“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.