Post Road Magazine #30

On Immunity by Eula Biss (Graywolf Press, 2014)

Julia Fierro

If I'm lucky, once a year I read a book that feels as if it was written for me, as if the author knows what I am thinking and feeling. The author and I are-in a phrase borrowed from my Neapolitan father-simpatico.

This past year, that book was On Immunity by Eula Biss. Like Biss, I was pregnant during the h1n1 pandemic of 2009. I was so overcome with my own fears, plus those of the young mothers around me, that I was desperate to find the vaccine, to protect myself, and my unborn baby. But the vaccine was nowhere to be found. My pediatrician didn't have it, nor did any other pediatrician I called. Hundreds of people, many pregnant women, many motivated by the constant media chatter about Swine Flu, stood in line for hours outside clinics in the cold autumn rain. Finally, through an online parenting message board, I found the address of a drugstore miles away, who, allegedly, had the vaccine. I showed up the next morning an hour before the store opened. There was a block-long line of pregnant women.

My first novel, Cutting Teeth, published five years later, opens with a scene at a playground. A young mother, consumed by h1n1 terror, is having a panic attack because she is certain her toddler, surrounded by invisible germs, is in grave danger. After those exhausting and fear-filled months of the pandemic, I found redemption in writing Cutting Teeth, which, like On Immunity, examines our culture of fear, specifically how fear affects our sense of identity and individuality, the very issues that are tested during the massive life change that is new parenthood.

"It is both a luxury and a hazard to be frightened by the invisible," Eula Biss writes in On Immunity.

When I read those lines, I knew Biss understood-not only the complexity of my experience as one terrified mother, but also the larger significance of a pandemic, and the effect the accompanying swell of fear has on our humanity as a whole. Like the tidal wave that follows an earthquake rolling over an already damaged island.

I practice my humanity, my ability to be empathic, through books-in reading and writing them. It is an exercise of simple emotional imagination that I can only hope will transfer from the page to my life. I know I am simpatico with an author when I can feel empathy on the pages of his or her book. Eula Biss is unflinchingly thorough in her examination of all sides of the violently divided immunization debate-from the anti-vaccinators to the moms who charge (or pay) five dollars for lollipops licked by children infected with chicken pox-but her examination is free from judgment and full of compassion, accomplished through her conscious imagining and acceptance of the subjectivity of the individual emotional experience. Biss shines this same bright scrutinizing spotlight on her investigation of her own doubts and fears regarding immunity, specifically as a young mother. Her brave questioning of her own preconceived notions inspired me to examine my own prejudices.

My father, having grown up in WWII-devastated Southern Italy, was inoculated against one disease-smallpox. I was inoculated against five times as many, and my children ten times. My father and his family suffered from malaria and countless other diseases, and his youngest sister died from a cut on the sole of her foot when a shot of penicillin would have saved her. After listening to my father's stories of loss and illness, and especially after becoming a young (and neurotic) mother, it felt impossible to sympathize with non-vaccinating parents. Not only did their refusal put their own children at risk, it also endangered mine by depleting the "herd immunity" Biss discusses at length.

Biss showed me that empathy matters on a macro level, and that due to herd immunity, "You don't own your body…our bodies are not independent. The health of our bodies always depends on the choices other people are making…There's an illusion of independence." Biss shows the ultimate empathy when instead of judging parents who do not vaccinate their children, she thinks of her own child's inoculated body "as a shield" for those children who cannot be protected.

Like Biss, I write to explore both personally and culturally, to inform myself of myself, and to make sense of the world and my place in the world. So it shouldn't surprise me-although it does-when my most meaningful reads are not novels but books of nonfiction. A genre somewhere between memoir and investigative journalism, they are explorations of our empathic abilities as individuals and members of humanity.

These books occupy a specific chamber in my memory, like former lovers who have revealed to me a part of myself I hadn't known existed. A brief list, by no means complete, includes Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, Andrew Solomon's interviews with parents of "unusual" children; Among the Thugs: The Experience, and the Seduction, of Crowd Violence by Bill Buford, about his self-immersion in the violent football clubs of the UK; Jon Ronson's compassionate investigation of history of sociopathy in The Psychopath Test; and Leslie Jamison's personally and culturally revealing essays, The Empathy Exams.

These books are both "journal" and "journey," which share the same French root, "jour," or "day." The reader has the privilege of being a passenger on the author's journey of personal epiphany through cultural investigation.

My favorite moment in On Immunity is when Biss explains belly buttons to her son. Like Biss, I recently tried to describe the umbilical cord to my five-year-old. It was difficult, at first, to convince my daughter that her body, now so independent, once relied completely on my own, life sustained through a seemingly magical cord. In response to her son's "perplexing" reaction, Biss reminds the reader of Queen Elizabeth, who "expressed a paradox that eludes us to this day-our bodies may belong to us, but we ourselves belong to a greater body composed of many bodies. We are, bodily, both independent and dependent."

I can't imagine a better argument for empathy.

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