Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoirby Susanne Antonetta
This is an American story. Two immigrant families drawn together from wildly different parts of the world, Italy on one side and Barbados on the other, pursued their vision of the American/i>/i>
For readers of A Civil Action and Refuge, a harrowing story of a body and a placethe New Jersey boglands, one of the most contaminated regions of the country.
This is an American story. Two immigrant families drawn together from wildly different parts of the world, Italy on one side and Barbados on the other, pursued their vision of the American dream by building a summer escape in the boglands of New Jersey, where the rural and industrial collide. They picked gooseberries on hot afternoons and spent lazy days rowing dinghies down creeks. But the gooseberry patch was near a nuclear power plant that released record levels of radiation, and the creeks were invisibly ruined by illegally dumped toxic waste. One by one, family members found their bodies mirroring the compromised landscape of the Barrens: infertile and damaged by inexplicable growths. Soon the area parents were being asked to donate their children's baby teeth to be tested for radiation.
Body Toxic is an environmental memoirmerging the personal and familial with the political and environmental. Intensely intimate and starkly contemporary, it is a story of bravery and resignation, of great hope and great loss. This beautifully composed book presents American families in the midst of the wreckage of the American dream.
"[An] arresting memoir of a New Jersey girlhood lived in the shadows of the twentieth century's most sinister molecules: the DDT, tritium, chloradane, benzene, and plutonium that are now part of the American landscape...Antonetta's considerable achievement in Body Toxic is to devise a literary voice for the people who live in such places...What Antonetta has written is something newa postpsychological memoir... By the end of this dark, disturbing book, you realize Antonetta has posed a challenge to our prevailing notions of science and journalism and even literary narrative." (Michael Pollan, New York Times Book Review)
"Bittersweet and spiked with startlingly poetic descriptions...[It] opens a new chapter in the literature of place and offers a fresh and poignant look at the old story of inheritance." (Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review))
Author Biography: Susanne Antonetta lives near Seattle with her husband and her young son.
New York Times Book Review
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Read an Excerpt
In nineteen question-mark question-mark my silent grandfather came to the United States.
He left the hot chatty island of Barbados and because he existed in silence no one knows when he came. He came for shade. To drink tea-colored liquor we poured out, that scoured the tin sink. To watch every Saturday, as he did until he died, American cartoons like Rocky & Bullwinkle. He came to father my silent mother and find an America that seemed less like a place than an anti-place, a not-Barbados, not-Europe, not Asia or Africa, not meals of boiled monkey and coocoo or potatoes rotted bitter and Argus-eyed in the ground. Not this, not that.
My grandfather succeeded because silence succeeds. It can't be argued against. It is the last word.
My grandfather, Louis Cassill, came from an Anglophone island to an English-speaking country, where people were like radios that couldn't be turned off. I think he would have preferred a place that babbled nonsense in his ears. He sat alone and kept his pale amphibian eyes averted. He slammed the door in the faces of solicitors and Jehovah's Witnesses and Latter-Day Saints. He avoided even hellos and goodbyes, first cousins of speech.
On the other side of my family, the Antonettas, my greatgrandparents came with no English and an Italian dialect only people from the same group of villages could understand. They floated in the bubbles of their own thought,leaving behind tenant farming, earthquakes and cholera. They came because people in that part of Italy had begun coming to the U.S. to work, sending money home, planning to return to Italy, as the U.S. began pocking its face with factories and blowing into its air the hard breath of day labor.
My grandfather on this side put the television on when he woke up in the morning and didn't turn it off till he went to sleep. He didn't change channels much and when I saw him the TV always followed a natural and inevitable evolutionary path, daytime soaps to news to sitcoms and talk shows. My grandfather, whose name was Rafael and who everyone called Ralph, floated against a backdrop of daylit people dramatically fighting and cheating and falling into each other's arms again, and then bland, real murder and exploding Vietnamese villages at twilight, and nervous taped bizarrely repetitive laughter at night. Rafael called Ralph moved in front of that like a character in an old movie pretending to drive in front of a flat unrolling landscape. He only read papers like the Weekly World News and the Star and never understood much about what was going on in the world.
