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The Mutant Problem

Published: July 19, 2015

You know that television show, Big Bang Theory where all the geeks live in one floor of a college dorm? That was my apartment building. There were five of us on that floor with varying flavours of dork. The skinny old building dated at least to the sixties complete with shag carpeting. Doug was the only one who didn't rip it out.

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Peter Parker for The New York Times


Times Topics: Mutant Registration Act | Charles Xavier  | X-Men

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Doug Ramsey and I hung out the most. We both went to Columbia; I majored in biochemistry, he did linguistics. We had first-year informatics together. Doug was a polyglot; he spoke nine languages fluently--Russian, Navajo, Mandarin and Hindi, just to name a few-- and he was learning at least another dozen. For all of that, he stammered when he got too worked up and often paused in strange places probably because his mouth couldn't catch up to his brain. He always made funny, insightful observations. Anytime something happened to me, the first thing I'd think was "Wait until Doug hears this."

That first day of informatics, I told him I needed to find a place and he told me about the apartment opening up in his building. He and the other guys helped me move my stuff which was pretty funny considering none of us topped a hundred-thirty pounds sopping wet. We played complex campaigns of tabletop RPGs, debated Star Wars versus Star Trek and quizzed each other the day before exams. To those of you who have never experienced the joys of nerding out with a bunch of other geeks, my condolences. You have never truly known companionship like that of a geek collective.

Black Tuesday occurred during my sophomore year at Columbia. Like so many others around the world, I experienced the most excruciating two minutes of my life. We were playing Halo at Doug's place. Without warning, Doug let out a howl and threw himself backwards against the couch. He ripped at his hair and curled up into a ball. Blood trickled from his mouth where he had bitten his tongue. One of the guys was pre-med; he thought Doug was having a grand-mal seizure and so he piled pillows under his head and told us to push everything out of the way. He told us it would only last for one to three minutes. Those minutes lasted forever.

When Doug finally came out of it, he was sobbing. As we cleaned up, I remember the lights from the TV glaring a little too brightly. I remember squinting and reaching for the remote so I could adjust the picture settings. My head felt like it was being crushed by a tank on fire. I don't remember screaming but I must have because I came out of the attack with a raw throat. For all that I had just experienced the worst pain in my life, seeing Doug go through it was even more traumatizing. I can't even imagine what it must have been like for him to watch the four of us.

As we all now know, Black Tuesday was caused by a telepathic attack, first on all the mutants of the world then all the baseline humans. The mutant telepath behind it, Charles Xavier, finally admitted his part in a press conference on July 1, 2015. He said he had been forced to use his power by a splinter military group. This group, led by former Colonel William, was once associated with the American military and performed experiments on mutants. Xavier and several others had been held in a yet-undisclosed base. That is supposedly where Stryker used another mutant to control Xavier, forcing him to execute a telepathic assault on all the mutants of the world. Hence Doug's seizure. But before he could finish, Magneto intervened, ordering the still-suggestible Xavier to attack only humans instead. That's why the rest of us went into convulsions.

But you know all of this. You just watched it on CNN. You're probably debating the truth with your work-buddies around the water cooler or in the cafeteria. I'm not here to tell you what to believe because, quite frankly, I don't know what to believe. What I do know is that a week after Black Tuesday, my boss told me to take some pictures for a story on "the mutant problem." I did was I was told. I needed rent money and that soon after my brush with death, mutants freaked me out.

When the story ran, I didn't tell any of the guys on the floor about it even though that story and its follow-ups gave me enough cash to pay for two semesters, including new textbooks. The next day, Doug disappeared. He didn't pack, he didn't leave a note, he was just gone. And none of us ever saw him again. The vacancy sign outside our building admonished me for the rest of the semester.

That was ten years ago and I haven't stopped taking pictures of "the mutant problem" here in New York. The only difference is my definition of "the problem." Look at these pictures and really think about what "the mutant problem" means. These are your neighbors and friends, your brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, your teachers, bullies, bosses and falafel vendors. Even now, I'm thinking, "Doug would've loved to hear about this." The more romantic would call it penance but I consider it a call. I'm sorry I was an ass, Doug. Give me a call. We're long over-due for a D&D campaign, buddy.


Doug Ramsey, 2002

Peter Parker is a genetics professor at Columbia University, one of the youngest recipients of the UN Bioethics Award and a freelance photographer.



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