With staggering courage, she comes to terms with the loss of her mother aged only 49, while embarking on a quest to learn as much as she can about genetics. Knowing that the flaw in her own genetic make-up will probably kill her, Gessen’s journey into the subject, brilliantly structured in sections of Past, Present and Future, generates great pathos.
She meets and records the testimonies and opinions of scientists, psychologists and economists, covering a vast range of aspects of the subject. Gessen takes us from eugenics – where the Nazi programme of racial hygiene is challengingly put into context alongside American president Calvin Coolidge’s bill earlier that century restricting immigrant inflow based on eugenics – to gene variations between races, euthanasia, Russia’s rejection of eugenics and the Jewish religion’s position on genetics. She takes in too the trend in psychoanalysis where addiction and other compulsive behaviours are talked about in relation to inherited genes.
In the light of the knowledge about her genetic flaws, Gessen has surgery, removing her breasts only after having weaned her daughter, a decision that is informed and logical. The broader implications, if that sort of knowledge is used in a selection of suitable criteria for enabling the birth of a healthy child or disabling the birth of an unhealthy one, is more chilling.
Blood Matters: A Journey Along the Genetic Frontier by Masha Gessen (Granta Books) £8.99