nonfiction

Book Review: The Other Dr. Gilmer: Two Men, a Murder, and an Unlikely Fight for Justice by Benjamin Gilmer

Another 2023 Popsugar Reading Challenge book checked off! A month or so ago, my friend Alexis posted on Facebook about The Other Dr. Gilmer: Two Men, a Murder, and an Unlikely Fight for Justice by Benjamin Gilmer (Ballantine Books, 2022). Alexis is one of the most intelligent people I know, and when it comes to nonfiction, she and I share similar tastes, so I checked out the Goodreads page for the book and immediately added it to my TBR. It fits the Popsugar category for a book recommended by a friend, so I was thrilled to dive into it, and it didn’t disappoint whatsoever.

Upon interviewing and later accepting a job at a rural North Carolina medical practice, Dr. Benjamin Gilmer was surprised to learn that the doctor who created the vacancy he would be filling was also named Dr. Gilmer (Vince Gilmer, to be exact), and that he was no longer in that position because he was imprisoned for murdering his father. At first, Benjamin was fairly terrified of this other Dr. Gilmer, who seemingly snapped, murdering his elderly father with Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, cutting off his fingers and discarding them in a pond outside the clinic, then returning to work and working alongside his co-workers as though nothing had happened. Who was this man? Would he ever get out and come after Benjamin for taking over his life?

But the more Benjamin Gilmer learns about this other Dr. Gilmer, the more intrigued he is. Something’s off. Something’s wrong. Dr. Gilmer had blamed his behavior on SSRI discontinuation syndrome when he represented himself in court, but the defense accused him of faking his symptoms. Benjamin Gilmer knows it’s got to be more than that, and with the help of colleagues, the mystery unfolds piece by piece until it becomes clear: prison isn’t where this other Dr. Gilmer needs to be. He desperately needs medical attention, and getting access to it will be a years-long struggle for not only him, but for Benjamin and an entire team of people across the country.

Holy COW, this book is a wild ride, and whatever you’re expecting, it’s likely something different. The book takes a turn about halfway through, and I just kind of sat back and went, “Whoooooaaaaaaaaa.” Benjamin Gilmer goes from panic mode to dedicated seeker of justice, and…it’s inspiring as much as the forces working against Vince Gilmer are infuriating. This is one of those books that will have you seeing red and determined to do whatever you can to burn our entire ‘justice’ system down and rebuild it from scratch. This is something that has needed to happen for decades – likely centuries, honestly – and The Other Dr. Gilmer is another large piece of evidence that what we call justice in this country is anything but just.

The Other Dr. Gilmer is an incredible read (and it’s becoming a movie!). It’s my first five-star read of 2023, and it’s one that will stick with me.

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nonfiction

Book Review: Life on the Line: Young Doctors Come of Age in a Pandemic by Emma Goldberg

Yet another pandemic book out there. I feel like I’ll be reading these the rest of my life, trying to make any kind of sense of this baffling time. Life on the Line: Young Doctors Come of Age in a Pandemic by Emma Goldberg (Harper, 2021) went on my TBR the moment I learned about it, and although it was a bit different than I expected, I’m glad I read it.

Back in March 2020, when the world shut down, this meant that colleges, including medical schools, also closed their doors. Some medical schools made deals with their students and local hospitals to graduate their students early so the students/new doctors could go help the exhausted, overworked doctors dealing with the fallout of the early days of the pandemic. Emma Goldberg’s book follows six of these newly graduated doctors on the front lines of the pandemic in New York.

It was an easy decision for these students to say yes to; helping others was why they became doctors, so despite their families’ and partners’ fears, they began working with COVID patients. Many of their patients died. Others struggled through and made it home. One in particular left behind a profoundly disabled adult child, with no one else to care for him, leaving the hospital scrambling to find a place for him for months. But the students persevered through it all, growing as people and as physicians.

