Please enjoy these short excerpts from the book! They are intended to form a patchwork synopsis of the themes and narrative, as if you had pulled the book off a shelf and were flipping through it, trying to decide if you wanted to read the whole thing.
Chapter 1 – The Questions
The term multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) is often used for debilitating conditions that have their roots in allergic reaction, but my own condition has never been associated with an allergic response and is instead a result of a single severe chemical exposure. This initial triggering chemical exposure damaged my nervous system and, in combination with later exposures, ultimately gave me a broad based intolerance to fairly low levels of fragrance and other common chemicals. Under the umbrella of MCS, the best specific description for my condition is probably toxicant-induced loss of tolerance—TILT, a term coined by Dr. Claudia Miller. In this book, I have shortened this term to simply “chemical intolerance.”
Chapter 2 – The Big Life
Remember the cloud of stench that emanates from your car on a hot day. Open your mind to the smell of your car, the chemicals oozing from your dry cleaning, and subtle aromas coming from the packaging and plastic products in your house. She who lives with the least shit, wins.
Chapter 3 – The Mask
We and our children know to avoid certain strong chemical smells, like the smell of whiteboard markers, which once made me sick for three days. But if a cloying “fresh scented” masking fragrance is added, not only are we not alerted to the underlying ink chemicals, which are bad for us, but we also are exposed to unregulated and untested industrial fragrances, which are toxic in their own right.
Chapter 5 – Change in Dad
His favorite domestic evening pastime became sitting in a comfortable corner in gentle yellow-tinted light, still replete from a large and tasty lunch, clothed in well-cut natural fibers and doodling columns of figures representing schemes for wealth accumulation, while his ill-clothed, undernourished, and ignorant children tiptoed around him.
Chapter 6 – Domestic Violence
I hear the voices of my parents’ neighbors, colleagues, and friends calling me an ungrateful child, saying of course my parents loved me and that my mother is a saint. I hear my siblings denying the beatings were so severe and calling me self-indulgent and wrong-minded. I naturally want to suppress the shame of the beatings. The belief that the world is basically good goes hand in hand with the belief that your mother loves you; do I have to relinquish my faith in both of these consolations?
Chapter 7 – Travel
The family spent a summer in New York City, which then was much filthier than it is now. The newspapers were filled with coverage of a recent stabbing death in an area of Central Park near our apartment, and I looked for dried pools of blood whenever we entered the park. Amy, almost five and already a secretive and acquisitive creature, devoted herself to eating the discarded chewing gum she found all over the city. Well, not exactly eat. She was old enough to understand the basic principle of gum. She would swap gum in her mouth for other gum throughout the day. By unhappy coincidence, when adults offload gum, they do it at the eye level of a small child. We’d be walking along with Mom, getting to know the city, and, if one of us looked back, there she would be, scrabbling her dirty, worn fingernails against a subway entrance railing or underneath a park bench. She had a ruminative focus most of that summer as she continually discovered, tasted, and then left behind these tailings of humanity.
Chapter 8 – Beauty and the Secret Society
I was oblivious to their feelings. From childhood on, I gobbled a steady diet of English-language classic novels. Just like Hollywood movies, these stories base their resolution on the ideal of virtue rewarded. I developed a firm faith that the basic kindliness of people and organizations would reward a hardworking, handsome, and intelligent person such as myself with love and a happy life. If I did suffer adversity or misfortune, the world would rally to my support because the world was basically good. Now I know life doesn’t work this way. No one is looking out for us. Loss, illness, and death come to us regardless of our natural gifts and in most instances regardless of our behavior. The only thing you can do is develop practical approaches to limiting and managing your losses before you die.
Embrace the reality of your body. Few women have perky breasts. If you wear them low, you can gather unto yourself the power of this truth. Instead of propping them up and harboring secret shame about droop, take comfort in these gentle and delicious sacks of fat.
Chapter 9 – Typical Day
I normally use curse words sparingly in conversation, but when I have an adverse exposure, foul language wants to come out of me along with negative comments generally. I was careful to be quiet until he dropped me at home. For the rest of the day I was unmotivated. I did food preparation with such a lack of finesse that the next day the questionable concoction went into a compost bin. I sat doing handwork and watching a mystery series on the computer. In the evening, I abused a zit on my neck while taking note of a wan and aged face. I went to bed at nine thirty and had stupid dreams alternating with unhappy wakefulness before waking up for good at three thirty in the morning.
Chapter 10 – Journal
Lucy was a school friend with a droll sense of humor, who was a member of a girls’ social club called Les Coquettes. There were rumors around school that recent pledges to Les Coquettes had been forced to strip down to bra and underpants and lie in the back of a pickup truck. Then, the older girls poured ketchup and flour over them. When Lucy tried to persuade me to become a pledge, I read on her face the desire to see me screaming and writhing while trapped and covered in filth, but I was not able to fully articulate this premonition in my journal.
