In the Footsteps (Part 13)

On Friday, March 2, Anna will present at a panel entitled “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age.” Her four fellow panelists on this topic are guest bloggers at Lofty Ambitions. Today, Anna shares some of what she will talk about at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Chicago.

On February 29, we’ll post more information about AWP, including links to our recent AWP-related posts.


Mary Lee Leahy and Anna (law school graduation)

The nuclear age began in Chicago seventy years ago, when Enrico Fermi conducted the first controlled nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago, where my mother earned her law degree a little more than twenty years later.

For a few months in the 1970s, my mother was the Director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the state-level regulator of nuclear power plants. She was also the person in the state whom the military contacted when there was a lost nuclear weapon. That happened once while she was director.

Illinois has six operating nuclear power plants, more than any other state. More than 30,000 people live within fifty miles of Braidwood and also within fifty miles of the Quad Cities plant, the secondary radius considered in danger if an accident were to occur. The two units at the Quad Cities plants went online in 1973, and their licenses are good until December 2032. In 2006, almost half of the state’s electricity came from these six power stations. Illinois gets more electricity from nuclear than from coal, even though Illinois has mined coal for more than 200 years. I’m not advocating coal; it’s dirty in its own right. But I grew up here and think of Illinois as a coal state, not a nuclear state.

Andrew Leahy & Anna

My father, though, is my more imperative connection to the topic of the nuclear age. He served most of his requisite military service in Pirmasens, West Germany, where the United States had deployed tactical nuclear weapons. These weapons were rotated in and out of the facility where my father was stationed. To do his work, my father descended by elevator with a partner, each of whom had a different code that had to be entered before the elevator would take them underground. My father’s job was, in his words, to scrape corroded uranium off the bombs. He wore no special protection for this work, only a badge that, as he remembered years later, he threw into bin at each week’s end. He was told that this dosimeter measured his exposure to radioactivity, but he figured that the Army didn’t check all the badges and keep track. He never saw any records that referred to his exposure levels.

Anna, Brigid, and Andy Leahy

My father was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer just before my sixteenth birthday, though two separate exploratory surgeries did not reveal an originating tumor. The doctors went over my father’s history. Their conclusion—though the cause of cancer is never completely conclusive—was that my father’s illness was the result of his exposure to radioactivity during his military service.

Anna, Andy, and Brigid Leahy (with Benji)

This history began showing up in my writing in graduate school, first in a poem about his military work and in a fragmented story. When I held the first copy of my poetry book my hand five years ago, I opened it and found this history. Sven Birkerts, in The Art of Time in Memoir, “Memoir begins not with event but with the intuition of meaning—with the mysterious fact that life can sometimes step free from the chaos of contingency and become story.” For me, an intuition about connections—my father’s death and Chernobyl, for instance—began to gnaw at me. Birkerts asserts that, for him, part of the draw to memoir came with age:

A curious thing happened to me personally and as a writer when I entered my late forties, that time zone I reluctantly acknowledge as marking the onset of middle age. Quite suddenly, at least in retrospect, my relation to my own past changed. […] It was as if that past, especially the events and feelings of my younger years, had taken a half step back, had overnight, following no effort on my part, arranged  themselves into a perspective. No, ‘perspective’ isn’t quite right, for that suggests a fixed, even static arrangement. Rather, these materials had, without their losing their animation or their savor, became available to me.

Indeed, over the last two years, I’ve paid more attention to this topic, have learned to savor my available past, and have started to think of more of my writing as memoir.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Anna, General Leslie Groves

We’ve written a lot about nuclear history and our connections to it at Lofty Ambitions blog, including an ongoing, currently 13-part series called “In the Footsteps.” The length of blog posts—most of ours run long at about1000 words—has offered us a way to understand the possibilities and pieces in what otherwise is the large topic of the nuclear age. Blogging as an aspect of creative nonfiction has helped us address a problem that Peter Turchi raises in Maps of the Imagination. He writes the following:

Anna in Lamy, NM (train station for Manhattan Project arrivals)

If we attempt to map the world of the story before we explore it, we are likely either to (a) prematurely limit our exploration , so as to reduce the amount of material we need to consider, or (b) explore at length but, recognizing the impossibility of taking note of everything, and having no sound basis for choosing what to include, arbitrarily omit entire realms of information. The opportunities are overwhelming.

What to include and exclude and how to organize remain challenges for me as a creative nonfiction writer, especially when dealing with a cultural topic like nuclear history. We’ve all lived the nuclear age. As Susan Griffin puts it in A Chorus of Stones, “For perhaps we are like stones; our own history and the history of the world embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and cannot weep until that history is sung.”

3 thoughts on “In the Footsteps (Part 13)

  1. Y’know, I must admit that I don’t read every one of your posts or emails. But for whatever reason I had saved this one for a couple of days and just finished reading your fascinating personal retrospective. What an amazing connection you have with the nuclear age and its progenies, Anna! And as an industrial hygienist, I would have little doubt that your Dad’s radiation exposures led to his cancer and untimely death…
    You guys are great. Glad to have met in person for a second at Knox last fall. Enjoy your workshop and Chicago!

    1. Barb–

      Thanks so much for the comments.

      It was wonderful to meet you at Homecoming. We often relate to people how, when we were checking in, we heard someone behind us say, “It’s the Space Nerds.” One of the best complements that we’ve received.

      –The Lofty Duo

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