What Disturbs Our Blood, by James Fitzgerald (LentBooks 2012 #4)

This was an interesting book that took me awhile to get through and left me with mixed feelings. You’ll notice that I’ve tagged it both as “memoir” and “general nonfiction” because it has elements of both. James Fitzgerald tells the story of his own life, his father’s and grandfather’s lives, but also brings in a huge amount of very information social history, particularly about the history of medicine and public health in Canada.

Fitzgerald’s grandfather, Gerald Fitzgerald, was a prominent physician and researcher, a contemporary of Banting and Best. He was involved not only in their discovery of insulin but in the discovery and promotion of vaccines for diphtheria and many other diseases, in the founding of Connaught Labs and the School of Hygiene at the University of Toronto, and in the promotion of preventative medicine and public health in Canada throughout the early 1900s. Yet this brilliant man had a deeply unhappy personal life that ended in depression and suicide; his son Jack, who followed his father into the medical profession, also followed him into mental illness. Jack — the author’s father — suffered years of debilitating mental illness, several suicide attempts, and serious drug abuse. As Fitzgerald’s memoir reveals, not only his father and grandfather but many other members of the extended family also experienced serious mental illness and either committed or attempted suicide.

With such a tortuous family history, it’s not surprising that James Fitzgerald felt the need to dig deeply into his family’s past in hopes of sparing himself the same fate as his father and grandfather. Or, perhaps, given the heritage of upper-class stiff-upper-lip repression that comes through in the story (Gerald Fitzgerald’s suicide, for example, was a closely-guarded family secret that James didn’t know about till he started researching this book), maybe it’s more surprising that he DID decide to excavate the skeletons in the family closet, rather than keeping them securely buried. The dark secrets of mental illness and family dysfunction permeate this book, and Fitzgerald has taken two paths to explore them: first, through Freudian psychoanalysis, and second, through researching and writer his father’s and grandfather’s stories for this book. And it seems that in doing so he has saved himself from the family curse, and is a more mentally stable and well-adjusted man than might be expected from his background.

I had quibbles with this book. I read a review that said it was overwritten near the beginning but this quickly ceased to be a problem as Fitzgerald got into his story and his prose became more fluid. I disagree: I found it cringingly overwritten at many points, including near the end. There is simply no excuse for writing a sentence like: “And yet, as I circled the dead planet of my father like  a monkey in a sputnik, why could I never shake the feeling that, congealed in the narcissism of his own victimhood, he knew exactly what I wanted from him?” OK, there might be an excuse for writing it — it might have seemed like a good idea in the first draft, but surely later revisions, or the minstrations of a stern editor, would have excised such vividly purple prose? I also thought that Fitzgerald’s speculations as to what his father, his grandfather (whom he never knew) and other characters were thinking at any given time, went way beyond what’s acceptable in nonfiction. He may have concluded, based on recorded words and actions, that they felt such-and-such emotions, but to state unequivocally that they DID feel the emotions he attributes to them (which often require quite stunning leaps to conclusions), is taking it a bit far.

Another thing that left me uneasy was Fitzgerald’s uncritical reliance on Freudian theory. He clearly credits psychoanalysis with freeing him from the bondage of the past and helping him become mentally healthy, and you can’t blame a person for promoting the therapy that works for them. A major part of his thesis is that the history of mental health care would have been much more successful and much less riddled with lobotomies and electroshock therapies, if Freud’s theories had been given more serious attention and if talk therapy had been prioritized over a medical model. This is fine and he may well be right about that — I’ve no great love for the medical model of mental health care myself — but I wouldn’t go as far as Fitzgerald does in cheering for Team Freud: like Freud, he seems to force everything into a model that requires the father-son relationship to be the most important and influential, and interprets every problem as having its roots in that relationship. Given his family history, it’s not hard to see why he would favour that model, but I didn’t always find the Freudian explanation convincing.

Despite these flaws, I thought the book was intriguing, moving in places, and very informative. While the memoir aspect was effective, what really impressed me was the more general overview of the history of health care in Canada (and, by extension, in the world, since Fitzgerald’s grandfather travelled, worked and studied in other countries as well). The section on the development of the diphtheria vaccine alone should be required reading for everyone who has fallen prey to anti-vaccination conspiracy-theory claptrap. This wasn’t a quick read for me or a book I will be likely to reread, but it was interesting and some of the things I learned will definitely stay with me.

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Filed under Canadian author, LentBooks, Nonfiction -- general, Nonfiction -- memoir

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