Yes, he’s a lifesaving heart surgeon and media star, Bill Frist, the Republicans’ new Senate Majority Leader. And he’s on the fast track to move up to Vice President in 2004 (depending on the health of the current heart-patient incumbent) and maybe President thereafter. All the more reason to spend a little time looking at a lesser-known, less heroic episode in his life, one Mr. Frist has apologized for as “heinous and dishonest,” but which nonetheless shouldn’t necessarily escape examination. Especially for what it can tell us about someone who is going places fast, someone who seems just too perfect to be true. I’m talking about the cat-killing. What perspective should we put this in?
Think of it this way: You have a sister, and she comes to you for advice. This guy named Bill has asked her to marry him. Great guy, this Bill, practically Mr. Perfect: a heart surgeon, ambitious, dedicated, everyone speaks well of him. There’s just this one thing, something he felt the need to confess to her, something he did as a youth in medical school, something he now regrets, something he says he’s ashamed of. It’s long ago in the past, but it troubles your sister, and she’s asking your advice about it because Bill-well, he lied and cheated essentially to kidnap and then dissect and kill cats.
Oh, he did it for a good cause: He had some advanced ideas about a medical breakthrough, and they’d run out of cats to dissect at the medical school, so he’d go to animal shelters, make goo-goo eyes at a cat at each shelter to get them to let him adopt the shivering strays, take them home, and then perform experimental surgery on them. For a good purpose, a higher humanitarian purpose, he says-but obviously he isn’t trying to excuse the lying and cheating, or the implicit betrayal of the poor trusting animals, who thought they were going to be given a home off the mean streets at last. So there it is, the question you can sense your sister is asking you: Should she put her life, her trust, in this fellow? Was it just a youthful indiscretion, or was it a signal of something deeply twisted?
You know about this, don’t you, Bill Frist and the cat-killing business-or the cat “research” business, if you prefer. You know how the new Republican majority leader admitted it in his now-hard-to-find 1989 autobiography-the one he wrote before he entered politics, when his claim to fame was as a heart-transplant pioneer and head of a big hospital and health-care corporation.
It came up in his first Senate campaign in 1994, when the opposing camp in the Republican primary called Frist a cat-killer. It came up again two months before the Trent Lott fiasco made him Senate Majority Leader, when a Boston Globe profile (by Michael Kranish) on Oct. 27, 2002, quoted from a couple of paragraphs in Mr. Frist’s autobiography. Mr. Frist is talking about his “experiments” at Harvard Medical School, and how he’d run out of available lab animals at the Harvard lab and, racing to complete his thesis, he went around to animal shelters, adopted cats, took them home and then cut them up in a lab-all for the sake of medical science:
“It was, of course, a heinous and dishonest thing to do,” he wrote. “And I was totally schizoid about the entire matter. By day, I was little Billy Frist, the boy who lived on Bowling Avenue in Nashville and had decided to become a doctor because of his gentle father and a dog named Scratchy. By night, I was Dr. William Harrison Frist, future cardiothoracic surgeon, who was not going to let a few sentiments about cute, furry little creatures stand in the way of his career.
“In short, I was going a little crazy.”
I don’t know if that implicit invocation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is just a “little crazy” or more deeply disturbing. I searched the Internet hoping to find more details about these cat kidnapping incidents, but most sources had picked up on the quote in the Globe because the Frist book was strangely not just out of print, but virtually nonexistent on major online Web sites like Amazon. (Mr. Frist has a new book out on bioterrorism, but there’s no customary referral to this previous book). The Globe reporter told me that he consulted a used-book specialist who found him a copy, but now they’re not available, even from those specialists. I put out calls to several sources to see if I could find the book, which is called Transplant: A Heart Surgeon’s Account of the Life-and-Death Dramas of the New Medicine . I wanted at least to find the relevant pages on the cat-stealing and see if there were more telling details about this disturbing episode. Meanwhile, I found myself fascinated by several items that turned up on a Google search of “Bill Frist” and “cats.”
One of them was the strange encounter between former cat-killer Frist and the cat-killing Capitol gunman. It happened on July 24, 1998, and was to become the signature moment in the creation of the Frist media legend as heroic surgeon-Senator.
