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Book Review: The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones

Image of a digital book cover. A graveyard is in the background. The book title is laid over it in white, with three red stars, and then the author's name.

Summary:
In 1968, Bruce Tucker, a Black man, went into Virginia’s top research hospital, the Medical College of Virginia (now Virginia Commonwealth University) with a head injury, only to have his heart taken out of his body and put into the chest of a white businessman. Covering the inequalities innate in cadaver harvesting through the mismanagement of discovered human remains on university property in the 1990s, journalist Chip Jones explores how organ transplant in the US reveals systemic inequalities and racism, not just in health care, but in other related fields as well.

Review:
Organ transplant science is something that can feel like it’s been around forever, but in fact it’s really still a fairly new form of treatment. The first transplant of any organ was in 1954, and the first heart transplant was in 1967. The Civil Rights Act was in 1964, so at the time this treatment was emerging, segregated health care was still present in the US.

This book first gives context to the inequities seen in organ donation and reception by looking at the topic of where student doctors get cadavers to practice dissection upon. Although currently there is a system in place for the ethical donation of remains for educational use, at the time there was no such system in place. Medical schools turned to grave-robbing – and they preferentially robbed from Black graveyards. Black families called these “night doctors.”

Parents even used the specter of “night doctors” to make their children stay in bed. “You’d better go to sleep,” they’d say, “or the student doctors will get you.”

(loc 3353)

This was also a time period where there was some debate about what counts as death. Legally, until 1968, death was the full cessation of the working of all organs. In 1968, with advancing science, the theory of brain death was proposed. This was partially due to new health care technology that allowed for a machine to keep the organs operating. In tandem, the science of organ transplantation was emerging. The fresher the organ, the better the chances for the transplant to succeed. With the emerging theory of brain death meaning organs were operating but the patient might be able to be considered dead, and I’m sure you can see where this was going.

Bruce Tucker was a blue collar worker. He was hanging out with friends having a few drinks of alcohol on a stone wall. He fell and suffered head trauma. He was brought to the hospital alone. In spite of having his brother’s business card in his pocket, no one called his brother. Police officers were sent to his home to try to find family, but he didn’t live with his brother. At the same time, a white businessman was waiting for a heart transplant at the same hospital.

The early conversations among the surgeons had little to do about his chances for survival but rather concerned using him for another purpose. No one was discussing whether he might recover and be rehabilitated….Men like Tucker, arriving with alcohol on their breath and seemingly no one to claim them were often written off as ‘charity patients.’ They weren’t expected to pay their bills, with the hospital absorbing any expenses.

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Jones notes that Tucker thus suffered from what can be termed a social death. Arriving at the hospital with alcohol on his breath meant that he was looked down upon by society, on top of how he was already perceived as a Black man in a Segregated southern hospital. Add to that the fact that the hospital decided he seemed to have no loved ones, and he was viewed as disposable.

Tucker did have loved ones, though, and when his body was sent to the funeral home, the caretaker notified his family that he arrived without a heart. This is when Tucker’s brother started to pursue answers and justice.

The next part of the book deals with the lawsuit that came about and how the court case was ruled. I wasn’t surprised, but was still severely disappointed to see how the hospital and doctors got away with it, and the Tucker family was left without justice. Notably to me is the quote from the prosecuting lawyer,

It doesn’t change the fact that when they took his heart from him he was not dead according to the law. So they broke the law and never would admit it, and that’s what bothered me more than anything else.

(loc 4397)

A clarifying note that the defense team used the argument of brain death, which was not the law at the time. The defense team also organized for as many transplant experts as possible to be in town at the time of the trial. They arranged for a transplant conference that just so happened to coincide with the scheduled trial. The conference was sponsored by Pfizer. The book notes just how much sway having transplant experts on the stand had on the judgment.

What stood out to me in reading this book is how societal inequalities and judgements can and do severely impact the quality of care that a patient might receive. I also was surprised to learn how recently brain death became the standard, and to read about the arguments on both sides of that debate. Brain death is not as clear-cut as I once thought it was.

The author does a good job of making history personal by focusing on Bruce Tucker and his family but also fleshing out with enough surrounding historical details that the complex situation made sense to read about. I do think his epilogue was unnecessary, where he details trying to speak with Bruce Tucker’s son, who did not want to speak to him. I feel that truly leaving Bruce Tucker’s son alone would have entailed simply a note that he did not wish to be interviewed and leaving it at that.

Overall, this is a fascinating and sad read about the history of organ transplants and brain death in the US. Recommended if these topics interest you.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 400 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Cover of the book "Sorrowland."

Summary:
Vern desperately flees the strict, religious, Black Power compound she was raised on while she is heavily pregnant with twins. Giving birth shortly thereafter and raising her babies in the woods, she finds herself transforming inexplicably. But what is she transforming into? Why? And can she protect her children from both the compound and the world?

