In 2002, more than 100 nuclear power reactors – many from the 1960s and 1970s and all aging — were operating in plants across the United States. Eleven were closed down for inspection in 2001 when it was discovered they were “highly susceptible to cracking.” A 12th nuclear power station, Davis-Besse in Oak Harbor, OH, was vulnerable to the same problem, but was not immediately shut down. Davis-Besse turned out to be in the worst shape of them all and it had the most extensive corrosion of a nuclear reactor that the US has ever seen. Allegations about government regulators emerged and numerous investigations began. This episode of NOW with Bill Moyers investigated a CLOSE CALL.
Next, NOW interviewed renowned author Doris Lessing about how the horrors of war affected her life and writing, and traveled to South Carolina to profile GULLAH CULTURE, a heritage so rich, no price tag can measure its value. And finally, a Bill Moyers commentary: “Are drugs the hidden weapon in modern war?” You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
WATCH A SEGMENT
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. Something’s going on in Congress that could put your safety at risk.
Take a look at this map.
There are over 100 nuclear power reactors operating in the United States. Many were built in the 1960s and ’70s and all are aging.
Eleven of those plants were closed down for inspection about a year ago when it was discovered they were “highly susceptible to cracking.” A twelfth in Oak Harbor, Ohio, was vulnerable to the same problem, but it was not immediately shut down, although it turned out to be in the worst shape of all.
This produced a surprising turn of events including allegations about government regulators, a frightening photograph, and a citizen group that has taken action to make good old-fashioned safety a part of the public contract for good reason.
Here’s our report by NOW’s Keith Brown.
KEITH BROWN, PRODUCER: Beyond the icy marshlands off the shore of Lake Erie in Oak Harbor, Ohio looms the Davis-Besse nuclear power station. It supplied electricity to 150,000 people in the northwest section of the state until last year when workers at the plant discovered something alarming. Boric acid leaking from a pipe had eaten away 70 pounds of steel – leaving a gaping six by five inch cavity in the head of its nuclear reactor. Only a thin stainless steel lining protected the community from a potential disaster.
BUCHANAN: This is as serious as it has gotten.
BROWN: We’re talking about a hole the size of a football.
BUCHANAN: That’s right.
BROWN: How could that go unseen?
BUCHANAN: Well, that’s the 400 million-and-counting question at this point.
BROWN: 400 million is about what it will cost to fix the problem — the most extensive corrosion of a nuclear reactor this country has ever seen. It’s also the closest we’ve come to a nuclear accident since 1979’s near-meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Had the reactor at the Davis-Besse plant ruptured, the consequences could have been catastrophic.
LOCHBAUM: Had that stainless steel failed, it’s more likely that it would have been a meltdown with a large release of radiation to the atmosphere.
BROWN: That didn’t happen — the plant was shut down in time. But the safety problems at Davis-Besse raise disturbing questions about nuclear power and its oversight nationwide. Can FirstEnergy, the corporation licensed to operate Davis-Besse, ever be trusted to run a nuclear reactor? Did the Nuclear Regulatory Commission fail in doing its job? And is there another Davis-Besse out there in the making?
BROWN: The plant has been shut down since last February and the company is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to get it up and running again. But if one group 90 miles away gets its way, the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant will stay shut down forever.
BROWN: The group is Ohio Citizen Action — an environmental advocacy organization headquartered in Cleveland. It’s run by Sandy Buchanan.
BUCHANAN: What makes me angry in this case is that we have a company that at some level either knew what was going on or certainly should have known what was going on in a dangerous situation and chose to place its own production and profit ahead of the public safety. And I just think that’s not to be tolerated.
We’re putting everything we’ve got into this and we do the best research we can; we try to be as smart as we can about learning everything that’s going on and we’re determined to do this.
BROWN: Buchanan has been taking on industrial polluters since she joined Ohio Citizen Action 26 years ago. And she successfully lobbied Congress to help pass the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act to shield children from harmful pesticides.
Her staff has mobilized to wage an all-out campaign against Davis-Besse. Going door to door to collect signatures and raise money to stop the troubled plant from ever going back on-line with nuclear power.
RYDER: I think that FirstEnergy has lost their privilege to run this plant. They’ve had all this time to figure out a way to, to run this plant safely; they failed to do so.
BROWN: Amy Ryder directs the campaign against Davis-Besse. She took us to Oak Harbor to see the reactor.
RYDER: Well when they first announced the hole, I don’t think anybody quite realized how serious it was. But once the story unfolded and we started learning more about what was going on, we learned that there was only 3/8ths of an inch of stainless steel that was warped and cracked that was protecting us from what could have been the worst nuclear catastrophe in our history.
BROWN: There was no catastrophe — this time. But how bad could it have been if the reactor had ruptured? That depends in large part on the weather conditions, according to nuclear safety engineer David Lochbaum.
LOCHBAUM: Had it been a foggy day where the — any radioactive material released from the plant stayed close to the ground then that would have been worse for the people and the farm lands.
BROWN: Lochbaum is a member of the watchdog group, the Union of Concerned Scientists.
