Synopses & Reviews
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.
But as Iversen grew older, she began to ask questions. She learned about the infamous 1969 Mother's Day fire, in which a few scraps of plutonium spontaneously ignited and — despite the desperate efforts of firefighters — came perilously close to a "criticality," the deadly blue flash that signals a nuclear chain reaction. Intense heat and radiation almost melted the roof, which nearly resulted in an explosion that would have had devastating consequences for the entire Denver metro area. Yet the only mention of the fire was on page 28 of the Rocky Mountain News, underneath a photo of the Pet of the Week. In her early thirties, Iversen even worked at Rocky Flats for a time, typing up memos in which accidents were always called "incidents."
And as this memoir unfolds, it reveals itself as a brilliant work of investigative journalism — a detailed and shocking account of the government's sustained attempt to conceal the effects of the toxic and radioactive waste released by Rocky Flats, and of local residents' vain attempts to seek justice in court. Here, too, are vivid portraits of former Rocky Flats workers — from the healthy, who regard their work at the plant with pride and patriotism, to the ill or dying, who battle for compensation for cancers they got on the job.
Based on extensive interviews, FBI and EPA documents, and class-action testimony, this taut, beautifully written book promises to have a very long half-life.
"In this powerful work of research and personal testimony, Iversen (Molly Brown), director of the M.F.A. creative writing program at the University of Memphis. chronicles the story of America's willfully blinkered relationship to the nuclear weapons industry through the haunting experience of her own family in Colorado. Moving to the spanking new subdivision of Denver called Bridledale in 1969, an area hugely expanding due to the growing industries nearby, Iversen's middle-class family of four children, lawyer dad, and homemaker mom believed they had secured the American dream, hardly questioning that Dow Chemical was making anything more than scrubbing bubbles in the top-secret Rocky Flats foundry. Built in the early 1950s by the Atomic Energy Commission to smelt the plutonium 'triggers' for the nuclear bombs necessary to deter the Soviet Union during the cold war, Rocky Flats had already suffered a major plutonium fire in 1957, the extent of radiation damage swiftly covered up, before a similar fire on Mother's Day 1969 proved the worst industrial accident in U.S. history, spreading unknown quantities of radiation in the soil and water and costing .7 million to clean up — also carefully covered up in the name of national security. Meanwhile, residents began to get sick, especially the children who ran wild over the contaminated land; animals grew sterile; protestors started to arouse concern; and studies were published, culminating in a FBI raid of the facility in 1989. Yet the grief was ongoing, as Iversen renders in her masterly use of the present tense, conveying tremendous suspense and impressive control of her material. Agent: Ellen Levine." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Gripping...exquisitely researched....A superbly crafted tale of Cold War America's dark underside." Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"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 Iversen 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
"Kristen Iversen's ingenious fusion of these two tales: her family's ongoing denial of her father's alcoholism with one of the most successful cover-ups in the history of the U.S. military machine, increases the half-life of her story's power to affect our lives exponentially. More than the sum of its well-made and riveting parts, Full Body Burden asks us to take a fresh look at our complicity in the lies we've been told, as well as the ones we are telling. As a Coloradoan, as a U.S. citizen, I can't imagine a more effective lifting of the shroud of Rocky Flats." Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted and Cowboys Are My Weakness
"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
"Iversen's reporting, extensive interviews, and review of FBI and EPA documents, shows how classifying a toxic nuclear site led to the ruin of hundreds of lives — and continues to pose ever-escalating threats as the legacy of what we know about such nuclear contamination is being swept under the rug by developers, energy lobbyists and government agencies colluding with them, at the risk of exposing more of us, more severely." Naomi Wolf, Guardian (UK)
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 director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Memphis and editor-in-chief of The Pinch, an award-winning literary journal. 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 Memphis. Visit her website at KristenIversen.com.
Reading Group Guide
1. 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?
2. What themes are shared by the two narratives in the book? How are they expressed in each narrative?
3. 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?
4. 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?
5. 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?
6. 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?
7. 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?
8. 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?
9. 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?
10. 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?
11. 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?
12. 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?
13. 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?
14. 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?
15. 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?
16. 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?
17. 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?