When you’re a kid, disaster is the sound of silence. Of adults’ metallic whispers like needles in your ears. It tastes like soda, sweet and carbonated, tickling your nose and throat as you swallow, then sloshing in your overfull stomach.
It is also the words of a forbidden book.
It begins as a gift–an early dismissal following an accident at TMI, the nuclear power plant a few miles from our elementary school. We cheer. Mr. Keim tells us to hush. The principal tells us to move quickly to the buses. Mr. Busdriver (His nickname. We think are clever.) insists we keep the windows closed. It’s hot, we whine. You haven’t seen hot yet, he says. He is sweaty and nervous and hollers when one of the troublemaker boys tries sneaking one open. We pout. How’re we supposed to get out if we can’t open anything?
Nearly home, the bus shudders, then stops along Stony Creek Road. Broken. He radios for a replacement. In March 1979, there are no cell phones and no pay phones along this deserted stretch. We amuse ourselves. We talk him into releasing us along the roadside, bordered by woods and the actual Stony Creek farther off. The boys scuff their sneakers and hurl rocks into the trees. Some of us remain on the bus, windows wide to the deadly air.
Some of us joke about green men. About growing extra limbs. Someone pretends to barf. Another covers his hair with his hands. We laugh. We are immortal.
That night, my family evacuates to my aunt’s house near Allentown.
When you’re a kid, you are the center of your own universe, assigning value to events according to their impact on your own well-being. You grow out of this ideation, of course–at least most of us do–and while “growing up” seems paradoxically an infinite yet overnight process, it is not linear. It is an ongoing series of intersections and detours, wrong turns and roadblocks.
TMI is Three Mile Island, the site of the worst nuclear disaster in US history.
For me it is also, Too Much Information.
At my aunt’s house the adults watch TV and tell the children to go play or do homework. We pretend to listen. Then, there is no cable TV news, no 24-hour news cycle of updates. Just radio and network news, around which the adults hover. Our questions are ignored or shushed. We can only watch and listen on the fringes, if we want to know.
I want to know.
My memory conflates the timeline and pushes everyone to the background except me, my mother, and the man on TV who is also, impossibly, the man on the radio.
I’m bored. I want something to happen. The bubble to burst. Fire. Catastrophe. Anything except the humming buzz of adults chewing uncertainty, which hurts my stomach.
My aunt sends me downstairs to pick a book from her shelves because I’ve already finished the ones I brought. I pick Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber, an allegedly true story of a woman with sixteen personalities. At 500+ pages, it seems like an amped-up version of the mysteries I love. It isn’t, but by the time I realize that I am hooked. Part of me knows my mother won’t want me to read it. Most of me doesn’t care. When caught in the web of a particularly good read, I read with a single-minded determination to know, regardless.
Then one night of our stay, I get too brave and bring the book with me into the room where the adults watch the nightly news. Sure enough, my mother takes it from me.
When we pack to return home, I take it back.
By April 9, the crisis has ended. The damaged Unit 2 reactor is secured, everyone returns home, life returns to normal.
Except it doesn’t.
In the intervening years, scientists and politicians continue to debate TMI’s effects on health and public energy policy as the undamaged Unit 1 continues to produce electricity. “Sybil’s” harrowing experience of childhood abuse precipitates a spike in reported cases of dissociative identity disorder from hundreds to thousands.
Then “Sybil” recants her narrative. And by the end of September 2019, TMI’s Unit 1 will close, its owner, Exelon, citing declining profitability.
I wonder, will I still be able to see its cooling tower alongside the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a reminder of my exit?
Home, I finish reading and find, paradoxically, I have more questions than answers. More information than knowledge. I can’t ask anyone about Sybil, and no one can adequately explain the events at TMI. I feel disoriented. As if in my absence, the landscape of my world has been exploded. Deliberately rearranged by adults trying and failing to hide their culpability and ignorance.
Why can’t anyone tell me what I need to know?
Eventually, my aunt calls asking the whereabouts of her book. I am made to apologize.
But I am not sorry.