LOCHBAUM: Had it been a nice day where the — nice dry day where the release went straight up high into the air and was distributed as wide as possible, the impact on any one area would have been minimized but the overall impact would have been higher. In either case that’s something we shouldn’t — I wouldn’t want to wish on anybody.
BROWN: And in either case, hundreds of thousands of people would have had to flee their homes. And those exposed to high doses of radiation could have faced life-threatening infections and diseases.
BUCHANAN: We really can’t forget that this plant sits on Lake Erie, and Great Lakes are the largest source of freshwater in the world. It’s the drinking water for literally millions of people. So if there had been any effect on the Great Lakes, we don’t — you know, we don’t know how many people could have been harmed.
BROWN: Numerous investigations of the plant are underway, including a criminal probe to determine if FirstEnergy deliberately withheld information and placed electricity production and profit over the safety of the community.
The industry’s own monitoring group, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, formed after Three Mile Island, has already come to its own conclusions about plant management. In a confidential report leaked to the press, the group found FirstEnergy had fallen prey to “excessive focus on short term production goals” and “a lack of sensitivity to nuclear safety.”
FirstEnergy says a nuclear catastrophe would have never happened because adequate safeguards were in place at Davis-Besse.
RYDER: To listen to them talk about what had happened in almost sort of a nonchalant way that you know, geez, it was an accident and we’ll learn from it, but what’s the big deal? You just have to think they’ve become desensitized to how severe, you know, a nuclear catastrophe will be.
BROWN: The NRC, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is responsible for overseeing nuclear power plants nationwide. It’s been holding monthly public meetings near Davis-Besse to allay fears and explain what happened inside the reactor.
Boric acid is a chemical common in most U.S. reactors’ coolant systems. If there’s a leak, boric acid residue eats away at the reactor causing cracks, even holes. NRC regulations require that any boric acid residue be removed routinely.
But NRC regulators became alarmed in the summer of 2001, after discovering cracks and leaks in several U.S. nuclear plants. The NRC issued a bulletin. It asked all plants for specific information about the condition of their reactor heads. After close examination of the material it received, the NRC determined that some plants had serious problems.
BROWN: In the fall of 2001, the NRC identified Davis-Besse as one of 12 nuclear power plants “highly susceptible” to cracking or corrosion. By that January 2002, all of them were shut down for inspection — except for Davis-Besse.
The NRC failed to issue a shutdown order and granted Davis-Besse a six-week extension to continue operating, knowing the plant had problems.
MESERVE: There were failings by the licensee and by the NRC in this episode.
BROWN: Outgoing NRC chairman Richard Meserve does not dispute his agency’s mistakes but says the decision was based on the information his staff had at the time.
MESERVE: The staff unanimously agreed that there was no safety significance would be attached to allowing a brief period of extended operation.
BROWN: But the findings of an internal NRC report contained some damning information. It found the commission’s decision not to close the plant was deeply flawed and was: “…driven in large part by a desire to lessen the financial impact on FirstEnergy…”
Meserve defends his staff against that charge.
MESERVE: Safety was in the front of their minds. And to suggest otherwise I think does a disservice to what was happening and to the staff.
BROWN: So, the NRC did not place financial well being of a company over nuclear safety?
MESERVE: Definitely not.
BROWN: So, you stand by the decision that was made to keep Davis-Besse open beyond the scheduled inspection?
MESERVE: With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight the plant should have been shut down. Based on what we knew at the time, the decision was correct.
BROWN: The problem critics say is what the NRC did not know. It turns out there were photographs that FirstEnergy had taken that surfaced in the Cleveland Plain Dealer — photos with conclusive evidence that something was terribly wrong with the reactor.
BUCHANAN: We know now that there were photos taken in April 2000 that showed the rust pouring out of the plant. It’s, it’s just inconceivable that they didn’t know it was going on.
BROWN: One of those photos showed rust streaming from the vessel head – with some 900 pounds of crystallized boric acid caked on the reactors corroded lid.
BUCHANAN: Lots of people look at it and say it looks like hemorrhaging. Because it is red rust it looks like blood pouring out.
BROWN: FirstEnergy declined to be interviewed but admits it did not turn over the photograph to the NRC until after the hole was discovered and the investigation was underway.
BUCHANAN: When asked by a newspaper reporter why they didn’t produce this to the NRC, the public relations person for FirstEnergy said “Well, it was there for the asking.”
BROWN: There for the asking.
BUCHANAN: There for the asking.
BROWN: Who’s at fault here? Is it FirstEnergy for not sharing the photograph with the NRC or the NRC for simply not finding it? That’s their job.
BUCHANAN: Well they’re both at fault. They’re both at fault. I mean ultimately, the responsibility for this plant lies with this company. You know, they’re the one — they’re the owners, they’re the operators, it’s their responsibility.
But the NRC has a very important responsibility too; and they clearly failed in that they had two full-time inspectors at that facility and they didn’t notice what was going on either.
MESERVE: This is a troubling incident because there were evidence — there was evidence of — that there was something happening with regard to the vessel head that was not pursued by the licensee and was known by us and which we should have pursued.
BROWN: Is there an issue of trust here?
RYDER: Absolutely. We’re finding that, that people in the community don’t trust FirstEnergy to run the plant, and people don’t trust the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to oversee FirstEnergy running the plant.
