About American Breakdown

All told, I was sick for a quarter of a century. Just launching into adulthood when the illness first struck, I was 21 years old and bedridden—an old lady in a young woman’s body. The fatigue felled me. I couldn’t hold a book. Talking on the phone wiped me out. Walking a block to the corner store wrecked me. I took baths rather than stand in the shower. I stopped brushing my teeth at night.

I felt utterly alone until the day I stumbled upon Jean Strouse’s 1980 biography of Alice James—the chronically ill sister of the writer Henry James and the psychologist William James—and felt I had met my kindred spirit. Why was I sick? Why was she? A doctor told me I was “just depressed,” and researchers called Alice’s illness “fashionable.” But was it really so simple? 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 (CFS) and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), two frequently co-occurring illnesses that primarily strike women and are generally misunderstood and 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.

Now fully recovered, I have a message I want to bring to the world. I’m writing American Breakdown to heighten awareness of the human health risks posed by industrial capitalism. Something is wrong, and it’s making us sick. It’s time for all of us to wake up and pay attention.