Two years ago, on a visit to the happiest place on earth, I wore a sundress, sandals, and not much else. My husband and two daughters and large extended family were with me. This was long before the ongoing, multistate measles outbreak linked to the theme park. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has so far confirmed 125 measles cases linked to Disneyland. We were there because my parents were paying, which is the best way to cling to my liberal bohemian righteousness while being quietly moved to tears by the robot theater magic of Pirates of the Caribbean.
Thankfully, we had all had our shots.
Like I said, I was in a sundress and sandals, and I'd accessorized with cheap large hoops in my ears that had lightweight spikes dangling from them. They're pretty, yet tough. I get compliments on them all the time. They cost approximately $4.99 at H&M, and I have worn them many places without raising suspicion or being considered a threat. I have worn them right through airport security, which leads me to believe the spikes are plastic merely painted with a shiny metal-like finish. Bringing up the rear of our large group, I watched the rest of my family pour through the gates, along with god knows how many potentially disease-carrying strangers.
But my appearance attracted the stern appraisal of a no-nonsense, grandmotherly ticket taker.
She held up her hand, commanding me to stop. Thinking she was joking, I smiled and made to move past the checkpoint.
"Oh no, no, no." She zapped me with an "I am not fucking around" stare.
I could not imagine what I had done. My purse had already passed inspection. I am a middle-aged white lady, endowed by a racist society with privilege and near-invisibility in most interactions with authority figures. The ticket taker wore a snappy red and khaki uniform. Her eyebrows came up to approximately my nipples. She studied my face. I stood still and waited.
While a majority of the measles cases linked to Disneyland occurred in unvaccinated individuals, some were infants too young to be vaccinated, and a handful were people who had been vaccinated but got measles anyway. The measles vaccine is 97 percent effective, which is pretty good odds, especially combined with the effects of community immunity, also known as herd immunity. If enough people are inoculated, by either vaccine or prior illness, even those for whom the vaccine is not effective are protected by all the people around them who will not pass on the disease. Different people's immune systems respond differently, which is why the math tells us everyone who can should get vaccinated. For those already-vaccinated individuals who nevertheless still become infected, the vaccination still helps by rendering those people less likely to transmit the disease, and by causing less severe symptoms. Common medical conditions caused by measles in children include ear infections, which can lead to permanent hearing loss, and diarrhea. Those of us who have kids know that ear infections are fairly common. Ditto for diarrhea. But more severe possible consequences include pneumonia, encephalitis, and death. According to the CDC, "For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it." Most Americans my age have no idea what measles looks like.
Last month, I learned from the CDC that among the vaccine-eligible California patients involved in the Disneyland outbreak, 67 percent were intentionally unvaccinated because of personal beliefs, and one was on an alternative plan for vaccination. Fifteen cases related to the Disneyland outbreak have been reported in seven other states, including here in Washington State, as well as in Mexico and Canada.
Measles elimination was documented in the United States in 2000.
In my limited exchanges with amusement park employees, I have come to understand that arguing gets me nowhere. Before this trip to Disneyland, I had once been ejected from Wild Waves' Timberhawk roller coaster in Federal Way for laying down some serious feminist theory on the 15-year-old female operator who would not allow my daughter to ride in her one-piece swimsuit because it was "unsanitary."
"Are you telling me that this girl wearing a swimsuit is 'unsanitary' while that boy is going to ride in his swimsuit—"
"Ma'am, I'm calling security." My daughter walked as far away from me as she could while I continued to rail against the term "unsanitary" being used anywhere near her body, especially in a waterslide theme park that smelled predominantly of mildew with the occasional soiled-diaper top note. The thorough customer comment card I filled out after this sermon is one of my finest essays, vibrating with fury restrained by my intellect's willpower and desire to get this vital point across clearly in order to free all Wild Waves employees' minds from the patriarchy.
Now here outside Disneyland, I determined that the best route to embarrassing my kids the least would be to comply with the ticket taker and hold my tongue. I stood to the side of the thickening stream of visitors as they rolled right in with their facial piercings and Mohawks and motorized carts and triple-wide strollers tricked out with iPads and cup holders. We had been inside the park the night before, too, and unlike many of the parents I observed then, I was not high. Did I look high?
Sweat accumulated between my nervously clenched buttocks, then slid down my thighs in ticklish drops.
My kids, sisters, nephews, and parents were sucked into the surge of humanity, while I stood patiently perspiring. The comforting perfume of hot dog and cotton candy wafted over. I had done nothing wrong. I carried no contraband. I was fairly pure of heart and wished no one harm. I just wanted to get to Space Mountain.
