Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 75: This Atom Bomb in Me — with Lindsey Freeman

Speakers: Paige Smith, Am Johal, Lindsey Freeman


Paige Smith  0:06  
Hey folks, I'm Paige Smith with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement and is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. This week on Below the Radar Am Johal is joined by sociologist Lindsay Freeman, an SFU researcher and author who is interested in atomic and nuclear cultures, memory, poetics and the rain. She and Am discuss Lindsay's current research project, and her latest book, This Atom Bomb in Me, in which he unpacks the American nuclear culture that permeates the late 1980s and recounts growing up in the radioactive city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Enjoy the episode


Am Johal  0:53  
Welcome to Below the Radar. We're here today with our guest Lindsay Freeman, welcome, Lindsay. 

Lindsey Freeman  0:59  
Thank you, I'm so happy to be here. 

Am Johal  1:01  
Your book has been getting rave reviews, I have it in front of me, This Atom Bomb In Me. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about how the project started. You know, the first sentence starts with "my grandfather was an atomic courier" that's like already a very rich beginning. So wondering if you can share a little bit where the project started and how you came up with it. 

Lindsey Freeman  1:24  
Yeah, thank you very much. I've really been thinking about Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and sort of atomic America, really my whole life because as it starts out in the book that my grandfather was an atomic courier, which means that he transported secret documents and materials across the United States, both during the Manhattan Project and during the Cold War. And so I actually did my dissertation thinking about atomic history and thinking about Oakridge. And I wrote a, I wrote one book about it, and I thought I would be done. And then I realized I had a lot of unanswered questions. And so this project really comes out of my previous work and my own kind of ambivalence about my relationship to atomic America and this town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. 

Am Johal  2:13  
And this isn't a traditional academic book, in a way, there's a lot of personal storytelling, you do go into theoretical questions as well. And wondering, in terms of the form of the book, how you decided to go in this direction, because I find it fascinating. It's very inviting. 

Lindsey Freeman  2:32  
Oh, thank you. I mean, that was the goal, right for it to be inviting. Yeah. Well, I originally started writing this, or parts of this book really just for myself to try to answer some questions I had. And then I delivered them at several conferences and spaces and people seemed to like it. So then I thought, well, maybe this is from beyond just my own questions. And the format itself was inspired by the genre of sociological poetry, which is what C. Wright Mills, the 20th century American sociologist called the work of James A.G. And Mills was really inspired by this and thought that more sociology should include kind of personal emotions and connections with, with the material that people were writing about. So I kind of took that and ran with it. And it gave me kind of some disciplinary positioning, but also allowed for creativity in a different lens. 

Am Johal  3:29  
And when you think about nuclear weapons, atomic weapons, in the kind of popular culture imaginary, the Cold War, all of these resonances come up. And one of the points that you make in the book is that there is a kind of direct connection between Oakridge, Tennessee and Hiroshima. And wondering how that kind of these connections about where one grows up and all of the kind of jobs, employment culture of a place and how it kind of affects all of these lives. 

Lindsey Freeman  3:59
Yeah, in Oakridge, Tennessee, it was a secret city during the Manhattan Project. And its main purpose from the beginning was to create an atomic bomb. And the role that it played in the Manhattan Project and in World War Two was to separate all the uranium that went into the bomb that was dropped in Hiroshima. And the book is kind of a reckoning of my attempt to reckon with that, with that past and sort of understanding what that means. So a very very direct connection with Hiroshima, although in the town, most people have a kind of party line that this was a necessary weapon, and it ended the war and saved lives on both sides, is what they always say. But there is a kind of atomic inevitability in their thinking about that weapon and about the cold war weapons as well that followed.  

Am Johal  4:56  
You bring up pop culture figures in different parts of the book for Mr. Rogers to Bob Ross from public television and I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about those parts of the book. 

Lindsey Freeman  5:06  
Sure. Yeah, one of the things that I wanted to show about the book was how atomic culture just permeated everything. During the time that I grew up in the late cold war in the 1980s. Including, you know, television shows, children's toys, movies, really all culture songs were saturated with this atomic imaginary. And Mr. Rogers actually did a full week on nuclear issues, and really acting for a nuclear peace and nuclear disarmament, and kind of pointing out how the arms race had made people in the world go kind of insane. And I was really struck by remembering that and then going back and watching the episodes, which were pretty radical. And then Bob Ross, you know, who knows I'm saying it's maybe part of the nuclear unconscious, but he paints a mushroom cloud, and I remembered it directly. And then he paints a winter scene over it. And so I wrote this piece, and I was just desperate to use the image. And I thought, There's no way the Bob Ross people are gonna let me use this picture in the book, but much to my delight they did and without a fee or anything, so... 

