eugenia’s genetic legacy. Now Susan runs YouTube, and Anne is CEO of a company she co-founded called 23andMe (so named for the number of chromosomes in human DNA) that could help forestall that legacy—could “solve health,” as she puts it—by collecting the genetic information of a critical mass of humans on the planet. Anne launched her company with the conviction, which happens to be the conviction of many of her friends and peers, that health care in America is broken, inefficiently treating the sick while insufficiently supporting the well, and that, enabled by the power of Big Data, Silicon Valley can fix it—accelerating to light speed the development of drugs and therapies by harvesting unprecedented insights from a reservoir of the nation’s genes. By last fall, 23andMe had extracted and analyzed DNA from 650,000 people, making it one of the biggest genetic banks in the world. That was when the Food and Drug Administration stepped in. 23andMe was performing what it regarded as a medical test without its approval and without the oversight of any doctor, the FDA said, and until Wojcicki could demonstrate that those tests would inflict no harm, she was ordered to retreat from her quest to hoover up the world’s DNA.

But Wojcicki is undeterred. With 23and­Me, she wants to do with DNA what Google did for data—because, after all, DNA is data. Want to compare huge numbers of people with hereditary Parkinson’s disease against people who carry a gene for Parkinson’s but are healthy? Here’s a database of millions: All a researcher needs to do is create the algorithm. Want to look at genetic variances among people with very complex diseases, like diabetes, or Alzheimer’s, or coronary-artery disease? 23andMe can isolate disease groups and scrutinize the genotypes within them. Want to figure out why a tiny number of folks taking a certain multiple-sclerosis drug also get blood clots? Cull the patients from the database, email them a questionnaire, and compare answers. And then there are those connections algorithms might make between genes and health that humans hadn’t even thought to ask about. These results might efficiently steer scientists toward especially promising targets for research, and the resulting discoveries—drugs, surgical procedures, nutritional information, eyeglasses, sunscreen—might then be marketed back to individuals who 23andMe already knows are predisposed to osteo­arthritis or hereditary blindness or melanoma. It’s a vision of seamless scientific research that is also a business—like, say, Google—tempting you with products the data engine has already discerned you need.

23andMe collects that genetic information from individuals with a sleight of hand so quintessentially American that Tom Sawyer might have dreamed it up: It sells it to them. The first human genome was sequenced in 2003, after more than a decade of work and at a cost to taxpayers of $2.7 billion. But, over the next decade, the price of a gene-squencing chip plummeted while its capacity exponentially increased, and that chip is now the magical head of a pin on which a whole medical revolution could turn. By last fall, 23andMe could deploy genotyping technology to produce a personalized genetic report on more than 200 health conditions within three weeks for just $99—no prescription necessary. Customers spit into a tube in the privacy of their own homes, send the saliva sample to a lab, then wait for results, which arrive by email. The report gives users detailed ancestry information, the probabilities of their getting dozens of complex diseases, and their responsiveness to 25 drug therapies. It tells customers whether they have the BRCA1 mutations, which are associated with dramatically higher incidence of breast cancer, and whether they carry the genetic variant that corresponds to cystic fibrosis. It also provides party fodder: Do you smell asparagus in your pee? Are you prone to be addicted to nicotine or wired to run the 100-meter dash? To access all this tantalizing information, users have to agree to allow 23andMe to profit from their genetic data. “By providing any sample,” the terms of service read, “you acquire no rights in any research or commercial products that may be developed by 23and­Me or its collaborating partners.”

Eugenia Brin took Anne’s spit test in 2007, and the results revealed that she carries not one but two copies of a rare mutation in a gene called LRRK2, which is strongly associated with Parkinson’s in a small number of cases. Because Eugenia carries only the mutant version of LRRK2, she has only flawed copies to give to her sons; both carry one mutant version, putting each at a significantly higher-than-average risk for Parkinson’s. Sergey’s kids—one, a toddler, the other, 5—have a 50-50 chance of getting the gene, though their LRRK2 status has never been made public.

Sergey’s success has been good for his mother; formerly a computer scientist at NASA, Eugenia is now retired and lives with her husband in a house behind a tall hedge in Los Altos Hills in a neighborhood five miles from the Googleplex. Like Sergey and Anne, and like many of the other data geeks and tech wizards I met traveling up and down El Camino Real earlier this year, stopping in Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Menlo Park, Eugenia is a rationalist, the kind who might receive a test result not with panic or resignation but relief and something like empowerment. “There are things you can do,” she says.

But Eugenia Brin also grew up in what she calls “another world,” and experience has shown her how sickness or circumstance can shorten the lives and ambitions of even the most brilliant people. She sometimes feels anguish at the prospect that her sons might suffer. “I have a very strong hope” that they don’t develop Parkinson’s, she says, her accent still thick. “It’s a hope against hope, but a very strong one.”

For this reason, Eugenia regards the brazen confidence with which her American-raised children and their friends approach all problems with a mixture of fondness and bemusement. Sergey and his peers have changed everything about the world—research, shopping, sex, surveillance—and have been rewarded beyond anybody’s wildest dreams for doing so. It only makes sense that they might regard any challenge as surmountable, so long as they figure out the right tools, the right people, and the right approach to the question—even if that question is how to push back death or disease.

