- Don’t Ever Whisper: Darlene Keju, Pacific Health Pioneer for Nuclear Survivors, by Giff Johnson
Giff Johnson’s memorable book introduces to the world his late wife, Darlene Keju, and successfully transfers to written form Darlene’s lived passion for improving the health and resiliency of the Marshallese people. Don’t Ever Whisper chronicles Darlene’s journey from being a shy high school student who barely spoke English to becoming a powerful spokesperson and successful community organizer. Johnson describes Darlene’s international speaking engagements that informed outsiders about the social ills connected to US colonization. Through Darlene’s unabashed speeches, audiences learned the depths of the horrors and challenges resulting from US government activities on her home islands. With humility, Johnson (the well-known editor of the Marshall Islands Journal newspaper) shows his respect for the culture and people of the Marshall Islands, his home for many decades. Despite the important role he has played in shaping the media in Oceania, he essentially removes himself from this story of US betrayal and Marshallese perseverance, at times referring to himself in the third person.
Johnson’s book amplifies the voice of Darlene and enables the reader to put a human face on the pain of colonization, particularly the suffering resulting from the nuclear era, which continues to this day. Each of the thousands of Marshallese whose lives mattered less to the US government than its military interests—those whose lives ended prematurely, whose babies were not viable, who served as test subjects for US government biomedical research, who were contracted by the US Department of Energy to “clean-up” radioactive lands, who were forced from their home islands, who endure illness or tend to sick family members, who are displaced for US missile testing, who must migrate to find health care and work—each of these people has a story to tell that is worthy of our understanding. It is through Darlene that we glimpse the tsunami of collective pain that resides in the Marshall Islands that we must grapple with as part of the horrors of nuclear weaponry.
Johnson chronicles his late wife’s anger and concern about the US government’s downplaying of the health impacts resulting from the sixty-seven atmospheric nuclear weapons tests it conducted. As he notes, the US government created “myths” about who was or was not exposed to radiation as a result of US activities and, consequently, who was eligible for the minimal health care provided by the US government. Johnson characterizes these myths as “carefully crafted lies that have guided US policy toward the islands since 1954 and continue to stand as a roadblock for resolving the many problems caused by US nuclear testing” (367). One of the most enduring myths that continues to influence US policies toward the Marshall Islands maintains that the US weapons testing program adversely affected only four atolls out of thirtythree. [End Page 556] Darlene was not from one of those four “exposed” atolls—Bikini and Enewetak, the two ground zero locations, and Rongelap and Utrik, the two communities evacuated for medical experimentation following exposure to the Bravo test’s radioactive fallout on 1 March 1954—and therefore was not eligible to receive US-provided health screening or care. This myth and the consequences it had on Darlene’s ability to receive healthcare, poignantly support Johnson’s contention that modern-day health care challenges are linked to US Cold War decision making.
When Darlene contracted breast cancer, the disease that stole her life, the myths that served as the basis of US public policies meant flying from the Marshall Islands to Hawai‘i for mammograms, surgery, and other treatment. Johnson describes how Darlene had to tear herself away from active engagement in the community, from her pioneering work as a youth and community health educator, from her family, and from her culture to receive care in Hawai‘i. She did not want to leave the Marshalls, but...