I recently finished Kristen Iversen’s book, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, an important and terrifying account of the dangers that lurk in the secrets of our personal and national lives. It is especially important and worrisome as the Denver area experiences such dramatic flooding, stirring up buried plutonium deposits.
Kristen Iversen accomplishes what Michelle Herman called the “stealth memoir” at the River Teeth conference this spring. Iversen’s personal and family history is woven closely with the history of Rocky Flats in such a way that both story lines magnify each other. Any time that Kristen described Rocky Flats in terms of ground, water, and air contamination, history, health, etc., I immediately felt the weight of this information on Iversen’s family and storyline. And any time Kristen described her family’s activities, relationships, and experiences, the same weight of Rocky Flats pressed down on those scenes.
I’m certain that’s no accident. There are no scenes where I found myself wondering why she shared this information. Everything is critical to the unfolding of the story and contributes to the larger narrative about Rocky Flats. The power in this kind of paired narrative (personal memoir plus literary journalism/reportage) is that each works as a lens in a pair of 3-D glasses. You can see through one by itself, and you can see through the other by itself, but looking through both lenses makes the story pop off of the page. I would have had a much more challenging time digesting the information about Rocky Flats in all its heavy political history, health records, employee names, corporate lingo, and scientific data, but because Iversen has included her own family story, she gives her audience a tangible, accessible handle to grip while we navigate all of that information.
On the other hand, Kristen’s personal narrative (alcoholic father, boyfriend’s death, marriage and divorce and so on) is a plenty compelling tale on its own, but each and every scene she chose is quite literally in the shadow of Rocky Flats. It is a good example of a writer knowing exactly what she needs to hang onto in order to keep the reader going – her primary thread that runs through the narrative is always and importantly Rocky Flats.
It reminds me of what Cheryl Strayed said about Wild, she began every chapter “on the trail,” which seems to me to be a way of rooting the reader in time and space. In Iversen’s case, every one of her personal scenes has to, in some way, serve the story of Rocky Flats, whether directly or indirectly. We find out about friends she grew up with only to discover later their connection with the plant, or diseases they develop, or how their parents were connected. There is no reason to go into great lengths about her marriage and subsequent divorce except to state that it happened, she had two kids, and then jumps right back into Rocky Flats. Years, YEARS have gone by, but I don’t miss any of that information. Too much tangential information and I would have been wondering, “So what? How does this relate to the bigger narrative?”
In this way, Iversen is able to cover a tremendous span of time. With just the right amount of personal information to carry us through, we’re able to understand the arc and scope of Rocky Flats, its impact on the community from a personal level to a national/international level, and the degree of secrecy permeating the community—again, on a personal level and national level.
Another reason I appreciate Iversen’s story line is that without it, I would have felt lost as to when all of the events with Rocky Flats were taking place. Even with Iversen’s personal narrative, I often found myself thinking, “Wait, when did this happen?” It was also challenging for me to keep track of the different names of families and workers, which is often a problem for me in real life let alone in books. There were so many people impacted and so many people to include in the story. And yet, Kristen is able to make many of them into dynamic characters on the page, so that we see their personal stories right alongside her own.
Structurally, I thought Iversen’s technique of separating the Rocky Flats material (history, etc.) from her own personal storyline by white space and clear breaks in tone—the Rocky Flats material is all written in the style of reportage, concise and fact-driven, void of many personal references or first-person narration until she switches gears into her own story. Then, when her personal timeline merges with the Rocky Flats timeline, what we learn about Rocky Flats is naturally woven with what’s going on in her personal life, because Rocky Flats IS her personal life.
Outside of the timeline and names confusion, I found this book to be impressively written and researched. I was captivated (and frankly, horrified) by the level of secrecy, denial, and human error in environmental health as it relates locally in Colorado, nationally, and globally. It’s terrifying and eye-opening. I am grateful for this kind of work by such a strong writer. It is an important book.