When I meet her on a Friday afternoon in January at the 23andMe offices, Anne Wojcicki has had a tough few months. In August, she and Brin announced that they were living separately after Brin’s affair with a Google underling became public gossip. Then, on November 22, Wojcicki received the FDA’s warning. The letter was irascible in tone, and it made head­lines. Many readers saw a culture clash: a ­tradition-bound government agency affronted by Silicon Valley arrogance, Google nepotism, and 23andMe’s critique of traditional medicine. The company “rubbed a lot of people the wrong way,” says Michael Nova, chief medical officer at Pathway Genomics, one of 23andMe’s competitors in a fast-growing field. Wojcicki got wind of the forthcoming warning while at a three-day corporate retreat: “I felt slapped in the face from out of left field,” she says. After receiving the letter, 23andMe stopped offering health reports to new customers, though it still provides ancestry information to them, and sales have dropped significantly.

At 40, Wojcicki is a no-makeup person, the kind who wears sneakers and ripped jeans to work, and her conversational manner is casual, too. No is a word she takes as a challenge, she says. She may have been naïve in her dealings with the FDA, but now she is devoting every ounce of the company’s resources to satisfying the agency’s requests: “We’re playing in the big boys’ world,” she tells me. On the day of my visit, as we are talking in a small conference room, a knock comes at the door and an assistant with a purple streak in her hair pokes her head in. Wojcicki breaks off: “I just have to sign some papers.”

There’s a letter to the FDA, and supporting documents, and previous correspondence, and duplicates. “Here’s a blue pen,” the assistant says.

“Blue,” answers Wojcicki, putting down her black one. She scribbles. The pages have to go to Maryland by FedEx tonight; there’s a conference call on Monday, with 23andMe asking for a second chance, essentially, to prove to the FDA that its spit test can meet its approval. That it has taken 23andMe almost eight years to focus on this obviously crucial task has drawn a fair amount of comment, but the breakdown between the company and the FDA illustrates a profound divergence in their respective ways of thinking about consumer health as much as it does mismanagement within 23andMe. Now that she is in triage mode, Wojcicki seems to be channeling a former self, one that used to work long days and nights on Wall Street. Over the summer, she says, she was enjoying the therapeutic effects of regular meditation. Since the fall, “the guy I meditate with keeps emailing me, and I’m like, ‘Fuck you, I don’t have time. I’m drinking coffee and eating bacon and swearing a lot.’ ”

Wojcicki grew up in Palo Alto, the youngest child of a Stanford physics professor and a journalism teacher, the kind of parents who would take their three daughters to an all-you-can-eat salad bar and make them share plates. Easily bored, she has passed through health fads at warp speed: She gorged on low-calorie Snackwell cookies in college but more recently discovered the benefits of fasting. At 23andMe, there’s CrossFit three days a week and yoga on Tuesdays, and a sports masseuse sets up in the office every week.

But Wojcicki was always rebellious, a younger sister impatient with people telling her what to do. In this, she was temperamentally well matched to Brin. On their first date, she told the Times of London, the couple went Rollerblading in New York; one time, after taking circus classes, Brin called her up: “Want to learn how to throw knives?” he asked.

Though her parents disapproved of her joining a hedge fund upon graduating from Yale, Wall Street was a good fit. Wojcicki loved the swagger of finance, the macho pose she characterizes as “I’m so fucking awesome,” but she didn’t see anything like that dynamism in the business of health care. Researchers guarded discoveries from their peers, slowing the pace of cures. Pharmaceutical companies cared more about selling the greatest number of drugs than they did about innovating therapies for maximum efficiency. “ ‘Yeah,’ ” she says during our talk, in the hey-guy tone of a pharmaceutical marketer, “ ‘we know our drug doesn’t work on everyone; it’s not our problem to figure it out.’ ”

The bright spot was biotech—genetics companies in particular. Before the completion of the Human Genome Project, geneticists could test for a very few, rare, heritable diseases, like cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy. After it, scientists could “see” the whole thing: 3.2 billion pairs of nucleic acids, arranged in tangled, dreadlocked threads. But what most of the genes meant, how they worked, which ones caused disease, and under what circumstances—this was entirely unknown. Big Data gave scientists the tools they needed to explore the genome in a meaningful way.

“It was so exciting,” Wojcicki remembers. “You could see the revolution coming.” The earliest discoveries were based on small sample sizes, in the thousands or tens of thousands, but “I saw that there was this potential: What if you could get millions and millions of people to share their data?” At the time, Wojcicki was already dating Brin. “The rest of your life is optimized because of Big Data,” she says today. “But it isn’t for health care, and that’s fundamentally the most important thing for you.”

Wojcicki may be Google royalty, but she’s also a civilian with two small children and uses Amazon all the time. The company “knows exactly what I want before I log in. Literally. ‘Oh, you’ve been buying Star Wars and princesses and camera equipment.’ They just know! Based on my past. Why isn’t health care like that? They should totally say, ‘Hey, you’ve been eating this, you’ve been exercising that amount, your genetics this. Hey! Here’s some recommendations for you.’ ”

Wojcicki launched 23andMe with $9 million, about half from Google, and two missions. The first, according to the executive summary by Wojcicki and her co-founder, Linda Avey, was to give people access to their own genetic information. “It’s theirs,” Avey told me over coffee in Palo Alto one morning. “It belongs to them. Get rid of the paternalism.” This goal had undeniable Silicon Valley sex appeal, the spit test a perfect holiday gift for the self-obsessed technophile. In the company’s first several years, Rupert Murdoch spit, as did Yo-Yo Ma, Eva Longoria, and Jimmy and Warren Buffett (the test discovered no relation).

