One woman's surprisingly tender odyssey through genetics, medicine, and disease.
In Blood Matters, Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen leaps into the quagmire of contemporary genetics and ethics. To avoid repeating the eugenic mistakes of the past, Gessen argues, genetic knowledge should be taken in small doses, applying it to individuals and not groups, and the individual she begins with is herself. Prompted by Gessen’s discovery that she’s a carrier for an inherited genetic mutation that makes her more likely to develop breast and ovarian cancers, Blood Matters (which grew out of a series of articles in Slate) is Gessen’s odyssey through genetics, medicine, and disease. Sorting through the popularized language of genes that litters our cultural landscape—what she calls “biobabble”—Gessen writes with tenderness and clarity, exposing scientific problems and her own fears with equal precision. When faced with the prospect of preventive surgery, she weighs the risks with various experts: a psychologist tells her that she’ll get over losing her breasts, a genetic counselor tells her to sacrifice the ovaries and keep the breasts, and an economist calculates her risk and concludes that she should have a mastectomy and an oophorectomy. Gessen finds herself on the front lines of genetic medicine, unarmed without expert consensus, making her way through the minefields of scientific rationality and human emotion. Gessen’s beautifully written book is ultimately about matters of the blood, reminding postmodern readers that despite our high-minded ideas about social constructions and socialized behaviors, blood still matters. Biological determinism may be unfashionable, but Gessen reminds us that it cannot be ignored.