Review:
Another Rivers Solomon book was my favorite read of last year (An Unkindness of Ghosts, review), so when I saw their new book come available on NetGalley – featuring a religious, Black Power compound – I requested it immediately and was thrilled to receive a copy. Like all of Rivers Solomon’s work this book is a gorgeous, intertwining mixture of compelling and challenging.

I was startled by the focus on pregnancy and mothering at the beginning of the book. It hadn’t been the focus of the other Rivers Solomon books I’ve read, and I must admit as a person who has never been pregnant or a mother myself, I always struggle a bit more to connect to these characters. And, indeed, by the end of the book it was not Vern as mother I connected to but rather Vern as a person caught in a complex web of the world as we know it with her ability to right wrongs and change the future limited. That twist in the gut of being caught inside of something much bigger than yourself, that I was able to relate to.

Who cared who knew if the knowing didn’t prevent future occurrences?

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The fantastical elements are immediately engaging – beautiful and grotesque. I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice to say her transformation took my breath away in a manner that reminded me of my feelings watching Season 1 of Hannibal. I mean that as a complement. It’s a fantasy that both feels like a fantasy and also real and leaves one wondering if Vern is right in the head or not? Can the world really work like this? What is happening to her?

The social commentary in this book is astute and apt without being preachy. Characters say what they say because their very lives have lived it – these are their experiences and real feelings. What may to some readers seem the most out there about the book can easily be traced to real occurrences in US history. It’s not far-fetched but one hopes its realness will reach more people because of how it is couched in fantasy.

There is rich queer content in this book, both in the sense of gender and in the sense of sexual relationships. There is two sex scenes, one of which I would consider explicit with people of multiple genders participating. However, contrary to how some booksellers are listing it, I absolutely would not call it “er*tica.” This is a serious fantasy book about issues of justice that just happens to have queer characters have sex “on screen” twice. Queer sex is not automatically “er*tica.”

With regards to other representation, there are many Black and two Indigenous (Lakota) people. Two characters have albinism, and this book eloquently depicts the visual impairments that come with that.

Overall, this book delivers what I have come to expect from a Rivers Solomon book – an engaging fantastical imagining with queer content and different abilities represented that draws attention to social issues. Readers who are able to keep an open mind to the book potentially not going the places they were anticipating or hoping for but who are willing to let the book lead where it may will enjoy this one.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 368 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight (The Real Help Reading Project)

September 10, 2011 16 comments

Girl with head leaning on hand.Summary:
Moinette is born south of New Orleans to a slave mother as a mulatresse–she is half white and half black.  Since her mother’s slave labor consists largely of laundry and also due to her looks, Moinette spends her life serving predominantly within the white homes instead of the fields, which is a dangerous location.  She also spends her life striving to be free and to save her family.

Discussion:
This is the first book for the The Real Help reading project I’m co-hosting with Amy (intro post).  I do apologize for the late time in the day that my hosting post is arriving.  It was raining this week, so I was afraid to bring my kindle with me most places.  Anyway.  On to discussing Moinette’s life as The Real Help.

The two things that stuck out the most to me were how desperate Moinette was to love no one but her mother (not even her son at first) and also the mental impact being treated as less than human had on her.  Moinette repeatedly degrades herself in her mind because of how others treat her.  This is what I want to discuss first.

There’s the fact that Moinette is half-white and half-black.  She is evidence of the fact that the white males find the black slaves desirable, and that is offensive to everyone involved.  For this reason, Moinette faces racism from both black and white people.  Early on she is informed that she is different, but not in a human way.

He said he was a horse, at least pure in blood and a useful animal.  He said I was a mule, half-breed, and even a mule worked hard.  He said I was nothing more than a foolish peacock.  (page 5)

Moinette’s identity is always in peril throughout her whole life, because no one wants to admit that sex between the races really happens, even though Moinette’s own existence is evidence of that fact.  Additionally, she constantly struggles to feel that she is worth more than an animal.  She sees that elderly slaves are literally valued as less than a dish.  Imagine what that would do to the self-esteem?  We talk a lot in classes in the US about how bad it would be to be owned by someone, but we never talk about the reality of being treated as an animal, as an object.  It feels abstract to say, “Oh, imagine what it would feel to be owned by someone.”  It is far less abstract to see the mental and emotional strife Moinette goes through in attempting to hold on to her sense of humanity.

Moinette also constantly struggles with the concept of love and who to love and when to love.  Something that stuck out to me was how at first she did not love her son.  She did not even want her son.  This is understandable given that he was the result of rape.  Later, though, much of her life focus comes to be on freeing him and saving him.  She loves him, yes, but personally I can’t help but notice that her focus on him only comes when she discovers that her mother is missing/gone.  It is almost as if she transfers her love for her mother to Jean-Paul and then to the little girls she buys in order to free them at 21.  Moinette’s experience with this demonstrates how slavery and inequality is so dehumanizing because it rips apart one of the key aspects that makes for humanity–the ability to make families, whether by blood or by choice.  Moinette knows the danger of loving someone.  She quite simply states:

I knew my heart was only meat for another animal.  (page 107)

Moinette spends the first half of her life striving to be back with her mother where she feels safe and loved.  She spends the second half of her life striving to save younger slaves and give them a place where they feel save and loved.  In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (link) safety is almost at the very bottom.  Only the very luckiest slaves even had the first level of physiological needs met.  Most never truly felt safe as there was no security of family, which is key to psychiatric stability and sense of self.  Even if we ignore the tragedy of Moinette being born a slave, her life is still tragic because she was never given the chance to self-actualize and become the truly amazing person that is clearly inside her throughout the novel because she must spend all her time struggling for the basic needs.