The second goal was “creating the world’s largest secure, private database of genotypic and phenotypic information that can be used for comparison analysis and research.” This was a much harder sell. For one thing, it was difficult to explain. It raised questions about privacy and the ownership of intimate human material that evoked the various misdeeds of history’s racist eugenicists. And then there were the questions prompted by the company’s business model, which makes the database its profit center—an information mine, in essence, that charges fees for use. What are the ethical parameters of a system in which a user pays to hand over rights to his or her genetic data and then stands by as a company profits from it? 23andMe safeguards user identity by keeping names, credit-card numbers, and addresses separate from the genetic data itself, and it says a customer can withdraw from the database at any time. Nevertheless, the company’s own terms of use contain an explicit warning: “Genetic information you share with others could be used against your interests.”

Also, the practical challenge was huge. For the database to be really useful, 23and­Me had to sell millions of spit kits. And to revolutionize science in the way that Wojcicki and Avey envisioned, the company had to collect all kinds of data beyond genetics, since correlations can only be made if you know about a person’s genotype together with his or her manifest health. 23andMe had to know a user’s family history, drug allergies, and personal habits, and whether the subject takes vitamins and how often he or she exercises. In the founders’ ideal future, all data sets would be compatible so that 23andMe (or a company like it) could integrate into its algorithms every bit of the world’s quantifiable data: pollution centers and weather patterns, commuting times and the daily schedule of your coffeemaker, your life on Tinder or Grindr, the number of cigarette sales and yoga studios in your neighborhood, proximity to a Whole Foods and what you bought there last Tuesday.

For this reason, the 23andMe user interface is very “sticky.” It has a social component that allows you to connect with other people who share your genes. Before seeing a health report, you are asked to fill out a lengthy medical history. And then, every time you log in, there are more questions to answer. “Lisa Miller,” my page quizzed me recently, “do you cry easily?”
Eugenia Brin’s Par­kinson’s was vexing Wojcicki even before she founded her company or had children of her own. In 2004, she urged Sergey to attend a meeting in Menlo Park at which the biotech company Perlegen was presenting the results of a Parkinson’s study. The following year, researchers discovered the connection between Parkinson’s and the LRRK2 variation: In 2006 the New England Journal of Medicine showed that the variant, while very rare, was more common among Ashkenazi Jews. Anne called around, trying to get an LRRK2 test for Sergey. “I was told uniformly that there’s no reason to test him. ‘It’s very unlikely that he has it,’ people said, ‘and even if he does, what would you do?’ ” Wojcicki pauses at the memory. “I found their responses so obnoxious. It was like, really? It’s information. I want to know.” When the scientists at 23andMe were deciding what their kit should test for, they made sure the LRRK2 mutation was on their chip.

It was Anne, in fact, who alerted Eugenia and Sergey to the presence of the LRRK2 variant in their genomes after spending an afternoon at the kitchen table browsing through the family’s 23and­Me reports. She saw the double mutation in Eugenia’s data and immediately called her office to make sure she was reading it right. “I was like, ‘Sergey’s mom has two copies,’ and they were like, ‘No, that doesn’t really exist.’ ” The results confirmed, Anne called Sergey. Then they called his mother.

Brin has written that discovering the LRRK2 variant within his own genome was transformative. “I know early in my life something I am substantially predisposed to,” he wrote on his blog in 2008. “I now have the opportunity to adjust my life to reduce those odds (e.g., there is evidence that exercise may keep Parkinson’s at bay). I also have the opportunity to perform and support research into this disease long before it may affect me.” Brin declined to speak for this story, but a recent article in Vanity Fair suggested that Brin might have stepped out on Wojcicki because the specter of Parkinson’s in his future triggered an emotional crisis. Wojcicki wouldn’t talk about the split but affectionately uses the married “we” in reference to her family, and when she talks about who’s picking up the kids and what the chef is preparing for dinner, Sergey is implicitly present. And so is the prospect of Parkinson’s.

Was there a moment, I ask Wojcicki, when you and Sergey decided to devote yourselves and your resources more aggressively to Parkinson’s research? “There was never a plan,” Anne remembers. “I’m action oriented. It was more like, ‘We should probably meet Michael J. Fox more. We should probably give him a lot of money.’ ” Brin has said that if he knew that a billion dollars would cure Parkinson’s, he would write the check in an instant, and since his 23andMe results came in, he and his wife have developed a symbiotic relationship with the Michael J. Fox Foundation that involves so much mutual admiration, and so many dollars passing back and forth, that the lines between the two organizations can seem sometimes to blur. Wojcicki and Brin have donated more than $150 million to the foundation, and the foundation has established 23andMe as a “research partner,” working with it on Parkinson’s studies and donating half a million dollars to its Parkinson’s efforts.

At home, Anne made Parkinson’s prevention a family project. A zealous believer in exercise, she hired a trainer for her in-laws. Brin started springboard diving and drinking green tea. “If Sergey gets Parkinson’s,” Anne says, “I’d like to be able to say, ‘I’ve put my best foot forward and we’ve done everything we can to effect change.’ ”

At work, she was even more hard-­charging. In 2009, Wojcicki announced that, with help from the Fox foundation, 23andMe would begin amassing the largest collection of genetic data from Parkinson’s patients in the world. And in the fall of 2011 that work appeared to have paid off. 23andMe researchers discovered a genetic factor called SGK1 in a number of people with the LRRK2 variant who did not have Parkinson’s. The implications were enormous: Did SGK1 fend off Parkinson’s? Could drug therapies be developed that emulated those effects? And what would the timeline be, in a medical universe still governed by long-burn clinical trials and FDA approval? Would it arrive in time to help Sergey? His children? Their children?