Do you remember that story? Some nut job named “Rusty” Weston-who at one point claimed to be an illegitimate son of J.F.K. and the subject of death threats from Bill Clinton-tried to shoot his way into the Capitol building, fatally injuring two Capitol police officers while being shot badly himself. At the time of the shooting, Bill Frist was presiding over the Senate. He rushed to the scene, worked with the emergency ambulance crews to stabilize the shooting victims, and actually rode in the ambulance with the badly injured shooter. Although Mr. Frist didn’t know at the time who was the shooter and who the victim, he did his best to stabilize Mr. Weston and keep him alive till he got to the hospital.
It would later turn out that before he made his fatal journey to the Capitol, Mr. Weston had methodically shot dead some 14 of his family’s cats. One account of the shooting had the line: “We know a lot more now than we used to about angry boys who kill cats for sport.” It was a reference to studies that seemed to show that many serial killers and other psychopaths showed their first signs of derangement by killing pets and small animals.
The irony was that scene in the ambulance: Although they’d taken different paths in life, one cat-killer was tended to by a person who had cat-killing in his past.
Which suggests the possibility that the cat-killing was a kind of transformative moment in Mr. Frist’s life, a moment in which, Lord Jim -like, he saw something in himself that he wished to turn against, to transcend, and so began devoting his life to reparative deeds.
Or is something like that ineradicable? Even if the repentance were sincere, would you feel safe about your sister marrying a former illicit cat killer? Clearly, he felt guilt and shame about what he’d done-guilt and shame that may still show up in unexpected, perhaps not completely recognized ways.
Consider the controversy over a Frist remark which briefly consumed the “blogosphere” (as the network of interacting politically minded Web logs has come to be called). As soon as Mr. Frist was made majority leader, a remark he made in his 1994 Senate campaign provoked debate over whether it was racial or racially coded. It seems that he was about to make a campaign stop in some high-crime inner-city area. One of his campaign aides brought a bunch of campaign pencils to hand out and asked Frist if he wanted them sharpened. Frist was reported to have said “I want the unsharpened ones. I don’t want to get stuck.”
When the remark surfaced again this year, a debate broke out between two of the premier political bloggers, Joshua Micah Marshall (of talkingpointsmemo.com) and Mickey Kaus (of kausfiles.com, now incorporated into Slate ). The former suggested at least the strong possibility of a racial element in the comment; the latter argued that Mr. Frist could reasonably (and non-racially) be concerned about being stabbed by sharp-pointed pencils in the hurly-burly of a campaign appearance.
I would suggest a third possibility: Could it not be repressed guilt over the illicit cat dissections surfacing? Why else the curious concern about strangers stabbing him with sharp-pointed objects-as he once did to those poor cats?
More pertinently, though, how does one fit such an episode into the context of a life otherwise full of so many good deeds? I felt that more details were still needed-and finally, through the kind efforts of the Boston Globe ‘s Michael Kranish and Bruce Dobie, the editor of the well-regarded Nashville Scene magazine, I was able to get hold of the pages of Mr. Frist’s autobiography that gave more of the context of the cat-killing confession-as much, anyway, as Mr. Frist was willing to give.
He places his illicit activities in the context of his noble aspirations. He talks about the “hardening” that was “necessary” for someone who “had always loved animals. My childhood was filled with dogs, hamsters, fish, ducks, cats, horses, even turkeys and alligators. But you could not practice modern medicine without participating in laboratory animal research. Without the sacrifice of rats and cats and dogs and sheep, most of the miraculous things we can do with the human brain and the heart would not be possible.”
Then he adds this somewhat contradictory sentence: “Humane societies might object, and I would agree if the issue was the humane treatment of animals. But the issue was human lives.” (Why isn’t it both?)
He tells us of the rewards: “It can even be beautiful and thrilling work, as I discovered that day in the lab when I first saw the wonderful workings of a dog’s heart …. I spent days and nights on end in the lab, taking the hearts out of cats, dissecting each heart, suspending a strip of tiny muscle that attaches the mitral valve to the inner wall of the cat heart and recording the effects of various medicines I added to the bath surrounding the muscle.”
