Ethics & the Environment 7.2 (2002) 194-196
[Access article in PDF]
The Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir by Suzanne Antonetta. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2001. Pp. 242. Hardback $26; paper $15.00. ISBN 1-5824-3209-0.
Memoirs rely on the power of recollection to reproduce the inward texture of experience. Autobiographies cast their authors as historians of the self, combing through documents and old letters, checking facts. In her first prose work, the accomplished poet Suzanne Antonetta crosses the boundary between memoir and autobiography. Interweaving the rough textures of memory with slick surfaces of corporate data, she gives us a lyric meditation on the struggle to become undeceived. Recounting both the facts of corporate malfeasance and our fantastic capacity to filter our reality, she captures the relation between failures of understanding and failures of responsibility. She shows us how difficult it is to accept an unofficial truth. The Body Toxic is a thoughtful and obsessively readable contribution to environmental ethics.
Antonetta tells us of childhood exposure to toxic wastes in a penurious and neglected corner of Barnegat Bay. She writes in retrospect, with painfully acquired knowledge of cancer clusters and disease-ridden families. [End Page 194] Her own body's malformed reproductive organs, riddled with tumors, prove spectacularly and tragically infertile when quadruplets spontaneously abort. Sharp backward glances at childhood pleasures; crabbing, berrying, and running through the sweet-smelling spray of DDT, twist us around. Children of the 1960s trail through pesticide as if the weekly truck brought some poisonous ice cream. The mosquitoes thrived: what happened to the children? We revisit these scenes obliquely. Denzer-Schaefer empties its effluent into the bay, cost-efficient Ciba-Geigy rids their chemical wastes through a pipe running straight into the woods, the local farm has become an illegal toxic dump for an unscrupulous contractor. Fire at a nearby nuclear weapons silo has hapless firemen spraying radioactive water into the air. The government responds: they build a chain link fence around the site. A nuclear power plant of the 'old-school' emanates levels of radioactivity to rival Chernobyl. The plant managers assiduously cover it up. This is not some national catalogue of Superfund sites: all take place within a dozen or so miles of a childhood summer house in New Jersey. These shards of a case study are scattered throughout Antonetta's non-linear narrative, piecing together experience, cause and effect.
But this work is more ethically and artistically ambitious than the artificial clarity of case studies. Powerfully, Antonetta shows us the inner tangle of toxic mental life: the depression, listlessness, confusion, and self-medication of barely cognized symptoms. Self-clouding toxicity affects both the body and the mind. She fears that she and other family members are not right in the head. How far can she trust herself, and how far can she trace the causes? Is it heredity? Is it toxicity? Has toxic exposure potentiated some family trait? She reads out strings of hazardous chemicals like a rosary, overdetermining all of her symptoms. The distance between cause and effect shields the guilty. Strong toxicity undermines the ability of its victims to understand and act. The Body Toxic is part case study, part phenomenology of altered consciousness, and all too human. A course in environmental ethics could make imaginative use of its insights into a wide range of anthropocentric concerns. Antonetta considers questions of environmental justice, religious beliefs about the natural order, environmental responsibility and property rights, nuclear risk, and cost-benefit analysis in multi-dimensional form, an entry point for philosophical reflection. The Body Toxic is stimulating, controversial, and beautifully written.
Many great works of literature signal their ethical intent by fostering a sense of identification with their subjects or protagonists. Antonetta's deft [End Page 195] blunt portraiture expands our moral sensibility by showing us how to be concerned for people with whom we are not meant to identify. The story begins before the beginning, with Antonetta's immigrant family. They are strangely familiar and not entirely sympathetic people, isolated between first generation immigrant cultures and fantasies of prosperous America, clinging to islands of...