Full Body Burden: Memoir about family secrets, government secrets, and the risks of industrial pollution

Image: A worker at Rocky Flats handles a piece of plutonium using gloves built into a sealed box. The plutonium was bound for the innards of a nuclear bomb. National Archives via Wikipedia.

Kristen Iversen grew up in the shadow of two big secrets. The first was private. Her father was an alcoholic, and his problem grew bigger and harder to ignore or hide as Iversen got older. But the other secret didn't belong to just her and her family. Instead, it encompassed whole Colorado communities, two major corporations, and the US government.

Iversen grew up near Rocky Flats, a nuclear weapons plant near Denver. In much the same way as Iversen's family related to her father's alcoholism, Rocky Flats presented risks that nearly everyone involved preferred to ignore or cover up. In fact, years after several public exposes had made it very clear that Rocky Flats made nuclear bombs and that the corporate and government entities that ran the facility had cut corners and allowed massive amounts of plutonium to escape into the surrounding environment, people who lived in Iversen's neighborhood near the plant still refused to give up their long-held belief that it produced nothing more than Scrubbing Bubbles and dishwashing detergent.

Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats is memoir—albeit one that captures documented history as well as a family's private struggles. It's not really meant to be a book about science. But I think it's a powerful, well-written memoir that science buffs should read.

For better or for worse, the story of technology in the 20th century was the story of children growing up. At the beginning of the century, the zeitgeist of science was all about miracles. It was an age of wonders. There were never any side-effects. That changed mid-century, as we began to come to terms with the fact that our toys could be dangerous and that the people with the power to use them didn't always think (or care) about the potential harms.

As we think about and negotiate what our relationship with technology is going to be in the 21st century—and, for the record, I think that means synthesizing a mature perspective where we accept that everything has risks and worry about risk mitigation instead of the impossibility of complete risk avoidance—we are going to have to learn and learn from stories like this one.

On the one hand, that means understanding how governments, companies, and scientists have misused technology, and made unethical, dangerous decisions about it. Stories like the one Iversen tells are important, because they force us to look at how those decisions really affect people—even if you never find evidence of increased cancer rates or miscarriages or other kinds of expected physical damage, the psychological trauma has real impacts. And those impacts matter. (Think about what we know about Chernobyl, where, by some estimates, the psychological fallout has been worse and affected more people than the nuclear fallout.)

On the other hand, stories like the one Iversen tells are important because they also force us to think about our expectations and the fact that reality is sometimes a lot different. The outcomes we expect aren't necessarily the ones that happen. When Iversen is expecting to hear, any day now, that her father has drunk himself to death, someone does die. But it isn't him. Likewise, despite anecdotal evidence of rare and childhood cancers peppering this book, Iversen writes that nobody ever found a statistical increase in cancer or other health problems in the neighborhoods near Rocky Flats.

Along those same lines, when Iversen tells the story about how illegal and unethical behavior at Rocky Flats was exposed, it's not framed as a fight between "all the good people" and "the evil, faceless corporation". Instead, she captures the conflict within the community. Sometimes, even plant workers who are afraid of the risks posed by this kind of breach of public trust are more afraid of losing their jobs. Sometimes, they take criticism of what's happened at the plant as a personal attack against them. That, too, is important information to consider when we think about the future of technology and culture.

Shorter story: This is a great memoir that will get you thinking about the way society and technology interact. It's also a very fast read. I breezed through the 344 pages in a weekend—a speed that I usually associate more with my fiction-reading. Deep thoughts. Great storytelling.

Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen


  1. Somewhere in America there are people working at factories assembling guns and bombs and death machines without even the poor excuse of defending our country. These people scare me. They are more concerned about having a job than they are about aiding some tin-pot dictator in pouring liquid fire on his own countrymen. What would these people not do? A lot of them go to church, some of them even vote. How am I supposed to act when I meet them at Disneyland, or Las Vegas?

      1. Ermahgerd. I never noticed that you could link to a particular quote before. How handy.

    1. I’m guessing the bullshit can only be contained so much, before it comes out sideways.
      Remember “Bowling For Columbine”, the fact that Littleton, Colorado, is home to one of Lockheed’s main missile factories was basically swept under the rug, everyone played “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and decided to associate that tragedy with gun control (the left) or video games/Marilyn Manson (the right), or “homosexuality in America” (the batshit loonies that make things even worse).

    2. what if you make sandwiches for bomb makers ?
      or fill their tank ?
      point being, economy very complex and interwoven.
      is everyone guilty ?
      yes and

  2.  There’s a lot of community out there for people recovering from dysfunctional parents. Growing up under a dysfunctional government is a similar kind of wound, but it’s not so easy to escape that particular dynamic…

  3. I used to live in Golden and work in Boulder a couple years back, requiring a commute along the western edge of Rocky Flats. I’m still amazed when I see the development that’s creeping in from the South and East – when your deed includes a stipulation that you aren’t allowed to have a garden, do you think there might be something bad for you in the topsoil?

  4. People like to think of radiation and anything that emits it as the most terrifying, world destroying substances in existence.  While radiation is bad, non-radioactive chemicals are just as bad.  I guess we don’t worry about chemicals because they’re laying around our house and we see them all the time.  Rockwell let a way too much plutonium get into the environment and yes that’s a very bad thing.  But let’s also remember that Rockwell used the pretexts of secrecy and national security to do things like allowing giant ponds of chemicals like toluene, acetone and benzene to just evaporate into the air, as just one example.  There’s a reason why we have an Environmental Protection Agency with laws to keep chemicals out of the environment.  If you go to the Wikipedia article ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocky_Flats ) and look at the picture of Rocky Flats, you can see the black ponds on the right side about half way down the picture.

    I’m looking forward to reading this book.

    1. Er…just a suggestion, but maybe substitute the phrase “toxic chemicals” for the word “chemicals” throughout your post?

      1.  Yeah, the basic post is relatively coherent, but the “dihydrogen monoxide poisoning” overtone is very distracting.

  5. I’ll check this out and I’ll try real hard not to compare it too the quality of the review, because by comparison it’s going to have to be damn good. Beautifully written review; science articulated, humanity retained and clarity at the fore. Nice.

  6. I agree with the metaphor of children growing up, but we’re not adults yet. We’re still adolescents, with poor executive function and poor long-term planning skills as a civilization.

  7. What a beautifully written review. This aspect of American culture has always fascinated me. Our relationship with technology has consistently been surrounded by a sort of “creepy” sense. We know so little about where it will lead us.

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