I’m excited to see how people react to the new Ken Burns documentary on Jackie Robinson–not only because I think it’s great work but also because I’m always curious to see how people respond when their myths are challenged.
I took a lot of heat when I said Al Capone probably had nothing to do with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. I also got a lot of angry emails and letters when I said Pee Wee Reese did not put his arm around Jackie Robinson’s shoulder to quiet a hostile crowd in 1947 on the team’s first trip to Cincinnati.
Though the incident has been recounted in books, movies, and even in a statue, there was no coverage of it in 1947. In fact, newspapers at the time said Robinson was greeted warmly by fans in Cincinnati. Pee Wee and Jackie said they thought something similar happened in 1948 or 1949, perhaps in Boston. But there’s very little reason to believe it happened in 1947, when it would have mattered most.
Why do we get so attached to these myths? In this case, it’s because they make us feel good. They make us feel like black and white people wanted to get along, that even a white man from Kentucky recognized the wisdom of integration. But think about the flip side. What do these myths say about Jackie? That he couldn’t do it alone? Why do we need to concoct stories that undermine the pain he endured? In making ourselves feel a little less guilty, we diminish what Robinson accomplished, which was to march alone, one black man, unwanted, in a league of 399 white men, one man determined to prove that he and others could succeed if only given a fair chance.
Sorry, but Pee Wee Reese had nothing to do with that.
Every good book needs its own theme song. Now, thanks to the songwriting talents of Steve Brooks and the voice of Jessica Shepherd, I’m proud to present the following anthem: My Pill
This is it, folks. Launch day for “The Birth of the Pill” is here.
Maybe you’re excited.
I hope they’ll inspire you to want to read more. If so, please buy the book, read it, and tell me what you think.
Should a man write a book about women’s liberation? Does it matter that I’ve written books about baseball and gangsters prior to telling the story of the invention of the birth-control pill?
I suspect I’ll be asked these questions often in the months ahead. I’m fine with that.
I think men should be encouraged to write about issues that affect women, just as women should encouraged to write about issues that affect men, and just as Red Sox rooters should be encouraged to write about the Yankees. It’s the execution that matter, not the biography of the author. It helps if the writer is passionate about his subject, too, but beyond that I don’t think there should be too many prerequisites.
With that in mind, take a look at the review below from Donna Seaman at Booklist. It’s a wonderful review. I couldn’t be more pleased with it. And the sentence that pleases me most is this one:
Eig’s previous books are about baseball and gangsters, and he brings his keen understanding of competition and outlawry, his affinity for rebels, and vigorous and vivid writing style to this dramatic tale of strong personalities, radical convictions, and world-altering scientific and social breakthroughs.
Here’s the full review:
Margaret Sanger, the tireless crusader for reproductive freedom when contraception was inadequate and illegal, dreamed of a safe, effective, easy-to-use, and affordable pill to prevent unplanned pregnancies and the resulting hardships and suffering. The scientists she approached were scornful until 1950, when she met George Pincus, a renegade scientist with “the IQ of an Einstein and the nerves of a card shark.” After getting tossed out of Harvard as too controversial, Pincus set up an independent research lab, where he took on Sanger’s project, which consumed a decade of hurried innovation and rogue strategies. Eig’s previous books are about baseball and gangsters, and he brings his keen understanding of competition and outlawry, his affinity for rebels, and vigorous and vivid writing style to this dramatic tale of strong personalities, radical convictions, and world-altering scientific and social breakthroughs. As he tracks maverick Pincus’ audacious course of action, including his dubious field trials in Puerto Rico, Eig recounts the history of contraception and the tragedies caused by its unavailability, and illuminates the crucial roles played in the development of the pill by the wealthy activist, Katherine Dexter McCormick, and the compassionate Catholic physician, John Rock. So great was the need, more than a million women were taking the pill two years after its 1960 FDA approval. An engrossing and paramount chronicle.
My book tour for The Birth of the Pill is starting to shape up nicely. Here’s what I’ve got so far. Hope to see you on the road!
Oct. 15: CHICAGO, 7 p.m., The Book Cellar (talk/signing)
Oct. 21: BOSTON, time TBA, Countway Medical Library, Harvard University (talk/signing)
Oct. 22: NEW YORK, time TBD, New America Foundation (talk/signing)
Oct. 23: BALTIMORE, 4 p.m., Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health (talk/panel discussion/signing)
Oct. 28: CHICAGO, 7 p.m., Highland Park Library (talk/signing)
Nov. 5: ATLANTA, noon, Marcus JCC of Atlanta (talk/signing)
Nov. 11: LOUISVILLE, time TBA, Louisville Free Public Library (talk/signing)
Nov. 13: SAN DIEGO, 4 p.m., Lawrence Family JCC (talk/signing)
Nov. 18: MIAMI, time TBA, Miami Book Fair International (talk/signing)
Publisher’s Weekly gave a starred review to The Birth of the Pill.
Hooray for that!
