Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iverson
Release date: 2012 / 288 pages
Synopsis(from Amazon): Full Body Burden is a haunting work of narrative nonfiction about a young woman, Kristen Iversen, growing up in a small Colorado town close to Rocky Flats, a secret nuclear weapons plant once designated “the most contaminated site in America.” It’s 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 (cleaning supplies, her mother guessed)–best not to inquire too deeply into any of it.
Review: My book club’s latest pick was Kristen Iverson’s Full Body Burden, and while I had heard positive murmurings on NPR, I was completely unaware of the subject matter. Well, when I realized the “subject matter” was a defunct plutonium factory located 4 and 1/2 miles (as the crow flies) from my new home that has been responsible for the deaths and illness of countless residents of my county, needless to say I did not sleep well for a few nights!
Beyond the personal connection, Burden is an excellent memoir — a perfect blend of narrative and “issue.” Iverson states “It was only by including the experiences of me, my family, my neighbors, and my coworkers at Rocky Flats that I could truly bring the story to life. It was indeed a challenge to write intimately about things that, as a family, we were never supposed to discuss, including my father’s drinking. And yet the end result was a tremendous sense of clarity and understanding.” The trick with memoir is to present a personal narrative that has value for readers who will never know the writer, and Iverson accomplishes this very well. Burden not only exposes the unique challenges of the child of an alcoholic parent — never explicitly admitted, of course, even as the DUI’s pile up — but dovetails this with living in the shadow (literally) of a toxic, destructive plutonium factory that spews radiation into the air, soil, and water when it’s functioning normally (nevermind the occasional critical fires) — again, never acknowledged or recognized because no one would imagine the government would have placed a dangerous factory so close to a major population center like Denver.
Burden unfolds chronologically and Iverson includes many passages of growing up with her beloved horses, including poignant memories of her first love, sibling rivalry, and the innocence and optimism of the difficult adolescent years. This makes the reality of the setting — the alcoholic father, the looming radioactive neighbor — all the more impactful. Burden is a very fast read — hard to put down and never hard to pick up.
The travesty of what transpires to finally shut down the factory is heart-wrenching — as is the gag-order still present today on the grand jury. One cannot help but wonder what devastating consequences are still unfolding since the waste is unable to be cleaned up and the corporations — Dow and Rockwell — cannot be held liable for lives lost or environmental damage. However, I now understand why building a beltway through the contaminated land or designating the space as a wildlife refuge is incredibly controversial.
Iverson is a hero — and hopefully her courage will prevent future covert crimes. Now, if I could only find a way not to cringe when the wind blows from the northeast now that I know one millionth of a gram of plutonium, particularly if it is inhaled, can cause cancer.
I will not be giving away my copy, but here are a few links in case you are interested in learning more: