What Happened to Tom

The feminist philosopher Peg Tittle has written a novella that expands on Judith Jarvis Thompson’s famous thought experiment in “A Defense of Abortion”:

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you–we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation?

In Peg’s What Happened to Tom things aren’t even as polite as that. No Society of Music Lovers is involved, and the doctor who attaches Tom to Simon the violinist is not a bit apologetic.

Tom’s an Everyman type, and not particularly likable. He’s a young architect rising in his firm, he has a posh car, a nice flat, a girl friend; he goes drinking with the guys one evening and wakes up in a hospital bed with this tube surgically attached to him – and Simon behind the curtain – in such a way that he can’t yank it out. He’s outraged, and the doctor is indifferent to his outrage. The doctor is a woman.

“I don’t need to think about this. I don’t want…this! How can I put it any more plainly?” His rage was palpable.

“Once your MTS subsides a bit…”

He caught that. “MTS?” Had he contracted some disease?

“Male Testosterone Syndrome.”

“You – you bitch! I’ll show you Male Testosterone Syndrome!” He started flinging his body from side to side against the rails. She had the sedative ready.

He tries to escape. He calls the police, he calls a lawyer, he researches and then calls groups that perform “nephrodesis reversal” – but such groups are few and dwindling and far away.

His life falls apart. He’s stuck in the hospital so he can’t keep up with his work; his girlfriend gets tired of his boring obsession with this connected-to-the-violinist thing, his car is repossessed. His whole life is taken out of his hands such that he can’t control any of it any more.

He didn’t consent to any of it. He doesn’t want any of it. No one cares.

After a few months the violinist wakes up, so Simon the violinist gets the chance to make his case. It’s all very interesting and entertaining, especially if you like thought experiments.

One insight brought me up short. Toward the end of the tethering the two go to Tom’s firm to attend a meeting, because Tom is desperate to hold on to the standing he’d had. Afterward, alone with Simon again, he realizes it was a mistake.

“You don’t get it,” he turned to Simon. “It’s because I let them see me like this. Now, no matter what I do, no matter how hard I work, or even how good or successful I am, they’ll always see me like…a fucking invalid.”

Oh. Ouch. That’s probably all too true of a lot of bosses and colleagues.


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