Lindsey A. Freeman’s book “This Atom Bomb in Me” is an unusual and somewhat unsettling juxtaposition of personal childhood nostalgia with a tale of destructive technology and power politics, where the history of a quiet town in Eastern Tennessee is directly connected to the horrific tragedy that took place in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. As Freeman points out, this is not a personal memoir but a humanized history of Oak Ridge, a town which was an important node in the famous Manhattan Project and continues to hold the key to America’s nuclear stockpile, where the world’s largest supply of fissionable uranium is located. Freeman’s historicization of her childhood meaningfully highlights how “people, places, things, histories and memories are entangled and enmeshed with each other, forming mnemonic assemblages”. Furthermore, this book makes a noteworthy contribution as Freeman employs the lesser known ethnographic method of ‘sociological poetry’, a balanced “ratio of fact and human meaning”, which can also be seen as a notable resource that can allow scholars to integrate their personal subjectivity with objective analysis. Bizaa Zeynab Ali speaks to Lindsey Freeman for Public Seminar here, about the negotiations and challenges she faced while recollecting and organizing the unique “sensorium of everyday and extraordinary experiences” in Oak Ridge, for this book.
Public Seminar (PS): How did this project emerge and evolve over time? Can you tell us something about your methodology and how you arrived at the decision to use the method of “sociological poetry” for your narrative. The writing in this book has a very lyrical quality to it and at the same time it can be clearly situated as scholarly research, reflecting a distinctly hybrid form of an academic writing style – somewhat reminiscent of creative nonfiction? Did you make a conscious attempt to incorporate this form and how important was it for your narrative?
Lindsey Freeman (LF): At the beginning of this project, I was writing only for myself to try to understand my complex feelings about this place where I am from. It was only later that I realized that this could be something I could transform into a work other people would read, like an essay or a book. My method involved avoiding doing any initial research — I would let the memories come to me, inspired by Walter Benjamin’s imperative ‘to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.’ Then I would try to write them out in a way that got me closer to the feelings inspired by this place. I did allow myself a bit of research, as a kind of second stage in the process, most of which would eventually appear in the footnotes. The point of the project was to attempt to get at what I knew about this place before I was trying to know it as a sociologist and to understand how it worked and continues to work on me, as a kind of magic geography. I felt that the only way to do this was to go to memory, the senses and the body. Once I thought that this experiment was becoming something coherent — maybe even a book — I tried to place myself in the discipline and go back to my sociological training to think about what form it could take. That’s when I discovered sociological poetry, as a way in and as a way to organize these pieces of writing that I had collected.
I am interested in the hybrid genres between creative non-fiction and experimental kinds of scholarly writing, and I deliberately wanted to place my work in that space. The overall organization is also a reflection of a lot of what I was reading and finding inspiring over the years I was writing the book. It’s a different kind of a book for me and a direction I want to keep moving in. I think this hybrid style is also a way for sociologists and academics to reach a different audience.
PS: Your book is very personal and yet very political. How difficult was it for you to negotiate and navigate your way between these two spheres? You speak about how the connection between Oak Ridge and Hiroshima was the “first big shock” of your life or the “haunting moment” when you were listened to Carl Perkins song “Tennessee”, about how your town “could destroy the world”. It’s also noteworthy that this book has no linear chronology and the narrative flows between different time frames and different spaces. In many ways, your academic engagement seems to provide you with theoretical tools and a language to articulate your negotiations with your personal history. What were the challenges you faced while organizing this work? In what ways, if any, did your academic engagement and research eventually influence or change your personal perspective?
LF: People can tell very sweet stories about their childhood and there are elements of that in my story as well, but what was important to me was to interrupt ideas about innocence. I wanted to write about dark moments, along with the light, in order to show how violence, especially historical violence, interrupts and shapes the present.
Nothing is completely chronological in my narrative because I wanted to mimic the way memory works. I wrote the various sections at different times and then I moved them around to organize them in a way so that they started creating some kind of a flow, and to give the reader an experience of discovery, to bring them along with me instead of being didactic. The organization was something I worked and re-worked constantly over the years I was writing the book.
