Call for Elimination of Loopholes in United States’ Trans Fatty Acid Labeling Regulations

Mengting Qiu 


Consumption of trans fatty acids increases risk for cardiovascular disease with a directly proportional relationship. To reduce the public’s intake of this harmful substance, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandates that trans fat content of processed foods be indicated on nutrition labels. It has also proposed a ban on partially hydrogenated oils (the main source of industrially-produced trans fat). This ban has been the subject of much debate due to its coercive nature. However, both advocates and critics of the ban have failed to recognize that current policies for labeling trans fat are deceptive: trans fat content can be claimed to be 0g in the U.S. as long as there is less than 0.5g of trans fat per serving. This allows trans fat content to be presented as zero grams when it is not actually zero grams. Misrepresentations of trans fat content due to rounding error and serving size, while seemingly insignificant, are actually very clinically significant because the World Health Organization recommends that a person consume less than 2g of trans fat per day. With the current trans fat labeling, people can quickly consume more than this recommended amount while believing they are consuming none. Thus, labeling needs to be more accurately representative of actual amounts of trans fats in foods. This can be achieved through means such as reducing the rounding threshold or making serving sizes more representative of quantities consumed per sitting.  In short, trans fats content must not be allowed to be represented as zero when it is not such, so that consumers can actually judge their intake of this harmful substance. This policy change would also enable advancement in the debate about a ban on trans fats by maximizing the benefits of labeling practices.


Consumption of trans fatty acids (TFAs) derived from industrial partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) has been shown to have a significant positive correlation with risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) (Uauy et al. 2009; Michas et al. 2014; Nishida and Uauy 2009). In fact, it has been estimated that reducing the 2010 levels of population TFA intake in the U.S. (0.6% of daily energy intake) to zero can prevent up to 7,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease and 20,000 heart attacks per year in the U.S. (Dietz and Scanlon 2012). Furthermore, it has been found that the amount of TFA consumption is directly proportional to CVD risk (IOM 2005); up to 480 deaths from cardiovascular disease and 1,200 heart attacks in the U.S. can be prevented per year with only a reduction of TFA consumption by 0.04% of daily energy intake, which is less than 7% of the 2010 levels (Dietz and Scanlon 2012). Because consumption of even very small quantities of TFA can have large negative health consequences (IOM 2005), the World Health Organization (WHO) has made a recommendation that the proportion of people’s daily energy intake that is from trans fats be less than 1% (Nishida and Uauy 2009), which corresponds to 2g/day for a 2,000 calorie/day diet (AHA 2015). WHO has further recommended that countries should work towards eliminating industrial TFAs from all foods (Uauy et al. 2009).

In response to the growing body of evidence for TFA as a harmful substance, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began to require labeling of trans fat content in processed food in 2006 (FDA 2013b). However, while labeling regulations have been largely responsible for the decrease in average TFA intake in the U.S. by 3.3g per day per person (pp/pd) from 2003 to 2009, from 4.6g pp/pd to 1.3g pp/pd (Doell et al. 2012), the danger of consuming even small quantities of TFA has propelled FDA to take further action (FDA 2013c). In 2013, FDA made a preliminary determination that PHOs are not generally recognized as safe (GRAS). If this decision is finalized, manufacturers would be banned from selling foods containing PHOs (FDA 2013c), thereby eliminating the primary source of dietary TFAs. Despite the seemingly straightforward nature of its health benefits, the potential ban has been the subject of much controversy and debate due to its coercive nature (Resnik 2010; CBS 2013), and as of March 2015, FDA had not yet made a final decision regarding the GRAS status of PHOs (Gelski 2015). However, one critical aspect of trans fat regulation that both critics and proponents of the ban have failed to consider is that there is a lack of transparency in the reporting and labeling of trans fatty acid content in foods, due to rounding error and serving size variability (FDA 2013b). These problems cause labels to deceptively claim 0g trans fat in foods that actually contain clinically significant amounts of trans fat, given that the recommended TFA intake is <2g pp/pd. These labels thus lie to consumers, preventing them from making informed decisions about their diet (the purpose of labeling in the first place), and causing them to believe that they are on a trans-fat-free diet when they in fact are far from it. Thus, before FDA policymakers continue the debate about a PHO ban, they must first realize that current labeling regulations of TFA content in processed foods are inadequate and allow for deceptive labeling, and must change current TFA labeling regulations to allow for transparent and accurate labeling of TFA in processed foods. What can and cannot be achieved through labeling regulations can only be seen once they are made transparent enough to actually allow consumers to make informed choices about their TFA consumption, and only after this is it possible to determine the necessity of a ban.

The lack of transparency in FDA’s TFA labeling regulations can best be seen through a comparison with Canada’s TFA labeling regulations, present as of December 12, 2005 (Micha and Mozaffarian 2008). Although Canada’s labeling policies may not be faultless, their juxtaposition with those in the United States clearly shows the shortcomings of FDA’s TFA labeling regulations. The first notable difference between the U.S.'s and Canada’s TFA labeling regulations is that of rounding: in the U.S., foods with less than 0.5g of trans fat per serving can be labeled as having 0g of trans fat, whereas in Canada, only foods with less than 0.2g of trans fat per serving can be labeled as having 0g of trans fat (Micha and Mozaffarian 2008). This allows more TFA-containing foods in the US to claim zero TFA content. Rounding is necessary to some degree in all labeling practices because it is impractical and unfeasible to show the exact amount of a given substance.  For example, a product may be experimentally determined to contain 0.3456789g of trans fat per serving, but this number with many decimals will confuse the reader and take up too much space. Thus, to increase clarity, rounding is necessary to some degree. However, the rules for rounding this number are what determine whether this 0.3456789g amount is labeled, for example, as 0.3g (rounded to the nearest 0.1g), 0.5g (rounded to the nearest 0.5g), or 0g (rounded to the nearest 1g). Based on the countries’ differing rounding rules, in the US, this 0.3456789g amount would be rounded to 0g, since foods with less than 0.5g of TFA per serving can be labeled as 0g. However, in Canada, it would be rounded to 0.3g, since only foods with less than 0.2g of TFA per serving can be labeled as 0g (see Appendix 1 for a more detailed explanation of rounding rules in the US and in Canada; FDA 2013a; CFIA 2005). While this rounding error is seemingly insignificant, it is clinically significant in the case of TFAs since any amount of TFA consumption causes increased risk of CVD (IOM 2005). Here, “zero plus zero doesn’t always equal zero” (Gordon 2011:1). In fact, zero plus zero can add up to a non-zero, clinically significant amount. Manifestations of rounding error misrepresenting a food’s actual content are in fact prevalent in the U.S.: 84% of U.S. products containing PHOs (the main dietary source of trans fats) are labeled as having 0g of trans fat, which can lead consumers to potentially “underestimate their trans fat consumption” (Clapp et al. 2014:1).

Another problem behind trans fat labeling regulations in the United States is the inadequacy of the definition of “serving size,” which also prevents consumers from accurately judging their TFA consumption. In the U.S., a food can be labeled as having 0g trans fat if it has less than 0.5g TFA per serving (FDA 2003). Here, a “serving” is based on “reference amounts customarily consumed per eating occasion” (CFR 2014:1), which are provided by the Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. In Canada, foods can be labeled as having 0g trans fat when they contain less than 0.2g TFA per serving, which is also determined by reference amounts (CFIA 2014), provided by Health Canada (see Appendix 2 for more detail on serving size regulations; CFIA 2015). However, there are significant differences between the reference amounts provided by the United States and those provided by Canada. For example, the reference amount for one serving of potato chips in the U.S. is 30g (CFR 2014), whereas that of potato chips in Canada is 50g (CFIA 2015). Though there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this difference, it shows how the amount of trans fat in a given product can be hidden by the serving size: if a serving size is sufficiently small, its TFA content can be rounded to zero. For example, if a food contains 0.6g of TFA per 50g, it cannot claim 0g; however, if the serving size is 30g, it can claim 0g TFA (though it still has 0.6g TFA per 50g). Using reference amounts for serving sizes is a particular problem when they misrepresent the amount actually eaten per sitting, which is the case with the currently outdated reference amounts established 20 years ago (FDA 2014a).  