BROWN: Still, many residents living close to Davis-Besse want the plant to reopen. At the NRC meeting we attended in Port Clinton, there was tension between the activists who want the plant shut down and the local community.
MAN 1: I’m not a Clevelander or Columbus resident. I’m here as a local. Do not let us become another California, where well-intentioned, misguided individuals permitted a state to not prepare for its electrical needs. Thank you.
BROWN: Oak Harbor and other towns in the surrounding area rely heavily on Davis-Besse for their tax base, to run their schools, and help fund local services. It’s the county’s largest employer, providing some 1,200 jobs. Most residents have a relative or a close friend who works at the plant. Many fear permanent closure will kill the local economy.
BROWN: How about for the people of this community who depend on the plant for jobs, their livelihood, to raise families, to send their kids to college?
RYDER: Right. Right. Well…
BROWN: I doubt if they want to see this closed.
RYDER: Had FirstEnergy run this plant safely, we wouldn’t have this dilemma. So had FirstEnergy made the decision to not put production in front of safety, workers’ jobs wouldn’t be in jeopardy; so that’s FirstEnergy’s fault, not the community’s.
MAN 2: I cannot imagine the damage to our community should this plant be closed for good. I’m tired of hearing from a small group of individuals who receive the economic benefits but can’t seem to find the backbone to uphold their end of the bargain. I would respectfully request that the influx of people who have chosen our unfortunate incident as a way to further their cause to pack up and go home.
BROWN: Are you a outside agitator coming in to you know mess up their livelihood?
RYDER: Well I think FirstEnergy would like people to believe that, but no, we’ve — you know we go knocking on doors; we have a lot of members in the area. We have a lot of people that support the work that we do.
BROWN: Ohio Citizen Action emphasizes this is not just a local issue. If there were a nuclear accident here, radiation could travel as far west as Iowa, as far south as Tennessee, as far north as Canada. That’s why Buchanan is pushing hard to shut down Davis-Besse for good.
BUCHANAN: We’d like to see this nuclear reactor permanently closed.
BROWN: Permanently closed.
BUCHANAN: Permanently closed.
BROWN: But FirstEnergy has already bought a new reactor head and is planning on the plant being up and running as early as this spring.
While David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists the — UCS — doesn’t favor Davis-Besse closing, he understands the fears of those who do.
LOCHBAUM: UCS doesn’t advocate the permanent shutdown of that plant or any plant for that matter. But at the same token we don’t live in that backyard. So I can’t fault Ohio Citizens Action or anybody who wants that threat removed from their backyard, particularly after they’ve been put in harm’s way under these conditions.
BROWN: Ohio Citizen Action says it wants to eliminate the threat without losing all the jobs. And it proposes an alternative. Do away with nuclear power and convert the plant to gas or coal.
But this story is not only about Davis-Besse. The controversy has sparked interest and concern around the country. The condition of the Davis-Besse plant and of its management culture have broader implications for the other 103 nuclear reactors throughout United States.
BUCHANAN: I think what we’re seeing here is the beginning of a whole series of problems that are going to occur because these are aging facilities.
BROWN: And it’s not just cracking and leaking in the 12 reactors flagged by the NRC. In the last two years alone, other age-related equipment failures have occurred in seven different reactors.
BUCHANAN: These facilities were started up in the 1970s and they weren’t meant to last a hundred years. And it’s important that we not just brush that aside.
LOCHBAUM: Is there another Davis-Besse out there, you know, somewhere else? Somebody else who is not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, who has allowed safety margins to be eroded.
What Davis-Besse showed us is that those inspections failed. That oversight failed. And we need to do whatever we can to make sure we don’t fail again. Because we may not be as lucky next time as we were this time.
MOYERS: So who would be responsible if there is a nuclear accident? Well, there’s a political development to this story we think you ought to know about.
Right now, Congress is about to do a big favor for the nuclear power industry.
What’s known as a rider, a dense little clause pregnant with fine print, has been tacked on to a big appropriations bill that was on the Senate floor this week.
The provision will protect the nuclear industry from full accountability in case of accidents or catastrophe.
Public interest groups, including Taxpayers for Common Sense, say if it passes, the industry will be home free, the public unprotected, and taxpayers left to pick up the tab if things go wrong. You can find out more by going to our Web site at pbs.org.
There was quite a stir in my neighborhood the other night at the Barnes and Noble bookstore on Broadway here in New York.
People were lining up to meet Doris Lessing and to listen to her read from her latest novel, THE SWEETEST DREAM.
At 83, Doris Lessing is one of the world’s celebrated and distinguished writers.
[VIDEO CLIP FROM READING]
DORIS LESSING: And a couple of girls said that they read the story, and they found it very shocking.
And I said, “Yes, it was very shocking.”
And they said “Mrs. Lessing, why didn’t you send the husband and wife to the marriage counselor?”
Well, now, that is a very good question.
I said, “It never crossed my mind to send these characters because then there would be no story,” I said.
And they said, “We think that you’re very, very irresponsible.”
