Untitled | Phillips on Cat’s Cradle

Sarah Phillips


Dr. Angela Hoenikker Conners, PhD
Planet Titan
(previously of
4918 North Meridian Street
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, Planet Earth)

Mr. Jonah Breit
San Lorenzo, Planet Earth
(Forwarding Service Requested)

Dear Mr. Jonah Breit (“dear” in this case being over-generous):

No doubt you will be surprised to hear from me, convinced as you are that I met my demise soulfully playing my clarinet in the ruins of San Lorenzo. Very romantic, to be sure, but also very inaccurate. I am alive and well. Well enough, at least, to write to complain about your ridiculous book and, especially, its ridiculous portrayal of me and my family. I have neither time nor patience to address every inaccuracy, but I intend to puncture at least a few of the book’s foma,i as those damned Bokononists say.

First and foremost, let me address the issue of the Hoenikker family dynamic. In your book you described me as the overwhelmed and ill-equipped young mistress of the odd Hoenikker house, a flustered adolescent mother hen doting on father and brothers alike. Readers were told that I had no friends, no social life, no purpose in life except to care for the Hoenikker men, especially father. Shutting myself in my room to play the clarinet, my only source of joy and self-care (180)? That, Mr. Breit, is ridiculous. I grew up well-rounded, well-educated, and well-adjusted.

Maybe my brothers wanted to see me as a mother figure; I don’t know. If Newt really sent you the long letter you reproduce in your book (8–18) (and I have my doubts), I can only say that his description of me as the “real head of the family” from age sixteen (15) is pure fantasy. Like any family of our standing, we had a housekeeper, and a cook and driver, besides! Your book describes me as condescending to my brother Newt, and insensitive to his disability. It may be news to you, but Newt’s being short of stature was never his defining characteristic. He rarely self-identified as a “little person;” rather, others constantly branded him with that label. I spoke to Newt so caringly not to infantilize him (112), but because he was my brother, whom I loved.

Speaking of love, your book made clear, Mr. Breit, that you have no idea what love is. You do not understand or believe in genuine, caring, human-to-human relationships (i.e. love). You made fun of me and the people I loved, saying I “trapped [them] in plexiglass . . . like fossil beetles in amber” (114). What do you know of love? You purported to love Mona Aamons Monzano before you even met her (113). You “fell in love” with a photograph of a woman you describe as a “sublime mongrel” (80) (how romantic) in a paid ad in the Sunday Times, for Christ’s sake! And you apparently were taken in by the ridiculous Bokoninist penchant for foot play, which they insist on shrouding under the pretense of ritual, so-called boko-maru, or the “mingling of awarenesses” (158). Really, Mr. Breit! Your book reveals your thinking on love, and on so much else, as highly contradictory. Obviously, you’ve been influenced by the great Russian writer Turgenev, especially his novel Fathers and Sons. Like Arkady Kirsanov, you’d like to be a nihilist, but can’t fully commit yourself. Is Bokononism any better?

Mr. Breit, you also are an intolerable sexist. Your treatment of women—in your book, and undoubtedly in your daily life—is abhorrent. For you, women are brainless, frivolous creatures motivated by anything but serious thought. You evaluate the worth of a woman almost solely from her appearance. To take just one obvious example, you should be ashamed of your description of the “Girl Pool,” and the “mail girls,” too (38; 46–7). Most egregiously, you assume women to be incapable of understanding, or even being interested in, anything to do with science and discovery.

Mr. Breit, I am living proof that women do understand science and invention, and furthermore, they “do” science and invention! Did you really believe that I cajoled Harrison to marry me by coquettishly dangling ice-nine in front of his nose? Had you bothered to inquire, you would know that I hold a PhD in physics. Harrison and I share a love of science! I understand very well the mechanisms not only of “the bomb” and ice-nine, but of lots besides (golly!). I got a good laugh from your rendering of my supposed “confession” (247) of scientific ignorance. That’s a good one. Mr. Breit, my brothers and I did not stumble upon ice-nine the day father died. We helped him create it!

And guess what else, Mr. Breit? Harrison and I worked together to perfect ice-nine. I am not proud of how things have ended up. But you should know that my father, my brothers, and Harrison and I all contributed willingly to the development of ice-nine, clear-eyed and fully aware of the implications. “Pure science” (40–44) my arse. There is no pure science, Mr. Breit, as I suspect you are fully aware. No scientist worth his or her salt undertakes the work without weighing the risks and potential applications of that work. Which is one reason why Harrison and I had a contingency plan, an escape route for if and when “the worst” happened. I am truly sorry that it did.

Your purported pitter-patter with Miss Faust about whether father might have been a Martian (58) is rather too precious. Perhaps father was a Titan? For thanks to his old friends Rumfoord and Unk, here I sit, with my dear husband Harrison and our lovely (that is, intelligent, well-educated, and well-adjusted) twin girls, on Titan. Think of us as a quadprass, Mr. Breit, a “karass composed of only four persons” (86). We’ve renovated Rumfoord’s palace and have everything we need, including Rumfoord’s library of all kinds of enlightening books. Rest assured, your little volume is no longer part of that library. We burned your silly book and danced a festive jig to celebrate the end of Breitism. Good riddance!

I cannot end this letter without setting the record straight as to the burial marker over our mother’s grave in Ilium. You are not alone in perceiving mother’s memorial to be an “alabaster phallus twenty feet high and three feet thick” (61). Just goes to show where your mind and the minds of so many others dwell, Mr. Breit. The memorial is a replica of the round tower over the mausoleum of Daniel O’Connell, the great Irish leader, the “Emancipator” memorialized at Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery. Mother was a proud direct descendent of O’Connell, defender of Irish Catholic emancipation, and we decided to erect mother’s monument as a guard tower. Hence the poem I had inscribed: “Mother, mother, how I pray / For you to guard us every day” (62). I’m sorry to disrupt your fantasy of the great shaft.

Speaking of grave memorials, allow me to release a skeleton or two from your own closet, Mr. Breit. Less astute readers may wonder why your book lingered so over the old stone angel you encountered at the Ilium cemetery, the one with your family name inscribed on the pedestal (63–64, 69, 72–73, 77, 189). What was the name of that “German” immigrant, making his way west, who ordered but never paid for his wife’s stone angel grave marker? He was your relative, Alfred Shneider, of course. Not a German at all, but a Russian Jew, father of Gregory Breit-Shneider, who supervised what would become the Manhattan Project until 1942, when he was replaced by Robert Oppenheimer. Mr. Breit, your quest to understand father was a classic case of displacement. Obviously, your real itch was your own ancestor’s role as “one of the chief creators of the bomb” (6). Why didn’t you write a book about him? Much easier to point fingers at others, no doubt.

In closing, Mr. Breit, I wish you luck on your God-forsaken island. If Hazel is still around, do tell her that I am not a goddamn Hoosier (110)—never have been, and never will be. And please, Mr. Breit, don’t write.


Dr. Angela Hoenikker Conners, PhD