Here’s what the magazine had to say:
Former Wall Street Journal reporter Eig (Luckiest Man) blends the story of the “only product in American history so powerful that it needed no name” with the lives of the four-larger-than-life characters who dreamed, funded, researched, and tested it. Eig recapitulates much of what’s known about the discovery of oral contraceptives and adds a wealth of unfamiliar material. He frames his story around the brilliant Gregory Pincus, who was let go by Harvard after his controversial work on in-vitro fertilization; charismatic Catholic fertility doctor John Rock, who developed a treatment that blocked ovulation and, with Pincus, began human testing (including on non-consenting asylum patients); and the two fearless women who paid for and supported their work, rebellious women’s rights crusader and Planned Parenthood pioneer Margaret Sanger and her intellectual heiress, Katharine Dexter McCormick. The twists and turns of producing a birth control pill in the mid-20th century mirrored astonishing changes in the cultural landscapes: Eig notes how, in July 1959, the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and G.D. Searle’s request for FDA approval of Enovid presaged a “tidal wave that would sweep away the nation’s culture of restraint.” Eig’s fascinating narrative of medical innovation paired so perfectly with social revolution befits a remarkable chapter of human history. (Oct.)—Publishers Weekly
Someone asked me the other day if I planned it this way? Did I time the release of my book on the invention of the birth-control pill to coincide with the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, with the closing of clinics in Texas, and with the announcement by the pope that he would reconsider some of the Catholic Church’s positions on family planning?
The answer is yes, of course I planned it. I knew there would be controversy at the time of my book’s release just as surely as the author of a solar system book knows there will be sunrises to coincide with his publication. (“The Birth of the Pill” will be available Oct. 13, but you can pre-order now here or at your local store.)
It’s sad, I suppose. Sad that we’re still debating whether a woman has a right to control her own body. Sad that a corporation’s right to religious freedom supersedes a woman’s health needs. Sad that five Supreme Court judges let politics get in the way of common sense.
But that’s where we are today. Margaret Sanger thought the pill would lead to true equality for women. It hasn’t happened yet. Until it does, it’s a safe bet that birth control will remain controversial and books such as mine will remain all too timely.
I wrote this piece for the Ms. magazine blog. Here’s the beginning. To read the whole thing, click here.
Two decisions in the past two weeks by the Supreme Court offer sharp reminders that while Americans and even American businesses have long embraced birth control, the law has not.
Two weeks ago, the nation’s highest court struck down restrictions that had created protest-free buffer zones near abortion clinics. Soon after, the court ruled that government can not require “closely held” business to provide employees with birth control.
When Sanger, the crusading feminist, and Pincus, a biologist, got together in the early 1950s to begin development of the world’s first oral contraceptive, knowledge of the government’s opposition guided their every step. They viewed themselves as populist rebels, armed with the strong belief that Americans were ready for change even the law wasn’t. To bring about that change, they knew they would first have to outsmart the establishment, appeal to the general public and . . .
Read the rest of the piece here.
Neil Steinberg of The Chicago Sun-Times was reading an advance copy of The Birth of the Pill when the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision hit.
“It’s like reading Upton Sinclair’s stomach-turning meatpacking novel ‘The Jungle’ if the government were in the process of lowering food inspection standards,” he wrote. “It’s like reading ‘The Shining’ at the Stanley Hotel.”
I didn’t set out to write a scary book, but maybe that’s how it turned out. You can read his view here:
I think a lot about reviews when I’m writing. I try to anticipate what the critics might say. I try to find the flaws in my logic, the holes in my thinking, and, of course, I work hard to get rid of the bad patches of writing before anyone else sees them and has a chance to comment on them.
I don’t always succeed.
So it’s a huge relief when a good review comes in, and it’s especially nice when my book’s first review is a positive one.
I know they won’t all be kind. I’m prepared to take my lumps. But I’m proud of The Birth of the Pill. I think it’s powerful story and I’ve worked hard to tell it well. That’s all I can do, really. Now, it’s out of my hands.
Here’s what Kirkus had to say:
Former Wall Street Journal reporter Eig (Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster, 2010, etc.) recounts the origin story of the oral contraceptive—“the pill”—as a scientific answer to a cultural conundrum: how to have sex without pregnancy.
Margaret Sanger (1879-1996), a wily, independent feminist and sex educator who kept her own apartment after marrying oil tycoon James Noah Slee in 1922, was a lifelong advocate for giving women the ability to enjoy sex without the worry of pregnancy. Eig opens in 1950 with Sanger, “an old woman who loved sex,” looking to science for a contraceptive that women could control (unlike the condom) and that was extremely effective (unlike the diaphragm). She sought out Gregory Pincus (1903-1967), a former Harvard University biologist denied tenure and pilloried in the press as a “Victor Frankenstein” for his efforts to mate rabbits in a petri dish, experiments that were the forerunners to in vitro fertilization. With starter funding from Sanger, Pincus developed a hormone treatment for rabbits and rats that prevented ovulation, and Sanger enlisted philanthropist and suffragist Katharine McCormick (1875-1967) to fund Pincus’ development of a similar hormone treatment to do the same for women. Gynecologist John Rock (1890-1984), the fourth “crusader,” teamed with Pincus on his research; by the mid-1950s, they developed a working trial of what is now universally known as “the pill.” Throughout the book, Eig displays a readable, contemporary style as he chronicles a similar clash of scientific and social progress as Thomas Maier’s Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Master and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love (2009).
A well-paced, page-turning popular history featuring a lively, character-driven blend of scientific discovery and gender politics.