Human Subject: An Investigational Memoir

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Two Reviews of Human Subject

(1) GUTSY GUINEA PIG TURNS TABLES ON SUPERCILIOUS SCIENTISTS

by Sam Curtis
“Great writers arrive among us like new diseases—threatening, powerful, impatient for patients to pick up their virus, irresistible.”—Raine, Craig, “Just an ordinary trilingual boy,” The Independent on Sunday, Nov. 18, 1990, p. 31.

Doctors rely on published research results to tell them which treatments work and which ones should be avoided. The researchers themselves rely on volunteers like Janice H. Keller, whose adventures as a human guinea pig are detailed in Human Subject: An Investigational Memoir. Written for the reader with little or no medical or regulatory knowledge, the book provides an entertaining look at the everyday life of a human research subject.

With refreshing honesty and a sardonic wit, Keller conveys a fascinating view of the current research landscape. In addition to biomedical studies, she investigates psychology experiments, market research, and usability testing. She also gives helpful background information on research topics, and she gleefully relates the details of her absurd interactions with government and university bureaucracies.

Keller’s dispassionate descriptions are a welcome change from the extreme partiality that often characterizes nonfiction narratives. At the same time, she doesn’t hesitate to highlight minority views on controversial matters. Whatever the topic, she brings to it a winning combination of amusement, curiosity, and insight.

If you’ve ever played any role in what Keller calls “the research-industrial complex,” this book is a must-read. But even if you’ve never heard terms like “generalizable knowledge” or “private health information,” you’ll find much of interest in this timely, engaging memoir.

Sam Curtis is a retired restaurant reviewer and perennial people pleaser.


(2) LOW-TALENT LOSER TURNS OUT TEDIOUS MEDICAL MEMOIR

by Jan Emerson
“Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”—O’Connnor, Flannery, Mystery and Manners, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969; p. 84.

It’s unclear where the author of Human Subject: An Investigational Memoir got the bizarre notion that she could write. I doubt that it was in a university, as her writing shows no evidence of knowledge beyond her own sphere of self-obsession and hypochondria.

Keller purports to mix factual information about human-subjects research with her own personal experiences, but the facts she presents are sketchy and poorly substantiated, and the details of her life are excruciatingly dull. She thinks we care, for example, that when she calls people on the phone, “I feel as if I’m barging uninvited into the person’s office, home, or car . . .” Even when attempting to be objective and scholarly, she can’t keep her unpleasant personality in check. Like a pesky, indefatigable insect, Keller’s whiny voice can be heard throughout this torturous tome.

The most annoying aspect of Keller’s writing is the way that she attempts to infuse every page with humor (a close runner-up is the abundance of alliteration). In the all-too-frequent passages where she tries to be funny, the writing becomes not just boring, but downright painful. One might feel sorry for the author, were it nor for her arrogance in expecting that anyone would have an interest in reading this sort of drivel.

It’s a shame that when someone finally writes a comprehensive book about human-subjects research, it turns out to be nothing more than a frivolous exercise in self-indulgence. The only silver lining to this dreary display of narcissistic nattering is the fact that, if we reviewers do our job, very few people will experience the seriously adverse event of reading Human Subject. Despite a lack of appropriate stifling during her formative years, Keller’s book will never be a best-seller.

Jan Emerson is a retired typographer whose incisive reviews have yet to prevent a best-seller.


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