The Bomb Joins the Family

“We were blinded by the beauty of our weapons. (Leonard Cohen)

Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity,life, the freedom of human beings.”  (St. John Paul II)

“It is a dangerous time to be loud, and an even more dangerous time to be silent. Either way, the past and future are always with us”. (Nora Bateson)

    Some years ago, systemic therapist Bert Hellinger gave a talk about the “Greater Forces” that shape, individual lives, relationships and family systems, often reverberating  through multiple generations . As a social traumatologist, I found this to be especially important information for healers, helpers, and other professionals working with trauma, and especially family therapists. During my own years of marriage and family therapy studies, the emphasis was often on specific personalities, family stories, with a nod to repeating patterns mapped in family tree genograms, without explanation as to how  such patterns got started and how they might be resolved. Even more disappointing was that replicating patterns in relation to trauma were mostly dismissed as coincidence. While I addressed the issue of replicating patterns, in individual, family and larger systems, in the first volume of Trauma: Time, Space and Fractals (2012), it seems clear that the role of  collective events remains something of a blind-spot in many trauma therapies.

     At the time of his initial lecture, Hellinger understood these Greater Forces to include war, famine, genocide, epidemics, immigration, emigration, natural disasters, political unrest, and economic collapse. Any and all of these forces will often overlap. At this point, I would add radiation, unleashed with nuclear weapons since science split the atom in the 1940.’s, as yet another powerful shaping force. While the overall impact of  these weapons, and the world-wide environmental contamination of our planet is an important factor in understanding global trauma, my primary focus for now will remain on the impact of nuclear weapons on relationships and families.

     The importance of considering  nuclear weapons and radiation contamination, as a possible factor in relationship, first came to my attention in a systemic context, in a  session which occurred early in 2000 in Washington, D.C.  Bert Hellinger was working in a group setting with a young woman reporting relationship difficulties. More  specifically, her marriage was becoming increasingly distanced, as her husband said that he was afraid of her. She responded with surprise and then confusion when, Bert simply asked, “are you dangerous?”

     Further inquiry revealed that while she is American, her husband is Japanese and her father had a strong loyalty to a specific American military unit that had unleashed  atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It soon became clear in a constellation with representatives placed for the couple, her father, an atomic bomb, and Japanese victims; that the client’s loyalty with her father who was loyal to the bomb, and her longing to be his favorite, was terrifying to a husband who could see only the Japanese victims. The bomb, represented by the tallest man in the room, stood immobile, emitting an enormous sense of presence and power. This session is described in greater detail in Volume I of, Trauma: Time, Space and Fractals.

     With these two people, we see an instance where an unconscious trauma-bond often takes the shape of an erotic or other form of attraction between members of warring or otherwise conflicting cultures. From a systemic perspective, these attractions are likely to arise in service of another powerful force which seeks to move from separation toward reconciliation and unity. Resolution becomes more likely if participants are willing and able to become aware of which unresolved collective  issues may have drawn them together. At this point, it can then become easier to see how these unresolved conflicts, often between victims and perpetrators, are also replicating within a couple, or other partnership dynamics.

     While it may appear that our Second World War settled the conflict between the USA and Japan, reality is quite different, given a well known fact that truth is a casualty of war, as well as  the fact that history is written by winners. Nevertheless, history has also shown that whatever has been lied about, covered-up or denied,  will likely surface in one form or another within trans-generational, victim/perpetrator dynamics; often in descendants of families and others involved in one way or another. While our Pacific conflict ostensibly began with a surprise, unprovoked attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, with the USA in the role of victim; declassified files in our  Freedom of Information Act, reveal that this attack was neither  unprovoked nor a surprise. Our subsequent thermonuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in  August 1945, was pitched to patriotic Americans as a justified, “victim’s retailation” along with Orwellian pronouncements that nuclear weapons, “save lives and bring peace”. Japan remains an occupied country, as theirs and our nuclear nightmare continues to replicate in the aftermath of the  March 11, 2011 ongoing  triple-meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex. Also troubling is Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe’s observation: “The nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant was like a third atomic-bombing that Japan inflicted on itself”. And, as novelist Haruki Murakami summarized in June 2011: “While we are the victims, we are also the perpetrators”. As a result of the Fukushima triple-meltdown, ongoing, Japan now has another generation of “hibakusha” survivors of nuclear radiation.