The ticket-taker-turned-stern-examiner pointed at my face.
"I don't think so," she said.
"What?" I said this very politely.
Her finger zoomed in on the side of my face.
"This. No." Her finger switched back and forth—one side of my face, the other side of my face—like a metronome of disapproval.
My face: utter incomprehension.
"These!" She grabbed at her ears. "No." She shook her head back and forth. I turned to look around me. Was she talking about my ears? I touched my ears and felt my spiky earrings.
"These?" I said, still not understanding that she was calling my earrings out as dangerous, too dangerous for Disneyland.
My first baby was born in 1999, right on time for me to catch the rising panic about vaccinations. I never read about the now-debunked study of 12 people that set it all off and its author, Andrew Wakefield, who was subsequently stripped of his medical license. All I heard was that the mercury found in vaccines could be linked to autism. This "fact" spread around childbirth classes, usually within the same conversations we were all having about circumcision. Clearly, lopping off an infant's foreskin was not "natural," and in my community, "natural" was a synonym for correct.
I was going to have my baby "naturally," as if squeezing a watermelon out of my vagina was somehow akin to choosing nitrite-free sausages over Ballpark franks. I had an inkling that childbirth was not going to be quite like eating a hot dog, so I read manuals and massaged my perineum a lot and planned it all out, much like my dad builds our ride-attraction itinerary for maximum efficiency and pleasure whenever we visit Disneyland.
"How will I know I'm 'in labor'?" I remember asking my mom. Small contractions, reminiscent of menstrual cramps, were zapping my cervix and lower back every five minutes, so I lit some candles and put on Aphex Twin like I was about to get busy.
"Oh, you'll know," she said ominously.
The moment the real shit kicked in, long after the ambient music and candles burned out and massage was replaced with projectile vomiting all over my birth partner, "natural" childbirth disintegrated into the worst acid trip of my life. "Natural" allows the mother to experience the pain of pelvis bones and tailbone jackhammered apart by a sharp alien clawing its way out. Rhythmically. In splintering shockwaves. With the uterus as the epicenter. For 28 hours, in my case.
Natural as shitting a fiery bowling ball.
The baby's hand reached up and pulled my cervix shut after all our effort to open it. My baby's hand was stuck up in there, wrapped around her head, which not only faced forward, forcing the hardest part of her entire body to mule kick open my sacrum in order to exit, but created a "hood," effectively trapping the flaming bowling ball that was her skull and banging it repeatedly against this hood and my bones with viselike contractions. It felt like being chewed apart from the inside by a wolverine. Then there was an eruption as devastating as Vesuvius. Which lasted for four hours. My perineum was destroyed by the hot lava and some medical student's forceps.
Needless to say, actual childbirth relieved me of many theories. Once my baby was on the outside of my body, the world was a terrifying place. Death lurked around every corner. Walking her in the stroller, I would be struck by the thought that I might at any moment have a muscle spasm, or suffer a stroke, and let go of the handlebar, losing control of the stroller, which would hurtle downhill straight into the path of a speeding delivery truck. I saw this vision again and again as I walked to the grocery store. Familiar streets became treacherous. To prepare for the catastrophic, I wound the straps of my purse or diaper bag around my wrists, tying myself to her stroller.
On days my hyperawareness of death overwhelmed me, I wore my baby affixed to my chest via a Swedish child-carrying contraption, until one day I staggered into a pothole in the International District and nearly crushed her. Instead I skidded on my knees on King Street, tearing open both my pants and the skin underneath, which I didn't notice until I got home and my neighbor in the hall gasped and pointed at the blood running down my shins. While my baby slept peacefully, I intermittently stuck my finger under her nostrils to check that she was still breathing.
It is very easy to make fun of anti-vaxxers, especially with celebrity advocates like Jenny McCarthy saying things like "My science is named Evan, and he's at home. That's my science." That her son is autistic is an anecdote, explains Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus and a science-writing teacher at MIT. To paraphrase Mnookin: Even if anecdotes are multiplied, plural anecdotes do not make data. But anecdotes stick. Story triumphs over science.
