Return to Transcripts main page


Compelling Stories of Authors Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Jennifer Egan. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired June 22, 2018 - 14:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Tonight, two women at the top of their game. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the American pediatrician who blew the lid

off the Flint, Michigan poisoned water crisis joins me with her new book and its devastating account.

And Jennifer Egan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, whose latest work "Manhattan Beach" shines a light on the thousands of women who manned the

naval shipyards in New York during World War II.

Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.

Now, tonight's first story is about what happens when you try to run government like a business. That, of course, was the promise that helped

drive billionaire mogul Donald Trump to the White House and it helped propel Rick Snyder into the governor's mansion in Michigan.

Snyder is a tech CEO who ran as "one tough nerd." In Michigan, Snyder moved quickly to slash costs and balance budget and, in the process, he set the

stage for one of America's greatest environmental disasters, exposing 100,000 people to lead poisoning in the majority black city of Flint,


Hardest hit were the children. Many who now live with the irreversible effects of contaminated tap water as the government nickel and dimed.

My guest, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, is the famous Flint pediatrician turned detective cum whistleblower who exposed the truth of this crisis and she

has just written a book about it. It's called "What the Eyes Don't See: A Story of Resistance and Hope in an American City" and I asked her what made

her step up and take on the system.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha, welcome to the program.

DR. MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: It's great to be here.

AMANPOUR: So, this has been a story that has roiled your state, but also America for a long time. And you are right there on the frontline. Just

describe for me the tipping point. What was your aha moment, as Oprah might say, about this discovery you made?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Yes, the aha moment was hearing the possibility that there was lead in the water and that happened at my home over a glass of wine

with a girlfriend, who happened to be a water expert.

And she's like, hey, Mona, I think there's probably lead in Flint's water and that was kind of my point of no return where I knew that I had to find

out if that lead in the water was getting into the bodies of our children.

AMANPOUR: And what made her think that? And what made you as a doctor suspect anything was wrong?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Right. so, my friend, Elin, is a drinking water expert, formerly with the EPA. She had seen a leaked metal from a former colleague

of hers at the EPA, who was raising the alarm of a possibility of lead in the water.

And then, as a pediatrician, when any pediatrician or anybody with any public health background hears the word lead, it's a call to action. We

know the dangers of lead. It is a potent irreversible neurotoxin with no safe level and our children in Flint and many communities already are

burdened with high levels of lead exposure.

AMANPOUR: And, of course, when you told people and you told the authorities, they believed you 100 percent and they immediately said we're

going to do something about it, right?

HANNA-ATTISHA: I wish that was how the story was written and that's what I expected. But, no, when we shared the science that our children had

increased lead levels because of this water sewage, that science was attacked, that science was denied, my credibility and the credibility of

the research was questioned.

AMANPOUR: So, I want to read a pretty brutal paragraph from your book. "This is the story of the most important and emblematic environmental and

public health disaster of this young sentry. More bluntly, it is the story of a government poisoning its own citizens and then lying about it. It is

a story about what happens when the very people responsible for keeping us safe care more about money and power than they care about us or our


I mean, that is really brutal. Just remind us of what the response was when you alerted the authorities.

HANNA-ATTISHA: There was a denial of that. There was a dismissal. And it was no surprise because everybody who was raising the alarm bells in the

Flint story, the moms, the activists, the pastors, the journalists, the water experts were also being dismissed and denied partly because Flint had

lost democracy.

[14:05:08] Flint was under state-appointed emergency management where the rule of law was austerity and this was all done to save dollars.

AMANPOUR: And just to be very clear, Flint did have a good, clean water supply. How did that change?

HANNA-ATTISHA: So, Flint, Michigan is in the middle of the Great Lakes. We are surrounded by the largest source of fresh water in the entire world.

And for half a century, we had been getting water from the Great Lakes, but that was deemed too expensive in our near-bankruptcy state.

