Book Review: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Both as an attorney and in my past life as a journalist, I learned how to research. I also discovered two often overlooked keys in researching a subject, ones I tried to pass on to new attorneys. The first is that you often can research forever so you need to learn when to stop diving into rabbit holes. The second — and more important — is that you don’t need to use everything your research uncovered. Providing an inordinate amount of information hurts more than it helps.

Failure to observe the latter precept decidedly cripples Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women. The book is a meticulous examination of what happened to dozens of young women who painted watch dials. Over the years, they would be given a number of nicknames. The Ghost Girls. The List of the Doomed. Women Doomed to Die. And in February 1938 they named their own group The Society of the Living Dead. The names came from the radium in the luminous paint they applied to dozens of watch and instrument dials a day.

Moore, a British author, delves into the story of these women, their horrendous illnesses and their fight for justice. It’s a tale of corporate callousness and almost criminal deceit, as well as the lag between scientific advances and the law. Unfortunately, it is a narrative that is overwhelmed by people and details.

Two companies are the villains. Prior to World War I, Radium Luminous Materials Corp. opened a watch dial factory in Newark, N.J. (It would later move to Orange, N.J., and become the United States Radium Corp.) After the war, the Radium Dial Company opened in Ottawa, Ill., about 85 miles southwest of Chicago. By applying paint containing radium the numbers on the dials would glow in the dark, leading Radium Luminous Materials to call its paint “Undark.” Some of the numbers were as small as a millimeter in width, so the delicate work called for nimble, dexterous hands. As a result, the painters usually were women and a majority were teenagers.

Three words summarize what gave rise to their eventual predicament. Lip. Dip. Paint.

To ensure a fine point at the end of their brush, the women used a technique called lip-pointing. Throughout the day they would twirl the brush in their mouth to form a point, dip it in the paint and apply the paint to the numbers. This process also moistened any radium that hardened on the brushes. How often each worker lip-pointed each day was reflected in their earnings. Paid on a piecework basis averaging 1.5 cents per watch, the average painter took home $20 a week ($370 today) and the fastest sometimes earned $2,080 a year (almost $40,000 today).

A critical factor in this approach was that radium was considered a wonder drug at the time. When the first plant opened, radium was used to treat everything from cancer to gout to constipation. Dozens of radium-laced products, such as lingerie and cosmetics, even enemas, were on the market. Thus, rather than being warned of any dangers, the girls were told that, if anything, they would benefit from their exposure to radium.

But dozens slowly developed unusual physical problems. Complaints of intractable pain in the jaw was common. Teeth were removed in an attempt to alleviate the pain but not only did the pain remain, the holes left by the extractions didn’t heal. They would form ulcers and abscesses, which would also being showing up in other parts of their mouths. As this progressed, jaw bones would break by simply applying pressure with a finger. They had radiation poisoning, a disease unknown at the time but one that would produce a horrific death.

The first dial-painter died in 1922. She was 24 and only a few months before quit the job she’d held since she was 19. That and worker complaints led to various studies and investigations over the next couple years. Most, though, were conducted by industry experts and company doctors. Moreover, the industry suppressed anything that might suggest radium paint was causing these problems. The situation began drawing media attention when an employee in Orange, N.J., filed the first lawsuit over the condition in February 1925. On June 14, 1925, another female employee in New Jersey became the first dial-painter ever tested for the presence of radium. (Some wondered if it was merely coincidence that the test came a week after the first death of a male employee.) Her death four days later made the front page of the New York Times.

Even more media attention was generated when the parties to the lawsuit were going to autopsy the dial-painter who died in 1924. When her body was exhumed five years after her death those present reported that “the inside of the coffin was aglow with the soft luminescence of radium compounds.” Every piece of tissue and bone examined during the autopsy was radioactive.

Yet not only did the industry aggressively fight the lawsuit and others, it did its best to suppress evidence that might support the claims. Moreover, the fact radiation poisoning was essentially unknown when the women’s problems developed meant the law also was a roadblock. All the suits were brought after the statutes of limitations expired for common law injury or workers compensation claims. While both New Jersey and Illinois made some industrial diseases compensable under workers’ compensation, radiation poisoning wasn’t among them Even if it was, those specific statutes of limitations also expired before the women’s conditions manifested themselves for years and before they knew the cause was occupational.

Given that the radiation poisoning appeared to be a death sentence, public outrage grew as the litigation dragged on and it appeared the radium girls had no remedy. Settlements were eventually reached in most of the cases, although at times it was only enough to cover medical and burial expenses.

Moore takes the reader through the effects on the women, the industry efforts to cover up any danger and the women’s struggle to find legal representation and a legal remedy. The extent of the book’s research is reflected in the fact it has nearly 1,500 footnotes. Yet Moore’s failure to be more discriminating in using the research produces a significant downfall.

At its core, The Radium Girls is a fascinating story of women with horrendous medical conditions fighting dishonest corporations and law that had yet to recognize their plight. But the core gets entangled in excess. The book’s “List of Key Characters” contains nearly 70 names. All of them — and more — are heard from over the course of the book, making it difficult to keep track of who is who. This is exacerbated once the book begins jumping back and forth between people and lawsuits in New Jersey and Illinois. It feels like, having devoted so much time and effort to research and interviews, Moore feels obligated to include as much of it as possible. This leaves an otherwise compelling tale adrift in a sea of information.

Deposited inside the body, radium was the gift that kept on giving.

Kate Moore, The Radium Girls

Weekend Edition: 6-24

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Right now I’m having amnesia and deja vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before. 

Steven Wright

Book Review: The Show That Never Ends by David Weigel

All right, I owned or own six Emerson Lake and Palmer LPs, six Yes LPs, King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, three (yes, three!!) Rick Wakeman solo albums and a handful of other progressive rock albums. There’s probably a half dozen or more such albums on my iPod right now. Caught up in the midst of the prog rock movement, I also admit I’m one of those who bailed when, by the end of the 1970s, it was derided and ridiculed.

Where prog rock came from, its decline and what it left behind are the subject of David Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock. As Weigel notes, The Rock Snob’s Dictionary describes prog rock as “the single most deplored genre of postwar pop.” And it was only 1984 when This is Spinal Tap, a peerless send-up of “prog rock” and some of the metal bands it influenced, was released. Te book, the title of which comes from a 1973 Emerson Lake and Palmer album, is a thoroughly researched and entertaining look at the genre. Yet the nature and history of prog rock is such as to create difficulty for any writer and, as a result, The Show That Never Ends stumbles with a couple unavoidable hurdles.

One confounding factor is the seemingly continuous changes in band personnel. Take drummer Bill Bruford, for example. In addition to forming two bands of his own, he was with Yes for its first five albums (1968-72) and part of a reconstituted Yes in 1991-92, part of two different incarnations of King Crimson (1972-74, 1981-84), the drummer for Genesis on its 1976 tour, and part of a band with three other original members of Yes in 1989. Or consider King Crimson. While its 1969 In the Court of the Crimson King is generally viewed as one of prog rock’s best albums, it came and went for decades with 21 different musicians in its various formations.

Despite that, Weigel, a national political correspondence for The Washington Post, seems at his best in delving into the origins and early development of prog rock, following a handful of its preeminent artists and showing the music it spawned. It also reflects the heavily British source of the musicians.

The biggest challenge in examining prog rock is the music itself. The musicians not only aimed at creating complex music with unusual time signatures they sought new sounds, largely through the use of synthesizers and polyphonic keyboards. Yes even bought Slinkys, put microphones on them and threw them down stairs. “If you put a lot of reverb on it, it sounds great,” said Yes guitarist Steve Howe. Moreover, Weigel notes, many lyrics “had as much or as little meaning as the listener wanted from them.”

Even with a straightforward and traditional approach to any genre, there’s the adage that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Add in the unusual and unconventional sounds in prog rock and the level of difficulty is even greater. As a result, The Show That Never Ends has passages like this one, describing the last track on the Yes album Fragile:

It started with a rumble, a 6/8 bass line from [Chris] Squire and a drumroll from Bruford. Then came [Rick] Wakeman, with a horror-film keyboard melody in 3/4. Back to the ascending riff, joined by Howe’s guitar. The melody suddenly changed, to a 4/4 beat, with the original riff being phased in slowly by the mix. Then a dropout, to a melody that Anderson had written on his acoustic guitar. The themes repeated, announced at various intervals on keyboards, by what the band came to call “Rick-recapitulation.”

Weigel’s efforts to translate this music into words are admirable but there’s a few too many times when they muddle rather than enlighten. Readers could greatly enhance their enjoyment of the book using streaming music services as a supplement.

Naturally, the most well-known bands, such as Yes, King Crimson and ELP, get plenty of attention. The book also examines the role of many lesser known artists in prog rock’s development and its legacy. Oddly, despite its success, Pink Floyd is discussed far less, although that is perhaps because entire books have been written about the band and by its members.

