If you lived in Boulder, Colorado, in the eighties, as I did, you had to have known about Rocky Flats—a factory just south of town that manufactured triggers used to detonate nuclear bombs. And you had to have read news articles in the Daily Camera and the Colorado Daily about problems at the plant with pollutants and protestors and lawsuits involving people’s property and health. You might even have rented a house with other students, one of whom demonstrated often against Rocky Flats and talked about the dangers of plutonium whenever he passed the salt and pepper.
But if you were, in fact, a graduate student with a part-time job serving breakfast at a B & B, you might have been too distracted by the high-altitude sun warming your head and the university roofs sloping like slabs of granite, to pay much attention to what matters. Even when you went to hear Alan Ginsberg read at Naropa you might have been so mesmerized by his delivery of “Plutonium Ode” that you missed the poem’s message. And the next day as you drove past Rocky Flats to go hiking, you might not have noticed the protestors encircling the buildings with linked hands or, if you did, they might have seemed unreal and very far away.
Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats (Crown, 2012) foregrounds what many Coloradans suspected all along: Rocky Flats has always been bad news. By using a mountain of information, Iversen makes a convincing case that the U.S. government not only knew about the dangers of the plant, but also that it did everything possible to distort the truth about these dangers and to hide them from the public.
What makes this book so powerful is not only this persistent revealing of the truth, but also Iversen’s ability to shift gears from the journalistic and factual to the aesthetic and metaphorical so that Full Body Burden hits the reader in more than one place. “The problem with Rocky Flats is not just a smoking chimney or a hole in the dike,” she writes. “The weapons plant is like a bag filled with ultrafine sand—a bag with millions of glittering, radioactive sparks too tiny to see—and the bag has been pricked with tiny pins.”
In Iversen’s hands plutonium is not just a “synthetically produced…element using a five-foot-long cyclotron.” It is a “lethal bee flying from flower to flower… taint[ing] everything it touches.” And the probable connection between cancer and Rocky Flats is not only described factually, but also sarcastically, almost humorously: “After all,” Iversen writes when describing her neighbors’ attitudes when she was growing up, “you can get cancer from just about anything. Teflon for example or overcooked hamburger. Everyone knows that.”
Iversen tells a big story: decades of history about Rocky Flats from its conception in 1951 when the Atomic Energy Commission first decided on the plant’s location to its present-day status as a National Wildlife Refuge that scientists are lobbying to keep closed. But that is only half of Iversen’s story. Intertwined amidst the pollution and cancer is the history of her own childhood unfolding in a housing development abutting Rocky Flats. In many ways, Iversen’s childhood spent riding horses in that rugged, Western landscape was idyllic. But in other ways, it was not. There was a factory polluting her backyard, and there was Iversen’s father, an alcoholic, who lost his law practice and became estranged from the family he loved. At its heart the book is about secrets surrounding disease, both alcoholism and cancer. As Iversen puts it, “Silence is an easy habit for a family or a community.”
What this book depicts so brilliantly are not just the forces that led to these silences, but also their costs. Many Coloradans have already paid with their health and lives, and if they haven’t, they might when the effects of ingested and inhaled plutonium eventually do their damage. Reading Full Body Burden on a flight to Boulder last spring, I wasn’t feeling the weight of a book in my lap as much as I was feeling the weight of guilt, of not paying attention all those years ago. If only I would have acted, I could have tried to have shattered the silence as Iversen has so powerfully and beautifully done.
Cassandra Kircher’s nature essays have recently been published in South Dakota Review, Cold Mountain Review, and Permanent Vacation: Twenty Writers on Work and Life in Our National Parks. She teaches nonfiction at Elon University.