Review: On Immunity

PUBLISHED ON THE RUMPUS. One day I picked my toddler up from his Montessori school and, along with the usual bags of laundry and lunch detritus, I was handed a slip of paper informing me that during his day at school my son had been vaccinated for polio. I sucked in my breath lest I do damage I could not undo, and carried home my child and my outrage.

The school might have bothered checking their records: my son was already vaccinated against polio, the disease that had defined my grandmother’s gait her whole life. I am not at all averse to vaccines (for reasons not entirely above reproach, as I’ll get into) but I could suddenly and viscerally relate to the anti-vaccinators of my parenting cohort. I could not tolerate that my child—a still-felt extension of my body—had been pierced, pricked, possibly even contaminated by the double dose—without my consent.

Believe me, I am a mother who is more than willing to voice my indignation when offended. And I was offended. The rub was this: I was an American mother mothering in Mexico. With this slight shift in geographical situation, so much changed entirely. Risk assessment, for one, and the degree to which parenting was atomistic, for another. And also, the role and significance of vaccines, and, for that matter, the implications of voicing my American indignation.

Examined in light of Eula Biss’s panoramic new inquiry, On Immunity: An Inoculation, my collision with the Mexican public health system becomes useful in depicting the scope of this book. Where the event felt personal to me at the time—as an affront to my idea of self, a violation—Biss inverts my perspective. The slip of paper I was handed represents not a bureaucratic error, but the history of a nation, a government’s relationship with the body politic, even international politics, and my reaction embodied fear born out of myth and metaphor, out of my own cultural and racial biases….