Obviously we also should discuss Moinette’s relationships with white women as we are reading this project to answer to The Help.  Moinette has an interesting relationship with white women.  She does not love the ones she serves, but she also does not hate them.  Moinette is clearly confused as to how to react to these women.  The first white woman she served was Cephaline, who was nearly her age and died young.  After she dies, Moinette says:

I missed her voice.  Her words like embroidery in the air.  She didn’t love me.  But I had heard her voice all my life.  (page 98)

How odd to spend so much of your time near someone, in often intimate situations, to know them truly thoroughly, but to feel no sense of love or camaraderie.  Moinette can see some similarities between herself and the white women she serves.  Their bodies are somewhat different, yet they both have two breasts and a vagina.  Although Moinette recognizes that white women have a bit more freedom, she still sees them as essentially used and hunted by men.

The Men hunted money and sex.  The women were hunted and captured, even the white women.  (page 230)

Truly with the marriage contracts of the time, a married white woman was not exactly free.  Moinette recognizes this, and I believe it adds to her despair.  What chance is there for women of any color in this society?

Another theme in the book is how dangerous working in the house is.  Working in the cane, no one notices the slave women, but working in the house, suddenly the women get noticed by the men and get used for their bodies sexually.  Even if a woman managed to escape being raped, she still felt inferior since she was living in the house and working in the house as a wife, but was not a wife.

Sophia said, “Safer in the cane.  Do your work, nobody look.  Dangerous in the house.”  (page 235)

In close quarters, such as serving in a white household, another whole level of fear and intimidation comes in to play.  Although the work is technically easier, the women actually had less control over what happened to their bodies.

Overall I think this book gives an excellent look into the sheer despair of being born a slave in the American south, particularly as a female.  Although Moinette strives constantly throughout her life, the things about herself she cannot change–that she was born a slave and biracial–truly largely determine her life path.  Although she helps improve the lives of some of those around her, she never truly finds happiness for herself, even when freed.  This is something that revisionist narratives of the time often overlook.  Simply because someone was freed did not mean that the prejudices and injustices of the society they lived within ceased to exist.  Moinette did her best within her world, but even her best and most determined acts were not enough to save her from a life of pain.

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Discussion Questions:

  • Compare Moinette’s relationship with Cephaline to her relationship with Pelagie.  What were the similarities and differences?
  • How do you perceive Cephaline and Pelagie?  Although they were technically free, do you think they were truly free?
  • Why do you believe Moinette had such a close bond with her mother but her son, Jean-Paul, seems to have only had a close bond with Francine?
  • How much different do you think Moinette’s life would have been if she’d been born 100% black instead of biracial?
  • Do you think Moinette’s life would have been better if she’d managed to stay in the fields instead of working within the house?
  • Why do you think the Native Americans were willing to participate in the return of fellow minorities to the ownership of white men?
  • Why do you think Moinette never pursued a real relationship with a man?
  • How do you see the slave/master relationship within the household reflected in modern households that pay for a live-in maid?
  • What do you think the title of the book means/alludes to?

Movie Review: The Thing with Two Heads (1972)

December 3, 2009 Leave a comment

Summary:
A white racist transplant doctor has figured out how to transplant a head onto a new body.  When he encounters an accident and is in danger of dying, his staff desperately try to find a donor body.  They finally snag a volunteer from death row–a black convict.  The catch is that the two heads must live on the body simultaneously for the first month.  When the convict escapes with both heads still attached, the race is on for ownership of his body.

Review:
This movie is hilarious, even though I’m sure it doesn’t mean to be.  The effects are bad.  The same car crash scenes are used repeatedly from different angles to show at least ten different car crashes.  The two heads do not look realistic at all, and that is all part of what makes it awesome.

The soundtrack is classic 70s music, that of course wasn’t classic yet at the time.  Watching the cops walk down death row to a disco beat is exactly the type of juxtaposition that makes this movie so funny.

I honestly have no idea what racial statement this movie was trying to make, but I can tell you that everyone is a caricature regardless of their race.  It’s just that kind of over-the-top writing found in B movies.  I would caution anyone reading the description against taking this movie too seriously.  I’m pretty sure it was entirely the result of a “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if a racist was stuck with a black guy? Awesome!”

This is one of those rare instances of a movie so incredibly bad it actually is insanely good.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix

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