Volume 21, Number 2

The Happiness Gene

Kevin Finnerty

“Gene Kid, Gene Kid, look at what your Momma did.”

You're a DNA baby. When you were growing up, your classmates would tease you and call you the Gene Kid. Before you were born, many debated your right to exist. But just as is the case with children conceived and born naturally, no one ever questioned you about your own existence.

Your genes were manipulated immediately after an egg from your mother melded with donated sperm. A relatively small, full-figured woman at the time of your conception, your thirty-four year old mother had been divorced for five years—after finally growing tired of her former husband's repeated adultery and abuse—and was already the mother of one child, your familial sister Theresa.

Back then, in the early days of DNA manipulation, society believed it had a greater role to play in the process. Women had to ask for permission to give birth to a DNA baby and were studied, evaluated and critiqued beforehand. Your mother had supporters and detractors. Some diagnosed her as clinically depressed. They portrayed her as too weak and unhappy to make such a consequential decision as having a DNA baby.

Others called those who wished to deny your mother access to the modern technology, and, in essence, your being, “elitists.” In their judgment, women like your mother deserved every opportunity to have the child they desired, just like anyone else. They saw natural science as the means of creating a greater sense of equality, of truly leveling the playing field, things social science had forever failed to do.

"She's a woman who has tremendous love to give," wrote one of your mother’s supporters in her report to the committee that approved your conception. "What more can a mother offer? What more should be required of her?"

After a two-year wait that included a number of legal challenges, your mother was able to customize you according to her specifications. She designed you to be quite different than herself and your sister. Allowing for certain environmental deviations, you would be between 6'2" and 6'5", blond with blue eyes, among the highest one to three percent in degree of intelligence, of an athletic build and inclination and free from cancer, genetic defects, known diseases, acne, obesity, and baldness.

You would have been astounded at all the choices that had to be made, especially considering that more than 99 percent of gene letters are the same for everyone. Although the actual work came later in a lab, it could be said you were essentially created in an office with your mother sitting at a long, glass-covered desk, checking off desired traits while her lawyer supervised her acts. The decisions she made in the cold, sterile room were those which gave life to you. An amazing feat, considering your mother never once had to write a lengthy essay to describe the child she wanted. In fact, the only complete sentence she wrote was her response to the last question, which by that point in time was no more than a survey: "Why have you selected the particular traits you did?"

Her response was, "It's a good investment."

If your mother wished you into being, your sister might have done the opposite to you, had it been possible. She was jealous of you before you were ever born, believing your mother loved her DNA checklist more than she’d ever loved her living being.

Eleven at the time of your birth, Theresa already sensed that school and life in general seemed to hold little promise for her. Before she entered high school, she turned to drugs and sex, not for pleasure, but as a means of revenge or as an attempt to shock your mother into concern. Theresa became rail-thin, cursed constantly and frequently only returned home at sunrise. She refused to take care of you—to change your diapers, to feed you, or even to watch you when your mother needed to leave the house.

Whenever your mother complained about your sister’s behavior, Theresa would shout, "Why are you worried? I'm not the one you love!"

"How can you say that? I love both of you."

"That's a lie! You love him better because he's not like us. And you hate me because I'm too much like you."

"That's not ... true ... not true at all," your mother would say less than convincingly before abandoning your sister and her combative ways to hold you.

And though you sat on the floor of your living room while they spoke above and around you, what could you say about all this? Smart as you were to be, you were still just a little DNA baby at the time.

The scientists, especially the geneticist and his team of researchers responsible for monitoring your being, claim they are striving to make better human beings. Disrupted or destroyed evolution has been foregone in favor of eugenics: you are their creation. Ever since you were born, these men and women have examined and tested you. More so as a youth, when you filled them with pride.

"Another success," they'd tell one another after seeing the results of their efforts—an adorable, four year old boy with the intellect of a nine or ten year-old.

"Excellent progress," others would report when at the age of seven you excelled at sports even as you competed against boys three years older than you.

Your classmates weren’t so eager to lavish praise upon you, initially. You were different than them. Or so they’d heard from their parents or other children.

"Gene Kid, Gene Kid, look at what your Momma did."

Still, if you came home upset, your mother, the one who had unabashedly allowed it to become known that you were a DNA baby, the local Gene Kid, told you, "Oh, they're just jealous. But we'll show 'em, don't worry."

And she was right. The older you became, the more you comprehended the special place you had in the world—seemingly superior to the other students in the classroom, when playing sports and with pretty girls. Few of your classmates teased you then; most wanted to be your friend. Some even questioned their own parents, "How come I'm not a gene kid?"

You'd been one of the first. At least among the non-elite. Your mother had gambled early, realizing before most that gene enhancement was to be to your century what antibodies and vaccines were to the Twentieth Century.

A proud Momma, that's what you had. Proud of you and proud of her decision to have you. She’d dote over you daily. She'd drive you to the park to play ball any time you wanted to practice; enroll you in additional academic classes designed to meet your advanced needs; even buy you books she herself could never comprehend so you could progress at a faster pace than your classmates. And bragging? Oh, there was no end to that: "Well, my son always gets all A's ... my son hit three home runs yesterday ... my son says…."

Whenever anyone explained away your success by saying, "But that’s because he's a Gene Kid?" she would just become all the more proud.

"That just makes me smarter than you, doesn't it?"

True, she sometimes over-mothered you. "Read this. It's Moby Dick. They say it's a classic," she'd say, handing you the Melville novel when she found you playing a video game.

