Category Archives: Angel and the Assassin

Big Women, Little Women, Small Oscars

The Oscars are this Sunday, and as war movies and films about repressed male feelings take center stage, I’ve been thinking about why Greta Gerwig’s Little Women had me wiping away tears during the last 30 minutes of the film – something that also happened to me while watching another Gerwig film, Lady Bird.

Gerwig is a stealth story teller. She appears, for the first half of her films, to be weaving together a tapestry: scenes of girls-becoming-women; girls lit-up by a longing to be known and seen for their own way of interpreting all that is unsaid in a scripted world, and searching to find a way to make their singular voice be heard. These tableaus unfold against a larger backdrop of sacrifices both gladly and unhappily made, in order to serve and preserve the human interconnections that sustain us, and make us who we are as we find our place in the world.

And then, two-thirds of the way in, you realize Gerwig has quietly rowed you into currents of loss and gain and joy and rage which – if you are female, and if you are anything like me (and you might not be anything like me)  – you have learned to suppress. You are stitched into Gerwig’s tapestry like Gulliver strapped into the shoals of the seashore, you can’t escape, you didn’t see it coming, and you just want to sit with these waves of old repressed female feelings washing over you for a good long time.

I’m no Louisa May Alcott and I’m no Greta Gerwig. I’m a science journalist; I tell scientific detective stories, interweaving emerging research with lived human experience. Still, my life as a writer began in many ways, with Little Women. I grew up in a family formed by historically “big” men: the Jackson in my name harkens back to Thomas J. (hence my grade-school playground nickname, “Stonewall”), and “Davey,” for whom Jackson Hole is named. Despite that legacy, my father, a newspaper editor, sailor, and quiet human rights activist, gave me Little Women and One Thousand and One Nights. Two female narrators, Jo March and Scheherazade. In his way, like Gerwig, my dad was also a covert actor.

That same year, circa 1970, I begged my dad for a tape recorder like the one he kept beside him on the front seat of our wood-paneled station wagon. I’d tuck that tape recorder under my arm and hold out the mic, asking people questions. “That pesky girl,” one male family friend said; even my own mom was horrified: “Put that away Donna! No one wants to hear what you have to say!” – she was no doubt projecting onto me her own fears (we parents do that kind of thing).

Three years later, my father died one summer day, following surgery. A few miserable years went by. I turned 17. As I thought about college, my mom begged me not to become a writer. “You’ll have frizzy hair, you’ll be a fat poet, you’ll never marry!” “I’m not getting married until I’m 40!” I yelled back at her.

In flocked my benefactors: my aunt, who once told me, “You aren’t the problem, Donna, what’s happening around you is the problem.” A teacher gave me a key to the teacher’s library. Another took me on a college tour to show me what might be possible. In college, a women’s studies teacher urged me to apply to a journalism program.

Over the next decade a lot happened. I wrote my first book. I got married. My son was born and a few weeks into being parents we discovered he had a life-threatening condition. He had surgery, and for weeks I lived in a room reserved for parents of critically ill babies on the pediatric wing at Johns Hopkins. After we brought him home, I spent a year in my bathrobe, nursing him, urging him, that beautiful boy, to health. (And so I wept (spoiler alert!) while Jo nursed Beth at the seaside.)

A few years and books later, I was the one who fell ill, with a neurological autoimmune disease which left me paralyzed. I recovered and relapsed. (My mom developed a theory around that time, that writing was killing me.) I didn’t think I’d write again. But I did; at first, I used a thick occupational therapy pen to set down words. I wrote my fourth book and fifth.

Now, as I’m half-way through a string of promotion for my sixth book, I’m thinking a lot about my voice, against the backdrop of the faces we as women can and cannot reveal to the world, if we want to be taken seriously. And more and more I find myself longing for the two selves to merge: the self I bring onto stage, or into a bookstore, and my unspoken female self who has lived the losses and joys of a Jo March while writing between the crises of living.