23andMe issued a press release an­nouncing “the first-time discovery of the potentially protective nature of” SGK1, as well as that $500,000 grant by the Michael J. Fox Foundation to the Scripps Research Institute to explore the development of a new drug. “Sergey Brin’s Wife Might Have Figured Out a Way to Save His Life,” wrote Business Insider.

Then Wojcicki made a misstep. She announced on the company’s blog that 23andMe had won approval for a broad patent protecting all the company’s Parkinson’s-­related genetic discoveries. From the beginning, 23andMe had staked out, in public at least, a radically democratic stance: It would give genetic information, formerly meted out at the discretion of an anointed few, directly to the people. Linda Avey, especially, had forcefully opposed the patenting of gene discoveries (“I disagree fundamentally that you’ve invented anything,” she says), a battle line around which skirmishes frequently flare in the biotech world. Avey says she hadn’t known about plans to patent; she left the company in 2009. “If I’d known they were going to patent genes, I wouldn’t have signed up,” tweeted an eminent British geneticist. Wojcicki had promised to “democratize genomics,” but a patent looked like a profit-making play.

It was. Wojcicki belongs to a group of entrepreneurs who see profit-seeking as the quickest path to a greater good and profitability as the best proof of intrinsic value: “I’m always thinking in the back of my mind, If I’m someone with Parkinson’s or sarcoma, what do I want the company to do with my data?” Wojcicki patented her Parkinson’s discovery, she says, because she wanted it to be as alluring as possible to pharmaceutical companies doing drug development, and her lawyers assured her that no pharma company will even look at a target unless it knows it’s exclusively theirs. You can always give your discovery away later, Wojcicki argues, but you can’t make that choice unless you lock it up first. “There’s not a business if we don’t own the aggregate data,” she told me.

In the end, Scripps came up empty working on LRRK2 and SGK1, finding nothing meaningful in the association—a sign that the patent was even more speculative than it might have seemed. But this failure does not shake Wojcicki’s determination. “My science team doesn’t like to talk about SGK1 as much because it didn’t pan out. But you only succeed once you’ve failed enough times. We should revel in tons and tons and tons of ideas. Some of them will manifest and lead to a drug discovery, and some will not.” In the meantime, the family will wait.

I got my own 23andMe results through a loophole: The company’s publicist had squirreled away a stack of spit kits manufactured months before the November warnings. The bar code on the kit I was given was pre-dated, in effect, and in March, I received my report.

My first thought was: There has been some mistake. This couldn’t be me. For one thing, the report said I was likely a sprinter, which I am emphatically not, and that I was lactose intolerant, when I’ve never had a problem polishing off a cheese plate. Moreover, coronary heart disease sat at the top of my “Health Risks” list, giving me a 34.2 percent chance of it—well above the average risk. I worry about a lot of things, but my heart has never been one of them. Doctors are always complimenting me on my blood pressure and slow pulse. My cholesterol levels are, frankly, enviable. Members of my family have died of all varieties of cancer (including colon cancer, for which I’m at high risk, according to 23and­Me) and Alzheimer’s disease (lower risk), but never heart disease. Most incredibly, it said that my eyes are “likely brown.” They are definitely blue. “What is this, astrology?” my husband asked. “What good is a test that knows less about you than a stranger on the street?”

Wojcicki believes that, though 23andMe had been in conversation with the agency for years, it drew the special scrutiny and ire of the FDA in August, when the company began running national television ads with the slogan “This is me.” (The FDA would not comment on the specifics of the dispute for this story.) The ads show earnest, good-looking people of all ages and ethnicities looking at the camera as if it were a mirror, professing that their 23andMe results unveiled invisible truths about themselves. Through 23andMe they might find out about unknown ancestors, hereditary diseases, and food sensitivities. They might change their lives, their diets, and their approaches to procreation with the knowledge unlocked by a simple genetic test. “Change what you can. Manage what you can’t,” the ad intones.

The commercials were provocative for two reasons. First, they signaled the company’s ambition to operate on a mass scale—to become truly a national genetic database rather than the DNA equivalent of a FitBit. Several months before the ads aired, the company hired Andy Page, formerly the president and CFO of Gilt Groupe, to be its president. “You can read it between the lines of the warning letter,” says Felix Frueh, who ran the genomics department at the FDA between 2004 and 2008. “FDA said, ‘Now you’ve passed the threshold, and we’re not okay with that.’ ”

Second, the ads prompted scrutiny of the obvious question: Are the company’s claims valid? That is, does the 23andMe kit give consumers true information that they can apply to their lives? The FDA intervenes when something it regards as a diagnostic test is being sold over the counter, which is why it chooses to directly regulate the pregnancy and HIV tests at the drugstore but not the blood, urine, or gene tests your physician orders for you. It cares when a private company tells you that you have a gene that might kill you and sends you that tidbit in an email, which you can open alone, at night, without anyone near for comfort or consultation. When the FDA raises questions about the reliability of the company’s reports, it really is this disintermediation that concerns the agency. 23andMe uses state-of-the-art technology and draws its results from an accredited lab, which means 23andMe probably isn’t going to get your genes wrong; the worry is more about what the company will tell you about those genes, and how you’ll interpret that information. (In contrast to more expensive whole genome sequencing, 23andMe’s genotyping technology gives a representative but incomplete picture.) The FDA would concede that Big Data is already an extremely useful tool for exploring the relationship between genetics and health; it’s even possible that in some near-term future 23andMe’s reports could be a reliable guide to an individual’s health-care choices. But that is not the state of state-of-the-art genomics today, a point that Wojcicki acknowledges, too, in her own way. “Over time, we’re going to learn more things, and we’ll refine the results,” she says. “Lots of things are going to change, but we’re going to have to embrace that rather than be fearful.”