My aunt Philomena told me once that when my greatgrandfather came here he'd heard of the streets paved with gold and had no idea of the metaphor involved; he took a boat, steerage on a steamer, and emerged from the underdecks, from the Ellis Island ferry, to stare horrified? disgruntled? unsurprised really? at the disappointing asphalt of New York. He went, an older man, to Brooklyn, where my West Indian grandfather would soon arrive. My Cassill grandfather came with a mother who fled debt and a bad reputation. He talked about this country, when he did, as open space.
"New Jersey was a cow pasture then" he'd say irritatedly. "There was nothing at Holly Park. Nothing."
He had little feeling for natureI never knew him to go outside without a reason, like fixing the wellbut he resented the arrival to any place of human beings other than himself. In spite of that he had children.
Neither man could pass up the chance to breed American children, American progeny.
(Memoranda): I am Susanne Louise Antonetta. Right about now I am about 4'11" and weigh between 85-90 lbs. I live in the United States, at 345 East Washington Street ... I have brown hair, brown eyes, and wear a size 8 shoe. (3/11/68, age 11)
I started keeping a diary when I was eleven. Someone had given me the diary of Anne Frank, with its foreword by Eleanor Roosevelt, and the book infected me with audience. I had always written for myself, plays and poems and stories: a weakness bred into me by my soft life in America. Now I pictured girls propped up with my book in their lap. Presidents' wives, bored, crusading. This audience changed my voice. I move from entries like
And white lipstick is a must
to what must have seemed the closest I could come to literary English, the strained diction of my English grandmother, the woman who married my West Indian grandfather.
I think I shall write memoirs about life in America, and my philosophy and opinions about it. Then I will wrap it in mud or clay, and someday I shall bury it for people far in the future to find.
My aunt Philomena, my father's sister, tells a story about running up to her grandmother's apartment, on the top floor of the brownstone where three generations of the family lived in Brooklyn, to borrow an onion. She asked for it in English.
"SHE-pole, SHE-pole," my greatgrandmother screamed furiously"onion" in their dialectand flapped her hands to indicate she didn't understand my aunt, didn't speak a word of English.
"Oh, you're a stupid old woman" my aunt said, in English, whereon my greatgrandmother yelled downstairs in Italian that Philomena had just called her a stupid old woman.
My Cassill grandfather would have done the same thing, if he could possibly have pretended that Barbados was a non-English-speaking island. As it was, he had a field around him that bounced off conversation.
I've been thinking of writing a story about a girl a lot like me, one that didn't have a happy ending. I want to write reality, not myth. The ending will be sad, but it will contain philosophy. (2/13/68, age 11)
I'm making up a list of the 10 most appealing words I know. Here are some candidates: photograph, phone, cents, choice, crystal, fish (believe it or not!), love, hope, list, sweet, charm, paw, rose, beauty, breasts, and soft. (7/12/68, age 11)
A photographed fish: crystal. A choice phone. A fish made of crystal listing with love. Beauty breasted. Hopeful.
O rose thou are sweet, charmed, soft.
O rose thou art pawed.
My earliest diary, from the year I turned eleven, has a cover of plastic faux leopard skin, very 1960s. I must have had a strong sense of my words as type, because I wrote for a while in the closest writing I could manage to a plain typeface like Universethe uncoordinated eleven-year-old versioneven slanting some words very far to the right, one letter at a time, to indicate I wanted them to be italic.
My leopard diary had a key. I remember it: tiny and delicate and lovely slipping the little tumblers of its lock. I kept it in a place so secret I can't remember, and when I found the diary a quarter century later (stuffed in some old boxes) I had to cut the strap binding it shut with scissors. I'd kept it locked against my parentswho would have read it and seen no irony in punishing me for invasions of their privacyand my brother and my friends. Nervous of the Word. So I carefully turned the little lock every night and hid both key and diary though I clearly saw the diary as in some ways a public thing. I wrote from both angles: the fiction that I wrote for myself only
For the past few days I've been thinking of giving you a name. Maybe Cindy. Or maybe Sue, since you really are a division of myself. (4/1/68, age 11)
and a chronic parenthetical note of nudging a reader along
(In case you don't remember who "the kids in the back" are, see Jan. 7)
(If that sounds like a rather dramatic opening, I tend to be rather dramatic sometimesI enjoy it) (1/6/68, age 11)
It may have been the fantasy that I had a friend desperate to understand me. Or maybe I'd already learned to split myself off into the self and the criticthe one who acts and the one who watches, giving no quarter, too indifferent even to remember.
