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150 letters later, bioethics prof still offers wit and wisdom

Opening the door to Professor of Philosophy Felicia Nimue Ackerman's office is like opening a portal to another world. It's hard to see the books on the shelves behind the various objects decorating the walls: an eclectic assortment of Day of the Dead figurines, Indian paper banners and various trinkets.

Since the late 1980s, Ackerman has had a prolific hobby - writing an astonishing number of letters to the editor of the New York Times.

Ackerman estimated that she has had more than 150 letters published in the Times and several dozen in multiple other publications, though she said she doesn't keep an exact count.

"Academia is status-conscious, and I'm trying to avoid that in other areas of my life," she said. The majority of the five letters per week she generally submits go unpublished, she said.

She writes about topics that range from her philosophical specialization - bioethics - to whatever controversies spark her interest, from book reviews to college admissions and even gerbils. Her writing style is punchy and succinct, often tinged with snark - just like her real life persona.

"I don't use a lot of verbal pyrotechnics because I don't have the talent," she said.

Ackerman wore a brightly colored vest and floppy-brimmed hat as she sat looking up from behind the stacks of books on her desk. "I used to indulge myself with food, but now I indulge myself with clothes," she said. "Food was more fun, but I think the quantity of life is more important than the quality."

Now her frame is short and slender, though she used to be "fat" - not "overweight," she insisted. Ackerman incorporates such personal experiences in her letters.

"As a former fat person who thinks that her weight is her own business, I hope that New Yorkers who want big sugary drinks and who share my distaste for the nanny state will respond to the ban by buying and drinking several small sugary drinks instead," Ackerman wrote in response to a May article about the New York City ban on large sugary beverages. 

Her letter writing hobby started when she read a Newsweek article about a retirement home that taught elderly people poetry. Ackerman thought the poetry that the patients were writing was awful and wrote a letter to the editor criticizing the program.

"I said I didn't want to be patronized when I'm old," Ackerman said.

Leela Senthil Nathan '14, who took PHIL 1400: "Ethics in the Novel" with Ackerman last fall, said she isn't surprised that the professor would take on such a hobby.

"She always got involved in discussions," Senthil Nathan said. "She always enjoyed engaging people, especially with people who disagreed with her opinion. She enjoyed seeing that debate through."

The most common topic in Ackerman's letters comes from her philosophical focus: the ethics of end-of-life issues facing elderly people and their families.

"I'm very concerned about the pressure on old people to bow out gracefully," Ackerman said. "I think it's just as important for a 95 year old to live to be 96 as for a 5 year old to live to be 6. I think death stinks, and I hope to avoid it as long as possible."

In response to a 2009 Times article about using scientific methods to decrease the effects of aging, Ackerman wrote, "As a 62 -year-old and the daughter of a 97-year-old, I was delighted to read 'Quest for a Long, Long Life Gains Scientific Respect' (Sept. 29). As a bioethicist, however, I am unhappily aware that many of my fellow bioethicists don't want people to live 'too long.' Of course, if such small-mindedness had prevailed around the turn of the 19th century, when America's life expectancy was under 50, many of those bioethicists would not be around today to cast aspersions on people who value their lives enough to want to extend them." 

Other letters respond not only to content of articles, but also letters by other people.

"As a middle-aged literary nonentity who occasionally writes book reviews, I was taken aback by the Pulitzer Prize-winner Franz Wright's remark, 'I cannot bring myself to believe that I am the only serious follower of contemporary poetry who is getting sick of reading reviews by young literary nonentities posing as Randall Jarrell' (Letters, Oct. 8)," Ackerman wrote in a letter published in 2006. "I cannot bring myself to believe that I am the only serious reader of book reviews who cringes when an established writer is snobbish and meanspirited enough to sneer at the obscure for being obscure." 

In addition to her letter writing career, Ackerman pens a monthly op-ed column for the Providence Journal. Her most recent piece, "A few thoughts from The Elbow," tells of her satisfaction with the medical care she received for a broken elbow. 

"For the rest of my hospital stay, I remained The Elbow, a broken mechanism in need of repair," she writes. "The staff patched me up, checked my overall physical functioning and supplied pain medication - as if repairing an engine, checking its overall functioning and supplying lubrication. No one asked if I was unhappy or frightened."

Ackerman said she would trade the idle pleasantries of bedside manner for a less crowded waiting room and more efficient care any day.

"That's exactly how I wanted to be seen," she said, flexing her arm. "And my elbow works perfectly now."

Though she describes herself as liberal - on her door is a large ACLU sticker and a button bearing a clever slogan opposing the George W. Bush's presidency - Ackerman said she opposes those who believe it is the government's prerogative to tell individuals what personal decisions they should make.

"There's a reason why they call it 'paternalism,'" Ackerman said. "It's acceptable for parents."

Ackerman hesitated when asked if she has any advice for students who want to share their opinions with the world. 

"The fact that you get some letters turned down doesn't mean that you won't get others published," she said. She credits her own success to persistence, adding that she is loath to tell other people how to live their lives.


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