Book Talk: ON IMMUNITY, by Eula Biss

On Immunity: An Inoculation
Eula Biss
Graywolf Press (September 2014), Hardcover (ISBN 1555976891 / 9781555976897)
Nonfiction: Social sciences, 216 pages
Source: ARC from publisher at Book Expo America 2014


book discussion on The 3 Rs Blog ON IMMUNITY Eula Biss

On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss’ exploration of illness and vaccination filtered through a mother’s concerns for her young son, was one of only two works of nonfiction selected as “Buzz Books” at Book Expo America 2014. It’s absolutely worthy of that attention.

The childhood immunizations that many of us grew up with have become controversial among 21st-century middle-class American parents. Vaccination fears may have initially been sparked by a now-discredited study linking the MMR vaccine with autism, but questioning of the routine vaccination of young children has expanded to the point where some parents are refusing it. Becoming a mother herself exposed Biss to that questioning, and neither her upbringing as a physician’s daughter nor her training as a researcher immunized her against doubts about vaccinating her own child. However, her personal history equipped her to try to address those fears and doubts by gathering information.

Biss’ questions and motherly worries provide the framework for On Immunity, but the heart of the book is an enlightening and thoroughly approachable discussion of epidemics, disease prevention, and “public health” in concept, policy, and practice. Biss often refers to literary metaphors of disease–Dracula is frequently cited in narrative context–and the human body as representative of the “social body” is a recurring metaphor throughout the book:

“Diversity is essential to the health of any ecosystem. The language we use around racial diversity…disguises the fact that we need and depend on each other.”

It’s not hard to discern where Biss ends up on the continuum of current childhood-vaccination opinions, but she presents her journey to that position in an even-handed manner, supported by her extensive research (which is in turn supported by nearly forty pages of endnotes). Those familiar with the heated rhetoric of the vaccine controversies should appreciate On Immunity‘s nonjudgmental tone, even if they don’t share Biss’ conclusions.

On Immunity is a beautifully written, thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of health and illness and fear. Biss’ blending of the topical and the personal yields a scholarly, literary motherhood memoir that is affecting and effective. I’m glad I picked up this galley at BEA last spring, and glad to add On Immunity to the list of important, discussion-worthy nonfiction I’ve been privileged to read this year.

Rating: 4.25 of 5

Book description, from the publisher’s website

On becoming a new mother, Eula Biss addresses a chronic condition of fear—fear of the government, the medical establishment, 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, 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’sSilent 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.

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 his mortality away with fire, in one telling of the story, and Achilles was left impervious to injury everywhere except his heel, where a poisoned arrow would eventually kill him. In another telling, the infant Achilles was immersed in the River Styx, the river that divides the world from the underworld. His mother held her baby by his heel to dip him in the water, leaving, again, one fatal vulnerability.”

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