I’m going to review Full Body Burden by Kristen Iversen in a strange way – by the way the Kristen Iversen taught me to write. I took her Forms of Creative Nonfiction and Creative Nonfiction Workshop back in 2003, and even then she was telling the class she was working on a book about Rocky Flats, a secret government site near where she grew up, that built nuclear bomb triggers. I haven’t seen Iversen in all those years but I’ve been waiting for her book. And it was worth the wait – it’s a disturbing story about seeking the truth – the best kind.
I discovered Full Body Burden was out when my sister-in-law, Natalie Parker-Lawrence, a more recent student of Iversen’s creative nonfiction classes, told me a month ago. Natalie was so excited about Full Body Burden that she convinced our nonfiction book club to make it our book of the month. It’s a great book and now I want to convince others to read it, but to review it requires my own personal story.
I had never heard of Creative Nonfiction before taking Iversen’s class. On our first day of class she had us write 10 minutes about the first memory that came to mind, in a quick in-class writing assignment. I wrote about fishing on a seawall in Biscayne Bay in Miami when I was 12, while staying with my grandmother. My grandmother managed an old apartment building populated mostly by retired people and I had found an old fishing tackle box in an apartment I helped clean out. In the fishing box was a switch-blade knife which I wrote about for my memory exercise.
Now here’s the thing about what I’m writing now. I can’t accurately remember the exact assignment or words Kristen told us that day. Nor can I remember exactly what I wrote, nor when I was writing the exercise, was I sure of my memories of that night on the seawall and the knife. Kristen was using various kinds of writing exercises, memoir, personal essay, travel, etc., to teach us about creative nonfiction. And there’s a real problem trying to distinguish creative nonfiction from regular nonfiction as a separate genre.
Creative nonfiction goes beyond reporting the cold facts. It makes them personal, but it risks the appearance of being subjective about objective reporting. It pushes the limits of truthful accuracy, to tell the story in such a way, that feels even more true. I still argue with my sister-in-law Natalie, who got her MFA in Creative Nonfiction about what exactly is creative nonfiction. I’m a MFA dropout, so I have less authority, but I’m going to give you my take as part of this essay.
I don’t believe a story can be called creative nonfiction unless the story is pushing the boundaries of narrative techniques, otherwise it’s merely nonfiction, the old kind we’ve always been used to. To understand creative nonfiction, think In Cold Blood by Truman Capote or The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, or more recently The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot or The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.
My hard-to-put-into-words definition of creative nonfiction I acquired from Kristen Iversen is based on how the narrative is told, and I latched onto one particular technique as the defining style of creative nonfiction writing – and that’s when the author puts themselves into the story, and they reveal how they came to write the story as the story is being told. I’m sure this is an extremely limited definition of creative nonfiction, but it just so happens to be how Full Body Burden is written.
Full Body Burden is a real bargain of a book, because you get two books in one. First is Kirsten’s memoir of growing up and coming to terms with her alcoholic and distant father, and second, its the history of Rocky Flats, a dirty little skeleton in our government’s closet. Either story is outstanding on its own. Each is a compelling read. Because Kristen grew up next door to Rocky Flats it might seem natural to tell the two stories together, and it totally is. But in the old days of reporting a story like Rocky Flats, writers worked very hard to be impartial observers. One of the revealing truths about creative nonfiction is learning that writers aren’t impartial, and letting the reader see our biases is very creative.
I love a category of story writing called meta-fiction. Meta-fiction is fiction about fiction. It’s recursive and self-conscious of its own techniques of telling the story. I consider the best creative nonfiction to be meta-nonfiction. One of the great themes of Full Body Burden is the impact of plutonium on our environment, and whether or not Rocky Flats is causing a rise of cancer and other strange diseases to the people who live near the plant. Kristen can’t be impartial, because she and her three siblings all have strange diseases and cancers.
Iversen weaves her own personal biography into the history of Rocky Flats. She even worked at Rocky Flats. She interviews people that worked there, or so I would assume. In every creative nonfiction narrative, how does the author get the information they state in the sentences they write?
This is one aspect of Full Body Burden where I wanted more, and this might be unfair to mention in this book review. I still need to express it because writing this review explains why. I wanted the full meta-nonfiction treatment. Kristen is very open and revealing about her personal life, and she talks about becoming a writing teacher while all the events go on in this book, but she doesn’t tell us how she interviewed the people and how the book was written while the other two stories were unfolding.
We know why she wrote Full Body Burden because Rocky Flats is the biggest story in her life. We know why she’s in the book, because if she had grown up in New York City or Miami as a different person, Kristen Iversen of Colorado would be a perfect person to interview for the story. She’s actually a good character to tie the story around. But I wished Iversen had gone one layer deeper. She’s a fantastic writing teacher, so I wished she had covered how a writer writes about such a great story. Of course she might have assumed most people aren’t interested in the mechanics of writing.
We know she worked on the story for 12 years. That’s got to be fascinating by itself. Am I asking too much by wishing I had gotten three books in one? I do have Iverson’s Creative NonFiction textbook, Shadow Boxing: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. If you’ve never heard the term “Creative Nonfiction” and read Full Body Burden and fall in love with it, you might want to pick up this book to understand why Full Body Burden is so good.