So, the state decided to save money by drawing water from our local Flint river, but that Flint river water was not being treated properly with

corrosion control, to prevent the lead that is in our plumbing and all of our plumbing really in the nation from coming out of our plumbing and into

our drinking water.

AMANPOUR: And just to be really clear, they were trying to save $10 million. Now, I know $10 million is a lot of money, but is it really in

the cost-benefit analysis of providing healthy basic - I mean, water. You can't live without water.

HANNA-ATTISHA: You can't live without water. It is a basic human right. You cannot put a dollar, a price tag on our children's health and really

their entire future when it comes to lead exposure. So, this was done as a cost cutting move.

And the greatest irony is that the treatment chemical, if they would have added it, only would have cost $80 to $100 a day to properly treat this


AMANPOUR: And people did know because even General Motors itself, I think they installed coolers, right? I mean, they did not drink from that water

from that river and others in authority knew that it was not clean.

HANNA-ATTISHA: So, General Motors was born in Flint and they still have plants in Flint. And a full year prior to my research coming out, General

Motors knew that this water was corroding their engine parts. So, it was actually corroding the parts in their manufacturing plant and they got a

bypass to go back to Great Lakes water.

AMANPOUR: I mean, that's really a staggering, staggering statement, that it was corroding their engine parts. God knows what it did to children's


So, what caused the governor and the state, the city, to reverse course?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Ultimately, our science spoke truth to power and they looked back and conceited. And noted that even in their own data, yes,

children had increased lead levels.

And from that moment on, we have been moving forward to hope and to recovery. So, this book and this story has terrible lessons and those need

to be shared.

But, more importantly, the story is meant to make everybody outrage, but meant to inspire folks to speak up in their communities, especially on

behalf of children just as we are doing.

AMANPOUR: I just want to play for you that part of his press conference that the governor apologized. This was in 2016 after all these results had

been made public by your investigation. Let's just listen to this.


RICK SNYDER, GOVERNOR OF MICHIGAN: I want to come here today to apologize, to say I'm sorry and I will fix this. Today is an opportunity for us to

focus in on and understanding that we need to work together.


AMANPOUR: So, that's a fulsome apology. Did the situation really get fixed? I mean, you say it's getting better, but is it fixed?

HANNA-ATTISHA: The children are no longer being exposed to lead in the water acutely, but the consequences of lead exposure is something that we

have to address for years, if not decades.

And that's exactly what we are doing. We are wrapping our children with evidence-based, science-based interventions to promote their development.

We're doing things in Flint that aren't being done anywhere else, from child care expansion to home visiting programs to nutrition support, to

healthcare services, things that all kids need, but especially things that our Flint kids need, so that we do not see the consequences of this


AMANPOUR: I'm fascinated you over and again talk about - we're doing things based on evidence, fact-based, et cetera, as if there was some

question about evidence and facts.

Do you feel that you are operating in a zone where they're not respected?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Well, I think as a nation - and we are currently in a state of science denial. We are denying the science of climate change and

vaccines and the very public health regulations that protect our air and our water. This is the state of our nation.

And Flint is a very much a story where science was denied. Where science ultimately spoke truth to power and where we are leaning on the incredible

science of child development and brain development and resilience to make sure that our kids turn out OK.

AMANPOUR: Is there any other parts of the United States that you're worried about that could be facing the same kind of problem right now, as

we speak?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Yes, there's lead in all of our plumbing. We were stubbornly slow as a nation to restrict the use of lead in our plumbing.

We also have a lot of legacy lead in our soil and in our paint. Children all over our nation continue to be exposed to something that's entirely


But more than that, the story of Flint is about really the deeper crises in our nation from lack of democracy, environmental injustice, the disrespect

for science and our disregard really for our basic obligation to care and provide for each other, especially our children.

AMANPOUR: You are a pediatrician. You've turned into a detective to investigate this terrible public health issue. I wonder, what you make -

and you consider it a public health issue of what's happening on the border to the children who have been separated from their parents and who we do

not know how those who've been already separated are ever going to find their parents.

