What the Eyes Don't See

by Mona Hanna-Attisha

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What the Eyes Don't See Themes

The main themes in What the Eyes Don’t See are hope and idealism, the imprint of history, and family.

  • Hope and idealism: Identifying herself as an idealist, Dr. Hanna-Attisha emphasizes the importance of hope and belief in the possibility of a better world.
  • The imprint of history: Flint’s water crisis is shown to stem not from any single source but from a complex history of poverty, racism, and institutional policy.
  • Family: Dr. Hanna-Attisha writes of the commitment to justice that runs in her family and has influenced her own activism in Flint.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 814

Hope and Idealism

As much as this is a story about well-founded mistrust of one’s government, Dr. Hanna-Attisha repeatedly refers to the idea of hope and speaks of herself and her family members as idealists. In chapter 4, she teaches her daughters about idealists, describing an idealist as “someone who believes the world can be better than it is now.” She also fondly remembers Haji, her grandfather, who is mentioned several times in the text, as an idealist and inspiration. However, idealism cannot exist without hope; simply believing in the possibility that the world can be better is not the same as hoping for it to be better, and one must hope for a better world in order to then act upon this hope and make a better world. Hope is established as a theme early in the book, as Dr. Hanna-Attisha explains that her first name, Mona, means just that.

In many ways, it is Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s hope and idealism that act as the underlying motivation for the entire story. Certainly, this is a story about moral outrage. But this outrage is rooted in the idea that the world should be more equitable than it is now and that governments ought to care about the well-being of those that they are supposed to protect. The issue of the lead-tainted water in Flint is also only an aspect of where Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s outrage and hope are directed. While the water crisis is certainly the catalyst for the story, by the end of the narrative, the author has done everything in her power to improve the Flint community in a multitude of ways. Her example encourages her readers also to become idealists, to consider human needs, to imagine a better world, and to act to improve our own communities.

The Imprint of History

In this story, it is impossible to remove Flint’s history from its current events. It is also impossible to remove the history of governmental and industrial negligence and callousness from Flint’s water crisis, and Dr. Hanna-Attisha devotes several chapters to these ideas. While she does not seem to be saying that history is doomed to repeat itself, she does seem to imply that once a precedent has been established, it is difficult to change. History in this narrative might be likened to a rolling stone gathering speed to the point where what is currently happening is inevitable. History creates a constellation of networks and ideas that are difficult to fight against, and this leads to the present. For instance, Dr. Hanna-Attisha states in the text that no one person is responsible for the Flint water crisis. Instead, the crisis has occurred because of a history of poverty and racism in Flint, as well as policies that remove culpability from businesses, a general attitude toward whistleblowers, governmental interests, and more. History sets the stage for the present, and any one change in history might have entirely changed what occurs in the present.


Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s immediate family holds a somewhat ambivalent place in the story. While the author has a supportive husband and two daughters, they appear as something of a backdrop to the plot. On the other hand, Dr. Hanna-Attisha begins the prologue by listing most of her extended family members, and she devotes other chapters to giving lengthy descriptions and life histories of some of her other relatives. The epilogue focuses on her grandfather, Haji, and tells a fantastical story about him. If it is the case that the author’s immediate family does not receive much attention, her extended family, especially those who are distant or no...

(This entire section contains 814 words.)

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longer alive, are given more attention than readers might expect, given that the topic of the book is the Flint water crisis.

The theme of family in this book does not take the form of a trite moral about how families should be supportive of one another or that families need to stay together. Instead, the theme of family is treated much in the same way as the theme of history. Just as locations have histories that are written into them and that cannot be denied, Dr. Hanna-Attisha has a history that is written into her through her family. She often makes parallels between herself and distant relatives, and she notes when she exhibits traits that other family members have. At one point in the story, she wonders if activism is written into her DNA, and in the final chapter of the book, she notes that she sometimes jokes about being born an activist. There is, at least to a degree, a sense of fatalism around the way Dr. Hanna-Attisha sees family. While she would likely argue that no person is fated to be or act a certain way, she might suggest that some are more disposed to certain ways of being than others based on family history.


Chapter Summaries