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What the Eyes Don't See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City Hardcover – June 19, 2018
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“The Iraqi American pediatrician who helped expose the Flint water crisis lays bare the bureaucratic bunk and flat-out injustice at the heart of the environmental disgrace—revealing, with the gripping intrigue of a Grisham thriller, ‘the story of a government poisoning its own citizens, and then lying about it.’”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“It’s one thing to point out a problem. It is another thing altogether to step up and work to fix it. Mona Hanna-Attisha is a true American hero.”—Erin Brockovich
“A clarion call to live a life of purpose.”—The Washington Post
“Gripping . . . entertaining . . . Her book has power precisely because she takes the events she recounts so personally. . . . Moral outrage present on every page.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Personal and emotional. . . She vividly describes the effects of lead poisoning on her young patients. . . . She is at her best when recounting the detective work she undertook after a tip-off about lead levels from a friend. . . . ‛Flint will not be defined by this crisis,’ vows Ms. Hanna-Attisha.”—The Economist
“Flint is a public health disaster. But it was Dr. Mona, this caring, tough pediatrician turned detective, who cracked the case.”—Rachel Maddow
“Mona Hanna-Attisha’s account of that urban man-made disaster reads both as a detective story and as an exposé of government corruption. . . . Her book’s message is that we each have the power to fix things, to make the world safer by opening one another’s eyes to problems. Her book reinforced my belief that the first step to becoming a citizen activist is seeing the world as it should be, not as it is given to you.”—The Seattle Times
“Essential for all readers who care about children, health, and the environment. This should be required reading for public servants as an incisive cautionary tale, and for pediatricians and youth advocates as a story of heroism in the ranks of people who have the capacity to make a difference.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“She is an unlikely hero—a pediatrician who went up against the forces responsible for poisoning an American city, my hometown of Flint, Michigan. Yet because of her gentle but unrelenting perseverance, she brought the world’s attention to this crime. A story of race, greed, and a crumbling democracy, What the Eyes Don’t See is a brilliantly written book—may it help save every Flint in this country.”—Michael Moore
“[A] powerful firsthand account . . . Hanna-Attisha’s empathy for her patients and the people of Flint comes through, as do her pride in her Iraqi roots and her persistent optimism. . . . An inspiring work.”—Publishers Weekly
“Told with passion and intelligence, What the Eyes Don’t See is an essential text for understanding the full scope of injustice in Flint and the importance of fighting for what’s right.”—Booklist (starred review)
About the Author
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Dr. Mona is the kind of doctor we all would want for ourselves, and especially for our children, or grandchildren. She is a teaching doctor, smart and professional, a trainer of pediatricians, but sees patients in her clinic as well. She cares about them as for her own. She views it as both a personal and a professional obligation to look out for them. And as a public health professional, she knows the importance of getting ahead of a situation, of protecting children from harm before they show up in clinics and hospitals with symptoms of devastating disease.
"What the Eyes Don't See" chronicles how Dr. Mona became aware of the Flint water crisis and immediately jumped into a maelstrom of political denial, blame-shifting and responsibility ducking. Using rigorous science and stubborn passion, Dr. Mona and a small circle of her colleagues were finally able to to prod resistant government officials into doing their jobs. Without their activism, the public health crisis would have continued. As it is, thousands of children were exposed to lead in the Flint water. No amount of exposure is safe, and the damage done to developing brains and bodies is permanent. Dr. Mona's team scored a victory of sorts, but it is a victory no one would ever wish for: the situation was completely avoidable and should never have occurred.
An important theme of the book is the power of government, for good or for ill, and the democratic necessity that government serve all citizens, especially those who need it most. The lead water crisis in Flint was the result of a hasty and sloppily implemented decision to change the source of the town's water from Lake Michigan to the Flint River without adequate testing for, and without legally mandated treatments to address, higher levels of corrosiveness in the new water supply. The switch was instituted by an unelected city manager who was exclusively focused on "austerity" measures, placing cost-cutting above all other considerations. In the ensuing efforts to avoid responsibility, numerous other government agencies and individuals responsible for public health also lost their ethical bearings.
Another inescapable theme is that our country is stronger because of immigrants like Dr. Mona and her family. She was born in England while her Iraqi father studied there. Rather than return to Saddam's brutal regime, he brought the family to Michigan while Dr. Mona was a young child. We are all better off because he did.
The title, "What the Eyes Don't See," suggests many meanings. One is that our empirical knowledge is constrained by our cognitive categories. If you think that the only source of lead in children's' bloodstreams is lead-based paint, then you don't look for it in water and dismiss the possibility out of hand. Also, lead in water is not only colorless and invisible to the eye, it is also odorless and tasteless; it is a silent and unseen killer. And the devastating effects of lead exposure on intelligence, behavior and other outcomes are often latent, lying in wait potentially for many years.
Dr. Mona is an elegant and graceful writer, and even those who know the basic outlines of the Flint story will find her account a page turner. She interweaves the main story about Flint with her own family story very effectively.
It is an outrage that this book ever needed to be written, but given what happened in Flint I am very glad that Dr. Mona wrote it.
I pre-ordered this book the moment it was available, because I knew it would be incredible, and I wanted to support Dr Mona — who I consider a friend, mind you. Owning this book, however, meant that I took a few extra weeks to get to it, because the pressure of not having a due date meant I kept putting it off in favour of library books that did have due dates.
Having said that, I began it just a few days ago and devoured it eagerly. Some aspects of this books are not news to me — as a pediatrician with an MPH like Dr Mona, I'm well familiar with what lead does to children's developing brains, and also with toxic stress and the ravages of poverty. I've also visited Flint and seen firsthand some of the abject ruin in many neighbourhoods. (I was there to speak at a conference — what I saw was simply what I saw while out for a long morning run.). And, of course, I've heard about Dr Mona's role in this whole affair from the first time it hit the national news. Yes, she is as incredible as she appears from this book. Also, the story she tells of her own family is somewhat familiar — while I am not Chaldean, I'm a South Asian who was also born in the United Kingdom and whose family emigrated to the United States. Again, aspects of story I found familiar.
So what did I find enthralling? Honestly, it was the drama of institutions. Not so much the state agencies that more or less blew it when it came to protecting the people of Flint. It was of the institutions that, in the end, decided to be on the right side of history: Hurley Medical Center, Michigan State University, etc. Dr Mona's descriptions of how people's names are dragged through the mud because they chose to speak up are not inaccurate — and far more common than we'd like to know. For me, this book was about that critical moment — what institutions would stand with her, and which would either hound her or choose to stay silent?
There are many lenses through which one can read this book, and I would not presume to tell readers what their lens should be. Consider the above as you read this story—which you really should read—and ask yourself if the places you venerate in your own community will stand up for what's right when it becomes inconvenient.
Ultimately, that is the story Dr Mona imparts to me.
(PS Mona — well done.)