See Part 1 of this Article.
The Jesus Christians don't consider themselves to be a cult - their movement is only about two dozen strong around the world - but they are unusually committed to their faith. Following their leader's example, most of them are offering one of their kidneys to a stranger in need of a donor. As the operations begin, Jon Ronson asks them why.
It is mid-February 2002. Dave tells me that he has invented a woman called Anita Foster and has created an email account for her. The fictitious Anita is writing to influential anti-cult groups in the UK, such as Reachout Trust and Catalyst. She says she's a concerned mother whose son has joined the Jesus Christians, and could they offer advice. Reachout Trust sends Anita their Jesus Christians fact-file. Dave sends it on to me. Under Obsession With Death, it quotes passages from Dave's pamphlets: "Fear of death is what gives the bosses their power! How long do you think you can survive without eating? Maybe a month or two! Okay. Would you rather have one month of freedom or a lifetime of slavery? Anything that isn't worth dying for isn't worth living for... If you'd like to be part of this army of martyrs, then please write to us today."
The emails between Anita and the anti-cult groups are getting chattier, Dave tells me. She's a likeable, concerned mother. He says that Anita will soon take on a pivotal role in this story - she will be the one to leak the kidney scandal to the anti-cult groups. This is Dave's plan: the fictitious Anita's fictitious son will donate a fictitious kidney; Anita will inform the anti-cult groups and imply that Dave is coercing his followers to sell their kidneys on the black market, and that the money will go to him. They will tell the tabloids, and the tabloids will go into a week-long frenzy about the self-mutilating kidney cult. Then - and here's my role in the grand scheme - I'll arrive on the scene with the true story of the Jesus Christians' remarkable philanthropy.
It seems a funny scheme, and one that has the capacity to backfire in myriad ways. What if the anti-cult groups don't believe "Anita"? What if the tabloids decide that mass kidney donating is a noble and heroic thing? What if I write unkindly about the group? Why does Dave want to make himself seem more sinister than he actually is?
"Your article will be like the resurrection," says Dave. "But the crucifixion is the key thing. If we have to get crucified for the message to get out, that's fine. And you'll be the resurrection."
Dave begins emailing me stern directives: "You DON'T HAVE TO BE THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE on this one. We can let the tabloids do that for us. We want them to have egg on their faces."
I email back. I tell Dave that I don't feel comfortable with his plan. I feel as if I'm being controlled.
Our relationship descends into an irascible silence. I'm sure there's something philanthropic about his intention to donate a kidney. I'm certain that Robin, Casey, Susan and the others have charitable motives. But when Dave emails me the details of his Machiavellian plot for media control - the Anita Foster leak, the ensuing tabloid frenzy, and then me cleaning it all up - I realise he's also seeking revenge for his treatment over the Bobby Kelly incident.
And, it occurs to me, Dave has scheduled the leak for mid-March, after Robin and Casey's operations, but before he, Susan and the other Jesus Christians will have time to give their kidneys. Will the tabloid frenzy - if it occurs - scupper these plans? "What if you become known as such a sinister cult that nobody wants your kidneys any more?" I ask him.
"Yeah, we've considered about that," he replies.
"I think the biggest concern, as Christians, is that we get the message out. Donating kidneys, for us, is really a minor thing. If we can't do it, we can't."
"It's a big deal for the recipients," I snap.
There is a short silence. "Yeah," says Dave. "Um. I'm sure we could, uh, still find ways. We could go to another hospital. We could give false names ..."
At the Internet cafe in Sutton, Susan is checking her emails again. There are a few from C in Scotland, with whom Susan now corresponds on an almost daily basis. C has told Susan that she doesn't need a kidney immediately, and has suggested that, if someone comes along with a more urgent need, Susan should give her kidney to them instead. "I think that's excellent," says Susan. "A really good attitude."
She reads from C's latest letter: "Hey, never mind, I'm sure I'll survive, and even if I don't, that's no big deal either. You might think it seems a bit flippant on my part not to value my life, and I'm not getting all morbid on you - smiley face - it's just that I believe if your time is up, it's up, and there's nothing you can do about it. Anyway, I hope you are well and continue to feel the way you do about donation of organs. I find your attitude most interesting and refreshing."
