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'A Family History Of Illness: Memory As Medicine' With Brett Walker

Jan 10, 2019

A Family History of Illness is a gritty historical memoir that examines the body's immune system and microbial composition as well as the biological and cultural origins of memory and history, offering a startling, fresh way to view the role of history in understanding our physical selves. In his own search, Walker soon realizes that this broader scope is more valuable than a strictly medical family history. He finds that family legacies shape us both physically and symbolically, forming the root of our identity and values, and he urges us to renew our interest in the past or risk misunderstanding ourselves and the world around us.

A Family History of Illness: Memory as Medicine

The following highlights are from a conversation with Brett Walker about his book, "A Family History of Illness: Memory as Medicine." To hear the full converstation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast.

Sarah Aronson: What’s the question you had when you started the book?

Brett Walker: Do I have a family history of illness? It was a question that was asked to me repeatedly when I was in the hospital. It was, in the minds of my doctors, the most pressing question that they had. They weren’t asking me questions about lifestyle, they weren’t asking questions about symptoms. They were asking me questions about my family, and for me, it was interesting because I’m a historian by training—I teach history—and I could tell you an enormous amount about state building in 17th century Japan or aspects of world history, but I was unable to tell them anything about my own family. For that reason it became a kind of obsession for a couple of years.

And the book begins in the midst of your own health crisis, where you write: “thinking about my own death was like swimming in room-temperature gravy,” which struck me. For listeners, can you just describe what happened?

I was traveling over winter break in Minnesota with a friend, and for about the three previous years I’d been having health problems. I’d been getting sick really easily, lots of infections. I would go to the doctor and get prescribed antibiotics—they would work temporarily, then I would just get sick again. No one really knew what was going on. When I was travelling in Minnesota I got the flu. The flu turned into pneumonia; I went to an urgent care. I was given antibiotics for the pneumonia but they didn’t work, and I went back to the urgent care and the doctor told me they wouldn’t re-prescribe those drugs—that I needed to go to the emergency room. When I went to the emergency room they ran x-rays of my chest. They became pretty alarmed and checked me in.

And that’s when I started getting barraged with these questions about my family health history. "Was I sexually active? Had I had a tattoo recently?" Anything that might have exposed me to HIV or any other kind of immune-compromising disease. . . Even as my health was getting worse—and maybe part of it had to do with the fact that I was so numbed up with pain killers—I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that I was going to die. It was really only after over-hearing doctors talking, doctors telling me that it was a good idea to have my family present, doctors beginning to talk to me about end-of-life issues that I began to realize that I was probably going to die in Minneapolis St. Paul of some unknown disease that had led to pneumonia.

That’s when you begin to think about all the things you have left undone, all of the relationships that are left unreconciled, all of the things in your life. Oftentimes we don’t have time to plan,  it just sneaks up on you. For somebody that likes to be in control of things, it was a very hard part for me.

Later in the book you write: “It is disorienting to be a giant compared to your predator and yet completely unable to defend yourself. I have never fully trusted my body again. . .”

Yeah, I haven’t.  That’s been one of the harder things. The fall comes, the temperatures change. I’m teaching at a university where about every third kid is sniffling and wanting to touch me and I can’t help but think, all of the time, what is going to be the bacterial or viral exchange that is going to compromise my immune system and make me sick again, because once you remember your body collapsing in the face of an infection, it’s very hard to go partially down that path and not think you’re going to go all the way down that path because the feeling is essentially the same. So I haven’t been able to trust my body. . .

About the Book:

While in the ICU with a near-fatal case of pneumonia, Brett Walker was asked, "Do you have a family history of illness?"-a standard and deceptively simple question that for Walker, a professional historian, took on additional meaning and spurred him to investigate his family's medical past. In this deeply personal narrative, he constructs a history of his body to understand his diagnosis with a serious immunological disorder, weaving together his dying grandfather's sneaking a cigarette in a shed on the family's Montana farm, blood fractionation experiments in Europe during World War II, and nineteenth-century cholera outbreaks that ravaged small American towns as his ancestors were making their way west.

A Family History of Illness is a gritty historical memoir that examines the body's immune system and microbial composition as well as the biological and cultural origins of memory and history, offering a startling, fresh way to view the role of history in understanding our physical selves. In his own search, Walker soon realizes that this broader scope is more valuable than a strictly medical family history. He finds that family legacies shape us both physically and symbolically, forming the root of our identity and values, and he urges us to renew our interest in the past or risk misunderstanding ourselves and the world around us.

About the Author:

Brett Walker
Credit Brett Walker

Brett is Regents Professor of History at Montana State University, Bozeman. He studies environmental history, the history of human health, the history of science, and military history. His research area is early modern and modern Japanese history, as well as comparative world history, including World War II.