Taken together, current TFA labeling with its loopholes of rounding error and variable serving sizes allows companies to actively lie to consumers by causing them to believe that they are on a trans-fat-free diet even though they may be consuming much more than the WHO-recommended amounts. Although companies must follow the rules provided by FDA for rounding and serving size, and cannot, for example, choose their own serving sizes to hide TFA content in their foods, FDA rules are in line with company interests by allowing them to claim 0g trans fat in foods that do contain trans fats. Manufacturers using PHOs, who look to continue sales of their products but understand consumers’ increasing awareness of the negative health consequences of TFA-containing foods (Camp et al. 2012), could take advantage of these loopholes by opting to use a reference amount as a serving size instead of providing the content in the entirety of a product (e.g., a bag of chips), or by decreasing their foods’ PHO content just enough to be able to round down to zero. In a hypothetical scenario, a child could eat some cookies, and if the cookies were labeled to have zero grams of trans fat per 30g serving (CFR 2014), which corresponds to about 2.5 cookies (SND 2014), then the parent would have no reason (when solely considering TFAs) to restrict the child’s amount of cookie intake. However, in reality, these cookies could have 0.49g of trans fat per serving (~2.5 cookies) and with 10 cookies, this child would reach the 2g/day WHO-recommended maximum suggested TFA intake. If the child continues to eat cookies over several days and years, up to a hypothetical infinite amount, they would be consuming an infinite amount of trans fat, all the while their parents think that they are consuming none.

While manifestations of deceptive labeling causing inadvertent TFA consumption are not as drastic in real life, they do occur and can be clearly seen through a comparison of the differential TFA content claims on similar Canadian and American food products. In comparing nutrition labels of identical foods in the U.S. and Canada with similar market sizes, discrepancies were found in the amount of trans fat claimed by the labels to be present in the foods. For example, a 100g Hershey’s Cookies and Cream chocolate bar sold in the U.S. was labeled to have 0g of trans fat per serving size of 43g, or 6 pieces (2.5 servings per chocolate bar; see Appendix 4, Figure 2). In contrast, the same-brand same-flavor 100g Hershey’s Cookies and Cream chocolate bar sold in Canada was labeled to have 1g of trans fat per serving size of 50g, or half the chocolate bar (2 servings per chocolate bar; see Appendix 4, Figure 1). There is no reason that Hershey’s Cookies and Cream chocolate sold in the U.S. would be any different from those sold in Canada since it would make no economic sense for the chain to manufacture one type of chocolate for the U.S. and another type of chocolate for Canada. Thus, the U.S. chocolate must also have more than 0.5g of trans fat per half a chocolate bar (see Appendix 1 for rounding rules in the two countries). What, then, allowed the same chocolate in the U.S. to have 0g of trans fat per serving which in Canada has 1g of trans fat per serving? It is the small serving size (43g in the U.S. as opposed to 50g in Canada) and the rounding error (in the U.S. <0.5g is rounded to 0g). (Interestingly, the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR 2014) does not provide a reference amount for chocolate. Hershey’s seems to be taking advantage of this in using 43g as a serving size, which is small enough for its TFA content to be claimed as 0g.) TFA content being hidden in serving size also occurs in other products: for example, Doritos Nacho Cheese Chips is labeled as having 0g of trans fat per serving size of 28g in the U.S. for an 88.5g bag of chips (Appendix 4, Figure 4), but as 0.2g per serving size of 50g in Canada for an 80g bag of chips (Appendix 4, Figure 3). Thus, the U.S. chips must also contain at least 0.2g TFA, not 0g, per bag. These snacks are only a snapshot of the problem. Compounded by several rounding errors and misrepresentative serving sizes per day, and consumers can quickly be consuming several grams of trans fat per day while thinking they are consuming none.

The lack of transparency of current TFA labeling policies is problematic because of this discrepancy in what consumers believe they are consuming and what they are actually consuming. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the purpose of labeling is to “provide consumers with the information they need and desire to make food choices” (FAO 2015:1). In the case of current TFA labeling regulations, consumers are not only prevented from making informed food choices, but also are being lied to by labels on foods that claim to but do not actually contain zero trans fat. Yes, the labeled content of other substances in foods such as other fats are also dependent on rounding error and serving size, but the degree of accuracy in TFA labeling required to actually give consumers “the information they need and desire to make food choices” (FAO 2015:1) must be much higher than that of other substances. This is because the scales on which the substances are judged are different. TFA is harmful in much smaller quantities than other substances such as saturated fats (the American Health Association recommends daily intake of saturated fats to be below 16g/2000cal diet, as compared to below 2g/2000cal diet for trans fats; AHA 2015). Thus, 10g of TFA is not the same as 10g of saturated fat, so TFAs must be treated differently with more precise labeling regulations. Accurate and transparent labeling of TFA content is especially important now, as a 2009 survey found that 72% of Americans read labels on products to select healthier foods, and 61% of Americans consider “'zero grams of trans fat per serving' to be the most important claim for heart health” (Scott-Thomas 2009:1). With the current deceptive nature of TFA labeling, people who are seriously trying to follow a zero-trans-fat diet and select foods based on trans fat content may actually be consuming very dangerous amounts of trans fat without knowing. This is seriously problematic because these peoples’ risk for CVD is increasing while they seek to avoid such a risk increase. Thus, to allow people to actually be able to make choices about foods for their own health, it is necessary that trans fat labeling be made more transparent and accurate to a scale reflective of the substance’s degree of harm per quantity consumed.

In order to account for the fact that trans fatty acids have large potential negative health consequences in very small amounts, labeling regulations for trans fats in the United States should allow for less rounding error than labeling for other fats, and must not be able to claim 0g of trans fat unless there is actually no TFA or PHO present. In order to accomplish this, the threshold below which TFA content can be rounded to zero should be decreased to a number that would give less rounding error and allow fewer companies being able to claim 0g trans fat on their foods even when they contain PHOs. To add to this, rounding could be required to be to the nearest 0.1g up to 0.5g. Such labeling policies are feasible as they have already been implemented in Canada (CFIA 2005). Because rounding would still be necessary, for products that have TFA content that can be rounded to zero, some sort of indication such as an asterisk or a ‘~’ sign in front of the “0” should be made on the label to clearly indicate that the TFA content is approximately, not actually, zero. Making these alterations to TFA labeling policies would make labels more representative of their actual TFA content, which would allow consumers to actually be able to judge their level of TFA intake.

To increase consumers’ ability to make informed choices about their diet, it is not sufficient to only change thresholds for rounding, it is also necessary to change the definition of a “serving size” in the United States. Serving sizes in the U.S. (and in Canada), as previously mentioned, are currently based on reference amounts, which is in turn derived from what FDA considers as a reasonable amount of a certain food to be consumed in one sitting (CFR 2014). This is inherently ambiguous, as can be seen by the fact that the U.S. and Canada have different reference amounts for the same foods (see Appendix 3; CFR 2014; CFIA 2015). Serving sizes based on reference amounts are also often misrepresentative of the actual amounts that people consume in one sitting, as can be seen by the example of one 88.5g (hand-held size) Doritos Nacho Cheese chip bag (which is usually consumed entirely in one sitting) having three servings per bag (see Appendix 4, Figure 2). Two solutions to this problem—that have already been proposed by FDA—are to make serving sizes more reflective of what is actually eaten by a consumer in one sitting, and to include two-column labels, one having information for one serving and the other having information for one package of the food (FDA 2014a). Either way, the amount of TFA present in any amount of food someone consumes must be clear, so as to allow consumers to make informed choices about their own health especially when it comes to such potentially dangerous substances as trans fats.

Ultimately, the fact that labeling regulations for TFA content in processed foods allow content to be expressed as zero when it is not zero for a substance that research clearly shows is proportionally harmful to the degree it is consumed (IOM 2005) is highly problematic, especially when it causes people to inadvertently consume significant amounts of the substance they are trying to avoid. For the reason of truly allowing consumers to make their own health and diet decisions, it is important to implement more accurate TFA labeling regulations, whereby rounding and serving sizes would not be able to hide from a consumer that they are consuming trans fats. Furthermore, an understanding and resolution of this problem is important beyond providing consumers adequately accurate information in that the results of implementing more accurate TFA labeling are crucial to the debate on banning trans fatty acids. Depending on the results of improved TFA labeling, proponents of the ban may be able to more strongly conclude that labeling alone is not enough; or, critics of the ban may be actually be able to assert that labeling is favorable to a ban because the former allows for consumer choice (which it currently does not do). These arguments cannot be made without the introduction of clear and accurate TFA labeling. No matter what, first resolving the deceptiveness and lack of transparency in TFA labeling regulations will help move Americans in a direction of less trans fatty acid intake, resulting in fewer instances of heart attacks and deaths due to cardiovascular disease. Whether a TFA ban will be required or not in the future, once labeling regulations have been improved, is to be determined by further research and debate.



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Appendix 1: Rounding in Canada and the United States

FDA requires that trans fat amounts below 0.5g be rounded to 0g, amounts between 0.5g and 5g be rounded to the nearest 0.5 gram, and amounts above 5g be rounded to the nearest 1 gram (FDA 2013a). In Canada, amounts of TFA less than 0.2g are rounded to 0g, amounts between 0.2g and 0.5g are rounded to the nearest 0.1g, amounts between 0.5g and 5g are rounded to the nearest 0.5g, and amounts above 5g are rounded to the nearest 1g (CFIA 2005).

