It’s hard for me to review this book, for two reasons. Reason number one – my kid is crying for my attention right now. Reason number two – I’m still trying to figure out what the book means to me, and how I am going to change my life in response to having read it.
In brief, then, and with later thoughts perhaps to follow, Having Faith is a tandem exploration of a mother’s experience of pregnancy and early childhood, and an ecologist’s exploration of the toxic world in which we women are forced to grow and raise (and often lose) our children. The first of my much-cherished myths that Sandra explodes is that there are pristine places left in the world. The second is that there are thresholds for toxins, and as long as our bodies’ levels remain under the threshold, we remain uncompromised by them.
I’m nursing my child at the moment (literally – typing 1 handed), and so the takeaway fact that rings in my brain is that my breastmilk is so laden with toxins, it would not meet FDA approval for sale on the market. This is a virtual garauntee – she has gathered evidence from several segments of the population, urban and rural, even indigenous peoples. When I feed my child, I am unburdening my body of a lifetime of toxic chemicals, stored in the fat cells that mobilize to make my milk, and sullying his. There are no life changes that I can make at this point to improve this situation. There are no choices to be made on the personal level that can significantly improve this situation, even if from birth we were planning for our future reproductive periods - not dietary changes, not homesite changes, not purchasing only organic food and Seventh Generation cleaning products. It has to be a global change. This is not a groundbreaking conclusion, but she drives it home.
I want to read more on this. I should, before I try to discuss it any further. At the moment, though, what it’s telling me is that just putting my kid in cloth diapers, feeding him breastmilk, handwashing our dishes in non toxic soap, and composting and recycling a lot of our trash is not doing enough. The U.S. government spends millions of dollars on keeping women updated on seafood warnings – which fish are safe to eat in which quantities during which stages of reproductive life – instead of working (with any kind of urgency) on improving the ocean conditions which cause our fish to be toxic. That won’t change, unless there is pressure for it to change. And the pressure has to come from "the little people," like me. Like Steingraber. Like Jack.
As for the literary angle - well, the interdisciplinary appeals to me. I love novels by poets, history books by novelists, poems by historians. Academic works can be dry – the scholar wrings his writing like a rag, trying to squeeze out all personality and subjectivity, declaiming "I Am Authority, Objective, Transparent." I much prefer the scholar who does not try to obfusticate (what a word there, eh??) his individuality and personal bias. I think it ends up being a truer work. With constant reminders of subjectivity, we are not tricked into thinking that what we read is an absolute, without slant. So, for that reason, along with her scholarship, I also love this work. She is a poet. Her description of embryo implantation is transcendent. She lifts the process of organogenesis to the light like a crystal, making it transparent as glass, making it shine, which is a tricky proposition when dealing with the lay-people. Aw heck, I can list my strained metaphors for you all day, but why waste time reading them, when you can read hers? Which are much better.
I’m a practical person, so I know that I’m not going to march right out and change the world. But there are things I can do. Her words have been ringing in my head for over a month now, and I don’t think they’ll leave me. They will inform my future career and scholarship choices, I think. And my parenting choices. I’ll keep breastfeeding, because in doing the cost-benefit analysis, I think that breastfeeding still comes out as the best choice for my babies. But it will be nice if, when Jack, or Jack’s children, or Jack’s grandchildren are looking at their hungry newborns, they won’t have to do a cost-benefit analysis on breastfeeding. It will be a purer activity one day. That is my wish.