Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

In her 'deeply research memoir,' writer Emily Strasser explores the history of nuclear weapons

A person in a black turtleneck poses for a photo
Minneapolis author Emily Strasser spent years researching her family's connection with nuclear arms production during WWII and in the years following. Her resulting memoir "Half-Life of a Secret: Reckoning with a Hidden History" reveals the far-reaching impacts of the manufacturing of atomic bombs.
Alex Carroll Photography

Minneapolis writer Emily Strasser has a brand new book inspired by a curious picture that hung in her Grandmother's house. Her questions about that image set her on a years long exploration of her family history, and its disturbing connections to global conflict.

MPR News reporter Euan Kerr spoke with author Emily Strasser about her new book, ‘Half-Life of a Secret: Reckoning with a Hidden History’ comes out on April 4. Strasser will read from her book at Magers and Quinn bookstore in Uptown Minneapolis at 7 p.m.

Listen to an excerpt of Emily Strasser reading from her new book here:

Listen to Emily Strasser read the opening to her memoir "Half-Life of a Secret Reckoning with a Secret History."

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

ANNOUNCER: Minneapolis writer Emily Strasser has a brand new book inspired by a curious picture that hung in her grandmother's house. Her questions about that image set her on a years-long exploration of her family history and its disturbing connections to a global conflict. She talked with NPR's Euan Kerr.

EUAN KERR: So welcome. Thank you very much for coming in today to talk about this fascinating-- well, I try to think how do you describe this? Because in some ways it's a memoir, but I mean, a lot of the stuff is from before when you were born.

EMILY STRASSER: Sure. It is hard to categorize it. I call it a deeply researched memoir. The memoir part really is my journey to uncover this history through researching the past, researching the present, interviewing other people, drawing on other people's memories. So it is a memoir in the sense that it's following a personal journey, but its scope is-- it's much broader than my own life.

EUAN KERR: It all starts with this picture. First of all, describe the picture for us.

EMILY STRASSER: Sure. So there was this photograph of my grandfather, who I never knew. He died before I was born. And he was standing in front of a nuclear explosion-- what I now understand to be a nuclear test blast. And it hung above the bed where I slept when I visited my grandmother's house. I didn't know what it was, and I didn't really ask about it.

EUAN KERR: But then, you did.

EMILY STRASSER: Then I did. Yeah. So it was about-- somewhere along the way, I learned that my grandfather had worked on nuclear weapons in the Manhattan Project and that his work had wound up in the bomb that was ultimately dropped on Hiroshima. And I didn't think much about that history or much about that image until I was in college.

And I was about to graduate and sort of thinking about who I was and what kind of life I was going to lead. And I suddenly had this burning memory of this photograph, and I became kind of obsessed. I started researching what does it mean, what did my grandfather do-- asking questions about him and his life.

EUAN KERR: Was there something very specific about it, or just the idea of what this represented?

EMILY STRASSER: There are a few things, I guess. It didn't align with the way I understood my family to be. So I grew up. I went to Quaker school-- you know, pacifist environment. We couldn't have any toys that looked like guns, so our water guns were like little dolphins squirting from their mouths or little seahorses.

So this didn't align with who I understood to be, and that started to bother me. Something else that happened around that time was the catastrophic coal ash spill that happened in Kingston, Tennessee, which is right across the lake from where my grandmother lived and where I saw this photograph. That was in December of 2008.

Millions of tons of toxic coal ash exploded from this coal-fired plant. It was the waste, the byproduct of this coal-burning process. And it made a place that felt safe to me feel suddenly fragile and unsafe. And I found out in doing a little bit of research about that, that that plant had actually been built in order to power the nuclear operations at the place where my grandfather worked.

And so there was this link in my mind about what happens when secrecy kind of builds up. There can be this explosion.

EUAN KERR: You delve into what happened at Oak Ridge, in this community. And it turns out that it was a place where a lot of people wanted to work, but also it was quite unsettling.

EMILY STRASSER: Sure. Yeah, so it's--

EUAN KERR: And not just because of the bomb stuff. It was just an unsettling place.