The reasons for the precipitous decline of prog rock are harder to define than the factors that gave rise to it. Declining record sales and Changes in the music industry led to labels dumping progressive rock bands. Yet listeners also abandoned the genre in droves, perhaps in response to the music’s complexity. Or perhaps it is just as simple as the fact the bands and the music tended toward bombast, pretension and self-indulgence. I know that was what pushed me away. Still, Weigel makes a good case for prog rock’s role in shaping rock music and what would come.

They took the music far, far away from the basics so that some later groups of jerks could take it “back to the basics” and be praised for their genius.

David Weigel, The Show That Never Ends

Weekend Edition: 6-17

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Optimism sounds exhausting.

Wally, Dilbert, August 16, 2014

Weekend Edition: 6-10

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  • How Did ‘Witch Hunt’ Become the Complaint of the Powerful? (“The central paradox of modern witch hunts is that those who claim to be the victims, like Nixon, are often the ones most enthusiastic about carrying them out.”)
  • Make America, America again (“A loose translation of ‘America first’ now means all others shall be ignored or denied or bombed out of existence, if necessary, to achieve our own power and profits, our own goals and good.”)

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…the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world

George Orwell, “Looking Back On The Spanish War” (1943)

Book Review: True Crime Addict by James Renner

Want to know what new media has meant to the true crime genre? Well this weekend brings the first “immersive, weekend-long celebration of all things true crime.” In addition to authors and television personalities, nearly three dozen separate podcasts will be represented. It might even be said that the internet and new media have created a new generation of true crime addicts.

James Renner admits he’s a true crime addict. But his fixation doesn’t stem from media proliferation; it started with his first crush. Renner says he fell in love with Amy Mihaljevic when he saw her missing poster on a utility pole when he was 11 years old. Amy was 10 when she was kidnapped and murdered in a Cleveland suburb in late October 1989. The crime remains unsolved (and a popular podcast subject). After becoming a staff writer for Cleveland Scene magazine, Renner spent two years investigating it in the mid-2000s, something he recounted in his first book in 2006.

Renner takes a similar tack, albeit with a different path, in True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray, now out in a trade paper edition. Here, though, Renner isn’t looking around his backyard. He’s looking at a disappearance that occurred hundreds of miles from his home.

Like many, Renner first heard of Maura Murray on the internet (like Amy Mihaljevic, the case is also a podcast staple). On February 9, 2004, Murray left the University of Massachusetts flagship campus in Amherst, where she was a nursing student. Around 7:30 p.m., she was seen standing by her car, abutting a snowbank and facing the wrong direction on a remote New Hampshire highway. She told a passing bus driver she’d called AAA (although there was no cell phone service in that area) so he needn’t call the police. He did anyway but when authorities arrived a short time later she was gone, never to be seen again. True Crime Addict details Renner’s personal investigation into a curious, if not occasionally convoluted, backstory strewn with rabbit holes. Yet the book differs from more traditional true crime books in two ways.

Renner employed the tools used by virtually all true crime authors, researching the most pertinent individuals, tracking down and even going door to door to interview persons with knowledge, and obtaining and reviewing relevant documents. But he also took an unusual approach that also reflects the role of new media. Renner advocates what he calls an “open-sourced form of reporting,” where journalists open up their research to anyone interested. He created a blog where he uploaded documents, notes and related material that kept people up to dare and also allowed them to make suggestions and comments and provide information.

The book isn’t clear on the extent to which open-sourcing fostered or burdened Renner’s efforts. It does, however, suggest that it produced at least one previously unknown but potentially significant notion. Whether Renner’s concept is or will become a new journalism tool remains to be seen. It should perhaps be noted, though, that at least one reviewer calls this approach “madness” that produces “a complicated morass of uncontrolled speculation.”

True Crime Addict also differs from traditional true crime books because Renner also some of his own demons, including why he is so drawn to true crime. What is it about a person who looks forward to confronting someone who may be a murderer? Why will a person persistently contact crime victims’ family members and friends when those people have made clear they have no desire to discuss the subject? Is someone like Renner driven by a desire to help or their own curious fixation? Are their actions simply a magnified version of the common compulsion to stare at the accident scene we pass on the highway?

Just as True Crime Addict doesn’t solve the mystery of Maura Murray’s disappearance, Renner’s self-assessment doesn’t — and can’t — answer these questions. In fact, those of us who still trust and rely upon old media (the printed word) may disagree over whether this approach adds a revelatory perspective to true crime cases like Maura Murray’s or is merely self-examination of personal baggage. To the extent the book reflects and is aimed at a culture that increasingly discerns the world through social and new media, my guess is Renner’s personal story, not Maura Murray’s, is the unexplored story.

…there’s a freedom in blind rage once you give yourself over to it that is as welcoming as any drug.

James Renner, True Crime Addict