Appendix 2: When Trans Fatty Acid Content can be Claimed as 0g in Canada and the United States

In the US, foods can be labeled as having 0g trans fat if there is less than 0.5g per serving (FDA 2003); a serving is based on “reference amounts customarily consumed per eating occasion” (CFR 2014:2), which is provided by the Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. In Canada, a food can be labeled as “free of trans fatty acids” when the food “contains less than 0.2g of trans fatty acids per i) reference amount and serving of stated size, or ii) serving of stated size, if the food is a prepackaged meal” (CFIA 2014:1). Here, similar to in the US, a “reference amount” is defined to be “a specific regulated quantity of a type of food usually eaten by an individual at one sitting” (CFIA 2015:1)

Appendix 3: Reference Amounts for Some Foods in Canada and the United States

Chips: 50g in Canada, 30g in the United States (CFIA 2015; CFR 2014)

Yogurt: 175g in Canada, 225g in the United States (CFIA 2015; CFR 2014)

Cottage Cheese: 120g in Canada, 110g in the United States (CFIA 2015; CFR 2014)

Appendix 4: Figures 

Figure 1: Hershey’s Cookies and Cream Chocolate from Canada. Picture taken on April 15, 2015, in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. Serving size is 50g, or half a bar. Trans fat content labeled as 1g.


Figure 2: Hershey’s Cookies and Cream Chocolate from the U.S. Picture taken on April 13, 2015, in Cambridge, MA, USA. Serving size is 43g (6 blocks). Trans fat content is labeled as 0g.

Figure 3: Doritos Nacho Cheese Chips from Canada. Picture taken on April 13, 2015, in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. Serving size is 80g (one package). Trans fat content is labeled as 0.2g. 

Figure 4: Doritos Nacho Cheese Chips from the U.S. Picture taken on April 13, 2015, in Cambridge, MA, USA. Serving size is 28g, or about 11 chips. Trans fat content is labeled as 0g. 