EMILY STRASSER: Yeah, absolutely. It's sometimes remembered as this sort of utopia in popular memory. The bulk of the population there were young. There were a lot of single people. They were patriotic, doing a war job.

And so for some people, there was a lot of excitement about being part of some big secret project. And there were square dances and there were movies and there were chances for singles to meet each other. So they were working hard and playing hard.

There was also pretty disturbing discrimination there. So about 10% of the workforce were Black African-Americans from around the Southeast. They did the lowest, most dangerous jobs. And while segregation in the South wasn't uncommon, this was something-- this was a next level of segregation.

People were-- we lived in these really tiny kind of ramshackle, what were called hutments. Overcrowded, poorly ventilated-- they were literally fenced from the rest of the reservation. So it was pretty egregious, and I write about the ways that this culture of secrecy also lent itself to other injustices such as that and that I see as sort of culminating in this terrible thing that happened.

A Black cement worker was in a car accident, and when they went to set his legs, they decided they were going to use him as the first experimental subject testing the effects of plutonium on a human body. He was the first of 18 people-- the only one who was tested in Oak Ridge, but this happened throughout the Manhattan Project-- without his consent and without asking him.

After the fact, the various doctors involved-- it was sort of a game of hot potato. Nobody wanted to take responsibility. Everyone wanted to say, oh, it was this other guy who did this.

And so I think it bred this culture where that could happen, where environmental contamination could happen because you weren't taking responsibility for that. And that kept on, past the end of the war.

EUAN KERR: Your exposure to this picture led you to explore your family, then Oak Ridge, and then it got bigger-- the implications of what happened with the bombs. You also took a trip to Japan. What was that like for Emily Strasser? (LAUGHING)

EMILY STRASSER: Sure. It was a lot to take on. And there were times when I felt out of my depth. And at the same time, I really felt this responsibility to look past the immediate and past the family. And maybe part of that was because I didn't feel that the way the history had been told or the way I had learned this history had looked at the larger picture.

You know, especially when speaking about Hiroshima, a lot of the way that the Oak Ridge story is told is without much attention to Hiroshima, which is kind of shocking. Because that is the end product of the work they did during the war was this devastation of a civilian population. I felt a responsibility to trace it all the way there.

EUAN KERR: There must have been moments when you doubted that the book that sits in front of you would actually really come to fruition. It must be tremendous to actually have that sitting there.

EMILY STRASSER: Yeah. It's amazing when you think of the mess of writing and the mess of research. You know, I don't know. I maybe wrote 1,000 pages that then got cut-- all the things I read that didn't necessarily make it into that, which I think was that all of those things were necessary work. At the end, the research I did that doesn't explicitly make it into the book, you know, informs what does make it into the book.

But it is wild to see a packaged object, and sort of terrifying to be honest. Because I worked on this alone. I mean, I had a writing community and I had people supporting me, but it's still most of the time me alone in a room trying to make sense of it all. And then, you know, you put it out into the world and anyone can read it and have responses. Which I want responses, but it is vulnerable.

EUAN KERR: I always tend to ask authors, well, what's next? And usually people say, well, I don't want to say. But I have to ask you what's next because this has been so much part of your life for so long. I mean, is there a gaping maw now? Or did you just get back to go to real life?

EMILY STRASSER: Yeah. That's a really good question. It is a bit of an existential moment. This was an exhausting project to complete, and I need a little rest. And I will keep writing, and I don't know what my next book is.

But what I'm excited to do is sort of play and follow my curiosity and write shorter pieces, write essays-- who knows, maybe I'll try fiction-- and find my way to something larger. Because I have written other things outside of this project in the meantime, but there were also times when I was interested in something that I didn't let myself explore because I felt like I had to stay focused. And so having this done, I have a freedom to explore.

EUAN KERR: Emily Strasser, the author of Half Life of a Secret Reckoning with a Hidden History, thank you very much for coming in.

EMILY STRASSER: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.

ANNOUNCER: That was Euan Kerr talking with author Emily Strasser. Her book, Half Life of a Secret Reckoning with a Hidden History, comes out tomorrow. You can see Emily tomorrow night reading from her book. She'll be at Magers & Quinn Bookstore in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis at 7:00 PM.

By the way, arts programming at MPR News is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendments Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

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