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The Gift of Language

Theodore Dalrymple

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No, Dr. Pinker, it's not just from nature.

Now that I've retired early from medical practice in a slum hospital and the prison next door, my former colleagues sometimes ask me, not without a trace of anxiety, whether I think that I made the right choice or whether I miss my previous life. They are good friends and fine men, but it is only human nature not to wish unalloyed happiness to one who has chosen a path that diverges, even slightly, from one's own.

Fortunately, I do miss some aspects of my work: if I didn't, it would mean that I had not enjoyed what I did for many years and had wasted a large stretch of my life. I miss, for instance, the sudden illumination into the worldview of my patients that their replies to simple questions sometimes gave me. I still do a certain amount of medico-legal work, preparing psychiatric reports on those accused of crimes, and recently a case reminded me of how sharply a few words can bring into relief an entire attitude toward life and shed light on an entire mental hinterland.

A young woman was charged with assault, under the influence of alcohol and marijuana, on a very old lady about five times her age. Describing her childhood, the young accused mentioned that her mother had once been in trouble with the police.

"What for?" I asked.

"She was on the Social [Security] and working at the same time."

"What happened?" I asked.

"She had to give up working." The air of self-evidence with which she said this revealed a whole world of presuppositions. For her, and those around her, work was the last resort; economic dependence on state handouts was the natural condition of man.

Read the entire article on the City Journal website (new window will open).

Posted: 16-Nov-06



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