Book of the week
What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City
(One World, $28)
Well before Mona Hanna-Attisha awoke to what had happened to the tap water in Flint, Mich., “something was obviously wrong,” said Nick Licata in The Seattle Times. In her new memoir about the crisis, the pediatrician who exposed the depth of the scandal admits she wasted a year soothing families who complained that the water in their sinks had been brown and foul-smelling since about the time the city started sourcing it from the Flint River in early 2014. Only by chance did the Iraqi-American immigrant learn in 2015 that the EPA was sitting on evidence that the cost-saving measure was causing lead to leach into the water. That stirred her to action, said Michelle Hart in O magazine, and her account of how she exposed government deceit and indifference plays out “with the gripping intrigue of a Grisham thriller.”
Some of the drama is forced, said John Donvan in The Wall Street Journal. Hanna-Attisha has often been compared to famed activist Erin Brockovich, and at times What the Eyes Don’t See can seem too aware of the parallel, “as if the author intended the book to work also as a pitch to Hollywood.” Hanna-Attisha constantly underscores her worries about Flint’s children and “creates the impression of a long, exhausting campaign against a stubborn bureaucracy”—even though her crucial contribution to public awareness took only a month. In truth, her story “needs no hyping.” Local, state, and federal officials all had failed to protect the public from lead poisoning, and Hanna-Attisha was one of the brave people who risked career and reputation to call out the negligence and deceit. Thanks to her persistence, she dug up data that proved lead poisoning had risen dramatically among Flint’s children since the tap water changed.
Focusing on any one activist distorts the story of how many Flint residents organized to help themselves, said Parul Sehgal in The New York Times. Still, Hanna-Attisha’s account is “the book I’d recommend to those coming to the issue for the first time.” She makes the story personal while also detailing how damaging lead poisoning can be in the long term and explaining how austerity politics and institutional racism contributed to the crisis in poor, majority-black Flint. Her book thus becomes both a history and a blueprint for how to fight such cruel neglect. Given the evidence from Flint—where the water problems are far from fully resolved—opportunities to use her blueprint “will never stop presenting themselves.”