Over the course of three decades, I’ve been told many different things about how we should and shouldn’t tell stories. The biggest arrow strike has been that I myself have been a patient, which, for many decades, has been more or less disqualifying if one wanted to be taken seriously as a science journalist. The “right voice” has meant male voice; a voice which does not tell stories of patients and if it does, does not do so with compassion. Compassion is, well, too feminine and vulnerable a thing, and might skew one’s reporting. Still, there was always one exception to that – you could reflect on patients’ experiences if you were a man with an MD or PhD behind your name. And you could judge it. To wit: a well-known man in my field recently said he wouldn’t read my book because he wrote – in an email I wasn’t supposed to see – though the topic was worthy he found it “unlikely” that I’d ever been paralyzed twice (a fact I mentioned briefly in the book’s prologue). Perhaps, he suggested – despite knowing I see one of the world’s top neurologists – it had been a kind of emotional hysteria?

I did it differently. I knew there was a game I wasn’t physically well enough to play. I was too immersed in the life of the caregiver and patient. So, I did it a female-centric way, a patient-way, writing from hospital beds and waiting rooms, and at the kitchen table while overseeing homework, Halloween costumes, skinned knees, and broken hearts.

For a very long time, this put me in what I came to think of as the pink collar ghetto – the female patient writer we fear may be malingering on the page, or at very least skewed by her experiences and unable to be dispassionate about the subjects whose lives she’s reporting.

Right before one of my book tour talks, I called my 87-year-old mom, who I hadn’t talked to in a little while. I had a strange urge to hear her voice. “Hey mom, I’m about to give a talk at Harvard,” I said, flashing back to that moment when I was 18 and broke the news that I had secretly applied to a few colleges she didn’t know I’d applied to, and she’d been so angry she drove me to college, put my suitcase on the sidewalk, and drove away. (So now you know why I wept during Lady Bird, too.)

My mom was quiet on the phone and then said, “I remember reading your paper on Willa Cather’s My Antonia, when you were in high school. I would read something you wrote and it would send tingles down my spine. You had a way of putting words together and I thought to myself: Who is this child?” She paused. “I’m so proud of you.” It took me a moment before I could speak. It was the first compliment my mom had ever given me about my writing. My voice.

Book tour number six has been clarifying for me, my comfort level with walking that line between the presented self, versus the scripted self, even while knowing all the ways in which I might be sidelined (too female, a patient, not a scientist, non-affiliated, and now maybe not young enough (no ingenue here)).

We’re seeing women break past old fears of how they may be seen in medicine, science, sports, and journalism, moving beyond doing things in the man-made manner which we’ve inherited by those who’ve dominated our fields. And a lot of women are finding, in their own Jo March endings, that once you push back against the narrow confines of those barriers, that maybe there is a way to do things a little differently. Who says the old way is best just because that’s the way it’s always been done? You begin to create a new playing field, and the fear of “what you might think of me” is finally gone.

Male-directed films may get all the awards this Sunday at the Oscars, but when I look around, it’s women, like Greta Gerwig, who are rewriting the script for all of us, and speaking truth to the complexity of the feminine experience. There may be no award big enough for that.

 Thank you, Greta, for seeing us.

Donna Jackson Nakazawa is a science journalist and the author of six books, including her newest, “The Angel and the Assassin: The Tiny Brain Cell That Changed the Course of Medicine.” Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook

January 25, 2020

Dear Readers, Friends, All, 

I’m thrilled to announce that THE ANGEL AND THE ASSASSIN: The Tiny Brain Cell that Changed the Course of Medicine in now on bookshelves and available everywhere!

When I first told you, my readers, that I was setting out to tell the story of these tiny brain cells, microglia (remember that name!) that connect our physical and mental health, and why these cells wield so much power over how we feel right here, right now — changing everything we thought we knew about depression, anxiety, chronic pain, mood disorders, and cognitive health, I was moved by your response. Thousands of you shared your lifelong struggles with depression, anxiety, cognitive issues, chronic inflammation, and autoimmune conditions, as well as those of your kids, spouses, siblings, parents, and friends. You shared the disappointment, fatigue, and grief you’ve so often felt at not having found lasting answers to help yourself or the ones you love, to help achieve the well-being you long for.

To all of you who wrote to me and shared your stories, to all of you who’ve reached out to encourage me, or to tell me how much you were looking forward to reading this book (did I mention it is out NOW?), a heartfelt thank-you. You can’t imagine how helpful it has been while reporting and writing this book to hear your excitement, and to know exactly WHO I was writing this book for: YOU.

