The Book We're Talking About: 'On Immunity' By Eula Biss


On Immunity: An Inoculation
by Eula Biss
Graywolf Press, $24.00
Published Sept. 30, 2014

What we think:

Biss' attempt to uncover the way we discuss and experience vaccination takes an effective two-pronged approach: She shares her earliest, most traumatic memories of motherhood, and delves deeply into the history and semantics of disease.

The doctors who recommend vaccinations and the parents who oppose them are often described in the media as warring or feuding -– militaristic language that may not overstate the dearly held sympathies of both parties. Still, such wordage may be construed as sensational. Eula Biss, the author of On Immunity: An Inoculation, a new book that colors historical and scientific explorations of vaccination with related personal troubles, would disagree. Metaphors, she believes, are essential to our understanding of the natural world. They’re especially vital to our conception of disease and immunity.

Immunologists, she writes, imbue our cells with “essentially human characteristics,” by describing them as communicators and interpreters. And the warlike descriptors extend far beyond our conversational tendency to say we’re “fighting” a cold. Cells employ “mines.” The immune system “detonates.” Such metaphors can help us imagine the details of a complex system, but, at the same time, they pose a threat to individuals who have been wrongly targeted as the source of disease -– low-income communities, and, often, mothers.

The plague was linked with the “filth” of society’s lower echelons, when in fact the disease was in no way connected to dirt. Likewise, as Susan Sontag noted in AIDS and Its Metaphors, the language used to discuss HIV/AIDS created a frustrating stigma surrounding the disease. Biss harnesses these harmful historical discussions of illness to make an argument about why some mothers adamantly oppose vaccinating their children. Women have not always been treated kindly when it comes to laying blame for misunderstood disorders; “refrigerator mothers” were an explanation for autism, anxious mothers offered the same for schizophrenia.

It’s no wonder, then, that women would seek solace in a world that eschews these damning words and prejudices –- holistic medicine, which uses vaguely positive-sounding terms (“detox,” “cleanse”) in place of aggressive, accusing ones.

Biss is not, as some reviewers have claimed, writing off the value -– the dire importance, even –- of vaccination. She gives due credit to the benefits of herd immunity, and romanticizes the concept of sacrificing the individual for the greater good (she touchingly cites a "Star Trek" episode in which a crew crashes their ship for the sake of an alternate, warless reality to make her point). She notes early on that today, vaccinating your children could protect lower-income citizens who haven’t yet acquired the time or money to do the same.

Instead, the book is, as its subtitle states, “an inoculation,” a word that originally meant “implant a bud into a plant.” It is an attempt to fully embody existing beliefs and practices related to vaccination. In doing so, Biss weaves her own life in with her research. In a matter-of-fact yet meandering fashion that fans of Joan Didion and Karl Ove Knaussgaard alike are sure to appreciate, Biss allows herself to amble from a walk with her toddler to an unraveling of the etymology of “germ.” The result is a pleasurable, focused journey that will, at the very least, enhance readers’ understanding of our minds and bodies.

What other reviewers think:
The Los Angeles Times: "What Biss is getting at is distrust of the other, an epidemic that cuts both ways. We live in a culture that prides itself on being rational, when in fact we are as governed by superstitions, suppositions, as we ever were."

The New York Times: "What she seems to be suggesting is that knowledge isn’t an inoculation. It doesn’t happen just once. There are things that must be learned and learned again, seen first with the mind and felt later in the body."

NPR: "Resistance to vaccination has existed nearly as long as vaccination itself. And Biss found that questions about vaccination were also questions about environmentalism, citizenship and trust in the government."

Who wrote it?
Eula Biss is a critic and essayist whose Notes from No Man's Land earned her a National Book Critics Circle award.

Who will read it?
Those interested in narrative nonfiction and, of course, the dueling viewpoints on vaccination. Also, anyone with a penchant for semiotics.

Opening lines:
"The first story I ever heard about immunity was told to me by my father, a doctor, when I was very young. It was the myth of Achilles, whose mother tried to make him immortal. She burned away his mortality with fire, in one version of the story, and Achilles was left impervious to injury everywhere except the back of his heel, where a poisoned arrow would eventually wound and kill him."

Notable passage:
"Attitudes toward the state easily translate into attitudes toward vaccination, in part because the body is such a ready metaphor for the nation. The state has a head, of course, and the government has arms, with which it can overreach its power."

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