You are also an immigrant. I mean, you come from an immigrant family yourself, from Iraq.

HANNA-ATTISHA: Yes, I came to this country when I was 4 and we were fleeing oppression and tyranny and dictatorship. And we were welcomed with

open arms by Lady Liberty to this country. And I look at those kids at the border and I wonder what this country is missing out on.

AMANPOUR: And doctor, I have been absolutely staggered and really wounded as a mother by pictures of, I'm sure, well meaning border personnel, people

who are there, but who have been told they cannot hold the kids, they cannot hug the kids, they cannot touch them without wearing rubber gloves,

those are the pictures that we see.

What does that do to a child and to a child's development?

HANNA-ATTISHA: Yes, this is government-sanctioned child abuse. This stuns children's development. It will increase the likelihood of mental health

issues, added stress, chronic diseases. This has life-long scars for a child and their entire growth trajectory.

AMANPOUR: What do you think should happen? I mean, what is the answer to this?

HANNA-ATTISHA: It needs to end. I hope the executive order last night will put an end to it.

The kids to be reunified with their families as soon as possible. These kids need professional mental health services because they have gone

through trauma and they need the resources to recover from that. And it will take a long time to recover.

AMANPOUR: And I wonder, just as an immigrant family, as an Iraqi who fled the horrors of Saddam Hussein, whether you have any faith left in your

country now, America, for its politicians to come up with a solution that is there.

There have been plenty of rational solutions to the immigration crisis, but politics seems to stand in the way.

HANNA-ATTISHA: Yes. So, I am an eternal optimist. And I see the best and good in all people and I hope we can come up with a solution. I hope that

we can learn from our history and learn from the origins of this country as a country that open their arms to immigrants, that welcome them. That is

how we started.

We need to reflect on that and we need to dig deep down into our humanity. Is this how we want to be as a society? Is this how we want to care for


If you take a step back, you look at what we're doing on children, it's like a war on children from Flint to the shootings in our schools to the

border. There are so many things that are happening in our nation that are telling us that our priorities do not value our children. And we need to

reflect on that.

And I am hopeful that the power that people have especially at the ballot box can change those policies.

AMANPOUR: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, thank you so much for joining us.

HANNA-ATTISHA: Thank you so much for having me.

AMANPOUR: So, if Dr. Mona is a physician, writer, well, my next guest is a journalist, novelist. Jennifer Egan is considered top of the new wave of

American authors. She won a Pulitzer for her book, "Visit From the Goon Squad" and accolades for her hard-hitting journalism on subjects like child

mental illness and recently opioid addiction among young American mothers.

Her new novel, "Manhattan Beach" looks at life for women workers in New York in the 1940s during a time when the war and Great Depression had

radically changed the fabric of society and the face of America's workforce.

She joined me to talk about all of this from New York. Jennifer Egan, welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: So, we're talking to you in light of your latest novel, "Manhattan Beach", having been selected for the New York Citywide Book

Club. So, why did you decide to do this particular story, not just about the place, but about a woman's place in that wartime story, in that all-

male bastion of the naval yards.

[14:15:00] EGAN: Well, I think I started with just being interested in New York during World War II and hoping to have a sort of noir take on that.

And then, when I started looking at images of the city during the war, what really struck me was that the water was included in every picture. It was

as if the center of the city actually lay at it edges.

So, in a way, my research just naturally gravitated toward the Port of New York and its role during the war. And in a way, I followed the water into

all the different worlds of the novel. Organized crime, the Brooklyn Navy Yard which was a shipbuilding facility, deep-sea diving which was a feature

of ship repair and merchant sailing.

And it somehow became really natural, especially when looking at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, to revisit that story that I think we all know in a

way, which is that women were given remarkable opportunities in industry during the war, which they had never had before.

And almost 5,000 of them worked at the Navy Yard. So, it just felt natural to try to imagine that story from the inside.

AMANPOUR: It took you a long time. I was surprised to hear that it took you about 15 years of research to completion, right? I mean, it was ages.