This book is set during the early days of the pandemic, when the country was still very much, “We’re all in this together! Let’s stand outside and cheer on the healthcare workers!”, giving this book more of a feeling of optimism than I think any of us still taking this seriously really feel, and to be honest, this aspect of the book just kind of made me sad. I’m STILL seeing Facebook posts about how the hospitals and doctors are killing people with COVID on purpose, that they get extra money from the government to do so (EYEROLL), and I kept wondering how these not-quite-so-new-now doctors are dealing with that mess, and those kinds of patients. 

The writing here is fast-paced, and it keeps the book moving. Emma Goldberg covers her subjects, these new doctors thrown into the thick of it, with respect and clarity, and I appreciated the peek into their chaotic world and the brave choices they made.

Visit Emma Goldberg’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Killing Season: A Paramedic’s Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Opioid Epidemic by Peter Canning

No matter how much we think we understand something, we can always deepen our understanding, right? Addiction is a subject that I’m always trying to increase my understanding of, and thankfully, there are others, especially professionals, who feel the same. It’s for this reason I put Killing Season: A Paramedic’s Dispatches from the Front Line of the Opioid Epidemic by Peter Canning (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021) on my TBR. It’s an utterly remarkable read.

Peter Canning has worked as paramedic for the majority of his adult life (he’s also worked in politics), and when he first started, he had the attitude toward addiction that was pervasive at the time: addicts are the way they are due to personal weakness or some other character flaw. But as his career progressed and he worked with more and more people caught in the clutches of opioid and heroin addiction, he came to the striking realization that this is a condition that could happen to almost anyone.

Mr. Canning did something remarkable, something more medical professionals need to do: he talked with the people he served. He asked them questions. He listened. The most profound question he asked was, “How did you start using?” or something similar. And to his surprise, almost every patient responded with something like, “It was after I got in that car accident,” or “When I hurt my shoulder at work,” or “I had surgery on my ankle.” Almost every single patient got hooked after an illness or injury where they were prescribed opioids. If you’ve ever been in that situation, you could’ve been one of the people Mr. Canning stops from overdosing on the streets of Hartford, Connecticut. Opioids are that easy to become addicted to.

The tides have turned a bit in terms of how we look at and treat addicts, but not enough, and Peter Canning is working hard to turn them a bit more, to try to push society to understand that substance use disorder isn’t a moral failure; it’s a medical condition whose sufferers deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, and harm reduction measures are so important in order to maintain the health and safety of those caught up in the clutches of these substances. Corpses can’t go to rehab; people need to be taken care of until they’re ready to make that step.

This is an utterly remarkable book that will change the way you look at addiction and the people suffering from it. It’ll break your heart, and it’ll challenge everything you ever thought you knew. Opioids have their place (as someone who suffers from chronic pain, I understand this – and I also understand how dangerous they can be), but we need better options, better understanding, better education, more science – on pain control, on rehabilitation measures, on everything surrounding addiction medicine. We as a society deserve this, and people suffering from substance use disorder deserve the dignity of being seen and treated as the human beings they are. I’m so very, very glad I read this book.

Visit Peter Canning’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide by Steven W. Thrasher

I admit, as a book person, and as a huge nonfiction book person, when the pandemic first hit, I thought, ‘Man, the books about this time period are going to be fascinating.’ And they’ve started to roll in, and they are indeed fascinating, along with being utterly devastating. The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide by Steven W. Thrasher (Celadon Books, 2022) is one of those books, and it’ll pull you in and squeeze your heart with both hands.