It’s interesting that the press advertised this book as a memoir because I am not sure that I think of it this way, maybe a “critical memoir.” I see my work more in-line with auto-theory, like what Maggie Nelson does, or, as I call it sociological poetry. I guess it is a kind of memoir, but this book is not really about me. I am certainly in there, along with other members of my family, but I’m trying to get at something larger. I am using my position to get closer to the experience of growing up at the tail end of the Cold War near one of the world’s centers of nuclear science and technology in order to understand how this place shaped my life and continues to shape American and global nuclear culture. One of the models for this work is Walter Benjamin’s A Berlin Childhood around 1900, where he uses vignettes about his childhood to show what it was like to be a person of a particular class, in a certain time and place.
PS : There is a very textured acknowledgement of the political significance of Oak Ridge as a place, in your own narrative. How does this correspond with the collective memory of the town? You point out in this book that “in our collective body, we embody culture and place”, and in this sense this narrative is reflective of a collective memory of an entire intergenerational social network. What kind of response have you received about this book, especially from others who have lived in Oak Ridge or continue to live there? Clearly, from your story one gets a sense that as a “science city for smart people” Oak Ridge was seen in very agentative terms for its “atomic cosmopolitanism” within the local habitus. But very few people knew what was actually going on and during the war time, many people thought that they were simply working to support the Allied war cause. So how did they negotiate collectively and individually with this knowledge?
LF: This is a good time to ask that question because I just came back from Oak Ridge, where I was speaking at a festival. There was a review in the local newspaper, which was very meaningful because the person who wrote it was twenty years older than me and he felt that this narrative really resonated with his own experiences as well. A lot of Oak Ridgers of different generations have told me that they recognize themselves in the book and that is very important to me. Even though the book is quite critical at certain moments, I have not faced much opposition about it in the town and this always surprises me. I guess part of it is that people who don’t like the book are not going to tell me and those who like it do let me know. But so far the book has been really well received and at the Oak Ridge festival I sold out all the books that I brought with me, which I thought was a good sign. The interesting thing is that I have been researching this place for years and years, and obviously also having lived in the area, but I find that every single time I speak in front of the local audience I always learn something new that I wish that I had written about. I think as a scholar, it’s very important to stay connected to the place that you are writing about. First of all to be accountable, but also because you can never get to the end of meaning or understanding. Places are like people, always changing, and unable to be completely known.
In terms of the outlook, Oak Ridge continues to be seen as a science city of smart people. It is a very unique place in East Tennessee, and the country writ large. One reason for this is that it is the site of a National Laboratory; it’s a city built around nuclear science and it’s still one of the major nuclear sites in the world. I believe there is a renewed sense of urgency in thinking about this place in the tense nuclear present, when the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have reset the Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight.
PS : Your negotiations with the politicization of your childhood also speak to a prevalent dilemma in the academia where scholars are usually expected to keep their personal subjectivity away from their objective research. What advice would you give to other scholars, who may find it difficult to disentangle personal memory from their broader research on a subject they have a very personal connection with?
LF: After writing my dissertation in sociology and historical studies, and then writing a book in a more academic style earlier, I think I was freed up a little bit to experiment here. Although I believe that this book is as academic and scholarly as my first book, Longing for the Bomb, and that it has as much rigor, but it just takes a different final form. I think that more spaces are opening up for scholars to be more experimental and I am really excited about that. So I would encourage people to experiment and to combine their creative and critical sociological imaginations. It’s also wonderful to do straight-ahead scholarship, I respect that immensely. Folks do not need to go experimental, simply for the sake of going experimental, but some projects benefit from a different kind of storytelling and a different kind of narrative.
PS: You take inspiration from Benjamin’s work on his childhood in Berlin. Can you tell us about any other academic work or literature that made a strong impression on you? Often when we are working in hybrid spaces, it is difficult to find other examples that you can aspire towards. Are there any particular writers, whose work has shaped your intellectual formation in fundamental ways or was it a mixture of disparate themes? How important was the interdisciplinary resource of memory studies for your work?
