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Berkeleyan

Hoffer Prize judges name 2003 winners

| 02 April 2003

 

hoffer winners

Staffers Michael Rancer and Carol Wood, among the winners of this year’s Lily Fabilli and Eric Hoffer Essay Prize.
Peg Skorpinski photo

Three Berkeley staff members and two students have been named winners of the 2003 Lili Fabilli and Eric Hoffer Essay Prize — an annual campus contest that puts a premium on efficient self-expression. In a maximum of 500 words, this year’s contestants were invited to write on “Self Deception: Benefits and Consequences.” Essays were evaluated for originality of thought and excellence in writing.

The judges for the Committee on Prizes awarded first place to Michael Rancer, chief administrative officer for the Library, and student Ana Martinez — who each received $750. Second-place prizes of $500 each went to student Daniel Lee and staff members Carol Wood and Julie Rodriguez. Wood is scholarship coordinator for Undergraduate Scholarships, Prizes and Honors; Rodriguez is an administrative assistant in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

“I hadn’t done much writing for a long time; I was thrilled to see that I could actually still write,” said Rancer when he heard the news. “Five hundred words is a pretty constrained word limit. It was really a challenge to fit what were fairly significant thoughts into that amount of space. “

In his winning essay, Rancer describes how he and his family dealt with familial dysautonomia — a genetic neurological disorder affecting Ashkenazi Jews — that marked, and ultimately took, the life of his son, David.
Rancer says that writing has been part of the grieving and healing process both for himself and his 18- year-old daughter, an aspiring journalist. A part of the $750 prize has already funded Emily’s way to a journalism conference at Columbia University. He’ll donate another portion of the proceeds to FD Hope, a national foundation fighting familial dysautonomia. His essay follows.

Self-Deception in Life and Death
Throughout the twelve years of my son’s life, I refused to believe that he would die.

David was born with a rare genetic disorder, lived with multiple disabilities, was hospitalized in critical care at least once a year, and had other frequent medical crises. But in the intervals, at school and in the neighborhood, he could seem like any other child, full of life and with a smile on his face that people never forgot. Only my wife, my daughter and I understood how sick he could get, and that his disease was both progressive and fatal. But day to day he was also generally healthier than others with his disease, and I had a cousin with it who lived to the age of fifty. So, for nearly all of those twelve years, we lived as if David had a long life ahead of him. We worried more about how he would fend for himself as an adult after we were no longer able to care for him, than we did about planning for his early death.

Was it self-deception? Looking back, eighteen months after his final illness, it’s clear that we deceived him and ourselves about his future. He didn’t die suddenly, so we had some warning about what was coming. But until that final illness, the one that made clear how destructive of the body the disease familial dysautonomia can be, we talked and acted as though death was not on the list of possible outcomes. We insisted that he go to school, think about college, travel the world with us, and be an active child. He responded with hard study, attempts to play sports, and obvious joy wherever he was, whether on the beach at Santa Barbara, or in front of Windsor Castle. During those scarier times, when he was sick, and would ask, “Am I going to die?” we would answer, “Don’t be silly, we just have to adjust your medication and you’ll be up again tomorrow morning.” And we were always right, except for the last time that he fell ill.

As I continue to look back, I know, for us, that self-deception was the right thing. It allowed us to focus on the quality of David’s life as he lived it, and to share in the joys that he found, rather than turning inward and obsessively wondering when he would die. It allowed him to have the dreams that all young children should have, of growing up, of becoming independent adults. Most important, it gave him the strength to pursue and live his life to the fullest, instead of retreating into a secluded world where death was all that was visible on the horizon.

In our case, in David’s case, ultimately the primary consequence of self-deception was the ability to fully enjoy a life that otherwise had no promise of a future. We cherish the bright memories that those years left behind, in contrast to the darkness that we refused to let consume us.