THERE ARE WAYS of speaking about dying that very much annoy Peggy Jackson, an affable and rosy-cheeked hospice worker in Arlington, Va. She doesn’t like the militant cast of “lost her battle with,” as in, “She lost her battle with cancer.” She is similarly displeased by “We have run out of options” and “There is nothing left we can do,” when spoken by doctor to patient, implying as these phrases will that hospice care is not an “option” or a “thing” that can be done. She doesn’t like these phrases, but she tolerates them. The one death-related phrase she will not abide, will not let into her house under any circumstance, is “cryonic preservation,” by which is meant the low-temperature preservation of human beings in the hope of future resuscitation. That this will be her husband’s chosen form of bodily disposition creates, as you might imagine, certain complications in the Jackson household.
“You have to understand,” says Peggy, who at 54 is given to exasperation about her husband’s more exotic ideas. “I am a hospice social worker. I work with people who are dying all the time. I see people dying All. The. Time. And what’s so good about me that I’m going to live forever?”
The provenance of this disagreement remains somewhat hazy, as neither Peggy nor her husband, Robin Hanson, can remember quite when he first announced his intention to have his brain surgically removed from his freshly vacated cadaver and preserved in liquid nitrogen. It would have been decades ago, before the two were married and before the births of their two teenage sons. With the benefit of hindsight, Robin, who is 50 and an associate professor of economics at George Mason University, will acknowledge that he should have foreseen at least some initial discomfort on the part of his girlfriend, whom he met when they were both graduate students at the University of Chicago. “I was surprised by her response,” he recalls, “but that’s because I am a nerd and not good at predicting these things.”
Robin is the kind of nerd who is very excited about the future, an orientation evident on his C.V., which lists such published articles as “Economic Growth Given Machine Intelligence” (on why robots will give us growth rates “an order of magnitude” higher than we’ve currently got), and another on “Evolutionary Strategies of Interstellar Colonization.” His enthusiasm is evident in the way he talks about these ideas, hands in the air, laughing amiably every time he brings up the distance between his own theories and those of the mainstream. If he is in a chair, the chair is moving with him.
“I’m just really terribly curious,” Robin says. “Cryonics isn’t just living a little longer. It’s also living quite a bit delayed into the future.” Robin isn’t completely confident in the science of cryonics: He says he believes that there is some small chance his brain will be resurrected, that its time in cryopreservation will be merely a brief pause in the course of his life. Peggy doesn’t care about the science: She simply finds the quest for immortality an act of cosmic selfishness. And within a particular American subculture, the pair are practically a cliché.
AMONG CRYONICISTS, PEGGY’S reaction might be referred to as an instance of the “hostile-wife phenomenon,” as discussed in a 2008 paper by Aschwin de Wolf, Chana de Wolf, and Mike Federowicz. “From its inception in 1964,” they write, “cryonics has been known to frequently produce intense hostility from spouses who are not cryonicists.” The opposition of romantic partners, Aschwin told me, is something that “everyone” involved in cryonics knows about but that he and Chana, his wife, find difficult to understand. To someone who believes that low-temperature preservation offers a legitimate chance at extending life, obstructionism can seem as willfully cruel as withholding medical treatment. Even if you don’t want to join your husband in storage, ask believers, what is to be lost by respecting a man’s wishes with regard to the treatment of his own remains?
Premonitions of this problem can be found in the deepest reaches of cryonicist history, starting with the prime mover. Robert Ettinger is the father of cryonics, his 1964 book, The Prospect of Immortality, its founding text. “This is not a hobby or conversation piece,” he wrote in 1968, adding, “it is the struggle for survival. Drive a used car if the cost of a new one interferes. Divorce your wife if she will not cooperate.” Today, with roughly 200 patients preserved inside the world’s two major cryonics facilities, the Michigan-based Cryonics Institute and the Arizona-based Alcor, and with 10 times as many signed up to be stored upon their legal deaths, cryonicists have created support networks with which to tackle marital strife. Cryonet, a mailing list on “cryonics-related issues,” takes as one of its issues the opposition of wives. (The ratio of men to women among living cryonicists is roughly three to one.) “She thinks the whole idea is sick, twisted, and generally spooky,” wrote one man newly acquainted with the hostile-wife phenomenon. “She is more intelligent than me, insatiably curious, and lovingly devoted to me and our 2-year-old daughter. So why is this happening?”
The air of hurt confusion stems, in part, from the intuition among believers that cryonics is a harmless attempt at preserving data, little different from stowing a box of photos. Of the nonreligious white males who predominate in the ranks of cryonicists, many are software engineers, a calling that puts great faith in the primacy of information. “If you have a hard drive on a computer with a lot of information that is important to you, you save it,” says J.S., a 39-year-old cryonicist and software engineer who lives in Oregon and who will not allow his full name to be used out of fear that his wife would divorce him. “You wouldn’t just throw it into a fire. It’s clear to me that memories are stored as molecular arrangements. I’m just trying to preserve the memories.”
To a person who thinks this way, a small amount of time spent trying to avoid certain death can seem well within the capacity of a healthy marriage to absorb. But the checkered marital history of cryonics suggests instead that a violation beyond nonconformity is at stake.