Why did it take so long? Or is that just the way it goes?

EGAN: Well, but from 2005 and 2010, while working on other books, I was doing research for this book that involved, to a large degree, interviewing

people in their 80s.

So, that was not - those were not interviews I wanted to hold off on for five or ten years for obvious reasons. I mean, this is a period that is

really fast disappearing from living memory. So, it's sort of an amazing moment actually.

Between 2005 and 2010, I was interviewing especially women in their 80s who had worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and also longtime New Yorkers with

great memories and merchant sailors. So, I just felt like I had to do it then and there was no way to weight.

And then, when I started writing the book in 2012, I also had to continue researching, of course, because then I really knew the story, but those

first five years were about seizing the moment, really the last couple of decades in which living people are going to be able to speak clearly about

this period.

AMANPOUR: So, remind us then, because it is really fundamental, the fact that women had so much opportunity through no fault of their own, so to

speak, and through no great willingness by the structure.

I mean, they had to take women. Rosie the riveter or your heroine in the Naval shipyard there. Just give us that moment of kind of glory for women

to be able to push their boundaries and show what they're made of.

EGAN: Well, yes. Absolutely. Women were essentially begged to come and do industrial work. It wasn't like they were dying to do it necessarily.

They were offered a lot of money. And many of the women I interviewed were already working class and doing other sort of typically female jobs like

working for the telephone company or that sort of thing.

They came into these jobs. They got training. They were not always welcomed warmly by the men.

A couple of women told me the men yelled, go back to the kitchen on the first day that women came to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

I don't think anyone necessarily expected them to do that great a job, but they surpassed every expectation. They were amazingly good.

And the first couple of years at Brooklyn Navy Yard, they were not allowed on ships because there was a feeling that men and women in close proximity,

in the tight quarters of a ship, who knows what might happen.

But in the end, they were needed on the ships because they were slighter and more limber and actually better able to do things like welding and

electrical work and plumbing than men were on ships.

So, for example, I interviewed a woman named Aida who was a welder and she achieved a fair amount of seniority. She really was much in demand because

she was so physically adept at functioning on a ship, but all the women were fired before the war even ended.

And Aida tried to get welding work after she was fired and she was laughed at everywhere she applied. There was a real whiplash effect.

AMANPOUR: Yes. That's really a tragic postscript. Your own heroine, the protagonist in "Manhattan Beach", she did something extraordinary by

getting permission or forcing herself into the actual diving and having to put on that huge - hugely heavy suit, which I think you tried to wear,

didn't you, during your research. It's something like 200 pounds worth of diving suit and she had some really hard times, didn't she?

EGAN: Yes. I mean, it's a stretch that a woman would've been able to be a civilian diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We don't know that it didn't

happen because the civilian diving program was not carefully documented.

But we do know that no women dove in the Navy until the 70s and in the Army until the 80s. But I was very eager to get my young woman into the water

in a diving suit and I did wear the Mark V as that heavy gear is known.

[14:20:07] It's no longer used, but it was current from the beginning of the 20th century into the 60s.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you a little bit about yourself. You said you don't necessarily write about yourself. And you do - you're very well known for

your journalism. How much of your own experience - because you've been open about drug use as a teenager. How much of that informed or spurred

you to write about the current opioid crisis through the eyes of women and children?

EGAN: Not much. I mean, honestly - I, well, growing up in San Francisco in the 70s certainly dabbled in drugs. I had no experience of opioids

ever. So, I think I came at it as one more person appalled by this epidemic and eager to try to understand it from the angle of women, which

was one that I didn't feel I had really seen covered.

I mean, you have all these women who are addicted to opioids. Young women. It's not surprising to hear that a certain number of them are going to find

themselves pregnant. And what happens?

And I worked on that for almost a year. And, interestingly, what I found is that sometimes, certainly not always, pregnancy can be a moment in which

a kind of paradigm shift happens for a person and she feels the possibility of actually remaking her life.

