October 11, 2020

Flowers for Algernon

Written by Daniel Keyes in 1958, Flowers for Algernon narrates the story of a mentally disabled Charlie Gordon. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write about this notorious book; a book that was challenged for removal from libraries in the United States and Canada. However, it would do more good than damage if we open a dialogue. Let me start by saying that Flowers of Algernon was too painful to read. A tragic story consolidated with short scientific discourses makes it a true science-fiction read. But, the tone- which the book sets is harshly outdated. 

The titular character Charlie Gordon is selected to undergo experimental surgery to increase his ‘intelligence’. Daniel Keyes imagines the life of Charlie Gordon, from someone who had a neurodevelopmental disorder to someone who becomes the smartest man on the planet. We read the novel through Charlie’s progress report. Charlie’s or even Algernon’s (the mouse who had undergone the same surgery prior to Charlie) story raises serious questions about the ethical obligations of scientists in general & touches Moral themes such as treatment of disabled individuals.

Where do we draw a line as a species? It is okay to clone a sheep and not a human? Why? Stem cell research, especially cloning is largely and understandably frowned upon. During the ‘Nazi Human experimentation,’ Nazi physicians forced prisoners, including children, to undergo a series of unethical and torturous experiments. Despite the arguments that the Nazi’s activities were immoral, the data from their research exists. Are we under a moral obligation to not use the results soaked in the blood of helpless victims? A 1984 article ‘Should the Nazi Research Data Be Cited?’ by Kristen Moe, states that ‘Nor, however, should we let the inhumanity of such experiments blind us to the possibility that some good may be salvaged from the ashes’, Kristen enunciates the benefits of using Hypothermia research data for the collective welfare of humanity, and ‘good’ can be exploited from evil. But what exactly is good? 

Charlie Gordon was used as a test subject. Without him, future scientists will never know if their research ‘worked’. He sacrificed himself for the greater good. But at what cost? Charlie Gordon was not capable of consent. So does the end justify the means? Author Daniel Keyes writes about how Charlie was treated by the people around him. Charlie Gordon’s abusive childhood is vastly explored, which reveals his parent’s impuissant behavior while handling a special child. 

It is easy for me to preach that we have an incumbent duty to take care of all disabled individuals, but action speaks louder than words. I pledge myself now, to volunteer my time and energy to help individuals who need love and care. I pitied Charlie Gordon, but he taught me, to not feel sorry for him. Charlie wanted others to treat him like a human being. He’s not an inanimate object and his perceived ‘shortcomings’ don’t make him any less. Instead of trying to make Charlie smart, we could treat the Charlie's of the world with respect and dignity.

I take this moment to talk about ‘Neurodiversity’, which is a viewpoint that any variation in the human brain from sociability to mental functions is normal and not a deficit. Though doctors and researchers still argue about this concept, we individuals can wholeheartedly practice ‘Neurodiversity’. It could reduce the exploitation and stigma of people like Charlie.  Let us try to be kind. I know it's the hardest, but can we try?

You can also watch the 1968 movie adaptation of Flowers of Algernon, Charly here:

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