Friday, March 23, 2018

Book Review: Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine

Image: The cover of the book which is a teal blue background with a drawing of a medicine cabinet in the center. The left door of the cabinet is halfway open showing three brown pill bottles. In the yellow reflection on the mirrored doors of the cabinet, there is a blue silhouette of a person from the middle chest up. Above the cabinet, in white letters, it says "Invisible." On the right, closed side of the cabinet in black letters it says, "How young women with serious health issues navigate work, relationships, and the pressure to seem just fine." Below the cabinet, in white letters, it says "Michele Lent Hirsch."

Also posted to my goodreads. 

When I began reading Michele Lent Hirsch's "Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine," knowing little more about it than the title,  I had certain expectations. I expected to be let down. As a trans and Queer disabled person, I am used to reading books about healthcare that do not include people like me and my friends. I figured I would get something out of it nonetheless and gave it a go. This is the first book of this kind that I have read- that was not specifically about LGBTQ populations- that didn't let me down. Hirsch worked very hard to include ALL women dealing with disability and illness: Queer women, trans women, women of color, poor women, scientist women, women doctors, young girls, teen girls, invisibly disabled women, wheelchair using women, and also the usual cisgender heterosexual white populations these books always include. I am a transmasculine person, am 35 years old, and have dealt with chronic illnesses from childhood. I have spent most of my medical interactions read as a girl and woman or as a testosterone-taking trans person who is too sick for surgeries and still has an "F" on their chart. As a result, I related to many things in this book, even though I am not necessarily the target demographic. Many things hit home so much that I actually had to take my time reading, despite wanting to devour the book quickly. The welcome validation reading an author who was a fellow Queer person, a fellow thyroid cancer survivor, a fellow chronic pain sufferer, whose experiences of surgeries, accessing care, fear, self-doubt, and general discrimination often mirrored mine so closely, was also very difficult at times. Now that you know where I was situated as a reader, enough about me.

Hirsch is an excellent writer. Her book is part memoir, part interview, and part research project. It is well organized and accessible. She weaves her own story seamlessly in and out through the different topics navigated. The book does an excellent job centering it's general target- the experiences of younger women while navigating health struggles- and also manages to hit on a great many specific intersections with age and gender. These include practitioner racism as a barrier for Black and other people of color receiving healthcare, gendered romantic relationships and how they relate to someone receiving support, class struggles labeling working class people as less ill and therefore less in need of care, capitalism's relationship to poor womens healthcare, how being a trans woman intersects with receiving healthcare for non-trans related issues, the difficulty of people with rarer conditions or in isolated areas being able to leave abusive doctors, the struggles of women with chronic illness to access reproductive healthcare, the measure of sick women by their proximity to stereotypical beauty, and many others. 

Hirsch understands deeply something so many books like hers miss: that all women's experiences are NOT the same just because they are women, young, or sick. Race, class, visibility, gender expression, geographic location, and many other factors are always at play simultaneously. "Invisible" is written with great intentionality from beginning to end. It is clear that Hirsch gave a lot of thought to how to present issues, how to question people, and how to share stories while also giving people the freedom to have their own opinions and assessments about their personal experiences. The way Hirsch uses language to describe illness, disability, experiences in healthcare, and womens lives comes from a well informed and educated place of respect. There was obviously a great deal of research that went into writing this book. I probably added more books to my to-read list from the sources she listed than I have from any other book I have read.

I do have two negative criticisms to make of the book. One is something that really disappointed me because of how amazingly inclusive and radical the rest of the book is. Near the end of the book, Hirsch interviews two animal researchers. They explain how their abuse and killing of female animals is "feminist." There is no way that forcing female animals to get addicted to drugs, then killing and disposing of them like trash, is feminist. The appropriate response to one oppression is never to deliberately harm someone with less power to get ahead. I found calling horrific mistreatment of female animals "feminism" to be incredibly insulting. Many feminist women have written excellent books about the connections between the abuse of nonhuman animals and the abuse of women so I will not reinvent the wheel by saying more here. The other criticism I have which I am far less perturbed by was that Hirsch repeatedly used the word "femme" as a stand-in for "feminine" often in reference to cis straight women. Femme is a LGBTQ identity specific to Queer femininity. Using it to describe straight cis women further erases Queer femmes and appropriates their identity. While I feel very negatively about the way animal testing was handled by this book, the section was very short and the rest of the book still far exceeded my expectations. As a result, it still gets 5 stars from me because nothing is perfect.

I really hope that this book attracts a large number of women with disability, illness, and/or frequent healthcare interactions who may not have thought about all of these intersecting issues before. I hope that this book feels validating for others who are used to their experiences being absent in discussions of health and healthcare. I hope that it brings the personal validation that it brought to me while reading it while simultaneously connecting us to struggles we may not personally have or experience. Hirsch took on a monumental task in hitting on so many issues in such a small space. It's 240 pages but it felt like 100 because it flows very well. I look forward to new things coming from Hirsch in the future and I definitely recommend this book to anyone working in healthcare or related fields. It should be mandatory reading for doctors and nurses.

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