Dr. Steven Thrasher is both Black and gay; both of these are markers for experiencing more adverse health outcomes. HIV/AIDS hits both these groups at a higher rate than white people, or straight people. There are groups that experience adverse outcomes in much higher rates than others, and Dr. Thrasher examines these, using the AIDS epidemic, the COVID pandemic, and various other viruses throughout history. This isn’t stodgy academic writing; he delves deeply into his own life, his experiences and those of his friends and colleagues, his communities, to drive the point that we have created a society where illness spreads more easily and more surely along class and racial lines. It doesn’t have to be like this…but try telling that to the people at the top of this hierarchy and see how fast they riot when there’s no one from those lower classes to serve them at Applebee’s. We’ve seen this type of behavior all throughout the pandemic. Members of the viral underclass are more likely to have public-facing jobs and cannot isolate or work from home, and we as a society demand they get back there as soon as possible. And thus, they die at much higher rates, and we as a society see this, shrug, and await their replacements.

This is a sobering book, and it needs to be read by everyone. I can’t vouch for other countries, since I’ve only ever lived in the US, but here, we’re all so disconnected from each other. We stick to our circles and don’t engage with people outside of them, and thus, we don’t understand the devastation caused by this stratification of society, outside of, “Huh, wonder where that one guy that worked at the gas station went. Haven’t seen him in months. Anyway…” Dr. Thrasher has really written an eye-opening account of how blasé we are a society of throwing away people who aren’t like us. It’s a major wake-up call, one I’m not hopeful that the majority of us will hear.

Visit Dr. Steven Thrasher’s page at Celadon books here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: A Face for Picasso: Coming of Age with Crouzon Syndrome by Ariel Henley

I think it was a BookRiot email that alerted me to the existence of A Face for Picasso: Coming of Age with Crouzon Syndrome by Ariel Henley (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021). The description of the memoir piqued my interest; I haven’t read all that much by or about people born with facial differences, so I was intrigued from the start, and, luckily, my library had a copy on the shelf.

Ariel and her sister Zan were born seemingly ‘normal,’ but within a few months, it became obvious that something was drastically wrong. Many doctor appointments later, the twins were diagnosed with Crouzon syndrome, a medical condition that’s usually genetic, but in the twins’ case, it’s merely a fluke of nature. This syndrome causes the skull to fuse together prematurely, leaving the brain with no room to grow. Surgery is needed to allow for space, and constant reshaping of the face is necessary. People affected have noticeable facial differences, including bulging and/or wide-spaced eyes and a protruding chin.

Ariel and her sister grew up knowing they were different. They were stared at constantly in public and treated terribly by their classmates and teachers. Their lives were marked by constant painful surgeries (over sixty of them), and middle school began a whole new level of hell for them. They became constant targets for their classmates; certain teachers actively made their lives more difficult; even their friends’ parents and coaches worked hard to make them miserable, simply because they looked different. And all this time, both girls were struggling with pain, constant medical appointments, and all the heavy emotions that come with being a young child and dealing with hardcore medical issues.

Ariel and Zan struggle. Ariel lashes out; she develops bulimia and PTSD from both the medical problems and the emotional difficulties. But along the way, she begins to learn who she is underneath it all, what she’s capable of, and she ultimately finds her voice.

Whew, this is a painful memoir. My heart broke again and again for Ariel and her sister, for the necessary medical torture they were put through, for the absolutely unnecessary mental and emotional torture the people around them put them through. I hope every last asshole who treated them poorly recognizes themselves in this story and feels well-deserved shame every day for the rest of their lives. Who acts like that???

I hadn’t read anything like this before, so I’m grateful to Ariel for being able to open up and share what living with Crouzon syndrome has been like. I had no idea what such intensive surgeries were like, and what the recovery period would be like. I’m so sorry that anyone has to go through that, especially children. I hope that hospitals and their social work departments will take note of this book and maybe develop better programs to help support families and patients going through these procedures, and living with these medically intense conditions.

Incredible memoir by an incredible young lady who has had to fight so much harder for any bit of normalcy that anyone should.