[END VIDEO CLIP]
MOYERS: Born in Persia, and raised in Africa, Doris Lessing has transformed her remarkable life into a literary tour de force, first gaining worldwide attention in 1962 with her novel THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK.
All in all she’s written 24 novels, two operas, three plays, six works of non-fiction, plus a two-volume autobiography, one book of poetry, and 14 collections of short stories.
In this new novel she is at the top of her form, creating a motley crowd of unforgettable characters like those who passed through her London home in the 1960s.
Before Doris Lessing returned to London where she’s been living since 1949, we talked about her life and work.
Do you never stop writing?
DORIS LESSING: No. I’m compulsive. And I deeply think that it has to be something very neurotic. And I’m not joking. It has to be. Because if I’ve finished a book, and this wonderful release, which I’m now feeling– it’s off, it’s in a parcel, it’s gone to a publisher. Bliss and happiness.
I don’t have to do anything. Nothing. I can just sit around. But, suddenly it starts, you see. This terrible feeling that I am just wasting my life, I’m useless, I’m no good. Now, it’s a fact that if I spend a day busy as a little kitten, racing around. I do this, I do that. But I haven’t written, so it’s a wasted day, and I’m no good. How do you account for that nonsense?
BILL MOYERS: Was there what we call an “a-ha moment,” a eureka moment when you knew that you were going to spend your life writing, whether successfully or not? Was there such a moment?
DORIS LESSING: Well, I was writing all my childhood. And I wrote two novels when I was 17, which were terrible. And I’m not sorry I threw them out. So, I wrote. I had to write. You know, the thing was, I had no education.
BILL MOYERS: You left school at age 14, right?
DORIS LESSING: Fourteen. Yeah. And I wasn’t trained for anything.
BILL MOYERS: What was there in a young girl, you know, 12, 13, 14 or 15, that said “I want to write?”
DORIS LESSING: I was, at that time, being what we now call an au pair. I was a nursemaid. And it was pretty boring. So I thought, “Well, let’s try and write a novel.” I wrote two. I went back to the farm, and wrote two novels.
BILL MOYERS: In Africa.
DORIS LESSING: This was in Africa.
BILL MOYERS: Where did that idea come from? Had you read a lot? Had somebody…
DORIS LESSING: I never stopped reading. You know. I read and read and read. And it was what saved me. And educated me. So, writing a novel seemed to be a way out. But you see, I was too young.
BILL MOYERS: So, a bored little girl.
DORIS LESSING: Very bored. And, you know, being a nursemaid is very tedious, you know. Small children are very tedious, over the long term. I think probably I’ve never been so bored in my life, as pushing a pram round the park, on those interminable afternoons. Composing poetry in my head. And thinking, “Well, this will come to an end, at some point.”
BILL MOYERS: How was it you started reading as a very young child? How did that happen?
DORIS LESSING: Well, my mother, I have to thank for that. She ordered books from England. You know, this is the middle of Africa. She ordered books by the bushel for me. When I look back, and think of what she bought, I am very impressed.
BILL MOYERS: As you talk I think of the traumatic century you lived through, all those events. You were born right at the end of the first great war. You lived through the Great Depression. You lived through the Second World War. You lived through the nuclear era, the Cold War, the genocide, the collapse of the British Empire. I mean, does anything remain of the world you knew when you were young?
DORIS LESSING: Nothing. Nothing at all. The World War I, I’m a child of World War I. And I really know about the children of war. Because both my parents were both badly damaged by the war. My father, physically, and both, mentally and emotionally. So, I know exactly what it’s like to be brought up in an atmosphere of a continual harping on the war.
BILL MOYERS: Your father couldn’t stop talking about it?
DORIS LESSING: No. He was obsessed with it. He talked and the other old soldiers in, you know, the district I was brought up in — there were half a dozen of them. The obsessive talking about the trenches, and their generals and so on. And I used to listen, it was terrible, you know? These men were…had been so traumatized. Though, of course, outwardly, they were very civilized and good and kind and everything. But in actual fact, they were war victims.
BILL MOYERS: I was touched when we asked you to bring some pictures, and you brought several photographs of your father. Would you tell me about these?
DORIS LESSING: I look at him, and I think that’s a young man. When I was a child, there was a soldier. That’s what I saw. A soldier. But in actual fact, it’s a very vulnerable face, isn’t it?
BILL MOYERS: And this one?
DORIS LESSING: Well there, he was in the Royal Free Hospital in London when they’d cut off his leg. And the sister there is my mother. She was a ward sister. And so, they got married.
BILL MOYERS: You said that the war destroyed your mother, too?
DORIS LESSING: Well, my mother was going to marry a young doctor who was sunk in a ship. And I don’t think she ever really got over that. I think she was very marked by it.
BILL MOYERS: You seem to struggle in all of your work with idealism and illusions versus human nature and reality.
DORIS LESSING: Yes, I suppose I do. Don’t forget, I went through this period in my 20’s, when I was full of unreal optimism. I was a Red.
BILL MOYERS: A communist. That’s a term we don’t hear much in America anymore.
DORIS LESSING: What, Red?
BILL MOYERS: A Red.
