On Immunity

ScienceThrillers.com review of

On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss


Publication date: September 30, 2014
Category: narrative nonfiction; essay; memoir

Summary (from the publisher):

Why do we fear vaccines? A provocative examination by Eula Biss, the author of Notes from No Man’s Land, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Upon becoming a new mother, Eula Biss addresses a chronic condition of fear—fear of the government, the medical establishment, and what is in your child’s air, food, mattress, medicine, and vaccines. She finds that you cannot immunize your child, or yourself, from the world.

In this bold, fascinating book, Biss investigates the metaphors and myths surrounding our conception of immunity and its implications for the individual and the social body. As she hears more and more fears about vaccines, Biss researches what they mean for her own child, her immediate community, America, and the world, both historically and in the present moment. She extends a conversation with other mothers to meditations on Voltaire’s Candide, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors, and beyond. On Immunity is a moving account of how we are all interconnected—our bodies and our fates.

On Immunity investigates vaccines as a way to explore the larger question of why our culture teaches us to mistrust each other.”

ScienceThrillers review:

On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss is an extraordinary, unclassifiable, vital book that deserves to be widely read and reflected upon. Written by a critically acclaimed essayist, On Immunity is a memoir, an essay collection, a history, a social commentary, a parenting guide, a literary work…The author herself has a hard time succinctly answering the question, “What is your book about?”

I’ll tell you what On Immunity is about by telling you why it’s an important book. As a scientist and medical professional myself, I “believe” in vaccination. My kids get their immunizations on schedule, I get my flu shot every fall. I bristle when I encounter anti-vaccine people and propaganda. And like many other people in my shoes, I look at the data on the benefits versus risks of vaccination, and I wonder why “those people” don’t get it. Essentially, I’m asking, “What is WRONG with those people?”

But did I ever truly, honestly explore the question from a more neutral perspective, not, what is wrong with vaccine refuseniks, but, why do they perceive the world so differently from the way I do?

Fortunately, Eula Biss has deeply explored this important question, and in unfailingly beautiful, intelligent prose, she has answered it with a depth and breadth that astonishes.

Clinical study data have nothing to do with it, which really shouldn’t surprise anyone. In how many aspects of our lives do we ignore data and make decisions based on other considerations? Many–no, most.

Biss makes crucial insights into the numerous complex streams that feed the anti-vaccine movement. To begin, she uses an ongoing metaphor of the vampire. The act of injecting a foreign substance into the body is fraught with metaphysical significance. Biss links it to violation, corruption, and pollution. Historically, others have, too. An Anglican bishop in 1882 referred to a smallpox vaccination scar as “the mark of the beast.” (Her analysis of the history of vaccination amply demonstrates that vaccine refusal is not new.)

If there is one idea that Biss contributes which is most novel and most important to the conversation about vaccination, it is this: the decision to vaccinate is not a private one. It is intimately a part of our how we view ourselves in relation to our community, our government, and our institutions. Indeed, Biss argues that our own bodies are not as individually disconnected from the body public as we believe. She links immunization to our membership in a group, to the fundamental connectedness of people. She likens universal vaccination to a blood bank. Each person donates part of her own body to protect the health of another. Ultimately, she shows that “immunity” isn’t something that happens inside our bodies. It happens to our community. And certain privileged members of this community have a responsibility to act for the benefit of those who are less so.

As difficult as it is to summarize this slender volume, it’s even more challenging to highlight the best or most important passages. I swear I highlighted, commented, or dog-eared half the pages in the book. Profound ideas and syntheses follow one after another.

This is an intellectual book. It is ill-suited to soundbites, and is painted entirely in shades of gray, something our over-opinionated culture finds discomfiting. Therefore it will not appeal to every reader. What makes On Immunity the perfect book for the conversation on vaccination is, the author herself is a member of the class most likely to refuse vaccination: educated, married, white mothers. She writes as one of them, and communicates in a way that should appeal directly to the intelligent, socially concerned, well-read women who object to vaccines, women who experience a modern American trauma of “feeling responsible for everything and powerless at the same time.”

I hope that many book groups consisting of such women will have the courage to engage with this book. It speaks to them from the heart, and it understands how they feel. While Biss explicitly rejects the idea of a middle ground on the question of vaccination as a false peace, she remains utterly grounded in and sympathetic to the worldview of those who want to protect their children. Her persuasion has nothing in common with the data-haranguing of the medical/scientific establishment. She asks for a larger view of the self, and an embrace of the community.

FCC disclaimer: An advance reader copy of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.

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