What the conflict between the FDA and 23andMe boils down to, then, is an epistemological dispute over what counts as scientific knowledge. Traditional science works in a straight narrative line, from the specific to the general. Hypothesis, experimentation, proof, thesis. Petri dish, mouse, human, Rite Aid. It’s an incremental, slow-moving process with visible outcomes; the standard of replication is intended to ensure that results are reliable and enduring. A single human person is always at the center of the story, and the cure or treatment of that person is always the goal in mind. Big Data computer science works in an opposite direction. It starts in the cloud, from within a massive universe of information, and through algorithmic queries seeks patterns and similarities that reveal general insights about whole populations—insights that can accommodate some misperceptions and mischaracterizations about actual idiosyncratic humans, because Big Data is not designed to perform at the level of the individual.

And, at that level, science still knows very little about how genes work—or about how much, exactly, they matter. Inherited eye color, which you learned in high school was a simple matter of dominant browns and recessive blues, is in fact a much more complicated story, and although the overwhelming number of people with my genotype have brown eyes, a few of us (1 to 7 percent, according to 23andMe) have blue. Most diseases are activated not by one gene but by many, and though sometimes scientists know which genes correlate with disease, they have not established causality: how genes trigger the disease and under what circumstances. Unpublished research shows just over a hundred genetic markers associated with schizophrenia, for example, but “our ability to predict schizophrenia is basically zero,” says Daniel MacArthur, a geneticist at Mass General. In all, “we only understand about 10 percent of genetic risk,” MacArthur says. “It’s not so much a fault with 23andMe; it’s a fault with the complexity of genetics. They do a pretty good job, but it just turns out that genetics sucks.”

Perhaps that’s why I disbelieved my 23andMe report. My genome is not, in fact, me. It’s only part of me. Try as it might, 23andMe doesn’t know so many things about me—some of which I don’t know myself. What was my mother’s diet when she was pregnant with me? How was her mood? How did my stint on the JV lacrosse team affect my future heart health? What about my late-in-life pregnancy, or the fact that I’m the oldest child and have brothers but no sisters? In light of all there is to know about me, and all that’s unknown about how environment and genes work together, a to-the-decimal-point prediction of heart disease is easy to push aside, a tiny-seeming data point alongside an entire lifetime of accumulated understanding about risks and proclivities and vulnerabilities.

But family medical histories elide things, too. Always anecdotal, always selective, they only tell one side of the story, an unconscious narrative choice that we hope may defend against sickness and even mortality itself. My people don’t die like this. I am about to discount the report, and in particular its warning about my alleged heart problems, when I remember something. Last summer, just days before her daughter’s wedding, my paternal aunt, who was not yet 70 years old, had a “small heart attack,” according to a note I received from my father. She was “fixed up with one stent and is going home today.”

Wojcicki is unsettling in person. She is tiny and extremely fit. She is charming, smart, funny, sarcastic, and voluble, with none of the gracelessness common to Silicon Valley’s visionaries. If anything, she seems too normal to be revolutionary—and at the same time too rich to ever be remotely normal.

Late last year, before an audience in Santa Clara and in the presence of Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, the high priest and priestess of technology journalism, Wojcicki was asked to share her favorite gadget. With a flourish, she pulled out of a satchel a bulky rectangular handheld device with a probe, which looked like it might have been dreamed up by the Star Wars props department. It was a volatile-organic-compounds—or VOC—monitor, which measures the level of evaporated chemicals in the environment. Inspired by a test she and Brin once took that gauged the toxicity in their bodies and found that she was especially high in flame retardants (thanks to long hours in coach airplane seats), she measures her furniture, her bath soap, and her face lotion; when she was shopping for a new car, she measured them, too. Particularly high in VOCs was the upholstery on a certain couch in the 23andMe offices, she said. “That’s the FDA couch?” joked Swisher.

Wojcicki puts up her hands and begins to laugh. “I’m just saying, when visitors come, sometimes we let them sit there longer than others, depending on how much we want them to absorb.”

In Silicon Valley, what used to be called “wellness” has been elevated to a religion, and Wojcicki is one of its evangelists. But what’s so likable about her is her defiance of any orthodoxy. She eats mostly raw these days but indulges in the occasional hamburger. While so many of her peers are counting calories with FitBits and measuring their heart rates with Basis watches, Wojcicki maintains an offhanded allegiance to gadgets. She had a Jawbone Up but lost the charger, and accidentally ran her FitBit through the wash. When she was at Yale, she tells me, she majored in biology and loved lab work, but precision wasn’t her thing. “I was like, If you run an assay for 10 seconds or 13 seconds, who cares? People in the company know I like the big picture, not as much specific detail.”

