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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1944

In Susanne Antonetta’s self-proclaimed “environmental memoir” Body Toxic, the author, an award-winning poet, replaces the neatly chronological, narrative self-presentation conventionally found in memoir with a more experimental project, one that rejects linear exposition as it reformulates and extends a number of contemporary autobiographical paradigms. The foundational landscape in this geography of the self, if not the one most obviously telegraphed in the title, is that of the American family, complete with its own complex roots, vistas, and swamps. Antonetta’s ancestry boasts a classic American hybridity: Creole Caribbean and British on her mother’s side, peasant Italian on her father’s side. She describes how each was brought to U.S. shores in the first quarter of the twentieth century by a patriarch who embraced, then soured on, the elusive promise of American prosperity. Each man also wove his own human frailties into the fabric of his new American life, the most striking being a genetic inheritance of mental illness that Antonetta traces to her Barbadan grandfather. Their dramas and those of their offspring unfold within the complex cultural ecology of the American scene itself. Its seductive mythology of an ever-improving future regarded by each new generation as its birthright has meant, Antonetta wryly comments, that “the country I live in is a trope.”

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Of particular relevance for her story are the fissures that began to appear in that myth around the time Antonetta was born in 1956. Post-World War II triumphalism and U.S. economic supremacy were fostering unprecedented class mobility that benefitted her family’s prospects directly, as did the heightened attention to consumer gratification and the slick modernity made possible by escalating scientific expertise. Yet these developments lay embedded within a corrosive Cold War paranoia that fueled an arms race with unwitting victims at home as well as abroad, and relied on a ruthless technological indifference to the natural world. Even as Antonetta’s father used the G.I. Bill for an education that would enable him to move beyond poverty, the environment in which he situated his young brood was becoming so thoroughly polluted that it would actually compromise the family’s genetic survival.

Here Antonetta’s environmental metaphor finds its most incisive and novel application, for the book’s subtitle announces it to be a grim tale of environmental disaster visited not only upon the neighborhoods and beaches of her childhood but at work in her very DNA. Years of polluting the air, water, and soil by chemical plants, nuclear-tipped missile silos, atomic energy operations, and pesticide spraying have rendered eastern New Jersey’s toxicity the worst in the nation. Antonetta matches the findings of environmental quality monitoring agencies with documented clusters of brain tumors, leukemia, and autism among children reared in its communities to emphasize the ecological devastation wrought both in the natural world outside the human body and in the delicate systems within it. Antonetta has explained that she came to her subject in fits and starts, its ecological vantage point emerging only as her increasing knowledge of New Jersey’s environmental crisis caused her to suspect that “I might have internalized that landscape in a much more literal way than I had ever imagined.” The story she had begun to write about family did not give way to this broader subject but became a dramatic vehicle for humanizing it.

By stretching the framework of the memoir in these ways, Antonetta innovatively challenges standard practices of self-representation. Central to her adult identity is the horror story of her medical history, ranging from recurrent bipolar disorder to chronic heart arrhythmia, thyroid disease, seizures, gynecological abnormalities, and sterility. As such, Body Toxic confirms what philosopher Paul Ricour has called “the absolutely irreducible signification of one’s own body” as a locus of experiential knowledge, and exposes how medical science inscribes its ideology upon that body. Moving beyond the Cartesian emphasis on the disembodied mind as the seat of self-development, Antonetta asks how new knowledge of the brain, genetics, and ecology complicates assumptions of personal agency within the process of identity formation. Her story raises a troubling question: How does one assess the struggle toward personhood of a woman whose extensive crises, mental and physical, can at least in part be traced to malfunctioning biochemical and nervous systems? Acknowledging heredity’s deterministic impact upon individual potential is certainly not new; what distinguishes Body Toxic is its concern with the lifelong damage possible to the genetic blueprint from environmental degradation. While American autobiography has typically mapped the writer’s unique route toward selfhood, Antonetta’s text at times assumes an anti-autobiographical cast; as she edgily announces, “I don’t expect anyone to explain what’s wrong with me. No one can explain what’s wrong with anyone, I don’t think.”

Nonetheless, Antonetta’s motives in undertaking this project clearly include a desire to fathom the psychic ruptures that have tormented her since adolescence. To the degree that contemporary science can provide her with bridges across those gaps, she embraces it, but science cannot do the complete task of self-analysis. Antonetta’s ecofeminist agenda parallels a more familiar personal quest to demystify the crises of her youth in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when the era’s permissiveness combined with her own inner demons to produce years of drug abuse, aborted schooling, dangerous relationships, and family estrangement. Antonetta’s youthful upheaval was perceived and experienced at the time it occurred as interpersonal and psychological; it fed upon a crippling sense of abnormality and alienation that steadily escalated to substance addiction and outright madness. With therapy, the appropriate diagnosis, and eventually the right medication, Antonetta returned to school. Her hard-won success propelled her to a Masters of Fine Arts in poetry; her subsequent success as a poet unfolded alongside a happy marriage to a fellow poet. However, her mental and bodily crises also continued, as did a need to come to terms with her family’s responses to both. As the family puzzles that had initiated this writing project began to coalesce around environmental themes, Antonetta recognized that the trauma of her youth was an extension of unrecognized physical trauma at the genetic, cellular, and systemic levels. While the scientific explanation of this intersection has rescued her from the stigmatizing shame of her nonconformity with the family scripts, it cannot on its own elucidate the whole story of her past dysfunction, rooted as it was in patterns of family behavior that intensified her estrangement.