June Hogs

Nathan Cummings

         In June of 1981, two weeks after we’d moved to Hanford, my father read about the summer Chinook run in the papers and decided he’d teach me how to fish. He came home from work one day carrying two brand-new fishing rods he’d bought at the general store downtown. We drove north for an hour along the Columbia River, away from the plant’s hazard zone, then pulled over. He and I climbed out from our lost-looking Datsun, and I looked down at the water: hundreds of long, dark shapes thrashing their way against the current. Dad unpacked a picnic lunch, then started threading his new rod. “Watch what I do,” he told me, and stabbed his finger with a hook trying to attach the bait.
           Even at ten years old, I could have told you this was never going to work. Dad was a nuclear engineer from Chicago, and knew more about carbon rods than fishing rods. I watched him whip his line into the river’s shallows, which were thick and pregnant with fish. It floated for a few moments, then a salmon leapt out and batted it away. He frowned and cast again. Over and over, his hook would bounce off a salmon’s back or get swatted by a tail. He kept at it while I watched and scooped Miracle Whip onto two sandwiches.
            By sundown, the river was still packed and writhing, but Dad had given up his dream of training me to become the Columbia’s next salmon shogun. That didn’t get him down, though. “We learned a good life lesson today, buddy,” he told me as we walked back to the car. “Own up to your mistakes, before they come back to bite you in the butt.” We stopped for dinner at a roadside burger shack nearby, and he stuck French fries in his ears and made me snort Coke out my nose.
           On the drive back, I got drowsy and counted salmon instead of sheep: their huge, rippling bodies jackknifing out of the water, glinting blood-red in the spray. Back east, I’d never seen fish that big. In the distance, the N Reactor’s thin plume of steam cut the horizon in half, guiding us home like a smoke signal.
            I remember the river more clearly than anything. Faces, days, names all pool together in my mind like puddles after a rainstorm. But the river stays, languid and calm, drifting through my memories of Hanford. Now that everyone else is gone, I follow its path without question.
            Every year, the salmon runs seemed to get smaller and fewer. I sat on the same bank with my friend Eric four years later, the summer after eighth grade, and watched Chinook swim under the river’s green skin. “It’s the plant’s fault,” Eric said, not looking up. He’d brought an issue of Silver Surfer and had his nose buried in it. “All the radiation and chemicals leach into their eggs and make them runty and weak.”
            I stared out at the horizon, more depressed than I cared to admit, watching the distant white splashes of leaping fish. It was record temperatures that summer, and the river was thin and shallow in the heat. Eric licked his lips and took a sip from a bottled water, which was all his mom ever let him drink. She wasn’t the only one: a lot of people were starting to fuss about the tap water, which came from groundwater. They were certain that Hanford was bleeding into the soil, sending its invisible spiders through our pipes and into our sinks.
           Dad said this was ridiculous: the plant was too far away for the town’s groundwater to be affected. He always followed this up by filling a glass with tap water and drinking it all in one gulp. I didn’t see how he could prove anything that way.
            “It’s the dams, too,” said Eric. I nodded in disgust. Grand Coulee, Bonneville, McNary: huge concrete clots straddling the river downstream, flooding farmland and trapping salmon. More and more ways thought up by humans to clog up God’s own artery, the Columbia.
           “You know that’s why all the June Hogs disappeared?” I asked.
            He looked at me, confused. “What disappeared?”
            “June Hogs. That was their name for the biggest Chinook.” I rifled through my backpack and pulled out a crinkled slip of paper. On it, a grainy black-and-white photo showed a smiling guy struggling to lift one huge bastard of a fish, almost as long as the guy was tall. “They could get up to eight feet long and a hundred pounds in the old days.”
            “Where’d you get the picture?”
           “Tore it out of a library book.”
           He snorted. “Jesus, Cody.” I ignored him and stared back out at the Columbia, mentally willing a June Hog to heave itself out of the water.
           Then I squinted: something big was moving along the shallows on the other bank. Something really, really big.
            “Hey,” I said urgently. “Give me the binoculars.” The thing was swelling fast in the water, kicking up clouds of spray. He fumbled in his bag and handed me his father’s scratched-up pair of Nikons. I squinted to block out the desert sunlight.
            In a glittering flash, the fish leapt out of the water. Except fish didn’t have hair, or vaulting legs. It was a girl, her arms wrapped tight around a kicking silver salmon. She waded out of the shallows and threw it down on the bank, then stomped its head until it quit flapping.
            My hands were sweaty on the binoculars. She was tall and tan, with a big tangled mane of black hair that dripped down her front and back. Also she wasn’t wearing much. Nothing, in fact. Eric looked up from his comic book and made a noise like a constipated goat. Even across the river, you could tell she’d heard: she looked up and saw us staring, mouths open, frozen in place on the other side. The Nikons were still jammed tight across my face, so I got a great look as she blew us a kiss and brushed her hair back. Her breasts sparkled with drops of river water, and I thought my face was going to explode. Then she stared straight at me and gave us the finger.
            We still hadn’t moved by the time she’d climbed up the bank, salmon in hand, and disappeared. The sun hit high noon and our mouths were dry as chalk.
            It’s always dry in Hanford. People hear “Pacific Northwest” and think rain, but this is the eastern half of Washington State, which begins where the rain ends. The Cascade Mountains drink the clouds dry after they pass over Seattle, leaving everything east of the last foothill golden, cracked, and treeless. Stand on that border and look east on a clear day, and I swear you can see all the way out to Idaho, staring out over the ocean of sparse, sallow grass in between.
           When the Army Corps of Engineers built the plant back in the 40’s, they were looking for somewhere deserted: a place where they could forge the Hiroshima bomb’s plutonium heart without too many civilians in the blast radius. Our town is bigger now, but it’s still hard to argue with their final choice once you leave city limits. Everything’s flat and vacant for miles in all directions, the endless unused space of the West: nothing but sky, the long low hump of Rattlesnake Mountain, and the thin fingers of Hanford’s smokestacks.
           Before World War II, there wasn’t anything here except a couple of clapboard houses and some farmland. The Corps bulldozed most of that out of the way; what arose in its place was a federal town, an atomic town. After forty years, government officials still roamed around in long black cars, and our high school mascots were the “Bombers.” Once I heard Eric’s mother say that living here sometimes felt like the war had never ended. Even in ‘86, after most of the reactors had closed, a long slow procession of cars would still file out of town every morning and head towards N Reactor.
           I remember when Dad and I arrived for the first time. We’d been in the Datsun all night, lungs still starved from the thin air after crossing the Rockies. The sun had set and we’d been cutting through mile after mile of flat night country, black and endless in all directions. I sat in the backseat, drifting through curtains of sleep. In the front, Dad kept his hands on the wheel. He hadn’t slept since the Idaho border, but I didn’t think he seemed tired.
           I felt his hand reach back and nudge my shoulder. “Hey, buddy,” he said softly. “Wake up. I think this is it.”
           In the distance, a thin string of twinkling lights broke against the horizon. To my darkened eyes, they seemed impossible: distant streetlamps and lit windows popping out like flowers. There were no power cables along the road we drove; the lights blazed alone. Hanford seemed as if it had appeared overnight, a patch cut out from some distant city and placed here by giant unseen hands.
           “It’s in the middle of nowhere,” I said, tired and cranky. The last town Dad had been assigned to was right on the interstate, ten miles outside of Chicago. We’d lived in a cul-de-sac with three other children next door. “Who even lives all the way out here?”
           Dad scratched his chin. “Well, pretty much everyone in Richland, which is where they’re putting us, works for the plant. But we’ll be living right across the river from two other towns. And almost all of the engineers have families—I met a few of them when I had my interview.” He reached back again and tapped my knee. “Lots of kids your age.”
           I didn’t say anything.
           “This is gonna be good for us,” he said. “A do-over. I think you and I can really build something here.”
           For a moment, he looked as if he wanted to say something else. In the half-light, I could see the distant, even glow in his eyes. Then they twinkled. “Or are you gonna get bored just having me around?”
           “Yes,” I told him and stuck my tongue out. He gave me a short laugh and turned the radio on. There was a couple seconds of static, then grainy rock chords sprang out as we picked up a signal from Hanford—an early Elvis song, “Hound Dog” or “Burning Love.” It was so cheesy and old-sounding that I wanted to laugh, but somehow that didn’t seem quite right. So I let my eyes close again as we drove into town.
            Two years after Eric and I saw the girl, her face—and several other aspects—still flashed before my eyes in quiet moments. I decided that I’d teach myself how to fish over the summer.
            Dad snorted broccoli when I told him one night at dinner. “You’re supposed to be working this summer. Not wasting time catching fish. Besides, our track record isn’t great in this area.”
            I threw a pea at him. “Your track record.”
            He picked up the pea and threw it back. “Get a job.”
           It was true, though: I’d promised him I’d find work, maybe at the general store or the Laundromat, and pay back the money Eric and I’d borrowed from him to buy a Nintendo and a Super Mario Bros. cartridge. But all this seemed dry and tasteless compared to hauling a daily catch out of the Columbia. I fantasized about teaching myself to wrestle salmon before the June run, then dive into the river when the spawners arrived and drag out a June Hog the size of a refrigerator. Usually the way I pictured it, the girl with black hair would be standing on the other bank, watching me.
            I had to come up with some excuse. “Nobody is hiring for the summer,” I said. “Everyone’s worried about N Reactor finally getting shut down—they don’t want to take on kids in case their parents start getting transferred again.”
            Dad snorted. “That rumor goes around every summer. We’re always still here when fall arrives.”
            “I’ll work hard and sell what I catch,” I said, changing the subject. “Maybe we can even eat some.”
          He coughed and reached into his pocket for his pipe, even though we hadn’t finished eating. “Maybe,” he said. “I could always go for a good steak, first.”
           He and I had come late to Hanford. Since Mom had passed a few years back in a car accident, we’d never stayed in one place for long. Perhaps it was his way of outrunning some part of her, this rhythm of packing up our lives every two or three years and casting off onto some long distant highway.
           By the time we arrived, then, Hanford’s slow descent had already begun. In my first year at the school, half of my fifth grade class transferred out, leaving workbooks fluttering on their desks. Eric and I met for the first time when we were the only two to sign up for the baseball team. The plant was hemorrhaging after several “temporary” cutbacks, which didn’t seem to be ending any time soon.
           Dad didn’t care. If anything, it encouraged him, this state of transience. “I know it’s slow going now, but that just means more overtime for us new guys,” he told me. “We’re gonna change things. Make this place revolutionary again. Did you know the B Reactor was the first in the world to mass-produce plutonium?” He’d chatter like this late into the night as I watched TV, barely noticing whether I answered.
