A TV doctor examines his ancestors.
Stephen McGann. Flesh and Blood: A History of My Family in Seven Maladies. Simon and Schuster, 2017. 336 pp. $20.
Maybe there’s a story you once heard as a child about a great-aunt or -uncle who endured suffering you can only imagine. Or maybe there’s a story that has been told over and over for so many generations that you don’t know what’s real and what has been twisted by the telling. These are the stories that give families a kind of cohesion, a sense of solidarity that’s matched only by a shared shock of red hair, a particular facial expression, or a last name.
Stephen McGann’s memoir, Flesh and Blood, uses this kind of intimate family story to illustrate broader narratives of medical history and culture. He begins his book with a series of questions that sound more like concluding thoughts: “So who are we, finally? What does our little life mean when measured against the vast ocean swells of life and death that come before us, and roll on through the centuries after we’re gone? In what ways are we bonded in time to those people who share our surname or our DNA—the people we call our family?”
To answer these questions McGann explores his own family history through the lens of seven maladies that, he says, are more than just illnesses. Whether strictly biological or not, a malady, as the author sees it, is state altering, launching its victims on a new life trajectory. In a chapter about exposure we float, for example, in the frigid Atlantic with a great-uncle exposed to the elements after the sinking of the Titanic. McGann acts as our guide, exploring how experiences are imprinted on our memories and make us who we are. “If exposure to experience is blocked,” he writes, “then it can’t help us make memories, and we can’t be who we are.”
Flesh and Blood turns on the idea that data are only a skeleton of who we are—the documentary evidence people leave behind in official registries of birth and death, ship manifests, and immigration offices. “History is people,” he writes, and his memoir is an exploration of “love as data.” Onto the data skeleton McGann overlays genealogical research, family stories, and the history of medicine to give his ancestors flesh, to pump fresh blood through his family’s veins.
The book begins in the 1840s, when McGann’s family emigrated from Ireland to Liverpool and joined a predominantly poor Irish community that came to redefine the city. “Genealogy is a rather upside-down form of storytelling,” McGann writes. Just as we know the fate of the Titanic, we know how this story ends: here in the present we know Stephen McGann and his brothers end up as relatively successful, relatively famous actors, and his sister ends up a lawyer—a respectable outcome for a family that had endured almost innumerable hardships in a country that didn’t particularly welcome Irish Catholic immigrants. (The author is known most recently for his portrayal of a general practitioner on Call the Midwife. His brother Paul played a different kind of doctor in a 1996 film adaptation of Doctor Who.) While this book could have ended up myopic in its focus, McGann avoids such a fate by illuminating the larger historical forces that shaped his ancestors’ individual experiences: European history, immigration history, local history, economic history, maritime history, medical history, and, sure, a little theater history, too.
McGann makes no bones about infusing his story with drama. “A good story,” he writes, “isn’t just defined by stuff that happens—illness, murder, flood, famine,” though these all figure into the book. For McGann it’s emotion that transforms historical data into a story. The chapter on pestilence, for example, offers a fairly rudimentary rundown of infection in general—how it plagues the body—and smallpox in particular, which McGann then embroiders with his family’s experience in 1870s Liverpool. The crowded Irish slums were known to breed smallpox, tuberculosis, typhus, and similar diseases. McGann imagines their community “filthy but polite. Squalid but friendly.” He envisions his relatives’ desperation, layering real emotional distress over whatever hard facts he divines from historical research and the arguments of academic scholars. He brings to life the Liverpool Irish “flotsam,” whose tight-knit but disease-riddled courts were replaced with newer tenements designed with public health in mind. After dealing with his Irish ancestors and the pestilence of smallpox and poor housing, he makes a metaphorical leap to the 1980s to explore the “ancient fear of ‘the other,’” which still marks the Irish as somehow pestilent.
Some of the chapters are more artfully tied together than others: the chapter on exposure, about his relative’s experience on the Titanic, is transcendent. Having survived the ocean liner’s fate, McGann’s great-uncle is interviewed by a newspaper, his words recorded so that a century later, “for the first time in history, one of my ancestors is speaking publicly of their exposure to life, and for once the world is listening.” For a family that had spent generations ensconced in poverty, their lives recorded perhaps only in death certificates, here was an ancestor trying to make sense of his life, in his own words.
The stories of the individuals play out under the looming shadow of historical events. McGann’s brother-in-law dies during a heart procedure, and his organs are harvested without permission at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, one small part of a scandal that would rock the United Kingdom. Framed with census data and fleshed out with oral histories, the book has many through-lines: heart trouble, pulmonary diseases, and myriad medical causes for perished children. There’s only so much our bodies can take before they are permanently transformed by titanic tragedy. Inevitably the book closes with the malady of necrosis, though death appears throughout the text, in miscarriages, accidents, and epidemics. Yet somehow families stay afloat.
So who are you, finally? What family stories pump your heart, strengthen your muscles, protect the precious organs that make you who you are physically? What stories give you flesh and blood, heart and soul?