Full Body Burden (Paperback)
Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats
Broadway Books, 9780307955654, 432pp.
Publication Date: June 4, 2013
“An intimate and deeply human memoir that shows why we should all be concerned about nuclear safety, and the dangers of ignoring science in the name of national security.”—Rebecca Skloot, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
A shocking account of the government’s attempt to conceal the effects of the toxic waste released by a secret nuclear weapons plant in Colorado and a community’s vain search for justice—soon to be a feature documentary
Kristen Iversen grew up in a small Colorado town close to Rocky Flats, a secret nuclear weapons plant once designated "the most contaminated site in America." Full Body Burden is the story of a childhood and adolescence in the shadow of the Cold War, in a landscape at once startlingly beautiful and--unknown to those who lived there--tainted with invisible yet deadly particles of plutonium. It's also a book about the destructive power of secrets--both family and government. Her father's hidden liquor bottles, the strange cancers in children in the neighborhood, the truth about what was made at Rocky Flats--best not to inquire too deeply into any of it. But as Iversen grew older, she began to ask questions and discovered some disturbing realities.
Based on extensive interviews, FBI and EPA documents, and class-action testimony, this taut, beautifully written book is both captivating and unnerving.
About the Author
Kristen Iversen grew up in Arvada, Colorado, near the Rocky Flats nuclear weaponry facility and received a Ph.D. in English from the University of Denver. She is head of the PhD program in Literary Nonfiction at the University of Cincinnati. During the summers, she serves on the faculty of the MFA Low-Residency Program at the University of New Orleans, held in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and in Edinburgh, Scotland. She is also the author of Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth, winner of the Colorado Book Award for Biography and the Barbara Sudler Award for Nonfiction. Iversen has two sons and lives in Cincinnati.
Praise For Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats…
Winner of the Reading the West Book Award in Nonfiction
A Mother Jones Best Book of 2012
A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2012
An Atlantic Monthly Best Book about Justice
"Full Body Burden is one of the most important stories of the nuclear era--as personal and powerful as "Silkwood," told with the suspense and narrative drive of The Hot Zone. With unflinching honesty, Kristen Iverson has written an intimate and deeply human memoir that shows why we should all be concerned about nuclear safety, and the dangers of ignoring science in the name of national security. Rocky Flats needs to be part of the same nuclear discussion as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. So does Full Body Burden. It's an essential and unforgettable book that should be talked about in schools and book clubs, online and in the White House."
—Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
"What a surprise! You don't expect such (unobtrusively) beautiful writing in a book about nuclear weapons, nor such captivating storytelling. Plus the facts are solid and the science told in colloquial but never dumbed-down terms. If I could afford them, I'd want the movie rights. Having read scores of nuclear books, I venture a large claim: Kristin Iversen's Full Body Burden may be a classic of nuclear literature, filling a gap we didn't know existed among Hersey's Hiroshima, Burdick and Wheeler's Fail-Safe and Kohn's Who Killed Karen Silkwood?"
—Mark Hertsgaard, author of Nuclear Inc. and HOT
"This terrifyingly brilliant book--as perfectly crafted and meticulously assembled as the nuclear bomb triggers that lie at its core--is a savage indictment of the American strategic weapons industry, both haunting in its power, and yet wonderfully, charmingly human as a memoir of growing up in the Atomic Age."
—Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman and Atlantic
"Why didn't Poe or Hitchcock think of this? Full Body Burden has all the elements of a classic horror tale: the charming nuclear family cruising innocently above the undercurrents of nuclear nightmare. But it's true and all the more chilling. Kristen Iversen has lived this life and is an authority on the culture of secrecy that has prevented the nation from knowing the truth about radioactive contamination. This is a gripping and scary story."
—Bobbie Ann Mason, author of Shiloh and Other Stories and In Country
"Kristen Iversen has written a hauntingly beautiful memoir that is also a devastating investigation into the human costs of building and living with the atomic bomb. Poignant and gracefully written, Iversen shows us what it meant to come of age next door to Rocky Flats--America’s plutonium bomb factory. The story is at once terrifying and outrageous."
—Kai Bird, co-author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
"The fight over Rocky Flats was and is a paradigmatic American battle, of corporate and government power set against the bravery and anger of normal people. This is a powerful and beautiful account, of great use to all of us who will fight the battles that lie ahead."
—Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Eaarth
"Part memoir, part investigative journalism, Full Body Burden is a tale that will haunt your dreams. It's a story of secrecy, deceit, and betrayal set in the majestic high plains of Colorado. Kristen Iversen takes us behind her family's closed doors and beyond the security fences and the armed guards at Rocky Flats. She's as honest and restrained in her portrait of a family in crisis as she is in documenting the incomprehensible betrayal of citizens by their government, in exposing the harrowing disregard for public safety exhibited by the technocrats in charge of a top-secret nuclear weapons facility. For decades the question asked by residents living downwind of the plant was 'Would my government deliberately put my life and the lives of my children in danger?' The simple and irrefutable answer was 'Yes, it would . . . in a Colorado minute.'"
—John Dufresne, author of Louisiana Power & Light and Love Warps the Mind a Little
“This is a subject as grippingly immediate as today's headlines: While there is alarm about the small rise in radioactivity in the food chain, one reads in these pages about how a whole region lived in the steady contaminating effects of nuclear radiation. Kristen Iversen's prose is clean and clear and lovely, and her story is deeply involving and full of insight and knowledge; it begins in innocence, and moves through catastrophes; it is unflinching and brave, an expose about ignorance and denial and the cost of government excess, and an intensely personal portrait of a family. It ought to be required reading for every single legislator in this country.”
