On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss
Graywolf Press, 2014; 216 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan


If you want to win the lottery, ask Eula Biss to pick the numbers for you. Her latest nonfiction collection On Immunity: An Inoculation has arrived at the just-right time. An antidote to the contempt both sides of the vaccination debate have for each other, the book engages in measured and thoughtful examination of an issue that’s not personal but ultimately communal.

In the true spirit of the word essay’s etymology (“a trial” or “an attempt”), Biss probes and questions and considers all the evidence as she makes the decision to vaccinate her son. She acts as a mother first, second, and last, not as someone with an agenda. Too much of the latter has lead to dismissiveness, ignorance, and in the end, people who are at greater risk of illness.

Biss doesn’t rely on one approach to get to her answer. She ventures into the scientific as she examines germ theory, the hygiene hypothesis, and the debunked link between vaccines and autism. Into the politics of vaccine development. Into the economic and social aspects of who gets vaccinated or not as she notes that “unvaccinated children… are more likely to be white, to have an older married mother with a college education, and to live in a household with an income of $75,000 or more—like my child” and “vaccination, like slavery [which many anti-vaccinators liken forced immunization to], raises some pressing questions about one’s rights to one’s own body.” Into the historical as she discusses General Washington’s struggle with whether to force Revolutionary War soldiers to be inoculated against smallpox. And even into the literary as she offers metaphors of immunity and disease with readings of Dracula and Candide, Kierkegaard’s Works of Love and the myth of Achilles, who was essentially vaccinated too.

The thoroughness with which Biss takes on her inquiry of how best to protect her child demands On Immunity not be dismissed. But so too does the book’s larger argument, which she lays out so precisely and convincingly: “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.”