DORIS LESSING: The reason I became one was because the local Reds were the only people that ever read anything. And you know, they read all the books that I did. This is a time when the communists read everything. I don’t think they do now. And they also…they were the only people I ever met who knew, like me, that it wasn’t going to last. I mean, the idea no one could possibly say, you know, this is a ridiculous system, and it’s not going to last. A tiny little handful of whites holding down the blacks.
BILL MOYERS: In Rhodesia.
DORIS LESSING: Yes. Rhodesia. The whole white/black thing.
BILL MOYERS: You didn’t remain a Communist for long, did you?
DORIS LESSING: No.
BILL MOYERS: What happened?
DORIS LESSING: Well, what happened, happened to everybody. You know, there’s an old joke over there. That everyone has been a Communist but no one is one. We were mad. We genuinely believed that sort of like 15 years after the war, Paradise would reign in the world, you know, Utopia. Everything bad would be banished, you know, capitalism, and that cruelty, and the unkindness to children, and unkindness to women, and you name it. And we believed this rubbish. Now, we were not stupid. How was it that we could do that?
BILL MOYERS: How was it?
DORIS LESSING: I don’t know.
BILL MOYERS: But dreams are not rubbish.
DORIS LESSING: They’re rubbish if they lead you to very unrealistic actions. That’s what’s bad about them. If you’re dreaming about wonderful Utopias, and great horizons, and great dawns and all that, you’re not really seeing what’s there, and what could be done.
BILL MOYERS: Well, of course, you spent a lot of time trying to undo the British Empire. And I would say that you were successful. You and history.
DORIS LESSING: You know, when I was a girl, the idea that the British Empire could ever end was absolutely inconceivable. And it just disappeared, like all the other empires. You know, when people talk about the British Empire, they always forget that all the European countries had empires. You know, the French, and the Portuguese, and the Dutch, and you name it, excepting Germans, because they lost theirs. But they all had empires. And that’s one of the themes of THE SWEETEST DREAM.
BILL MOYERS: I’m intrigued by this character … Old Julia. She’s the matriarch of the household where the young people are gathering. And she says, “You can’t have two dreadful wars, and then say, ‘That’s it.’ And now, everything will get back to normal. They’re screwed up, our children. They’re the children of war.”
DORIS LESSING: I think terrible events, like war leave a kind of bruise on the national psyche. You know, you can’t have a war as terrible as World War II and say, “Right, we’re now finished.” That’s… “Now we’re all going to be sweet and kind now.” It isn’t like that. You have people who have been formed by war, and are frightened and are damaged. And it takes some time for that to work out. I think the 1960’s young people, not all of them, of course, obviously not. A lot of them were, had been damaged by war. And a lot of them came right afterwards. You know we’ve forgotten the heavy toll of the 60’s. There were an awful lot of damaged young people around. The people in my house were in trouble with the police, or they were trying to get them off drugs and so on and so on, and they’d dropped out of school.
You can see the 1960’s casualties around now. If you look, you meet them. They’re easily recognizable by a kind of “oh, everything is wonderful, it’ll all come right in the end” ethos, which I find very irritating. But they’re very often vague and fuzzy. And I’m…often think, hang on a minute. Was that too much pot? But, that’s just an old woman speaking.
BILL MOYERS: Too much pot?
DORIS LESSING: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: An older woman speaking.
DORIS LESSING: An old woman speaks. Too much pot, because they… some of them are very wooly. But you know, I have been told by good friends that I am very narrow minded and an old grouch. They say that they remember the ’60s with complete pleasure. They discovered sex. And you know, because every generation’s gotta have sex for the first time. And there was always music and they were liberated and they got away from their parents. And I talk rubbish. This, I’ve been told this. So maybe they’re right.
BILL MOYERS: Conservatives I talk to despise the 60’s as the time all convention and order came crashing down — a time of drugs, and free love, and a rebellion against all tradition.
Of course, they’re people you write about to look at it as a time of self-discovery and liberation. So, looking back now, all these years later, do you see it as the best of times, or the worst of time?
DORIS LESSING: I certainly don’t see it as at best of times, because there were so many damaged people around. But there were very positive things to it. I mean, you can’t just damn a whole period as unhistorical, surely, it’s not how life is. You can’t say it’s all bad. It was partly very good, and partly bad.
Well, surely, a lot of these conservatives were flower children themselves. If they’re now middle-aged, and probably become excessively respectable and have forgotten that they ever smoked pot.
BILL MOYERS: It’s not the ’60s I lived, I was in government.
DORIS LESSING: I was going to say, yes, you were not living that life at all. You’ve never been a flower child. Well, you missed out, perhaps.
BILL MOYERS: What did I miss?
DORIS LESSING: They seemed to have quite a lot of fun.
BILL MOYERS: But you said they were damaged children.
DORIS LESSING: They were, but they had fun, too. They had all of the music. They used to go off to these rock festivals and things like that. They did have a good time.
BILL MOYERS: Did you set out to recreate that world in THE SWEETEST DREAM?
DORIS LESSING: Yes. I wanted to create that feeling of the easygoingness of it. And the kind of mad generosity of the whole time.
