Book Review: What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City

Written by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the doctor who uncovered the Flint water crisis, this book covers exactly how she discovered the high lead levels in Flint water and the brave and admirable fight she led for environmental and social justice.

What’s the Flint water crisis?

In short, the Flint water crisis refers to the tragic result of a 2013 change in the water source for the local residents of Flint. The lack of treatment on the new water source by Flint officials meant the highly corrosive river water was reaching the sinks and taps of thousands of local homes. This led to significantly elevated blood lead levels in Flint residents. Lead in drinking water can lead to neurodevelopmental issues, and is especially more dangerous to infants and children, due to the lower threshold of exposure.

The corrosiveness of Flint water: A nail after one month of exposure to Detroit water (top) and to Flint river water (bottom) [Source]

Overview: What the Eyes Don’t See

The book covers Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s journey from when she first decides to investigate patient blood lead levels in her Hurley clinic, all the way to the state and press recognizing her efforts and taking action to rectify its wrongs. We also get to learn more about Mona’s childhood and family throughout the story and her struggle to advocate for her residents as a brown woman.

Favorite Quotes

“I was a chubby baby, born with a mark, a capillary hemangioma, on my forehead. It wasn’t pretty or fascinating, like Harry Potter’s lightning bolt. […] The hemangioma regressed, went away on its own. Your eyes wouldn’t see it unless I told you where it was.”

What the Eyes Don’t See, pg. 4-5

In this beautiful reference to the title in the opening pages, we learn that Mona had a birthmark on her forehead that caused a lot of questions in her Iraqi community. People would come up to her mother asking what it was and if it could be fixed. This story about her birthmark pulled me into the book. Some cultures believe a birthmark on one’s forehead to be a sign of great wisdom. I definitely believe that to be true for Mona. I will also casually add that I have a birthmark on my forehead myself, so learning about hers really resonated with me.

“I was a true believer when it came to government. I had faith in its ability to protect rights, promote equality, and mitigate historic injustice. So much of my life and advocacy rested on that. But what had happened in Flint, and what had happened with the state, was seriously eroding that faith.”

What the Eye’s Don’t See, pg. 236

While Mona was waiting to hear back from the state government, the mayor’s office, and the city, there were times when she did not eat or sleep properly due to the weight she felt like she was bearing. When there are events out of our control, it can be difficult to cope. Mona’s family had fled from Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and found solace in America. Especially when one has personally seen how a government can fail them, it can be disheartening, to say the least, when that same country that took you in, fails to adequately address the crisis at large. Nevertheless, Mona had the support of her family, close friends, and her team, and kept a cool head to continue fighting.

“But there are really two Americas, aren’t there? The America I was lucky to grow up in, and the other America- the one I see in my clinic every day. In that other America, I have seen things I wish I’d never seen. The things you run from, not toward. Things that would never be part of any dream. And for too many people, this nightmare is taking place right outside their front door.”

What the Eyes Don’t See, pg. 323

She is so right. For so many immigrant families who come to America, they seek a better life, a prosperous and safe one, filled with opportunities for themselves and their children. Yet, Mona speaks of the injustices she sees in her clinic every day- poverty, environmental injustice, institutional racism- these are just a few, and they affect people disproportionately. From an outside perspective, the world may see America as a dream, a land of opportunity, but any family or person who has moved here knows the reality, the struggle, and the fight for survival one has to achieve before thriving.

Closing remarks

This story is so inspirational, and the fact that Dr. Attisha is an Iraqi daughter of immigrants who values hope, advocacy, and science, makes it so much more meaningful. If you need a “prescription for hope” as Mona calls it, especially now, I encourage you to read her story.

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