marriage: an investigation

When Your Wife Becomes an Anti-Vaxxer

They say you can never understand someone else’s marriage. But this week, New York Magazine and the Cut decided to try. We interrogated dozens of couples (and a throuple) to see what makes their marriages work — or not.

A couple of years ago, at a fashion-industry party in Manhattan, a small Japanese woman, perhaps sensing a receptive audience, made a beeline for my wife, Helen. “You have had worries about your health,” the young woman told Helen through her translator. The woman was apparently a famous psychic in her native Japan. “Do not worry,” the pint-size psychic explained. “Drink a glass of water with one drop of lemon juice every morning and you shall live a long life.”

I do the grocery shopping for the family, and I know that in order to keep my wife from thinking she’s going to get pancreatic cancer or MS, we must now always have lemons in the house. Most mornings, I’m greeted by the sight of a squashed slice in the sink, a reminder of a patently insane, useless, nonsensical — but ultimately harmless — ritual that I tolerate because I love my wife. Shitting on her beliefs, I’ve found, makes date nights less fun, sex less regular, life generally less pleasant. “Pobody’s nerfect,” Helen likes to say when I’m railing about the kids if they’re not performing well in school. Pobody’s nerfect has become my marriage credo. So my wife’s kooky. And me? Oh, the devastating essays my wife could write.

As Helen likes to point out, only one of us has cured a chronic autoimmune disease. At 25, before we were together, she showed up at the emergency room with a 105-degree fever and the feeling that her every joint had caught fire. She was eventually diagnosed with lupus. The long-term prognosis she got from her doctors? Likely future flare-ups that could either land her in the hospital or worse. “Lupus killed Linda, our wedding planner,” she’ll often remind me.

For years, I’d wake to her sobbing when her fingers swelled and joints ached, the signals of a possible flare. One day, she decided she was fed up with Western medicine and started reading blogs and ordering books that were either self-published or from the kind of small presses you mostly find in Vermont and New Mexico. Helen followed the natural-healing path set by Andy Kaufman and Steve Jobs before her, but she’s been more successful. Two years ago, a battery of blood tests showed no signs of the disease. We were both overjoyed.

“This is hardly scientific proof that all the snake oil worked,” I could’ve said. But what kind of dick says that to his wife?

Recently, celery joined lemons on the grocery list. Helen had read Anthony William’s book, The Medical Medium, which touts the various health miracles one can enjoy from drinking celery juice. New York Times best-selling author William has no medical education or training but does claim that at 4 years old he looked across the dining-room table and pronounced that his non-symptomatic grandmother had Stage IV lung cancer, a diagnosis confirmed by doctors afterward. His is a stunning claim, totally uncheckable and certainly not invented to sell books.

The lemons and celery are probably the cheapest of the rituals — though, if I’m honest about it, I probably am familiar with only a fraction of the stuff she puts into and onto her body. I know that I’m better off letting Helen handle the finances because I really don’t want to know how much this stuff costs. I do know that I must always deposit any meat I buy in the downstairs freezer because the one in the kitchen is stuffed with rectangular ice packs stamped the COOL FAT BURNER & COOL GUT BUSTER that for a week or two she stuffed in a special vest she said would alleviate her back pain. I’d catch her out of the corner of my eye and wonder if my wife was on the porch or if it was Arnold Schwarzenegger in his Predator costume.

Regimens come and go. For a couple of years, Helen’s daily detoxifying ritual involved drinking a liquid the color and consistency of a coffee milkshake that lived in Mason jars in the fridge. It was a solution of water and bentonite clay, UPSed monthly by a health blogger in Colorado. After tasting it, I became convinced the lady was bagging drywall compound from Home Depot and labeling it bentonite. We’ll never know; Helen got a notice from the woman’s family that she had died suddenly, no cause of death provided. I assume suicide or heart attack or some malady brought on by inhaling drywall.

Everything was fine until Helen invited Jenny McCarthy into our marriage. She recently texted me an article about vaccines by a guy named J. B. Handley, the founder of Generation Rescue, the organization for which McCarthy serves as board president. In scientific circles, he’s considered a joke and menace, one of the leading voices in the anti-vaxxer movement, a group I naturally associate with flat-earthers and climate-change deniers. “Did you read that article?” she asked a few times. I’d change the subject. If I never read it and we never discussed it, I wouldn’t have to entertain the thought that I might be sleeping with an anti-vaxxer. What would our friends say? After too many tequilas one night, Helen took a stand while getting undressed. “Do you think you’re married to a fucking idiot?” she asked. “Is that what you think?” I didn’t answer. I was thinking of how best to avoid winding up in one of those depressingly furnished apartments for newly divorced men. Objectively, Helen’s smarter; her SATs and admission to all those near Ivies proved that. But in this arena? Yeah, I finally admitted, I thought she was out of her depth, a likely victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect, someone who reads a few articles and decides she knows more than science.

But then she asked me a couple of questions: If vaccines are so safe, why has the Department of Health and Human Services paid $4 billion in damages to settle vaccine injury cases since 1988? (They have, it’s true. She’s right about this.) And if science is so sure about what vaccines don’t cause, what answers can they offer for the undeniable rise in autism and various autoimmune diseases like lupus?

I was silent. The truth is I actually know very little, only which ideas the Times tells me are stupid and which ones are smart. I know the moon is not made of Limburger, but don’t ask me to prove it. I’m considering trying to find a hot epidemiologist to join us in the bedroom. I’m not even that hung up about the epidemiologist’s gender; I’m just a liberal-arts graduate who needs a little backup. And after setting us straight on science, who knows what else might happen.

*This article appears in the April 1, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

When Your Wife Becomes an Anti-Vaxxer