August 8, 2019 by thewashingteenian
Book Review by Jay Trovato, Young Adult Librarian
“What the Eyes Don’t See” is a 2018 memoir detailing the contrast between truth and falsehood during the water-quality crisis in Flint, Michigan in the mid-2010s. The author, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, was one of the scientists who worked tirelessly to prove that the children of Flint were being recklessly exposed to toxic levels of lead in their tap water. As she recounts the events that led her to break the news to the public, she talks about the people in her Iraqi-American family whose influence caused her to have the courage to do what was right in the face of strong institutional opposition.
Looking to save money in a time of financial shortfall, government officials switched Flint’s water source from Lake Huron (a large body of clean water) to the Flint River (which had been badly polluted by decades of industrial waste). Almost immediately, residents began to notice an unusual smell, appearance, and taste to their tap water. Worse than that, though, corrosive chemicals in the Flint River reacted with lead in the plumbing and released toxic levels of lead into the city’s tap water. Infants and small children are the most vulnerable to the ill effects of consuming lead, yet lead was all around them – in their infant formula bottles and the drinking fountains at their schools.
Once Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha realized that the babies and toddlers she treated every day at her clinic were being poisoned by the tap water, she felt a visceral need to fight back. Dr. Hanna-Attisha and a committed core of volunteer researchers worked tirelessly to compile data that would prove to any impartial observer that the level of lead in the water since switching to the Flint River switch was unacceptable. The governing authorities, however, were anything but impartial – they fought hard to discredit the author’s lead study through distortions, bullying, and outright lies. Eventually, journalists and public opinion turned the tide in favor of the findings, and once the truth was fully known a lot of people in power lost their jobs.
As inspiring as the story may be to any up-and-coming activist who seeks to speak the truth to power, I found myself disliking the book during most of the time I was reading it. The basic reason it was frustrating for me is that Dr. Hanna-Attisha was trying to write three books at once. One book was her account of the Flint water crisis, another book was about her Iraqi-American family history, and a third book was her personal political manifesto. True, there were a few points of overlap between these subjects as she told her story, but her repeated grandiose rhetoric about political ideals and her long forays into her family’s past continuously flattened any dramatic momentum.
For all the pages she spent lauding the values of her forebears, it was glaring to me that her own husband and children were not well-developed characters. One reason could be the simple historical fact that she didn’t spend much time with them during the Flint water crisis. It wasn’t just her family that Dr. Hanna-Attisha neglected; she never missed an opportunity to tell us how little she was eating and sleeping because she was so worried and angry about the lead in the water.
I have no reason to doubt Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s sincerity, and she and her team of research colleagues deserve plenty of credit for the courageous stand they took against a criminally neglectful governing apparatus. It is not the story itself, but rather the way it is written, that turned me off as a reader. More careful writing and editing might have increased the dramatic tension and decreased the tone of self-righteousness evident throughout Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s account.