Both sides of my family had elaborate silences, mantras of unspeech: You don't talk about it. You didn't talk about it then. Disease. Death. Wrongdoing. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse could hoof us under without our protest. My uncle Vito, an ex-prizefighter with a sixth-grade education, bought an old garbage truck and arranged a route on Long Island where garbage collection was a Mob business.
"First comes the phone calls," my aunt remembers. This voice: `They'll find you face down in the East River.'
"Then they started to talk about the kids. Then comes this big black car, parked in front of the house, just sittin there, every morning."
My uncle sold the truck. I heard the story thirty years later, my aunt Phil (my beloved aunt) susurrating in my ear. You don't talk about it, not those things. My father's uncle Manfredo with the Shylocks and the both-somethings broken. My English grandmother with her dilly-dallying, her cabbage patches and her people no better than they ought to be who'd been born under the rose. Her husband who never told anyone how many siblings he'd had, where they were or how the dead had died. Barbados, which we never talked about except to say: it was British.
Both families, asked direct questions, often respond with ludicrous invention.
"We're kin to the Lord Carrington of the House of Lords," my grandmother would say.
"I'm in with the Rackets," my uncle Tony said. "What do you want? I can get you anything you want."
You see, sometimes I get so involved in my daydreams that I have to give myself a mental slap in the face. (3/6/68, age 11)
I've been daydreaming much too much lately. I make up these stories in which I'm always the heroine. And all day long, I add to them, mentally. This is very bad. It makes me lose contact with reality, I don't know what's going on. (5/21/69, age 12)
I know my father's family came through Ellis Island, maybe my mother's father too, though not my socially pretentious English grandmother, who came in as war bride to a then-naturalized citizen. I remember my relatives talking about Ellis Island, the torpid, raw, bored officials with shirt buttons open in the heat, who sat with half-eaten sandwiches and wanted you to answer their questions fast and easy, no matter what you said. I think it set a tone: the first they saw of the rules and opportunities of their new home. Along with sidewalks that could tarnish into asphalt from squares of pure valuethe mutability, the alchemy, the lie of the place.
I asked my father why our people moved here and he said, "It's the land of opportunity."
Where it's clear that anything you don't want to say doesn't need to be said.
To my mother and father and their mothers and fathers the wonder of this country stayed a given. An anxious thing, to live within the object of desire. It became a national passion in the fifties: how we were coveted from the outside. We poured money into an air defense network, developing missiles and planes (secretly), arming many of them with nuclear weapons. Our intelligence reported a "missile gap"Russian missiles, more missiles than we had, pointed at key targets in the United States. No more Washington Monument, Bloomingdale's, Times Square and the ball that plummets to make each new year. So we rushed to catch up. One promising nuclear missile designed by Boeing and Michigan Aerospace Research Center, called BOMARC, looked like a well-licked paintbrush with dorsal fins. Concrete bunkers flexed out of the ground in a remote part of New Jersey called New Egypt (in the middle of a sandy pine forest, where no one could see) in southern Ocean County, where the BOMARCs could stand launch-ready to intercept Soviet bombers. Secret bunkers for secret bombs: not many people knew we put nuclear warheads on anti-aircraft missiles. Though it turned out Russia didn't have many missiles after all. Still, the BOMARCs had been built, at a cost of $1 million apiece. They were hauled in caravan to New Egypt and frozen in their attitudes of contemplation.
World War I had just guns and cannons and tear gas and mustard gas. My Cassill grandfather fought in it under two different flags and met my grandmother when he got wounded, in the neck and in the fingers, and shipped to London, where she nursed him. She never loved him, she told me, or liked him (she hinted) but she loved the idea of America. Their marriage was a long affair of politesse, diplomacy and avoidance. They had four children. In 1932, when his children were young, my grandfather decided to buy some land in a part of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, on the coast, and build them a cabin.