The big picture is the fight for her company, which she believes could deliver a life span 10, 20, or 30 years longer than it is now—for her, Sergey, their kids, and everyone else in the world. This obsession with longevity is not Wojcicki’s exclusively. Many of the wealthiest people in Silicon Valley share it, a side effect, perhaps, of possessing every good thing existence can provide—wanting more of it and not understanding how anything could be out of reach. Last year, a group of tech billionaires established the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, six $3 million annual awards given to scientists working on curing “intractable diseases” and extending human life. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are among the sponsors of the prize. So is the venture capitalist Yuri Milner, an investor in 23andMe. So is Art Levinson, the biotech guru who was the CEO of pharmaceutical giant Genentech, sat on the board of Google, and is now chairman of Apple. And so are Anne Wojcicki and Sergey Brin.

In September, just a month after Wojcicki and Brin announced their separation, Google announced the launch of a new venture called Calico. Though its exact mission and purpose remain unclear, the general idea is for Calico to “solve death,” as Time magazine put it, in an uncanny echo of Wojcicki’s promise to “solve health.” Google did not look very far for its Calico staff. It hired Art Levinson to run the company. And Cynthia Kenyon, a geneticist at UCSF known for manipulating the genes of roundworms to lengthen their lives—and who supervised some of 23andMe’s anti-aging research—is now a scientific adviser to Calico. So although Wojcicki insists that the two companies are not competitors, it’s hard not to see them as rivals. On my recent trip to Silicon Valley, more than one person I spoke with joked that the obvious solution to 23andMe’s current problems is to be bought by Google.

But Wojcicki is tenacious. She is known for her independence and for her determination not to let her powerful husband or his behemoth company subsume her. When I met with her, she had just had dinner with Levinson. Sitting Indian style in her chair, she looked, in her jeans and ponytail, much more like 26 than 40. We were talking about longevity, and the possibility of developing drugs to promote it, and she mentioned, almost in passing, that at dinner, Levinson had told her that clams live forever. “And I was like, ‘Really? If only I was a clam.’ ”

“That can’t be true,” I say.

“Apparently they do,” Wojcicki responds.

“Nothing lives forever,” I say.

“Apparently clams,” she says.

The following day, at my hotel, I receive a clarification from the 23andMe publicist in the form of a Wikipedia link. There was a clam named Ming that lived to be 507 years old and died in 2006 as it was being experimented upon by researchers in the U.K. No one knows how long Ming might have lived had the scientists left it alone.

 

A Primer on Pope Francis’s Manifesto — the Book Obama Might Be Reading on Bad Days

This morning, at the Vatican, President Barack Obama and Pope Francis engaged in a ritual as ancient as the conveyance across international borders of frankincense and myrrh: They exchanged gifts. In an acknowledgement of the pope’s devotion to the Christian value of humility, Obama gave Francis a box of seeds from the White House garden. (During his audience with Benedict XVI in 2009, Obama came bearing a very different kind of present: an ivory stole, embroidered in gold, crimson, and blue. Benedict, unlike Francis, had a predilection for the flamboyant garb to which his position entitled him.)
VATICAN-US-OBAMA-POPE
Francis gave Obama a plaque and a copy of his “apostolic exhortation” Evangelii Gaudium, which he released last November. “I will treasure this,” Obama said, in thanks. “I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I’m deeply frustrated. I’m sure it will give me strength and calm me down.”

In truth, it’s rarely much fun to be given a copy of someone’s book, a gift that shows a lack of imagination on the part of the giver and bestows upon the recipient an unsolicited obligation. But this case is different. Evangelii Gaudium (which means “The Joy of the Gospel”) is Francis’s passionate manifesto, written not in the obscure, Latinate phrases of his predecessor, but in language that might easily be quoted, tweeted, and copied on T-shirts and coffee mugs. One can easily imagine the president, who has previously confessed to a love for Niebuhr and the works of St. Augustine, finding late-night sustenance and edification there. Here, some examples of what he might find.

An argument for living a life of joy. “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.” Francis rails against a “defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists” and against those he calls “sourpusses.”

An excoriation of those who are too busy, or too preoccupied, to serve the poor. “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

A conviction about the evils of free-market capitalism. “The culture of prosperity deadens us,” he writes. And later: “Money must serve, not rule!”

A critique of clergy too invested in protecting their own power (and, implicitly, of the bishops who shielded sexual abusers in their dioceses). “Their hearts are open only to the limited horizon of their own immanence and interests, and as a consequence they neither learn from their sins nor are they genuinely open to forgiveness. This is a tremendous corruption disguised as good.”

And a shout-out to all the hardworking priests and laypeople who have devoted themselves to a troubled church in troubled times. “The pain and shame we feel at the sins of some members of the Church, and at our own, must never make us forget how many Christians are giving their lives in love.”

A commitment to the rights of women, especially poor women, as equal, even as he upholds a centuries-old view of women as uniquely “sensitive,” “intuitive,” and skilled at interpersonal relations. “I think, for example, of the special concern which women show to others, which finds a particular, even if not exclusive, expression in motherhood.”

And yet: a reaffirmation of his commitment to an all-male clergy.  “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion.”

VATICAN-US-OBAMA-POPE
Incredible optimism. “We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses.”

Tender concern for the environment. “We can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement.”

The hardest of lines on abortion. “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are being made to deny them their human dignity and do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this.”

