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Vampires and Vaccines

Giving (and Losing) Blood in the Age of Fear
DISCUSSED
The Lapping of Small Waves, Toothless Jaws, A Canoe of Bent Wood, Undead-ness, Metaphors of Political Violence, Vlad the Impaler, Good Guys and Bad Guys, A Defunct Smoke Detector, British Train Schedules
by Eula Biss
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Vampires and Vaccines

Eula Biss
14 Snaps

In the first few weeks after my son was born a March wind blew off the lake and through our apartment, where I sat for hours each night in a stiff wooden rocking chair, rocking my restless baby and staring at the windows through which I could barely see the shadows of tree limbs flailing in the wind. The chair creaked and the wind moaned and I heard a tapping at the glass and a flapping around the sill and I knew a vampire was there, trying to get in. By daylight I would be reminded that a flagpole was near that window, with a flapping flag and a tapping line, but in the moment I felt terror. I was calmed only by my belief, instilled by a recent vampire movie, that the vampire could not enter without my permission.

I avoided mirrors in the dark, when I slept I woke from bloody nightmares, and I saw things moving that were not moving. During the day, I began to think the lake was singing to me. It was a single, low tone that only I could hear. I was as disquieted by this as I was comforted. I kept two tall glass liter jars of drinking water on the table next to my rocking chair. Staring at the jars as I nursed the baby I recalled being told in the hospital that I had lost two liters of blood. It remained a mystery to me how anyone could have known how much blood I lost, because it went all over the floor. My husband would describe to me much later the sound it made, the lapping of small waves as the blood puddled and nurses pushed at the edges of the pool with towels. But I never saw any of it, never even heard the lapping sound, so those two glass liter jars were my only measure of what I had lost.

Vampires were in the air then. True Blood was a new television series and The Vampire Diaries was about to premiere, while the Twilight saga played out in a series of books I did not read followed by movies I did not see. A car parked on my block had a bumper sticker that read blood is the new black and on my first visit to the bookstore after giving birth I noticed a new section devoted exclusively to vampire novels for teenagers. Vampires were part of the cultural moment, but as a new mother I became fixated on them in part because they were a way for me to think about something else. The vampire was a metaphor, though it is hard to say whether it was a metaphor for my baby or for myself. My baby slept by day and woke at night to feed from me, sometimes drawing blood with his toothless jaws. He grew more vigorous each day, even as I remained weak and pale. But I was living off blood that was not mine.

Immediately after my son’s birth, in an otherwise uncomplicated delivery, my uterus inverted, bursting capillaries and spilling blood. After giving birth without any medical intervention, without painkillers or an IV in place, I was rushed to surgery and put under general anesthesia. I woke up disoriented, shivering violently under a pile of heated blankets. “That happens to everyone who comes down here,” my midwife observed from a bright and hazy place above me, inadvertently reinforcing my sense that I had, indeed, gone down to the banks of the River Styx. Where is down here? I kept wondering. I was too weak to move much, but when I tried I discovered that my body was lashed with tubes and wires—I had an IV in each arm, a catheter down my leg, monitors on my chest, and an oxygen mask on my face.

Alone in the recovery room, I slipped into sleep, waking with the unnerving sensation that I had stopped breathing. Machines were beeping around me. A nurse fiddled with the machines, mentioning that she thought they might be malfunctioning, because they seemed to be indicating that I had stopped breathing. I coughed and could not catch my breath, struggling to say “Help” before I passed out. A doctor was standing at the foot of my bed when I came to, and it was decided that I would receive a transfusion. This excited the nurse, who told me that transfusions are like magic. She had seen the color come back into gray people after they had received transfusions, she said, she had seen people who could not move sit up and ask for food. Without using the words life or death, she let me know that she had seen the dead come back to life.

