Asimov, Janet (1926 - )
Asimov, whose maiden name is Jeppson (her Scandinavian lineage includes being one-quarter Danish, one-quarter English, one-half Swedish), was the daughter of parents from Mormon country, Utah. Her parents were not religious, however, and at the obligatory age of 7 they did not have their daughter baptized. In Notes for a Memoir on Isaac Asimov, Life, and Writing (Prometheus, 2006), she writes about not having been baptized:
- I did, however, grow up feeling some affinity with the stories of Utah pioneers, loving the hymn "Come, Come, Ye Saints" (written by the ancestor of one of my uncles-in-law). I hoped to visit Utah someday - I'd been to my mother's home in Brigham City when I was six and remembered the good food, the mountains, the magnificent weeping willow on the front lawn, and the circle of nasturtiums in which I sat and ate the leaves.
Born in Pennsylvania, she grew up in New Rochelle, New York. When she did attend a Sunday school - Presbyterian - she chose not to be be baptized, and this was acceptable to her six-foot father as well as to her mother (whose mother's house in New Rochelle was on Thomas Paine's property). When at the age of 13 she read Lin Yutang's The Importance of Living, for the first time she learned about religious points of view that exclude the supernatural. Although at Wellesley she took the required course in Biblical History, later studying books on Zen, she never took supernatural beliefs seriously:
- I'm still unbaptized and grateful to my parents for not insisting. It seems that once you are baptized in any conventional Christian religion, the church never leaves you alone, and it's harder to develop a sense of identity that you know is all yours.
Asimov received her B.A. from Stanford University, her M. D. from the New York University College of Medicine in 1952, and in 1960 she graduated from the William Alanson White Institute of Psychoanalysis. As a medical student, she delivered 25 babies and as an intern another 25 but decided not to be an obstretrician "because I'm a day person, and babies tend to arrive at night."
- I enjoyed my work as a psychoanalyst in spite of the fact that so many people resist freedom through learning and self-awareness, sometimes because they have been forced (or think they've been forced) to settle for a narrow way of life that becomes the only way they feel secure.
- Nowadays, religious fundamentalists fight nonreligious scientists by saying that their religion is scientific. But the point of view called "scientific creationism," although quite humorous in its own way, is nevertheless false and dangerous, promoting hatred, censorship, and ignorance. Isaac quit one publisher when he found out that his article on evolution, in their first edition, was expunged in the second edition.
On supernaturalism (in a letter to Dr. Stewart Holmes):
- I think many people need to have a god as a "prime causative agent" because so many people feel helpless, trapped by life's problems, and long for a good parent. In childhood, we don't always understand what the parent is doing or saying, so in adulthood people recreate that parent in a god who is to be followed on faith, not rational understanding. Gods were vital to primitive cultures because, before science was invented and began to explain things, so much was not understood. And feared. Fear promotes irrational ideas.
- I'm eternally grateful to Isadora [Duncan], for when you are as young as I was during exposure to her teaching methods, what you learn about feeling, creativity, and moving the body becomes part of you on a subliminal, nonverbal level for the rest of your life. It alters your interaction with reality and affects the virtual realities you create. Much later on, I discovered something else that Isadora knew - that sex is a large part of the pleasure of being human. I mean the entire marvel of physical and emotional pleasure with, in, to, and from another. And then I learned from Isaac that intimacy and creativity have a lot in common. In order for them to succeed, each needs arousal, inspiration, concentration, commitment, and openness. Thank you, Isaac.
On life with Isaac Asimov:
- [The two Asimovs] decided at the age of eleven to become writers but, being children of the Great Depression, Isaac and I were preoccupied with the problems of making a living. Since writers - especially now - have a hard time making ends meet, we both went to graduate school. It was important to have an advanced degree and professional status, while continuing to write on the side. Fortunately both of us liked our respective professions. He enjoyed teaching, and my brother (in the last medical school class that Isaac taught) affirms the fact that he gave great lectures. Isaac had more confidence and talent, becoming a published writer at the age of eighteen. I stopped writing during the rigors of medical school and residency and started again after I graduated from analytic school.
On life in general:
- I was never an official member of any religion until middle age, when I joined the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Isaac and I were married by an Ethical Culture Leader. I belong to the American Humanist Association. I think both Humanism and Ethical Culture could do more to emphasize human beings as part of Nature. For instance, we are irrevocably affected by what happens to Earth's atmosphere, ozone layer, oceans, etc. When I applied to become a student at the White Institute, one of the interviewers asked me what I thought my position was in Nature. Off the top of my head came something like 'I am an animal living on planet Earth, in a Solar System, in a great big Universe.' Simplistic, but then I didn't realize that many years later I'd be trying to simplify science for the laymen.
She had met Isaac at a 1959 Mystery Writers of American banquet at which the editor Robert P. Mills asked her what book had turned her on to science fiction. "Arthur Clarke's Childhood's End," she had replied. This pleased Isaac although he was miffed that it was not one of his works. When Mills asked her about Unto the Fourth Generation, she had replied that she didn't like stories "in which things happen but unravel at the end so that nothing changes, like Penelope's knitting." She preferred, she said, stories in which people end up being different as a result of what has happened. When Mills mentioned that it was Isaac's story, she gasped, then quickly covered with "My criticism comes out of being a pschoanalyst, because we try to help people change."
