from Philosophy & College Life: in which some students are gossipping in a bar…
Matters proceeded as usual, with even the most potentially-explosive disagreements phrased as merely competing scientific models, until the conversation turned to psi effects and psychosomatic activity. Passions rose, until a certain Kevin Wilson openly scoffed at the idea of the placebo effect, and said it was nothing but so much grasping at straws, by people so desperate for no good reason to disbelieve in the mechanistic theory of life, that “they would rather cling to any preposterous speculation than face the simple truth”.
At this, Eric, who had so far held his tongue, felt compelled to speak up: "Now, that’s going a little too far, Kevy. The placebo effect is real, even if it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. You’re right, one can’t cure malaria or heart-disease with enchanted pills, but I know a very good case of something less, and it has the advantage of being first-hand. It happened to me.
To cut a long story short, when I was a small boy I used to play every day with two girls, who lived down the road. They were sisters, an older and a younger; they weren’t called Frida and Kathy, but those names’ll do as well as any and that’s what I’ll call them. Frida was the elder, and the only real brains, heart, or courage in the family, raven-haired and green-eyed, while Kathy was the younger, charmingly guileless, flaxen-haired and blue-eyed".
Martin interjected: "Like Lynette and Lyonors, Flora Mac-Ivor and Rose Bradwardine, Kate and Bianca, Beatrice and Hero, Rebecca of York and Rowena of Rotherwood, Alicia Risingham and Johanna Sedley, Iras and Esther, Maggie and Lucy, Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie, Ms. Summerson and Ms. Clare".
Eric continued: "Exactly. At any rate, when we grew up Frida went in for zoology, while Kathy stayed in school just long enough to pass her basics, and got married. I wasn’t invited to the wedding; no one was; it was a shotgun, jump-the-broom sort of affair, though not for the obvious reasons. Pretty soon after that they fell on hard times and both husband and wife had to take jobs. At least, I think they both did, for reasons I’ll soon make clear. For the same reasons, it’s hard to say whether they both did, or whether he lost his and she had to support him.
I didn’t hear anything about them until a few years later, when I happened to pick up a local newspaper from where they all lived (being myself in the vicinity at the time, to visit a cousin of my mother’s who’s an expert on vampire-bats at the State University), and saw Kathy’s name in the paper, where her boss had commended her for exceptional performance at work. What she was doing, I don’t remember; I just saw the name and the praise and dashed off a note of congratulations. Yes, of course I had her address! It was in the paper. They knew mine, too, so I didn’t get any answer where I was, but later, when I’d got home and checked my mailbox.
But I wished I hadn’t. The message was most irregular; didn’t contain a single greeting or signature; all it said was,
Leave us alone or I’ll break your rotten kneecaps. This is your first and last warning.
He didn’t say “rotten”, mind you, but his meaning was about the same".
Kevin Wilson asked: "Well, what did he say?".
Eric answered: "I wouldn’t dare repeat it. Any old how, I hadn’t read that a minute before my knees;–– the whole knee, mind you, not just the caps;–– felt rotten indeed. In fact, they ached non-stop from morning to midnight, every day from that day on, until I could neither sit nor stand nor lie down, neither walk nor run nor climb, without suffering dull aches interspersed with irregular sharp spasms. I hadn’t been hit, hadn’t even seen the jealous husband, didn’t even know his name (Frida never mentioned it, and she was the only one in that family with whom I was still on speaking-terms), but it hurt just as if I had. It lasted for years, and got worse; on the first hiking-trip I tried after that, my knees gave out on the way home (luckily not sooner) and the guides had to stay behind to make sure I got back to town.
Not content with the effect he had on me, if he knew about it, this would-be-Othello (his name wasn’t G. d’Arcy Cheesewright, but it ought have been) sent threatening notes to me, on the anniversary of his first, every year for five years straight. Not that I felt any worse for reading them; he’d already done his worst, apparently without knowing it, and no threat could frighten me but the one already taking effect.
Anyway, after five years Cheesewright (as I’ll call him) worked up his courage enough to come round and bother me in the flesh. We had a fight, and in the end he went home with cuts and bruises all over, and I felt firmer on my feet than in all the five years. I’d been taking boxing-lessons all along, while he trusted to brute force.
Anyhow, after that I haven’t felt any pain in my knees since. You can hit them with rocks and never stir me. I can walk up a mountain pass and down twice in a day and not tire. I can climb a tree without worrying. Those all sound easy to you, I’m sure, but to me it’s like Heaven. That’s your psychosomatics and your placebo effect. If you don’t believe me, rap my knees and make sure, and then go check my doctor’s reports.
So, that’s my contribution to our opinions on the placebo effect. Anyone else?".