As I write, the internet is abuzz with the news that aspartame is a carcinogen. People fret over whether or not their favorite diet soda will come back to bite them in the form of mutated cells, while others confidently brush off the news as fear-mongering. Meanwhile, movie theaters are plastered with posters for Oppenheimer, its billowing plumes of radioactive orange smoke as grand and sensuous as they are ominous.
It’s so easy to personalize the vectors of the carcinogenosphere, to imagine flows of toxicity as being modulated by our consumer choices, or by the actions of an individual. But when the materials in question are precisely those for whom the boundaries of the skin are meaningless, such a limited scale can never remain relevant for long.
As Jenn Shapland describes in the titular essay of her new collection, Thin Skin, Oppenheimer was drawn to New Mexico for reasons of personal sentiment—he had traveled there as a child in an attempt to improve his health, and he hoped that the natural beauty of the landscape would inspire his scientists. Yet the impact of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which he directed, ricocheted across time and space. In order to build the laboratory, the government engaged in “an act of colonization in line with an ever-unfolding history of colonization”: they revoked grazing permits and seized Pueblo land without negotiation, dug out centuries-old Pueblo dwellings to store plutonium or destroyed them completely, then went on to name bomb-testing sites kivas, an appropriated Tewa word for sacred meeting places. Long after Oppenheimer’s time at the laboratory, the surrounding area would be known as Acid Canyon, its residents (especially those working service jobs at the lab) experiencing the highest childhood cancer death rate in the state during the second half of the twentieth century.
In a Sandia National Laboratories report from 1993, researchers proposed a series of signs that could communicate across language barriers to mark the location of the Waste Isolation Project, a site of nuclear waste deep in the rocks of New Mexico. The messages that these signs were supposed to express have since become internet memes, their portentous tone easily appropriated for the sake of hyperbole. “No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here,” the report writes. “What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us.” And yet, as Cillian Murphy’s face glows on movie screens and the production of toxic waste continues apace, the unmediated rejection articulated by the signs seems premature. As Shapland writes of the work of environmentalist Rachel Carson, “we have failed to learn the most basic lessons of Silent Spring.” Both Carson herself, and the women who have since organized against toxic building syndrome in their workplaces, have been accused of overreacting: “culturally we ridicule the very idea of multiple chemical sensitivity, environmental sensitivity, sensitivity in general.”
Against this denigration of sensitivity and denial of susceptibility, the five essays in Shapland’s collection begin with the premise that our boundaries have never been as stable as we might like to imagine. As she writes, she grows increasingly aware of our mutual vulnerability, our “utter physical enmeshment with every other being on the planet.” And although her descriptions of rampant toxicity and environmental degradation raise alarms, she is not primarily concerned with drawing attention to threat. Rather, she suggests that “the problem is not that we are newly at risk but that we ever believed we could be ‘safe.’”
It seems fitting that in a work so concerned with dismantling the idea of ourselves as isolated beings, the essays themselves would refuse neat containment. “Thin Skin,” especially, works to disrupt the coherence of first-person narration. Although Shapland begins her exploration of toxicity from her own experiences in New Mexico, she also allows her narrative voice to be regularly displaced. Inserted into the body of the essay are segments of texts from a range of interviewees, including artists, researchers, and activists organizing against nuclear weapons production, as well as family members who developed severe illnesses after growing up near fertilizer plants and the “toxic donut” of Chicago’s South Side. Shapland’s distinctive voice becomes one among a chorus.
Several of Shapland’s personal narratives are explicitly framed as metaphor: her diagnosis of thin skin, which causes her to suffer migraines triggered by atmospheric irritants, as well as an infestation of moths in her home, become sites for exploring permeability and the excesses of capitalist consumption at an intimate scale. Yet as the essays progress—through investigations into the production of white fragility, the preponderance of new age self-care techniques, and the choice not to have children—it becomes clear that the self is not only a tool for accessing more sweeping concerns. Thrumming at the heart of each essay is Shapland’s desire to develop a life for herself as a writer, to build an identity and a mode of existence that will allow her to follow her creative pursuits.
How can one engage in a process of self-construction while simultaneously blurring one’s boundaries? In a sense this was the question driving Shapland’s previous book, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, as well. There, Shapland moved towards self-understanding through deep attention towards another, finding memoir through biography. A turn toward the essay, that form which Theodor Adorno claimed “thinks in fragments … and finds its unity in and through the breaks,” allows Shapland to further test the limits of the relationship between coherence and dispersal.
Michel de Montaigne, often gestured towards as the first essayist, was, like Shapland, painfully open to the outside world. “A continual cougher irritates my lungs and throat,” he wrote in the essay “On Imagination.” “I catch the disease that I study, and lodge it in me.” And yet, for all his porosity to others (as well as to the range of topics that he investigates), he admits that, throughout the Essays, “it is myself I portray.”
We might say the same of Shapland. Her collection offers us insightful reflection on the weaponization of vulnerability and the fantasy of isolation at the heart of many apocalyptic visions. But it also offers us a portrait of an author coming to an awareness of writing itself as “a mode of perception, a sensitivity to the world.” As readers, we open ourselves up to this mode of perception in turn, momentarily granted access to the textures of Shapland’s generative sensitivity.