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Fascinating and Moving
on September 11, 2010
What Disturbs Our Blood merits reading'and rereading. At its centre is an eloquent and deeply personal story of reclamation and transformation. The research and writing of this book have themselves been primary alchemical agents in Mr. FitzGerald's understanding and transcendence of his past and, quite literally, his walking into an altered future. It is written with unstinting fascination for the many strands of inquiry it pursues and the hard won intelligence of a unique human heart.
A family secret, the hidden suicide of his paternal grandfather, haunted FitzGerald's childhood. As he steadfastly unearthed the truth, he learned that this man who had been hardly mentioned in his family'even as his father strove to emulate him'had been a celebrated leader in the Canadian public health movement. His name was Gerry FitzGerald, of Irish heritage and immense energy, and he died in his 50's at the height of an illustrious medical career that included the founding of the world famous Connaught Laboratories and a key role in the discovery of insulin. The writer's father and Gerry's son, John, also a noteworthy medical pioneer, collapsed into a suicidal depression at the same age and never worked again.
On this scaffold, FitzGerald mounts several fascinating narratives, all with a view to fathoming his paternal heritage and unwinding his fate. He gives a sobering insider's view of growing up in the Anglo-Canadian establishment. The way things work at Upper Canada College and Forest Hill loom chillingly large. While living squarely in this milieu and insisting on a good many of its traditions, the author's parents embodied a gentile jazz-inflected bohemianism that was both characteristic of their generation and uniquely poignant in an overshadowing family atmosphere of denial and repression.
The very Irishness of Gerry is a source of fascination and the Irish temperament and heritage, both in Ireland and Upper Canada, are an absorbing thread in the book. Irish madness and madness in general are important subjects as FitzGerald brilliantly anatomizes both Gerry and John's seemingly abrupt fall from busy and highly regarded medical man to its obverse: repeatedly hospitalized, fragile, depressed, suicidal. The author juxtaposes the two threads of psychiatry competing for adherents through the decades. The history and practice of the shock, drug and get a grip approach used on his dad and grandfather is described in disquieting detail. The 'talking cure', of which FitzGerald has been a grateful beneficiary, is lightly touched on in the narrative but distinctively featured in the many dreams that have been key to his process of understanding.
The early development of the Canadian public health system is an important part of Gerry's story because he was a prime visionary and activist in it. FitzGerald depicts the personalities, the institutions, the politics and the triumphs in this singularly ground breaking era in Canadian history with telling detail and humanity. Interestingly, madness and suicide appear again and again in the annals of these hard driving medical pioneers.
FitzGerald worked on this book as he lived through his fifties, passing both his father and grandfather on the way. Finally one is left with a conviction that the human heart, with loving support, can penetrate the mystery of its unfolding and, in that self-revealing inquiry, reconfigure its fate.