Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha wrote What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City to tell what happened in Flint, Michigan. But it’s not just her story. It’s the story of her clinic, her city, her state, and her country. And they are all ours as well, despite the fact we aren’t all pediatrician and public health experts practicing in that city.
This book is a reality check and a victory. It’s not a story about gaining massive political power. Instead, it’s a fight for the little guys—children—those with the least amount of power. And, it’s the story of one piece of the puzzle of America’s failing infrastructure. There are political aspects because Hanna-Attisha finds elected and appointed officials willing to look at her data. Plus, gathering the data to research depended on breaking through bureaucratic obstacles. But the people fighting for the kids never forgot about them, and especially how they’d suffer if the battle was lost.
Sadly, this story also tells a concrete, everyday example of how systemic racism wants to deprive black and brown people of health and hope. In Flint, nearly half of the population lives under the poverty line. Finding a way to survive comes before fighting for healthy drinking water. That’s where an advocate like Dr. Hanna-Attisha comes in.
Her parents emigrated to the U.S. from Iraq, with an interim stop in England, where Hanna-Attisha was born. They’re a family comfortable with science and with achievement. But living in the U.S. had its challenges, and the experience shaped the whole family. It made them fighters, and not just for themselves.
What the Eyes Don’t See is inspiring, and it’s maddening. I learned about lead exposure, water pipes, how to design a research study, and never to take for granted the safety of my own tap water. Dr. Hanna-Attisha makes the story feel like a thriller, careening from sleepless nights to press conferences to data analysis. Maybe you’re skeptical about the thriller part, but I urge you to try it. You’ll be surprised how she draws you into the story.
Listening to the author’s voice also kept me going in this book. While she’s not a voice actor, her passion and caring pulls the audiobook along at a good clip. And in terms of balance, Hanna-Attisha lets us into her own life while explaining about the water crisis. I learned about her family and about the Chaldean people in Iraq and in Michigan. Her parents’ style of grandparenting made me laugh and warmed my grandmotherly heart.
Even though Michigan agreed in 2020 to compensate Flint residents with health problems because of lead in the drinking water, there’s no reason to believe the fight is fully over. For one, most U.S. cities have aging water systems. Politicians and city managers never have big enough budgets, and cash poor folks make short-sighted decisions. So, the next city could be yours or mine. May we have fighters like Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha on our side.
There’s so much to love in this book. I recommend it if you like books about fighting back against injustice and peril.
Pair with Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall because she’s fighting in another way. Or try A Knock at Midnight by Brittany K. Barnett because kids with lead poisoning might grow up to need lawyers like Barnett.