Confession: I’m a person who interrupts conversation to pull out her smartphone for a quick Google search. When a question arises, I want an answer — pronto. The Internet has captured me like a fish on a line; I’m a ruder person than before, but happier.
Sometimes, however, the Web fails me. I begin looking for a piece of information and, try though I may, I don’t find it. What kinds of things do I spend lots of time looking for? Today I recount one example.
In preparation for my upcoming trip to Antarctica, I am reading books about this unique destination. The first was “Ice Bound,” a personal account by Dr. Jerri Nielsen, co-authored with writer Maryanne Vollers, published in 2001.
After a series of difficulties in her personal life, Dr. Nielsen, 46, signed up to become the physician for 41 workers and scientists wintering at the South Pole in 1999. She signed up knowing that during 8 1/2 months of fierce, cold, dark winter no one would be able to come or leave.
In March, not long after travel ended, Nielsen discovered a lump in her breast which she bravely biopsied herself. Communicating with doctors via satellite email, she confirmed a diagnosis of breast cancer, which she treated as best she could.
In July, chemotherapy drugs and equipment were dropped for Nielsen in a risky fly-over. In October, earlier than any previous mission had dared to fly in, a skilled team evacuated Nielsen for treatment.
“Ice Bound” is riveting, but it begins with a few chapters that puzzled and haunted me throughout my reading. Nielsen admits that she went to Antarctica to escape a devastating family situation. Recently divorced from a physician-husband whom she describes as severely emotionally abusive, she loses contact with her three teenage children who decide to stick with Dad.
She attributes their complete silence to sick domination by her ex-husband. She decides not to go to court nor to actively fight for contact with her children because she fears that he will further mistreat them.
This story creates a credibility problem for readers of her book. Do we know for certain that Dr. Jay Nielsen, the husband, is an abuser? Could he have created an environment so sick that the children want nothing to do with Mom, even though she sounds in her book like a normal, loving parent? Could a person be a normal, loving parent and have children who reject her completely?
After I finished “Ice Bound,” I searched for answers on the Web. I found the husband’s and children’s names and hunted for information on all of them. I read obituaries of Jerri Nielsen, who succumbed to her cancer in 2009.
In every location, I looked for something that indicated that the children got in touch with Nielsen before she died. I found nothing. They were adults by then, able to speak their own truth. Still, nothing.
So was Nielsen the brave, caring person she sounds like in her book? Was she deeply flawed? Profoundly blind?
I went back to the Internet.
I emailed Nielsen’s co-author Maryanne Vollers who, according to Wikipedia, enjoys a successful career. She was nominated for a National Book Award for her first opus, “Ghosts of Mississippi.” Since then she has helped Hillary Clinton, Sissy Spacek and others pen their stories.
In the acknowledgements for “Ice Bound” Nielsen describes Vollers as “a remarkable friend.”
After Nielsen died, Vollers wrote in the Daily Beast, “We were as close as sisters while we were writing the book.”
Obviously, the two women cared for each other.
I knew Vollers would be unlikely to spill the beans about Nielsen and her children to a stranger contacting her via email, so I tried to offer options.
I wrote, “(Nielsen) seems deeply sad about the loss of her children and claims to have been a loving mother. Why, then, would those children, now adults, not have “surfaced” at some point — unless something is amiss in her story? Can you point me toward any written material that continues Nielsen’s story and might answer questions for a curious reader like me?”
I didn’t expect a reply from this busy writer, but I got one in less than 24 hours.
Vollers wrote, “There is really no way to answer your questions about Jeri. (Misspelling hers.) She was a complicated, wonderful woman, and like all of us — full of contradictions… As for her kids, I can’t offer any more than what you’ve read in the book.”
An answer, but not satisfying.
The Internet is great for finding facts. The better you are at research, the better you are at finding what you want. But for questions involving human psychology and human choice, the Internet will ultimately fail you. Levels 5, 4 and 3 are often available. But Levels 2 and 1 cannot be reached. I hope that most people, especially young people, know that.
In daily life, on the other hand, I can occasionally reach a deep, though sometimes fleeting, understanding of another person. If Vollers had kept in touch with Nielsen after their book was published, if they had stayed “close as sisters,” Vollers might have known much more about Nielsen than she did.
Real life can be great that way.
The Internet, not so much.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org