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Pick Your Poison
MAY 2005
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Video: Fatal Attraction
Video: Deadly Delicacy
Audio: Botox & Piano
Online Extra: Toxic Tale 13
In some cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.
Photograph by Rebecca Hale

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Poison On Assignment Author On Assignment Poison On Assignment

    In the middle of his career as one of the preeminent concert pianists in the world, Leon Fleisher was afflicted by focal dystonia, a contraction of the muscles that rendered one of his hands useless. He became a teacher and conductor instead but continued to yearn to play the piano as he once did—with two hands. A few years ago the National Institutes of Health treated Leon's dystonia with Botox, or botulinum toxin, a deadly poison that has an increasing number of therapeutic uses when administered in minute amounts. It worked. One of the highlights of my coverage was the opportunity to talk to him, then later attend a concert with him as guest artist at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Sheer magic. Listen to Leon's post-Botox CD.
    Photographer Cary Wolinsky and I decided to address the subject of Zyklon B, a form of hydrogen cyanide used by the Nazis to gas and kill Jews, political dissidents, and others. It is surely one of the most horrible examples of the use of poison for an evil purpose. We went to several death camps in Poland. All were depressing, but the bleakest, most relentlessly grim was Majdanek, near Lublin, where Cary wanted to photograph a canister of the Zyklon B pellets inside one of the chambers. The experience was chilling beyond words. We were silent on the drive back to Warsaw.
    To illustrate the subject of food tasters, we planned to go to Thailand, where the heroes of the state banquet table are a legion of white laboratory mice. That's right. White mice. When President George W. Bush went on a state visit to Thailand a few years back, the mice went into action and made sure the presidential palate was safe. Cary had a terrific idea. He planned to photograph the mice on a gold plate, I'd interview them about how they go about their job, and we'd have a hell of a spread on the subject. But word came back from our fixer that the mice wanted to know in advance what questions I was going to ask. Politicians had asked me for a pre-interview list of questions before, but never mice. Nonetheless I complied, composed a list of questions, and submitted it. Bad news came by return e-mail. The mice refused to be interviewed and photographed—on the record or off! It was the biggest disappointment of our coverage.  

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