There’s more: on homiletics, and interfaith dialogue, and on the responsibility of the church to be at once both present at family dinner and outspoken on the global stage. One can imagine Obama admiring this work, even as he envies it. The Pope, who is not democratically elected, can speak his mind without worrying about a gridlocked Congress. And though they differ on certain matters of import, they share a conviction about religious faith as something that people act upon and not just talk about. In his Chicago church, Obama learned that “through good works we could find order and meaning here on Earth and transcend our limits and our flaws and foibles,” he told me when I interviewed him in the summer of 2008 for Newsweek. Francis believes the same. “Realities are greater than ideas,” he writes in Evangelii Gaudium.

Tiger Mom Strives to Shock a Second Time, Fails

A reader of Amy Chua’s previous book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother – that parenting guide-slash-high-pitched confessional-slash-assertion of racial superiority — might wonder, as I did, about the following: Where was Chua’s husband, the father of their two daughters, while she was haranguing the children, threatening to give away their dollhouse and burn their stuffed animals, calling them insulting names (like “garbage”) and rejecting their imperfect birthday cards? Daddy Chua appears infrequently in the book, usually to offer his Tiger Wife a disparaging word: “Jed was tight lipped.” “Jed disapproved.” “Jed raised his eyebrows.”

Mostly, though, he is absent from the narrative. I imagined him in a quiet upstairs study somewhere, perhaps nursing a large glass of Scotch – detached, beleaguered, uneasy, a little estranged from all the cray-cray down below.

Now Jed Rubenfeld steps out of the shadows and boldly forward as the co-author, with his wife, of “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America” (coming in February from Penguin). The book, like Tiger Mother, is designed to provoke. It’s an examination of why certain minority groups succeed in the U.S., and it singles out not just Jews and Asians (Rubenfeld happens to be Jewish, and Chua, Chinese-American), but also Nigerians, some Cubans, Mormons, West Indians, and Lebanese. Its implicit message (or at least the message of the marketing materials and the correlated recent blogosphere explosion) is: Here’s another reason that we, the wildly accomplished Chua-Rubenfelds, are better than you. It’s as if the publishers are hoping, based on the wild success of the last Chua production, that American readers will throw themselves en masse upon a new how-to guide, masquerading as a comic screed, wrapped in a weird and retrograde kind of ethnic essentialism.

But as a book, as an actual collection of writing and data and argumentation, The Triple Threat contains the exact opposite lesson: There is no special ethnic ingredient in the raising of successful children. All the groups the authors profile – which they carefully call cultural groups, instead of races or ethnicities – have different heritages and histories and traditions, which is to say, very little in common at all. It turns out that certain minority groups produce successful children the same way that parents of every other ethnic group in the world succeed: by being very ambitious for them.

Once you make the leap from a single batty Chinese-American mother to all parents of all successful immigrant (and minority religious) children in the whole entire country, the theory that certain groups are in closer touch with the good-parenting gods than the rest of us unravels completely. In their new book, Chua and Rubenfeld’s argument is, in a nutshell, this: Certain minority groups succeed because they are unsure of their place of the world, because they work harder than everyone else, and because they have a sense of their own specialness. If all Americans could learn these lessons (as long as these lessons aren’t too strictly applied), the American workforce would be a much more productive place. QE fucking D.

More interesting is that, from the material that makes up the book itself, Chua and Rubenfeld seem to acknowledge how dull a lesson they are teaching us. Just as Rubenfeld was the (mostly invisible) straight man in Tiger Mother, so is he here. My guess is that it’s his influence, perhaps, that turns The Triple Package into a much blander, more conventional, and less sensational read, with more than a hundred pages of end notes; a detached, third-person, school-report style; a brief acknowledgements section that thanks an army of researchers without a warm or personal word to any one of them. One feels, perusing this new book, that the lawyers have taken over and, in lawyerly fashion, have crafted a dispassionate argument for effect, leaving themselves, their feelings, and their convictions entirely out of it.

Chua’s Tiger Mother was the opposite. It was revolting, yes, and shrill and tone deaf and infuriatingly superior, but it was also funny in places. And personal in an almost cringe-making way. And very occasionally self deprecating. It was popular because it raised the temperature on every parent’s anxiety: Maybe we’re not doing this right. And also expressed every parent’s contradictory vanity: I know how to do this better than anyone else. Triple Package has none of this transparency, and none of this energy. Less psychically compelling, it is also perhaps more honest, both about how people achieve generally and about how the Chua-Rubenfeld girls were actually raised. The real lesson of that New Haven household, and of every other household in this country, is this: It takes all kinds.

If Chua is the stereotypical Asian achiever, Rubenfeld is the stereotypical Jewish one. Like Chua, he is a professor at Yale Law School. Like his wife, he has a gold-plated résumé. He went to Princeton undergrad and Harvard Law, with a brief detour at the Juilliard acting program. He has held some of a lawyer’s most sought-after jobs, working at Wachtell Lipton and as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York. But he was raised, Upper-West-Side-Jewish style, by a father who was a shrink and a mother who was an art critic and collector who “believed,” writes Chua dismissively in Tiger Mother, “that childhood should be full of spontaneity, freedom, discovery and experience.”

In his professional life, Rubenfeld is a privacy expert, and in an interview after the publication of his 2006 thriller, The Interpretation of Murder, he told a French interviewer about his discomfort with the American culture of oversharing. “People are often asking me about my life,” he says. “Well, I just don’t think people should be talking about this stuff as much as they do now. You have these talk shows, and Oprah Winfrey, and everyone comes on and confesses their secret.”