Visit Ariel Henley’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: You’re the Only One I’ve Told: The Stories Behind Abortion by Dr. Meera Shah

Abortion has been in the news lately for obvious reasons, and I wasn’t sure if I had the spoons to read a book about it; it’s not always easy to engage with a subject that’s so important but which is also under assault at the moment. After volunteering with a local organization to pack comfort care bags for our local Planned Parenthood a few weeks ago, however, I was ready to pick up You’re the Only One I’ve Told: The Stories Behind Abortion by Dr. Meera Shah (Chicago Review Press, 2020).  

Dr. Shah is a doctor who provides abortion care to patients who seek it out. Because being able to decide when to become a parent is an important part of bodily autonomy, planning one’s future, and in some cases, remaining alive, she is passionate about her work and seeks to help others understand the importance of what she does. Each chapter focuses on one person who, for varying reasons, chose to end a pregnancy; Dr. Shah includes the important medical knowledge necessary to fully understand each situation, and the difficulties that our national climate surrounding abortion adds to what is already often a tense and heartbreaking decision.

The reasons behind the abortion in each chapter are various and complex; from abusive relationships (who wants to be tied forever to a man who has hurt you multiple times???), to a doomed pregnancy where the baby will live maybe minutes after being born (if it survives that long without killing the parent carrying it), to pregnancies that occurred at the worst possible time, to a pregnancy that would render life next to impossible for the entire rest of the family (“Here, person already struggling to pay the rent for you and your three kids! Here’s another new baby; now you can also add $1200+ per month in daycare fees! I’m sure you can handle that!”), there are so, so many reasons why these women choose abortion, and Dr. Shah is respectful of them all, without judgment. Throughout each chapter, she illustrates and emphasizes the importance of being able to examine one’s life and come to the conclusion that becoming a parent (often becoming a parent again) at this moment cannot happen, and how important it is that this procedure remain legal.

So many heartbreaking decisions in this book. Often, the pregnancies were desperately wanted; nature, however, had other ideas about how the fetus would develop, and the parents were faced with the awful knowledge that there was no chance of them ending up with a child even if the pregnancy were continued. At other times, the parents simply realized that bringing a child into their lives was the worst possible thing they could do at the moment. Being allowed to make that decision allowed them to go on to have the lives they wanted – lives that often included, eventually, having more children.

If you’ve never read a book about abortion and are curious as to what could possibly lead a woman to make the choice to have one, this would be an excellent place to start. I’ve noticed that doctors tend to fall into two camps: either they’re terrible writers, or they’re great. Dr. Shah is one of the great ones; her style is engaging and never wanders into stiffy, stodgy medical writing. Her respect for the people she treats is obvious in her gentle handling of the stories in this book, and it’s obvious her patients are lucky to be served by her.

nonfiction

Book Review: Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker

Little scares me more than schizophrenia. It attacks seemingly without warning; there are very few treatments; science isn’t even completely sure what causes it. I’ve seen the devastating toll it takes on families, thanks to my friend’s openness on her son’s struggle and ultimate death due to the side effects of the medication he took (a not-uncommon outcome; meds for schizophrenia are hard on the heart and various other organs). But I feel a need to keep reading about it, keep trying to understand, maybe in the hopes that one day I’ll read something positive, a sunnier outlook, an amazing breakthrough. When Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker (Doubleday Books, 2020) came out, it sounded like my worst nightmare, and it immediately went onto my list.

CONTENT WARNING: Sexual assault and child molestation.

Don and Mimi Galvin appeared, on the outside, to have an amazing family. An Air Force family, they had twelve children (ten boys, two girls), but perfection evaded the ever-growing family. As the boys grew older, one by one, they became stricken with serious mental illness. Schizophrenia took down one son after another, until six of them were affected, most of them so severely that they lived in hospitals, at home with Mimi, or in supportive housing arrangements. Where had it all gone wrong?

