Foul Things of the Night


Eula Biss was a featured author last week at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And from her I learned something horrifying about certain vile creatures of darkness.

My bibliophile friend Melinda, a visitor from Hawaii, wanted to attend the session on Eula’s much-praised study of vaccination, On Immunity (Graywolf Press, 2014). It was sold out. Demand for seats is intense. Cognoscenti book their choice of events (only four per person allowed) on the day in spring when the program is announced. Most sessions sell out in a few weeks. The festival is in mid August, when the city is thronged with visitors to the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the Edinburgh International Festival, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

I, however, was implausibly lucky. I managed to get in as the 26th participant in a closed 25-person “Reader’s Workshop” seminar where Eula led a discussion of a novel I have admired since my early teens: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. (I wangled an invitation using certain secret techniques that I’d prefer not to divulge. If you must know, begging and weeping were  involved.)

The workshop was brilliant. I learned much that was entirely new to me about the themes and insights in Dracula. I had never appreciated before that Dracula is not just about what Van Helsing calls “foul things of the night” that come to suck your blood, but about infection, sickness, science, modernity, immigration, and (surprisingly) epistemology.

On Immunity has been called (as you can see from this page) spellbinding, eloquent, elegant, intelligent, beautiful, fascinating, gracious, shrewd, precise, powerful, compassionate, and informative. The book deserves such encomiums. It is a masterpiece of rich and subtle conceptual exploration. And interestingly, it cites Dracula throughout its in-part literary discussion of scientific topics like immunity, inoculation, and blood transfusion. Eula is the daughter of a poet and a physician; both inheritances shine through in her writing, where Voltaire and Defoe rub shoulders with papers on epidemiology.

The author discusses (in the context of worries about her own child’s medical care) both sides of the dispute between the medical fraternity who believe vaccination is crucial and the antivaccination movement who believe it is dangerous. She doesn’t polemicize for either side, but just offers intelligent and balanced reflection on both.

Melinda and I chatted with Eula outside after the seminar, and Eula suggested that we dine together. We were delighted to accept. A short walk down George Street, at Café Andaluz, the three of us had an early supper of tapas and two hours of bubbling conversation. There were more shared interests and enthusiasms than we had time to explore.

And one of the topics of conversation brought up the thing that shocked me to the core: Whenever a new piece of her writing starts to receive publicity, Eula Biss starts getting about four or five hate-mail messages a day. And they come with threats of sexual violence. The most recent one said: “I hope you get gang-raped.”

Melinda and I were so appalled to hear this that we hardly knew what to say, but Eula just shrugged; she’s used to receiving abuse. She informs the police about messages that seem to contain serious and personal threats of death or harm, but she simply ignores the generalized expressions of hatred that emanate from these basement-dwelling creatures of darkness. Coping with them is part of the price for “any woman who makes the mistake of having a thought in her mind and then vocalizing it” (as John Oliver put it on Last Week Tonight in 2015).

Men don’t suffer anything similar. I’ve had hostile emails from people who are offended by my treatment of political or even linguistic topics on Lingua Franca and Language Log, but it’s mere badinage by comparison, fodder for the sort of ridicule I engage in here and here. My correspondents don’t threaten me with gang rape and death.

I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised at what Eula has to endure. After all, it was only in May that I reminded you of what happened to Caroline Criado-Perez. And note John Oliver’s jocular message to anyone who hadn’t realized online harassment was “that much of a problem”: “Congratulations on your white penis.”

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