When you're a historian who writes about controversial topics, often the best indication that you've approached a contentious issue in a balanced way is when you end up annoying both sides of the debate. Such was the case when I wrote my first book, An Alternative History of Hyperactivity: Food Additives and the Feingold Diet. Dr. Ben Feingold, a San Francisco allergist, began treating hyperactive children with a food additive-free diet in the early 1970s, and soon his theory that artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives could trigger hyperactivity, what we'd call ADHD today, was being intensely debated, not only in medical circles, but also in the American media.
Although much of the buzz about the Feingold diet had dissipated by the time the good doctor died in 1982, it had re-emerged in the early 2000s, when I began studying its history for my PhD. And, as I suggested above, my attempts to take a fairly objective, unbiased approach to the topic did not win me many friends (apart from my historical colleagues). Feingold's advocates were miffed that I didn't extol his diet's virtues enough; his detractors wondered why I was investigating it in the first place - surely it had been proven to be a fad decades ago?
For my part, I was disappointed that no one seemed to see matters from my perspective (in short, that such debates are complicated and don't usually lead to definitive answers), but then again, I didn't have as much at stake as others. I didn't eat much processed food, for one thing, and there were many other aspects of the history of ADHD that I also wanted to explore.
Then I was faced with the mystery of the jelly babies. For my non-UK readers, jelly babies are a little like gummy bears except, well, they're babies (which is kind of creepy, I know). They're soft, colorful, fruit-flavored candies. Now, normally, I don't eat such delights. I used to love Goodies (candy-coated licorice), back home in Canada, I've always liked jelly beans, but, living in Scotland, I'd rather have shortbread or a caramel slice to soothe my sweet tooth. But, when a colleague came over for lunch a little while ago, and left us with a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates and a gigantic tub of jelly babies, I couldn't resist.
At first, I'd just have a couple after supper, perhaps three at most. I wasn't terribly fond of them, but I didn't want to throw them out and didn't really want to give them to my 2-year-old son, either - my wife was certainly not helping get to rid of them. A week went by and the tub seemed to be as full as ever, creepy jelly babies taunting me from the side of the tub with their maniacal smiles. Then, one evening, when my wife and I were watching something gripping on the TV, I had more than a couple. Probably about fifteen or twenty, if I'm honest (the ones closer to the bottom seemed to taste better). I went to sleep after giving my teeth a good brush and thought nothing of it.
The next day I spent taking care of my son. My wife had taken off for work early to get some writing done, so when the wee man woke up, I trudged into his room, wishing that he'd slept a little longer. I said good morning and pulled open the blinds. Something was different, but I wasn't sure what it was. I felt disassociated from myself, a little drunk, or even slightly high. My son certainly didn't notice anything as I got him dressed and fed, but all morning long I felt odd, as if life was proceeding half a second faster than it normally it, but I was running on normal time. It was decidedly strange, and I was relieved later in the afternoon, when I began to feel normal again.
I wondered what could have caused such a strange sensation. I had just come off a terrible cold, which had left me with sinus headaches, toothaches, and a nasty cough. I hadn't been on any medication, but perhaps this was some strange sickness hangover. I thought, what if I have a brain tumor? and then quickly shunted such fears aside. Then I remembered the jelly babies. Surely not. Or, maybe? If the additives in such candies were thought by some to lead to hyperactivity in children, was a bit of spacey behavior possible as well?
The next day I felt pretty much back to normal and got on with life. I avoided the jelly babies for a few days, but, sure enough, the sweet tooth soon got the better of me and, within a week, I was gobbling down the odd one and encouraging my wife to help me get through the seemingly endless supply (she didn't). Then, a couple of weeks later we sat down to watch something on TV. I was feeling peckish. We didn't have any chocolate or cookies, so I took down the tub of jelly babies and shook it. There were about 20 or so left. By the end of the program, they had disappeared.
I woke up to another Daddy-day, and went into my son's room. The same cloudy, trippy sensation washed over me, and for the rest of the day, and for most of the next morning, I felt similarly drunk, high, and just plain weird. I tried to wash whatever was in my system out with copius glasses of water and eventually felt normal again. I haven't felt that way since. And I haven't had any more jelly babies.
Now, I know an uncontrolled, unintentional experiment with a sample size of one does not make a hill of beans (even jelly beans) difference to any debate. But what I did wonder was: what if such an experience had happened before I stumbled across the Feingold diet, while looking for a PhD topic? Would I have approached it any differently? Would I have become a convert and written a more one-sided history?
Of course, it's impossible to say, but I don't think I would have. We all have personal experiences that not only affect our judgement, but can also fundamentally change how we view the world. Objectivity, for historians, is an unobtainable objective, and that's probably a good thing. But that doesn't mean we can become aware of how our biases, prejudices and preconceived notions, and try to hold them in check. We may not always succeed, we may not even come close on a subconscious level, but I think it's still worth trying. There are just too many destructive debates and controversies in the world to do otherwise.