I first laid eyes on Andy Hawkinson in a dimly-lit hotel ballroom in downtown Berkeley. The year was 1984. The National Association of Radiation Survivors was holding the first of what would become its annual congress, drawing together atomic veterans, uranium miners, down winders, and lab workers for collective support and the pursuit of remediation. I was rounding the cardboard display of photos of survivors in their various locales of contamination and stages of radiation-related illness. I leaned in to squint at a shot of a stocky veteran -- he had a pinkish pock-marked face and thin blonde hair -- and then I refocused my eyes to the people viewing the display.
There he stood. He was a fast-talking man with the spirit of a giant.
“At this point what do I believe in?” he said to me. “Nothing. Who advises me? Nobody advises me.”
Andy had been a military policeman with the U.S. Army in 1957, assigned to Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Between 1948 and 1956, 22 nuclear bombs had been exploded there, including Edward Teller’s infamous 15-megaton hydrogen bomb. “I lived at Ground Zero,” he explained -- and yet the Army never warned him. He discovered his contamination 20 years later when a People magazine article about two survivors of Eniwetok harboring his same slew of mysterious ailments -- cataracts, blindness, heart attacks, internal bleeding -- led him to research what had happened.
I met other survivors: Navajo uranium miner Phil Harrison; atomic vets Ricardo Candelaria and Gilberto Quintana; Japanese-American Roy Kimura who had traveled to Hiroshima to search for relatives after the bombing; Dr. Dorothy Legarreta who, having filed a Freedom of Information Act request on human radiation experiments and was about to complete a book on the subject, inexplicably “drove off” a California highway to her death.
What struck me was the similarity between their experiences of contamination and deteriorating health and that of survivors of contraceptive technologies like myself, and so I attempted to draw such links in 1990 in a book called When Technology Wounds.
A person’s sense of meaning in life is central to psychological health. The cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker calls the significance we infuse into life our “hero system.” It consists, first, of a belief system and, second, of a means to enact that belief system. To Becker it is immaterial whether one’s hero system guides one to perform bold acts or to earn a living; what is important is that it gives a person a feeling of value, usefulness, or connection to forces greater than one’s self -- of heroism.[i]
Most technology survivors lose all or part of their hero system. Long-standing beliefs about themselves and the world can shatter into irretrievable fragments — and one's identity can be the first to go. Psychologist Benina Berger Gould experienced a loss of sexual identity when she underwent an emergency hysterectomy. After having a family, Benina was advised to wear the Dalkon Shield and Copper-7 IUDs. She developed severe pelvic pains, which were diagnosed as endometriosis (and later, in surgery, found not to be). To treat the condition, a doctor prescribed massive artificial hormones. She developed what was diagnosed as a cyst which, the doctor asserted, would explode in her abdomen if she didn’t have a hysterectomy.
Her response to the surgery was a feeling of piercing loss. "I would never again see that part of me that was female," she recalls. "There was a hole in my belly. No more cervix."
Another devastating loss that threatens one's sense of meaning is the ability to have children. Many technology survivors lose their biological ability to reproduce, endanger their lives if they do, or endanger the life of the child if they do. Ricardo Candelaria grew up in the 1930’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was a slow-moving time when people farmed the land, ground corn to make tortillas, and sold chiles on the street. The core of the tight-knit community was the family, and Ricardo looked forward to having one of his own.
In 1950 he was proud to be accepted into the U.S. Marine Corps. This was a valued opportunity in the barrio and perceived as heroic. Ricardo was sent to Yucca Flats, Nevada, where he was ordered to witness the Ranger atomic test from a foxhole a few miles away. He describes the experience: "You were supposed to drop down into the hole, dig yourself in, and put your gas mask on. They told us when the count reaches zero, the flash would come first — bright blue — and if we wanted to see it, open one eye. Well, I closed both eyes as tight as I could, but I still saw that blue light right through my eyelids. They also told us if we wanted to see the blast, count to 20 before getting up. To be sure, I counted to 30. Then I stood up, and I saw the mushroom going up, the bright red streamers of fire flying down from it, and a doughnut of fire billowing out in all directions. That doughnut was so big -- and it was coming toward us fast. You could see the heat rising up and the dust forming into a mushroom pattern in the sky. My mouth fell open. I didn't know what was happening. The helmet blew off. Then the blast came and threw me against the hole."
After waiting for a few hours, the soldiers were ordered to approach what Ricardo calls "Dead Zero." Then the military technicians detected amounts of radiation that were too high. The desert soil was black and cracked. Military equipment placed near the blast site had powdered into the ground. The troops were ordered to retreat.
In 1956 Ricardo discovered that he was sterile. Today he explains with hurt in his voice: "If I'd have known about the radiation, I wouldn't have gotten into that trench. I'd have been court-martialed and gone through whatever trial and punishment they had. If I had to come out of the service with a bad discharge, okay, but I'd have been a father." His shoulders shaking in sorrow, he cries: “You don't know how much I wanted a family!"
Andy Hawkinson's confusion as a father centers on the children he did have. "I don't know if the root of the problem can ever be reached," he says. "The pain, the suffering, and my perpetuation of that by fathering children! I was exposed to radiation in 1957, but I didn't know about it until 1977. My daughter just got married, and I wonder: Should I tell her she could have a deformed baby?"
On top of losses to one's sense of heroism, faith in the institutions survivors perceive as responsible for hurting them may be gone as well. Unless pressed to discuss it, Andy Hawkinson would be the last person to reveal his anguish about the breach of trust he feels. It is too painful. When he went into the Army in 1957, he was a "red-blooded patriotic American boy,” he says. And yet, he explains: "The Statue of Liberty. Red, White, and Blue. My Country. I have often asked myself if I had to lose something, in what order of progression would I be willing to give it up? Well, I would probably sacrifice my mother first . . . my wife second . . . my children third—before I would ever, ever sacrifice my country. But then not to experience the same reverse loyalty from my government when I'm willing to give it so much — this is a rejection I'm not prepared to handle."
Loss catalyzes bereavement – and with its pangs of longing, panic, anxiety, anger, and helplessness. Caught in the turbulence of such all-consuming emotions, Andy describes his use of denial. "In coping with it all," he says, "I live a great big lie. I keep telling myself, ‘This isn't a problem,’ 'That isn't a problem.' I lie to myself saying, 'Sure, you can handle it.' But periodically something ruptures and I have to live through another trauma. Then I get back on my merry-go-round of lying until the next episode." (1990)[ii]
This blog is a book. Please feel free to read the next chapter now. Go to the Table of Contents under the introduction on the right side of the page and click on the next chapter.
[i] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death.
: The Free
Press, 1973, p. 5. New York
[ii] Adapted from Chellis Glendinning, When Technology Wounds: The Human Consequences of Progress.
: William Morrow and Company, 1990,
pp. 79-86. New York