(2 of 4)
It goes something like this: in McCarthy's world, there is scientific truth and there is emotional truth. There is the fact of a mother looking into her son's eyes and knowing something has gone very wrong and the fact of about two dozen studies showing no link between vaccines and autism. There is the truth of the parents and the truth of the doctors. And she believes that some truths are more equal than others. "She's a mom," says her boyfriend, actor Jim Carrey. "That's what she is. That's her truth." It all sounds so reasonable, expressed by the charming, gamine Jenny McCarthy. And this is what makes her dangerous.
The Catholic girl from Chicago who got her start as a Playboy model was the second of four daughters of a steel-mill-foreman father and courtroom-custodian mother. She attended Mother McAuley High School. "It can be hard for the cute girl," she recalls. "I was blond, cute, broke. I was beat up. I was thrown inside lockers. I was burned with cigarettes. My hair was lit on fire." To earn money for college she studied nursing at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale she sent her photos to Playboy and was Miss October and eventually Playmate of the Year in 1994. Her subsequent career as a comedian and actress took her through MTV game shows, her own sitcom and various roles in B movies. She is now probably more famous as an advocate for her views on autism than she ever was as an actress, and it has given her a power out of proportion to her show-business success.
In 2005, McCarthy's son Evan, then 2, began having seizures so severe he required repeated emergency hospitalization. McCarthy had noticed that Evan had some developmental delays, compared with his peers in a playgroup they attended, and he exhibited some atypical behaviors: arm flapping, repetitive actions and fixation on strange objects. She describes her panic at Evan's diagnosis in her memoir Louder than Words: "I wished to God the doctor had handed me a pamphlet that said, 'Hey, sorry about the autism, but here's a step-by-step list on what to do next.' But doctors don't do that. They say 'sorry' and move you along." McCarthy began to try almost every treatment that turned up on Google. Evan went through conventional, intensive Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy as well as a host of alternative approaches, including a gluten-free and casein-free (GFCF) diet, hyperbaric oxygen chambers, chelation, aromatherapies, electromagnetics, spoons rubbed on his body, multivitamin therapy, B-12 shots and a range of prescription drugs. McCarthy says she made a deal with God. "Help me fix my boy," she prayed, "and I'll teach the world how I did it."
She believes she did fix her boy. A psychological evaluation from UCLA's neuropsychiatric hospital, dated May 10, 2005, was "conclusive for a diagnosis of Autistic Disorder," and yet here, running toward us on a warm California afternoon, is Evan, shouting out, "Are you here to play with me? When are we going to play?" McCarthy's boy is a vivacious, articulate and communicative child who seems to have beaten the condition. He is an inspiration, the fact of him as incontrovertible as any study done in any laboratory in the world.
Or is this the truth? There are dark murmurings from scientists and doctors asking, Was her son ever really autistic? Evan's symptoms heavy seizures, followed by marked improvement once the seizures were brought under control are similar to those of Landau-Kleffner syndrome, a rare childhood neurological disorder that can also result in speech impairment and possible long-term neurological damage. Or, as other pediatricians have suggested, perhaps the miracle I have beheld is the quotidian miracle of childhood development: a delayed 2-year-old catching up by the time he is 7, a commonplace, routine occurrence, nothing more surprising than a short boy growing tall. It is enraging to the mother to hear that nothing was wrong with her boy she held him during his seizures, saw his eyes roll up after he received his vaccines and how can you say that she doesn't know what she knows?
With the diagnosis of her son and the book she wrote about their journey together, McCarthy became the world's most famous parent of an autistic child. "I knew I was going to be the voice of the families when this happened," she says. "Because I had the platform. In my head, something said, 'You can get booked on talk shows.' If there was a purpose from God, he just picked someone who can get booked on talk shows. I just fell into this truth ... The only reason I'm getting this much attention is because I represent hundreds of thousands of mothers who have the same story." During appearances on Oprah, 20/20, Good Morning America, Larry King Live and other television shows, she decried what she claimed was a vast, profitable conspiracy to vaccinate children, which she said was responsible for the great upsurge in autism diagnoses. Often appearing with her boyfriend Carrey (who lives with Jenny and Evan), she glibly and with irate dismissal of the scientific evidence accused pediatricians and doctors of poisoning children and then withholding the treatments that could save them.