Summary

In her memoir, The Last Strawberry, Rita Swan describes the illness and death of her sixteen-month-old son, Matthew. As practicing Christian Scientists, Swan and her husband observe their son’s sudden symptoms and unusual behavior but do not visit a pediatrician because their church prohibits medical treatment. Instead, they hire Christian Science “practitioners” whose goal is to effect a cure through prayer. These prayers, however, fail, and Matthew’s condition quickly deteriorates. After days of unsuccessful faith-based treatment, Swan decides, in desperation and opposition to church doctrine, to bring her son to a hospital, where he is diagnosed with advanced spinal meningitis. Dismayed by her decision “to resort to materia medica,” the practitioners refuse the family further spiritual support (35). Swan recalls, “We brought our Christian Science books to our comatose child in the intensive care unit. We read, whispered, prayed, and cried over him for hours every day, whether our Church believed it was right or not” (37). Matthew eventually died in the hospital in July 1977.

Commentary

The Last Strawberry is important for readers interested in the intersection of medical ethics and religion. Swan’s memoir numbers among many autobiographical accounts published by former Christian Scientists, but this text is exceptional for several reasons. First, it is the briefest Christian Science memoir (only sixty-one pages), whose brevity delivers a forceful, emotionally charged account of the illness and death of a child. There is little context or commentary that draws the reader’s attention from the focal point of the narrative, Swan’s son. Second, the story expresses the Swan family’s explicit grief and outrage, leaving no trace of nostalgia or deference for the church. Third, Swan’s book is written from the perspective of formerly practicing parents, whereas other published memoirs typically narrate the experiences of apostates through the lens of their childhood experiences growing up in Christian Science households. These latter memoirs generally adhere to a coming-of-age framework for recording how one eventually withdrew from the church, but Swan’s account focuses narrowly on adult experience. This different, specifically parental perspective gives insight into the terrifying real-life decisions that situate children between healthcare and religious doctrine.

Although they must cope with the pain of losing a child, Swan remarks in the “Afterword” that her son’s death mobilized her and her husband to advocate for children’s healthcare rights. In 1983, they founded
Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD): “Shaking off the isolation and groveling subservience of our previous religion, we mustered the courage to become advocates for children’s medical care” (47). CHILD operated as a not-for-profit organization until 2017, realizing advocacy efforts and legislative reform.

Publisher

Hag's Head Press

Place Published

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Edition

2010

Page Count

61