At times, he gives evidence of borderline grandiosity: “I was, for the first time in my life, making original discoveries. No one else in the history of man had ever done exactly what I was doing”-although he concedes in the same paragraph (again, it’s somewhat contradictory) that his project was “really very basic,” not “some grand breakthrough.”
Nonetheless, “[a]s I watched the little strip of muscle beat hour after hour through the night in the basement of the hospital, I felt quite pure, as if I were reaching out and touching some eternal truth of nature.”
But the contemplation of eternal truth was threatened, alas, by something mundane: “I lost my supply of cats. I only had six weeks to complete my project before I resumed my clinical rotations. Desperate, obsessed with my work, I visited the various animal shelters in the Boston suburbs, collecting cats …. “
“Collecting cats”? What this euphemism elides over is that Mr. Frist apparently posed as someone who wanted to adopt kittens and strays. He asked the shelter people to trust him, he asked the poor shivering creatures in their cages to trust him, and then he “cart[ed] them off to the lab to die.” (Sounds like the way the new majority leader is likely to treat the hapless Democratic minority in the Senate. Indeed, one of the most frequent quotes in my Google search compared the job of Senate Majority Leader to that of “herding cats.”)
And here’s the telling detail I hadn’t seen quoted in any of the stories on the episode: He took them home, “treating them as pets for a few days,” before taking them to the lab to cut them open.
Treated “them as pets for a few days” before “carting them off to the lab to die.” Well, he does say it was “totally schizoid,” but it’s hard to imagine those few days: the way he briefly builds a relationship of trust with the trusting little creatures, gets to know them as pets . Lets them, at last, begin to feel safe and loved after a hard life on the mean streets. (Does he give them names before he kills them?) One tries to conjure up the scenes of domestic closeness between the young Dr. Jekyll and his little charges. And then the day arrives when the cat carrier comes out again, and the furry little creature begins to suspect what’s in store. To those poor felines Frist was a lying “Joe Millionaire.” (I’m told that, for good reason, most medical researchers who work with animals try to maintain a strict separation in their mind between pets they cuddle and lab animals they cut up.)
So what would you advise your sister about being engaged to this guy? And speaking of the engagement question-it’s hard to resist the connection-there is this other odd little matter that’s brought up in most Frist profiles. After all the heroic-heart-surgeon accolades, usually about two thirds of the way down the Frist profile, the writer will mention that, “on the other hand,” there’s the cat-killing-and also the fact that Mr. Frist called off his planned wedding two days before the ceremony. This would be, you can imagine, a fairly devastating thing to have happen to you if you were Mr. Frist’s unsuspecting, trusting fiancée. But again, there was a higher justification, sort of: Mr. Frist had met another woman whom he eventually married, so, in effect, for the sake of true true love it was into the cat carrier with the first fiancée, for the higher cause of the new Frist couple. Who knows, maybe he did the right thing for all concerned in the long run.
As I said, in Mr. Frist’s defense, these episodes of building and breaking trust may well have been the Lord Jim moments when he turned his life around and devoted himself to good deeds and atonement.
But it raises interesting questions about how we put this into perspective in evaluating a man who may well be one strip of heart muscle away from the Vice Presidency, and someday seek to be President himself. We all want to extend forgiveness to those who have confessed their sins, as Mr. Frist has-so far as we know-forthrightly done. “We hope the drive behind that pattern of behavior has been purged,” a spokesperson for the Humane Society said.
I was impressed by the reaction of PETA, which didn’t denounce Mr. Frist outright but rather asked him to demonstrate the sincerity of his repentance by sponsoring animal-friendly legislation. (The PETA statement, I must admit, sounded like the State Department’s delicate rhetoric when dealing with North Korean nuclear madman Kim Jong Il.) But if PETA is, at least theoretically, willing to forgive ….
Still, I don’t know-there are a lot of heroic heart surgeons in America, and I can’t imagine they all found it necessary to lie and cheat animal shelters, to build up and break a relationship of trust with a helpless animal before cutting it up to advance their careers.