     Moving accounts of the effect of our bombs on Japanese familes is set forth by  painstaking research and other accounts in R.J. Lifton, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (1967). During a seminar in Peru I encountered a trans-generational symptom while working with a young Japanese lady whose grandmother had immigrated from Hiroshima. She was puzzled by sudden explosions of destructive anger, which she shared with both her mother and grandmother. Over the years, I have come to recognize these “sudden, destructive explosions” experienced by those in family systems exposed to the bomb.

     This issue of the bomb having a role in shaping relationships, presented very early in my psychotherapy practice and this reality only became clear with hindsight. I discussed this at length in the first volume in this series, in the story of Rachel and Zack, and how Rachel’s life and health remained connected to the bomb, years after Zack’s death from radiation-induced melanoma. Briefly, the first indication that radiation was a factor in their relationship was revealed in our first session, where Rachel expressed her grief at the loss of 13 of their cats from leukemia, which can be caused by radiation, but I didn’t  see the connection to the couple’s history, or the bomb, at that time. Attempts at traditional couple’s therapy were unsuccessful and they divorced. Years later, I received a letter from Rachel informing me of Zack’s death as well as  some new information that finally shed some light upon their troubled relationship.

     Rachel’s father had been one of the  scientists involved in the early development of nuclear weapons. During Zack’s military career he had served in the Navy and was among the many thousands ordered to witness multiple atomic and hydrogen-bomb testing events in the  South Pacific. Between 1946 and1958, the United States detonated 67 nuclear devices in the Marshall Islands, and the fallout is entombed within the hastily constructed Runit Dome, now cracked and continuing to leak into the surrounding ocean. The number and extent of casualties, health problems, (cancer and birth defects) and the extent of environmental damage in this region remains unknown since our nuclear establishment declines to investigate the full impact of their multiple detonations.

During these detonations, troops were given no protective gear and most wore only sunglasses, sandals and swim trunks. From a systemic perspective, Rachel’s father had a major role in creating the nuclear weapons that sealed Zack’s fate. After a painful struggle with the increasing debilitating effects of malignant melanoma, Zack committed suicide with a pistol his uncle brought back from the Navy. Eventually, Rachel achieved a modicum of peace in her understanding that she and Zack had lived within a thermonuclear trauma-bond. They had no children, as radiation had rendered Zack sterile. While her new cats were healthy, Rachel, now into her eighties, was also diagnosed with melanoma and following surgery, understandably reluctant to accept any form of cancer treatment that involved radiation therapy.

     When Rachel married Zack she was unaware of his military history or that he had been forced to sign an oath of secrecy. Troops were forbidden to discuss their experiences of exposure to vast amounts of ionizing radiation, even amongst themselves. Violators were subject to a $10,000 penalty and five to ten years in prison. Many survivors, unaware that President Clinton lifted this oath in 1994, never shared their experiences with family members, and took their secrets to the grave. As the truth of Zack’s exposure emerged, although divorced, he and Rachel began attending meetings for the National Association of Atomic Veterans, originally 15,000 strong, which continued to challenge our government’s refusal to afford any kind of compensation or acknowledgement of, often lethal, health problems related to radiation exposure. The code name for the tests in the Marshall Islands was “Operation Crossroads”, which involved 42,000 veterans, with more than 27,000 dead by the  1980s. “While it was a relief to find others with similar stories, the couple eventually stopped attending meetings which contained more and more grieving family members and fewer and fewer veterans. When the United States used nuclear weapons against the Japanese, where conservative estimates stated that at least 250,000 died in the immediate aftermath. and yet, few realize that our country deployed similar weapons, accidently, on a comparable scale, against our own troops. (Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War II, The New Press, New York and London,1984).

     In a short documentary by Morgan Knibbe featuring Atomic Veterans, survivors described their shared experiences. Nearly all spoke of the atomic bomb as a “horrifyingly, otherworldly thing of ghastly, multicolored beauty”, that continued on to haunt their lives. From 1946-1992, the United States government conducted more than a thousand nuclear tests, during which unwitting troops were exposed to high levels of ionizing radiation; carcinogenic, even at low doses. In Knibbe’s film, they describe blasts that knocked them to the ground, made night brighter than daylight, and that they could see the bones and blood vessels of their hands. All had various ailments, including cancer, for which they have consistently been denied compensation or treatment. (Emily Bruder, “Atomic Veterans Were Silent. Now They’re Talking”,, May 27, 2019).

