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