After the Aftermath: A Q&A with Kristen Iversen, Author of Full Body Burden

The Iversens/Photo courtesy of Kristen Iversen
The Iversens/Photo courtesy of Kristen Iversen

Editor's Note: Kristen Iversen's 2012 memoir Full Body Burden is partly a memoir of childhood, partly a study in secrets, and partly a thorough work of investigative journalism. Iversen grew up in a small Colorado town close to Rocky Flats, a secret nuclear weapons plant once designated "the most contaminated site in America." As she shares the experience of living in the town, she also delves into the secrets of both her family and the government, revealing, ultimately, the devastation wreaked by both. Here, as her memoir comes to paperback, Signature revisits Iversen to talk about the myriad ways the book affected her life and the lives of those it touched.

Signature: Much has happened since Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats was first published. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

KRISTEN IVERSEN: For one thing, I’ve received an overwhelming volume of e-mail from readers, many of whom live not only near Rocky Flats but also other nuclear sites such as the Hanford site in Washington and the Savannah River site in Georgia. There are contaminated sites all over the United States, east to west, north to south, and many people feel that their health has been affected or compromised by their proximity to nuclear weapons sites or nuclear power plants. Some of these stories are quite painful. These are stories that deserve our attention, particularly as we face important decisions about nuclear weapons and nuclear power. One of the projects I’m working on now is a story and photography exhibit that would be part of the Cold War Museum in Colorado and bring some of these stories to light.

SIG: Have there been any environmental or political changes in terms of how people think about Rocky Flats or some of these other nuclear sites?

KI: The book has sparked a new grassroots movement of environmental awareness and change in Colorado that is very exciting. After reading Full Body Burden, local Colorado citizens formed a coalition to hold state and government agencies more accountable for ongoing contamination at Rocky Flats. They created a proposal for the monitoring of air and dust for plutonium. A petition, signed by thousands, intends to halt the construction of a highway adjacent to the site that would not only stir up plutonium particles but spur home and business development on contaminated land. Citizens demand that the still-contaminated Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, slated to open for public hiking and biking, remain closed to the public and signs be posted to warn citizens of potential health hazards. And as a result of citizen protest, Jefferson County Commissioners are re-evaluating their decision to stop testing local water supplies for tritium.

SIG: Full Body Burden is a deeply personal story, and it reveals a great deal about you and about your family. How has your family reacted to the book’s publication?

KI: My family, of course, was aware of the book before its publication, but I really wasn’t sure how they would react when the book was actually out in the world. To my surprise, publication of the book has brought my family much closer together. My father read the book, of course, and although the process wasn't easy, talking about the book brought all of us much closer as a family. My siblings, my father, and I were able to talk about things in a way that we couldn’t in the past. My dad is facing serious health issues now, and we are all grateful for the time we have together. My mother passed away before the book reached publication, but she was a strong and loving advocate and I feel her presence every time I read a passage from the book.

One of the themes of Full Body Burden is secrecy, and the cost of secrecy, at the level of family, community, and country. Bringing these stories out into the open has resulted in change regarding Rocky Flats, but the most important change for me personally is that it has brought me closer to my family and to the father that I never really knew.

SIG: There is a growing body of what might be called nuclear literature in America. Do you see your book as part of a broader, growing literary field?

KI: There is indeed a growing field of literature in America that examines the ongoing cultural and environmental effects of the Cold War and our past and current nuclear policies. This began with Hiroshima by John Hersey, and over time we’ve had books like Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place and American Ground Zero by Carole Gallagher. Most recently we have books like How We Forgot the Cold War by Jon Wiener and The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan. I hope that Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats makes an important contribution to this field, as well as being a poignant memoir and personal story. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring sparked an environmental movement; perhaps the next necessary phase of this is how we deal with nuclear issues and radioactive waste.

SIG: What has surprised you most about the publication of Full Body Burden?

KI: When I first began working on the book, I thought of it primarily as a work of memoir and investigative journalism.  But I hear from readers from many different disciplines and all walks of life. Some readers are interested in the family story and the issue of dealing with alcoholism. Historians are interested in Cold War history and how the Cold War played out in very real ways in human lives. Chemists and biologists are interested in details about plutonium and environmental contamination. Medical professionals find the information about cancers and other health effects to be most important. It’s fascinating to me how people read the book in different ways.