The Nurses, Alexandra Robbins

In today’s review of The Nurses, by Alexander Robbins (author of Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities), we shall play a game of, Why Didn’t Someone Stop This White Lady?

The Nurses has a similar structure to Pledged, in which chapters following four individual nurses through their work days alternate with chapters that offer contextual information based in research and interviews. For instance, one chapter may address a specific nurse’s concern that her coworker is stealing narcotics from patients, and the next will discuss narcotics addictions in the nursing profession.

The Nurses

I love reading about jobs that are not my job, and I found Pledged horrifying and interesting when I read it a few years back, so believe me when I say that I was primed to enjoy The Nurses. It is just that all the racism made it difficult.

Let’s compare and contrast two (of the very few) racial interactions in this book, so you can be horrified along with me. That’ll be fun, right? This one’s between Juliette, a white lady here serving as the charge nurse for her unit, and her Dominican tech, Lucy.

Lucy ignored her, as if she didn’t understand; she seemed to have selective comprehension of the English language. She did this frequently to Juliette, even though techs were supposed to follow charge nurses’ instructions.

Juliette exploded, upset about Lucy’s treatment of the patient. “Oh, will someone just say it to her in a language she understands?” She regretted the words as she said them. . .

For the rest of the day, Lucy ignored Juliette even more blatantly than usual. “Where’d the patient go?” Juliette asked. “What room is that patient in?” Lucy wouldn’t look at her. If Lucy had a question, she asked another nurse, even though Juliette was charge.

The next day, when Juliette goes to tell her superior what happened, and her superior mentions that Lucy was upset by it, Juliette says “Oh, give me a break. Lucy was insubordinate before this escalated.”

Juliette bought an apology card and a box of chocolates from the gift shop. When she tried to apologize, Lucy refused to accept them.

“I don’t need a card,” Lucy said.

“I’m trying to say I’m sorry,” Juliette said, genuinely trying to make amends.

“What you did was wrong.”

“Yes, it was. I’m trying to apologize,” Juliette repeated, still conciliatory.

Lucy stood up and walked away. Juliette left the card and the chocolates on her computer.

Let’s sum up this interaction so far, shall we? A white charge nurse made a xenophobic remark to a Latina coworker under her direct supervision. She did not apologize the day of the incident, nor did she emphasize to Lucy or the staff that the remark was made in a moment of stressy anger and was not representative of her real opinion. When speaking about it to her supervisor, she downplayed her own behavior while tattling on Lucy for misbehaving. The author’s framing of the incident and its follow-up is heavily sympathetic to Juliette.

BUT WAIT. A few weeks later, Juliette’s at a continuing ed workshop and brings up this incident and its aftermath. “Lucy hasn’t spoken to me since,” she said.

“What Lucy was doing, before the incident and after you apologized, is a form of bullying that is common in nursing today,” the facilitator said. “Ignoring is a form of bullying because you’re blocking that person out. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like somebody. That’s fine. You don’t have to. But you need to be cordial to and communicate with that person at work.”

Juliette felt helpless, but Priscilla[, her supervisor,] wouldn’t do anything about it. Priscilla was too afraid of confrontation to act like a manager and diffuse the situation. In Priscilla’s realm, bullies and slackers went unpunished, and staffers who did go beyond the call of duty weren’t recognized. Priscilla didn’t reprimand Juliette; in fact, she told Juliette she had been right about the patient and encouraged Juliette to be charge nurse more often.

Really. Because to me it seems like in Priscilla’s realm, open racism in a white superior not only goes unpunished, but garners an offer of career advancement. How did the editors at Workman let this get by them? That Robbins uses this story as a jumping-off point to talk about nurse-on-nurse bullying (casting Juliette as the victim) would be stunning if it weren’t so exhaustingly predictable.

And now for a counterpart to that story. If you’re interested. It’s about another nurse, Lara. Here’s some context about the racial makeup of Lara’s job at her hospital, and the position she occupies there.

Despite racial tensions, Lara, one of the few white nurses at the hospital, hadn’t landed in anyone’s crosshairs. Evidently someone had noticed that Lara seemed to get along with everyone, because in November, the ER director selected her as one of fifteen people to join a new hospital-wide committee.

Really. REALLY with this. The only possible explanation for the presence on a hospital-wide committee of one of the only white nurses at this institution is that she was just so exceptionally agreeable? Fucking really?

And then, a sample of some racial tensions:

Nurses knew when they were in Makayla’s assigned zone because they were knocked sideways by the overpowering smell of bleach. Apparently, someone had complained, because Makayla told the four other nurses, “And one of our latte nurses felt the need to write me up that I had wiped down the area to make sure it was clean.” The other nurses clucked sympathetically.

For the moment, Lara didn’t say anything because she was outnumbered. There were only three white nurses left in the ER. When the black nurses left, Lara called Makayla back. “Makayla, I have to talk to you,” Lara said, speaking slowly to think through how to avoid putting Makayla on the defensive. “I respect you as a nurse and I know that you work hard. But I have to tell you, your comment about latte coworkers is racist. It wasn’t cool and I was sitting right here. I’m surprised to hear a comment like that coming from you.”

