JAMA – Review of Time’s Fool




Time’s Fool

by Terra Ziporyn, 231 pp, $28.79, ISBN 1-4010-0486-5, paper, $18.69, ISBN 1-4010-0487-3, Xlibris (http://www.xlibris.com), 2001.

Reviewed by
Eric Howard Christianson, PhD

Time’s Fool, about an early 20th-century venereal disease specialist and a utopian community, is not your standard novel. We do not encounter larger-than-life or humorous charactersin fact, there is no glitz at all. But there is evidence of some unusual sexual activity. So why should we consider reading Time’s Fool?

To begin with, our author is superbly equipped to tell a story that is richly textured and informed by several scholarly traditions. Terra Ziporyn has undergraduate degrees in biology and history from Yale University and received her doctorate in the history of medicine and science from the University of Chicago, where she also engaged in graduate study in biopsychology. She has made numerous contributions as a medical writer, editor, and historian to making science and medicine accessible to a wide audience. She is perhaps best known to health care professionals and the general public for her Harvard University Press publications on the health of women, families, and adolescents and her work as a former associate editor in the Medical News & Perspectives section of JAMA.

Often authors of historical fiction include a select bibliography to enhance the credibility of their work. This may be one reason why Ziporyn does so, but she also encourages us to find out more about a time that, for modern readers, probably will make truth seem stranger than fiction. In her novel’s imaginative reconstruction of the past, we sense what it must have been like to live in a unique communal environment whose members, while trying to avoid contamination from nonmembers, shared many of the trials and tribulations of their counterparts in the outside world.

It is 1907 and the fictional Dr Galton Morrow, a middle-aged venereal disease specialist, returns to the Oneida Colony in upstate New York, where he spent his early years, seeking clues about his origins in that once flourishing community. During the 19th century the United States witnessed the creation of many utopian groups that often wielded stifling control over their members while seeking refuge from a critical larger society. After the Civil War, John Humphrey Noyes, a Christian perfectionist, started Oneida, attracted followers, and established the rules for individual conduct in his commune. One of the characters in the novel accurately relates Noyes’ belief that “we shall begin by mating within the inclosure, following the example of Adam and Eve, who began by breeding close (for what other choice did they have?).” The Oneida participants believed that children should be “fewer in number than among the outsiders, and thus better and more scrupulously cared for . . . thus leaving a simple pure and holy race.” Members would share work and enjoy open sexual relations, but “couplings” for procreation had to be approved. This was known as stirpiculture and was contemporary with the eugenics teachings of a Charles Darwin cousin, Francis Galton. There seems little doubt how young Morrow got his name.

Long after leaving the commune for the world of outsiders, Morrow continues to believe that, as the apparent offspring of the approved coupling of Josiah and Lilly, he is truly a successful example of the stirpiculture experiment. Such exclusive communal practices, he maintains, would eliminate the “conspiracy of silence” so notable on the outside. The reckless sexual cravings and liaisons of nonmembers spread sexually transmitted diseases, which in turn cause sterility, dermal lesions, and insanity and lead to a self-perpetuating silence rather than explanation and prophylaxis. Although married, Galton becomes drawn to Hope, another Oneida offspring half his age who announces that she has his father’s diary. Reading diaries written between 1869-1875 by his ostensible father, mother, and other members of the “coupled” Oneida community, and his relationship with Hope, force Morrow to question his origins and purpose in life. Morrow does not totally escape from self-deception but does move toward self-discovery.

Ziporyn’s understanding of late 19th-century Victorian attitudes toward gender roles and sexual practices is derived also from diaries of the era, which are heavy with guilt, anxiety, and hypochondria, yet show hope. She deals with concerns as pressing today as a century ago. Just as we confront surrogacy and cloning, Ziporyn’s characters ask who are our biological parents and children, does it matter, and what are we willing to do to create a better society?


Eric Howard Christianson, PhD
University of Kentucky