"That's very touching," says Susan. " 'When your time's up, it's up.' She seems to have faced that reality and has a good attitude about it. I really like her."
The problem is that Susan has also become friends with another potential recipient: Larry, in Aspen, Colorado. "I would gladly pay for your transportation to the US, all expenses," he emailed her. "It is not legal to sell a kidney, but a good Samaritan donation might be acceptable. Your gift would be a miracle. God bless you."
Susan says she's over the moon, but how to choose? "They both seem so nice," she says.
So she decides to write a list of questions to both C and Larry - "How long have you been on dialysis?" "What does your doctor think about the chances of you surviving a transplant operation?" And other questions, too: "Do you drink?" "Do you smoke?" She sends off the questions.
It is, of course, the DoH's ruling about altruistic kidney donations that has forced her into playing the role of the regulatory authority - or playing the role of an even higher authority than that. Susan is likeable, intelligent and well-meaning. Yet I can't help thinking that, whichever way this story unfolds, some people are going to get hurt.
I begin to think of the story that had been handed to me as a poisoned chalice. I am, in part, supportive of the Jesus Christians' scheme. But I feel queasy about the decisions Susan has to make, and I feel queasy about Casey. He may be saving a life, but he's only 23, has been a follower for just a year, and still hasn't told his mother. I email Dave to suggest Casey should be given a cooling-off period - perhaps two months away from the group before the operation.
I'm surprised to receive a friendly response. "Thanks for being so frank," writes Dave. "How about we give Casey a couple of months away from the group to cool off?"
I email back to ask if he's serious about this. He responds a few days later. Events have moved on, he says. Casey has now told his mother everything, and she has fully endorsed his decision: "Now that Casey's mother is in agreement, there really should be no objection from anyone else. Like, he's almost 24, has lived on his own for several years, has covered his body with tattoos and body piercings without objections from his parents, and now that he has finally got his life together, he wants to do something really good with it by offering a kidney. If his parents are happy with it, then I don't see any reason why we should tell him to run away and think about it."
At the end of February, the video diary I asked Robin and Casey to film arrives. It is extraordinarily moving and vivid. It begins with them running at a track in Dallas. They run each morning. They really push themselves. This is the day before they fly to Minneapolis. The thing that strikes me most are their smiles. Robin, especially, is always smiling.
Now Robin and Casey are having a snowball fight outside the hospital. Now they're in twin beds at a Days Inn next to the hospital. Robin addresses the camera: "I'm two days away from donating a kidney to someone I've never met before. The reason I'm doing this comes from my personal belief in God. I guess there's a few hard questions - you're probably wondering if I've thought about them. What happens if I donate a kidney to someone and it gets rejected? Obviously, I wouldn't feel very happy about that. However, part of the idea of being an altruistic donor is that it's a pure act of love. It's like a donation to the human race. And that's all I have to say about that for the moment." The camera clicks off.
It clicks back on again. Robin is still smiling. "Most kidney donations come from cadavers," he says. "The recipient has to race in as quickly as possible. They all wear beepers. As soon as they're beeped, they race to the hospital. The working life expectancy of a kidney harvested from a dead person is 10 years, whereas a kidney from a live donor lasts at least 20 years - 20 years is a long time. That's a lease of life."
Now they are at the hospital, having last-minute electrocardiograms and chest x-rays. Casey strips to his waist. "What's this 777 mean?" asks the nurse, pointing to one of Casey's many tattoos.
"It's supposed to be the Lord's number," says Casey. "The opposite of 666." He laughs. "I was too young to think about what I was doing."
The nurse says, "You're a brave man, Casey."
Now, suddenly, it is the night before the operation. Robin and Casey are back at the hotel, preparing their super-laxative, "so when the surgeons get in there and move our guts around, there won't be any accidents", Robin explains. The super-laxative is called Go Lightly. They need to drink half a gallon, one glass every 10 minutes, "until our watery stool is clear and free of solid matter", says Robin. It's pineapple flavoured. They say "Cheers!" and start drinking. Casey screws up his face. "It's really bad," he says.
