Lip, Dip, Paint

Kate Moore's The Radium Girls focuses on the young women who worked from WWI until the 1920s in factories that used paint made from radium for the element's useful glow-in-the-dark effect. (Radium was one of the things discovered by Marie Curie, the Nobel prize-winning science textbook hero who died early from radioactive exposure; you see where this story might lead.)

As Moore expresses it, the world was fascinated by radium's otherworldly glow — its luminescence captivated people, and doctors even used it to promote healthy living. It was in high demand during the war for, among other things, radium-based paint for glow-in-the-dark watch dial faces. With so many men off to war, the usual gender roles were disrupted and many young women entered the workforce. This was true for the watch dial-painting industry, and the newly, upwardly mobile women enjoyed well-paying and relatively high-status jobs. The job itself, requiring some skill, was viewed as an almost artistic vocation. Part of what made a watch painter skillful was honing a very fine point on her paintbrush. The easiest way to do this was to lick the tip of the brush, then dip it in the paint, paint the watch dial and repeat over and over
(known to the practitioners as "lip, dip, paint"). Which is how these women poisoned themselves with radium.

Radium, they eventually discovered, not only has a very long half-life but also collects in the bones of human beings, meaning that over time the women's bones would become brittle and actually disintegrate — that (which is horrifying) but then also with the devastating consequences of having radiation trapped in one's body: various cancers and whatever else. Basically terrible, horrible and (after some digging) happening with the approval/negligence of those in charge, making what started as a tragedy that much worse.

The story of what happened is not unknown — it was big news as it was happening, and the story passed down — but in The Radium Girls the author Moore set out to really look at the lives of the women, putting faces to stories. She set out to do this, she explains in the Author's Note, after Googling "great plays for women" and finding a play about a group of the women that she decided to direct. Then she decided to write a book about it, and in the way she did, because when one is telling someone's story "you have a responsibility to do justice to those whose story it is," emphasis hers.

Clearly that's correct — do justice to those whose story it is. In other words, Moore specifically zeroes in on the victims, to a somewhat lesser extent the wider story (though the case is revealed) and to a much lesser extent the wider import of this specific workplace health scandal. The only thing is that you read the book, and read and read, and at some point it's not especially clear why you care about the actual people who endured this horrible fate: even in the telling, they're notable because they're just like any other young, fresh-faced person. It's tragic, and horrible, and unfortunately their stories aren't particularly interesting, or at least are only relevant because they happened.

A small word about objectification: I understand underscoring the striking, salient detail that these young, energetic sometimes beautiful women became shockingly disfigured and physically devastated by this powerful element but at some point it starts to wear thin and you almost see her treating the women as objects that lose their beauty. It's a cumulative effect, and it's "true" but somehow it starts to fatigue you and you wonder if the author (or even "we") would see a different group, class or ethnicity in a similar way. I could be imagining it (my expectations, hurrumph) but flipping through just now, it's there — page 19, for example: "She was an extremely attractive woman with large gray eyes and long dark hair; she considered her pretty teeth her best feature." One of the earlier signs of radium poisoning was that the women lost their teeth. I'm not complaining about this tack — it's certainly salient — but as the stories pile up, it starts to become rather noticeable.

Radium Girls stays interesting because it is an interesting episode in history but the book also reads a lot like the interpretive text for a museum or memorial. And the author is explicit about this: she sets out to tell their stories. She also sacrifices a lot in doing so — if you're only vaguely aware of this story you might not know that these cases changed workplace safety laws. They also contributed in big ways to how we understand the effects of radiation. These things are brought up in the epilogue; had they been there in the introduction you might have been more invested. Knowing that at least some of the women who survived the poisoning were self-sacrificing and even heroic by continuing to be tested and studied over the course of their lives actually solves the earlier problem with seeing the women as interchangeable victims. In other words — and it sounds terrible when someone sets out to write something so justice-seeking — the epilogue was more compelling than the story as it unfolded in real time; it doesn't take long and you don't need much detail to understand that 1) radium was deadly, 2) these women had no idea it would kill them and 3) the people in charge conspired to keep the truth from hitting the light. By telling the full, true, big, lifelike stories of the women at the core of Radium Girls, the author almost perseverates on this pathetic (in the true sense of the word: arousing pity) lens; every page reminds you that these youthful women are dying in the worst ways. It's relentless (in the not good sense of that word).

A wider observation: it seems like there's a move toward storytelling at this human "granular" level. You can always find examples of someone but there's that whole forest-trees conundrum. The way current news topics play out fall into this trap — thousands of stories of people losing health coverage or being summoned to a hearing or getting hit by a drunk driver. Those stories seem like they're more often designed to pull an emotional string than contribute to an understanding of a policy proposal or something similarly wide-scoped. And it's mostly bad. Similarly, and as it relates to Radium, it may feel good and right to right wrongs and tell stories but it doesn't necessarily make for a compelling book.

Posted: June 26th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: ,