Yesterday, the New York Times Book Review called my book Galileo's Middle Finger a "rowdy, harrowing, vital book." The review by David Dobbs is the kind of review I dreamed of as I was writing it (and struggling with living it). I got to see an early copy of the review about a week ago, so naturally I've been anticipating that its appearance this weekend was going to be the big event of my life this week.
Last Wednesday morning, I attended my 14-year-old son's health class, where a couple of "visiting educators" came in to do sex ed. What they taught was basically "sex outside of marriage is disastrous." I live-tweeted the travesty. It went viral.
If you're somewhere on the planet where you somehow haven't heard about this, you can start with my essay about it for The Stranger. Let's just say that by the time the kid got home from school, it was on Salon. Then Vox, then USA Today, and... well, everywhere. The UK and Australia, even. This week, I accidentally made my son's health class the most talked-about class on the planet.
People who have read my book by now probably think I'm used to this kind of thing. I've been through my share of media storms. But I think this has been the most insane media and social media experience I have ever had to survive.
There were too many ironies this week for me to recount them all—including talking to Canadian public radio from Mike Bailey's office phone (because I was in Evanston, Illinois, to discuss Galileo's Middle Finger with David Uttal's graduate psychology class on "Responsible Conduct in Research" and needed a landline); and the line in Dobbs's review that read, "As is so often the case, what got Dreger into trouble was sex."
But I think maybe the most ironic was during my meeting with my provost at Northwestern, where I teach, on Thursday afternoon. He had been kind enough to read my book. As he noted, he read partly out of personal curiosity, as he did have to personally live through some of what I was describing; he was Mike's dean during the book controversy, and his provost during the fucksaw kerfuffle. But I got the sense he also tends to read major works by his faculty.
Anyway, he led early on in our conversation by asking me whether I was planning to continue this kind of work in my career—whether I was tired of having to curl up in a ball and cry from my work. Just as he asked that, I was about 32 hours into the sex-ed viral experience, wondering WTF I had just caused... about ready to curl up in a ball and cry.
I mean, since Thursday, my e-mail has been hopelessly flooded. My phone has been ringing nonstop with texts. I exceeded our phone minute allotment for the month doing interviews. My Twitter account has been running, if I'm calculating correctly, upwards of 5,000 notifications a day. I have gone from 2,500 followers to 12,500 in three days.
Someone in the Twitter flood implied that I had done this to try to sell my new book. When I read that, I guffawed so loudly at that I had to clean my computer screen afterwards. Yeah, right—anytime I want to sell books, I can magically cause myself to trend on Facebook and be talked about in Australia.
To be honest, for a while I was wishing I could put it all back. Wednesday night, I had written the piece for The Stranger but was suddenly soaked in doubts about publishing it. It all seemed to be spinning out of control. My friend Dan Savage gave me a good talking-to; he pointed out both that it was already "out there" and I couldn't put it back, and that we need progressive parents to fight back just like conservative parents do. But again, when I woke up on Friday morning to an e-mail informing me I was on the front page of the Washington Post over this, and an angry tweet from a parent in the district saying I had "brought shame" on the school... well.
Well, I had to call the mate. (I had stayed in Evanston, Illinois, overnight.)
His response was as sane as ever. "Maybe what you're seeing is that there's been a national need for someone to call out this bullshit. Maybe people have needed you to do this?"
And, "Buck up. You can do this. You've done this before and survived it. It'll be okay. It won't last forever."
But it's one thing to fight the American Anthropological Association, or the Food and Drug Administration, or whomever, about adult issues, and quite another to deal with national media you've caused over your kid's class in the town you want to keep living in.
Still, what became clear by the end of last week was that the kid was holding up beautifully, learning so much, and most remarkably, looking like an intellectual twin to my book. I should not be surprised; he grew up with it over the last eight years. But it was kind of amazing to watch him talk about evidence and the importance of it to controversies. To talk about science as an issue of democracy. To watch him persist even when he was losing, because, as I said to Uttal's class, the lesson of my book is, "You don't fight because you think you're going to win; you fight because it's a fight that needs fighting."
Communications from neighbors, other parents in the district, and kids in the high school have been overwhelmingly grateful, kind, supportive. Same with communications from strangers. I've learned that the Gender Equity club at the high school, which was formed to fight sexism and heterosexism in our school, has been working to change Michigan state law about sex ed, and fighting the same principal I'm now tussling with. And I've learned that so many parents came before me to try to express outrage and frustration and felt they were ignored. They are happy we pushed it past the tipping point this time.
Dropping in on my son's health class was never about the book. I sure as shit didn't do it as a publicity stunt. I would never sign up for it again, as selfish as that may sound.
But they're not a random coincidence, this book and what happened.