Playing with poison

A girlhood spent on a polluted coast


by Susanne Antonetta (Counterpoint Press, $26) “Corporate Contamination: Poisoning the American Dream” with Susanne Antonetta and Duff Wilson Stafford Stage, 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Sat., Oct. 20

IN NEW JERSEY, where 111 of the worst Superfund sites crowd the shoreline and leach into the ground and water, no place is more polluted than Ocean County, where poor rural communities have long been unwilling hosts to plants that spew DDT, mercury, cadmium, lead, nuclear waste, and other poisons into the atmosphere.

In her new memoir, aptly titled Body Toxic, Bellingham author Susanne Antonetta looks back on her family roots in Ocean County. It was in this part of southern New Jersey that Antonetta’s grandparents staked their claim to a scrubby patch of coastline in 1932. Twenty years later—four years before Antonetta was born—the Ciba-Geigy Chemical Corporation chose a site along the Toms River, about 4 miles from her grandparents’ home, for its 1,400-acre chemical, dye, and plastics facility. The factory spat out a plume of waste a mile square and a dozen feet deep (“a strange new life like a huge amoeba,” as Antonetta describes it) into the fragile aquifer below. Nearby, an X-ray factory pumped the groundwater full of lead, arsenic, chromium, and mercury. Down the road, drums of Union Carbide waste piled up on a piece of fallow farmland, contaminating groundwater that served two municipal wells. And the oldest nuclear power plant still in operation logged one of the worst radioactive gas releases ever in 1979; by the mid-’80s, Antonetta reports, “our county ranked fourth in the nation for radioactive emissions in the air.”

The story of all these toxins, which made their way into the berries Antonetta picked along the shore, the water she and her family drank, and the crabs and blowfish they harvested at the waterfront, is also Antonetta’s story. Summers spent playing in the shadow of DDT trucks and swimming in a river polluted with an alphabet soup of chemical debris triggered a divided uterus, thyroid tumors, and scrambled DNA in her body. Oddly, Antonetta’s tone is more one of detached resignation than bitterness. “Long before they announced the cancer cluster, the autism cluster, the leukemias and breast cancers of Ocean County, we thought of water, or I did. Pitcher after pitcher of shorewater Tang, scented with rotten egg. Helen and I leaning in, pouring boiling water over the dinner dishes. My uncle Eddie bottling tapwater up and taking it home ‘for the iron,'” Antonetta writes.

ENVIRONMENTAL degradation is, sadly, no longer a revelation. Nor are mental illness and drug abuse, two themes that also run throughout Antonetta’s “environmental memoir.” What makes Body Toxic more than just another tragic but undistinguished tale of triumph over personal trauma is the author’s fascinating family history, which she sandwiches somewhat erratically between the dry details of chemical reactions, nuclear fuel rod storage, and the human consequences of long-term chemical exposure. Her memoir is refreshingly dispassionate and void of sentimentality, though it centers on her childhood struggle to fit into a family that had no place for smart, eccentric girls. She comes at her themes obliquely, addressing them through the lens of a family life that has left her alienated from her parents and scarred (although she never says so directly) by years of “invisibility” within her family, who “thought of girls not as bad but as kind of pointless.”

Aspects of Antonetta’s style are tough to take at first: Like a person stuck in a manic state from which she can’t escape, the author leaps back and forth fitfully among times, places, and themes with little apparent concern for whether the reader will follow. But if the journey jogs back and forth a bit, from Antonetta’s troubled childhood in New Jersey to her more placid adulthood a world away in Bellingham, patient readers will find it worth the effort to hang on for this rocky ride.