Interview of Varda Burstyn
Interviewed for the UCLA Center for the Study of Women’s Chemical Entanglements: Oral Histories of Environmental Illness series. Novelist and former health communications officer in the provincial Ontario health ministry. Policy writer with strong publication record.
- Chemical Entanglements: Oral Histories of Environmental Illness
- Social MovementsEnvironmental Illness
- Biographical Note:
- Interviewed for the UCLA Center for the Study of Women’s Chemical Entanglements: Oral Histories of Environmental Illness series. Novelist and former health communications officer in the provincial Ontario health ministry. Policy writer with strong publication record.
- Burstyn, Varda
- Persons Present:
- Burstyn and Lee
- Place Conducted:
- This interview was conducted by telephone.
- Supporting Documents:
- Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research.
- Interviewer Background and Preparation:
- This interview was conducted by Rachel Lee, Director of the Center for the Study of Women (April 2015-June 2020) and Professor of English, Gender Studies, and the Institute of Society & Genetics
- Processing of Interview:
- The interviewer prepared for the interview by reading Brian Joseph, “Is ‘Fragrance’ Making Us Sick?” Mother Jones, February 1, 2016 and Rachael Wakefield-Rann, “Chemical Showers: How Daily Routines Structure Our Exposures to Toxicants,” Engagement, November 21, 2017, the interview The transcript is a copyedited transcription of the recording. It was first auto-transcribed by the speech transcription software Otter.ai, then reviewed by staff and students on the project in three phases of review, using a list of proper names and specialized terminology supplied by the PI. The interviewee reviewed the transcript and made extensive edits and clarifications. In the transcript, text in brackets—excepting those referring to cross-talk or laughter—are clarifications of meaning provided by or reviewed by interviewee unless otherwise indicated.
- 5 hrs
- Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
- Series Statement:
- Chemical Entanglements: Oral Histories of Environmental Illness is a collection of interviews with over seventy individuals living in the U.S. and Canada whose family history, occupation, art practice, or activism have brought them into direct contact with illness experience and disability related to chronic, low-dose exposure to toxicant chemicals. The procurement of this collection (from March 2019 through September 2020) was sponsored by the UCLA Center for the Study of Women under the directorship of Rachel C. Lee, with interviews conducted by six undergraduates, five graduate students, two career staff, and two faculty members at CSW.
Brief personal and familial background—moving from Israel, Toronto, Chicago—pesticide exposures while growing up on agricultural settlements in Israel—seven year period living in Toronto, first big exposure to mold in the house, mother’s sickness and death—more detail on her mother’s treatment and experience with Israeli, Canadian and U.S. doctors—mother’s treatment and experience in San Francisco—cost of treatment, family members who dismissed her mother’s illness—the role of other family members & in-laws or lack thereof in caring for her mother—the gendered-ness of the mother’s illness and her (Burstyn’s) caregiving experience—educational and activist resume—becoming ill as a young adult in Chicago, Dalkon Shield, mercury in dental work—experience working in the Ministry of Health in Ontario—feminist debates regarding pornography; radio, scholarly and popular writing about how men are damaged by social construction of masculinity—working in radio documentary—how difficult it was to focus on any personal writing while working in the Ministry of Health—doing health policy outside of the Minister’s office—writing and organizing around new reproductive and genetic technologies—major crash into severe MCS, getting Lyme disease—writing the novel, Water, Inc.
Experience working in the health ministry—playing a catalyst role in political decisions to fund an environmental health clinic in Toronto—spreading awareness about the health effects of chemicals—enacted health reforms being undone by subsequent conservative governments—the underfunding and government sabotaging of the environmental health clinic at Women’s College Hospital—her MCS health crash in the 2000s —getting intravenous chelation for mercury toxicity—MCS-safe housing, testing and treatment in Dallas—how to socially organize MCS treatment in a public health system and make it much less expensive: the proposed model in Ontario—growth of new medical tests for MCS and other new diseases reflects increasing prevalence of these— enormous challenges in fighting Big Chemical, insurance and medical corporations and government—concrete examples of different situations—the commercial and medical interests that framed MCS as psychosomatic—how gender and sex bias undermined the credibility of MCS— how strongly people resist giving up fragranced products—longer history of people associating odor with poverty, different standards of self-presentation—how race/religion has impacted her experience—writing novels, politics and MCS—how genetics affect how people process toxic chemicals differently—genetic panels and drug metabolism —how toxic chemicals impact brain, affect and mood in MCS; how psychosocial factors after onset of MCS lead to depression and anxiety—MCS and chemicals in the future, how COVID-19 may hold back needed change