A bitter pill?

Sander Gilman’s new book examines racial predispositions to illnesses.

Diseases and Diagnoses
By Sander L. Gilman | Transaction Publishers | 227 pages | $49.95
From psychic hysteria to a genetic resistance to alcoholism and inherent biological predisposition to disease, Jewish populations have been under the microscope as subjects of such psychological, scientific and medical ailments and suppositions. The very notions of the “Jewish disease,” and other racial predispositions to illnesses are central topics of Sander Gilman’s Diseases and Diagnoses.
The eminent scholar, known for his extensive range of intellectual interests, reveals the ways in which the Jewish “race” has been stereotyped in scores of medical, psychological and social studies. Gilman’s focus is not entirely on Jews, but in almost every chapter one will find a connection between his central points and Jewish populations, and primarily how these populations are viewed through public, medical, cultural and literary lenses.
In a chapter entitled “What is the color of the Gonorrhea ribbon?” Gilman offers a fascinating survey of the history of the “solidarity ribbon,” primarily its appearance in the US, beginning with the yellow ribbon in 1979, which was flaunted all over the country in a display of support for Americans held hostage in Iran. The ribbon, which came to signify support with all American soldiers, was followed by the HIV/AIDS ribbon (red) first presented in 1991 and still used today, the breast cancer ribbon (pink), the ovarian cancer ribbon (teal), the leukemia ribbon (orange), the colon cancer ribbon (dark blue) and the list goes on.
Gilman’s goal is not simply to point out the arbitrariness of the significance of these symbols, but to examine how they are used in different contexts and the ways in which shame, guilt and victimization play a role in their continued reappearance. HIV/AIDS, Gilman asserts, is now “normalized” thanks to a destigmatization resulting from public identification with sufferers. Yet if HIV/AIDS can be normalized, Gilman asks, why not other sexually transmitted diseases?
He concludes that because STDs are not assigned to a specific subgroup of sufferers – except for those deemed sexually promiscuous – the negative stigma associated with STDs and lack of solidarity with victims remains. Gilman makes his point in part through a clever reference to a Seinfeld episode in which the character Cosmo Kramer is beaten up by a group of homosexuals at a gay parade for his refusal to wear the red ribbon.
On a very different note in Chapter 3, Gilman focuses on the notion of “ill” and “healthy” aesthetics based on a study of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s volatile relationship with composers Georges Bizet and Richard Wagner. The chapter is impressive in the depth to which Gilman reaches in his study of these three figures, concluding with the notion that throughout history Jews have been contradictorily perceived as producers of both “soulless” and “healthy” art. The chapter, though interesting, disrupts an already-peeling thread of understanding of the book as a comprehensive sum of its various parts.
From race and disease, to ribbons, to Nietzsche’s trouble with music, Gilman leads into several pages on the topic of religious animal slaughter and its relation to national identity. He presents the historical trends of the Jewish practice of ritual slaughter including the ways in which Jews have been demonized as a result of these practices. “[I]f you eat food that reveals you to be cruel and foreign and unassimilable, you will be treated as if you are cruel and foreign and unassimilable,” he asserts.
The accusation that Jews are innately cruel and lagging in societal progress throughout history is the central topic of Gilman’s chapter. In a well thought-out analogy, he points to modern animal rights groups such as PETA, which, in a disturbing turnaround, claim that Jewish ritual slaughter is comparable to Nazi murder. The tendency is also seen in the well-known allegation that Israelis are the “new Nazis.”
In what is perhaps the most interesting chapter of Gilman’s collection, the author traces the history of aesthetic surgery from its first use in altering the “Jewish nose” in the 1800s to its spectacle appeal on modern reality television programs.
Through a survey of cross-cultural notions of “glamour,” including in Europe, the US and China, the author observes that aesthetic surgery should no longer shock us. What is most questionable, however, is Gilman’s conception that despite all that is called “glamorous” today, the Jew “doesn’t count.” The point, highly arguable, can be dismantled with one look on Hollywood’s red carpet.
Sigmund Freud plays a prominent role in the book, showing up in Gilman’s exploration of German Jewish culture, psychoanalysis, and particularly in his chapter on the history of electroshock therapy and its relation to assumptions of “Jewish neuroses” and other reductive postulations prevalent throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
As scientists claimed that electroshock therapy was more effective on Jews than other groups, Freud replaced the treatment with what is known as “the talking cure” along with the view that such problems were not a matter of racial predisposition but rather the result of psychic reappearance of repressed childhood events. Gilman concludes the chapter with the eerie assertion that such notions as racial predisposition are again prevalent today.
Gilman ends his book with his personal stance on modern medical practices. As a concluding chapter, this move is appropriate as it reveals the author’s connection to the issues presented throughout the book. Opening with a personal tale of his struggle to be understood in a Soviet hospital, Gilman looks at bilingualism in an age of multiculturalism. Though he employs a severely weak comparison between his experience and that of Scarlett Johansson’s character in Lost in Translation, Gilman does succeed in relating the point that the medical field is apathetic when it comes to effective doctor-patient communication.
He delves into an important discussion of the ways in which languagehas been applied in medical settings, from early 20th-centuryYiddish-speaking Jewish hospitals in New York, Chicago and London to atragic case of miscommunication between a Hmong couple andEnglish-speaking doctors that led to the death of a young girl. Gilmansees monolingualism as perhaps an illness in and of itself, stuntingthe healing process and cross-cultural interaction necessary for ahealthier society.
While Gilman’s book seems hardly a single, coherent text (the severeneed for another round of proofreading doesn’t help), his range oftopics and incredibly broad scope of knowledge absolves the dividedwhole of dire criticism. His studies are insightful, relevant andexceptionally thought-provoking.