Some time after my daughter erupted from my vagina, a pediatrician at the Country Doctor, which offers services on a sliding scale and took the DSHS medical coupons we were on, patiently explained that the ethyl mercury in thimerosal (a safe preservative that is sometimes used in measles-mumps-rubella vaccines) is not the same as methyl mercury (infamous for its toxicity). Then she had me lick my finger, dip it in a sugar packet, and stick it in my baby's mouth the moment after the vaccination needle plunged into her tiny thigh. The sweetness of the sugar was to offset the pain of injection. Without comprehending the "herd immunity" we hear about now in the wake of the Disneyland measles outbreak, I did understand that I received government and community medical assistance—and the professionals administering my and my infant's health care did not tolerate any bullshit. We were the vulnerable citizens. We were low-income. We vaccinated.
In her vigilantly researched and emphatically empathetic book On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss writes, "Herd immunity, an observable phenomenon, now seems implausible only if we think of ourselves as inherently disconnected from other bodies. Which, of course, we do." In reality, in this world, our bodies do not end at our outer layer of skin. We are swarming, inside and out, with microscopic organisms. We share the air with other bodies, breathing in and out viruses' highly contagious droplets. My post-childbirth wacked-out mind was somewhat correct in its perception of death being ever-present and all around us. Biss writes about anthropologist Emily Martin's observation that a consequence of "thinking of the body as a complex system... might be the paradox of feeling responsible for everything and powerless at the same time, a kind of empowered powerlessness." Which pretty well sums up how I felt as a new mother.
"Okay," the Disneyland ticket taker said. She sighed. She held out her palm, which I mistook as a demand for a bribe and literally almost started to search my purse for cash.
"Give them here," she said, gesturing impatiently at my earrings.
"But I like these earrings," I whined.
She gestured to another ticket taker, who came over.
"I want them back," I said, pulling them out.
"Let me see them," she said. I handed them to her and waited.
Another security guard appeared, and the three of them studied my cheap earrings. Innocent-looking children, overseen by parents with unknown theories, continued to stream into the park.
I am not immune to fear-based theories myself. While I did vaccinate my kids according to King County Public Health's suggestions for the most part, I held off on the chicken pox vaccine. Instead, I let them contract it and develop "natural" immunity. I entertained romantic notions of how this process would play out, which were pretty different than the reality. The reality involved nursing a 3-year-old and 5-year-old through weeks of fever, insane itching, malaise, and weeping blisters while trying to hold down my part-time job and find child-care coverage for the contagious. I hadn't researched my decision beforehand. Someone on the playground had told me that the chicken pox vaccine didn't inoculate as well as "the real thing." If that was true, I was preventing my daughters from coming down with chicken pox as adults, which is much more serious. Biss calls me out on this one: "indulging in a variety of preindustrial nostalgia that I too find seductive."
By allowing my kids to contract chicken pox, I made them vulnerable later in life to shingles, a serious, recurring, and extremely painful inflammation of the nerves that can last years. I regret my uninformed choice based on my intuitive judgment and nostalgia. The idea behind vaccinating everyone in our society is to protect the vulnerable. If this notion does not appeal to your altruistic impulses, remember that just because someone is not necessarily vulnerable right now does not exempt them from being so someday. Someday we might be old, or be pregnant, or have a compromised immune system. Someday we might be in Disneyland, wearing dangerous-looking earrings and screaming with wide-open mouths in an enclosed, virus-ridden Space Mountain.
The guard handed my earrings back to me.
"Is it okay?" I said.
He waved me in, while the ticket takers turned away, like two diminutive Pontius Pilates washing their hands of Jesus's fate.
The earrings tinkled in my ears with a new edge as I ran down Main Street, USA, to catch up with my family. If I were to be entirely honest, I was slightly thrilled to have been caught and considered potentially dangerous. Although they posed no real threat to the health and safety of park guests and employees, I started thinking about my cheap earrings as tiny, dull weapons. Maybe I would puncture my neck on them when whipping around a corner on the Matterhorn.
After stopping to quickly scarf down an early-morning hand-dipped corn dog, I caught up with my family. When I went to hug my oldest daughter, my spiky earrings dug into her smooth, unblemished cheek. She recoiled in surprise, with a look that reminded me of her first taste of pain, years before, as I held her small helpless infant body, so utterly dependent on me. I remembered offering up her tiny thigh to the doctor's needle while cooing reassurances to her. Her uncomplicated 2-month-old smile vanished and her eyes grew wide and intelligent with a look I can only describe as shock quickly dissolving into comprehension. "How could you let this happen to me?" her eyes said. As she opened her pink toothless mouth, sucking in air to cry, I stuck my sugarcoated finger in the center of her breath. The first of many betrayals.