I was in my late fifties when I got the idea for this project. It was about 3 AM. Bob, my partner, had just turned out the lights, and I was nattering on.
“I think I know what my next book’s going to be,” I announced.
“Yeah,” from his pillow, in that dead, go-no-further tone he gets when I’m trying to start up a conversation as he’s just drifting off to sleep.
Silence from his pillow, so palpable that I thought I’d lost him. Then came the words, serious, thoughtful, “I think that’s a very good idea.”
I’d been finding it harder, with each passing year, to take sleep loss or to tolerate the medications I relied on. “Don’t worry, you need less sleep as you get older,” is one of those cheerful bits of advice we’re used to hearing; I have not found it to be the case. I’d done some scientific writing, so I wasn’t as intimidated as I probably should have been, embarking on a project so scientific as this book became.
My undergraduate majors at U.C. Berkeley were English and Comparative Literature. I wrote my dissertation, at Columbia, on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I’ve been a professor of Literature and Women’s Studies at Scripps College, Claremont, California since 1974, teaching Shakespeare the whole time (I managed to choose the one writer in the world it’s impossible to tire of). Scripps is a women’s college, and in the course of my years there, my interests shifted to women’s literature, feminist scholarship, and autobiographical writing. (The sleepy-author photo was taken in a writing workshop. I should say that I’m not usually that zoned out in class. This was a marathon make-up — it was well after midnight when my student, Hannah Graves, pulled out her camera.)
I’ve published five books on literature and feminist theory, dozens of articles in scholarly journals such as Signs, Contemporary Literature, Renaissance Drama, many of which have been reprinted in anthologies and collections.
Shortly after I turned fifty, I began to feel that the world didn’t need more books of literary criticism, at least not by me, that there were more urgent matters that needed writing about. I began writing articles about health and the environment, environmental toxins and cancer, women’s health, and health activism.
I also began regularly reviewing for The Nation:
Through this work I met Dr. Alice Stewart, the pioneer physician and epidemiologist who discovered that if you x-ray pregnant women, as doctors were doing in the fifties, you doubled the risk of a childhood cancer. On account of her discovery, doctors no longer x-ray pregnant women. This was a contribution that prevented untold numbers of cancers and mutagens, yet only a handful of people even know her name.
For her discovery, she never again received another major research grant. The fifties was the decade of the arms race, when governments of the U.S. and U.K. were promoting the nuclear industry and assuring populations that they could survive all-out nuclear war. Radiation risk was so trivialized that it was common practice to x-ray feet in shoe stores.
In the late seventies, Dr. Stewart got drawn into the controversy over U.S. nuclear workers’ health at Hanford, the weapons facility in northeastern Washington. When she and the scientist in charge of the study, Thomas Mancuso, announced that the nuclear industry was “a good deal more dangerous than you are being told,” the government attempted to confiscate their data, so scandalous a move that it inspired a Congressional investigation. (This was just after Karen Silkwood’s death.) Alice, then in her eighties, found herself a guru to the anti-nuclear movement. She was that rare being in science, an independent— not beholden to government or industry for her support, she could take unpopular stands and speak freely. The New York Times called her “perhaps the Energy Department’s most influential and feared scientific critic.”
Keith Schneider, “Scientist who manages to ‘shock the world’ on atomic workers’ health,” New York Times, May 3, 1990
Alice Stewart’s research helped get compensation for American nuclear workers.
“U.S. Acknowledges Radiation Killed Weapons Workers,” Matthew Wald, Jan. 29, 2000
Alice was in her late eighties when I met her. I worked with her for five years, writing her biography, The Woman Who Knew Too Much: Alice Stewart and the Secrets of Radiation (introduction, Helen Caldicott)
She taught me about epidemiology, about the importance of actually talking to the people you’re studying, not just “number-crunching,” about how breakthroughs may come from the outside rather than within the scientific establishment. Writing this book brought me into contact with scientists and activists like John Goffman, Joseph Rotblat, Rosalie Bertell, who have taken courageous stands against nuclear weapons and the expansion of the nuclear industry. It gave me a taste for writing about issues that mattered.
For the last several years, sleep has been my cause. I’ve gone to every annual meeting of the Association of Professional Sleep Societies since 2002, I went to Prague in 2004 for the meeting of the European Sleep research Society; to Bethesda, MD, for the 2005 insomnia conference at the National Institutes of Health; to a “sleep primer” in La Jolla, California, as well as other events. I’m a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, a professional medical society for researchers and clinicians. I’m patient representative and board member of the American Insomnia Association, an organization within the American Academic of Sleep Medicine.