Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir by Susanne Antonetta

Body Toxic is a striking book, both in the story it has to tell and in the manner in which it’s told. I am impressed, and challenged. It’s complicated.

body toxicSusanne Antonetta grew up in New Jersey, in the Pine Barrens region, a bogland unique in several senses: culturally isolated, and environmentally contaminated on a shocking, unimaginable scale. She and other members of her family have suffered from a list of medical complaints: asthma, endometriosis, a double uterus, growths on the liver, allergies, tumors and cysts, sterility, seizures, manic depression, various cancers; an extremely rare quadruple pregnancy that ended in miscarriage. The families she is descended from include Italian immigrants and those from Barbados, who nevertheless self-identify as English. Both sides of her family exhibit a predilection for silence, non-communication or the glossing over of undesirable details. The legacies Antonetta has inherited, then, are many and complex: cultural (in terms of countries of origin, and the culture of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, and immediate family cultures), environmental and medical (oh, the prodigious and horrifying list), and psychological (mental illness and perspective on the world). Oh, and Susanne Antonetta is not her real name, but an “alter ego”: “I’ve used five or six different pseudonyms in my life. The name I’m using now is not my name but the name of a recovered female relative, a lost woman, and as a recovered woman she’s just a skeleton that must be fleshed out by the same process of fantasizing and filling in that I resist.” Indeed, identity – multiple identities, our attempts to define ourselves and others’ attempts to define us – is another theme throughout.

And that is the complexity of this book, that so much is going on. The story is itself obviously gripping, and brimming with evocative and provocative anecdote. Indeed, Antonetta tells us, “I wrote a piece about the miscarriage and an editor sent it back, calling it ‘raw.’ He suggested I lose the death or the multiple pregnancy, or both… The poem of this body is a bad poem, trite.” The enormous irony, of course, being that she can’t “lose” the death or the multiple pregnancy, or countless other maladies, complaints. All this material aside, though, Body Toxic shines entirely for another reason too: the writing is bold and nuanced, presses and pulls back, reflecting a little the manic depression (or, these days, bipolar disorder) that also waxes and wanes throughout Antonetta’s story. It is, of course, poetic: the author is an acclaimed poet as well, under the name Suzanne Paola.

There are so many threads. Business and government disposed of chemical and radiation waste in Antonetta’s childhood beaches and bogs, through a combination of ignorant, unethical and criminal irresponsibility. (Thus Rachel Carson is named by comparison.) Antonetta’s extended family makes a series of decisions about how to live in this environment, in which they were underinformed but also trusting, stubborn, or willfully ignored the signs. (They mostly still won’t talk about the negative effects.) The family incubates a sexist tradition, favoring the eldest, male grandchild, repeatedly reminding Antonetta explicitly and implicitly of her “place.” She explores her identity as woman: “I spent a lot of my eleventh and twelfth years pining for my menstruation to begin. I can’t remember why”; and later in her inability to reproduce, and what this means for the family at large. (When her family visits relatives back in the Italian community of her father’s origin, his cousin tells him, “You have big children, but I have grandchildren.” There is an implied failure there, which Antonetta ascribes to environmental poisoning, but the family seems to ascribe to Antonetta herself.) There is the fallibility of memory, a theme so common to memoir but one I never tire of, because it – like memory – is different in each interpretation: each memoirist has something new to say. In this case, Antonetta did a lot of drugs, presumably compounding the muddiness of some of her early memories; luckily she was an avid journaler, which allows her to interrogate those documents, artifacts of a young woman she barely knows, itself an interesting and fruitful technique. And then there are all those identities. I love the idea of her father constantly referencing “my daughter” when speaking to her: she finally lets his declarations about that daughter stand, having realized that her father’s daughter is a different person from herself.

I could keep going. This was the challenge and the allure of this book, and the reason I will not quickly forget it: many threads, many layers, told in an ever-evolving voice, ebbing and flowing. The meandering structure made me work to pull it all together, but it was worth it.

I am taking a writing class from the author (under another name, that of the poet, Suzanne Paola) in the coming months, which is why I came to this book in the first place, and now I am both more excited than ever, and intimidated. I recommend Body Toxic for a reading experience to get lost in; for a richly fertile field of topics for discussion with family, book clubs, community groups; for the study of craft; and for the story it (quite disturbingly) tells about the New Jersey Pine Barrens, immigrant experiences, and one woman’s outlandish life.

Rating: 8 newspaper clippings.

2 Responses

  1. […] Birds” by the following convoluted path: I encountered the movie Psycho in two books at once (Body Toxic and Memento Mori), and made a note that I wanted to see it. I realized I’d not seen any […]

  2. […] were frightened by this. But I think that 1960 was a different time. Susanne Antonetta writes in Body Toxic, “Nobody was supposed to talk about Psycho. My parents came home unable to sleep.” I […]

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