Emily Strasser discovered that for 30 years, her grandfather worked as a chemist in the Oak Ridge, Tennessee plant that was one of three secret cities involved in the Manhattan Project. Instead of turning away from this family secret, she went on a ten-year mission to bear witness not only to her grandfather’s work and the affect it had on him, but most importantly the horrific toll of the U.S.’s nuclear weapons program. For Bitter Southerner, Rachel Priest is in conversation with Strasser on her work and her memoir, Half-Life of a Secret: Reckoning With a Hidden History.

Rachel Priest: How did this book come about?

Emily Strasser: I was about to graduate from college and, at this precipice of adulthood, thinking about what kind of person I was going to be in the world. What does it mean to live a good life? All of a sudden, this memory from childhood came back — very, very vibrantly — of this photograph of my grandfather standing in front of a nuclear test blast. This was a photograph that hung in my grandmother’s house above the bed where I slept when I was a child.

RP: Going off that, you said this is an ongoing history, and it just kind of reminded me of part of your title: Reckoning With a Hidden History. And then you have a section where you talk about trying to reckon with your whole family, and your grandfather specifically. You write, “A reckoning implies that the world may be set right with some sort of calculation; good and evil measured, justice meted, balance restored. I cannot make this equation come out. I count too many different kinds of things; my units are all mixed up.” Do you feel like you’re still reckoning with this family history and the broader implications of nuclear weapons? Do you feel like there is an end to a reckoning and, if there is an end, how do you get there?

ES: I don’t think the reckoning is finished. I mean, when we speak about nuclear weapons and we think about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the ongoing production of nuclear weapons, the reckoning is so far from finished. It’s never happened, really, at all. There’s never been an apology. The 2023 G7 Summit was in Hiroshima and released a statement about nuclear weapons. They met with hibakusha [those who survived the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki] and released a statement that was really weak and made no promises about changing anything materially.