Combining scientific research, the history of mental health research and treatment and schizophrenia in particular, and the story of the Galvins and the tragedy that befell them, Robert Kolker has crafted a deep narrative that spans multiple decades of science, from ‘Schizophrenia is caused by overbearing mothers’ to ‘This is likely due to a complicated combination of genetics and possibly some outside factors.’ Due to the large size of the family, the Galvins became research subjects for multiple studies. The results won’t be available for decades, but this family just might be partly responsible for future breakthroughs on the disease.

My God, this was fascinating. CONTENT WARNING: there is a LOT of sexual abuse mentioned in this book. If you’re unable to handle reading about this subject right now, it’s okay to skip this one. Abuse ran rampant throughout this family; both the daughters and the sons were victimized by both family and people in the community. It’s difficult to read about, so if this isn’t something you can handle right now, it’s okay to take care of yourself and choose a book that will allow you to breathe a little easier.

Hidden Valley Road is about a family unexpectedly stricken with multiple cases of one of the most complex mental illnesses out there, who likely did the best they could at the time with what they had (which wasn’t always much; even today, schizophrenia and how to best treat it remains an enigma), and whom society has often failed. It’s social and scientific history, and despite its large size, it’s an absolute page-turner.

Visit Robert Kolker’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: In Pain: A Bioethicist’s Personal Struggle with Opioids by Travis Rieder

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or a non-US country, in which case, lucky you!), you likely know that there’s a massive opioid epidemic going on here in the US and has been for over a decade now. Doctors overprescribe, patients get hooked, and little by little, whole towns have been devastated because of this dependence on opioids. But that’s not the whole story, and in his book In Pain: A Bioethicist’s Personal Struggle with Opioids (Harper, 2019), Dr. Travis Rieder unveils his own struggle with opioids and the underlying problems the US has that have created and continue to sustain this crisis. As a person who suffers from chronic pain with periods of acute pain caused by flares of various sorts, I’ve taken opioids before, and they scare me, so I knew this book was something I needed to read.

Travis Rieder’s life was going perfectly fine – great wife, beautiful baby daughter, a new job – until a motorcycle accident in 2015 that crushed and partially degloved his left foot changed everything. His doctors referred to his foot as ‘a salvage situation,’ his injuries were that severe. After five surgeries in five weeks and a lengthy hospital stay, Rieder was on a substantial amount of opioid pain medication – a necessary amount at first, to be sure, after an injury of that caliber. But when it came time to decrease his dosages, none of his doctors knew what to do, and none of them would take responsibility for helping him through what turned out to be an absolutely horrific withdrawal process lasting over a month and getting increasingly worse throughout that time before it got better.

Shaken by his experiences and feeling the societal shame that goes with dependence/addiction (there’s a different that he explains!), it takes Travis Rieder a while before he’s able to speak up about what happened and his suspicion that something went very, very wrong. And as he learns, his experiences weren’t uncommon. Taking a deep dive into America’s history and ongoing problem with opioids and pain control, Dr. Rieder illustrates the urgency of this problem and the steps we must take – the steps we absolutely, 100% lack the political will to take – in order to fully conquer this crisis.

What a remarkable book. Dr. Rieder’s description of what opioid withdrawal put him through alone was enough to make this a five-star read. During my last major flare, a nurse practitioner sent me home with a muscle relaxer (which I occasionally need for spasms; I only ever treat the worst of these) and a very small amount of what I think was Tylenol with codeine (of which I still have like half of the bottle left). All of this was to get me through until the next week, until my appointment with my physiatrist, who immediately put me on the schedule for a steroid epidural (which helped so much…until I mangled something else in my back and needed it redone a month later). Before this, it was about a decade before I’d received opioids for another acute flare (which took about ten weeks until I could walk normally, without a cane, and without dragging my leg behind). I could absolutely sense the danger in that Vicodin; it took away the awful pain, but it also made me feel deliciously relaxed and floaty, and that’s not something I want to get used to. There are BOOKS TO READ. THINGS TO DO. I don’t have time to sit around floating like that, and I knew I had to do whatever it took to NOT need those meds as much as possible. Fortunately for me, my doctor had also prescribed steroids, and by day three, the steroids had taken the swelling down enough that my pain had dropped to a level low enough that I could tolerate it with my normal Celebrex.