In class we often discussed how to be factual in nonfiction, how to tell the truth, when our memories, and the memories of the people we interview, are so vague. Do we really know what we’re writing is true and factual? How often in recent years have we heard about writers getting into trouble for fudging facts? Because of Iversen’s lectures, the whole time I was reading Full Body Burden I kept thinking how did she get the quotes she gave. How did she recall her family memories. How did she know about what her sister was doing when she was on a date. Did she remember what her sister told her at the time, or did she interview her sister decades later? To many readers, this might be too tedious, but because I was Iversen’s student, I wanted to know. But like I said, this is my own hang-up, but it’s a fascinating aspect of creative nonfiction, where telling the story becomes part of the story.
Iversen brings page after page of startling facts about how our government lied to us. How it covered up its lies. Most of the story is about the operation of Rocky Flats and sinister dangers the Department of Energy (DOE) allowed to be inflicted on the citizens of Colorado. The other story, and just as gripping to me, is how Iversen reveals a steady stream of deeply personal facts. Her own coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s was so revealing that if the Rocky Flats story hadn’t been included, I would still consider Full Body Burden a great read.
Now again, I must reveal my own personal connection to justify that appraisal. Kristen reveals how her father was emotional distant, about his decades of alcoholism and how it affected her mother and herself, how her dad almost killed her and her siblings in a drunk driving accident, how her lawyer father was regularly in trouble with the law for drunk driving and fighting with cops, how he ended up living alone driving a cab. My parents were alcoholics. My mother almost killed me and my sister in a drunk driving accident. My father was distant and hard to know, worked all the time, and never made much contact when he was home. My father also had run ins with the cops and ended up living alone driving a cab.
Not only do I have personal overlaps with Kristen’s story, I also have some overlaps with the plutonium story. I was born in 1951 the year Rocky Flats was planned and conceived. The year the Iversens moved to Colorado to live next to Rocky Flats, my family moved to New Ellenton, South Carolina to live near the Savanna River Site, another nuclear weapons site run by the DOE. We also were told everything was safe there, but years later I learned that wasn’t true. Growing up I was very pro-science, but in the mid-1970s I turned anti-nuke, attended lectures, joined No-Nuke groups, and read books on the dangers of living with nuclear power plants and weapon manufacturing.
It will take decades, if not centuries to learn all the consequences of our experiments with nuclear weapons and energy production. Full Body Burden is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg, but it’s ever so scary. Growing up I was told plutonium was among the most deadliest substances known, but from Full Body Burden we learn that potentially over a ton of it is missing and maybe spread around the Denver area, with similar radioactive pollution happening to many other sites around the country. And all these sites still have huge stockpiles of radioactive waste that we just can’t deal with properly.
Full Body Burden is about the U.S. government covering up its mistakes with the justification of national security. However, how many Americans will die from being nuked by their own government? Rocky Flats was a kind of dirty bomb. So why isn’t this on national news? That’s a good and tough question. The insidiousness of plutonium is very hard to quantify. I assume if data miners comb the medical records in America and compared them to all the people living near nuclear processing plants, they would eventually find statistical correlations that would show the impact of this poison, but for now the stories are all hearsay.
Full Body Burden is convincing evidence, but its like the legal cases Iversen reports on, not conclusive evidence. Why aren’t there millions of cases of cancer directly linked to plutonium released around processing plants in America and the rest of the world? Why isn’t Denver a hot zone? Why aren’t people living near Rocky Flats all wearing dosimeters?
Well it’s all part of our huge experiment with impacting the environment. How hot can we make it? How much radiation can we add? How many poisons can we add to the fish tank we all live in? How many species can we push to extinction? Just how much of the Earth can we trash before it all collapses?
If I didn’t have these overlapping experiences and beliefs would I love Full Body Burden as much as I do? I don’t know. It’s all about being creative nonfiction reader. Not only do we need to know how the writer involved themselves in the story, we need to know what we the reader brings to the story when we read it. I’m trying to be honest about why I liked this book. If you’re coming from a different headspace you might not like this book at all. On the other hand, the reviews have been pretty outstanding, just look at the quotes at Amazon.
Now there’s another aspect of creative nonfiction I should mention that makes it a more appealing read. One of the techniques of creative nonfiction is to use writing techniques novelists use to write fiction. This has gotten more pervasive in nonfiction writing as creative nonfiction techniques have spread to general nonfiction writing. Look at this sample page:
It looks and reads like a novel. For nonfiction, writing like this makes the story more gripping and appealing to read even though it’s presenting a lot of facts. This is why The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson are such wonderful books to read – they use the same creative nonfiction techniques. All three of these women spent over a decade writing their books. They could have used the same material to write novels, or journalistic, just the facts, nonfiction books. Do you see what I mean when I say telling the story becomes part of the story?
Rebecca Skloot and Isabel Wilkerson each have websites that tell more about how they wrote their stories and this is very fascinating to me. Not only can you read and watch videos about how the books were written, but you can follow along with reports of their successes. Kristen Iversen also has such a web site and I expect it to grow as Full Body Burden becomes a huge success. These three women have written the best books I’ve read in recent years, and strangely two of them, Skloot and Iversen, worked at the same English Department at the University of Memphis for awhile, teaching creative nonfiction. Many people do not believe the creative nonfiction is a separate genre, but their success seems to prove otherwise.
JWH – 7/30/12