Last Sunday’s New York Times magazine offers a portrait of a modern odd couple. Peggy is a hospice worker whose job is to help people die with dignity. Her husband Robin is an economics professor who plans to have his brain frozen in hopes of living forever. They have issues, and apparently their situation is not uncommon within the cryogenics movement:
Peggy’s reaction might be referred to as an instance of the “hostile-wife phenomenon,” as discussed in a 2008 paper by Aschwin de Wolf, Chana de Wolf and Mike Federowicz.“From its inception in 1964,” they write, “cryonics has been known to frequently produce intense hostility from spouses who are not cryonicists…”
Cryonet, a mailing list on “cryonics-related issues,” takes as one of its issues the opposition of wives. (The ratio of men to women among living cyronicists is roughly three to one.) “She thinks the whole idea is sick, twisted and generally spooky,” wrote one man newly acquainted with the hostile-wife phenomenon. “She is more intelligent than me, insatiably curious and lovingly devoted to me and our 2-year-old daughter. So why is this happening?”
The air of hurt confusion stems, in part, from the intuition among believers that cryonics is a harmless attempt at preserving data, little different from stowing a box of photos. Of the nonreligious white males who predominate in the ranks of cryonicists, many are software engineers, a calling that puts great faith in the primacy of information. “If you have a hard drive on a computer with a lot of information that is important to you, you save it,” says J.S., a 39-year-old cryonicist and software engineer who lives in Oregon and who will not allow his full name to be used out of fear that his wife would divorce him. “You wouldn’t just throw it into a fire. It’s clear to me that memories are stored as molecular arrangements. I’m just trying to preserve the memories.”
A small amount of time spent trying to avoid certain death would seem to be well within the capacity of a healthy marriage to absorb. The checkered marital history of cryonics suggests instead that a violation beyond nonconformity is at stake, that something intrinsic to the loner’s quest for a second life agitates against harmony in the first.
Robin, the husband, offers his own theory:
“Cryonics…has the problem of looking like you’re buying a one-way ticket to a foreign land.” To spend a family fortune in the quest to defeat cancer is not taken, in the American context, to be an act of selfishness. But to plan to be rocketed into the future — a future your family either has no interest in seeing, or believes we’ll never see anyway — is to begin to plot a life in which your current relationships have little meaning. Those who seek immortality are plotting an act of leaving, an act, as Robin puts it, “of betrayal and abandonment.”
This could indeed be part of the problem. But I suspect there’s also the more general issue of one spouse valuing any obsession—could be cryonics, could be model trains—over the health of the marriage.
Interesting fodder for a story, though.