That experience alone, though not the first time my back had gone bad, was enough to scare me away from opioids, and it’s why I knew I needed to read this book. Dr. Rieder’s story is absolutely terrifying, and I never, ever want to go through what he went through while in withdrawal. This convinced me that any future use of opioids for acute pain (especially if I ever need surgery) will have me asking my doctor what the plan is to get me off those meds, and how soon.

Dr. Rieder delves into things I hadn’t considered before, such as the difference between dependence and addiction, and the societal shame surrounding both. He does mention the racial issues of the opioid crisis: why was this not a crisis when it was black folks dying of heroin use in the inner cities, but it’s a crisis now that white folks are? (Racism, obvs, and this is very much something we need to have in the forefront of our minds when it comes other present and future crises), which I appreciated. He also discusses our attitude toward pain and how living with zero pain is unrealistic, and how that’s something we all need to think about. That’s a truth I long ago accepted for myself, and while it takes a while to get there, it IS possible. And what I really appreciated most about this book: Dr. Rieder absolutely understands how unrealistic the solutions to this crisis are. We don’t care enough about each other. We don’t have the political will. We look at drug addiction and dependence as a moral failure, instead of a health condition, and thus we look at addicts as people who made a personal choice to place themselves in a bad situation, and we don’t want our tax dollars going to that. We also don’t want our money going towards a socialist, healthcare-for-all system, and thus the more expensive solutions, like extensive physical therapy for pain control, etc., are only available to wealthier patients; the rest get prescriptions for opioids, which can cost pennies per pill. As a nation, we’ve built a system set up for failure, Dr. Rieder argues, and now we’re sitting here wringing our hands over it while rejecting all the solutions.

In Pain isn’t necessarily a hopeful book, but in the right hands, it could very much be an eye-opener that gets the ball rolling. I hope that’s the case. We all deserve better.

Visit Dr. Travis Rieder’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives, and Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland

At-home DNA testing is all the rage these days. How much percentage British are you? Where did your ancestors come from? To whom are you related? So many of us want to spit in that tube and then peer at the pie chart that comes out of it, but the results can be far more complicated than that. I’m one of the millions of Americans who spit in the tube and clicked the link that wound up in my inbox several weeks later, informing me that I’m a good 30% Norwegian, but almost not at all Italian, despite my mother’s Italian maiden name. Fascinating! And that’s why The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives, and Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland (Abrams Press, 2020) appealed to me so much.

The Lost Family starts out following the family of Jim Collins, the Irish Catholic patriarch who had grown up in an orphanage, and who always struggled with his fractured family. Technology hadn’t advanced far enough at the point of his death, but afterwards, when home DNA testing was in its early days, his daughters began uncovering some shocking mysteries. Why weren’t they Irish at all? How on earth were the tests saying Jewish??? Why was Dad (Jim) so very short? What was going on?

Interwoven between the stories of the Collins family and other families whose DNA tests came up with surprises or mysteries are in-depth looks at how the ancestry and at-home DNA testing industry runs: how it began, what it means to the people who ran it (most of them genuinely seem like good people and are super enthusiastic about genealogy), and what the implications are, legally and morally, both for now and in the future. If you’ve ever taken one of these tests or you’re thinking about it, or you just want to put together a family tree, this is a book you need to pick up!