AS A HOSPICE worker, Peggy is a tour guide to the dying process. Her line of work forces her to focus on the managing of the last days of life. Part of that, she says, involves encouraging the families she meets to stop fixating on medicine. Relatives of many patients come from hospital to hospice obsessed with numbers: blood count, blood pressure, heart rate. “Look at his face,” Peggy counsels. “Does he look comfortable? It’s very commonsensical, but it takes a lot of work to get people to let go of the hospital stuff.” The average stay for a patient in her hospice is seven days.
Peggy also instructs families on what they will see when death nears and how best to reduce discomfort. Feet and hands will turn cold. Senses will fade, but hearing may remain sharp until the very end; telling secrets within earshot of an otherwise-unresponsive guest is ill advised. The muscles required to swallow will go limp in the throat, and the resulting sound will register as a rattle. In the interest of a smooth transition, families are asked to sign a form that says “do not resuscitate.” Very rarely, a family doesn’t sign, though to fail to do so is to violate certain philosophical leanings of a place very much oriented toward acceptance. “The paramedics come in and they pound on the chest,” Peggy says. “It breaks bones, causes pain, it’s serious trauma. That always feels like a failure. I didn’t get through to this poor family.”
The United States is not necessarily an easy place to take up the banner of letting go; we’re likely to call it “giving up,” and there is no purer expression of this attitude than the pursuit of cryonics. Heads and bodies stored in steel tanks, awaiting the moment when medicine advances to the point where tissue can be repaired and bodies revived, are pointedly referred to not as remains or cadavers but as “patients.” A stopped heart is seen as no good reason to stop fighting for your life. And so Peggy expends a certain amount of psychic energy trying to ignore Robin’s cryonics arrangements. Separate bank accounts prevent her from having to see the money spent on annual dues, and the two manage to avoid bringing up the subject at home. When he dies (“which he will,” Peggy stresses), it will fall to someone else to call Alcor and explain Robin’s wishes to the hospital staff. “My husband has said, on numerous occasions, ‘Choose life at any cost,’” Peggy says. “But I’ve seen people in pain. It’s not worth it.”
Robin seems to understand why his somewhat cerebral interest in the possibility of living in the distant future disturbs his wife. “Cryonics,” he says, “has the problem of looking like you’re buying a one-way ticket to a foreign land.” To spend a family fortune in the quest to defeat cancer is not taken, in the American context, to be an act of selfishness. But to plan to be rocketed into the future—a future your family will never see—is to begin to plot a life in which your current relationships have little meaning. Those who seek immortality are plotting an act of leaving, an act, as Robin puts it, “of betrayal and abandonment.”
Whether or not the human race subconsciously equates attempts to defeat death with treachery, those characters in Western literature who have quested for immortality bear a marked air of menace. Think Gilgamesh or Voldemort. “There is a lot of ancient cultural stereotyping about the motives and moral character of people who pursue life extension,” says James Hughes, the executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, a nonprofit organization enamored of life extension. Hughes has chosen not to participate in what he considers a worthy experiment. “Although it’s a rather marginal bet for a potentially huge payoff,” he says, “I value my relationship with my wife.”
IF CRYONIC PRESERVATION does indeed signal betrayal, it does so while asking much from those who would be betrayed. Alcor’s Patient Care Bay, filled as it is with 10-foot steel canisters packed with human bodies and connected to monitors, may appear self-regulating but in fact requires a very human vigilance against entropy. There is a man charged with topping off the liquid nitrogen. There is a man who mops the floors. Those in charge of the Patient Care Bay are only the last in a long chain of people called upon to assist “deanimated” members. Someone must perform the perfusion, for example, whereby blood is replaced with an antifreeze-like solution that will harden like glass rather than freeze like water. Someone must accompany the body from the site of death to the cryonics facility. Someone must deal with flight schedules, local coroners, and byzantine hospital bureaucracies generally unfriendly to those who would march into the hospital and whisk away the freshly dead. The legal guardian of the remains almost has to be committed to the cause.
Robin and Peggy Hanson remain silent on the issue of how, exactly, they anticipate death will part them. But, earlier this year, a stray bit of chatter did glance past their conversational barricade. Sitting at their kitchen table, Peggy told Robin about a funeral tradition she’d heard about: After a cremation, the ashes of the dead are separated among family members. The children and surviving spouse each get a handful, to save or dispose of as they see fit.
“You’re not getting any part of me,” Robin said. “I’m being frozen.”
“No.” Peggy said. “Your head is being frozen. I get the rest of you.”
By Kerry Howley. ©2010 by The New York Times Co.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- The mystery behind China's aggressive push into space
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- Why Texas' abortion rates aren't falling as quickly as everyone expected
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The 6 best low-cost smartphones
- What religious traditionalists can teach us about sex
- Why all drugs should be legal. (Yes, even heroin.)
- The 5 best and worst states for a well-lived life
- Yes, Republicans can impeach President Obama
- Twin Peaks: What the newly revealed 'missing pieces' change about the series
Subscribe to the Week