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.”
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...
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