Eula Biss’s On Immunity is a book-length essay broken into short chapters. The writing in this book is tidal: lyric in the sense that the trajectory of thought circles, ebbs, and flows, yet always returns to a touchstone thought or image. Biss blends different narratives of vaccination—both the longer human history and contemporary American culture—with personal narrative, literature, and art.
Biss does her research, extensively, but that doesn’t make On Immunity dry reading because she makes us understand what she personally has at stake. Early on, we’re introduced to her position as a new mother navigating the role of being a caretaker. Like many young parents, she questions the need for inoculation and the chemical compounds within each vaccine. But rather than shun immunizations, Biss reads articles, asks questions, and works to write her way to an understanding. Of her son receiving his first flu shot, she writes:
I remember asking the nurse if the vaccine my son was receiving contained thimerosal, but I was asking more out of due diligence than true concern. I already suspected that if there was a problem with vaccines it was not thimerosal, and it was not squalene.
This idea is at the heart of Biss’s writing: humans have always been afraid of something beyond the scope of their understanding. In the past, before germ theory, it was filth, which was thought to be responsible for both disease and immorality. Currently, many Americans fear toxins, and Biss lists a few examples, ranging “from pesticide residue to high fructose corn syrup… bisphenol lining our tin cans, the phthalates in our shampoos, and the chlorinated Tris in our couches and mattresses.” On Immunity returns to the idea that our culture always searches for something to blame, and that now more than ever, there’s no shortage of offenders.
American culture celebrates individualism, almost, as Biss shows us, to a fault. On Immunity studies the morality of vaccination, “what economists call ‘moral hazard,’ a tendency to take unwise risks when we are protected by insurance.” Biss investigates the dilemma of protecting the self versus protecting the whole, giving examples from various books on the topic of vaccination, exposing the disparity between the honoring of parents who will put their child before others and the fact that for a vaccination to be effective, a certain percentage of children must be immunized. Biss describes the complicated socioeconomic history of vaccination and how it’s gradually changed due to the cost of inoculation. Enter Dracula, whose story is a thread snaking through this book. On Immunity uses Dracula to discuss blood, power, technology, and medicine. Biss claims,
Dracula, after all, is not a person so much as he is the embodiment of disease. And the vampire hunters who pursue him are not people so much as they are metaphors for the best impulses of medicine.
She explains Dracula as a medical narrative, and juxtaposes it against her own journey of giving birth and accepting, then later donating, blood. Biss’s book is so complicated, so intertwined, that it’s hard to describe the level of interconnectedness. Along with the story of Dracula, Biss offers us the myth of Achilles as the first story of immunization. Early in the book, before Dracula or any other example, Biss warns us that “immunity is a myth… and no mortal can ever be made invulnerable.” However, the sheer amount of information on immunization is proof enough that we don’t seem to stop trying, and that we consider health as an individual issue, a personal subject.
On Immunity is complicated, interconnected, and intriguing. It’s a difficult book to summarize, but difficult to put down. Biss understands that the idea of immunization is a small part of a bigger (web) of health and wellness. She opens a chapter with a quote from Susan Sontag’s well-known Illness as Metaphor, “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” Both authors explore health as identity, but Biss pulls away from that idea and leaves us with a final metaphor:
“…we might imagine ourselves as a garden within a garden. The outer garden is no Eden, and no rose garden either. It is as strange and various as the inner garden of our bodies, where we host fungi and viruses and bacteria of both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ dispositions. This garden is unbounded and unkempt, bearing both fruit and thorns. Perhaps we should call it a wilderness. Or perhaps community is sufficient. However we choose to think of the social body, we are each other’s environment. Immunity is a shared space—a garden we tend together.”
Eula Biss is the author of three books: On Immunity: An Inoculation, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, and The Balloonists. Her work has been supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, an NEA Literature Fellowship, and a Jaffe Writers’ Award. She holds a B.A. in nonfiction writing from Hampshire College and a M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. Her essays have recently appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction as well as in The Believer, Gulf Coast, Denver Quarterly, Third Coast, and Harper’s. Eula Biss and John Bresland are the Chicago-based band STET Everything.