He arrived as he tended to do on the heels of disaster. The Barrens had always been poor, a million acres of unproductive land both boggy and sandy: a place for people hiding out. It had a brief boom, though, in the start of the twentieth century. Something about belief in the healing powers of pinesmell and seabrine. In the twenties slappedup buildings held balls and the Astors came, in fox fur (those rich enough to wear eternity around their necks, uroboros, head eating tail) and their own beautiful rich skin. In 1926 a developer built a subdivision of small cottages on a peduncle of coast land, a subdivision designed to be summer homes for up-and-coming New Yorkers. He named it Holly Park. In 1929 the stock market crashed and those New Yorkers ceased to exist (as the developer knew them) and the property reverted to its pre-boom values of $20 or $30 a lot.
Nearby this subdivision, a symbol of enduring poverty brushed up against, transformed by and then dropped from the coattails of greatness, my Cassill grandfather chose our land. When he finished jury-rigging up our cottages (there were two) my grandmother took the children and rewarded him by spending summers there, leaving him in the north, to make it down on weekends when he could.
(Every morning first thing my grandmother crossed the gravel road. As she crossed the road her spirit rose and kited out of her life. She threw off her cotton shift and the hydraulic system that was 1930s women's underwear, and skinnydipped for a long time in Barnegat Bay. Still her children weren't allowed to use the words "pregnant" or "God.")
Separation and separation and separation.
Ocean County eats into the hourglass of New Jersey in a triangular bite, smooth on the land sides and rough on the third that fronts the water. Down the Atlantic side runs a long peninsula, akimbo like an arm but too skinny: a humerus and radial of peninsula. This peninsula cuts off the Atlantic and forms our bay, Barnegat. Because of its position Island Beach holds the county's valuable propertygood surf, sand beaches, boardwalksthough it makes up a tiny percentage of the land. Our bay tends to stagnate and grow what look like floating molds and mildews. Rather than sand beaches we have marshes and weeds spreading up to the water. Swimming's lackluster as is fishing; crabbing's good. We always had the things that needed cover and barrier to grow: crabs, cranberries, blackberries, the secret pleasures. Most people in New Jersey considered the Barrens ugly, with its monotonous landscape of sparsely needled pitch and scrub pines, cattails and bogs.
When my grandfather came to this area, Holly Park in Berkeley Township in south Ocean County, only a few thousand people lived there. Island Beach hadn't been developed much. There were very few jobs and people often lived in ways inconceivable in the rest of the state, catching and picking their food, making charcoal and gathering cranberries, slapping together their shelter. As my grandfather did.
The bungalows my grandfather built faced a small inlet of Barnegat Bay and backed onto a large lagoon that kept the plain rooms awhine with mosquitoes.
My family and my aunts and uncles and cousins spent most of our summers there. We still go, now and then. I feel that place in my ear, in a spot where it cannot be slapped.
By the time I existed and had memory, someone had taken the unpromising curve of land along our side of the inlet and built a wooden bulkhead along it, with a few piers for crabbing. A piece of land the size of a housing lot in a subdivision tolerated the dumping of much clayey sand and served as a beach. It had steps leading into the water. Ostensibly this was a private beachnearby families gave a few dollars a year and got badges my mother and my aunts fussed about but nobody remembered to wear. An old wooden building had been thrown up by the gate, where someone had the job of beachkeeper, always somebody old and sagging and bristly in a bathing suit: tensed to run my cousins and my brother and me off. We were bad children, and flooded the beach by damming the baby pool drain with carefully packed layers of clay and rocks.
We loved things that soaked and flooded, or seared and burned and wizened. Firecrackers. Matchbombs. And the bleached remarkably infertile soil of the Barrens, like sand but close enough to clay to clump in your hands; we could (and did) sit at the beach and construct elaborate cities. Next to our house was a field of cattails, with maybe a red-winged blackbird or two bobbing on a tassel. Smallish and spindly needled pines, white cedars here and there, ash; a sparse tree line and brackish water, so weedy it looked like a cauldron of wigs.
