A Personal Look at Flint
What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City by Mona Hanna-Attisha
A Review by Pam Munter
It was once unthinkable: government persistently and deliberately lying to cover its corruption, while injuring the most vulnerable among us. Sound familiar? Governmental dishonesty has always existed to some extent, though not as blatant as in recent years. In Mona Hanna-Attisha’s new book, What the Eyes Don’t See (One World, 2019), she implies the canary in the mine might have flown into Flint, Michigan.
The story might be familiar. To save money in 2014, government officials in Flint arbitrarily switched its water supply from the clean water it had used for decades to the Flint River, a suspected source of pollution. Flint’s water was suddenly brown and orange, stinky, full of indeterminate particles and poisonous lead. Plants and pets died, children developed skin conditions, school performance suffered. There was obviously something very wrong but local officials denied a problem.
Enter Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who grew up in Flint and lives there with her pediatrician husband and two daughters. As readers may now know, she was a courageous whistleblower, the one who did extensive research before declaring the city a public health disaster.
This is not only a book about the crisis and shocking government malfeasance, but the story of Dr. Mona, herself. She was born in the UK, from a close family of Iraqi immigrants who had fled from an oppressive, murderous regime. Hanna-Attisha’s father went to work for General Motors, landing them in the Flint area. Once an upscale city with low unemployment, Flint became an impoverished area almost overnight, with the GM plant closure and subsequent white flight. The median income fell to half the Michigan average, the poverty rate doubling. Dr. Mona continued her practice, much of it on a pro bono basis.
She paints a colorful picture of her bicultural, Arabic household, where her mother quietly enters her house in the mornings to prepare breakfast for her family. They hug, coming and going, even from a trip to the market. Though she comes from a privileged background, she is not unaware of the racism and discrimination that surrounds her. Her outlier status as a woman and a minority among minorities cannot always be overcome with the prestige of an M.D. degree.
She shares a conversation she had with a close friend over lunch, where she is alerted to the pervasive nature of the water crisis. Then, during a BBQ, the talk centers around water treatment issues and a “secret” EPA study that revealed high levels of lead in the water. A born researcher and academician, she heads to her computer for more information and is jarred by what she finds.
“Red flags, so many red flags—they were everywhere. The information was all right there in the (EPA) memo. But somehow nobody with the power to make a difference had cared enough to notice.”
That’s the lamentable theme of this book: Nobody cared. There seemed to be tacit acceptance among the state and local politicians that Flint wasn’t worth saving, an attitude she attributes to the ingrained racism. “Flint falls right into the American narrative of cheapening black life. White Americans may not have seen the common thread…but black America saw it immediately.” She labels the years of exposure to toxic water “a racial crime,” one that never would have happened in a predominantly white community.
It was far worse than that. “We found out later that the city, controlled by the state, had deliberately manipulated the water samples from Flint homes so they wouldn’t have to notify the public about the presence of lead, per the federal rules.” At first, no government official would respond to her urgent emails. The savvy doctor called a press conference and soon, the news spread across the nation like brown sludge.
It took over her life. “I was up for three or four hours in bed, deluged by reports about water quality, water testing, water treatments, water pipe corrosion, and lead. Totally consumed, I forgot to sleep.”
The author artfully blends the social justice story, the public health crisis and her personal life into an absorbing tale of perseverance, altruism and sheer grit. It’s a tale of government corruption, too, of course, “a story of a government poisoning its own citizens and then lying about it.”
After the cacophonous media exposure, the city provided bottled water and filters but only slowly has addressed the contamination in the water delivery infrastructure. There are some who still are afraid to drink the water even today. Criminal charges were filed against 15 city and state officials. Curiously, the one with his public foot on Flint’s proverbial neck, Governor Rick Snyder, was not indicted. Hanna-Attisha refuses to comment, stating, “The law is not my job.”
It’s difficult to read this and not be reminded of today’s political climate where children and even babies are detained in cages; it’s a time when government refuses to pass legislation to stop the flow of violence brought about by assault weapons, when the rights of women and minorities are being systematically eroded. Public health crises exist all around us. As of now, there is still no funding allocated to help those permanently affected by prolonged exposure to lead in Flint. The book will leave the reader feeling both compassionate and angry.
Flint could be viewed as a harbinger, a warning to all of us who sit back and trust our government to do the right thing. What the Eyes Don’t See is a case study in what can happen when citizens work together for the public good, when people speak out and fight back.
For those not intrigued by government machinations, there is still much to like about this dense book. This is a writer who cares, who made a difference, who wisely steers away from partisan polemics. She writes, “I hoped and dreamed that these pages would somehow weave the stories of my immigrant family with the events of the Flint water crisis to make better sense of both. I had so many seemingly disconnected subjects to share—from drinking water safety to a genocide in Iraq—but in my mind they were intertwined and connected, all pieces of the same story, the same lens, that explains how I see the world.”
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram (Nicholas Lawrence Press, 2005) and Almost Famous: In and Out of Show Biz (Westgate Press, 1986) and is a contributor to many others. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Her many lengthy retrospectives on the lives of often-forgotten Hollywood performers and others have appeared in Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age. More recently, her essays and short stories have been published in more than 100 publications. Her play Life Without was produced by S2S2S, and nominated four times by the Desert Theatre League, including the Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Original Writing and Outstanding Play (staged reading). She’s a Pushcart nominee and has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Her memoir, As Alone As I Want To Be, was published by Adelaide Books in 2018.