Life in the Nuclear Family: On No-Nukes Nuns, Alison Bechdel, and San Onofre

Philip Larkin's famous and bitter poem, "This Be the Verse," about what Mom and Dad do to you has "faults" and a "coastal shelf" which suits me fine for some easy book talk this week by way of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, that toxic and dilapidated Three Stooges movie with the endearingly poetic official acronym: SONG. Some song. I had a physics teacher years ago at Cal State Long Beach who bragged about having helped design the ominous and beautifully futile system of old-school warning sirens you see from South County to Oceanside. Even more poetry if you stop to consider the scenario of how anybody would evacuate three million or so residents after the leak/explosion/meltdown/tsunami/wildfire/plane crash/earthquake which could never, ever happen.

Larkin advises dying early and not having any children. Too late for me on both counts. I love my child and plan to live a long, creative, angry, politically engaged life with my son and the love of my life, his mother, so fuck you Philip Larkin and the right-wing fatalism you rode in on. I never saw you at the demonstrations at Aldermasten or Diablo Canyon either.

Not like Rosalie Bertell, who died last week, a Ph. D in Biometrics, internationally acclaimed and celebrated environmental epidemiologist and public health activist, Grey Nun of the Sacred Heart and author of the classic No Immediate Danger, among other books she wrote about that sick joke "safe, clean, too cheap to meter":  nuclear energy and the war machine it calls friend. 

Meanwhile, Larkin's still half-right. Your folks didn't mean to hand misery on like that. But then they die and you are a middle-aged orphan left in the twilight of their lives, your own insight helping you to make sense of the revisionist golden hour that settles on biography, history. There are shadows, and a pleasant warm glow. And sometimes there is a difficult truth which seems hard to do anything about. All that to say that two new books do something anyway.

In fact, thought of Larkin reading Alison Bechdel's incredible, smart Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama. She's, of course, the longtime comics artist author of the strip Dykes to Watch Out For and a biography of her father called, whimsically (not), Fun Home.  Dad had problems. Like he was a closeted gay man who ran a funeral home. In the new book, Bechdel takes on her mother, but this is a book of course mostly about our illustrator-autobiographer. In a typical frame, beautifully drawn, we see the young Alison with her remarkable mother in the past, with the adult writer speculating to her therapist, a kind of mother-substitute: "But maybe this is just another name for the unmetabolized emotions we absorb from our parents, like traces of nicotine." If you can hear the voice

Life in the Nuclear Family: On No-Nukes Nuns, Alison Bechdel, and San Onofre

(and I think you can) and follow the multi-layered scenes in this portrait of the artist as a daughter, you'll welcome being asked to consider the work of psychologists Alice Miller (The Drama of the Gifted Child) and DW Winnicott (The Child and the Family) and reread some Virginia Woolf, all of which builds, logically, gratifyingly to the Big Reveal about Alison's mom. And maybe all of our parents'.

Now to Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. The big reveal and the social psychopathology of a really (!) nuclear family and a person's (in this case another daughter's) intellectual and emotional responsibility not to accept fatalism and the lies, secrecy it requires show up in the backyard of Kristen Iversen

She grew up with horses, a frustrated mother, alkie dad and Rocky Flats next door, the US government's now-closed top secret facility for production of plutonium, the deadliest substance on earth. Turns out nearly all the grownups covered up everybody's proximity to the Hellmouth of the entire nuke nightmare culture. Iverson is a memoirist, sure, but also an investigative journalist. Where else are regular people with lying parents going to get the story of the criminality and purposeful complicity of nearly all the citizens in a town which liked to tell its children, including young Kristen, that perhaps Dow Chemical and the Department of Energy were making cleaning supplies and not working on the end of the world? She is given pets and goes to school, and hears stories and rumors, has crushes and discovers her lawyer father's empty liquor bottles and told to keep mum (pun intended).  But there are cracks, "incidents." In the family and, as you should know by now, over at the Death Factory. (Potentially bigger, friends, than Fukishima or Three Mile Island or Chernobyl or Diablo or San Ono!) And, finally, a nun comes to town, a version of Rosalie Bertell, along with other brave activists, scientists and journalists, grassroots anti-nuke groups and a couple of famous poets from the nearby Naropa Institute, to sit on the railroad tracks out in front of Rocky Flats, sue the government and start forcing everybody to tell some Cold War truths.

Iverson's book should be taught by a university teacher like me as it lends itself so well to critical evaluation of nonfiction storytelling, with an appendix, timeline, notes and, yes, Allen Ginsberg's long poem, "Plutonian Ode" at the end. I probably don't need to explain the title, which is of course both a medical term for how much ionizing radiation a human can stand and, yes, the kind of struggle we can expect if we are to ask about the sirens, the accidents, not to mention what is going to happen to the waste, which like our dead parents will be with us forever. Iverson and Bechdel act like the grownups it was so difficult for their own victimized and coerced and blackmailed parents to be, being fair and unsparing and still empathetic, and so extending, helpfully, yes, the half-life of honesty.

Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama, Alison Bechdel, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 290 pps., $22

Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, Kristen Iversen, Crown Publishers, 400 pps., $25

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program, Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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