‘Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering’: Language Turned Inside Out

Eric Merola's documentary shows us what happens when our everyday language must be turned inside out.

“My impression of laetrile was that this was sort of another example of the madness and delusion of crowds.” The screen is black as Ralph Moss begins speaking. “You know,” he goes on as the scene fades in to an empty wooden chair, “That under the pressure of this terrible disease, otherwise sensible people might become desperate and turn to something that was patently worthless or false, and showed the gullibility of people in the face of disaster.” As he completes this thought, Moss walks into frame and then past the chair and out of frame, a dark piano track accentuating the drama.

The scene is at once typical and atypical in Second Opinion: Laetrile At Sloan-Kettering, a documentary structured around Moss’ considerable storytelling skills. For most of the film, he sits in that chair, framed from assorted angles, to obscure or showcase the old-timey, earth-toned landscape painting behind him, to suggest the passing of time, to alter the visual image. All this to convey the saga of laetrile at Sloan Kettering during the ’70s, a saga that turns out to be—in this telling—not “another example of the madness and delusion of crowds,” but instead, another example of the tyranny of Big Pharma.

If that story is less than surprising, it is nonetheless disturbing. Eric Merola’s film, opening on 29 August in New York, where the first night features a Q&A with Merola and Moss, and also available on DVD and VOD, relies on some conventional and conventionally inexpensive devices (the talking heads, the piano track, the cartoony drawings and the archival footage). Put together, these devices illustrate Moss’ experience as a young science writer hired by the PR department at the Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center in 1974. Though he lacked training in the field, he says, he pitched himself as a bright guy who would “see things the way the average layperson would see things.” He was, he remembers, eager to work for an office that was devoted to the then much vaunted War on Cancer (a war that might be won, unlike, say, the war in Vietnam, which Moss references here to suggest the ambient distrust of institutions) and also to finding and reporting scientific truths, to advancing “human knowledge and… the welfare of society.”

It was only a matter of months, Moss reports, before he was disabused of this notion concerning the institution’s primary interests. Moss’ history is controversial and it is his own, and the film doesn’t pretend otherwise; however, Second Opinion does mean to challenge the practices by which decisions are made and quackery is defined. Moss’ focus here is laetrile, a possible treatment for cancer extracted from apricot pits. While laetrile has been discredited more than once, Second Opinion is less interested in laetrile than in Sloan-Kettering’s handling of its own laetrile research, conducted by Dr. Kanematsu Sugiura during the mid-’70s.

This work had to do with mice, and the slight decreases in tumors’ metastasizing when laetrile was administered. While the film shows pages of scribbled notes, typed reports, and annotated charts from the studies, the film includes Moss’ own plain enough language (his “average layperson’s language”) to explain the conflict between laetrile experiments results that were not pursued (the treatment was determined eventually to be “clinically ineffective”) and Big Pharma. It also includes interviews with his kids (in elementary school at the time) and his wife, Martha, remembering how their lives at home were affected. Just as Moss has gone on a bit about his own escalating dilemma, the film cuts cleverly to Martha, who tells you exactly that: “He would sometimes tell me for hours what his day was like, on and on, describing his impressions of Dr. Sugiura, and Dr. Sugiura had told him that it had stopped metastases in 80% of the mice and it should be tested further to see if this was a useful drug for human beings.”

While you might be grateful for her own plain language summary of what’s at stake in the science, Martha Moss’ assessment of her husband is frankly wonderful here. Her appearances become a device by which the film becomes something other than Moss’ personal narration of the laetrile cover-up, but instead, the story of a family affected by political practices, opposition to whistleblowers, and institutional bullying. Not focused on names of doctors and dates and citations in reports, Martha’s specific comments reframe the science and the politics as they pertain to other lives, those of patients, certainly, but also the population who wants to have faith in authorities and experts.

Moss uses similar language to describe efforts by Sloan-Kettering to repress Sugiura’s findings (in a series of statements that “ranged from misrepresentations to outright lies,” as he puts it). Moss also remembers what it was like to be caught in a series of middles, first assigned to ask about Sugiura’s work, then to spy on him for other doctors who were unsure how to present it, and then to decide whether to make the shenanigans public. At last he did, working with associates at and outside the institution, in a weekly mimeographed publication called “Second Opinion,” a claim to freedom of speech, in Moss’ phrasing.

The exposé would eventually cost Moss his job (Martha recalls his firing and even the confiscation of his papers as “a liberating feeling, and that’s a tremendous relief”). But this consequence is only one and maybe the least interesting example in Second Opinion of how language can be engineered to establish thought and practice.

While Moss makes his own case, and Martha provides an equally, if differently, effective voice, Second Opinion‘s most effective moment does not belong to either of its principals. Rather, it shows Dr. Suguira during a 1977 press conference. The 87-year-old researcher died two years later. Here, in scratchy, faded footage, he appears at an event where he was essentially set up by Sloan-Kettering to renounce his own work. In response to a reporter’s question about whether his results agree with those of the report that rejects laetrile outright, he says, “I agree. Of course my results don’t agree, but I agree with what my institution says.” Moss calls this moment “magnificent,” the doctor standing up to those who mean to control him and his work. But that’s not what’s most potent here. Rather, the moment shows what happens when language must be turned inside out. And yes, it sounds like the sort of language we now hear every day.

RATING 5 / 10