Saturday, July 13, 2013

Insights from the Atomic City

I was fortunate enough to hear Kathleen Flenikken on my way home from an informal dinner meeting last Thursday night.  In a way I was primed for for it because I had just finished a several hour discussion with another psychiatrist.  We ended on a high note - the importance of maintaining your professional inspiration in an era of drudgery and manipulation.  It was about an hour drive back home and I was listening to Minnesota Public Radio.  Despite being the object of Saturday Night Live satire, public radio offers listeners a unique look into the consciousness of very bright people who you would never hear, see or read in more mainstream media.  Ms. Flennikken is no exception.

She was born and raised in Richland, Washington a city built for workers of the Hanford Nuclear Facility.  She is currently the Washington State Poet Laureate.  On the radio program she described her growning up in Richland as the daughter of a nuclear scientist who encouraged her interest in science. She got a degree in civil engineering and returned to the Hanford Nuclear Site to work for 8 years as a civil engineer and hydrologist.  She describes an incident where she became contaminated with nuclear waste and had to be scrubbed free of that material.   More importantly she describes the psychological effect that growing up in this nuclear community and then realizing in retrospect that there were problems that people were either not aware of at the time or they were not told about them.

She describes the excitement of living in an "Atomic City" when she was a kid.  An atom logo was everywhere including the local theatre marquis.  There was an attitude within the town that the scientists, engineers, and administrators that worked there had an understanding of a complicated science.  They were cutting edge.  That buffered them against the outside opinion that nuclear science and industry were potentially dangerous.  Hanford was previously described in the program as a site that had 8 nuclear reactors running to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons and a ninth that was used on a flexible basis for the production of plutonium or fuel for power plants.  It is currently the site of an ongoing multibillion dollar clean up ever since it closed in 1986.  

Ms. Flenniken describes the emotional aspects of her experience and also describes it very clearly in her poetry.  Loyalty to the community was important.  Talking about the risks from nuclear work and what might have not been said was fair game for the residents of Richland but she bristled when criticism came from the outside.  At times when she was concerned about her frame of reference she used the death of a friend's father from radiation induced illness as a reality check.  At one point she makes this remark that I thought was absolutely brilliant and is an important lesson for the times:

"There is this idea out there that there are evil people doing evil things.  The truth is much more dangerous.  Because it's really very good people...very ethical people making lots of mistakes.  There is more a lesson of truth in that than in the idea of some kind of evil doer."  (At about the 10:22 mark of the audio file).

That remark hit me like a bolt of lightening.  Part of it was the presentation.  Ms. Flenniken presents this in a very matter of fact manner.  It was delivered like I imagined a civil engineer might discuss the facts.  As you get older, it is obvious to most people that conflicts are a lot more complex than you thought they were when you were younger.  Apart from the physical demands of the job, military recruits are more psychologically malleable for that reason.  In this case, we have a person who survived a dangerous environment, but an environment that was portrayed in a different way to her community.  She developed a loyalty to that community to the point that she remains conflicted today about what happened and how she should respond.  The problem is captured in her remark.

More generally, I think about a lot of political and professional chaos and how her analysis might apply.  From unnecessary wars to stigma against the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness to ineffective advocacy - emotional biases clouding logical analysis of the situation at every step of the way.  This program is also a good illustration of the power of the spoken word as opposed to the written word and how eloquent a person can be.  Listen to this program and see what you think.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

The Story.  Poetry From the Atomic City.  July 11, 2013.

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