Chapter 11 – Brain Stimulation
If you just stay home, you can live a prairie lifestyle in which interactions with others are infrequent and therefore cherished. You will have more time for useful reflection and can make better choices regarding whom you want to be with. On those rare occasions when you meet someone of quality, you will have more time and space to appreciate them. Possibly there are members of your family you should offload. Try to see these people clearly and get rid of them.
Chapter 12 – High School Clothes
I knew I was not conforming to social norms but did not shave my legs or other parts of my body because shaving seemed like gratuitous mutilation. Even in my early teens, I intuited that the power that came from high heels and revealing clothing was a false, destructive, and superficial power. Being too pretty attracted the wrong kind of attention both inside the house and outside of it, from women and from men. I sensed that if I were to crank up my sex appeal through the beauty routines that were standard for my friends and classmates, my family wouldn’t protect me and I would be vulnerable to predation that would in a way be my own fault.
Chapter 15 – Bruce
A mother’s love for a child is a great gift, one I never had. It changes the child from a lonely creature in a hostile world to a lucky being in a world that is basically safe. How do I, after being alone and unlucky, somehow recreate myself as someone who is, if not smiled upon by the world, at least not kicked in the teeth? What are the touchstones of truth, understanding, or wisdom that can help me build a new life? The only chance I have of recasting myself as a lucky person is if I stay home. It is dangerous for me outside of the house, with auto fumes, laundry vents, bank lobby carpets, cleaning supplies, and people who smell of fragranced products.
Chapter 16 – Visit to Doctor
I was a little low when I first arrived because of my effing period, which blight seemingly refuses to permanently leave my life, and later also because of smells from the waiting room coming through the mask. The doctor’s assistant is my age and normally a chatty and cheerful person. Because I was low, I didn’t possess the extra attenuation that usually makes me take off the mask fully for a moment to smile at her. Each visit she takes my weight on the way to the examination room, and she must have gathered I wasn’t at a hundred percent when I got on the scale without bothering to either put down my bag or take off my coat. Key indicator that a woman has other stuff on her mind: she weighs herself while wearing a winter coat and holding a large handbag.
Chapter 19 – The Worm Turns
At the time of this letter, I was twenty-six years old. I had undertaken a messy and expensive process to separate myself permanently from my parents, especially my father, because of many years of abuse and neglect. I continued to suffer from a poorly understood and undiagnosed neurological weakness that periodically made me quite ill in ways that were deeply upsetting. I was struggling to support my share of the household with future Husband while some of my workplaces made me ill. Even as I wanted to be free of my father, he was capable of frightening me and hurting me. There is a phrase that has entered the collective consciousness that speaks to the difficulty of resolving emotional trauma when actual events are denied. Instead, an alternate reality is presented that recasts abusers as well-intentioned and well-behaved. The term is gaslighting, and this is what my father was doing in his letter.
Dad was right about one thing, though. The situation did get worse.
Chapter 21 – So Many Lies
Dad’s lies were excessive and gratuitous because he wanted to take full advantage of this chance to codify their fake history. If he swore it was the truth in a deposition, then their version of our story would stand a better chance of being believed in the future. This was why he forced me to travel to Hometown for the legal proceeding. I have the documentary proof of the real events in my journal and letters from those years, so I can reinterpret his lies and reveal their true purpose.
Chapter 22 – Trouble at Jobs
There is a terrible stigma attached to mental illness, and those who judge have no regard for a person’s history, true nature, or intentions. It is deeply hurtful to blame a person who is ill for their illness, even if the primary symptoms are behavioral, cognitive, or both. The competitive nature of our current society, in which decisions and judgments are based on the selfish tenets of the capitalist faith, is destructive to the large numbers of people who have received hidden damage from their toxic environments. The solution is a post-neoliberal, more compassionate approach that recognizes the primary importance of aggregate health instead of money.
Chapter 23 – Therapy
If you restrict your movements and also the goods and foods that you consume, you will be in a better position to observe the effects that your environmental exposures have on your mood, your sleep quality, and other manifestations of your neurological state. You will be able to help your family members and friends get to the bottom of their own medical and behavioral reactions to environmental stimuli. For example, even a tiny exposure to fragranced laundry products makes me sleep badly; how can these products not be affecting people who are practically bathing in the stuff? People with bipolar disorder should do a deep dive into their environmental exposures, diet, and other potential factors, to tease apart the likely triggers for their disrupted state. People with recurrent depression should look closely at the chemicals, fragrances, and foods they ingest and try to discern the underlying pattern, which surely exists.