I've been down the shore a week now. I just love it down here. Especially the lagoon in the back. It is beautiful. The grass is long there, and its bent to the side, so that from far away it looks like velvet.
I loved to be there, loved the greens and blues and the sense of open space, even as it all filled me with a desire to tear apart.
There is also snake-grass, which is multi-colored green & gold. When the wind blows, it looks like gold is rippling through it. I love the snake-grass, but it makes me very sad. I remember the first time I ever went there. I was young & wearing shorts. Now the snake-grass has a very sharp tip, which will cut you if you don't wear pants. I went through a patch of snake-grass, and came out with legs covered with innumerable tiny cuts. It was almost like it was saying, "go homeyou don't belong here."
My grandfather built the larger house on concrete blocks like stilts, with a three feet high space under the house, damp and dark and stinking: mud, brine, septic system. We kids played there. It always seemed to be housing the feral: a wild cat we called Mama Cat because she had kittens there every year, a muskrat I fed that dragged back one day with a bullet in its gut.
I don't like the word "lagoon." It sounds like something ugly. (6/27/70, age 13)
Lots of local people hunted muskrat for pelts and meat.
* * *
We call the houses the Big Bungalow and the Little Bungalow, or the Little Cottage and Big Cottage. They have no heat and had no hot water until I was out of childhood, when we put hot water and a shower into the Little Bungalow. Before then we took cold showers at the beach, along the side of the beachhouse, or sponged off from the sink. We boiled teakettles of water for dishwashing. The Little Bungalow, basically two tiny bedrooms and a toilet, has a flat roof that always had a wooden ladder leaning against it and made a favorite play area, especially at night, when you could see stars and stay slightly above the densest layer of mosquitoes.
The Big Bungalow has a galley kitchen, a living room/dining room space: big table covered with oilcloth, a woodframe sofa with mildewy whiskeycolored cushions. Two bedrooms lie in the back, one with two sets of bunkbeds and the blue table that is possessed. In the forties or fifties my grandfather added a porch in front to provide extra sleeping space.
The houses stand one behind the other, painted the green of pea soup or old khaki.
Here are sounds: the thrush of wind in the cattails, the shredding American flag snapping on the beach, sounding like a solemn flagellation. There might be swings instead of empty chains on the decrepit swing set and if so, they skreek by themselves.
Odors: two notes of bay and lagoon. Around the inlet in the half-circle the bulkhead doesn't reach cattails grow to the ruff of washedup seaweed at the edge of the water, several feet of it knit with dead and dying fish and shellfish, moss bunkers, blueclaws, horseshoe crabs in the old days, maybe flipped over and straining their ladders of little claws. The lagoon's black stagnant mosquito trenches and greasy gunmetal soil. Marshgas, brine, dead things, too much breeding.
* * *
In 1960 (June), a tank in a BOMARC bunker caught fire, in New Egypt, fifteen miles or so from our houses. The fire fed on the TNT in the missile detonators and burned out of control and the nuclear warhead dropped into the molten mass of the rest, which flamed for nearly an hour. Radioactive particles spread over the ground and the groundwater. Firefighters' hoses rained pools of plutonium-laced water. About a pound of plutonium was left there, too radioactive to move. In 1972 the government, answering cries for protection, installed a chainlink fence to protect civilians.
Psycho had been released that summermy parents and aunts and uncles went to see it. The movie posters featured Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock and, especially, Alfred Hitchcock's finger, pointing upward to the title, or held in a silencing gesture to his lips. Nobody was supposed to talk about Psycho. My parents came home unable to sleep. Hitchcock had decided to make the cheapest movie he could make, black-and-white, no special props, and my elders came home terrified, possessed by visions of Janet Leigh pretending to die in a puddle of chocolate syrup.
I ask my parents if they remember the BOMARC fire and they don't. I ask them if they remember Psycho and they do.
"That bastard movie," says my dad, who loves to swear.