"If you like music, how about playing the piano? Maybe you're the next Mozart," would be the response if she found you listening to your iPod.

Your life changed your mother from a listless, downcast woman to one full of positive exuberance, from a woman absent of pride to a boastful individual. And when you were young at least, you were willing to satisfy any of your mother's wishes, for you recognized how much she did for you, how much she loved you.

As opposed to... your sister. When she was seventeen, before she had graduated from high school, Theresa left home, a fact that was accepted rather dispassionately by your mother.

"It's her life. What can I do?" she said.

Later, when Theresa returned, jobless and without money, your mother seemed annoyed. You overheard short, heated conversations.

"Don’t expect me to take care of you now."

"I gave up on that long ago."

"You‘re old enough to get a job and support yourself."

"Yeah, and you can’t wait until the Gene Kid can support you so you don’t have to work anymore yourself."

"Leave your brother out of this."

“It’s a stretch to call him my brother, don’t you think?”

You didn't like your sister's jealousy. You thought you deserved your mother's praise and fawning. You got all A's; she failed most of her classes. Your friends were the promising, the best; hers were the dregs, those of whom seemingly nobody would be proud.

Nevertheless, your sister told you: "You're not the hot shot you think you are."

You just smiled and nodded. You saw her as unkempt and unrefined. You weren't yet ten years old and yet you already towered above her.

"One day, you'll fail too, pal," Theresa warned.

* * *

Was she really the smart one? You didn't fail at school, no. Your failure was more personal—a failure to achieve what few realized was more important than appearance, intellect, even health. Why hadn't anyone concerned themselves with your happiness?

Now, at the age of twenty-one, you're doing very well in law school. The editor-in-chief of the law review. But when you're not occupied, your thoughts trouble you.

Am I happy?

Seemingly a question any ordinary child could answer, but you, DNA baby all grown up, cannot.

“Gene Kid, Gene Kid, look at what your Momma did.”

The geneticists can't help you with this problem. It's obvious to you that while everyone's known for a while you can't buy happiness, you're living proof that you can't make it either. You feel like just another product of a capitalistic society where the assumption's generally made that change equals progress.

It's not that you're terribly unhappy; no, nothing's really wrong. It's just a feeling. Maybe you're suddenly aware of the expectations you're going to have to carry your whole life. Perhaps, for the first time, you're truly self-conscious about being a DNA baby, the Gene Kid. It’s possible you're finally realizing intelligence, praise, awards, even girls don't necessarily make one happy. Or maybe, smart as you are, you just don't know why you're not happy.

In any case, unlike the act of creation, the scientists don't seem to know how to respond to your current dilemma. Your geneticist is now almost sixty years old. You're supposed to report to him once a year, but you've been seeing him more frequently of late because of your troubles. He listens to your problems but seems more concerned with learning about what you plan to do with your life, if you (and therefore, he) will someday be memorable.

“We just do the research," he says when you press him, "and correct the medical problems. It's the responsibility of the rest of society to properly use what we give to the world."

But how, you wonder, can they use human beings for their tests and claim to be removed from the results? How can those who created the atomic bomb claim they have no responsibility for the lives that were lost due to its use? How can those who doled out HGH to normal boys and girls whose parents wanted them to be taller say they played no part in the decision-making process? How can your creators claim to have no responsibility for your happiness or lack thereof?

The night after meeting your geneticist you dream you're in a convenience store late at night. You're at the counter purchasing a six-pack (even though you've been designed to have an extreme disinclination toward alcoholic beverages) when a would-be thief enters the store.

"Aw shit, I forgot my gun," says the man dressed in black from his boots to his ski mask as he frisks himself. “You got one I can borrow?" he asks you.

“Sorry, dumbass,” you laugh until a gentleman in a white jacket emerges from behind a rack of potato chips.

"I do," says the man who withdraws a pistol and hands it to the thief.

"Thanks," the robber replies before shooting you and the store's owner. As you slump to the ground, you see the murderer offer his accomplice a small portion of his take for the timely assistance.

* * *

You sit unhappily in the law library, unable to focus on your work, and wonder if scientists have erred where ordinary individuals would not. For them, achievement is a goal unto itself. Proving something can be done is a good, regardless whether it should be. That’s why they created you, despite the warnings.

"Why don't you change your thinking, not your being?" asked some suffering from genetic flaws at the time.

Few listened.

Your mother might have been one of those confused. Tempted by those proclaiming DNA manipulation could construct the perfect child, with good intentions, she had the scientists create you. It seemed simple, foolproof.

"Gene Kid, Gene Kid, look at what your Momma did."

You wonder if the scientists will blame your mother, saying they gave her the tools, but she misused them. You think they might but don't believe that would be fair. The scientists didn't give her all the tools, not even the most important one.

You leave the library, abandoning your books on the table, your coat on the chair. Outside it's cold but you like the sensation. You see your breath and know you're alive, real, human.

You realize, as with all things human, there’s never a guarantee. No parent can guarantee the happiness of her child. No matter what she does.

And what happens if a child is ultimately unhappy? Parents can't go back and undo what's been done. The child can't go back into the womb or beyond into a state of pre-existence. You wonder if some would-be parents were just coming to this understanding when the scientists stepped in and said, "Hold everything! We've got the answer! Gene manipulation. DNA babies. We'll make the exact child you want."

Sounds like a guarantee, right? Who wouldn't go for that?

But you're living proof that they still haven’t discovered the Happiness Gene.