A version of this essay was delivered on November 5, 2015, as the Theodore H. White Lecture on the Press and Politics at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
AMERICAN CHRONICLES about Robert C. W. Ettinger, a founder of the cryonics movement. Robert C. W. Ettinger is ninety-one years old and he is a founder of the cryonics movement. When he dies, the blood will be drained from his body, antifreeze will be pumped into his arteries, and holes will be drilled in his skull, after which he will be stored in a vat of liquid nitrogen at minus three hundred and twenty degrees Fahrenheit. He expects to be defrosted, sometime between fifty and two hundred years from now, by scientists who will make him young and strong and tireless. Ettinger has already frozen his mother and his two wives, along with ninety-two other people who await resurrection inside giant freezers in a building just a few blocks from his house, in Clinton Township, Michigan. The Cryonics Institute occupies a seven-thousand-square-foot warehouse in an industrial park. Past a shabby waiting room is the small office of Andy Zawacki, who constitutes half of C.I.’s full-time staff. He is also one of C.I.’s more than eight hundred members, which means that he plans to be frozen when he dies. The writer visited the freezer storage area. There were fourteen cylindrical freezers. Each held six patients, and all but four were filled. There were also three older, rectangular freezers. The writer asked if the corpses were put in canisters within the cylinders. “No, in sleeping bags,” Ettinger said. Ettinger was born in Atlantic City in December of 1918. His mother’s family came from Odessa; his father was born in Germany. In about 1922, the family moved to Detroit. When he was eight years old, Ettinger started reading Amazing Stories, a sci-fi magazine. Ettinger dates his interest in immortality to 1931, when he read “The Jameson Satellite.” Mentions Ted Williams’s head, which was frozen and stored at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, C.I.’s chief rival. “Neuropreservation” has a scientific attitude, but that doesn’t make it science. Credentialled laboratory scientists don’t generally think the dead will one day awaken. The consensus appears to be that when you try to defrost a frozen corpse you get mush. And even if, in the future, scientists could repair the damage done to cells by freezing and thawing, what they would have, at best, is a cadaver. Ettinger announced the dawn of what he called the Freezer Era at the height of the Cold War. His book, “The Prospect of Immortality,” appeared in 1964, the year “Dr. Strangelove” hit theatres. When the book came out, Ettinger became something of a star. The first human being was frozen in 1966; it went badly, and the body had to be buried a few months later. The following year, a man was frozen by an organization that later became the Cryonics Society of California. Ettinger’s father and brother were not frozen; they “were lost.” His first patient was his mother, Rhea, whom he froze in 1977. His second patient was his first wife, Elaine, who died in 1987. He remarried the following year. His second wife, Mae, suffered a stroke in 2000, and she was frozen as well. Ettinger finds nothing so uninteresting as history. Describes the writer and Ettinger going through his family photo albums.