BILL MOYERS: You remind me of something you said in Volume One of your autobiography. Quote, “Nothing in history suggest that we may expect anything but wars, tyrants, sickness, bad times, calamities. While good times are always temporary. Why are we so bitterly surprised,” you write, “when our country, the world, lurches into yet another muddle or catastrophe. Why is it that so many people in our time,” you write, “have felt all the emotions of betrayed children?”
DORIS LESSING: Well, now that fascinates me. Where did it come from? Particularly the 1960s kids onwards. Everyone seemed to think that they had been promised paradise. Well, who promised it to them? And you meet people… I meet people who are genuinely aggrieved that things are not perfect. That they haven’t had paradise.
But where along the… do you think it could advertising? Possibly. If you have… kids who have been generations are now growing up with everything promised to them on the box and newspapers. Maybe it’s that.
BILL MOYERS: Maybe they haven’t lived long enough, like you. I mean when you’ve lived that long, you see the cycles.
DORIS LESSING: You certainly do. And it’s rather frightening at the moment. You know, I was thinking this morning, when there’s a war, we have war memorials to the dead, and once a year we deal with that. And we might even remember the wounded. But nobody ever thinks about the psychologically wounded. And there are enormous numbers of them after every war.
Nobody thinks about them. Or that cost, when they start a war. When you see the faces of some of your warlords, full of elation, which is a horrifying thing to a war, elation and excitement. And you think, are you actually thinking about the results of this? They’re not, you know. They’re not thinking.
BILL MOYERS: As I listen to you talk, I think of what to me is perhaps for me, the most moving and revealing of your works. It’s THE FIFTH CHILD. I mean, this infant in Harriet’s womb, who turns out to be a savage thing. A monster. I can’t read that, without being reminded of what you’re talking about. The fragility of happiness. You create this attractive family. And then you destroy it.
DORIS LESSING: I wanted to write a version of that very ancient fable. You know, the fairies put an alien into the human cradle. That was… only, instead of being a fairy, he’s a throwback to some past race. And someone would be perfectly viable on a hillside, in a cave somewhere. Put him into a civilized life. And of course, you would destroy it. So, I created Ben. Which… well, it’s a pretty horrible book, isn’t it?
BILL MOYERS: It is a horrible book. He’s a monster. He’s deformed. I couldn’t help but think about, you know, Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. Adolf Hitler and his mother. I mean, here’s a story of an upper middle class family, whose benign view of the world is shattered by the violent death of this child, who is monstrous in appearance, insatiably hungry, abnormally strong, demanding and brutal. And everything is upended because of that.
DORIS LESSING: Well, you see you must have known families where a child that doesn’t fit in is born. And then the entire family is taken over by him, her. Not that I was thinking about that when I wrote it. But it’s true.
BILL MOYERS: I wondered, was Doris Lessing writing out of an act of pure imagination? Pure speculation, and the joy of just making something up? Or, is this the way she sees the world? The idealism that we expect becomes the cruel savage that destroys us?
DORIS LESSING: No, you see, people always read messages and things, which I don’t intend. When I wrote that book, the journalists came and said, “Oh, well, of course it’s about the Palestine situation.” “Oh, of course it’s about genetic research.”
And I kept saying, “No, no. It’s a story. I’m a storyteller.” One of the things that sparked it off was, I was sitting in a dentist’s waiting room. And reading stuff, as you do. And there was a letter from a woman to some agony aunt. And the letter went like this.
It said, “I know you can’t do anything to help me, but I must tell someone or I will go mad. We have three children, and my fourth was born, this little girl. She is a little Satan. Our lives have been completely destroyed by her. She is a little devil. But sometimes at night I go into the room and I look at that pretty little face on the pillow, and I long to cuddle her. But I daren’t, because I know what would come up into my arms would be a spitting, hissing little devil.” Now, that got to me. Notice the religious language in that, which she probably wasn’t conscious of. So, I just had to write it.
You know, it is very enjoyable, writing a story. You get this idea. It takes hold of you. And then you spend day and night thinking about how to do it. And then you do it. And much later, you think, “Oh, yes. That’s an interesting question.”
BILL MOYERS: See, I don’t think I’m that far off, then, when I say that there is meaning in this. Not only for me, the reader, but for you, the author. I mean, we do what you did with Ben with all of our dreams and hopes, very often. God, whatever you mean by that, does that. I took this to be a metaphor for God.
DORIS LESSING: I wasn’t going in for metaphors, you know. You know, if you’re going to start thinking like that, you’d never write a word.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
DORIS LESSING: Because you write out of a different part of the brain. I think actually, you write from here somewhere. In your solar plexus. If you’re going to start examining everything you write, I mean, “My God, that’s that message,” and that, then you wouldn’t be able to write anything.”
BILL MOYERS: You’d be a Communist writing a pamphlet, or a Christian writing a Gospel.
DORIS LESSING: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Isn’t it the mission of writers to give us a vision?
DORIS LESSING: No. I don’t think writers should have missions… what we forget is that novels continually introducing areas of life which we haven’t thought of before, that haven’t really been in public consciousness until that novel. It’s happened particularly in America. I remember some of your great novelists. Who would have known about the Deep South, without your great Southern novelists? I mean we know all about Russia because of the novelists. And I think that is a function of the novel we forget.
