Author Q&A with Randi Hunter Epstein
Journalist, scholar, and Book Culture neighbor Randi Hunter Epstein answered some of our questions about Aroused, her fascinating book on the history of hormones.
If you want to pick up a copy of her book, or any of the others mentions (except for Cannibals, Cows & The CJD Catastrophe, which has gone out of print!), check out the list below.
1) How did you come to write Aroused?
I was tinkering with hormone history in my first book, Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Sperm Bank to the Garden of Eden, particularly the hormones of pregnancy. That gave me a clue that there were more stories to dig into. What drove me to this topic was that in the past 100 years, there’s been huge advances but also outrageous claims. I wanted to travel back to the earliest days and uncover the seeds to this relatively new field. And as I went from the 1900s into the 21st century, I wanted to tease the truth from sensationalism. I hope readers come away not only with a lot of good stories but a more nuanced understanding of what our hormones do.
2) Where there any books that were particularly helpful when you started this project?
The Most Secret Quintessence of Life: Sex, Glands and Hormones, 1850 -1950 is an academic work by Chandak Sengoopta,a historian at University College London provided a detailed overview. I also relied on Michael Bliss’s Harvey Cushing: A Life in Surgery, for my chapter on Cushing and the pituitary. I picked up loads of old books, such as Gertrude Atherton’s bestselling novel Black Oxen of 1923, which pokes fun of the hormone crazes in the 1920s. My office is overflowing with endocrinology textbooks and also other histories of hormones, such as Jennifer Cooke’s Cannibals, Cows & The CJD Catastrophe.
3) In the course of your research for the book, was there anything you found fascinating, but body of work around it was too nascent to include in the book?
I think we all want to know precisely what these hormones do to our brain. What is going on with all of these estrogen receptors and progesterone receptors and testosterone receptors that are in our brains—not just ovaries and testes. They probably shape the way we think but the research is really in its infancy and we’re seeing it’s not just about hormone levels but the individual sensitivities.
4) Is there anything you've read recently that you recommend, or something you look forward to reading?
This summer, over the July 4th weekend, I read David Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom so I was reading Douglas’s famous July 4th speech on July 4th. I also read Sigrid Nunez, The Friend, which I could not put down. Started it in the morning and didn’t move until the very last page, minus food and bathroom breaks. I’m a huge Kate Atkinson fan so looking forward to reading her latest Big Sky.
5) What’s next? Any upcoming book projects in the works that you can tell us about?
I’m in the very early stages of research on two book projects—one is non-fiction and medical, inspired by my hormone research. And the other is a middle-school book I’m toying with, also inspired by my research. It’s early days so I’m just having fun reaching out to scientists and delving into primary material as I figure out a narrative thread.
Randi Hunter Epstein, M.D., M.P.H., the author of Aroused and Get Me Out, is an adjunct professor at Columbia University, a lecturer at Yale University, and writer in residence at Yale Medical School. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times and the Psychology Today blog, among others. She lives in New York.
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