A Vaccine for Death Itself Eludes Us Yet
On Immunity: An Inoculation
(Graywolf Press, 2014)
Every once in a while, an idea gets ahold of us, and before long everyone’s talking about it.
In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, in an effort to explain this phenomenon, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins modified a Greek term to come up with a new word: “meme.” It in turn became a powerful, well, meme. Almost 40 years later, we still use it to explain infectious concepts—things like God, Supersymmetry, and Doge.
In her new book, On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss also explores how ideas replicate themselves and spread from person to person. In addition she writes about disease, history, and metaphor with clarity and force. In particular, she’s interested in the meme behind the United States’ growing anti-vaccination movement, although she doesn’t mention it by name.
In her essays ideas are like viruses, powerful free-floating bits of genetic code, neither alive nor dead, but everywhere. They combine, break apart, and reconfigure one another. They shape our conversations without our knowing it. They are everywhere.
Biss begins with just how long humans have understood the concept behind vaccination. She writes about the story of Achilles, “whose mother tried to make him immortal.” This image adorns the book’s cover and fills its opening lines: we see the demigod as a boy, dangling from his mother’s grip, half submerged (as if drowning) in the River Styx, which separates the living from the dead. We understand immediately that immunity for Achilles is dangerous, and that it will bring him eternal glory, but that in the end it won’t save his life.
From the outset Biss braids striking images like these with personal anecdotes about her father, a doctor, and about her son who will eventually need vaccinations. She also tells the story of her son’s birth, which ended with her in an emergency room with doctors and nurses saving her life. She weaves in research on a myriad of topics, from triclosan to chickenpox, from H1N1 to DDT, from Elizabeth I to George Washington, from Stoker’s Dracula to Voltaire’s Candide. The result is a discursive investigation into our darkest fears—first, the fear that causes us to vaccinate, and second, into the fear that keeps us from vaccinating.
Biss admits she’s not immune to these twin fears, just like the mothers she writes about, parents she doesn’t disparage for their conspiracy theories or selfishness. She doesn’t call them idiots for leaving their children susceptible to diseases like Polio and the Measles. She understands the marrow-deep desire people have to protect their children, whatever the risks and costs, and this empathy (more than the book’s research) is Biss’s triumph, and what makes her voice so important in the nationwide debate for or against vaccinations.
Take for example a scene midway through the book which details this visceral fear for one’s child even in the face of seeming security: Biss and her son, now a toddler, regularly walk along Lake Michigan. On these walks they pass a big, old graveyard. One day Biss takes them inside so her son can run along the paths “under the shade of its trees.” Even this act is an act of protection: from cars one imagines, because a child can’t play in a street, or even on a sidewalk so close to traffic; and also protection in the form of shade, that is, protection from the sun itself, Earth’s oldest bringer of life, which, we also know from decades of research, brings skin cancer.
With these concerns allayed, though real threats vanquished, Biss’s mind plays a trick on her and invents another specter: pure death. Her son continues to toddle around the cemetery speaking one of the only words he knows: “Hi.” She’s previously only heard him say this to people, so she’s a bit disconcerted; then, as if in a dream, he stops and begins to say “hi” over and over again to “a marble statue of a little boy.” According to the tombstone’s epitaph just beneath the marble boy’s feet, he died in 1891 at the age of nine. His name was Josie.
As my son reached out his hand toward the boy I caught his wrist in a rising panic, saying, ‘No, don’t touch that!’ I still cannot say exactly what scared me in that moment. Did I worry that my son would catch death if he touched the marble boy? … Later, I would learn that one out of every 10 children born in 1900 died before their first birthdays. I would read this in report on vaccine side effects, which concluded its brief historical overview of child mortality with the observation that now ‘children are expected to survive to adulthood.’
This is what Biss understands: There is no vaccination for death itself. There isn’t even any evidence we can vaccinate against any kind of suffering at all, although as parents we never stop trying. This powerful meme—that if we are only vigilant enough, that if we only pay enough attention, we can save our children from affliction, that we can help them survive to adulthood, the way we expect, healthy and whole—animates both sides of the pro-vaccination and anti-vaccination firefight in the same way the idea of God has motivated opposing armies for centuries.
With this knowledge, Biss’s On Immunity rises above the debate, and with clear, lucid prose, brings both sides together. She makes an impassioned case that it is our responsibility to inoculate one another as interdependent members of a body politic, a biological process that, at the cellular level some doctors call “education.” We do this not just to protect ourselves against diseases, but to protect ourselves from ideas too, which can infect our thinking if we let them.