BILL MOYERS: You said this is a frightening time. We’re a few days or maybe weeks away from a decision about the President to attack Iraq. What makes it so frightening as you sense it?
DORIS LESSING: Well, The mental set of the world is affected by Westerns. It’s the scenario that good sheriff riding into the town and he takes out the baddies in town and returns to its former good state and the sheriff rides away into the sunset. Well, this is how people think, I think. Politicians and war leaders. Bush is going to ride into Iraq with guns blazing. And then everything will be cleared up and then he will ride out again. But it’s not going to be like that.
The casualness of it is what is so terrifying. You see, we’ve been watching this war build up in Europe, and it’s absolutely obvious this man wants a war. The President wants war. For whatever reason, and he’s going to have it, I think.
BILL MOYERS: With Tony Blair’s help.
DORIS LESSING: Well, you know I don’t approve of Blair. Blair is a little man in a little country. It’s not the same thing as Bush wanting war, and going to war.
BILL MOYERS: We keep having wars despite the fact that great novelists tell us the truth about wars.
DORIS LESSING: Well, we don’t have much effect, do we? Do you know when I first recognized that horrible truth, I was standing in Southern Rhodesia, I was very young…
And watching the night’s bag of prisoners, the Africans who were being caught out without passes. Handcuffed, walking down the street. With the jailers, white, in front and back. And I looked at that and I thought right, well, this is described in Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and all the others. So what have they achieved is what I thought. Didn’t stop me writing novels though. I think we might have a limited effect on a small number of people. I hope a good one.
BILL MOYERS: But you keep writing.
DORIS LESSING: Yes I do. I have to.
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Is there a nuclear plant near you? Check it out. Gullah culture in history and in the arts. Select your own Doris Lessing favorite from a complete list of her books. Connect to NOW at pbs.org.
MOYERS: We go now to the coast of South Carolina.
There, next to golf courses, estates, and new condos, something timeless survives — a heritage so rich no price tag can measure its value.
Our correspondent is NPR’s Vertamae Grosvenor.
VERTAMAE GROSVENOR: This is a place of spirit. 70 percent of the enslaved Africans who came to this country came ashore here on the coast of South Carolina. These Africans brought with them a set of traditions, skills and beliefs that came to be known as Gullah Culture.
The coastline from South Carolina to Northern Florida is home to an estimated 300,000 Gullah people. The Sea Islands — among them Edisto Island, Coosaw Island, Daufuskie Island, and St. Helena Island — have provided Gullah roots for millions of African Americans.
Before the Civil War, the Gullah were more autonomous than other American slaves, thanks to the heat and mosquitos along the swampy Atlantic coastline, which drove slave owners inland during the months of April through October.
After slavery, the Gullah were isolated — without bridges to the mainland, without the white presence – their West African culture thrived. They refined their crafts, developed their own cuisine, and even spoke their own language.
But it’s in their relation to the land that their culture is made most manifest.
MARQUETTA GOODWINE, GULLAH GEECHEE SEA ISLAND COALITION: This land is living. These waterways are living. The oak trees are living. Even snakes that most of us don’t wanna see comin’, they’re living. For us, everything you touch, everything that you encounter, has certain energy to it. And that energy is very real, and you have to know how to respect that energy.
GROSVENOR: St. Helena Island was and is divided into communities that still bear the names of antebellum plantations: Fripp, Pope, Frogmore. It was here in Frogmore in 1862 that the Penn School was founded. It was the first school for freed blacks in the south. Teachers’ diaries remark that their students who were children, nursing mothers, old men and women, all came to classes first held under the oak trees, hungry and eager to “catch the learning.”
EMORY CAMPBELL, DIRECTOR EMERITUS, PENN CENTER: They came to school to learn to read and write so they could sign their name to a deed. And so land was the objective of the newly freed people.
GROSVENOR: It was here in 1865 that Union General William Tecumseh Sherman issued his special Field Order Number 15, promising 40 acres to blacks. Later that year, the order was rescinded and the black-held land was returned to the Confederate owners who had fled when the Union Army came. Through sacrifice and hard work some former slaves were able to buy land, especially in the Sea Islands. By 1868 half of Beaufort County was owned by Gullah. But ownership here meant something very different than it meant to the rest of the country.
CAMPBELL: Families never thought that it was necessary to subdivide land and become individual owners of land. Land was used together and therefore the whole culture was based on just joint community use of land.
GROSVENOR: It was that communal ownership of land that helped hold Gullah culture together in the 19th century but in recent decades has begun to pull it apart.
Marquetta Goodwine — also known as “Queen Quet” — is working against that trend. She is the founder of the Gullah Geechee Sea Island Coalition, an organization which seeks to educate people about Gullah traditions.
GOODWINE: The Gullah Geechee Nation has seen a lot of changes. And many of those changes have been brought because people did not have a clear understanding of our story.
GROSVENOR: When it comes to land, the story goes like this: if a Gullah landowner dies without a will, all of his or her heirs inherit the estate with no one person owning a specific part of it. Within a couple of generations as more family members die without wills, dozens of relatives end up owning the land together. This process of inheritance is called heirs’ property.
