Authors: Stories Behind the Books, Sarah Alisabeth Fox
Sarah Alisabeth Fox is an over-educated waitress. She is also a author of the new book, Downwind: A People's History of the Nuclear West. Since 2005, Sarah has made it her mission to educate and tell the stories of individuals and families of the western United States who have been exposed and affected by radiation contamination from the Cold War nuclear testing. During the mid twentieth century, possible nuclear war was on the horizon and families across America were being told to prepare for the worst. But while testing for these nuclear weapons were being conducted, populations living near the sites had no idea to prepare for the type of health wars and battles they were going to have to fight for the rest of their lives.
For this portrait, I photographed Sarah at her home surrounded by her research on the table and her inspiration hanging on the wall.
You refer to yourself as an "over-educated waitress", which I think perfectly describes how you manage to carry a server job while dedicating time to be an author, mother, and teacher on this dramatic subject. Can you talk about how you came up with that term and how you balance between the two?
People love to ask their server what they "really do" and I've answered that question thousands of times. My go-to for years was "I'm an historian and a writer, which is why I'll be taking care of you tonight. Who needs a drink to get started?" People always loved that one, but inwardly I raged a little. There's this implicit judgement in the question, that "just waitressing" isn't real work, that we've got to have something better going on with the rest of our time. Part of the rage was probably also the punchline of the joke, that waitressing pays better than doing work in environmental research or the humanities.
To be fair, people don't mean any harm when they ask servers what they "really do," and sometimes the answers are pretty interesting. A lot of folks are in the restaurant industry because it can be made to fit around other priorities like going to school, traveling, raising families, or pursuing less lucrative work like the arts. I've used it for all of those things. You ask about balance- for years I parented during the day, waited tables in the evenings, and wrote late at night when the house was quiet. That's shifting now that my son is in kindergarten. I get to write during the day, which is bizarre and wonderful. I'm not unusual in this industry. Its packed with fascinating and talented people. Many of them are simply trying to pay their bills, and have no interest in selling a story about themselves to the dining public in hopes of a better tip. That's honorable, and it should be enough. The first few times I dropped "overeducated waitress" tableside it was thinly veiled code for "none of your business." But over time the term has become deeply meaningful to me, because I see expertise and education at every socioeconomic strata of society. The world is full of overeducated truck drivers, philosopher janitors, and ditch diggers who are poets and mathematical geniuses. I've worked with cooks who were absolute masters of chemistry, taking care of their families on 11.00 an hour. We are all of us engaged in something else besides what we do for money, but at the end of the day, there is tremendous honor in labor, and I'd like to see society treat its laborers with more respect.
This question of the expertise of ordinary people doing ordinary jobs is actually a big theme of my book, which examines the way citizens without formal training discerned the presence of toxic radiological contamination in their food and communities while doing work like sheep ranching, mining, parenting, and raising food.
Sarah Alisabeth Fox, Author and Over-educated Waitress. Painting: Dear Downwinder by Edward Singer
When and what was the seed that got planted into your brain that started your research about radiation contamination?
In 2004 I moved to Logan, Utah to pursue a master's degree in history. I had gotten a really amazing fellowship that was going to give me two years off of waitressing to focus on my craft as a writer and a researcher, and I moved there interested in looking at an issue related to community environmental politics. I stumbled onto the stories of the downwinders pretty much by accident. I started to read these stories in the newspapers about Utah residents who remembered seeing mushroom clouds as kids in the 1950s, and subsequently observed terrible health problems in their communities, and I just had to know more. When I found out we spent 40 years testing full-scale nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert I was shocked that no one had ever told me about this chapter in history, which I learned has ramifications for absolutely everyone. Ten years later the book came out, and eleven years later, I'm still researching the topic.
Can you talk about the individuals and families you interviewed? Is there a person or particular story that stands out in your mind the most?
I have interviewed dozens and dozens of people about this topic in the last ten years: mothers, ranchers, miners, doctors, farmers, parents, LDS bishops, social workers, indigenous rights activists. What stands out the most about these people is their courage and their eloquence. They have experienced tremendous losses and betrayals and their willingness to tell their story over and over again has helped keep this massive historical and environmental event from being forgotten in the dusty corners of history. Its impossible to choose the story that stands out the most, but I think about Bethany Peterson a lot. She was born in 1981, the same as me, and she died from leukemia as a child in the mid 1980s. Nuclear testing in Nevada had gone underground by then, which contained a lot of the contamination, but ten years of atmospheric nuclear testing during Bethany's parents' childhood had already sowed seeds for radiation-related disease in future generations. Childhood leukemia rates jumped in Utah after nuclear testing began, and we'd probably find increases in other areas as well if we dedicated the research to it. The contamination from nuclear testing made it all the way to the east coast, and pervaded our environment and our food system at points around the country. Its really easy to become disillusioned studying this, to throw up one's hands and say its just too big a mess to solve, but thinking about it in terms of individuals who have been affected counters that impulse for me. The Atomic Energy Commission knew health problems would arise in the populations downwind of their nuclear experiments, but they pushed ahead anyway, often deliberately obscuring the contamination of the environment and the food supply. The excuse was national security, that building and testing the bombs was going to keep the entire nation safe, a greater good than protecting the health of the people who lived in the path of the contamination. We have been asked as a nation to feel comfortable with the concept of collateral damage and necessary sacrifices, but I believe we have a moral responsibility to examine these concepts for human faces. I got to grow up. Bethany didn't. What happened was wrong, and we need to talk about the damage that's been done. I reject a notion of national security that involves this kind of sacrifice. It certainly doesn't make me feel safer.
