My Book Review of The Sensitives by Oliver Broudy

Oliver Broudy’s new book is part travelogue and part history lesson, with a splash of epistemology. “How do we know what we know?” and “why are we so damn sure?” Broudy is an agnostic, healthy, science-minded freelance writer who just got curious enough to delve into the world of environmental illness. This was enough to make me interested.

He brought a journalistic skepticism to the topic, but he was willing to enter this world to the point of becoming physically affected himself (having a hangover from sleeping in a mangey motel and staying nauseous for most of the trip from road food and various stimulants.) His capacity for observing psychological patterns (in himself, in others and especially in the minds of the chronically ill) was striking, especially paired with the eloquence of a poet.

Most compelling, however, is his thesis that the discrepancy between the lived experiences of sick people in this modern hell-realm and the science that could explain these experiences, pointed to the uncomfortable possibility that we might be on the brink of another scientific paradigm shift.

The term “paradigm shift” he points out, comes from Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, one of the “most cited academic books of all time.” Kuhn observes that mature science regularly undergoes revolutions that change the matrix of understanding which acts as a basis for all scientific discovery during any particular era. The revolutions erupt as a natural consequence of “serious anomalous puzzles that disturbed the preceding period of normal science.”

The switch from Ptolemy’s Earth-centered universe to Copernicus’s Sun-centered solar system was a “revolution” that took 100 years to settle into its rightful place as accepted science, for example.

Broudy quotes an EI researcher named Claudia Miller who pointed out that the cause of death of hundreds of thousands of Civil War soldiers was attributed to “miasma” (unhealthy vapors.) “It is possible,” said Miller, “that we may be at the Civil War stage in our understanding of chemical sensitivity.”

Our current matrix of understanding is still “the Germ Theory,” killing one microbe with one pharmaceutical at a time, with increasing vigor. While it has been clear for some time that the microbial world of bacteria, viruses and fungi are adapting quickly and are not only rendering our modern anti-microbial weapons useless, they are actually cooperating with each other by sharing genetic information to penetrate human defenses.

The COVID pandemic is but one example. It has gotten the attention of healthy people the world over by disrupting human life and economies, but scientists had been sounding the alarm on antibiotic resistant bacteria for decades, and had predicted pandemics for years.

The current scientific paradigm disallows study of more than one factor at a time in double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. Dr Dale Bredesen, a researcher and pioneer of a reversal of Alzheimer’s protocol, had his research blocked by this scientific myopia because his evidence calls for working with 36 biomarkers simultaneously– because that’s what works.

The current Germ Theory paradigm will eventually get crushed under the weight of hundreds of millions of humans with complex, “unexplainable” modern illnesses, like Alzheimer’s, Environmental Illness, fibromyalgia, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, and the like, despite the gargantuan amounts of money that the chemical companies are pouring into the pockets of legislators to “sweep the tracks.”

Broudy is not as convinced as I am of this. But he is open enough to the possibility that he did his own research and leaves the questions hanging uncomfortably in the middle of the room, thereby tugging on the yarn of the current paradigm. He does not look away from the devastation of Environmental Illness, when almost everyone else does.

This is where it gets personal.

Broudy doesn’t look away.

He goes in search of Brian Welsh. “The swiftness, the methodical thoroughness, of Brian’s unmaking carried a certain Jobean trauma. A merciless humbling that stripped away everything, from material assets like clothes and housing, to conceptual assets like threat awareness and body knowledge– as well as all the relationships that gave his life meaning.”

To someone who has experienced this stripping away myself, I had to catch my breath to make it through the above paragraph.

The hallmark of Environmental Illness is the systematic dismantling of relatable people’s lives, to the point of total epistemological disorientation in space and time. “You find yourself left with only the moment you’re in,” said Brian. It was startling to have a writer who had not personally experienced this do such a good job of capturing it.

To someone who has lived through years of this “ungrounding” as an environmental refugee myself (and there are many thousands of us) who has had to flee the East coast, “smoke machines” (that create Halloween ambiance,) moldy demolition, burning plastics, RV chemicals and wildfires, etc– for someone who is chronically and apparently permanently allergic to modern civilization itself– Broudy’s skeptical, conventional wondering about the failures of this current paradigm sounds like a musical disharmony resolving into harmony.

As Broudy points out, we are pariahs. “It was as if their role as pariahs had allowed them to say something that the rest of us were no longer able to say, or had forgotten how to.”

Here it is: We are coming to you live from the next fucking paradigm. We are already in it.

We describe ourselves as “canaries” as a gentle way to remind the rest of you that ignoring sick canaries never ends well.

Broudy’s chapter about Risk Society, the evolution of insurance, and the imperceptibly increasing threat levels from a multiplicity of vectors that cannot quite be measured yet with current instrumentation (or wrestled into definitive causality,) was a thing of beauty.

And while Broudy did so well with gender positive pronouns and itemizing the egregious dismissals of female pain and syndromes by the patriarchal medical lens, he neglected to interview a female homeless environmental refugee. There are many. And the particular stressors of being sick, female, living in your car, disowned by society, floating in the vacuum of an unrecognized new paradigm and trying to heal your limbic system while feeling constantly terrified, are worth examining. Certainly, Broudy should have taken the time to include a paragraph about this.

When Broudy (with his EI ambassador, James,) finally goes far enough into the wilderness to find Brian Welsh, he successfully articulates the sanctity and holiness of being in a primordially clean, quiet place, where the “noble trees (are) structuring the light into columns,” and in the presence of a beautiful man whose pain has demolished even his resistance to it. Brian was like “a priest” and the forest “felt most like…a cathedral, in which the one unspoken word was ‘behold.’”

I know this place. While I am not a Christian, the wordless sacredness of every-little-thing is what becomes perceptible when every thought, emotion and resistance to what is gets stripped away. It can be an excruciatingly painful process, like the skin being pulled off a live snake, but when the pain is somehow not taken personally, it can be honored for what it is: The doorway to a quintessential human experience that most modern humans don’t even know about.

This, too, is part of the next paradigm. The quality of consciousness described here allows for the unmeasured complexity, in which humanity is but a small, destructive part of a much greater whole. The hubris of human domination will inevitably give way to a wiser, truer understanding of each element within the whole. Rather than attacking one microbe, there is already a new understanding that a shifting of the whole internal microbial ecosystem is what is needed instead to restore health. Of course, this is true for the “external” microbiome as well, which is why wilderness heals.

There will also be an understanding that there is, in fact, no actual boundary between “self” and “other.” This boundary is conceptual, only. At any given time, microbes are living in and on your body and both naturally-occurring and synthetic chemicals (not to mention wifi signals, electromagnetic fields and light) are affecting your cells and the cells of the microbiome in immeasurably complex permutations. As Broudy astutely observes “My body moving through the world, the world moving through my body.”

Broudy’s writing reveals that he is still squarely in the previous paradigm, but he is peeking into the new one that we– the EI community– are already inhabiting. In this, he is doing a great service to humanity. From the point of view of the status quo in power, he will be perceived as someone who is flinging slingshot rocks at an unexploded bomb.

But from my point of view, he had the courage to listen– to experience the quiet that goes against everything modern society holds dear. And there is nothing more heroic than that.

Holly Noonan

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