Yesterday we published the first part of a Q&A with Scott Johnson, former war reporter and author of Ghost in the Cell, the latest story from MATTER. Here is his final set of answers, to another group of really thought-provoking questions. Many thanks to those who submitted them!
Amar Patel: This Oakland family case study and the supporting research into epigenetics strongly suggests that trauma can be hereditary. There is no wiping clean of the genetic slate from generation to generation. Had you come across other examples of this prior to Oakland? How big a revelation was this to you? Has the experience of writing this story made you look at himself and his family in a different way?
Scott: I was tremendously surprised when I came across the scientific studies. The first one I saw was from a woman at Columbia University named Frances Champagne. I immediately called her up, thinking that perhaps I had misunderstood the implications of the science. I had not, she told me, and confirmed that the science of epigenetics was raising big questions about inheritance. And yes, it has made me think about my own family in a very different light. I was a smoker for years, for instance, and now I can’t help wondering if I’ve changed my own epigenetic profile as a result. And what about my own parents? How did their early lives shape my own neural pathways? And what about their parents? I spent a long time pondering these questions in my own life as I reported on Yokia Mason and hers. And I think with time we’ll be discovering more science that will make those questions even more meaningful.
Aadil Maan: Often times as journalists, there is a need to be objective and be an observer in order to report on subjects and topics without any bias. Were there any experiences or stories or moments where you fought really hard not to get involved?
Scott: Yes, I have grappled with that at times. I think every journalist has to some extent. Conflict reporting can often throw up those kinds of challenges. It can be difficult, for instance, to remain objective when reporting on soldiers who have saved your life or at least kept you safe while under fire. That’s not all though. I’ve reported on child soldiers, and that’s a subject I found hard to remain neutral about. I had a tremendous amount of sympathy for them. I think complete “objectivity” is a myth, actually, it’s a myth that underlies the occupation to a large extent, but it’s kind of impossible in day to day terms. Rather than striving for objectivity, I think journalists should strive for something else — call it human accuracy. We need to understand our subjects, but we can’t cut ourselves off from the human experience by doing so. At the end of the day, however, remember that your loyalty should be to the truth as you see it, or as it has been shown to you. It is possible to hew to that standard and at the same time not divest yourself or your subjects of human compassion and empathy.
Wesley Derbyshire: On a related characteristic, I have believed for many years that addiction was directly genetic and environmentally enhanced. When I speak of addiction, I speak of it loosely, as a person who is an alcoholic, drug addict, gambler, food addict, sex addict, etc. On a non-scientific basis, I have noticed that the environment addicts were raised in or presently live in draw them to that particular addiction. I am wondering how you feel the work that is presented in Ghost in the Cell would cross over into areas of addiction, if it does at all?
Scott: There’s a whole body of research on addiction. I don’t know enough about it to speak authoritatively here. What I can say is that addictions of all sorts work through the brain. I saw a recent study, for instance, that compared addiction to porn to a gambling addiction, making the case that the pleasure centers in both activities are stimulated in the same ways. Both can lead to depression, anxiety etc., and as you say, both are essentially dependent on what environment you place yourself in. So I would say, yes, environmental factors are probably a big part of the story.