—Richard Bausch, author of Peace and Something Is Out There
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
In this book, author Kristen Iversen weaves together two narratives: a memoir of growing up in Arvada and a historical account of Rocky Flats and the nuclear industry. What effect did moving back and forth between the two storylines have on your experience of reading the book? Did you find one of the two storylines more compelling than the other? Can you think of a different way the book might have been structured?
What themes are shared by the two narratives in the book? How are they expressed in each narrative?
When Kristen is a child, her mother tells her, “I think [Rocky Flats] makes cleaning supplies. Scrubbing Bubbles or something.” (p. 12) Later, when protesters rally against the plant, her parents ridicule the protests. By the end of the book, however, Kristen has worked at the plant and joined the opposition to it. What are some key moments in the evolution of her views about Rocky Flats?
One of the most dramatic passages in the book depicts Stan and Bill fighting the “Mother’s Day Fire” at Rocky Flats (pp. 26–38). Iversen describes the scene in detail, from the “burning globes” that crash from the ceiling to the underpass beneath the glove boxes. What parts of the scene were most vivid or memorable for you?
While horseback riding one day, Iversen is disturbed when she comes across a dead cow at the edge of the lake near her house, and she describes the mountains nearby as “a dark, heavy presence, a watching shadow.” (p. 71) The discovery of the cow seems like an ominous portent. Are there other examples of foreshadowing in the book?
From Fluffy to Tonka to the wild rabbits and deer at the Rocky Flats site to the deformed chickens, animals are a constant presence in the book. What role do animals play in the storyline? How were pets and animals important to Kristen’s household, and why?
When Kristen was fourteen years old, her father crashed the family car. Afterward he said he had swerved to avoid an oncoming car, but it was clear to her that he had been drinking. Since her parents did not seek medical treatment for her, it was not until years later that she found out she had broken her neck. She writes, “We never speak of the accident again. Silence is an easy habit for a family or a community. This is just for us to know. Eventually we’ll forget this ever happened.” (p. 110) At what other times do we see her family’s “habit” of silence? How does it affect her? Can you think of a relationship in your own life in which you and a close friend or family member never talked about something vital to both of you, or pretended that it had never happened?
At one point, Kristen’s mother takes the family to see a psychiatrist and each member of the family draws a picture of home (pp. 120–121). The passage reveals key elements of the family dynamic. What did you learn about each family member’s coping mechanisms from this scene? In what different ways did Kristen and her siblings respond to their father’s alcoholism, and to the secrets of Rocky Flats as they were revealed over time?
In 1978, protesters were tried for trespassing and attempting to obstruct the activity of Rocky Flats. They base their defense on a little-known “choice of evils” law in Colorado. The law says that an illegal act is justified if it is done to prevent a greater, imminent evil or crime. The judge decides that the law isn’t applicable in their situation (p. 158). Do you agree with the judge’s reasoning? Have you ever been in a situation where this law might have been applicable?
Immediately after Kristen learns that Mark has died, her parents argue and then her father knocks on her bedroom door. “How can I let him in when a thousand times he has cast me out?” she asks herself (p. 166), and she does not let him in. Do you think she was right to protect herself from her father? If she had let him in, what do you imagine they might have said to each other?
There are several passages in which Rocky Flats workers are contrasted with the activists seeking to shut the plant down, such as the scene with well-to-do protester Ann White and working class security guard Debbie Clark (pp. 193–194). How did the two groups feel about each other? Were there any similarities or sympathies between the two groups?
Full Body Burden contains many surprising facts about Rocky Flats and about radioactive contamination, such as the fact that a single microgram of plutonium is a potentially lethal dose (p. 24) or that in 1970 there was no emergency response plan to protect the public in the event of a major disaster at Rocky Flats (p. 67). What fact made the deepest impression on you?
The poem at the end of the book, “Plutonian Ode” by Allen Ginsberg, was written on the occasion of the 1978 Rocky Flats protest and specifically refers to Rockwell, Rocky Flats, and other nuclear weapons facilities. In it, Ginsberg describes plutonium as a “dreadful presence,” a “delusion of metal empires,” and as “matter that renders Self oblivion.” Why then does he call the poem an “ode”? How does the poem reinforce the message of the book?
During the Cold War, an impenetrable veil existed between the nuclear weapons industry and the general public. The U.S. government considered this secrecy necessary for national security. Do you think there is any way the government could have communicated more to the general public without jeopardizing the nation’s safety?
For many years the nuclear weapons industry was exempted from environmental regulation because national defense was considered a higher priority. This book reveals the tragic consequences of that exemption. Are there situations in which you believe it is justified to exempt the government, certain industries, or private companies from the law?
We live in the era of Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media, as well as organizations that seek transparency in government, such as WikiLeaks. Do you think the level of secrecy maintained by the DOE and the operators of Rocky Flats during much of the plant’s history could be maintained today?
Do you live near a nuclear site or nuclear power plant? If so, has your state or local government informed you of the potential risks of living near such a facility, or about emergency response plans in the event of a serious accident involving radioactive contamination?