I did not feel like I was coming back to life as the refrigerated blood entered my veins. I felt an ominous cold ache spreading from my arm toward my chest. “People aren’t usually awake for this,” the doctor said when I mentioned the temperature of the blood. He was standing precariously on a stool with wheels, improvising a rig that would hold the bag of blood closer to the ceiling so that gravity would pull it into my body more quickly. By hospital policy my baby could not be in the recovery room with me and the doctor could not change that, but he could try to devise a way to get the blood into me faster so that I could leave the recovery room sooner. My vision began to blacken around the edges, my stomach turned, and the room spun around me. This was all normal, the doctor told me. “Remember,” he said, “it’s not your blood.”

*

There are many explanations for the extreme fearfulness I felt in the weeks after my son’s birth: I was a new mother; I was far from my family; I was anemic; I was delirious with fatigue. But the true source of my fear eluded me until months later, when I went out on Lake Michigan in my little canoe made of bent wood covered with a transparent canvas. I had been on the lake many times before in that boat and I had never been afraid, but this time my blood was pounding in my ears. I was newly aware of the immensity of the water under me, its vast, cold depths, and I was painfully aware of the fragility of my boat. Oh, I thought to myself, with some disappointment, I’m afraid of death.

Vampires are immortal, but they are not exactly alive. Undead was the term Bram Stoker used for Dracula. Frankenstein and zombies and any number of animated corpses are all undead, rather than immortal in the manner of Greek gods. The term undead amused me in the months when I was recovering from my son’s birth, a time when I frequently found reason to think of it. I was alive, and gratefully so, but I felt entirely undead.

Nitroglycerin was injected into me during the surgery that repaired my uterus. “The same thing that’s used in bombs,” my midwife reported. I wanted the IV lines out of my arms as soon as I left the recovery room so that I could hold my son comfortably, but the midwife explained that I needed intravenous antibiotics to prevent infection. “You’ve had a lot of people’s hands in you,” she said frankly. Some of the hands were hers, in me to help deliver the baby and the placenta, but then there was also my surgery, which was performed exclusively with human hands, leaving no incisions. When I learned this, it struck me as both magical and mundane that the technology that had saved me was simply hands. Of course, our technology is us.

You’ve had a lot of people’s hands in you was a phrase I would hear in my mind for a long time after that surgery, along with Remember, it’s not your blood. My pregnancy, like every pregnancy, had primed me for the understanding that my body was not mine alone and that its boundaries were more porous than I had ever been led to believe. It was not an idea that came easily, and I was dismayed by how many of the metaphors that occurred to me when I was pregnant were metaphors of political violence—invasion, occupation, and colonization. But during the birth, when the violence to my body was greatest, I was most aware not of the ugliness of a body’s dependence on other bodies, but of the beauty of it. Everything that happened to me in the hospital after my son’s delivery, even things I understand now as cold or brutal, I experienced at that time as aglow with humanity. Alarms were sounded for me, doctors rushed to me, bags of blood were rigged for me, ice chips were held to my lips. Human hands were in me and in everything that touched me—in the nitroglycerine, in the machines that monitored my breathing, in the blood that wasn’t mine.

“If you want to understand any moment in time, or any cultural moment, just look at their vampires,” says Eric Nuzum, author of The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula. Our vampires are not like the remorseless Victorian vampires, who had a taste for the blood of babies and did not seem to feel badly about it. Our vampires are conflicted. Some of them go hungry rather than feed on humans, and some of them drink synthetic blood. “Almost all of these current vampires are struggling to be moral,” the journalist Margot Adler observed after immersing herself in vampire novels and vampire television for months after her husband’s death. “It’s conventional to talk about vampires as sexual, with their hypnotic powers and their intimate penetrations and their blood-drinking and so forth,” she reported. “But most of these modern vampires are not talking as much about sex as they are about power.”

Power, of course, is vampiric. We enjoy it only because someone else does not. Power is what philosophers would call a positional good, meaning that its value is determined by how much of it one has in comparison to other people. Privilege, too, is a positional good, and some have argued that health is as well.

Our vampires, whatever else they are, remain a reminder that our bodies are penetrable. A reminder that we feed off of each other, that we need each other to live. Our vampires reflect both our terrible appetites and our agonized restraint. When our vampires struggle with their need for blood, they give us a way of thinking about what we ask of each other in order to live.

