Full Body Burden is a story of secrets: the secrets kept within families and the secrets a government keeps from its people. The toll can be the same, it’s only the scale that’s different. Iversen’s father was an alcoholic and it was simply something that the family did not talk about, though they all suffered from the consequences. Nearby to the family home was Rocky Flats, a plant that developed plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs during the war. Despite being reassured of the safety of the plant, environmental and health problems plagued the community for years and all the residents were directly affected or knew someone who was.
The dual narrative structure, intertwining the construction, development, and operation of Rocky Flats with the story of Iversen’s family, was both Full Body Burden’s strength and its weakness. Iversen says that she cannot tell one story without the other. In her mind, the connection between Rocky Flats and her family’s slow disintegration are connected. I think this connection can be tenuous for readers and I was often pulled out of the narrative when it would switch between them. There wasn’t a clear flow between the two and I often wasn’t quite sure why Iversen decided to tell the stories together.
But it does help us understand Iversen and why she cares about the Flats, apart from being close by. This notion of secrets, of keeping deadly information from people, is one that exists in the community of Rocky Flats and in Iversen’s own home growing up. As a child, her father is driving drunk and they crash. She is seriously injured, but never taken to the hospital. As a result, she has neck problems for the rest of her life. Similarly, her family is constantly sick and weak, presumably because of their exposure to radiation by Rocky Flats. In that sense, the stories are parallel. Iversen and her family are damaged by both.
This is a somewhat shocking book to read if you don’t know anything about nuclear facilities in the US, which I did not. It makes you wonder what other things are being kept from ordinary citizens in the name of security. So much damage was done to the community and the surrounding area that only time, more time than we probably have, will fix. This book felt impeccably researched and there are pages and pages of notes, but comments (I know, don’t read the comments, but sometimes I can’t help it) on Full Body Burden‘s Amazon page are full of people saying that Iversen doesn’t know what she’s talking about and that there aren’t really any problems associated with Rocky Flats. It’s amazing that in the face of all that evidence there are still people saying that there is nothing wrong. That’s why books like these are so very important.
I received a copy of Full Body Burden from the publisher.