This book offers more hope and promise for human healing than any other science I’ve ever reported on. I hope you’ll pick up a copy, give it a read, and let me know what you think!

But for now, check out some of newest press about the book, and news from my book tour, coming soon to the Harvard Science Center, Belmont Books in Boston, and Word Bookstores in Brooklyn!

Here’s my article for WIRED

… and here’s my OpEd in The Boston Globe

… and my OpEd in STAT

From book tour …

Thanks to The Ivy Book Shop in Baltimore for hosting the launch of THE ANGEL AND THE ASSASSIN on January 21st! What better place could there have been to start this journey than in my own back yard? Thanks to all who came, including Sheilah Kast, for the great questions!

Next stop: The Harvard
Science Center on January 30th!

For a complete list of appearances, click here. Hope to see you soon, on the road!

The Angel and The Assassin: Book Launch and Tour Info

Dear all,

The Angel and the Assassin: The Tiny Brain Cell that Changed the Course of Medicine will be out in just 6 days!

If you haven’t yet, I hope you’ll consider pre-ordering from your local bookstore or seller of your choice!

You can also check out this review in Kirkus, or read the prologue here!

And, I have a piece about the book coming out in Wired magazine on January 21, as well as OpEds in The Boston Globe and STAT, so keep your eyes peeled!

I’m heading out on tour starting on the 21st, and would love to see your lovely faces! All the details are on my website, but here’s a quick look at where I’ll be over the next month. Let me know if you’re coming on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram! Invite your friends! Come and ask me questions! 


JANUARY 21 – BALTIMORE
The Ivy Bookstore – 7:00 pm
In conversation with Sheilah Kast, host of On the Record, WYPR, Baltimore’s NPR News Station, with book signing and wine tasting to follow, courtesy of Peter Wood of The French Paradox (Voted Best Wine Store in Baltimore)!

JANUARY 30 – CAMBRIDGE, MA
Harvard Science Center – 6:00 pm
Harvard Division of Science, Harvard Cabot Science Library Series, Harvard Bookstore
In conversation with
Carey Goldberg, host of CommonHealth, WBUR, Boston’s NPR Station, and the brilliant Beth Stevens Ph.D., MacArthur Fellow and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator 

FEBRUARY 5 – BELMONT, MA
Belmont Books – 7:00 pm
In conversation with the amazing Bina Venkataraman, editorial page editor, The Boston Globe, and author of the amazing book The Optimist’s Telescope

FEBRUARY 10 – BROOKLYN, NY
Word Books – 7:00 pm
A Sob Sisters event organized by the sensational trio of New York Times bestselling writers, Susannah Cahalan, Ada Calhoun, Karen Abbott
In conversation with Kate Winkler Dawson, author of the wonderful book, American Sherlock
Sign up here

FEBRUARY 12 – ANNAPOLIS, MD
Eastport Library – 6:30 pm
Community Foundation of Anne Arundel County and Old Fox Books
In conversation with the brilliant
Christina Bethell, Ph.D., professor of public health at Bloomberg School of Health at Johns Hopkins

FEBURARY 15 – HARRISBURG, PA
Midtown Scholar – 5:00 pm
In conversation with Brett Sholtis, reporter for Transforming Health, WITF, Harrisburg’s NPR News Station


Those are the dates! I so hope to see you there!

Thank you all for your help and support- please feel free to post and share this widely!

– Donna

The Angel and the Assassin: The Tiny Brain Cell that Changed the Course of Medicine

Available January 21st, 2020!

Hi all!

My new book, THE ANGEL AND THE ASSASSIN: THE TINY BRAIN CELL THAT CHANGED THE COURSE OF MEDICINE will be out in just 2 months, on January 21st, 2020! After two years of reporting, researching, writing, factchecking, I can’t wait to share it with you!

If you haven’t heard me yammering about it on social media (Instagram and Twitter and Facebook, please follow me?) here’s some of the news that I’ve been sharing!

I’m grateful for early praise pouring in from leading authors, scientists, physicians, and experts in their fields, people I think of, really, as Heroes of Humanity!

Susannah CahalanNew York Times bestselling author of Brain on Fire calls The Angel and the Assassin “A fascinating deep dive into the unsung heroes (and villains) inside our skulls….Donna Jackson Nakazawa has a journalist’s eye for story, a scholar’s understanding of the research, and patient’s appreciation for high the stakes truly are.”

