Book Review

Emily Strasser’s Half-Life of a Secret: Reckoning with a Hidden History is a book for our time.  In an age when intergenerational trauma is being explored and researched, Strasser is providing us with important work in this genre.  In this meticulously researched book, she plunges into the world of her grandfather George.  He died long before she was born, but much of her family history revolves around this man and his actions.  He worked for Oak Ridge, the facility that enriched radioactive materials for the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.  Strasser sets out to explore her grandfather’s life and work, along with its moral implications for her family and the world.

Strasser’s journey begins with a memory that she admits may be false.  At her sprawling extended family’s summer home, she remembers a picture of her grandfather standing against the backdrop of an atomic bomb explosion.  This is such an integral part of her memories about her grandfather and his role in the making of the atomic bomb that she decides to find the photograph. But like many family memories and their artifacts, its actual existence is contested.  No one quite remembers the photo, or they remember it differently from Strasser, and no one knows its whereabouts.

So Strasser begins the quest to find the photograph by investigating her grandfather.  His secret work at Oak Ridge makes him an enigma, so Strasser’s work, with the aid of her family and declassified documents from Oak Ridge, is to uncover his secrets.  Strasser is sure of one thing: that her “grandfather helped build an atomic bomb.  That bomb was dropped on noncombatants—on children and teachers and gardeners and nurses—in Japan.” This work has been the spoken and unspoken context for her family since the end of the World War II.  It has cast a long shadow.

Even closer to home, Strasser examines the damage the Oak Ridge Facility did to the land before a single building was constructed, where “fifty-nine thousand acres of rural land were seized from small farmers in East Tennessee.”  The government quickly cleared the land and built a facility and city to enrich uranium.  In 1943, thousands of workers flooded in the area, and work on one of the vital components of the atomic bomb began. Oak Ridge, like so many American enterprises, was constructed because of forcible evictions and the erasure of memory.

Many of the evicted were sharecroppers, who were descendants of enslaved people, and they followed the geographical path of the indigenous people who had inhabited the area before the arrival of white Americans—the Cherokee, Yuchi and Shawnee.  Strasser loves her home in Oak Ridge, but asks the pertinent question so often asked now in public and private discourse:  “What is it to love a home founded on such violence?”

This question follows Strasser through the rest of her story.  She loves her family, both living and deceased, but is also haunted by the knowledge that Oak Ridge worked to ultimately destroy Hiroshima and its inhabitants and then went on to produce nuclear materials throughout the Cold War.  When the Cold War collapsed with the fall of the Soviet Union, the full extent of Oak Ridge’s environmental impact in eastern Tennessee—and also through flows of hazardous materials through creeks, streams, and rivers, to the rest of the country—became known.  Oak Ridge and its contamination would ultimately leave a mark on the country in the form of radioactive and toxic clean up that would take generations to remediate.

Strasser also dives into the family stories about her grandfather George and finds that they all relate, in one form or another, to a history of mental illness and alcohol abuse.  The stress and secrecy of working for Oak Ridge was known to the managers early in the history of the facility, and during the war, psychiatrists were employed to evaluate the staff.  A report on social services at Oak Ridge during the war that Strasser found during her research explains: “Although many people are able to adjust to these conditions as a necessary sacrifice in helping win the war, others, being human, find themselves not always able to ‘take it’ as well as it is desired they should.”

Strasser’s grandfather George was one of those people who could not take it as well as the government desired.  The author discovers his personnel file, and she reads of his frequent absences from work and his stays in sanitariums to rest and recover from alcoholism.  Strasser is even surprised that her grandfather was still employed at Oak Ridge, given his history with mental illness and drinking.

Through dogged research, she develops a fuller picture of her grandfather. “He worked a tremendous number of hours, and when he wasn’t at the plant, he filled his spare time with strenuous, self-imposed tasks.”  Strasser is unable to “sort out where the eccentricities of personality stopped and mental illness began.”  Her grandfather had a breakdown in 1951 that was covered up by the Oak Ridge brass and remained working for fourteen years after that, until 1961, when his career ascent came to a halt.  After that, George would remain a department head while his colleagues rose above him.

The reason for his stalled career becomes apparent as Strasser reads more documents and interviews more of George’s friends and relatives.  That George’s colleagues protected him is known to the Strasser family, but reality is far broader than family legend relates.  He was kept at Oak Ridge for some fifteen to twenty years, even with “his drinking and unpredictable mental health.”  For Strasser, his continual employment reveals the privilege of the leadership at Oak Ridge: they were white men of power who protected their own, even as their work and mistakes put other people in great harm.

Strasser’s book reveals how the difficulties of living a human life can be compounded to the point where we are destroyed as functioning people.  Her grandfather George was brought up in a house with little love, and his mother most probably committed suicide.  That sense of darkness followed George into adulthood.  He then took a job creating weapons of mass destruction, and the cracks of his early life widened in adulthood until he was no longer able to cope with the destruction that  surrounded him.

Strasser’s book is a lesson for us all.  We can easily become what we do, and once that happens, it can be very difficult to erase any harm we have done to ourselves, to other people, and to our planet.  As much as possible, we must make decisions based on their probable impact—something that George Strasser seldom or never did, and he paid a high price for his decisions.  In the end, this well-written and well-researched book is a warning of the high costs of moral accountability that we all must pay for our actions and the actions of others in our sphere of influence.

About the Reviewer

Eric Maroney has published Religious Syncretism, The Other Zions, and The Torah Sutras. He has also published short stories, articles and book reviews. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Trumansburg, New York with his wife and two children.