One ordinary day, more than a decade ago, I briefly crossed over into a parallel reality. I was in the aisles of an ordinary suburban party-supply store, gathering birthday decorations, when I felt a sudden trouble deep inside in my airways—a harsh dusty feeling, as if someone had shaken out a vacuum cleaner bag down there. The longer I stayed among the factory-fresh cheap plastic trinkets and glossy cardstock and powdery latex, the thicker the invisible dust got, until I was fighting back wave after wave of short spasmodic coughs. As soon as I went outside it was over; it happened only one more time, when I had to return to that particular store for something else.
I hadn’t thought about the incident until I was reading Oliver Broudy’s The Sensitives. The book is written as a travelogue among the people who have crossed over into that world and stayed there—people whose lives have fallen apart, who have become hermits or permanent fugitives, as they try to escape from a constant sense of harm brought on by a world pervaded with dangerous chemicals and energies and assorted other toxins. The “sensitives” referred to in the book’s title suffer from what Broudy settles on calling Environmental Illness, or E.I., a hazily defined, sporadic set of afflictions including pain, fatigue, and mental fuzziness, which defies the efforts of medical science to pin it down.
This diffuse and subjective misery is unreasonable, according to the everyday tools and standards of reason. Broudy turns this problem around through a simple insight: When it comes to the larger, external reality, the sensitives are correct. We do live in a world bombarded by toxic substances, and powerful interests lie and obfuscate about the harm they do. Early on, he rattles off scare stories about a civilization under self-inflicted chemical siege—“Phthalates in your printer ink. Formaldehyde in your furniture. Glyphosate in your Cheerios. Chlorine in your sex toys. Triclosan in your underwear … ”—and any reasonably faithful newspaper reader has to recognize them as both real and unresolved.
“Even though sensitives were often dismissed as crazy,” Broudy writes, “they were the only ones ready to acknowledge that we really were living in the midst of a vast human experiment.”
Broudy builds these meditations into the story of a road trip around the West, riding with one wandering E.I. sufferer in search of another one who has dropped off the grid entirely. Along the way they stop at a town famed for being where the most afflicted have built their own refuge, “papering the walls with aluminum foil, hanging mail from clotheslines, storing cell phones three feet underground—at least according to a few gawping news articles I’d read.”
The author is vigilant against the urge to gawp, which he denies himself as scrupulously as his guide, a well-to-do and hyper-agreeable southerner, labors to avoid stray contaminants. Life on the run from all-pervading toxins is not something anyone would desire, and Broudy holds to this truth whenever the beliefs of the sensitives become outright impossible—in the case of “hell toxin,” for instance, a spreading and regenerating poison whose character follows the rules of demonology rather than ordinary chemical matter, and which has to be fought off by blowtorch.
This doesn’t keep him from noting the contradictions and absurdities on all sides of the issue, and how inescapable they are; his companion, haunted with every breath and meal, peps himself up by drinking bottles of 5-Hour Energy, with a “biting, chemical reek of artificial pomegranate,” and calibrates his condition with an armamentarium of medicines, supplements, and stimulants. He describes how the online society of the afflicted, whom official medical authority had failed, produced a “faux friendly limbo in which no truth claims were possible,” leading them to re-invent expertise in the form of personal experience.
“Formaldehyde in your furniture. Glyphosate in your Cheerios. Chlorine in your sex toys … ”
Broudy’s drive, through landscapes described with the hyper-vivid lyricism of a writer in the grip of extreme highway boredom, is almost incidental to the true quest: a passenger-seat reverie about the rise of synthetic chemicals and scientistic medicine and the search for care and meaning after the collapse of an integrated human understanding of the world. Here again are the tales of everyone’s old pal synthetic fuchsia, and gas warfare, and the brutal medical techniques of Benjamin Rush, told by previous nonfiction authors and assiduously credited and endnoted by Broudy, brought to bear on the question of what has gone wrong with the way our civilization addresses suffering.
It’s hard to read about the sensitives fleeing moldy motel showers without thinking about how four months ago, wearing a surgical mask in public was generally taken as a sign that a person was unreasonably worried about disease. Now normal people are swabbing down the groceries with rubbing alcohol, as Americans are being sent back to work in the middle of a still unchecked pandemic.
By Broudy’s account, we have all been turned loose in a world of enormous, unseen, and ill-defined risks, where we are held responsible for taking care of ourselves. In the battle between protecting industrial profit and protecting the environment and public health, Broudy writes, “industry always came out ahead, not just because industry had more money, and its stated costs and benefits were more calculable, but because its message was positive and paired better with what we wished were true.”
Tom Scocca is the politics editor of Slate, the editor of Hmm Weekly, and the author of Beijing Welcomes You