           I kept my words to myself. The truth was, no matter what he might have thought, Dad had been summoned here for the same reason as everyone else: to make sure Hanford kept our lights on, and didn’t devour itself from the inside out. But sometimes, hearing him talk so late into the night, you could almost forget these secret truths. He believed in Hanford in the same way some people believed in God; the way I wanted to believe that salmon could grow into June Hogs.
            Even though it was still spring and school wasn’t out yet, I wanted to get some practice in before the first big Chinook run in June. On weekends, I fell into a comfortable rhythm: I’d wake up early, strap on fishing pants and boots—no shirt—and head out of town on my mountain bike. Once I’d gotten far enough away from Hanford, I’d pick a stretch of river and set up shop, unpacking my rods, tackles, and baits from a metal lunchbox. Every day, I picked a new length of the Columbia, and caught something different each time: wriggling, repulsive lampreys, mottled walleye, coffee-brown carp that kicked against my line with a vengeance. But no salmon. Not yet.
            One day in April, I was sitting in Spanish class when the alarms sounded. Normal schools have fire bells; Hanford High has radiological sirens.
            I found Eric in the hallway, running out of third period with his class. “It’s not a drill,” he said before I could even ask. We all poured out of the building and started lining up in alphabetical order. When the teachers weren’t looking, we skipped out of line and craned our necks to see over the fence bordering the school, looking north towards Hanford, trying to get a glimpse. In the far distance, we could see the pale ridges and smokestacks of the B and D reactors. N was blocked from view, but we didn’t see a smoke trail—at least, not yet.
            They had the yellow evacuation buses all lined up and were about to start herding us on board, when the principal’s car phone finally rang. He took the call and spoke quietly for a few minutes, then got up and told us that everything was all right; we’d been dropped back down to condition blue. Told us to go back to class and not to worry, as if he’d forgotten that half the school’s parents worked at Hanford.
            By fifth period, every classroom was deserted. As I was running out the door, I saw a kid I knew going the same direction: Toby Fredricksen, whose mom worked in the same department as my dad. I ran over and grabbed his arm. “Have you heard anything?”
            He was ashen-faced. “They’ve closed the plant. I just called Mom.”
            “Are they still there?”
            “Everyone is. They’re locked in the bunker under quarantine.”
            “For how long?”
            “Until the reactor checks out.”
            In the end, it was almost two days before the Datsun finally pulled into the driveway and Dad staggered out. He looked terrible: pale and mummified from his time underground, his face a maze of stubble. “It was all just stupid as hell,” he said later, nursing a glass of whiskey—one of the only times I’d ever seen him drink. “They found a hairline crack in the storage basin. The kind of thing that should have been spotted in a routine check, if we weren’t complete dicks about protocol. So of course they had to power down the whole reactor and get everyone into the bunker until they were sure it wasn’t in danger of getting any worse.” Once he’d vented all this out, he slumped forward on the kitchen counter and fell asleep right there. I had gotten some muscle from tugging on fishing nets all day, so I carried him up the stairs. I’d never been strong enough to carry him before.
            He never said anything else about the quarantine. Once I’d gotten him into bed, he turned over and slept for two days straight. I didn’t go back to school, though, just walked down to the riverbank and stayed there until dark, waiting for something unexpected. I couldn’t be in the house, even though I knew he was back. It felt as if I was still waiting by the phone for Dad to return: pale, colorless, as if the center of me had been burned stark and hollow.
            The N Reactor came back online after a week, and Dad returned to work. Yet after the scare, the mood in town had shifted. I’d go to the supermarket and see people stocking up on canned goods and bottled water, shooting furtive glances at each other and out the windows. One day, I saw a sign next to the fresh fish counter: FRESH LOCAL SALMON, TESTED FOR IODINE-131. Outside, everyone either drove around either stupidly fast, or glacially slow. Once in a while, I saw people sneak a look at the horizon, looking at the reactors’ silvery plumes. Everything seemed poised to tip, like the needle on a Geiger counter, in some unseen direction.
            Dad had changed as well, ever since he’d awakened from his two-day hibernation.. One day, he drove up in a brand-new pickup truck that he’d somehow exchanged for the Datsun. “Got a raise,” he told me proudly. “We all did. They’re buttering us up in case some jackass decides to file suit.” He didn’t seem the least bit bothered by this. In fact, nothing seemed to bother him now. It was like his long sleep had energized him, made him arc with a new furious energy. He rose early, made me breakfast before driving to the plant, and got back later and later.
            Even Eric had changed. He’d beaten Mario Bros., but now he was onto something different: horror movies. Really sick, horrible ones, like Eraserhead, which gave me the creeps for weeks after he showed me just one scene. Eric wasn’t done, though: he invited me over one night and we watched The Thing three times, our nausea rising and falling in wavelets, until the sun came up and Eric’s father yelled at me to get my ass home. School was out by then, so I spent all my time either at their house or fishing by the river.
           Later that month, I was sifting my net through the river’s silty shallows, and caught a two-headed minnow. It flopped feebly as I held it in my palm. From the tiny spine, a second round-eyed head protruded just above the first. Both mouths opened and closed, as if it were speaking silent words.
            I threw it back into the river. I had real muscle on my arms by that point, and I hurled it as hard and far as I could. It tumbled in an arc, a glittering fork of silver, and when it hit the water, it barely made a splash.
            It was June and I was sitting in Eric’s father’s dinghy under the Vernita Bridge, line in hand, ready for the run. They were coming, but I knew as soon as I motored out into the middle of the river that it wouldn’t be a good year. The Chinook were sparse; the few who’d made it looked bedraggled, angry, their olive heads snapping to and fro in the current. I saw two males fighting, ripping at each other with their hook jaws and teeth. They weren’t supposed to do that until they’d made it to the spawning grounds.
            “They’re cranky this year.” I turned, surprised—someone was shouting at me from atop the bridge. I motored the dinghy out from under its shadow and peered up into the desert sunlight. Then I saw a mop of black hair looking back at me, and froze.
            She didn’t miss a beat. Stepping onto the railing, she leapt and dove gracefully, arcing into the water like a knife. After a moment of silence, her head broke the water, and she paddled over to the side of the dinghy. I was almost biting my tongue off, but I managed to keep enough cool to give her a hand as she clambered on board. Just like last time, she was clutching a salmon—a big male this time, apple-red and furious. Unlike last time, though, she was wearing clothes—a ratty concert shirt, now soaked through, and a gauzy skirt. I bit my lip.
            We stared at each other for a few heavy seconds. Then the salmon made a writhing kick, fell out of her hands, and landed on the dinghy’s floor. She raised one foot and stomped it, one blow. It stilled.
            “What was that for?” I managed. “And why the hell did you jump off?” Did she recognize me, I kept asking myself.
            “A present,” she said, grinning at me. Her eyes weren’t giving anything away. “I was walking across and saw you fishing down here. Thought you could use some help.”
           “I could use help?”
           “Cause you clearly can’t catch one of these guys yourself.”
            “Who says I want one?”
            “You’re the one with the dinghy and the minnow rods,” she said, and touched my chin in a quick flitted motion. “I’m Shawna.”
            She remembered; I could hear it in her voice now. I choked down the urge to capsize the boat and swim for the border. “Cody. That’s a cool trick you have with the salmon.”
            “My uncle taught it to me,” she said. “He’s Umatilla. Passing on tribal wisdom, I guess.”
            She was one year older than me, it turned out. Lived with her mom across the river in Pasco, went to high school in that area. Her father wasn’t in the picture or even near the frame, having split for Belize after the first round of plant restructuring in the early 70’s. So instead she got raised by her mother and uncle, who apparently schooled her as a champion salmon-wrestler. She really only caught the fish, she told me, because said “cheap-ass uncle” was too lazy to do so himself, but he still did love some wild fresh-caught salmon once or twice a year.
            So that was the end of two years’ worth of mystery and speculation: Shawna. Eric’s and my very own Venus Rising from the Sea, in the flesh. She wasn’t quite the same as I’d imagined: her voice was huskier, her lips slightly thinner. After so many years, I’m not quite sure whether I remember her as she was, or as I’d made her—which version won out in the end.
           But she hadn’t mentioned the binoculars incident—that was relief enough. I let her keep talking as we drifted downstream, ragged salmon passing us by.
            The N Reactor shut down two more times in June and early July. The first time, Dad told us, was a computer malfunction: no danger whatsoever, just an accidental stop. The second time, we would learn much later, one of the carbon rods in the main reactor almost fell off and caused a meltdown. It happened in the night, while Dad and I were sleeping. We didn’t hear the far-off sirens, or see the emergency fire trucks—not the regular kind, but the heavy-duty ones, armored tanks with hoses—flying through the streets, heading for Hanford’s dark unlit patch on the horizon. The next morning, Dad was jolted awake by a barrage of phone calls. He rushed out the door with his shirt half-untucked and I didn’t see him for a few days after that; I went to the front gate and dropped off food and a change of clothes.
           By the time he returned, he was coughing and feverish, and could barely make it through the doorway. I helped him peel off his sweat-stained shirt and pants and lowered him into bed. It was pristine: I had made it, then remade it, more times than I could count while he was away. As if, by remaking the sheets enough times, I would unfold some hidden cypher within them that would set me at peace.
            I moved the sheet up over Dad’s chest, which rose and fell in an uneven tempo. The pillow haloed his face, and he looked peaceful. But the skin under his mouth had gone slack, and his eyes were dark and scooped into his face like peach pits.
            Just like last time, I couldn’t stay in the house. So I called Shawna’s number, which she’d given me after I’d dropped her off in the dinghy. She lived in a little yellow duplex right across the river. When I pulled up, she was on the front porch smoking a cigarette that she quickly stubbed out when she saw me.
            We went down to the Oxbow, and waded into the shallow water. She showed me how to wait, utterly motionless, for a fish to come swimming near enough. When you have it within the triangle of your arms, she said, fall down and trap it with your whole body: legs, arms, neck. After a few tries, I bagged a pissed-off little carp, which Shawna laughed at and told me to throw back.
            “Ever wrestle any June Hogs?” I asked, half joking.
            “You sound like my grandpa,” she snorted.
            We dried off and sat on the riverbank. It was easy to forget about how Hanford was crumbling to pieces, how my father was crumbling with it, about the heavy metals and radioactive blood that lay buried in the earth beneath us, when we lay on the dry grass and dirt together.
           I wanted Eric to be amazed, jealous, disbelieving that I was dating the girl from the riverbank. When I told him, though, he shrugged. “I don’t remember what she looked like much.” As if her image hadn’t been scorched across both our eyes for the past two years.