Phew. There is a LOT of information in this book. I was expecting it to be a little bit more about stories like the Collins’ family (and they’re definitely in there; their story and others like theirs are just scattered in between more broad information about companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe), but I walked away with far more knowledge about the genetic testing industry as a whole than I expected. A lot of it was beyond me; I couldn’t begin to explain to you how any of the genetic comparison works and how to distinguish a third cousin from a great-uncle, genetically speaking, but there are plenty of people who could, and they’re REALLY into it (I envy their ability to grasp that kind of stuff. My brain just doesn’t work that way). I did like learning about how the companies grew and how they’re dealing with the more ethical concerns (how to aid customers who are shocked by their results; how to deal when the FBI comes calling and wants to compare genetic data on file with what they have from a crime scene or two), but what I really enjoyed were the personal stories, the family searches and bewilderment, the joy in discovering new relatives, the pain at losing what they thought was family-by-blood, or being rejected by newly discovered blood relatives. Those were the stories I enjoyed most about this book.

This was a slow read for me, simply because the book was densely packed with info, but it’s great science writing with a personal touch. I enjoyed settling down to read this book.

Visit Libby Copeland’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease by Daisy Hernández

“You don’t know what you don’t know” is something we say often at my house, and I wonder a lot about how many things are out there that I don’t know about (this is why I’m so drawn to nonfiction! I want to know ALL THE THINGS). And when I learned about a book about a contagious disease that affects millions but that most people have never heard of, my curiosity was immediately piqued. And that’s how The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease by Daisy Hernández (Tin House Books, 2021) ended up on my TBR. And Ms. Hernández was right: I’d never once in my life heard of Chagas.

Daisy Hernández grew up with a sick aunt. Tía Dora had become sick by eating an apple, Daisy believed, until she was older and learned that her aunt, with whom her relationship was often contentious due to, among many things, the aunt’s homophobia, had been infected with Chagas disease after having been bitten by a kissing bug. Tía Dora suffered terribly throughout her life, and Daisy later learned that yet another aunt had died as well of Chagas in South America. What was the insect that had so troubled her family? Despite the phobia Daisy had developed of it, she set out to learn more.

As it turns out, kissing bugs are all over in South America and the southern US. “Every adult with Chagas is a child that wasn’t treated,” one doctor says, and it seems to be true. Many adults who are found to be infected (usually discovered when their blood donation is tested) aren’t symptomatic, though it can take years until symptoms (like heart failure) make themselves known; others begin showing symptoms early on, and no one is sure why. Several years ago, Zika was all over the news, but Chagas, which affects more Americans than Zika, hasn’t gotten a fraction of that kind of attention. With bravery, determination, and a deep-seated curiosity, Daisy Hernández has penned a part-memoir, part-scientific narrative that clues readers in to the dangers of Chagas (with climate change, kissing bugs are heading north – this is everyone’s problem) and the devastation they cause.

When I picked this up, I was a little hesitant. I had just finished a fairly heavy book and wasn’t sure I could handle any intense scientific reading at this point, but Ms. Hernández deftly combines her research with her family’s story. Instead of being bogged down by this, I blew through it in a day. The effects of Chagas are difficult to read about; Tía Dora’s suffering is detailed throughout the book and it’s not pretty, but it’s less shocking than the fact that even with all the medical and science writing I’ve done throughout my life, Chagas had never once appeared in any of it. How does this affect so many people and yet no one talks about it?

The Kissing Bug combines the best of open, honest memoir writing with science writing that is simple enough for even the most science-phobic brain to grasp (I *really* wasn’t much of a science person growing up; it’s only being married to a molecular biologist and getting a daily lecture on All Things Science that has helped me appreciate it more). I appreciated Ms. Hernández’s admissions of how terrifying it was for her to research and write about the very thing that killed her aunts and devastated her family so deeply; knowing how tough it was for her to be out in the field with researchers, collecting kissing bugs in the dark, bending over microscopes to peer at T. cruzi, added another layer of humanity to her story. I’m honestly not sure I could’ve gone on this journey if I were her. Mad respect.

The Kissing Bug is an easy read about a tough subject, and one that desperately needs this kind of light shone upon it. Highly recommended.

Visit Daisy Hernández’s website here.