Antonetta has located the germ of this memoir in a desire to explore her mother’s family, which she describes as a “huge influence” on her life. She speculates most extensively about the interior landscapes of her maternal grandparents, Louis and May Cassill, whose forceful if mismatched personalities appear to have set the conditions of the childhood environment that so influenced Antonetta’s developing subjectivity. Louis’s alternation between impenetrable silences and cryptic outbursts now strikes Antonetta as both the source of her own mother’s remoteness and an early warning of the mental disequilibrium that has shadowed the lives of at least two of his grandchildren. It was Louis who built with his own hands the eccentric beach compound on the Jersey shore where the extended family spent each summer and became strangely addicted to the odd, metallic flavor of the groundwater flowing from the taps. His wife May retreated into an imaginative landscape of her own to escape the disappointing meagerness of her American life, though she did so through an abundance of language rather than its repudiation, relentlessly revising the stories by which she defined herself, her family, and her world (denying, for instance, the biracial lineage of her children). Most galling to Antonetta was May’s Christian Science faith, which taught her that the body is merely an extension of the mind, its health a function of rigorous mental discipline. If Body Toxic repudiates Louis’s silence, it also explodes May’s mind/body equation by documenting, through the irreducible materiality of Antonetta’s chemically damaged amino acids, misfiring neurons, and double uterus, the body’s independent and insistent logic—a logic outside the powers of mind to control, and in fact capable of upending the mind itself.

Nor is this Antonetta’s only revenge against the Cassill legacy. Having already discovered a way out of the familial silence by becoming a poet, she uses Body Toxic to attack other family subterfuges that led her for too long to see herself as “their waste repository,” “a wrong turn” in the family’s American saga. Her coy taunt, “Perhaps I’ll tell,” in the face of her father’s blunt warning that by doing so she is “shitting on the family,” becomes more sympathetic, however, as her parents continue to disparage her pursuit of the truth about the toxic soup in which they all lived for so many years, clearly threatened by the implications of such knowledge for the bourgeois ideal they still pursued. Despite these circumstances and because of her determination to speak honestly, Antonetta does move toward reconciliation not only with her past but with her family, ending the book by looking toward a future now made possible by an adored adopted Korean son, who proves the potential for family she can create for herself outside the scripts imposed by genetics and culture. Her father’s doting attention to the boy Jin, whom he genuinely regards as his heir, reinforces not only the child’s role in healing the rifts within this family but also the peace her father is beginning to make with Antonetta’s quest. Antonetta is not deluded about the stability of this new life, however: The beauty of the Pacific Northwest to which she has relocated is belied by toxic secrets of its own, and her young son suffers from asthma, like millions of other American children in what is an acknowledged epidemiological crisis with indisputable environmental overtones.

Neither does Antonetta gloss over the instability her postmodern moment imposes on all assumed categories of meaning-making, autobiography included. She directly confronts the unreliability of memory itself as an entrée into any truth except that of the writer’s subjectivity: “And the more I remember the more I doubt my memory. No one will answer my questions, so I can be at most the voice of entropy, of history breaking up. This is the fleshing in of a woman’s body. I can give you my diseases but not my name.” Even as she experiences the memoirist’s familiar surprise upon discovering previous selves in the pages of her adolescent journals, she also prompts us to ask how the fact of madness and its pharmacological antidote further complicate the postmodern claim that all identities are fictive constructions. She does not make the reading journey itself any easier, for she eschews chronology, fractures narrative, and shifts abruptly among different modes of expression (poetry, fable, exposition, abstract meditation, dreams) to convey different registers of experience and her responses to it over time. What one is left with, then, is the text itself, at times maddeningly abstract, periodically repetitive, aggressively nonlinear, but cumulatively imaginative and courageous. With poetic shrewdness Antonetta situates the brain itself, object of so much intensive scrutiny from so many disciplines, as a paradoxical counterimage to the grim determinism of her title, for the misfiring brain also serves as an engine of art’s creative discoveries. The inclusion of Body Toxic among The New York Times Notable Books for 2001 is a well-deserved measure of its success.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (April, 2001): 1438.

Booklist 97 (April, 2001): 1438.

E Magazine: The Environmental Magazine 12 (November/December, 2001): 59.

The New York Time Book Review 106 (June 24, 2001): 7.

Publishers Weekly 248 (May 21, 2001): 96.

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