All told, I was sick for more than a quarter of a century. Bedridden at 21, I couldn’t hold a book, took baths rather than stand in the shower, stopped brushing my teeth at night. I was an old lady in a young woman’s body.
I felt utterly alone until the day I stumbled upon Jean Strouse’s 1980 biography of Alice James—the chronically ill sister of acclaimed American writer Henry James and the equally eminent psychologist-philosopher William James—and felt I had met my 19th-century doppelganger. Why was I sick? Why was she? A doctor told me I was “just depressed,” and researchers called Alice’s illness “fashionable.” Were these illnesses simply the psychosomatic expressions of conflicted psyches? Or was there something more to the story?
Eventually, I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (now known as ME/CFS) and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), two poorly researched and frequently co-occurring illnesses that primarily strike women and are often dismissed as psychogenic.
In my quest for answers, I spent years researching American history, 19th-century and contemporary toxicology, medical history, biology, chaos theory, environmental history, and sociology, and came to see that the effects of industrial capitalism began to manifest in people’s bodies over 150 years ago. In American Breakdown: Notes from an Industrialized Body, I explore the chemical contributors to illness while also examining and critiquing other harmful elements of American culture, such as our profit-driven and mechanistic medical system and our stress-ridden lifestyles.
Unfettered industrial capitalism has infiltrated every part of our daily lives, from the way we think all the way down to our hormones, our immune processes, and all of the interconnecting systems of our bodies. We have reached a critical threshold, but together we can change our trajectory.