*

Dracula’s first victim when he arrives in England is a beautiful young woman who is found weak and pale each morning but is kept alive through a series of blood transfusions. Luckily, she has three men in love with her, all eager to give their blood. One of them writes in his diary, “No man knows till he experiences it, what it is to feel his own life-blood drawn away into the veins of the woman he loves.” Dracula has a taste for good-looking women, but he does not, so far as we know, feel love. Bram Stoker’s Dracula did not become a vampire to spend immortality searching for his one true love, as Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation suggests. He was always heartless, even in his mortal incarnation as Vlad the Impaler. Dracula, after all, is not a person so much as he is the embodiment of disease. And the vampire hunters who pursue him are not people so much as they are metaphors for the best impulses of medicine. Vampires take blood, and vampire hunters give blood.

As I wait with my arm outstretched to give blood, I consider this distinction. My son, who is now four, has taken to wearing a cape and likes to talk about good guys and bad guys, despite my insistence that most people are both. We are both vampires and vampire hunters, caped and uncaped. I think of Stephen King’s daughter, Naomi King, who once explained that while she does not care for horror as a genre she does care about theological questions of how we make friends with our monsters. “If we demonize other people,” she said, “and create monsters out of each other and act monstrous—and we all have that capacity—then how do we not become monsters ourselves?”

“Want some blood?” my son recently asked me, and held the battery terminals of a defunct smoke detector against my arm in a mock transfusion. When the operation was complete, he said proudly, “Now you don’t have to eat.” He thinks I am a vampire. And
I am, in ways. I am here giving blood as an antidote to my own vampirism. I am also giving to repay the loan
I was given by some other anonymous donor. I try to imagine that donor now as I look at the people in the chairs across from me—a muscular man studying flash cards and a middle-aged woman reading a novel and a man in a business suit looking at his phone. They are the same people I might see waiting for the train, but here they are bathed in an aura of altruism.

The reasons people give blood cannot be explained by personal gain, that much we know. This does not mean that nobody has anything to gain by giving blood. In quite a few countries, including the United States, it is common practice to offer “incentives” for blood donation. In 2008, the Red Cross ran a blood drive themed “Give a Little, Buy a Lot,” in which donors had a chance to win a gift card worth one thousand dollars. “Give a Little, Buy a Lot” would also seem to be the theme of contemporary American life, and the spirit of our high holidays. But there is some research by economists suggesting that incentives can actually discourage blood donation. Offering incentives for giving, one study concluded, can insult people who want to give just for the sake of giving.

When the needles are inserted into the people across from me, I notice each of their faces twist, for just an instant, into a grimace. I dread giving blood, and because I have been sitting here imagining these others as more willing to give than I am, it is surprising to see this look flash across their faces. As the nurse pushes the needle into my arm, I feel my face make the same expression. I, too, dislike it. I recall the character in Dracula who, after experiencing something like sexual ecstasy while giving blood to the woman he loves, notes in his diary that “the draining away of one’s blood, no matter how willingly it be given, is a terrible feeling.”

A nurse has reclined the chair of the muscular man across from me because he is feeling faint. With my donation complete and feeling a bit faint myself, I sit at the table piled with cookies and close my eyes for a moment. Two young men, barely old enough to meet the requirement that one must be eighteen to give blood, sit down next to me and one asks the other why he is giving. “They keep calling me,” the other replies. “They say I have some special kind of blood that everybody needs.” The first man asks what type that is. “O negative.”

I open my eyes then and see that the young man who shares my blood type has dark skin. Blood types may follow patterns of ancient ancestry, but they do not obey our racial distinctions, of course. The blood type O negative is most common among the indigenous people of Central and South America and among Australian Aborigines, though it is also somewhat common in people from Western Europe and parts of Africa. We are an extended family.


