Listening to Thomas Donaldson, I‘m struck by his intelligence, thoughtfulness, and determination. But I’m also thinking, This is the guy whose picture appeared in the Star under the headline OFF WITH MY HEAD!
That’s a direct, if simplified, version of what Donaldson, a Sunnyvale, California, mathematician and computer scientist, wants the Alcor Life Extension Foundation to do to him before a tumor destroys his brain. The headline does not tell the whole story, of course. Donaldson does not just want Alcor’s staff to cut off-or, as Alcor officials put it, “surgically isolate”-his head. He also wants them to pump an antifreeze solution into it, wrap it in plastic, chill it to the temperature of liquid nitrogen, and store it in a metal canister inside an earthquake- proof tank.
The head will remain there until medical science is sufficiently advanced to thaw it and repair the damage done to Donaldson’s brain by cancer and freezing. The same technology that will make it possible to revive Donaldson will also provide him with a new body. That’s the plan, anyway.
There are a few possible hitches, some of which we’ll get to later. The most immediate obstacle is this: In California, as in every other state, what Alcor proposes causing a person to “move from ‘live’ to ‘dead,’ ” in the careful phraseology of Donaldson’s attorneys-is against the law. Says Deputy Attorney General Kirstofer Jorstad, quoting a famous though fictional detective: “That’s murder one, baby.” Not only do Alcor members have to worry about prosecution, Donaldson has to worry about the prospect of an autopsy as part of a homicide or suicide investigation. However one views his chances of revival, it’s certain that defrosting and cutting up his head would only hurt them.
So last April Donaldson filed a complaint seeking an injunction to prevent local and state authorities from interfering with his cryonic suspension, from trying to perform an autopsy on his remains afterward, or from bringing charges against members of Alcor. In September, Superior Court Judge Ronald C. Stevens refused Donaldson’s request. He said allowing premortem cryonic suspension would require taking “a giant step” from existing case law. An appeal is pending.
The Donaldson case is the latest episode in a history of government harassment and obstruction. With only about 500 members nationwide and a not entirely deserved reputation for nuttiness, the cryonics movement is an easy target. The three main cryonics groups are Alcor, the largest, based in Riverside, California; the American Cryonics Society/Trans Time, in Oakland, California; and the Oak Park, Michigan, Cryonics Institute, founded by movement pioneer Robert Ettinger.
Ettinger, a former physics teacher, is the author of The Prospect of Immortality, “the book that HAS ALREADY begun the greatest revolution in human history” (according to the jacket). He is not bashful about his accomplishments. “Every single individual now active in the movement can trace his involvement, directly or indirectly, to my influence,” he writes. That’s because The Prospect of Immortality proclaimed way back iin 1964 that “most of us now breathing have a good chance of physical life after death-a sober, scientific probability of revival and rejuvenation of our frozen bodies.”
Cryonicists freeze the seemingly dead-sometimes whole bodies, sometimes just heads-in an attempt to preserve them until a time, perhaps centuries from now, when they can be restored and revived. It’s easy to dismiss such people as fools, ghouls, crackpots, or charlatans. And it’s hard to rouse popular indignation when the state disrupts what most people consider a bizarre, hubristic attempt to achieve immortality.
But the struggles of the cryonics movement are not about the merits of cold storage. They’re about the right to accept or reject medical treatment, including methods as unorthodox as cryonic suspension; to dispose of your remains, whether in a grave, in an urn, or in a vat of liquid nitrogen; and to hasten your death, or, as the cryonicists would have it, try to postpone it indefinitely. Thomas Donaldson and his fellow enthusiasts do not insist that others join them or applaud them--only that they leave them alone.
Still, as Johnny Carson might say, this is wild and weird stuff. It’s hard to sympathize with people you don’t understand, especially when they’re doing unusual things with severed human heads. To understand cryonicists, you have to get to know them. Hence I find myself, in early December, walking down the winding driveway to Saul Kent’s house in Riverside, site of Alcor’s annual Turkey Roast, bearing a box of Yum Yum doughnuts.
The door is answered by Kent himself, a tall, heavyset man with a pale complexion and sunken eyes surrounded by dark circles. I half expect to hear him say, “Good eeevening,” although it’s early afternoon. But no, the longtime and briefly notorious cryonicist just smiles, welcomes me, and directs me to the kitchen, where I deposit my contribution to the potluck dinner.
On the way to the bathroom, I pass through the master bedroom, where two guys are huddled around a computer, talking, I think, in PASCAL. In the bathroom, there’s a freezer/refrigerator. Its incongruity makes me uneasy. Still, I’m pretty sure that it’s not filled with human body parts. Almost certain, in fact. I check anyway. Just food. After this, I relax.
On the TV in the den they’re playing tapes of talk-show appearances by Alcor members. The screen shows a man in his mid-40s with horn-rimmed glasses and a fringe of dark hair that has been further thinned by radiation treatments. “Donahue” identifies him with the tasteful caption, THOMAS DONALDSON, Ph.D./Wants to Have Head Cut Off and Frozen.” Donaldson’s speech is generally calm and uninflected. even when he’s discussing the atop a tank brain &mor that has begun to impair his coordination and memory in subtle ways.
I sit down to watch. Most of the 50 or so people at the party are wearing Alcor I.D. bracelets, indicating that they’ve signed up for suspension. Some have naked wrists; they’re still checking cryonics out. The group is overwhelmingly male, with ages ranging from about 25 to about 65; most appear to be in their 30s and 40s.
The atmosphere is earnestly intellectual. There seem to be a lot of computer specialists, space enthusiasts, science fiction fans, and libertarians of various stripes. One woman is selling parodies of those little Jesus-in-a-fish emblems you see on the backs of cars. These fish have feet, and the name inside is “Darwin.” She says they went over big at the Objectivist meeting last week. The Turkey Roast is sort of a cross between a “Star Trek” convention and an Ayn Rand discussion group.