On the Birth of My Grandbook

Taking Turns, by MK Czerwiec

When I alighted Amtrak 365 this Wednesday morning and came up the station stairs into the brilliant daylight and saw my old familiar Chicago River, hugged by its skyscrapers and its grand Lyric Opera, I started smiling uncontrollably. I had a feeling I would finally be meeting my grandbook today, at lunch with my former student MK Czerwiec. And I was right.

For ten years, I came up those stairs to come into the windy city to teach. I was Professor of Clinical Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. It was a position I didn’t waste. There, I accomplished three major investigative histories (onetwothree) all of which led to the book Galileo’s Middle Finger, a project that has given me and others so much. I will forever be grateful to Northwestern for it.

But the other thing I’ll always be grateful to Northwestern for is the teaching I got to do there, in our masters program in Medical Humanities and Bioethics.

My students included full-fledged doctors and nurses as well as students earning M.D.’s, J.D.’s, and masters degrees in genetic counseling. I had the privilege of teaching them the history of medicine—which meant teaching them the most fundamental things about human nature, science, epistemology, and intellectual humility.

MK was one of the first students in our masters program. When she got to my course, she told me a little about her personal history: She was an R.N. who just after she graduated from nursing school had served, starting in 1994, on Illinois Masonic hospital’s dedicated AIDS ward, Unit 371. In case you aren’t familiar with it, Illinois Masonic is in Chicago’s Boystown.

In other words, MK had been at the center of the AIDS crisis in a major American city—working in an extraordinarily compassionate hospital unit run by two gay doctors and staffed by people who, like her, chose to be with that patient population.

Listening to her tell me about that history, my urge as an historian was to immediately sit her down and debrief her on the record, just in case a bus hit her on her way home. First-person accounts like hers are what historians long to have preserved.

MK had a bigger plan under which she wanted to take the oral histories of many people she had known there—doctors, nurses, social workers, nurses’ aids, patients. And, because she was becoming a graphic artist, she wanted eventually to turn these stories into a graphic work.

Her masters thesis was atypical, and I had to convince some of my colleagues in the program they should not only see it as “adequate,” they should see it as spectacular and historically extremely important, as I did. It consisted of seventeen oral histories—a number that eventually grew to twenty-five in follow-up work—plus historical framing of those histories in the larger context.

These were all first-person accounts of what it was like to provide the kind of hospital care we all imagine (compassionate, patient-centered, deeply respectful) in the midst of a terrifying plague decimating the gay male population. It was such remarkable work, I used it as the first major text in my class every year. The students, like I, felt it provided a deep look into how humans behave during epidemics. And it showed us the best medical care can be—how humane it can be. It also helped provide a way for us to start a discussion about the history of being gay in the clinic.

MK went on after graduation to co-found Graphic Medicine and to take this masters work and to turn it into the book she had originally envisioned—a graphic work that captures what it was like to be on Unit 371. On Wednesday, at lunch, as I had hoped, she presented me with the final product: Taking Turns.

Penn State University Press has done this work justice. It looks so incredibly beautiful, it feels just right. To me, it feels like holding a hefty little baby—my grandbaby. Only it’s my grandbook.

On Wednesday, when MK pulled the book out of her bag and handed it to me at Lyfe Kitchen on Erie, across the street from Northwestern’s hospital, I just started crying with happiness. She laughed at me while I kept crying. But I told her it really is like a grandchild.

Your own book—when it’s born, you have to raise it and you see all the little problems with it. But your grandbook is perfect: it needs nothing but the love it so richly deserves. I want to spoil this book rotten!

I quit Northwestern’s medical school in August 2015 because I was censored. As editor of our department’s annual journal/magazine Atrium, that past year I had published anthropologist/disability studies scholar Bill Peace’s first-person essay, “Head Nurses,” about his experience of consensual oral sex with a nurse in 1978. My dean freaked out when he saw this in the “Bad Girls” issue of Atrium, and he ordered Bill’s piece withdrawn, after publication. He was afraid it violated a branding agreement with Northwestern’s hospital corporation.

Much more creepily, Dean Eric Neilson also ordered that Atrium be subject to a new “editorial committee” that included reps from his office and the PR office. They would decide what we could and couldn’t publish in Atrium.

This was just as I was publishing Galileo’s Middle Finger, a book that was being called “a clarion call to academic freedom.” As I’ve explained elsewhere, including in the afterword to the paperback edition of the book, I tried for a long time to get Northwestern’s administration to admit the censorship and to promise it wouldn’t happen again. After eighteen months, I declared defeat and resigned. I couldn’t work at a place where I was expected to be afraid of my dean.

Coincidentally, last week an ad hoc committee at Northwestern produced a report on this incident, calling on the administration to apologize to me and Dr. Kristi Kirschner, who also resigned over this. (This was covered last week in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, following a news story on it at the Daily Northwestern.)

This report is pretty damned gratifying. It says, “The university’s claim that having public relations staff veto scholarly editorial decisions is ‘customary for academic journals’ is preposterous and outrageous.” It recommends an apology to me and Kristi Kirschner and named what happened as “serious violations of academic freedom.” Most importantly, if calls for policies to be “put in place to assure that nothing like this happens again.” The report specifically recommends the adoption of this policy:

Neither administrators nor public relations staff may participate in the editing of journals edited by faculty or students, nor have any control over the content of those journals.

That seems perfectly reasonable. But Northwestern hasn’t done that yet. In fact, asked by The FIRE to respond to the report, Northwestern’s administration downplayed the whole committee report.

What does this have to do with MK’s beautiful new book?

When I was coming up out of Union Station, into the wind and the sunlight, the reason I was smiling uncontrollably was this: I realized that no matter what Northwestern does—even if it never fixes its problems, even if it censors other faculty—it can never undo what I did at that institution to make the world a little better. That includes having encouraged MK to see through this most extraordinary work about gay life in Chicago during the height of the AIDS crisis.

There are still moments where I feel active grief about no longer getting to teach the History of Medicine on the western shore of Lake Michigan. There is so much I still want to teach. If I were still teaching there today, I could now use MK’s beautiful book to explore with my students not only its subject, but its methodology—blending nonfictional oral histories into what is technically fiction but so true to life, using graphic work to achieve the result.

But that era of my life has ended. You know what? Now, it isn’t so sad. Because holding your grandbook is like holding your grandbaby: you don’t worry so much anymore about your own mortality. Just its.