“American Breakdown” is the true story of Mainer Jennifer Lunden’s quest to get medical help for a mysterious, debilitating illness. It is more than just a dark, absorbing 27-year ordeal. Tragically, Lunden chronicles the medical industry’s failure to take her complaints seriously, dismissing her as a hypochondriac, and worse: A “legion of doctors and specialists” told her she was suffering from “hysteria.”

“I always believed the way to be a good feminist was to be strong, competent, rational, and independent. When I was first struck down by a mysterious fatigue, one of my initial responses – in an argument conducted inside my head – was to deny my weakness and defend my strength,” she writes. But it wasn’t that easy. “I wanted to work; my body demanded that I rest. When I disobeyed what my body demanded, it punished me.” As did the health network. Unable to work, she applied for Social Service Disability Service, but was denied. She was forced to borrow money for treatment.

Five years into her illness, suffering from depression and considering suicide, Lunden ran across Jean Strouse’s “Alice James: A Biography.” James, the younger sister of writer Henry James and “Father of American Psychology” William James, also suffered depression and considered suicide. “I’d heard of Alice James; we had something in common. We’d both been felled by a mysterious fatigue.”

Hope was kindled. In Alice, she met a Victorian counterpart, her “doppelganger…. my kindred spirit.”  “… somehow, reading about her – bright, witty, proud, and stuck – I began coming unstuck… Why was Alice sick? Why was I sick?”

Like Lunden, Alice was told by doctors that she suffered from hysteria. And her encounter with Alice broadened the scope of her own inquiry. Not only did Lunden now want to discern the true nature of their illnesses, but also why the medical profession was so little interested in seriously investigating the cause. Lunden dug deep, tunneling through medical documents, journals, reports, articles – anything that could shed light. Why women’s ailments are so often ignored, she convincingly argues, goes all the way back to Rene Descartes. His legacy from the mid-1600s glorified the mind and repudiated the body. The scientific method, Lunden points out, paved the way for X-rays and CT scans, but severed the connection between the mind and the body.

She argues that because for centuries the medical profession was dominated by men and their mental mindsets, their bias indelibly permeated the training of new doctors. The diagnosis of hysteria became a catchall for a broad spectrum of illnesses – from depression to poisoning to anything else that stumped doctors, but that they were unwilling to investigate more fully.

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It was a female doctor who finally provided Lunden with a diagnosis: She was suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Lunden then assembles a battery of data about the disease. She condemns how little is spent on CFS research, and the legislative misappropriation of funds or failure to appropriate them in the first place. At least 2.5 million Americans have been devastated by the disease, she writes, yet in 2014, the National Institutes of Health set aside just $5 million to study it. Only 5 percent of individuals ever fully recover from CFS, she writes, and an estimated 80-90% of patients with the disease are never diagnosed.

Her own struggle was intensified by an overwhelming sensitivity to chemicals and perfumes. Air fresheners, she discovered, emit over a hundred chemicals, including volatile organic compounds like formaldehyde and benzene, both known carcinogens. The artificial perfume industry in the late 1800s when Alice James was living and suffering was built on poisons. So, too, a whole new spectrum of dyes that went into everything from wallpaper, to carpets, to clothing, starting in the 1850s. Benzene, a byproduct of coal tar, produced dazzling purple and green and yellow dyes. As late as a 2021 study, the substance was found in 78 popular sunscreens.

Reading Joseph Campbell and studying George Lucas’ “Star Wars” inspired Lunden to conceptualize her struggles as a hero’s journey. “I began to think of my illness as a Call to Adventure.” Lunden spent eight years researching and writing about what she learned; “American Breakdown: Our Ailing Nation, My Body’s Revolt, and the Nineteenth-Century Woman Who Brought Me Back to Life” contains 75 pages of footnotes. In it, she relates Alice James’ tragic story, and she recounts how she saved herself.

“The hero who crosses the return threshold simply returns from the adventure with the wisdom gained from the quest and finds a way to share it,” she writes. “The freedom to live comes from learning how to live in the moment without fear of (bodily or metaphorical) death.”

A gripping and hopeful read, “American Breakdown” is a vital addition to the literature on health.

Frank O Smith’s novel, “Dream Singer” was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver “in support of a literature of social change.” Smith can be reached via his website: www.frankosmithstories.com.

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