What do we love so much about that photograph of the V-J Day kiss in Times Square? Though it’s a celebratory moment of two people, which couldn’t possibly compare to the scale of what that day meant, we slap it on our walls and silk-screen it onto T-shirts. That sailor and that woman in white feel, in essence, like two characters we get to own in our personal knowledge of what happened. It is in fact because the significance of that day is boiled down to two distinct figures that we’re able to relate to it in this way. There’s a very particular reason why we connect to such primary sources. What are all the facts in the world without a narrative to string them together? How could we begin to empathize without a story?
These questions are inextricably linked to the experience of reading Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. This book is not an exposé, technically speaking, since Iversen draws from publicly accessible trial documents in her research on the history of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons production facility just outside the Denver area (and all unthinkably corrupt management of nuclear waste therein). But her interviews with the civilians, scientists, protestors, and lawyers involved, as well as interweaving her own personal narrative of a life beside the mysterious Rocky Flats, do for Full Body Burden what we need them to do: we need this book, in essence, to be a story, not just a compilation of 50 years of governmental cover-up and appalling disregard for the public health. People were dying—brain tumors the size of softballs, sixth-grade boys with eerily frequent incidents of testicular cancers, entire generations of malformed Colorado livestock—and until readers have a sense of the timeline, of the cast of characters, and of the sheer governmental negligence involved, we cannot know this chapter in our own country’s very recent history for what it really was. Iversen fully provides, in what must have been a difficult book not only to write, but to face.
The government’s handling of the Rocky Flats plant seems, after 300-plus pages, nearly Orwellian in scale and effectiveness. From the plant’s massive Mother’s Day nuclear fire in 1969, all the way through to the current day, scientists have created one constant hum of dissent to the plant, citing countless soil samples around the Arvada community containing unprecedented levels of plutonium. It was reasonable of Iversen’s family, like all neighboring families, to assume that any true danger would be disclosed to them. They did, of course, underestimate the desire of a number of parties to keep such dangers under wraps: housing developers eager for expansion of the neighborhood, plant officials who were awarded yearly bonuses in excess of $8 million for smooth operation, and the thousands of plant workers themselves, who were indisputably making the “best money in town.” In a surprisingly non-prescriptive style, Iversen interjects her personal history with retrospective ties to the plant three miles from their home:
Every kid in the neighborhood knows about [jumping] the pipe. Standley Lake is fed on the west side by Woman Creek, the waterway that runs from Rocky Flats…a long corrugated pipe, about four feet in diameter, extends from a high bank and spouts water to a deep pool nearly thirty feet below…even if you manage to hit the deep pool and avoid breaking your neck it’s still a mighty task to battle the waist-high mud that makes clambering back to the bank like fighting quicksand.
As a heavy metal, plutonium settles in mud and sediment.
With swift paragraph breaks and asides about the nuclear waste right below their toes, Iversen turns her moments of memoir into the eerie introduction to some greater horror. It is not unreasonable to think that tumors may have been growing inside of those neighborhood kids at the very moment they reached the bank.
Not that our author would need to embellish anything from her past to make it readable. For better or for worse, the events of her life have at times been inescapably dramatic, and it is a wonder that she has taken on the double task of researching 50 detailed years of secrets as well as inviting us in to see the alcoholism, leukemia, car crashes, and freak accidents that have plagued her “tough Norwegian” family.
That, it seems, is the bond to be found between horrors. Anyone grown up near Rocky Flats has their story to tell, but Iversen strikes the note that binds it all together: the most destructive decision, always, is not to talk. Tough Norwegians don’t blab about their problems. Good families keep their members’ secrets. The government isn’t obligated to tell you what it’s up to. No one is interested in causing a stir. The Cold War called for closed mouths of a different order. When one female plant worker testifies in court against the facility’s waste management procedures, the other employees poke holes in her lead-lined gloves, exposing her arms to the radioactive material of her workplace. “That’s what you get for making waves,” her supervisor scolds.
It is plain to see—and it doesn’t take 50 slow-burning years, but rather only a couple hundred pages, to see it—that silence has lasting, unraveling consequences. Silence as a habit is as easy to return to as alcohol and as lasting as a cancer. Full Body Burden, above all else, is a case study in why we need to speak up, and the argument is a compelling one.