Kristen Iversen grew up close to Rocky Flats, a nuclear weapons plant once designated “the most contaminated site in America.” In her new memoir, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, Iversen tells a powerful tale of the effects of the Cold War’s culture of secrecy—a time when the weapons industry haunted American life from the inside out. We asked Kristen about her story’s creative roots.
Ten years of research and writing went into Full Body Burden, but it really began all the way back when I was eleven, looking out from our back porch at the water tower of Rocky Flats, a stark white silhouette against the mountains in the distance. Rocky Flats was a great mystery to me; no one in our neighborhood talked about it. It was operated by Dow Chemical, and like many families, we thought they made household cleaning supplies. Scrubbing Bubbles, dish soap, glass door knobs. There were plenty of rumors. Whatever it was they were making, we weren’t supposed to know.
So I wrote about it, like I wrote about everything else. I started out on Big Chief Tablets and moved on to spiral notebooks with pink and orange tie-dye covers, and then small black composition notebooks that slid neatly into the back pocket of my jeans. Writing spilled over into the margins of my school books and scraps of paper I stuffed in my purse. I was the true Harriett the Spy. I was too shy to speak up in class, but I wrote about everything. And everyone.
There were other rumors about Rocky Flats—dark, scary rumors. Chemicals and plutonium and nuclear triggers, whatever that meant, and families who hid stories of cancer like shameful secrets. I wrote about that, too.
But there was another dark, scary secret of my childhood—my father’s alcoholism. A brilliant, charismatic man, he struggled to keep his law practice and support his family in the face of a demon that ruled our family life night and day. But we weren’t allowed to discuss it. Like all good Scandinavian families—and many families in the ’60s and ’70s, I suspect—problems like alcoholism and depression weren’t openly discussed. If you can’t say anything nice, my mother would say, don’t say anything at all. My siblings and I were instructed to be silent, to look the other way, to pretend that what was happening wasn’t really happening, after all.
By the time I knew I would write a book about Rocky Flats, I had worked at the plant myself. I knew some of its secrets—like the fact that it had produced more than 70,000 plutonium pits for nuclear bombs. The fact that I was working onsite with nearly 14 tons of plutonium, much of it unsafely stored. I was just beginning to research and understand the radioactive and toxic contamination that had seeped into water supplies and traveled into local neighborhoods and the Denver metropolitan area.
I knew also that I would write about my family. There were all the great stories of riding horses and swimming in the lake and lying on our trampoline at night with my sisters, the stars a bright canopy to our whispers and giggles. But the hidden, unspoken side of our family life shaped our lives in ways we couldn’t anticipate. I wanted to write about that, too. I knew I couldn’t write one side of the story without the other. And I knew I couldn’t write the story of Rocky Flats without telling the story of my family. They were inextricably linked.
But where to begin? The history of Rocky Flats is enormously complex. I conducted dozens of interviews and plowed through the remarkable archive of Rocky Flats oral histories at the Carnegie Library in Boulder. My office was soon stacked with boxes of research material—documentation from the EPA, the Department of Energy, the Colorado Department of Health. Hundreds of newspaper clippings. Books on the Cold War, nuclear proliferation, the specifics of plutonium pit production. I was swimming in research, never mind all the family stories I wanted to tell. Where was my storyline?
In a moment of inspiration—or desperation, I’m not sure which—I taped three long ribbons of paper around the walls of my office and created three separate timelines. Red for my family story, blue for Rocky Flats, and black for the history of the Cold War. I looked for points of intersection and dramatic turns.
What emerged was a book that reads like a novel, but the story it tells is true. And the gentle thread that pulled these two stories together turned out to be a driving force. Full Body Burden is about the destructive power of secrets, at the level of family and government, and the high cost we pay for those secrets as individuals, as families, as a culture. The land, too, bears its scars. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. We’ll be dealing with the legacy of that secret for a long, long time. With a bit of luck, Full Body Burden might have a long half-life, too.
Kristen Iversen directs the MFA program at the University of Memphis. Recently featured on NPR’s Fresh Air and C-Span Book TV, she is also the author of Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth and Shadow Boxing: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. She grew up in Colorado.