Book Review: What Disturbs our Blood: A Son’s Quest to Redeem the Past

45 inside outby James FitzGerald
Published by Random House Canada, 2010. ISBN 978-0-679-31316-8

Reviewed by Sarah Kay MIAHIP

This is a book of great courage, a modern quest, which tells the story of a man’s search for identity, truth and healing. It is an Irish tale of emigration in a Canadian setting; the story of a sensitive and anxious little boy, haunted by nightmares and feelings of secrecy, a tragic multi-generational tale of alienation, emotional starvation and mental disturbance. It is also a fascinating social history of Toronto in the early days of medicine and mental health. The author manages to weave all these strands into a tapestry that unfolds and reads like a thriller.

James FitzGerald grew up in Toronto, the son of Jack FitzGerald, an eminent and dedicated immunologist, who remained distant from his children. At the peak of his career Jack had a breakdown, attempted suicide twice and ended his days pacified by drugs. Without giving too much away, Jack FitzGerald’s disintegration led the author on his search and he writes: “…if I didn’t pierce the mystery of my silently disintegrating father, I was doomed to re-enact the buried generational drama that was already undercutting my natural passion with an invisible hand.” He went on to discover that his paternal grandfather, Gerry FitzGerald was an internationally brilliant physician who championed preventive medicine and was at the cutting edge and coalface of the Canadian public health system, eradicating diphtheria and being part of the team which brought insulin to the world. At the peak of his career Gerry FitzGerald also hit a wall and became deeply depressed, entering mental institutions to endure barbaric treatments.

We seem to be unconsciously compelled and propelled towards the ‘unfinished’ which includes the unfinished of our ancestors. This extraordinary story spans three generations and two continents against the backdrop of two World Wars: horrific times and also exciting times of innovation, great medical breakthroughs and the beginning of psychoanalysis. The medical experiments on animals in labs and what was perpetrated on patients in mental institutions are shocking. The resistance to Freud and the talking therapies by the hierarchy in medicine, including psychiatry, was quite extraordinary with drugs, ECT and insulin shocks being the preferred order of the day. Loyalty to institutions was paramount with no checks and balances in place to protest or question the ethics or dangers of what was going on.

The book is beautifully written in a mixture of journalistic style and lyrical narrative, which draws the reader along through history, sociology, psychology, imagination and mystery. As soon as I started to read it I simply could not put it down. What shines through is that even when we emigrate to try and rid ourselves of our past, our psyches, like the late Virginia Satir’s image of ‘starving dobermans in the basement’, cry out for release and resolution. It seems that mental disturbance is in itself a dis-ease of ‘emotions’. Tragically, for our ancestors to show the unacceptable face of emotions (vulnerability, grief, despair, rage) was to show weakness (madness); something shameful, unpardonable and deserving of death.

For some unfathomable reason the book was not published here in Ireland, but it can be obtained through Amazon or <>