LF: This is a great question! There are so many different ways of writing and thinking that I find inspiring from literature, poetry, and social theory. I mentioned already Benjamin’s work on his childhood that was inspired by Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. One thing I find lovely about Benjamin’s book is how small it is as compared to Proust’s seven volumes. I was interested in what you could do in making a condensed form and narrative with just these little bits of writings, kind of like a reduction, to use a cooking term. Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, made of fragments, is also an influence. I am also constantly moved by the work of the anthropologist Kathleen Stewart, especially her book Ordinary Affects, where she composes vignettes of everyday life, which create this incredible texture of the now. I’ll mention just a couple of other texts and theorists I was thinking with while writing this book (although I’m sure I’m not recalling everything that is important here and I’ll kick myself after this goes online): Fred Moten’s idea of critical poetry as a kind of sociological inquiry, Father John Misty’s song “Holy Shit,” Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and for me, always Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.
Memory Studies was definitely very important to me as a field and continues to be so. I was one of the founding members of the Memory Studies group at the New School, which was a major part of my intellectual community in grad school. I think this deeply influenced how I have done my academic work from the very beginning. The group was very interdisciplinary, and it forced me to learn to explain my research to people outside of my specific academic disciplines. Memory studies also takes on its own kind of logic, where there are certain texts in common, both literary and theoretical, and so I see it is a nice, freeing sort of a space for one’s thoughts.
PS: Do you intend to build further upon this work or do you think you are finally done with it? What’s next on your research agenda? Do you have other projects in the works?
LF: I always think I’m done with this story, but then I never really am. With regards to Oak Ridge, I have been working on a new project about ‘atomic gardening’, which is something that started in the 1950’s and 60s, as part of the Atoms for Peace program. A lot of it was propaganda, but it was an initiative for civilians to grow plants with irradiated seeds in their backyards and gardens to try to initiate useful mutations. Atomic gardening was a utopian project that never lived up to its promise and fizzled out at the end of the 1960s, but there are some amazing characters as part of this story, so stay tuned!
I also recently started a project about the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Chernobyl is one of these places that is just immensely hard to understand. Here is another place that I am using my method of sociological poetry. I am not sure that I will be using this method for everything else that I write going forward, but for a story and a place like this it is useful for me to think with. With every project I begin, I never know what I am going to say, or to think, I theorize from writing. So those are the two strains that I am working on at this time, after coming out of this book.
I have also begun writing an ethnography of rain to try to understand how weather affects and shapes social life, particularly in the wet city where I live, Vancouver.
PS: Often in the academic space, there is an underlying tension to resolve the politics underlying your research or to show what is stake in your story. Did you feel compelled to do this in any way? You mention that you started writing for yourself and that you did not want to prove anything to anyone, so did you feel the need to draw conclusions from your story? I ask this because interestingly your book is based on a circular sort of a narrative with no beginning or ending, which seems to encourage the reader to somewhat arrive at their own conclusions. Which debates do you also hope your book will contribute to?
I wanted to get closer to resolving this tension for myself, and I do think this work has a political position. One of the questions I wanted to highlight is: how did it come to be that a person like me, who doesn’t think it’s a good idea to have nuclear weapons — I definitely think it’s a horrible idea – can still love this place and feel special to be connected to it? And how do I make sense of loving this place and these people, who make weapons of mass destruction? How do I think about the hard fact that my family had upward social mobility thanks to nuclear weapons? So I had to work through these questions. This book is at its heart an interrogation of America, and of power, even though it’s centered on nuclear weapons, its an interrogation of the seduction of power writ large. What makes us feel special about our connections to violence? Initially this book was full of fun stories about my grandmother, but then it quickly became something else because fun stories about my grandmother cannot be separate from the atomic bomb — that’s my America. Through my work I hope to make people think about this place, and others like it, and to ask questions, not only about its history but also about what these places are doing now at present. One of the things you can do with a place like Oak Ridge is to hide behind the history, but even right now nuclear work continues, so there really is a sense of presence and urgency in this story.
Lindsey A. Freeman is a writer and sociologist interested in atomic culture, memory, and poetics. Freeman is author of This Atom Bomb in Me (Redwood/Stanford University Press) and Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and Atomic Nostalgia (UNC Press). Originally from Appalachia, Freeman teaches sociology at Simon Fraser University on top of a sci-fi mountain in British Columbia. She writes in order to form blocks of text against oblivion.
Bizaa Zeynab Ali is a doctoral student in Sociology at the New School for Social Research and an editor at Public Seminar.