     Apart from placing troops in carcinogenic proximity to nuclear blasts, the U.S. Government also funded experiments that put radioactive material directly into people’s bodies, including plutonium, polonium, radon and thorium. According to a 1968 report to Congress: “American Nuclear Guinea Pigs”: Three Decades of Radiation Experiments on U.S. Citizens'”, our government also participated in dozens of these experiments, for over 30 years. Healthy people were asked to ingest meat and dairy from nuclear-fallout irradiated livestock grazing in pastures, and also directly injected such materials directly into their test subjects. (Mike Pearl, “A Brief History of the U.S. Experimenting on Humans”,, December 24, 2014).

     Radiation has no boundaries and radioactive-fallout is responsible for 340,000-690,000 American civilian deaths from 1951-1973. (Tim Fernholz, “U.S. nuclear tests killed far more civilians than we know”,, December 22, 2017). Some of these dangers to public health began to attract public attention in the 1950’s when it was disclosed that of the 220 members of the cast and crew of the 1956 movie “The Conqueror“, filmed on location in Snow Canyon, Utah, just 37 miles from the Nevada Test Site, 91 had been diagnosed with cancer, including main stars, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, Dick Powell, John Hoyt, Pedro Armendariz and John Wayne. Both of Wayne’s sons, who visited him on the set, also developed cancer.                                                                           No one bothered to inquire about the health of the 200 Native Americans who served as extras in what became known as the “RKO Radioactive Picture”. (Harry and David Medved, The Hollywood Hall of Shame,1984). 

     Utah native, conservationist and activist, Terry Tempest Williams tells the story of her “nuclear family” in, “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, (Pantheon,1991), in which she explains that most of the women in her family are dead.  In the epilogue:

I belong to the clan of one-breasted women. My mother,my grandmothers and six aunts have all had mastectomies. Seven are dead. The two that survived just completed rounds of chemotherapy.

     Terry has had her own issues with two biopsies for breast cancer and a tumor within her rib cage. Her younger brother died of lymphoma, two uncles were lost to malignancies and her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

     Atomic testing was carried out by our nuclear cowboys at the Nevada test site, located in southeastern Nye County, Nevada, about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, that covered about 1,360 sq miles of desert and mountain territory, which the atomic energy commission described as “virtually uninhabited desert terrain”. Mushroom clouds and billowing pillars of hot particle dust, were a common occurance and could be seen as far as 100 miles away. This became a popular Las Vegas tourist attraction by thousands drawn to the lure of spectacle.

     Between 1951-1962 Terry’s family, as well as many others in Utah, especially those living in the southern part of the state, was ongoingly exposed to radiation from over a thousand nuclear warheads, this included members of the Shoshone Native American Nation. The Korean Conflict was on and McCarthyism’s anti-communist hysteria was raging, with slogans such as “Better Dead Than Red” and anyone against atomic testing was suspected of being a pinko, “communist sympathizer”. Public health, then as now, was secondary to “national security”. In retrospect, our Cold War policy against the Soviet Union, severely injured and eventually killed many thousands of our own citizenry.

     I recently encountered more transgenerational trauma related to exposure to nuclear radiation, while working with a family from one of our downwinder states where a parent, children and grandchildren were and are severely impacted with shock, trauma and developmental disabilities and cancer. Their story is as follows:

     Six kids from age one to16 and their father had been living in a camper after their house burned down. In 1979 such homeless ruffians were unwelcome many places, so they headed out into the Nevada desert where they thought that they would be safe, hidden behind a little hill. Unfortunately, they were very near the Nevada Test Site.  One afternoon when the children were all outside, there was a loud boom, which they thought might be a thunderstorm, and then their oldest guessed that it was a bomb. They hurried inside as a strong wind came up blowing particle dust and weeds. Soon they all became violently ill and struggled to find a clean place to lie down since there was vomit everywhere. Before long, their hair was falling out. As the nausea gradually passed they returned to the road. After that, their father experienced explosive rages and developed a fascination with weapons and bombs and collected grenades and different bombing devices. Three of those children and a grandchild now have cancer. Understandably, they wonder who will be next among them to be similarly diagnosed.

