Deborah Thompson on Gerald Callahan’s “Chimera”

Deborah Thompson is an AssociateDeborah Thompson Professor of English at Colorado State University, where she helped to develop the new master’s degree in Creative Nonfiction. She has published creative essays in venues such as The Missouri Review, Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, Passages North, and Briar Cliff.  Her piece “Mishti Kukur,” which appeared in The Iowa Review, was awarded a Pushcart prize.  Debby is currently working on a memoir and a novel.

Gerry Callahan’s essay “Chimera,” from his book Faith, Madness, and Spontaneous Human Combustion: What Immunology Can Teach Us About Self-Perception, begins with this sentence: “Last Thursday, one of those gray fall days when the starlings gather up and string between the elms around here, my first wife, my children’s mother—dead ten years—walked into a pastry shop where I was buttering a croissant.” Right away, this mini-scene provokes questions: How can a dead person still be alive? How can the return of the dead be such an ordinary, everyday event that her husband continues to butter his croissant? How can we make sense of these seeming impossibilities?

I encourage my creative nonfiction students to think of essays as attempts to ask and answer questions. Often these questions are never stated outright. Sometimes they aren’t—and maybe can’t be—answered. Occasionally the work of the essay is merely to find and articulate the question. Early on in the semester, I like to have my students state some of the questions they’re actively working on as they go about their daily lives. They ask things like: Where does identity come from, and can we change it? How much are we determined by the past and by our predecessors? How responsible are we for each other? What happens after we die? Is the soul separable from the body? How can we accept the fact of death?

Then we discuss how essays ask these big questions through the minutiae of daily life, and how these abstract questions get layered into essays that may seem to be—or may also be—about something else. This layering of questions and topics is a difficult one for students to recognize. That’s one of the reasons I find “Chimera” such a rewarding essay to teach.

Appropriate to its title, “Chimera” does many things at once: it’s a great example of science writing, explaining in very accessible ways to non-scientists how the immune system works, and how it “remembers” the outside world that enters into it, particularly the bits and pieces of loved ones we exchange microbiota with. Through strategic, concrete metaphors, such as his grandmother’s mason jars representing lymphatic collections of antibodies, Callahan keeps difficult concepts grounded. But the essay doesn’t simply use concrete metaphors to explain the immune system; it also uses the immune system as a metaphor. A chimera is a mythical animal made up of the parts of several different genera or species, and the essay itself is a bit of a chimera, both science writing and personal essay. The science body is headed by a personal essay about the nature of memory and mourning, about how our lost loved ones can feel so absolutely real. The discussion of immunology provokes an expansion of our understanding of how deeply embodied memory is, and how interconnected we are, both literally and physically.

It’s at this point in our discussion that students begin to appreciate why the essay is called “chimera.” Because our immune systems may carry bits of genetic material from those around us, we, like our essays, are all, ultimately, chimeras. How does a dead person live on? Immunological memory is only one of the answers—the literal one—layered into “Chimera.”

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