Sarah Alisabeth Fox is a freelance writer and editor. Her articles and reviews have appeared in Montana, the Magazine of Western History and Western Historical Quarterly. Her new book, Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West is now available. Read a review from High Country News.
In the summer of 2004 I quit my waitressing job, packed my belongings into my old station wagon, and moved from the Pacific Northwest to northern Utah, where I planned to study history on a fellowship from the Western Historical Quarterly. By autumn I learned I had moved into the heart of downwinder country, a region heavily impacted by the toxic pollution of nuclear testing and weapons development, uranium extraction, and a half-century of government and corporate propaganda. The stories I found there seemed like candidates for a postmodern Brothers Grimm collection. Grandmothers told of seeing mushroom clouds from their backyards while hanging the family laundry. Navajo uranium miners described veins of yellowish ore that appeared as serpents trapped in stone. People showed me lists of the ill and the deceased that sometimes ran into the hundreds, documenting alarming disease clusters in towns too small to overlook them.
The stories were compelling and problematic. Narrators in different towns employed identical phrasings and eerily similar plotlines. Earnest citizens occasionally shared “memories” of events they could not have learned about until decades after the events occurred. At first glance, it was hard to tell where experience left off and legend-making began. Other historians with more experience than I had dismissed the stories as purely anecdotal, and those who did cite citizen accounts of the era tended to employ them as local color rather than factual evidence. Meanwhile, I was finding ample proof that agencies like the Atomic Energy Commission and the Public Health Service had circulated legends of their own, routinely assuring the public there was no danger, even as their researchers documented dire radiological contamination and disease patterns near test sites and uranium operations. Scientists had spent decades disagreeing on the significance of data sets and fiercely criticizing each other’s methods and results. There seemed to be bits of truth and fiction tangled up in every account, and all of it was going to be hard to verify. I needed a methodology to sift through the stories, in the hopes of discerning truth from propaganda, memory from media coverage, history from legend.
Drawing on my training as a student of folklore, I set out to chart and analyze the basic structure of the citizen narratives, indexing common events, phrasings, and plotlines. I used their prevalent themes as jumping off points for further research. I learned to spot common exaggerations, usually rhetorical strategies employed to keep the story vital and in circulation, not unlike the propaganda techniques the federal government used to keep citizens from asking too many questions. I surveyed popular media coverage, to see where it might have influenced citizen stories and vice versa. I pored over court records, federal documents, congressional hearings, and epidemiological studies, looking at the way narrators on all sides of the story shaped their accounts for different audiences. I learned to scrutinize every piece of data, asking: who created this record, and why?
Ultimately, I concluded the stories of the downwinders and the uranium-affected people bore as much veracity, if not more, than the official records of the era. History, violence, and contamination ripple forward. Sharing as we do the same soil, the same water, the same air, the same oceans, and the same biological vulnerability to cancer, we are all implicated in the wars and industries of the past. We are all subject to the propaganda of leaders who seek to keep us distracted from this unsettling truth. At the same time, we are all capable of critically assessing what goes on in our government, our communities, our food, our water, our bodies. Increasingly, researchers are recognizing that people are experts on their own lives and places, and their expertise can and must inform the decisions made by the powerful in government and industry. The tales of the downwinders offer us a blueprint for citizen resistance to the propaganda, distortions, and dangerous policies of the defense and energy industries, in a time when such resistance is critical. They proved to me that a history without the voices of ordinary people is both flawed and bereft, and they shaped me as an activist, a scholar, and a human being.
-Sarah Alisabeth Fox