By Michael Pollan
The New York Times Book Review, June 24, 2001
An Environmental Memoir.
By Susanne Antonetta.
242 pp. Washington:
“This is the story of a body,” Susanne Antonetta tells us near the end of her arresting memoir of a New Jersey girlhood lived in the shadows of the 20th century’s most sinister molecules: the DDT, tritium, chlordane, benzene and plutonium that are now part of the American landscape. Antonetta, the author of three collections of poetry, spent her childhood summers in a bungalow on Barnegat Bay in southern Ocean County, one of the relatively low-income “sacrifice communities” where the toxic wastes of postwar civilization have pooled. We know a little about these places from the news, from books and movies like “Erin Brockovich” and “A Civil Action,” but for the most part we’ve glimpsed them only from a distance, through the eyes of crusading reporters and lawyers. Susanne Antonetta’s considerable achievement in “Body Toxic” is to devise a literary voice for the people who live in such places, for the bodies that have been “charged and reformed by the landscape” of pollution. Hers is one of those bodies.
Antonetta is fully conscious of the ways American writers have traditionally drawn lines of connection between landscape and character, place and psychology. It is precisely these lines she sets out to reconfigure—or blow up. She’s writing against childhood’s summery pastoral, the afternoons spent swimming in the Toms River, crabbing in Potter’s Creek, picking berries on the Bayville Road. All such scenes are doubled here, the childhood idyll recollected in the grown-up knowledge of its poisoning. So Potter’s Creek turns out to flow near Denzer & Schafer X-Ray, a negative-stripping plant that leached lead and chromium and mercury into the water. Along the shores of the Toms River, the Ciba-Geigy Corporation left 14,000 barrels of toxic chemicals and released into the drinking water “a poison plume a mile square and dozens of feet deep.” A nuclear plant five miles from her bungalow left the waters of Oyster Creek “jazzed with radioactive particles.”
Of course there was no way to know then that the landscapes of Antonetta’s childhood harbored such secrets, though hints of the percolating evil do bubble up in her narrative now and then, eruptions of the Superfund Gothic. Her parents on their evening walks notice the growing pile of Union Carbide drums on the old Reich Farm; the tap water “had an odor like food. It tasted like H2O pumped from hell’s drinking fountain: 10 times the legal limit of iron, manganese, a reek of sulfur. We all developed an unaccountable taste for it. Uncle Eddie bottled it and drank it at home.” This is a book in which the simplest acts—washing the dishes, say, or mixing up a pitcher of Tang—take on a retrospective horror. (It is also a book that will set the image of the Garden State back to the time before Springsteen and Roth and McPhee found its romance. This is the Jersey that still smells, of “something mustardy, something corrosive.”)
Like any memoirist, Antonetta is mining her past in the hope of explaining the woman she became, but in this construction of self, chemistry largely takes the place of psychology. This is because the woman she has become is virtually the sum of her body’s betrayals. “I have or have had one spectacular multiple pregnancy, a miscarriage, a radiation-induced tumor, a double uterus, asthma, endometriosis, growths on the liver,” and so on. Elsewhere we learn she is a manic-depressive who has been treated with lithium, has a seizure disorder and is a recovered drug addict.
What Antonetta has written is something new—a postpsychological memoir. For her it is chemistry, more than childhood trauma, that embodies the power of the past to shape the self. While she is an acid (and often quite funny) observer of her dysfunctional family, which brims with nearly as many poisons and unacknowledged secrets as the landscape, the family romance counts for less here than the periodic table and base pairs of DNA. “I wondered how much else of her was in me,” Antonetta writes at one point of her icy mother, “not the what-she-said-to-me and what-I-said-to-her stuff a shrink can pry out but what comes in through the blood and the cells.” She’s thinking here not just of her genetic inheritance but of the real possibility that DDE, a metabolite of DDT that collects in mothers’ milk, is responsible for the fact she has two uteruses and can no longer conceive.
Establishing cause and effect in these matters is never simple, and this presents a problem. Are we prepared, as readers, to accept that the etiology of our narrator’s troubled brain chemistry is to be found in the South Jersey landscape? Or that, as a teenager, she poisoned herself with drugs to compensate for “the years my landscape poisoned me” Not always; the journalist in me bridled occasionally at the easy commerce between biological fact and literary conceit. This is very much a poet’s book, gravitating toward the striking image and away from the linear narrative—which by its nature might have forced the author to try to deal more explicitly with cause and effect than she does.
Instead, Antonetta’s essayistic chapters themselves pool, like migrating chemicals, around such themes as DNA or drugs or water, a familiar literary topos she manages here to completely refresh. Throughout, her approach is associative rather than explanatory, but before long the sheer force of the writing makes the reader accept the agency of her migrating molecules: the DDT moving out of the land to take up residence in her mother’s breast, the calcium-loving isotopes searching out a place to rest in a body’s bones and teeth. (Under a Geiger counter, Ocean County baby teeth “twitch with picocuries of strontium 90.”)
Whatever resistance the reader may erect, Antonetta has anticipated. “I don’t expect anyone to explain what’s wrong with me,” she writes near the end of “Body Toxic.” “No one can explain what’s wrong with anybody, I don’t think. Though I don’t believe in coincidences of this magnitude either: clusters of children with brain disorders, toxic plumes and clouds, radiation spewing in the air. Every vital system of my body disrupted: an arrhythmic heart, a seizing brain, severe allergies, useless reproductive organs. Either it’s Sodom and this is the wrath of God or it’s the wrath of man, which is thoughtless, foolish and much more lasting.”
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. “No one can explain what’s wrong with anybody”: yet why is it we will so much more readily accept the psychological explanations of self and suffering retailed in the common run of novels and literary memoirs? In books, at least, the Oedipal complex still trumps “what comes in through the blood and the cells.” Why not construct a childhood from the influences of loosed electrons and chemicals “fretted into our DNA” rather than the stuff a shrink can pry out? Science has been moving into this territory for some time now; Antonetta’s aim in her “environmental memoir” is to take literature there, too. It is a testament to her fearlessness and talent that she has largely succeeded.