Makayla balked. “Oh no no, oh my gosh, no. I call people my mocha sisters and my latte sisters, but it has nothing to do with color!”

Nevertheless, for the next month, Makayla went out of her way to be nice to Lara. Normally, she was the type of nurse who shopped online while other nurses ran around taking care of patients. Now she leaped up to help Lara, greeting her enthusiastically. Lara wasn’t going to waste energy resenting Makayla, so she let the incident slide.

Please note that again a woman of color is cast as lazy and unresponsive in her work, as compared to the conscientious white woman from whose point of view the story is being told. Where Juliette’s remark and its impact on the work environment, and on Lucy, were repeatedly downplayed, this second passage specifically identifies Makayla’s remark as “racist” and emphasizes Lara’s discomfort at being a racial minority among her coworkers.

I know what you’re thinking. “But Jenny, doesn’t the book elsewhere address the racial demographics of nursing and what it’s like to be a nurse of color in a heavily white-dominated field? That would help to alleviate my feeling that this author is letting racial bias color her depiction of these two incidents.” You will be shocked to hear that, no, it never does that, not even a little bit. Robbins mentions the social segregation between white and black nurses in this inner city hospital only in terms of its impact on the (white) point-of-view characters (Molly, Lara); we never hear from a single POC nurse about what it’s like to work at this hospital or how race and racism plays into the work life of a non-white nurse.

Oh, and can I interest you in a soupçon1 of rape denialism? (Skip down if that sort of thing upsets you.)

Then the [drunk teenage] girl changed her story. “Dad, I think when I was passed out, someone raped me,” the girl sniffled. . . . Everyone in the room except her parents knew the girl was lying.

Teen patients commonly said anything they could think of to avoid dealing with their parents’ reactions. Molly had treated dozens of teenage girls who made up the same story, and not one of them had been sexually assaulted. . . . Most patients didn’t realize that if police officers seriously considered somebody to be a sexual assault victim, they brought the patient to a hospital with a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) on staff, which [Molly’s hospital] did not have at present. . . . Therefore, ER nurses knew that if EMS or the police brought a patient through triage, they did not believe the individual had been sexually assaulted.

When the father went into the hallway to call the police himself, Molly turned to the girl. “If you really were raped, we will do everything we can to help you,” she said. “If it’s not true, we have a big problem. Someone will get arrested, go to jail, and possibly serve time just so you can get out of trouble for drinking. Now tell me, what’s worse: being grounded for something you did or someone going to jail for something he didn’t do?”

The girl retracts her story, and Robbins goes on to tell a hilarious story about a teenager who gets herself out of trouble by having a pretend religious awakening. Again, I cannot imagine how anyone who read this passage — particularly any women! — okayed it to go forward. It reads like something out of an exposé about the many ways our police, medical, and legal systems fail rape victims.

If I sound pissed off in this review, it’s because I’m so disappointed. At some point, a lady grows tired of discovering that books she intended to enjoy insist upon reproducing the same tired old rhetorical strategies to prop up the kyriarchy that she has seen a kajillion times before. A lady in those circumstances may be forgiven for shriek-reading passages of her book to her podcast partner whom she fortuitously happens to be visiting,2 then having a glass of wine and writing a furious post about it.

  1. if by “soupçon” you mean “great big old bucket”
  2. I MISS YOU WHISKEY JENNY
  • Lisa

    I have thoughts about this book, but as soon as I saw that you had been to New York I wondered, did she get to see Hamilton? And now all I can think of is Hamilton, and how incredibly much I envy you for getting to see Hamilton, and how much I want to hear about your seeing Hamilton.

    • I SAW IT oh Lisa it was so, so, so, so good. Listening to the cast recording now is an even more emotional experience, because I have this memory-video-o’feelings playing in my head. I wished I could freeze time in the middle so I could just be experiencing Hamilton forever. Leslie Odom Jr for emperor of everything!

  • sakana

    Well this is horrifying. I’m glad you’re pointing out these deeply problematic sections and assumptions, and also disappointed that (based on a look at Goodreads), no one else is doing so. Urgh. Also: HAMILTON YES. Everyone is wonderful, but I get more obsessed with Chris Jackson’s performance the more I damn thing about it.

    • YES. I did some googling when I got to these parts, because I thought surely someone must have pointed them out before I did. But, yeah. No. Doesn’t seem like it.

      OH GOD can I tell you, I never didn’t like Jackson’s performance, but seeing it live was a whole other level. When he did “One Last Time,” his voice was just — damn. It was so amazing. Miranda tweeted this at him the next morning: https://twitter.com/Lin_Manuel/status/707556991649112064

      • sakana

        OMG I CANNOT EVEN IMAGINE. Beyond Peak Jackson? Be still my heart. (Even though I teach US history, I’m not particularly what I’d call patriotic. Watching that performance, though? Every damn time George Washington did something, my soul was chanting ‘U-S-A!’ Magical and profoundly disorienting.)

  • Ana @ things mean a lot

    I have no words :S

  • Wow, wow, what Ana said!