Chapter 24 – InsCo
With taxes, there is what is called tax avoidance, meaning the right and even obligation every taxpayer has not to pay unnecessary taxes, and then there is tax evasion, meaning outright fraudulent or illegal tax positions. The problem with large companies like InsCo is that due to the complexity of their investments or the complexity of the business itself, there is an enormous gray area between avoidance and outright evasion. But does it pass the sniff test, meaning does it basically stink? If the scheme obviously has no economic or business basis other than tax deferral or tax savings, then I call it tax exploitation, meaning it was cynically engineered by a black heart. Even if the dutiful small team of IRS auditors in your shop has to labor for fifteen years to bring the scheme to its knees, it is, in the end, a stinking turd.
Chapter 26 – The Worst Shock
Why were my doctors so completely hamstrung by my descriptions of my malady? It is obvious to me now that I was receiving repeated reinjuries to my nervous system, and yet they demonstrated a perverse and reality-denying bias against proper diagnosis. Partly they were angry with me for presenting them with a problem they couldn’t solve. They each didn’t want to be forced to defend their diagnosis, however commonsensical, against a workers’ compensation tribunal. If they supported me, they would have been acting in defiance of the companies who actually footed the bill for health insurance, long-term disability insurance, and workers’ compensation insurance. These companies indirectly paid their salaries. They looked at me and saw trouble for themselves. Nothing in their administrative support structure or professional culture encouraged them to align themselves with me.
Chapter 27 – How Many Beans Make Five?
Actuaries tend to be the smartest people around, and they are the people with the deepest understanding of any insurance business. Yet, within this failing business, the actuaries, whom the company should have been able to rely on to provide the motive force to make the best of a bad situation, were being poisoned by their offices. I could see it on their faces. How long had they been ill? Was the unidentified spilled toxin the indirect reason for the pricing mistakes of the past? Whatever their considerable gifts, were these impaired people likely to generate the absolute best answers and strategies for this troubled business unit at a time of such industry turmoil and with such high stakes?
Chapter 28 – The Wall of Books
My nervous system had become so damaged through repeated reinjuries by the primary toxin that even tiny amounts of secondary exposure would cause debilitating illness. I continued my careful note-taking of exposures and symptoms. The range of substances I was sensitive to quickly broadened to include fragrances, smells, and chemicals used in just about every office, restaurant, public building, mode of transport, and medical facility, and most people’s homes. I became intolerant of many food additives and most ingredients in personal care products. My reaction was not allergic or allergen based. Instead, it was based on an acquired intolerance or sensitivity from my repeated chemical injuries.
Chapter 30 – Call With Kirsten
I’m slow on the uptake; I know this. I know I deny unpleasant realities about family members or friends to preserve relationships. I know the truth stares me in the face and I look away because I must accommodate someone’s weakness or even ill intent to keep that person in my life. But this time, from her tone of voice when she asked me if I knew how it had happened, I finally picked up on the messages from Kirsten. I completely understood that Mom had confided to Kirsten the circumstances of my childhood chemical exposure, at least in broad strokes. Meaning, I was right, and it had happened.
Chapter 31 – Medical Case History
I feel slight shame describing these various conditions, especially the revolting ones and the behavioral ones. But I do want to be as helpful as I can to other people and to tell the full truth about what happened to me.
Chapter 32 – Pookie as Faust
Finally I look unblinking at the photo, and, with deep empathy and sadness, I recognize on my own face the same worried expression that the LTC actuaries had, back in the toxic workspace that made me so very ill. This was not a child who photographed badly on that particular day. This child was not ugly; she was ill. For years, I was repelled by this image because a deep truth resonated within me—an unwanted memory of a diminished and unloved self.
Chapter 33 – Revenge on Mom
Once when I was fifteen and she was ten, Amy stole something from me or rifled my things—I forget exactly what happened. According to the family culture, I was supposed to hit her. I looked into her enormous blue eyes and at her creamy, beautiful little face and just couldn’t do it. I felt like a failure and sensed that my weakness would render me susceptible to exploitation in the future. As I quivered before her skinny, badly dressed body, she looked unblinking back at me. She read on my face the life lesson that when weak people love you, you can take tangible and intangible goodies from them for as long as they have something that you want.
Chapter 34 – Disgruntlement
This group was headed by a hardworking fellow who had bowel cancer. He was rigged up with a device or had some sort of sphincter weakness that caused frequent loud flapping noises from his nether regions. He apparently had no control over these emissions, which I thought would have been enough to keep him at home. We were all supposed to ignore the alarming sounds, I suppose, and initially I felt kindly toward him. Our job functions should have made us natural allies, and we both had strong technical expertise and competence with computer systems, but he was suspicious and unhelpful. I tried for years to achieve a deep reconciliation of our respective data systems to explain a stubborn variance of about $1.2 million, but he stonewalled at every opportunity, discounted my concerns to sexual-innuendo Dude, and turned his staff against me. I started calling him Farter Phil to my husband.
