'The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery'

Meanwhile, the branches that had escaped the mutation hurried to put distance between themselves and their sick cousins. Disease was a matter of particularly intense shame in the Veneto, and in the malarial swamp that was the region in this period, families necessarily judged men and women for their fitness. Did the young woman have wide hips helpful in giving birth? Did the young man appear too sickly to bring in the harvest? Did tuberculosis run in his family? There was so much worry about being branded as diseased that the sick would start on the road out of town and then circle back around so their neighbors didn't see them visiting the town doctor.

The high death rate in the Venetian countryside began to subside at the beginning of the twentieth century, thanks to land reclamation projects and emigration (four million Venetians left for the Americas). But as things got better around them, the plight of Vincenzo's descendants grew starker. Their neighbors, aware that many members of the family had died strange deaths before reaching sixty, began to think twice about marrying into the family. Some of Vincenzo's progeny died bachelors or spinsters in the Veneto; others left for America, Switzerland, France -- places where they would not be known and could start again. Those who stayed put on a brave face and never spoke about the family problem to outsiders. Even among themselves, they referred to the disease obliquely. It was a disease of exhaustion or stress, brought on by sorrow or loss. It was never characterized as something over which they had no control, something that lay dormant in their bodies waiting to strike them down and then their descendants. They were alone now in their misery, sufferers of a unique disease -- or so they believed.

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