           “She was hot then,” I said, jabbing him with an elbow. “She’s hot now.”
           He shrugged again. If you say so.
            There was a TV rerun of Alien playing, and he turned back to watch. I’d thought he remembered that day as clearly as I had; now I wasn’t sure. We sat in silence until I stood up and left to go meet Shawna. I don’t remember whether he looked up.
            Dad missed work for the first time in early August. I came home one afternoon and found him on the couch in his white shirt and slacks, snoring peacefully. For a moment, I didn’t want to touch him: he looked too perfect, too holy. But he was wearing his work clothes, which sagged on him more every day.
            I shook him; he snorted and opened his eyes. “Cody? Hey, what time is it, buddy?”
            I showed him my watch. He looked at it without understanding for a moment. “Shit,” he said slowly. “Oh, shit. I… I need to go in right now.”
            “Might as well call in sick,” I said, pushing him back down as he tried to rise. “You’d only be there for a few hours anyway.”
            He looked at me helplessly. Olive rings, the same color as the Chinook’s head, wreathed his sunken eyes. In the afternoon light filtering in, those eyes were pale and elderly, and I couldn’t remember them ever being any other color. I wanted to take this new father, chuck him far away like the two-headed minnow, dive deep until I wrestled the one I knew back to the surface.
            Dad must have seen my face. “Hey, bud,” he said, gathering himself. “If I’m going to stay home, I can cook dinner. Go catch me a fish, huh? Make it a big one.”
            “I’ll try.”
           The word came out in early August: Hanford was officially closed for maintenance and renovation until further notice. It was the same week Dad fell for the first time, smashing against the first floor landing and bruising his entire right side. I tried taking him to the hospital in Wenatchee. We drove an hour and a half, and once we arrived, the nurse took one look at Dad’s medical insurance card and shook his head.
           “You’re only covered under Hanford’s provider,” he said. “Until their office opens back up, any procedure has to be paid for out of pocket.” I didn’t say a word the whole way home; Dad sat in the back seat. I could hear a gentle whistle as he breathed through his nose.
           Now that Hanford was closed, it turned out, the gates recognized all types of employee ID. Shawna and I borrowed Dad’s parking card and we crept around the outskirts of the plant after dark, skirting around the concrete husks of the B and D Reactors. Another night, she convinced me to steal his bottle of whiskey from under the medicine cabinet. We drove out to Rattlesnake Mountain and hiked up to the top, then collapsed in a giddy drunken heap on top of one another. I’d never drunk before in my life, and the whiskey felt like fire and judgment on my tongue.
            “I know it was you,” Shawna whispered in my ear. “Two years back. On the river, when I was swimming.”
            “I know you know,” I whispered back.                    
            “Pervert,” she growled softly, then grabbed my ear and yanked me over. “I should call the cops and have you arrested for peeping.”
            I looked up at her. “Not if I get you first for public indecency.”
            She shrieked and rolled away. I lay back and watched the stars, impossibly clear and fixed. And then suddenly Shawna was back and I was kissing her, feeling her shoulder blades, the smooth slick nape of her neck. We held one another tight and it was like holding a fish.
           Eric and his family moved away one day, without calling or telling me. I showed up one day at his doorstep to see a realtor tacking on the FOR RENT sign that was like seasonal decoration in our town. He hadn’t left me his new number. Alone, I hopped on my bike and rode out of town, then took a left onto a dirt path and followed it for miles, bumping over tall grass and tumbleweeds. The plains’ emptiness curved like a great domed bowl of sky all around me.
           August wore on. As Hanford ground to a halt, so did everything else: stores held fire sales and closed, the roads yawned wide and empty of cars. People were leaving in caravans now, dusty U-Haul covered wagons carting their belongings away into the great grassy expanse of the plateau. Dad was still sick, so we couldn’t leave. Everything seemed to stick together in a strange wet heat, as if the steam from the N Reactor’s plume had fallen back to earth. Coating our lungs with fine, minute dustings of lead and polonium.
           Maybe because of this, I started having trouble sleeping at night. I’d lay awake on my bed, trying to breathe as shallowly as possible to avoid breathing in particles, the radiation that, ghostlike, wafted through everything.
            When I did sleep, I’d dream. Sometimes it was Shawna, vaulting out of the river in a constellation of spray, arms clenched around the struggling salmon. Or we’d be lying together on top of Rattlesnake Mountain, watching the stars reorder themselves in the sky.
            Other times I would dream about fishing. In those dreams, I’d be wading into the Columbia until I was waist-deep. From deep beneath the surface, the two-headed minnow would swim up and snap at my legs. As I reeled, it turned in the water and became a June Hog, vast and silver and inhumanly strong. It hammered me with its tail as I climbed onto it—and wrapped myself around and around, squeezing it until its strength gave, the river frothing around us.
            When it went limp, I’d wade into the shallows and let go. By the time it floated back to the surface, it had already split open, putrefied, eyes hollowed. Other fish came up from beneath, steelhead and coho and walleye. They started tearing chunks off, exposing the tiny fragile nest of fish bones underneath the skin. The bones were bright and glowing, and shone like suns.
            One time I made too much noise in dreaming, and Dad ran in. He’d been a little better in the last few days, but his brief burst of energy had vanished. Now he looked like I felt, as if every breath took in the same polluted mix.
            “What’s wrong?” He put his hands on me; my sheets were soaked with sweat.
            “I’m okay,” I told him, breathing hard. It was strange, I thought, for him to ask me that question.
            “Like hell,” he said quietly. We sat in silence for a minute, the August air thick and breathless around us.
            He cleared his throat. “I’m thinking of getting a transfer.”
            I sat up straight. “You mean, move?”
            That threw him. He thought for a second. “Just weigh our options.”
            “I got an offer from a plant near Seattle,” he said. “Over the mountains. They called me a few days ago. Pay’s not as good, obviously.”
            “What do you think?”
            “Well, it’s just an option to consider.” I wanted to see his eyes, but it was too dark. “I think this one should be a mutual decision. You and me.”
            “So what do I think?”
            Silence. The invisible sound of dust blowing in through cracks, through screen doors, under the furnishings, settling into us.
            “I’ll think about it.” I still needed to catch that June Hog.
            The Chinook came back in the first week of September. Shawna and I were ready: we’d packed a tent, a kerosene stove, a lantern, the last dregs of Dad’s whiskey. We wanted to catch enough salmon to feed an army, then have a weeklong cookout on top of Rattlesnake Mountain.
            We sat together, feet overhanging the Vernita Bridge, watching the red tide of fish surge underneath us. We were both tipsy and trying to push each other off. Sunset lasts a long time on the plateau, and the light was still burnt orange.
            “Do you think…” I gasped, holding onto the edge as Shawna rocked with laughter. “Do you ever imagine… what this would all be like without the plant?”
            “No radiation in the groundwater?” she said. “No heavy metals in the dirt? God, it’d be like the Garden of Eden.”
            Then she went quiet. I tried to give her a shove off, but she swatted my hands away.
            “God,” she said, her voice hushed. “Look. Look.”
            It made its way slowly forward, almost invisible except for the wake it cast on the surface. As it passed the sun’s reflection on the water, I saw the light glint off a long, moving brown back. Silently, Shawna and I counted the seconds until we lost sight.
            “It’s not a hundred pounds,” I said slowly. “Or eight feet long.”
            “No,” Shawna agreed. “But maybe seventy and six?”
            I looked at her. “Only one way to find out.”
            We dropped and hit the water like stones. Chinook collided with us, hitting us all over our bodies. I dodged and weaved, jerking away from the males’ teeth. She swam off to the right; I matched her on the left. I was in shallow water before long, and could stand with my head above.
            “It’s coming at you!” Shawna yelled. I glanced wildly around. There it was, barreling forward, the green Columbia water parting in curtains. I tensed, bent with my arms and formed a triangle, and fell forward.
            The water crashed around me, filled my ears and lungs and mouth. In the swirl, I could feel something kick at my ribs, sending me plunging to one side. I coughed, struggled back up and treaded water. I was flailing my arms around, but there was nothing in my fingers.
            My chest burned. Maybe I could have stayed longer, swinging around in some vague hope of making contact, but by then the disappointment was already stinging my eyes and lungs. Slowly, I started for shore.
            Shawna joined me. She didn’t say anything for a few moments. We just sat there, on the burnt bank. I felt dull and red inside, snaggle-toothed.
            “I don’t know what I saw,” she started, finally. “Really. I wasn’t messing with you.”
            If I’d said anything, I’d have yelled at her. But I knew, somehow, that was more than I could ever do. So I just gave her a glance, asking her not to speak. The sun dipped over the bridge, burning everything the color of a Chinook’s belly, lancing the water. We stayed for a long time, sitting side by side in silence, until it was dark. Then I went home.
            That was my last summer learning how to fish. Dad got worse and worse and couldn’t go back to work, so I got a few jobs to pay the rent: the general store, the Laundromat.
            Fishing stays with you, though. Even now, living on the other side of the Cascades, I take my dinghy out sometimes and sit on the water, casting a line until I reel in a rockfish or herring. I let them go, these days. It’s not as much of a challenge.
            There are other memories I have of Hanford, but they seem to orbit that summer like moons, reflecting its light. I remember walks with Shawna in fall, clutching each other against cold gusts of wind. Climbing back up Rattlesnake Mountain with her, stripping off her shirt in the clear frosted air and feeling the swells and edges of her. After we broke up later that fall—over some stupid reason I can’t for the life of me remember—I couldn’t sleep for weeks, my gut churning. I still feel it, pounding like waves.
            Or the next spring, when Dad’s cancer finally ate him from the inside out, left his bones hollow and birdlike until he collapsed one day in the kitchen. I sat with him in the hospital for eight hours before they came and took me away. The moving trucks would have been there in two days, to pack up our lives and take us, all of the dust and water that had settled within us, across the long highway again and over the mountains.
            I sit on my own porch now, watching the sun set over the distant blue Cascades. Somewhere beyond those mountains and years, I often imagine, the last concrete shell of Hanford is crumbling, sending its spiders of radiation into the air and earth and water. In a hundred years, grass still might not grow where it had stood. And every five years, the salmon who’d been born there will come back to spawn, carrying a little of the poison that had leached into their egg, that they’d cradled within them.
            I’ll go back one day. When I have a son of my own—it’ll be just the two of us, driving through the night. We’ll cross the mountains and pass into the sallow sea of grass, riding the highway until we see a fringe of lights along the long dark spine of the Columbia. I’ll take my son along the river’s banks and sit for hours with a fishing line, catching nothing, just so I can tell him about that summer. And maybe he will ask me, if I tell him enough of the story, whether I ever caught a June Hog. Then I’ll tell him.