Now a retired psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Isaac Asimov's wife Janet has been a published writer since 1966. She has written stories, articles, and twenty-two books (eleven for children). For 12 years, her bi-weekly science column, "Asimov on Science," for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, resulted in fan mail from around the world.
In 2006, she wrote Notes for a Memoir on Isaac Asimov, Life, and Writing. The work not only gives a profound and intimate understanding of her experiences but also provides a unique personal view about her and Isaac's joys together. In a chapter on religion, she recounts how Isaac was asked by a proposed 15-volume Encyclopaedia Judaica for a short biography and a photograph. She commented,
- I never call myself an ex-Mormon, because - having not been baptized - I never made it into the club. Isaac, however, called himself a Jew because he considered it an ethnic, not a religious label. Sometimes this got him into trouble:
- My mail today includes an item from the Encyclopaedia Judaica Research Foundation. They want a short biography and a photograph and included a mess of promotional matter about a fifteen-volume Enc. Judaica. In alarm, I wrote back to ask if they wanted to include me as an entry in the Encyclopaedia (get that 'ae') and warned them that the only thing that made me Jewish was the fact that when people said to me, 'Are you Jewish?' I answered 'Yes.' I told them that I didn't observe Judaism in any way, that my work didn't involve Jews or Judaism and that my presence in the Ency. might 'sully' (that was the word I used) the worthy people who would be in it with me. And they sent back a cool letter to the effect that they didn't care. (Apparently as long as I am a credit to anyone who claims me, they're going to claim me.) They also told me that I am included . . . in WHO'S WHO IN WORLD JEWRY, and they would use that biography if I didn't care to send one - only they wanted a photograph, too. So I gave up and sent them some biographical data and a photograph. I guess this is the Jewish version of that rite by which a Mormon can conjure all his [dead] non-Mormon relatives and ancestors nto heaven. Gee, do you suppose that after we die you (kicking and screaming) the Jewish one, and we will have to spend eternity looking mournfully through the bars like the blessed damozel [of Dante Gabriel Rossetti]? Perhaps, though, there's only one hell and if there is justice all good friends can meet there. I rely on that. After all, the devil is a nice guy. When you think of how few people have killed and destroyed in the name of the devil; and how many have done so in the name of God; it makes you think.
Of which, Janet in the book, writes,
- Yes. Isaac. We are now in a large book called Who's Who in Hell, compiled by another atheist, Warren Allen Smith.
Not included in that book is an e-mail she sent friends on 11 May 2006:
- I attended a lecture by Neil de Grasse Tyson at the planetarium in which he expanded on his marvelous article “The Perimeter of Ignorance” in last November’s issue of Natural History Magazine. Neil was in fine form, bringing up the Zeiss from its cavern in the floor, and pointing out its color - charcoal gray. The Zeiss people in Germany make the projector in baby blue, but Neil said that would not do - that since the Zeiss would be in NYC, it should “look mean.”
- It does look mean, and incredibly weird. In the old planetarium the Zeiss was big and dumbell-shaped. This one is more like something large and bulbous scraped off the sea floor, with “eyes” all over it. I was annoyed that I hadn’t brought my binoculars, because the projection is so exact that you can see more with binoculars than with the naked eye.
- In case you haven’t read “The Perimeter of Ignorance” (and everyone should), here’s my favorite sentence from it:
- What comedian designer configured the region between our legs - an entertainment
- complex built around a sewage system?
- Neil has been on a lot of committees at the White House, and said he hadn’t known Bush well enough to yell at him when Bush stated (from Genesis) that God had named the stars. Unfortunately, most of the stars have Arabic names, dating from the scientific golden age of Baghdad, 1000 years ago. Said golden age stopped when a Muslim cleric promoted the Muslim version of Intelligent design, very much like the one the Far Right wants to be taught here in the USA. When people believe their religion explains everything and it’s a sin to do research that expands knowledge, they stop thinking, experimenting, and inventing.
- Apropos of Intelligent Design, Neil says that people simply don’t think about Stupid Design - not only the human body (we can’t breathe and eat at the same time without choking but other animals can), but a great deal of Nature. For instance, no Intelligent Deity designed the universe for our benefit. The Universe kills us, unless we’re living on a thin skin of Earth, on a safe land (how many people live on Antarctica), breathing air and not water. The Universe is sending Apophis our way. This asteroid was named after the god of death, and on Friday April 13, 2029 (I kid you not) it will pass closer than the moon. It will not hit Earth. Then. But on April 13 (not a Friday) 2036 it MAY hit. That’s why there’s been all this scientific (not political - politicians are stupid) concern about finding ways to nudge the damn thing out of our way.
- Some of my religious relatives and friends believe that Armageddon and “the Rapture” will happen. I suppose that those who are left in 2029 will oppose ways of safely coping with Apophis because they think God planned it so they can be raptured up to heaven. Ugh. I’m glad I won’t be around.