Am Johal  6:16  
Wow, amazing. 

Lindsey Freeman  6:18

Am Johal  6:19
So at one point in the book, you talk about mooning the Russians, what is mooning the Russians? What was mooning the Russians? What do you mean by that? [laughs]

Lindsey Freeman  6:28  
I never thought in my professional life, I would write about mooning or be asked about it in an interview. So... Well, mooning is where you sort of drop your shorts and show your butt to people, right? And this was a very popular activity between my brother and I, and my brother was five years older than me. And so sometimes, I think he was using this to his advantage. But around my grandparents house, once we were mooning cars, well I was moving cars at his direction. And we would always pretend that there were Russian spies everywhere, you know. And so we would, we would shout out "For America!", you know, at the spies that we imagined.

Am Johal  7:13  
[laughs] Fascinating. And at one point, you talk about radioactive Frogger, can you talk about that a bit? 

Lindsey Freeman  7:20  
Sure. There was a, there was a time in Oakridge in I think it was 1991, the early 90s, where some frogs and some herons, and some geese, kind of collected around a pool that contained what they like to call in a nice way, "legacy materials", which is radioactive wastes from the 1940s and 50s. And what happened there is they decided that some of the goose droppings around town were radioactive, and they had to do something about it. And so they tried to close off this pond so the geese couldn't get into this radioactive material. But when they put a covering over it, it also stopped the herons from eating the frogs who were living in this little pond. And so then the frogs multiplied to such an extent that they leapt out of the pond, that the netting couldn't contain them. And so these frogs were jumping all over time and they were radioactive. So people would run over them with their cars and their tires would become radioactive. And it became a real problem and a national story. So much of the stories around Oakridge are contained but this one did leak out. So you had journalists from all over the country coming to like, look at these radioactive frogs, you know, which they imagined would be extra large or have many eyes or arms and legs coming out of the wrong spots. But they look just like regular frogs, much to people's disappointment. But for me, I just was obsessed with you know, the Atari generation, my brother and I played these computer games and video games and I just could only imagine, you know, trying to move the frogs across the highway to be safe. 

Am Johal  9:06  
Here in Vancouver, there's a number of people that have done different forms of research around the nuclear question and other pieces people like John O'Brien, search people, I know that Roxanne pin chassis in the history department is looking at the French role in Algeria. I'm wondering, have you been in touch with these... have you been in conversation with some of these people? 

Lindsey Freeman  9:29
Yes a lot of people it's it's kind of amazing. Nuclear people always find each other in the scholarly and artistic universe, I feel like. So I've been doing lots of projects with several of these people. Also with a colleague in communications departments, Svitlana Matviyenko and Eldridge Priest from contemporary arts. We went to Chernobyl together on a project. Roxanne and I have had many conversations about the nuclear imaginary both in France and America, and how we all kind of convene in this, in Canada to talk about these issues. So I think that nuclear is, is a pressing question. Still today, as much, or maybe even as more as it was 10 or 20 years ago, because the ecological crisis, I think, multiplies all crises, including the nucular. Yeah.

Am Johal  10:29  
Now you have a few new research projects that you're working on, For The Cosmos to Bore Us, The Tiny Uncanny, and a few other ones, I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about the research that you're doing now? 

Lindsey Freeman  10:43  
Sure. I keep trying to get away from nuclear things a little bit. So I've been doing what I've considered as a side project that I some time want to move into a more central project about miniatures for many years. And what I'm interested in there is kind of our relationship with scale.

Lindsey Freeman  11:02
And thinking about what can be contained and what exceeds something in terms of size compared to the human scale. So The Tiny Uncanny, I'm writing as a series of thesis on what miniatures do and mean to people. So that's ongoing, I think I've maybe got 13 thesis I'm shooting for 99. So we'll see. For The Cosmos to Bore Us really is to understand how atmosphere affects social life. So I'm thinking a lot about how the rainy atmosphere of Vancouver influences how we interact or, or don't interact with each other. And that's also folding in some peculiarities of ecological crisis as well, in dealing with atmosphere in a pretty general sense. But trying to, I always try to hook it on, hook my work on to something local, so that I can have some real empirical evidence. So it's, it's theoretically informed, but also I'm trying to get to the nitty gritty details of, of the life that I'm living, and others around me. And the Chernobyl project is coming out of the invitation to visit the site. And really just trying to grapple with, with what can be said about a place that's so talked about, and, and really sacrificed and sanctified for its relationship to disaster. 