Even those who don’t oppose the use of animals for medical experimentation might have trouble with this kind of behavior-trouble that a confession would not completely obviate. I myself have difficulty drawing the line with any consistency on these issues. I was only sensitized to the question when I came to know Liz Hecht, the animal-rights activist and former director of Citizens for Alternatives to Animal Labs Inc., which has had some success in getting local New York hospitals to adopt more humane procedures. Ms. Hecht was always justly outraged by reports of the widespread practice of lab-animal “suppliers” who used Frist-like methods to essentially kidnap animals from shelters and private yards and sell them to medical-research facilities.
She referred me to the outreach director for the American Anti-Vivisection Society (www.aavs.org), Crystal Spiegel, who said that three states still have “pound seizure laws,” which actually allow anyone with some sort of research-supply license to show up at a shelter and demand any number of rescued creatures to take to labs for dissection and experiment. A reading of the current Massachusetts animal-welfare law (which passed apparently after Mr. Frist’s own “catnappings”), suggests that what the Senate Majority Leader did back then would be illegal now. And it’s not just an isolated practice even now, alas. Ms. Hecht recommended a sobering book by Judith Reitman called Stolen for Profit: The True Story Behind the Disappearance of Millions of America’s Beloved Pets , which documents the way unscrupulous suppliers of lab animals steal pets from yards and sell them for dissection.
Liz also sent me a thoughtful treatise on the whole lab controversy: In the Name of Science: Issues in Responsible Animal Experimentation by F. Barbara Orlans, a professor at Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics.
It was Ms. Hecht, of course, who did more than sensitize me to animal rights; she also found me the cat who changed my life-the late, lamented Stumpy, an orange stray found bleeding on the Brooklyn waterfront, one who could easily have been Fristed by animal-lab suppliers if it hadn’t been for cat rescuers like Liz. Indeed, although Stumpy never confided the story of how he lost his tail (which, because it had been half-bitten or cut off, had to be amputated-hence the name) and although he liked to imply that it was “mob-related,” I now suspect it was a heroic escape from a local Bill Frist about to cart him off to a lab. So, even though I have political differences with Mr. Frist (see my columns on the Patients’ Bill of Rights debate, July 16 and 25, 2001; he tried to gut it on behalf of the insurance industry), I will concede that at least part of my reaction to the Frist cat-killing episode is personal.
It grows as well out of my personal contact with cat-rescue organizations like City Critters Inc. After Stumpy’s death last year, I asked faithful readers who had been moved by my accounts of Stumpy’s life and death to contribute to a special Stumpy Fund that City Critters set up to care for badly injured, rescued strays. If you go to the City Critters Web site (www.citycritters.org), you can see pictures of Stumpy and some of the cats who have been cared for by Observer -reader donations made in his name (donations in Stumpy’s name can still be sent to City Critters Inc., P.O. Box 1345, Canal Street Station, New York, N.Y. 10013).
So maybe some good will come out of this meditation on Bill Frist’s cat-killing past. Maybe some people will feel motivated to donate to help the selfless people in such groups who devote themselves to the plight of the strays who would otherwise be prey to the Frists of today.
I was immensely gratified by the response of readers to my plea to make a donation in Stumpy’s name in that column about his death (July 30, 2001). I was even more gratified at the cards and letters I received when The Observer reprinted a brief excerpt from that column along with a picture of Stumpy in its recent anniversary issue. People respond to that picture: That little guy still has got it goin’ on , even posthumously.
All of which prompts me to conclude with a disclosure that faithful readers and Stumpy’s fans deserve to know. After long hesitation, I’ve finally adopted a successor to Stumpy. Not merely a successor: a spooky virtual look-alike orange stray also found in Brooklyn-who, I’m convinced, may be a descendant of the Stumpman himself. I call him Bruno, and I’ll have more to say about him in a subsequent column.
But for now, for Bruno, for Stumpy and for all the other desperate stray animals out there, I would appeal to Bill Frist by saying: You were honest, yes, in confessing the “heinous and dishonest” thing you did-and it’s in the past, and you’ve helped a lot of people. But you’ve still got a long way to go; there are still a lot of things you’re now in a position to do-not just to protect animals in peril from the ambitious young Bill Frists of today, but for people in trouble (what about getting unemployment benefits extended, pronto, and passing a legitimate Patients’ Bill of Rights?) before you can wipe the slate clean. Before you can wash the bloody memory of those strays off your surgical gloves.