I almost never wrote diary entries at the shoreI have just three or four, so my summer days ruffle on, blank, as if they never happened. I brought a diary with me everywhere else but sleeping in my placethe bottom lefthand bunk in the back bedroom of the Big HouseI probably had nowhere to hide it. My cousins would have taken it, or my brother, or my parents and uncles and aunts.
By my twelfth year my diary changes a lot, losing the fantasy of audience. No print, just furious rolling littlegirl script, and no internal references. No Cindy, just "Dear Diary," though I included the salutation and signed my name no matter how little I had to say.
Susanne (5/2/69, age 12)
No matter how moodyI feel a ful. Today has totally confirmed yesterday's lamentations. Right now I feel as if I'm leading such a happy life!my entries still maintain that formality, always on the page under the right date, abruptly cut off if I ran out of room. I felt a responsibility. A sense of purpose. I apologized on and on for my silences, as if someone would be hurt by the blankness of August 6, 1969. I wrote detailed descriptions of practically nothing, grass or cattails or
a sand "city" & a reservoir system for it. It was pretty clever. First, there was a main stream of water coming down from the baby pool, which ended in a deep water hole. Against this water hole was a large dam. From this main stream of water branched three deep water holes, to drain water from the stream & keep too much pressure off the dam. Behind the dam was a deep, unfilled lake, so that if the dam broke, the water would go into it. All of the walls were high, sturdy; of mud, but the dam was the strongest of all. It had a base of driftwood, plastered with mud, and strengthened with stones & seaweed. Beyond that lay the city, with a drive-in, a department store, school,& lots of pretty little houses, all of sand. Sincerely, Susanne
someone chokeholding her existence, finding it improbable, vital in its parts and slipping.
When I asked my mother how long the DDT trucks had driven past our cottages she said since she was a girl, which shows the obsessiveness of memory mingled with repetition; after a certain number of times seeing a thing the image reproduces in your head, wildly, like cells in a cancer. My mother was twelve in 1932 when her father built the cottages. DDT arrived commercially in 1942, making my mother at least twenty-two. I don't blame her usually dry and precise memory. I feel like those trucks powdered me in the womb.
They came once a week or so, supplemented by planes: a spume, a round gray meteorological event of pesticide. The trucks stopped only when the United States banned DDT in the seventies. A local man, an environmentalist named Willie DeCamp, remembers a lamewinged robin touched down on his front steps in Mantoloking when the truck went by, the bird twittering, dead after.
In 1952, four years before the year at the end of which I squeezed into the world, the Ciba-Geigy Chemical Corporation bought 1,400 acres along Toms River, a nearby river feeding into Barnegat Bay. Ciba-Geigy chose this land, marshy, scrubbily woodsy with longtailed grass, for an operations site, as distinct from its corporate headquarters in New York. Cheap, eager labor, lots of useless land for landfill. The low buildings churned out commercial dyes and epoxy resins and plastics, and chemical waste byproducts. These last were disposed of in various ways: in 14,000 drums buried and stored in nonhazardous waste landfills lined with plastic wrap; in a pipeline that a former employee said led from one building straight into the woods, dumping cyanide in the ground; in liquid waste pumped in an underground pipeline built beneath Barnegat Bay into the Atlantic Ocean, a mile from a public beach.
In 1984, armed with search warrants, the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice raided the Ciba-Geigy plant and spent two days collecting samples and searching.
A long investigation concluded that Ciba-Geigy left a plume of contamination in the aquifer, the natural underground water system that provided drinking water: a poison plume a mile square and dozens of feet deep, containing ninety-five different chemicals. A migratory plume. A strange new life like a huge amoeba. The Environmental Protection Agency is trying to pump it out but estimates it will be there another thirty to fifty years.
Ciba-Geigy also used its pipeline to transport military waste, including nuclear waste, for a base in nearby Lakehurst. The pipeline ruptured in April 1984 at the intersection of residential Bay and Vaughn Avenues in Toms River, spewing out a puddle of toxins.
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Antonetta's stunning memoir weaves together a haunting family history and the history of environmental degradation in New Jersey. This is memoir writing at its best: deeply personal and compellingly political.