And, interestingly, that is what happened with most of my subjects, at least so far. They are all still in treatment and their kids are doing

really well.

So, that was a surprising discovery. I was not expecting that.

AMANPOUR: I wasn't expecting that either when I read the article. You just expect the kids to be doing badly and to have been affected and

infected by their mother's habits. It is really a redemptive story that you have written.

And I just wonder if I could probe a little bit because it is so relevant today. Your brother committed suicide and you've written the most poignant

words about him, saying "to be mentally ill is bad luck and to not be mentally ill is good luck. And in bad moments, I feel so engulfed by the

violence of his bad luck that I almost feel like I can't function."

And you added, it feels unendurable to have to witness such pain and suffering so undeserved and no real reward for his years of hard work."

Did you feel that there was a moment where the trajectory could have been different when you look back and reflect on it?

EGAN: Well, it's hard not to look back and ask that question almost obsessively and try to - I think maybe psychologically, there's a feeling

that if you can find the wrong step, the wrong move, the wrong stitch, in some way, you can bring the person back to life.

So, I try not to do that too much, in that I can't change what ended up happening. I will say he was schizophrenic, although very highly

functioning in certain ways. I think it's a better time to be mentally ill now than when he was a young person.

I think we are getting better at at least identifying some of these problems. I mean, I'm amazed how long it took me to understand what I was

looking at in him. There's such a resistance to believing that someone you've known all their life can really be heading into such a severe state

of mental illness.

So, I think maybe there was a kind of gap where if we had understood better what we were looking at, we could have jumped in faster, but the difficulty

is once someone is a legal adult they don't have to take medication if they don't want to. So, it's a very difficult problem.

I guess what I hope is that it's easier for someone like him now than it was when he was in college, which is when he really started to show mental

illness and that all of the grief and the misery over these suicides all resulting in raised awareness.

But I don't know exactly how we stop it.

AMANPOUR: I know. It's really a tragic dilemma really. And you're right, which was trying to figure out how to intervene, how to stop it in time.

As you say, hopefully, a lot of awareness is being raised right now.

And just lastly, what is like being a woman author. I mean, it sounds like a really bizarre question, but I've spoken to other female novelists who

said that the decks are pretty much stacked.

The editors are often men. The critics are often men. The whole sort of system is quite male-dominated. Did you ever feel any constraints by that

or any pushing the boundaries?

EGAN: I think the biggest obstacle I've encountered that was gender related was my own self-censorship about whether I would - I don't know if

it was be allowed to - I didn't feel empowered initially to take on big epic stories. I somehow felt like it wasn't my job, it wasn't my turn, I

was overreaching. And I think some of that was probably internalized sexism. And in a way, that's the most dangerous kind of all.

If we believe we aren't good enough, that's a very difficult obstacle to overcome.

AMANPOUR: What is next, Jennifer Egan? What are we going to be treated to next?

EGAN: Well, I have many ideas. But I think the very next book I'm hoping will be a companion to a "Visit From The Goon Squad", which never really

felt done exactly.

I mean, there were things I tried that didn't work, the PowerPoint chapter went in at the last minute, and there are peripheral characters I'm

actually interested in pursuing.

So, I'm hoping that I can use some of the same structural approaches and come up with a book that stands on its own and is different from "Goon

Squad" rather than just the kind of weaker echo.

That's actually a tall order. We'll see if I can pull that off because I don't want to just write a book that's not as good. But if it can be its

own thing, and yet use some new kind of structural approaches that I'm curious about and follow peripheral characters that I'm curious about. It

might be fun.

AMANPOUR: Tall order. And very brave. And as you say, fun. Good, good. Well, we'll look forward to that. Jennifer Egan, thank you so much for

joining us.

EGAN: What a pleasure! Thank you.

AMANPOUR: I hope you enjoyed those conversations with two powerful women making waves.

That is it for our program tonight. And remember, you can always listen to our podcast, see us online at and follow me on Facebook and


Thanks for watching. And goodbye from London.