Sapiro vs. Ford: The Mastermind of the Marshall Maneuver

Rohan Pavuluri

On March 15, 1927, the civil trial between Aaron Sapiro, a leading Jewish American activist, and Henry Ford, America’s legendary industrialist, officially began. The trial concerned a libel lawsuit Sapiro had filed against Ford’s newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. The newspaper, Sapiro claimed, had made false accusations against him while covering his cooperative farming movement in California. The next morning, the New York Times summarized the accusations: “Mr. Sapiro was accused in the articles of being a cheat, a faker and a fraud, and there were animadversions against the Jewish people.” Though Sapiro took issue with both the attacks made against himself and his religion, the court refused to entertain any discussion of anti-Semitism. About a month after it began, the case concluded in a mistrial, and a new trial was set for that September. But it never came. Louis Marshall, a leading Jewish American lawyer, engineered the conclusion to Sapiro vs. Ford by persuading Ford to publicly apologize for his anti-Semitism.

During the 1927 episode, Ford, who had felt uneasy about his chances in court and manufactured the mistrial through devious means, realized that a second trial would further damage his reputation (Woeste, “Suing Henry Ford”). To avoid further embarrassment, Ford reached out to Louis Marshall for help. Marshall realized that if Ford took steps to redress past hateful actions, Sapiro would settle to save him the headache of more time in court. After their negotiations, Marshall convinced Ford to agree to his terms, which included a full recantation of charges against Jews, coupled with a public apology written by Marshall and signed by Ford (Rosenstock 190). Within two weeks of Ford’s public apology in early July, Sapiro announced his settlement with Ford, as Marshall had planned (“Ford and Sapiro Settle Libel Suit").

Historian Victoria Woeste, the most prominent scholar on the case, considers Marshall’s decision to resolve the dispute using extra-legal means a lost opportunity. Woeste, the only author of a book on Sapiro vs. Ford, writes, “Marshall unwittingly ensured that his ultimate goal—withdrawing hateful speech from the marketplace of ideas—would not be attainted” (Woeste 9). Woeste's viewpoint contrasts with that of other historians, who consider Marshall’s stratagem a momentous accomplishment. According to Woeste, these historians point to the sincerity of Ford’s remorse as the marker of Marshall’s triumph (Woeste 9). A close review of the case, however, suggests neither conclusion appropriate. Marshall’s gambit was the most effective option available for fighting anti-Semitism and hate speech in America. But this was not because he convinced Ford to provide a genuine apology, as many historians believe. Louis Marshall transformed what would have been an inconsequential verdict in a libel case into a resolution with much broader implications. Based on press coverage and the public’s reactions, Marshall’s success stemmed from his pragmatic decision to use extra-legal means. Marshall curbed the most famous, affluent, and active American anti-Semite of his century, while helping Americans understand that perpetrators of hate speech could and should be held accountable.                                         

Though Ford’s Dearborn Independent attacked Aaron Sapiro because he was Jewish, mention of Sapiro’s religion never entered the courtroom, and therefore a legal verdict would have been inconsequential. In his opening statement on behalf of Ford, U.S. Senator James Reed, “announced,” according to the Chicago Tribune on March 17, “that no race could be libeled.” “He denied that the Jewish people were on trial here,” the Tribune continued, “and said that only Aaron Sapiro figured in the litigation.” Once testimony began, Judge Fred Raymond agreed with Reed. An article from the New York Times on March 26 titled “Defense Lawyers Again Succeed in Keeping Out Ford’s Views on Jews in General” detailed an instance in which Judge Raymond excluded “the Jewish question” despite the best attempts of Sapiro’s legal team to bring religion into the courtroom. When William Gallagher, Sapiro’s chief counsel, asked newspaperman James Miller about a conversation with Ford, Miller responded, “He said he was going to expose [the Jews]…and upset their apple cart.” Gallagher then asked him about “Mr. Ford’s views on Jews as a race.” Upholding Reed’s objection to this question, Judge Raymond explained that Mr. Gallagher “could not question the witness on Mr. Ford’s views on Jews” and that “the automobile maker’s views on the race or religion” were not admissible.                                        

In anticipation of Henry Ford’s day on the witness stand, the New York Times further revealed that Judge Raymond had made his message clear: Sapiro vs. Ford was to be adjudicated as a dispute between two men over what one had said about the other. “Mr. Gallagher,” the Times wrote, “appears to be barred from asking Mr. Ford to expound his views on the Jewish race generally.” The Times continued that “under previous rulings by the Court,” Ford could only be asked about “his attitude on Mr. Sapiro and the others of his coreligionists who were actually identified in the [Dearborn Independent]” (“Ford and Sapiro Testify”). Since the press clearly understood that Judge Raymond precluded anti-Semitism from entering the trial and that the jurors were not to make their decision based on Ford’s religious views, it is only reasonable to conclude that the public held the same understanding. Indeed, the press was the only source of information about the trial for virtually all Americans. As far as the country was concerned, the verdict would be limited to one man’s victory over the other. Though the jury never had a chance to reach this verdict, we can conclude that the public would have interpreted a decision in Sapiro’s favor only as an official affirmation that Ford’s newspaper had sought to defame the Jewish activist.

We must acknowledge that because Judaism entered the court in a limited capacity, whether it was during jury selection or during the trial before Judge Raymond could keep it out, Ford’s anti-Semitism entered the minds of the jury and the public. A headline from the New York Times read “Plaintiff Rejects Ex-Klansman and Defense Declines to Accept Two Jews.” The article went on to report that Judge Raymond asked the jurors, “Are any of you, by blood or by marriage, connected with the Jewish race?” and that Gallagher asked them if they “belong to the organization known as the Klu Klux Klan” during the voir dire process. Given such a thorough attempt to excuse jurors who either had a tendency in favor of or against anti-Semitism, the jurors who heard the trial surely knew that Ford was anti-Semitic and that Ford’s anti-Semitism led him to make false accusations against Sapiro. Given the press’ coverage of how Jews and anti-Semites were kept out of the jury, and how Judge Raymond had prevented Judaism from entering the courtroom, the public must have also known that Ford’s anti-Semitism led him to make false accusations against Sapiro.

But even if the jurors and the public knew about Ford’s religious views, we cannot say that a verdict against Ford would have been a verdict against anti-Semitism. First off, without the interviews of the jurors, we must assume that they would have based their decision on Judge Raymond’s instructions to exclude religion from consideration. More importantly, had the jurors made the unlikely choice to disregard Judge Raymond’s explicit jury instructions, ruling against Ford because they thought he had attacked all Jews, the public would have had no idea. The newspapers informed them that the jurors would be disregarding religion. Even if the jurors ignored their legal duties, the public would have had no reason to suspect them of the offense.  

Having established that a courtroom victory for Sapiro would not have translated to a victory for advocates of tolerance in either the eyes of the law or the public, we begin to see why Louis Marshall’s maneuver had more significant implications than a jury’s verdict ever could have brought about. Most notably, Marshall convinced Ford to recant all anti-Semitic articles the Dearborn Independent published and release an apology to the press. To ensure the apology’s completeness, Marshall wrote it himself in the guise of Ford. “The Dearborn Independent,” ‘Ford’ declared, “will be conducted under such auspices that articles reflecting upon the Jews will never again appear in its columns.” Adopting a regretful tone, ‘Ford’ continued, “The character of the charges and insinuations made against the Jews…justifies the righteous indignation entertained by Jews everywhere toward me because of the mental anguish occasioned by the unprovoked reflections made upon them.” Toward the end of the apology, ‘Ford’ concluded with a repudiation of not just anti-Semitism, but all hate speech: “It is wrong…to judge a people by a few individuals and I therefore join in condemning unreservedly all wholesale denunciations and attacks” (qtd. in “Ford Apologizes”).

A plausible counterargument to the value in Marshall’s maneuver holds that since Ford’s apology was not sincere, it was not effective. The reaction to Ford’s apology, especially from the Jewish community, disproves such an argument. The persuasiveness of Marshall’s writing and the promise of its authenticity led the public to believe the statement in its entirety. 'Ford’s' last sentence delivered a final blow to any skeptics: “Finally, let me add that this statement is made on my own initiative and wholly in the interest of right and justice and in accordance with what I regard as my solemn duty as a man and as a citizen” (qtd. in “Ford Apologizes”). Press coverage demonstrated that newspaper editors also believed in Ford’s sincerity, passing on their approval to the public. In a July 9 article titled “Jewish Leaders Glad to Accept Ford’s Apology,” the Atlanta Constitution reported, “Ford’s sudden and unexpected retraction of all the anti-Jewish articles that have appeared in The Dearborn Independent, his weekly magazine, brought words of praise from all sides.” The same day, the New York Herald Tribune conveyed similar sentiments: “Jewry was pleased today with Henry Ford’s retraction of the insults, charges and indignities which he had heaped on Jews of the world in the last seven of more years.” The Herald Tribune went on to detail the reactions of leading Jews, such as Judge Harry Fisher, who declared, “In making his retraction, Henry Ford shows himself to be a man of real character.” Those who did criticize Ford’s apology only did so because they believed it had come too late. Also speaking to the Herald Tribune, Chicago businessman Julius Rosenwald commented, “Mr. Ford’s statement is greatly belated…But it is never too late to make amends, and I congratulate Mr. Ford that he has at last seen the light.” One Jewish newspaper even remarked that Ford’s statement was “another span in the erection of the bridge of better understanding and good will” (Rosenstock 194).