Chapter 35 – Big Cool Friend
It is hard to take control of a relationship in which you have long been powerless and to rebel against conventional strictures of loyalty and the desire for approval. When we enter the corporate world, we naturally align our interests with those of the corporation that gives us so much. The more we believe in the benevolent intentions of our employer, the more rewarding is our work and therefore also our lives. I worried about what ex-colleagues would say about me, and I worried about unspecific acts of retribution. But whenever I thought of hurting the business unit and the company badly, I felt a surge of excitement and joy. It was this exhilaration that made me overcome my fears, gird my lions (I do mean large cats), and take direct action.
Chapter 38 – The Field Exam
It is impossible to know which of these scenarios will occur, but I see the claim clearly now. I was right to object so vociferously to the implementation of the treaty ten years ago. Hopefully my actions will prevent this particular theft by the global scumbag-ocracy and instead the money will be returned to the American people to whom it belongs. We have an obligation to report unethical behavior even if we stand to benefit from doing so. Based on the inherent merits of the claim as I have grown to apprehend them, there is an excellent chance that events are proceeding along the lines of my fantasy above. I nailed them, and I’m glad I did it.
Chapter 39 – Dad Dead and Brother
But here’s the rub. When Hunter called me to tell me that Dad had died, it wasn’t clear what killed him. There was a collapse, and then a fairly short hospitalization with peeing and pooping while comatose, and then he was dead. I quizzed Hunter about the cause of death, and he told me no one knew. We conjectured that the many sporting, driving, and home-renovation head traumas had caused the dementia, but the final physical decline seemed mysterious and precipitous. Then, remembering how thin Dad had been, I suggested nutritional deficiencies had contributed to his rapid deterioration. My brother responded, no lie: “Yeah, probably. You can’t really live on Cheez-Its and oatmeal.” So here is the lesson: if you create a dope-addled son, whom you never fed properly when he was a child and who is going to inherit your largish estate, you had best not put that son in charge of your meals.
Chapter 40 – Who I am Now
I am burdened that when I was a child, I let the wrong people into my heart. I was gutted, and for decades afterward I scrambled to recover balance and wholeness. Like an imprinted duckling, I clung to my family, and, when they fell away, my heart was empty and still is. I still sometimes say to myself that I don’t want new people; I want those people. It is time to reboot my life. My job now is to fully accept that one of the key disadvantages of being a child is that you are an automatic dumbshit. I have to forgive myself for these ancient decisions as well as for the person I have become.
Chapter 41 – Who Was My Mother?
There is evidence of chipmunk activity, like stores of chokecherry pits and a small doorway, a smooth hole between two foundation stones underneath which there is sometimes new dirt. If I inadvertently disturb one of the chipmunk’s caches as I work through a woodpile, the next day the cache has been cleaned up and moved. So far this winter I have been leaving a treat every night in a little dish—an olive pit, an overcooked chestnut, a split walnut. Every morning the offering is gone, and I am thrilled to once again achieve communication across a great distance.
Chapter 42 – The Naked Fucker
Here is a truth: that crazed naked fucker was my father, and I am the one he wanted to consume and destroy. Here is a truth: my mother is pitiful and chose her husband badly, but she wasn’t an innocent and she did me a great deal of damage. Here is another truth: I worked for fifteen years for an ethically bereft company that uses unconscionable devices to evade taxes. And here is the biggest truth: Because there is no one minding the shop, we are surrounded by toxic substances that are damaging our health and the health of our loved ones. We cannot believe what we are told about the consumer goods around us but must view them with extreme clarity of mind and avoid, avoid, avoid.
Chapter 43 – The Plumbers
If I look back at my younger self, I see the greatest distance across which I would like to communicate. I want to give this adorable child the gift of important information, but what can I say? The deck is stacked against you. Your parents truly suck. Your life will be one of unusual bad luck and will not be anything like you anticipate. What possible advice or consolation could alleviate the shitstorm that was going to surround me for decades? The only information I could have made good use of was what my parents devoted themselves to concealing. Hey, you—you are horrifically ill, orphaned, and surrounded by creeps, and you won’t know it for another forty crappy years. Best not to think about it.
I want to raise my voice against this threat, but, at the same time, I know that people ignore inconvenient truths until the dangers are too apparent to be denied. Just like everyone knew that cigarettes caused health damage, everyone knows that the chemicals around us are injuring our brains, but we don’t yet have the language and scientific framework to hang our hats on it. We need to stop pretending that we don’t know these chemicals are seriously messing us up, and we need to start taking direct action to avoid them. If we as consumers stop spending money on toxic garbage and if we as citizens push for better decisions regarding the products used to build, furnish, and clean our public spaces, then the scientists, doctors, politicians, and manufacturers will follow our lead. In this way, we can force them to help us have less toxic air, water, food, consumer products, building materials, and cars. We must open our eyes to this most important truth about our world.