     As nuclear-weapons testing continued to metastasize, in Australia, we find similar stories of abuse of service personnel as well as government and military using their population as lab rats and politicians sacrificing their own people in the pursuit of power. With the blessing of the Prime Minister, between 1956-57 the British Government exploded 12 atomic bombs in  the Australian outback, sending airborne lethal particles into far reaching winds, effectively turning the entire country into a giant nuclear laboratory. Royal Australian Air Force  pilots were directed to fly into mushroom clouds, soldiers ordered to walk into radioactive ground zero, and sailors sent to retrieve highly contaminated debris. Soon thereafter, secret monitoring stations were set up around the country to measure radiation levels and a decades-long project stole bones from dead babies to measure fallout. The bones would be crushed into powder and sent to the UK for analysis.

     Over the following 21 years of this nuclear colonialism, 22,000 corpses of  infants, children, adolescents and young adults were tested for the levels of the radioactive isotope Strontium-90, which is produced by nuclear fission and has a half-life of 29 years.               

     When ingested  this isotope is the best marker for radioactive fallout. Any amount is dangerous and can cause cancer. During atomic testing, fallout enters the air, water, soil and pasture vegetation ingested by grazing livestock. Cows, and goats produce milk, and humans, especially children, drink milk. Subsequently, milk was handed out free in Australian schools, the reasoning being that bones collected from Aussie kids would be best to test as their bones were still growing, and Strontium-90 collects in bones.

     The number of Aboriginal casualties is unknown due to a secretive and unaccountable nuclear establishment. Nevertheless, anecdotal reports of high cancer rates and horrific birth defects in isolated “downwinder” communities persist. At the time of the tests it was well known to the authorities that there were communities of Aboriginal people close by the testing sites. Yet, the official policy was that “a handful of natives could not be allowed to interfere with the “interests” of the British commonwealth. (David T. Rowlands, “Australian Atomic Massacre Ignored”, Green Left Weekly, No. 971, June 29, 2013). And still, oral historians have been collecting individual Aboriginal and family histories in the aftermath of the atomic “Black Mist” including many stories of blindness, injury, displacement and death as well as beta burns, and other symptoms similar to those of the Marshall Islands atomic survivors. (Harry Bardwell, “Backs to the Blast” Documentary,1981).

     Other countries have vigorously pursued atomic testing  programs as well, and there is no reason to believe that the impact on human populations and other living things would be any different. Secrecy and denial are integral to these programs and until 2009 France maintained that its 193 weapons-tests in the South Pacific were totally clean and did not affect human health. At present, it has been finally acknowledged that there are at least 23 cancers linked to their nuclear fallout. (RNZ, “Two more cancers recognized over French nuclear tests”, Pacific International News, June 3, 2019).

     With the spread of nuclear weapons, and catastrophic nuclear power accidents at Chernobyl, Fukushima triple-meltdown ongoing, Three Mile Island, Sellafield, Rocketdyne and others unknown or waiting to happen, we need to abandon any illusion of safe, clean, cheap nuclear power. In reality, all forms of nuclear proliferation have continued to raise background radiation levels throughout our biosphere and some regions of contamination will be uninhabitable for thousands of years. While I began this chapter with the belief that radiation is among the greater forces shaping individual, family and larger systems; given the staggering numbers of humans and other life impacted, I would now offer that radiation is, or at least has the potential to be, the greatest force, shaping all life and living systems on our planet. And yes, in individual, family and other therapies radiation remains a blind-spot and there remains much still to be done to raise awareness of this powerful, catalytic agent.  Facing the enormity of changes brought about and ongoing since humanity split the atom in service of war is a necessary challenge as radiation has in fact, irretrievably joined our human family, and may eventually, permanently alter our collective genome in ways that we cannot yet foresee.  For now, an essential first step, while we still have choice, is to totally ignore  and if necessary confront, government and  industry  propaganda  and any other notion  in support of the Orwellian lie of “atoms for peace”.

Sunset at Maralinga

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