The cover art is a painting called, Dear Downwinder by Navajo artist, Edward Singer. What or how does it symbolize or represent the people affected by the exposure? Why did you choose this painting for your book cover?
Ed's painting communicates something about Cold War nuclear contamination that my words can't begin to express. Its the only imagery I've ever seen that represents both nuclear testing (mushroom cloud in the top left corner) and the toxic threat of the uranium industry (symbolized by the yellow orb beneath the mushroom cloud.) What's more, it puts the human observer in the forefront of the image, setting us up to think about how we've been affected by these dangerous forces we've unleashed (the slashes of paint that have been drawn from the contaminating forces across the man's body). Ed Singer is an incredibly talented artist, and his skill with color and composition brings this emotional content alive in a specific landscape: his family homeland on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, near Grey Mountain and the Little Colorado River. I was thrilled Ed agreed to let his art grace the cover of my book, and even more thrilled when my parents gifted me the original painting after the book was published. I stare at it every day. I'd urge folks to check out more of his work at http://edsinger.weebly.com/.
Did you happen to find or interview an individual was on the other side of this issue, such as a person who was in the testing process during that time? Was it helpful, frustrating, or have good/bad impact to your research?
There are plenty of people out there, many of them well-established and reputable scholars, who argue there is no connection between radiation exposure from nuclear testing/uranium industry and environmental damage and health problems. I've had a few scholars make that argument to me directly. Its frustrating, because I'm convinced by the data I've seen, but I've also learned that you can get a lot of intelligent people together to look at the same research materials, and they will come to different conclusions. I think the doubters on this topic have gotten plenty of their analysis out there, and so I'll continue to dedicate myself to building a platform for the stories of the downwinders and the uranium affected people. There's a huge need for further medical and environmental research on the implications of the toxic exposure created by the Cold War nuclear industry, and that research won't happen if we skip right over addressing these stories because of concerns about whether or not they're statistically significant.
After speaking to college and university students and the general public about this subject, what do you want or hope that they take away from your research and recorded stories from the population that has been affected?
Awareness, first of all, since the story of nuclear testing and uranium mining in the West was all new material to me as a college student. This is a big part of American history that's almost never discussed, and we need to reframe our conversations about the Cold War, nuclearism, and national security to include this knowledge. I write in the book that "all wars happen in actual places, where actual people live, grow food, and raise children," and this is something I hope resonates with students. The other thing I really hope people come away with is a respect for the notion that people are experts on their own lives. The downwinders and uranium-affected people I interviewed became aware of contamination reaching them because they were attentive to their surroundings, the production of their food, the way environmental forces like wind and water moved through their regions, the patterns of health issues that began to arise in their communities. We're all capable of exercising this kind of awareness and I believe that its really fundamental to participatory democracy. These people who have borne the dreadful consequences of life downwind have become powerhouse organizers, activists, and incredibly effective speakers, and they've achieved huge goals, like the moratorium on nuclear testing and the passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act legislation.
What is after Downwind? Do you think there might be a follow-up?
Oh, I'd love to know what's next. For now, marketing and touring this book is a full-time project. I'm going to be teaching at University of Puget Sound next semester as a guest faculty in Environmental Studies, so I'm looking forward to that. I would be honored if I had a chance to do a second edition of Downwind someday and include some more of the material I've gathered, but I'm also looking forward to diving into new topics. There are so many different issues and narratives that arise when communities confront issues of injustice and environment, and these stories are fascinating to me, and critically important in this day and age. No matter what I do next, I will always continue to advocate for the downwinder stories.
Thank you to Sarah Fox for letting me to include her in this project. Thank you to Edward Singer for allowing me to include your painting in the photos.
To find Sarah's book and to hear more interviews about her research, please visit her website and blog at: http://www.downwindhistory.com/
You can also follow Sarah Fox about upcoming information and speaking on Facebook and Twitter.
To find more of Edward Singer's work, please visit: http://www.edsinger.weebly.com/
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