There’s No Way Out of It!

Collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, State Art Museum of Florida, Florida State University
Peter Paul Rubens: Achilles Dipped into the River Styx, circa 1630–1635

Even many years later, when my mother told the story, fear still showed on her face. One morning in 1954, at the age of two, I awoke and told her that my head hurt. I had a fever, and she put me to bed. Over the next days, my temperature rose, and my headache worsened. My parents called our pediatrician, who came to our small apartment in Astoria, Queens. He found that my neck was stiff and my legs were weak. Polio, he said, was a possible diagnosis. There were tens of thousands of cases of the paralytic illness each year in the United States. The doctor insisted that I be hospitalized in an isolation unit in upper Manhattan. My parents readily complied.

After a week in the hospital, my temperature fell and my legs became stronger. Tests showed that it was not polio; the infection was never identified.1

My mother and father feared debility and death due to pathogens. They were raised in immigrant New York neighborhoods at a time when diphtheria, typhoid, and tuberculosis were rife. My parents also knew that microbes were not restricted to the newly arrived and poor. Polio had struck the patrician FDR in his prime.

The world of my parents, and that of their children, dramatically improved in the latter half of the twentieth century as modern medicine introduced an array of effective vaccines and antibiotics. When the Salk vaccine against the polio virus became available a few years after my mysterious illness, I was inoculated, along with my siblings. The idea of preventing or curing dreaded infectious diseases “naturally,” relying on the body alone, hardly entered our minds.

But two generations later, such ideas have considerable traction in our society. Eula Biss, a writer who teaches at Northwestern University, seeks to understand their appeal, and whether they should be given credence. On Immunity is an effort to reconcile her divided feelings, fearing both infection and the imagined risks of vaccination. Her book weaves metaphor and myth, science and sociology, philosophy and politics into a tapestry rich with insight and intelligence.

In 2009, Eula Biss gave birth to her first child and became fixated on the many ways he might be harmed—poisoned by chemicals in his plastic bottles or suffocated in his crib by lying incorrectly. Her intense concern about such dangers coincided with the appearance of a new strain of H1N1 influenza in the United States. Much of the country was in a panic: some churches were serving wafers at Mass on toothpicks, and airlines removed pillows and blankets from their flights. “What surprises me now is how unremarkable this seemed to me at the time,” Biss writes.

It all…

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