Triple Package represents the triumph of caution. One can almost hear the arguments in the Chua-Rubenfeld household after the publication of Tiger Mother. Rubenfeld would have found Chua’s frenetic airing of their family life excruciating; he would have been mortified to hear the criticisms of his wife as hysterical, silly, shallow, robotic. She might have defended herself by pointing to all the success the book had garnered their family. (And the family photos that accompany the new book underscore that point; everyone chez Chua-Rubenfeld — including the dogs — looks outlandishly prosperous and well-groomed, like some mash-up between Teen Vogue, Architectural Digest, and Modern Dog magazines.) The solution, as in any marriage, would be hashed out in compromise. What they settled on, it seems, is an argument in defense of the one virtue that Chua and Rosenfeld indisputably share: striving.

Lisa on NPR: Remembering Newtown

NPR “On Point” host Tom Ashbrook features Lisa on a panel discussion to discuss the lessons of Newtown.

Stream the show from the WBUR.org website:

Other panel members:

Rev. Josh Pawelek, minister of the Unitarian Universality Society East in Manchester, Connecticut. (@RevJoshPawelek)

Robert Spitzer, professor of political science at the State University of New York College at Cortland. Author of “The Politics of Gun Control.” and “The Right To Bear Arms: Rights And Liberties Under The Law.”

You can also download the audio mp3 file.

 

PBS host Tom Ashrook

PBS host Tom Ashrook

The Uncomfortable New Lessons of the Sandy Hook Elementary Massacre

Opinion in the absence of information is a specialty of our times. So when Adam Lanza committed that most inexplicable of crimes, opening fire in Sandy Hook Elementary school last year murdering twenty children and six adults (and, ultimately, killing himself), the explainers instantly began to tell us why. The 20-year-old Lanza, who had easy access to an arsenal in his own house, was mentally ill, a loner, a video-game freak. He was, moreover, a child of divorce, traumatized by his parents’ split. He was homeschooled. His mother, a gun nut and survivalist, enabled his madness, promoting shooting as family fun. I read these theories and dismissed them out of hand: These were stock complaints from both sides of the culture war using this horrific event to bolster their side.

This urge to reason away, I have long believed, results from a human impulse to disassociate from evil, to make it “their” problem, not “ours,” and thus protect ourselves and our children from the knowledge that sudden, random harm can occur at any time. We are the “good” parents, not the bad ones. We play “approved” video games, not unapproved ones. We would never.

But the terrible truth is that we don’t know why Lanza killed those kids. (Though the how is a different story: Lanza’s spree — he slaughtered 26 people in fewer than eleven minutes — would have been impossible had he not had a wide selection of semi-automatic weapons within his reach.) People do horrible things and they always will, and pointing fingers at the coarsening of culture and that poor, murdered mother — he shot her in her bed before he drove to the school — only deflects us from our grief and horror. Bad, deluded, or neglectful parents are a dime a dozen, but their kids rarely grow up with an ambition to shoot schoolchildren. Half of Americans are divorced, yet most of their offspring live healthy, productive lives. Contrary to the London Telegraph’s reporting early on, autism (and its cousin, Asperger’s) is not a predictor for violence or criminal behavior, as the Columbia Journalism Review pointed out, and though violent video games may not be your thing, millions of young men play them – 80 percent of high-school boys, according to the New York Times — mostly without serious side effects. “It is not at all clear whether, over longer periods, such a habit increases the likelihood that a person will commit a violent crime, like murder, rape, or assault, much less a Newtown-like massacre,” the Times concluded.

And then I read the State’s Attorney’s report, released this week, and found myself at odds with myself. So many of the details therein point, if obscurely, to the causes the opinion-makers first proposed. Nancy Lanza may have been a doting mother, buying him a car and a new computer, and leaving him his favorite foods while she left town for several days; and she was attentive enough to tell friends that she was worried about her son. But somehow she did not see the extent to which her child was eluding her grasp, how the quirky boy became a dangerous young man who could not tolerate strangers in the house, who would communicate with his mother only by e-mail, who taped garbage bags to the windows of his bedroom, and would not allow her to enter. “She was not allowed in the shooter’s room, however, even to clean,” the report says. “No one was allowed in his room.” Nancy Lanza was so blind to her son’s violent yearnings that she wrote him a check — discovered when the police searched her house — to buy a new pistol for Christmas, a CZ 83. This raises the fear that lurks in the heart of so many parents: Is it possible to raise a monster and never have a clue? Or, having a clue, are the parents complicit in his sickness? Were Nancy Lanza and her ex-husband Peter, who lived less than 50 miles away, enablers?

The list of video games that Lanza liked to play reads like an orgy of snuff porn. Left for Dead. Dead Rising. Half Life. Battlefield. Call of Duty. Dynasty Warriors. Team Fortress. Most hair-raising: a computer game called “School Shooting,” in which “the player controls a character who enters a school and shoots at students,” according to the report. These games likely did not create Lanza’s taste for murder, but very possibly they abetted it. The games “are like porn to a rapist,” a law-enforcement officer told Mike Lupica of the Daily News in May. “They feed on it until they go out and say, enough of the video screen. Now I’m actually going to be a hunter.” As a journalist and a citizen I will defend most freedom of expression, even if that expression is violent. As a parent, the list gives me chills.