Ross Murray's Border Report
Ross Murray
is a freelance writer living in Stanstead, Quebec. You can reach him at
Posted 12.07.15
Stanstead, Quebec


Looking into the genetic crystal ball

When I was quite young, I watched The Illustrated Man on television in the middle of the afternoon. It terrified me, and not just because it starred a mostly naked Rod Steiger.

Among other things, the film hinted at the end of the world, depicted the mercy-killing of children and showed one character bashing another's head with a rock. Worst of all, if you looked deeply into the empty space of one of Steiger's tattoos ("Not that empty space, a little to the left,"), you could see how you would die. This raises the question: where was my mother and why was she letting me watch this trash!

The film haunted me and reinforced a conviction that, given the opportunity, one should never glimpse one's future.

Ah, stupid kid, what did I know?

At Abby's medical appointment last week, her doctor told Deb and me that he would like to take a peek at our DNA to see how our genes match up with the one that resulted in Abby's condition. Sure, that makes sense, nearly 15 years after she was diagnosed. How much blood you want?

But wait, the doctor said, you need to know that while we're looking for one thing, we may find something else, say a predisposition for deafness.

"Pardon me?" I said, because that joke never gets old.

He handed us some forms. On it were three options relating to the possibility that they find -- something: 1) Don't tell me anything. 2) Tell me but only if it's treatable. 3) Tell me everything.

I understand why you might not want to know what's going to happen to you 30 or 40 years down the road. What if you learned you were going to suffer memory loss in your eighties? Well, for starters, by then you would have forgotten they told you.

But what if it was something that you knew would have an impact on your quality of life, like early onset juggling? Would you really want that hanging over your head?

They might discover you have a high likelihood of being diagnosed with multiple osmosis, though not constant, only on a semi-permeable basis. Or be susceptible to senior static syndrome. That would be quite the shock.

On the other hand, they might find something good. Maybe I'll learn I have a rare genetic condition that makes me smarter as I get older. That would be pretty funny, actually. As the polyglot said to the craniosynostologist, "ƒºƒ-1(χ) = χ" Ha-ha! Classic.

Imagine if the doctor took me aside and said, "There's a strong likelihood you'll develop a condition known as reverse impotence." "Whoa," I'd say. "I did not see that coming."

Who am I kidding, they never find anything good.

The dilemma of knowing what's in our genes lies not so much in the knowledge itself but what one does with it. As they say, knowledge is power -- except the knowledge of how many times Charo appeared on "The Love Boat." That knowledge is useless. (Eight, by the way.)

Knowing what's lurking in your genes might, for example, encourage you to relinquish responsibility for your actions. It's not me, it's my genes.

That young couple in the crowded hospital waiting room with their outstretched legs and their belongings taking up two empty seats, what if it was in their genetic makeup to be self-absorbed, entitled wastes of space? Would I be forced to tolerate them more because they are victims of genetics and not merely bad parenting?

The clerk getting Deb and me our hospital cards so we could do the bloodwork, maybe she had a genetic predisposition to abandon her desk mid-transaction for her lunch break, leaving us to wait for our cards, which were being printed within arm's reach behind her, and wasn't in fact a jaded bureaucrat who long ago stopped seeing patients as human beings but a relentless series of faceless files suffocating her otherwise empty life, the cafeteria's prosciutto panini the only glimmer of hope in her miserable day.

Maybe these frown lines on my forehead are not the result of being perpetually perplexed by human behaviour but caused by abnormally crinkled genomes.

Either way, I'm wrinkled and surrounded by jerks.

So, given the burden of knowledge versus the uncertainty of not knowing, did we ask our doctor to tell us everything?

You bet Rod Steiger's butt we did!