Naomi Jackson’s essay [“A Litany for Survival,” Memoir, September] humanizes the disconcerting but clear evidence of health disparities based on race. These statistics, established in the medical literature for decades, have only recently reached the public’s attention. But statistics are merely data. Until we can associate them with human faces, they will continue to be largely intangible.
If the medical profession is to regain the trust of patients of color, it should learn from the tenets of restorative justice and engage with those who have been harmed. This might mean directly involving community members to create institutional-care algorithms, educate the next generation of physicians, or serve on hospital quality review committees. In the meantime, complementing epidemiological data with patient narratives like Jackson’s offers opportunities for healing in the patient-physician relationship.
Luke A. Gatta, MD, and Sarahn M.Wheeler, MD
Duke University Hospital
Songs of Ourselves
Laurent Dubreuil perceives identity politics as an existential threat to academic freedom [“Nonconforming,” Essay, September], but it’s a discourse that can in fact be a key ingredient in the development of critical thinking and self-reflection. Each of us comes to the classroom with our own stories, which color our perceptions of the lesson at hand. When acknowledged, these identity narratives can help us (and our classmates) more fully understand our relationship to the text or object under consideration. Once articulated, these perspectives do not become “indisputable” viewpoints, but constructs that can be critiqued, changed, and absorbed. When students’ identities are openly integrated into their education, the classroom becomes an environment that, like each of us, contains multitudes.
New York City
Wes Enzinna claims that Charles Bowden “wrote about the Sonoran Desert from both sides of the Rio Grande” [“Desert Blues,” Review, August]—the kind of geographical error that Bowden abhorred, because he aimed above all to elucidate the ground itself through his writing. The Rio Grande flows hundreds of miles east of the easternmost tip of the Sonoran Desert and never comes close to transecting it.
Enzinna describes Bowden’s dissertation as “an unwieldy, Faulknerian mess about groundwater,” but his 1971 PhD thesis at the University of Wisconsin–Madison was actually “Broke Bodies: A Look at 19th Century Notions About Health.” The rejected paper referred to in Harper’s was a study of groundwater in the Southwest that Bowden produced at the University of Arizona in 1975. He later turned it into 1977’s Killing the Hidden Waters—a brilliant work of ecology and history that has never gone out of print and presages much recent scholarship on the dwindling aquifers that make life possible in the deserts that Bowden explored and documented.
Bowden was in his late fifties when we met, so I cannot address firsthand what he was like as a young person. That said, I question the idea that he “affected a hippie-cowboy persona.” Chuck was the opposite of pretentious and never affected or “put on” anything, though he did call out what he called “stancing” when he saw it. When we worked together in Mexico and along the border, the violence had never been more intense. Chuck expressed no fear or paranoia about this work, though it included hours of interviews with a man he knew to be a killer. When asked (and it was often) whether he was afraid, Bowden insisted that attention be paid instead to the Mexican reporters whose lives were truly at risk. As for being chased in Mexico by men with guns? It is sad to see this thrill-seeking narrative revived after Bowden’s efforts to move beyond it.
As Enzinna notes, Bowden drank too much and smoked, both dangerous habits that shortened his life. That said, I never saw him drink before late afternoon. Alcohol did not “fuel” his writing; rather, he said he drank to stop writing, to escape the pain of the work. The volume and sophistication of his writing belie, I think, the notion that he created it while impaired. For that matter, he never hid his struggles; he wrote about them, most recently in Jericho—a jarring and prophetic work barely mentioned in the Harper’s review.
Bowden was married twice and had many relationships, including with the person who became his literary executor, Mary Martha Miles, misidentified in the piece as his second wife. The collection America’s Most Alarming Writer includes essays by his actual second wife and by other long-term partners. Intimate relationships are by nature subjective and I don’t doubt the pain Bowden caused, yet an accusation of abuse looms large. During the eleven years I knew him, I never witnessed or felt abuse. When Chuck died, I met his family, friends, and some of his past loves. They spoke of his compassion, empathy, and generosity. Everyone said he was intense. But the amplification of one allegation of abuse is troubling to many of us who loved him.
Las Cruces, N.M.
Because of an editing error, “Desert Blues” by Wes Enzinna [Review, August] incorrectly stated that the University of Texas Press is publishing eight previously unpublished manuscripts by Charles Bowden. The press is publishing four manuscripts, the last of which, Sonata, will be out this month. We regret the error.