"We'll get there, buddy," says Robin. He pats Casey lightly on the knee.
Casey takes another sip. "I feel like I'm defiling myself," he says.
Now it's 5:20am, on February 21, 2002. "We should be leaving," says Robin. "Sounds like Casey's still in the shower. I'm feeling a bit dehydrated from the diarrhoea. I guess they could put me on an IV or something. I got a call last night from the doctor. He said
I have an unusual structure. He said there's a chance they'll have to go in through the back, which means it's a longer and more difficult recovery. They may have to remove one of the ribs for access."
"How do you feel about that?" asks Christine, Robin's wife, from behind the camera. Christine is also a Jesus Christian.
"Okay, I guess," replies Robin.
Casey pops his head around the bathroom door and grins. Now they head off, in the snow and the dawn, towards their operations. Now they are in the pre-op room. "I'm debating whether to keep my eyes open when they put the knockout drug into me," says Casey. He's sitting on a chair, his body covered in a tight stocking, like a leotard. "I keep trying to focus on the spiritual side of this," says Casey. His voice is small. "The motivation behind the donation. The benefits of it. Yeah. I'm trying to stay in touch with the One who's making it all possible."
"Do you have any doubts?" asks Christine.
"I'm just, uh, trying to stay open to what God wants," says Casey.
Now, from his bed in the pre-op room, Casey tries to phone his mother to tell her that he's about to go into theatre. But she's not there. The phone just rings out. Casey hangs up. Now the hospital porters arrive. There are hugs from Christine. Robin and Casey are wheeled away towards the operating theatre. The camera clicks off. When it comes back on again, Casey and Robin are just beginning to stir from the anaesthetic. Casey is mumbling incoherently. Christine is stroking his arm. There are drips, and bandages cover their stomachs.The camera clicks off.
"I'm feeling very dizzy and nauseous," says Casey - his voice is hazy, as if he's still in a dream. It is the next morning. "I just vomited up some gastric juice or something. You wanna come and have a look at my wound? The pain medication is making it really itchy. I keep scratching. You want to see me press my morphine button? Ah!"
"That's my buddy," says Robin. The camera clicks off.
The days progress. Casey tries walking, but he has to sit down again. His colon is twisted from the operation. For a while he lies under the duvet cover. He says that he doesn't want to talk to anyone, and he wants Christine to stop filming him. He says that he wishes he hadn't done it.
The next day, Casey and Robin are wheeled out into the sunshine. "We heard a little bit about the recipients today," says Robin. "My kidney went to a 59-year-old man who's been a diabetic all his life. So the fact that he's 59 and he hasn't needed a transplant until now is an indication that he's been looking after himself. Apparently, it's going really well for him. The kidney began producing urine straight away. Tell them about your recipient, Casey."
There is a short silence. Casey seems happier today. "My recipient was a 53-year-old woman who had been on dialysis for five years," he says. "Her time was nearly up. Hopefully, she doesn't have to worry about that any more." Then he adds, "A lot of people pray to God for a miracle, specifically relating to kidney failure, and all it takes is someone to step forward and say, 'I'll do it.' That's the miracle. That willingness to step forward. That's God's miracle. We don't have to sit around waiting for God to do all the work. He's waiting for us to do something."
"We can make a miracle happen," says Robin.
The video diary is a testament to their courage. It makes me think that the DoH should reconsider the rules about altruistic kidney donations in the UK.
On March 15, I receive an email from Dave McKay. He's decided to kill off Anita. He realised that attempting to control the tabloids and the anti-cult groups was bound to backfire. "I know we're going to cop it sometime. We just wanted to have control over when we cop it. I just wanted to show how adept the media is at turning something good into something evil."
Dave says that Casey and Robin are recovering well. Casey's had regrets, but now he's pulling out of it and is glad of his decision again. Susan's relationships with C in Scotland and Larry in Colorado continue to flourish. She hopes to donate to one or other of them as soon as she can - God, and the DoH, willing. Dave hopes to donate within a few weeks, at a hospital in Australia. He says that the hospital in Minneapolis has given Robin and Casey's address to the two recipients, but neither has yet written to thank them.
See Part 1 of this Article.