  • MumsyNK

    You know, even apart from the racism, l can’t get over the sheer bad management of that first story. What the hell? They have a charge nurse making racist remarks, and a nurse under her who behavior is far from professional, and the best anyone’s got is an accusation that the boss is being bullied by the subordinate? And nobody’s brain has exploded yet? Mine is close to disintegration.

  • http://giphy.com/gifs/screamqueens-wtf-scream-queens-what-fresh-hell-is-this-3oEduOm3Etbj2XRDTa

    Bonus, this gif doubles as the reaction shots for several of the stories above.

    Real talk, I work with nurses/nurse educators every day and this is a rough portrayal to stomach. So yeah, HARD PASS on that one, Robbins.

  • So disappointing and yet, maybe because I am old and jaded, it really does not surprise me. It isn’t just the racism. There are all sorts of negative things going on with the passages you quote. No wonder we need more nurses; it is surprising anyone would want to stay in a field which is so poorly managed.

    • Yeah, and the book touches on how hard it is to keep people in the field. There’s all this hoop-la about there being a nursing shortage, but very few hospitals are willing to invest in making livable working conditions for their staff. (Says Robbins. Though I have ceased to trust her now. :p)

  • All I can say is thank you for going through this torturous experience so that I don’t have to. Having really enjoyed Pledged myself, I probably would have read this, had you not spared me the horror. This is terrible and sad but I do appreciate that I don’t have to read it myself.

    • You are welcome! Any time I can save anyone from reading a dumb racist book that is what I want to do!

  • Oh noooo, I also enjoyed Pledged and love books that focus on one job, too, so this is a big bummer. It would be one thing if the book was highlighting racism in the profession, but it seems to be encouraging it or brushing it aside :/

    • Very very much so. It was crazy to me that she had a chapter about what it’s like to be a male nurse, and NOTHING about what it’s like to be a POC nurse.

  • Christy

    Well I feel kind of dumb now. I read the book last year and somehow didn’t pick up on any of this, but thanks for observing the racism and pointing it out.

    • Aw, you’re not dumb! Reading this did seriously make me wonder what I’d missed when I read Pledged before, though. Like if she’s this blind to the implications of what she’s saying now, can it possibly have been different in Pledged?

      • Christy

        Looking at other reviews, I’m not the only one who missed it though it seems really stark now. I did find a Goodreads reviewer who also called BS on the rape denial accusation part. 2 star review by Menolly. A few other reviews call out the author in general terms for uncritically taking the side of the nurses whose stories we are following – another reviewer notes that all the nurse who are followed are white.

  • Kailana

    Wow, how did this book get published…

    • I mean, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in here, so I see why they’d have wanted to publish it but — yeah. I don’t know how some of these anecdotes got past editing.

  • Alley

    uuuuuuggggghhhhhhhhhhh to this. Which is too bad cos this sounds like such a good idea. You know, minus the racism. Or like addressing the racism. AND THEN WTF with the rape denial? Which again, maybe if there was something addressing “Hey, look out fucked up this is” in those context chapters.

    (You’re going to write a Hamilton post soon too, RIGHT???)

    • I feel like I don’t have anything good to say about it! It was AMAZING to see it, but like — everyone already knows it’s amazing. And I don’t know what else I can say besides incoherent squees.

  • Jeanne

    We want to hear more about what it was like to see Hamilton!!!

    • JEANNE IT WAS SO GREAT. The only part that was understudied was Hercules Mulligan, which meant I got to see all the people doing all the songs, and they were amazing and I cried. Chris Jackson was particularly great. Except, no, everyone was particularly great. What an awesome show.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    Wow, that is all so very bad in so many ways. And then imagine being that teenage girl or any patient staying at the hospital. Gah! So very bad in so many ways

    • Right?? All I could think is that there is a REASON they put protocols in place for people who report rape, and that reason is that people who aren’t trained to deal with it are very very BAD at dealing with it. Like this nurse. Ugh.

  • It would annoy me so much to read a book like this! I’m conflicted between wanting to read this book so I can rant a bit and not reading it because obviously there are serious issues here. I think I will lean in the direction of not reading it. I remember reading something disagreeable about this author’s previous book as well but I can’t remember what it is and I don’t see it on my TBR either.

  • IndieSister

    EW.

  • Wow. The framing of all of those stories is incredibly offensive. I can’t believe this got by the editors either. It’s too bad, because I’m also someone who enjoys learning about other professions. I think I’ll be passing on this one though!

  • Okay – that was so wrong – on so many levels! I would be as annoyed. But I wonder why or how this was overlooked by the editors.

  • Ugh!
    But Hamilton, yay, so exciting! I’m seeing it but not ’til late August – so much anticipation!

  • IfyoucanreadthisBina

    Gah! Thank you Jenny for reading and reading this book so I don’t have to! 🙂 And no thank you racist author and editors, I won’t excuse your role in oppression. Kinda glad I read more poc and especially woc nonfiction these days.

  • Man, this is a bummer. I was excited about this book because I love books about jobs I don’t have. But you followed four nurses and not one of them was a woman of color? That’s not cool.