CAMPBELL: But today that doesn’t work because we have a whole new capitalistic system where you have to mortgage land to get a house, or you need to sell a piece to get cash. And therefore they… the whole problem of heirs’ property now has a become a problem that it never has been before.
GROSVENOR: For developers there is an advantage in the heirs’ property system. If one individual or group of landowners is willing to sell, the developer can use that willingness as a wedge against the other owners.
CAMPBELL: You have heirs, members of the families who are living on the land. And then they are members who may be living in Washington or New York that don’t have the same feeling or sense of place to the land. And you have the third party, the developer or the speculator, who would like to buy the entire tract of land to develop some business. And so they take advantage of this contention between the two groups. And buy one group off and then go to court and force the sale of the entire track.
GROSVENOR: It doesn’t always take a court order to benefit developers. When some members of the Holmes family on Hilton Head Island wanted to sell their heirs’ property, another faction disagreed, but decided it was better to go ahead with the sale than to continue squabbling. China Berry Ridge Development now stands on that 40 acre plot.
On St. Helena Island, land which once had little value to outsiders and sold for $3,000 an acre a decade ago, now sells for up to $20,000. Much of the Gullah fishing and farming land now has been developed into golf courses, resorts, and gated communities, bringing people from all across the country. And as the Gullah saying goes, “everything change up now.”
KENNETH SUMPTER, OWNER, E’S FABRICS: They come and they realize, “It’s so dark here. I can see the stars. But it’s so dark. Can we bring the street lights?” “Or can we have running water and sewer, and can we have wider traffic lanes and stop lights and all the other things that we had back where we came from? But we like it here. Can we have the Starbucks? Can we have the conveniences of malls? The more they come and get involved with the land, the more the land is destroyed.
GROSVENOR: The Gullah have had an uneasy transition into the 21st century. And the question now is: can their culture enter the mainstream or will it become a tourist attraction, a relic of the past?
PERRY WHITE, OWNER, GULLAH FLEA MARKET: I don’t believe the living generation has the responsibility to preserve a way of life that we call culture and history. We need to establish museums and centers to preserve those things that we think were important part of our history. So that as we become a part of the mainstream of life we don’t have to burden ourselves down by trying to figure out “how do we preserve the culture?”
GROSVENOR: Perry White’s family has owned land on Hilton Head Island since emancipation. He owns the Gullah Flea Market, which is operated on family land.
WHITE: So many people come into this business. And the first thing they’ve said to me “Isn’t it a shame that we can’t hear the people speak Gullah? Or that we can’t go and see things the way they used to be?” Well I grew up here. Prior to the bridge, prior to electricity, prior to running water and those things. And I question how many people would like to go back to that.
CAMPBELL: I think the Gullah culture could function very well within our capitalistic culture of today. Every restaurant now serves shrimp and grits. I mean that’s a delicacy. To us that was just the simple meal. That part of the culture, the food ways, the baskets that we weave is now a commemorative art piece. You put it up on a shelf and you admire it. It’s a nice conversation piece. And that, you know, one of those small baskets now can bring two or three hundred dollars.
GROSVENOR: Gazing across the landscape, the Gullah are reflecting on the hard work and sacrifice of their African ancestors and pondering their place in the 21st century.
GOODWINE: If I were to take now and sell the land, it was as if I was taking my entire family and putting them again on the auction block. And whenever I’m out in the field, when I’m planting things, when I’m harvesting things, I feel all of them in that field still with me. As I was taught, you know, the big fish they eat up the little fish. And you can’t have all the big ones just comin’ in, chewin’ up the smaller ones just because of size. You have to bear in mind that those little one have something that they give too.
MOYERS: As Doris Lessing talked about the horrors of war, I thought of those two American pilots facing a possible court martial for mistakenly killing four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan last year.
From an altitude of some 10,000 feet they fired without being certain the movement on the ground was the enemy. So now they stand accused of “reckless disregard” of orders.
I can only imagine what it’s like to be sent on such an assignment in the first place — to kill people from afar, not knowing who they are. Then, to learn you have made such a mistake. Those of us who have never been there are fortunate not to be so tested.
The hearings into how this happened have revealed that American pilots routinely use drugs to keep them awake on combat missions. “Go-go” pills, they’re called, and they enable pilots to fly and fight beyond normal hours. Then when they return, they’re provided “no-go” pills — tranquilizers, to induce the sleep lost on duty. It’s an old practice, dating back to World War II and continued through Korea, Vietnam, and the first Gulf War ten years ago.
Drugs, it seems, are the hidden weapon of modern war. Their use in Vietnam was so rampant, many soldiers came home addicted. Drugs had helped them fight the enemy and to fight the depression that often is unseen visitor on the killing field. But when those addicted came home, they were largely left on their own; our government, whether Democrat or Republican, considered waging a war on drugs more important than helping addicted people recover.
It’s just as true today, and we have to wonder what it says about the conscience of a nation that will feed its soldiers drugs to help them fight, and then when it’s over, leave them to a private hell where they must fight alone.
That’s it for this week.
What do you think? I’ll be reading your messages on pbs.org.
For now, I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on March 20, 2015.