Am Johal  12:26  
And I guess, in the Chernobyl context, it's a site that's kind of difficult to visit in many ways. It's in the imaginary in a historical sense, but at least in the Western context, it's hard to know what's happening there now, or how to look at it now. And I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about your, your, your visit there, and the actual like point of arrival on its edges. And what comes up for you in, in in visiting and researching and looking at it now. Yeah, to go to Chernobyl, you have to have a guide. And when you go, someone takes you through the site, and you're pretty closely watched, just so they try to make sure that I mean, it's kind of a dangerous place. I mean, we know from radiation, but also because when you go it was a city that is eroding. So just the materiality of the space is unstable. And there's lots of holes from where the infrastructure of the city has dissolved or fallen apart, like manholes and things. So you have to be quite careful. And I think that's something I didn't really expect to be thinking about. It feels like a site that is both, of course, in our imagination taken over by nature. But what I felt really the most was the urban-ness of the city, Pripyat. And what surprised me was how active the site still is. So the Chernobyl nuclear power plant still has workers going to it every day.

Lindsey Freeman  14:04  
And I think that we imagine this as a total ghost land, and it's really not, and the disaster is still unfolding, right? So people are still working with that. So I think I'm trying to think on a very big scale. So like the half life of plutonium is 24,000 years. And so just trying to imagine what we can do if we parse out human scale, you know, the scale of the disaster, the scale of the trees living there of the voles that are having many, many generations of mutations, all of these things I'm trying to work with. So it's quite difficult. It's quite difficult. But what is emerging for me is thinking about these different relationships between the ecological and the disastrous, and the former utopian aspirations of the place. 

Am Johal  14:57  
When I hear you use the word disaster I think of blood show and some other thinkers as well and wondering, you know, who are you reading in relation to thinking these questions through? 

Lindsey Freeman  15:10  
I'm trying to read just everything, to be honest. I've read a lot about the histories of Chernobyl. And now I'm, I'm kind of thinking with, I'm trying to think about time. So I'm reading a lot of weird time schedules. Like I'm reading a lot of Karen Barad with bringing a kind of folding in physics. And I'm also like, reading trying to read a lot of local Ukrainian writers that were writing immediately after the disaster or close to the disaster, as well. So I'm still really grappling with, with what the major, I guess, if you're thinking about the lit review, that would be you know, that undergirding the work. I'm still really, it's huge for me right now. Yeah. 

Am Johal  16:04  
Now, coming from Tennessee, to arriving in Vancouver, what have you found the most challenging or interesting things in terms of being in Vancouver now? 

Lindsey Freeman  16:15  
Oh, wow. I mean, I haven't lived in Tennessee for quite some time. Which is part of I think, how I can I can I can think about it more analytically, I guess. But coming to Vancouver has been wonderful. I mean, first of all, one thing I noticed is just the natural beauty and my relationship with nature is quite different than before. I was living in New York for many, many years. And weirdly, it has some resonances with how I grew up, which is spending a lot of time in the woods and running even though the Appalachian Mountains are quite different than the mountains here. So in a weird way, it feels a bit homey. Yeah and I'm just trying to think about the, you know, the rainy atmosphere, the seasonal atmosphere, and  how to go about that. One thing that I really love is because I'm into utopias, and obviously from what I've discussed today, I really love the Burnaby campus and this kind of imagination of you know, this sort of concrete utopian, you know, space for the mind on the mountain. I think it's been one of my delights since moving here. 

Am Johal  17:24
That's amazing because you might be in the minority on that one. But if you're on the Arthur Erickson side you might want to visit University of Lethbridge too because that's another one that he designed. 

Lindsey Freeman  17:34  
Yeah, I think I am in the minority. 

[both laugh]

Am Johal  17:38  
Thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar. 

Lindsey Freeman  17:40  
Thank you so much. It was delightful.


Paige Smith  17:45  
Thanks for tuning in to hear from our guests Lindsay Freeman. You can find her book This Atom Bomb in Me from Stanford University Press and you can read more about her work at Lindsay Freeman dot net. Subscribe and follow us at BTR underscore pod on Twitter to get the latest from Below the Radar. Thanks again.


Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
September 22, 2020

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