Dan Siegel, MD, Psychiatrist and Clinical Professor, UCLA School of Medicine, and author of Mindsight says, “An inspiring account…will provide a game-changing view of health for generations of researchers, clinicians and citizens for years to come. Bravo!”

Shannon Brownlee, Senior Vice President of the Lown Institute, author of Overtreated writes, “Few non-fiction writers can tell the tale of scientific inquiry so vividly the reader can feel the excitement of discovery with every word. Donna Jackson Nakazawa is one of those writers, and this book tells the tale of one of the most intriguing and groundbreaking discoveries in all of medicine.”

Thomas Insel, MD, Former Director, National Institute of Mental Health 2002 – 2015, writes that The Angel and the Assassin is “A deft, scientific story about the ‘Cinderella’ cell of the brain, microglia . . . Jackson Nakazawa explains the possible translation of the science into solutions for brain disorders, health and disease.”

Christina Bethell, PhD, Professor of Child Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health says,  “A captivating, page-turning story of the scientific discoveries that overturn centuries of medical domga. The Angel and the Assassin offers extraordinary promise and heralds new hope … paradigm shifting reading for us all.”

Mark Hyman, MD, Director, The Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, New York Times bestselling author of Food, says, “[This] is the rarest of books, a combination of page-turning discovery and remarkably readable scientific journalism. A book to both savor and share.” 

Susannah Tye, PhD, Director, Translational Neuroscience Laboratory, Mayo Clinic calls The Angel and the Assassin “An impressive, inspiring, timely call to arms.”

Terry Wahls, MD, author The Wahls Protocol, says, “The Angel and the Assassin is riveting, engaging. Nakazawa’s work is visionary.” 

Peggy OrensteinNew York Times bestselling author of Girls & Sex, writes, “The Angel and the Assassin is one of those astonishing medical yarns that you almost can’t believe: how the power of this tiny cell was so long overlooked, how integral it has become to our understanding of neuroscience and immunology, the way it has transformed the most basic ideas of who we are as humans. It is especially essential reading for women, who face depression, Alzheimer’s and autoimmune disorders at higher rates than men.”

Andrew Weil, MDNew York Times bestselling author of Healthy Aging says, “Donna Jackson Nakazawa puts forth a revolutionary new way of thinking about the brain’s immune system and its interactions with [the] rest of the body….Much of the information here was new to me, and has made me more optimistic about the future of medicine.”

If you ARE maybe thinking of buying a copy of THE ANGEL AND THE ASSASSIN one day, would you consider pre-ordering? One of the most helpful things you can do to support an author’s work is to preorder the book from your independent, community bookseller. Here’s why! (Get ready for an INSIDE PEEK at publishing!) When you preorder from your local bookstore, the bookstore owner takes note: OH! HEY! PEOPLE ARE INTERESTED IN THIS BOOK! That makes them more likely to order copies, stock the book, place it in the bookstore window, write about it in their newsletter, and suggest it to other readers! (Oh, and to invite said author to do a book signing near you :). ALL THIS LEADS TO ANOTHER UNBELIEVABLY HELPFUL THING!! INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES report pre-sales and sales to The New York Times Bestseller list (and other lists!). Lists RELY on small, privately owned bookshops sales reports for rankings! HOW CAN YOU DO THIS? IT TAKES ONE MINUTE AND FOUR CLICKS. This link takes you to the page for THE ANGEL AND THE ASSASSIN where you’ll find options for pre-ordering. Click on INDIEBOUND. Type in your zipcode (on the right where it says “Buy at a local store.”) ORDER! (Maybe that is only three clicks? Even better.) If you want to buy on Amazon or Barnes & Noble that’s okay too! You’ll see those options at the same link. BOTTOM LINE: PRE-ordering an upcoming book from your LOCAL FRIENDLY BOOKSELLER IS THE ULTIMATE GIFT YOU CAN GIVE AN AUTHOR IF YOU VALUE READING THEIR BOOKS.

As we get closer to pub date I’ll be sharing my speaking schedule, where I’ll be signing books, and other big news! Stay tuned and THANK YOU for all of your help and support! I’m lucky to have the best readers on the planet! (Oh, and please share this widely!)

Donna