“People are storing their own blood, for future use,” Susan Sontag lamented in 1989. “The model of altruistic behavior in our society, giving blood anonymously, has been compromised, since no one can be sure about anonymous blood received. Not only does AIDS have the unhappy effect of reinforcing American moralism about sex; it further strengthens the culture of self-interest, which is much of what is usually praised as ‘individualism.’ Self-interest now receives an added boost as simple medical prudence.”

Simple medical prudence has historically intersected with some ugly attitudes. During the Black Death, which killed more than half the population of Europe in the fourteenth century, rioters burned Jews alive under the auspices of public health. Hundreds of Jewish communities were destroyed in response to accounts of an imagined conspiracy against Christians. These accounts were extracted from Jews who confessed under torture to spreading the Plague by poisoning wells. Bram Stoker’s rendering of Count Dracula, with a prominent nose and piles of gold and vague origins in Eastern Europe, suggests that he is intended to be read as a Jew. To make that explicit, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula wore a Star of David.

In the opening chapters of Stoker’s Dracula, the count has recently purchased property in London. The young lawyer who travels to Transylvania to finalize the real-estate transaction finds that Dracula is interested in perfecting his English. The library of his castle is full of books on British history and geography, and Dracula is even reading British train schedules. He seems to be planning a permanent relocation. And so the novel, as it unfolds, appeals to fears of immigration as well as of contagion.

Avoidance of outsiders, of immigrants, of people missing limbs, or people with marks on their faces is an ancient tactic for disease prevention. And this has fed, no doubt, the long-standing belief that disease is a product of those we define as others. Syphilis, Sontag writes, “was the ‘French Pox’ to the English, morbus Germanicus to the Parisians, the Naples sickness to the Florentines, the Chinese disease to the Japanese.” This conflation of otherness with disease is, some would suggest, written into our brains. Evolutionary psychologists describe a “behavioral immune system” that causes us to be highly sensitive to physical differences or unusual behavior in other people.

Our behavioral immune system can easily be triggered by people who pose us no risk. We may practice disease aversion around people with physical differences like obesity or disability, or we may practice it around groups with distinct cultural practices, like immigrants or gay men. As the American Medical Association recently observed, the ban on gay men giving blood, which was instituted in 1983, seems to have outlasted its medical prudence and is now merely discriminatory. Our tendency toward prejudice can increase whenever we feel particularly vulnerable or threatened by disease. One study has suggested, for instance, that pregnant women become more xenophobic in the early stages of pregnancy. The more vulnerable we feel, sadly, the more small-minded we become.

In the fall of 2009, at the height of the H1N1 flu pandemic, a group of researchers began testing their hypothesis that people who feel protected from disease might also be protected from feeling prejudice. The study looked at two groups of people, one vaccinated against the flu and the other not vaccinated. After both groups were asked to read an article exaggerating the threat posed by the flu, the vaccinated people expressed less prejudice against immigrants than the unvaccinated people.

The researchers went on to study how manipulating a vaccinated person’s understanding of vaccination might affect that person’s tendency toward prejudice. They found that framing vaccination in terms of contamination, as in “the seasonal flu vaccine involves injecting people with the seasonal flu virus,” can increase prejudice in people who are concerned about disease, while framing it in terms of protection, as in “the seasonal flu vaccine protects people from the seasonal flu virus,” does not. Both statements are true, incidentally, but they trigger different attitudes. After conducting one more study involving hand washing, the researchers reported a consistent pattern in their findings across all three studies: “Treatments for physical diseases, such as the flu, can also be used to treat social maladies, such as prejudice.”

I have doubts that we can vaccinate away our prejudices, or wash our hands of them. There will always be diseases against which we cannot protect ourselves, and those diseases will always tempt us to project our fears onto other people. But I still believe there are reasons to vaccinate that transcend medicine.

In metaphysical terms, vaccination is an antidote to our own vampirism. It allows us to extend some of the power and privilege of our good health to others. We may still be vampires—feeding off the very people we fear, leaching the resources of the poor, hoarding our riches in our castles—but vaccination offers us some protection from ourselves.

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