"Hey, what do you think about all the news on Wakefield?" my brother asked over the phone.
He had called me. This was a rare occurence. Usually I call him. He's my older brother, just a little more than two years older, although in school we were separated by three grades. He was one of those December babies, ready to take on the world, and so he ventured into school younger than most of his peers.
My brother had asked my parents for a baby brother and they obliged him, so I wasn't perceived as a rival to our parent's affections. In addition, my parents had the foresight to buy gifts from "the baby" every time my mom went for a doctor's appointment, and when I came home from the hospital there was a new tricycle waiting for him. He had asked for me, and in an unexpected bonus, I came with presents.
While we were close it was also clear we had wildly different personalities. He was a fighter, a scrapper, an athlete, and well, I was none of these things. We had a joke that when the coaches saw me coming they'd rub their hands in expectation saying, "Great! Another Heckenlively! And then they'd meet me." Because let's face it, my brother was a stud. He won hundreds of first place ribbons in swimming, was a pitcher for his little league team, and captain of his high school footbal team. And as for me, in swimming I beat exactly one person in two years of swimming, held the strike-out record in tee-ball, and although I played a year of high school football, nobody was clamoring for me to become captain. I disappointed many a coach.
In school however it was a different story. The second part of the joke was that the teachers would see me on their roster and say, "Oh, no! Not another Heckenlively! And then they'd meet me." Because let's face it, I was a teacher's pet. I did well academically, always landing on honor roll, being chosen as my college's Rhodes scholar candidate, leading my college's delegation to the Harvard Model United Nations, top student in my mock trial class, and being a writer and editor for the law review. I pleasantly surprised many a teacher.
And then there was the difference in our social groups. My brother hung out with the cool crowd, the ones who drank, had girlfriends years earlier than my friends did, and drove their muscle cars far too fast. And if somebody gave them attitude, or wasn't treating somebody else fair, they weren't above settling it with their fists. My last fight was in the sixth grade.
One might think that's the end of the story, one brother a brawler and the other a thinker, but it's remarkable how things can change in a life.
As I saw the near-miss of my son, Ben into autism, laying bare what had really happened three years earlier to my daughter, Jacqueline, I became a fighter. I started writing, first on Dr. Amy Yasko's forum, then was recruited by J. B. Handley into Rescue Post which later turned into Age of Autism.
And as I became a fighter I wasn't sure what my brother thought of it all. I'd always been the rational, logical one, the Spock to his Captain Kirk. He wanted to know what I thought, but I wouldn't hear much about his opinion. At times I longed for the fiery Sicilian passion of our mother who often declared that if anybody harmed one of her boys they would suffer the most extreme pain and torture imaginable. Our mother was fond of sweeping declarations of vengeance such as "I don't care if it takes as long as I live but . . . " (Use your own imagination to fill in some supposed injustice.) You always knew where you stood with her.
But I didn't know where I stood with my brother. He'd listen, ask questions, then say something along the lines of, "It's a really tough fight." I never doubted his love, but I sometimes wondered if he doubted my grasp of reality. I told him once I thought he was the one who should be in this fight, not me. He laughed.
Then he told me that among the group of developers for whom he is their lawyer he has the opposite reputation. "They think I'm the nice guy, and if I can't figure out a way to make it work, there's no way it can. You're right where you need to be, brother."
Probably the biggest breakthrough came when my nephew in college wanted to write a persuasive essay on why vaccines may be linked to the autism epidemic. It was a chance to start fresh, with a young mind, and although it's a vast subject I was able to use Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill's wonderful book, The Age of Autism - Mercury and a Manmade Epidemic to concentrate on how mercury and vaccines were implicated in the very first autism cases described by Dr. Leo Kanner.
My brother was impressed with his son's paper and by extension my own understanding of the subject. I believe it was the point at which my brother crossed over, from wary curiousity to cautious support. He understood why I was fighting.
When the news about Wakefield hit he was concerned. He wanted to know my opinion.
And so I explained it to him; how Wakefield had been marked from the first moment he published his paper in The Lancet. There was never a moment when the pharmaceutical companies took his claim seriously. I told him how none of the parents had ever complained, no doctor had ever complained, and how the journalist at the heart of this, Brian Deer, had been supported for years by Medico Legal Investigations, a pharmaceutical front group. And even now the British and American medical establishments list gastro-intestinal problems as a condition which happens in combination with autism. All in all, the entire thing resembles a bad Julia Roberts movie.
He quickly accepted my explanations and it was then I realized he wasn't really asking about Wakefield at all. He was asking about me. That's part of the brother code. Understanding the question behind the question. What he wanted to know was if I was going to continue the fight.
And it made me laugh because I thought of all the times I looked up to him for his steadfast refusal to submit to any form of unfairness. He didn't put up with shit from anybody. Nobody could outplay him, no girl could resist him, and he'd take you on even if you were a head taller than him. That's the kind of courage he had.
I never thought I was a fighter. Fun, entertaining, and witty, yes, but not a warrior. Not a David willing to take on Goliath. I thought of how I'd watched Anderson Cooper shout down Dr. Wakefield, giving him less respect than if he'd been talking to a dictator who butchered millions, and it roused my warrior's blood. They are not playing fair. The fate of millions of children are at stake. I can not remain quiet.
And so after I hung up with my brother I turned on the computer and started on my next article.
Kent Heckenlively is Contributing Editor for Age of Autism