In addition to eliciting a public apology from Ford, retracting his anti-Semitism, the efficacy of Marshall’s maneuver lies in the public apology and settlement he precipitated between Ford and Sapiro. Though the apology had no legal backing, the more consequential court of public opinion interpreted Ford’s apology to Sapiro as a victory for the Jewish activist. Newspapers throughout the country also covered Ford’s second apology, which Ford actually wrote. In their July 17 edition, the New York Times reprinted the whole apology. Ford explained that “the suit was based upon statements appearing in a series of articles published in 1925 and 1926,” and that “it has since been found that inaccuracies of fact were present in the articles and that erroneous conclusions were drawn from these inaccuracies by the writer.” In his next line, Ford admitted, “As a result of this, Mr. Sapiro may have been injured and reflections cast upon him unjustly.” Coupled with his initial apology to the entire Jewish community, Ford’s second apology stated that the Dearborn Independent’s remarks had been “unjust” to both Sapiro and all Jews. Unlike a verdict that would have remedied a personal dispute, the fact that Marshall’s maneuver drove Ford to apologize to the entire Jewish community twice and do it in such a public manner revealed Marshall’s genius. Aaron Sapiro’s radio address further assured an already convinced public that Ford genuinely felt remorse. “Ford did the square and manly thing, and I believe he meant every word of the public apology,” Sapiro told his audience (qtd. in “Sapiro Praises Ford”). Since the person who had brought the lawsuit against Ford believed “every word” the industrialist had to offer, the public had no reason not to follow.

Despite the two public apologies Marshall got Ford to make, scholar Victoria Woeste writes that Marshall “handled the end game with surprising ineptitude” (Woeste “Suing Henry Ford”). Though Marshall did much to thwart Henry Ford’s mouthpiece, the Dearborn Independent, and curb anti-Semitism in America, Woeste argues in her 2012 book Henry Ford’s War on Jews and the Legal Battle Against Hate Speech that Marshall failed to achieve his goal of “withdrawing hateful speech from the marketplace of ideas,” characterizing Marshall’s move as a lost opportunity to clarify hate speech laws in America (Woeste 9). “The case’s resolution outside the arena of formal law prevented it from clarifying the confusion it generated over group and individual libel,” Woeste contends (331).

The logical problem with the argument Woeste makes is that it rests on the notion that there were laws to be clarified. Laws against group libel had only first emerged in the prior decade. They had yet to be tested in the seven states that had them (Woeste 8). But Michigan was not one of these states. Consequently, it is unreasonable to think that Sapiro vs. Ford could have clarified a law that did not exist. As Judge Raymond highlighted throughout the trial, the only laws concerning libel in the court’s eyes were those that had to do with false accusations made against an individual. Once we understand that a resolution within the courtroom would have only clarified that Sapiro had been wronged by Ford, not that all Jews had been wronged by Ford, we realize the efficacy of Marshall’s decision to use extra-legal means. Marshall knew that an out-of-court settlement and a public apology would not legally abolish hate speech. Only the legislature could do that. So, he took the best option he had available. He got the most powerful and vocal proponent of hate speech to condemn its use. Serendipitously, this also meant the Dearborn Independent would stop spreading Ford’s hateful message. By December of 1927, having lost its ability to serve its original anti-Semitic purpose, the Dearborn Independent announced that it had ceased publication (Rosenstock 199).

Woeste’s book suggests that she would respond to this criticism by claiming that the press construed the case as a trial between Ford and the Jewish community. Following this logic, the public would have received a verdict against Ford as a verdict against hate speech. Indeed, Woeste writes, “The national press, having covered every word Ford uttered on his obsession with Jews since 1915, elided the technical distinction between individual and group libel and proclaimed the case a fight between Henry Ford and ‘the Jews.’” (Woeste 9) Woeste is correct that the press did not limit its coverage to the dispute between Sapiro and Ford. From pre-trial, where Jews and KKK members were excluded, to every objection James Reed made to William Gallagher’s questions about Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism, the press made it clear that Sapiro vs. Ford remained significant for more than the men involved. Woeste’s claim that the press “elided” the distinction between individual and group libel, however, is incorrect. As revealed earlier in articles from major outlets like the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, the press fully grasped the crucial point from James Reed’s opening for Ford: “no race could be libeled” (“Sapiro Sought” March 17, 1927). As a result, Woeste can hardly argue that a courtroom verdict would have created any precedent that group libel or hate speech was against the law.

In an attempt to deepen her argument that Marshall’s maneuver served as a lost opportunity, Woeste argues that once Marshall decided to use extra-legal means, he still could have done more to address hate speech in America. “Having gotten the nation’s foremost purveyor of group libel to recognize his offense—and repent—gave Marshall a potent weapon of his own,” Woeste writes, “Why did he do so little with it?” (Woeste 331). In making this claim, Woeste is being unreasonable in what she expects of seventy-year-old Marshall. Only two years after the conclusion of the Ford vs. Sapiro saga, Marshall died. Had he enjoyed a decade to use Ford’s apology to push for new laws against hate speech, Woeste may have had a case for Marshall’s shortcomings. Using the lack of landmark legislation between 1927 and 1929 to cast Marshall’s entire stratagem as an “ineptitude,” as Woeste does, simply asks too much of the man.  

While underdeveloped, much of the historiography on Sapiro vs. Ford takes a contrary view to Woeste, insisting that Ford’s apology served as a monumental achievement because of its “historic repudiation” of anti-Semitism (Woeste 9). As much as Woeste’s analysis undervalues Marshall’s role, the rest of the Sapiro vs. Ford historiography overvalues it. Marshall allowed Ford to plead ignorance even though his common sense told him Ford was behind the Dearborn Independent’s anti-Semitism. Marshall let 'Ford' claim in his initial apology, “in the multitude of my activities it has been impossible for me to devote my personal attention to [the Dearborn Independent’s] management or to keep informed as to their contents” (“Ford Apologizes July 8, 1927). Proving this claim blatantly false, E.G. Liebold, Ford’s personal secretary", later stated that the newspaper’s articles “were prompted largely by Mr. Ford” and that “he kept in touch with every phrase” (Baldwin 222). Ford, who received a prize from Adolf Hitler in 1938, never changed his mind on how he felt about Jews (Pool 129). As a result, historians cannot call Ford’s apology a “historic repudiation” of anti-Semitism because it was never really a repudiation.

Ultimately, Marshall’s maneuver demonstrated the power of pragmatism to effect social change and perhaps even legal change. As Victoria Woeste misunderstands, had Marshall let Sapiro vs. Ford conclude in court, the case would not have had the same impact on public opinion. At the same time, Marshall maintained no delusion that he led Ford to actually change his mind on Jews, and historians should not credit him with such. Part of the significance of Marshall’s maneuver surely rested in the fact that Ford could no longer communicate his anti-Semitic ideas to the American public. Since Marshall got Ford to make such a public apology, Ford could not speak out against Jews for the rest of his life if he wanted to maintain any credibility in Americans’ eyes. Marshall imposed a de facto hate speech ban on the most prominent industrialist and anti-Semite of his era.

But Ford, regardless of his power, was still only one man. The real masterstroke of Marshall’s maneuver is that he helped implant in Americans’ minds the notion that hate speech could inflict harm on certain communities and that the perpetrators of that harm could be held accountable. This was not a “historic repudiation” of hate speech as much as it was the first example of real consequences for hate speech. The former would have required mass sentiment against anti-Semitism and a new law. Before Sapiro vs. Ford, the idea that perpetrators of hateful speech should be prosecuted had yet to reach critical mass, especially since the small minority of states that had group libel laws never punished anyone for not following them. After Sapiro vs. Ford, the ground for actual laws against hate speech became fertile. We can never know how subsequent hate speech laws, such as the groundbreaking 1935 New Jersey statute against propaganda inciting religious or racist hatred, would have turned out if Ford had never appeared to condemn anti-Semitism (Woeste 332). Regardless, having weighed the potential of a legal finish in Sapiro vs. Ford against an extra-legal conclusion, we can only assume that Marshall may have had some role in easing the passage of future hate speech laws. 

Works Cited

Baldwin, Neil. Henry Ford and the Jews. New York: Public Affairs, 2001.

Balkin, J.M. “Review of History of Hate Speech in America.” Organization of American Historians, June 1995. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2082134.

Blanchard, Margaret. “Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy by Samuel Walker.” The American Journal of Legal History 40, no. 2 (April 1996). http://www.jstor.org/stable/845572.

Cortese, Anthony. Opposing Hate Speech. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006.

Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefanic. Must We Defend Nazis. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

“Ford and Sapiro Settle Libel Suit.” New York Times, July 17, 1927. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/103913413/3....

“Ford and Sapiro Testify This Week.” New York Times, March 27, 1927. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpnewyorktimes/doc....

“Ford Apologizes to Jews and Halts Magazine Attacks.” New York Herald Tribune, July 8, 1927. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpnewyorktribunefu....

“Ford Will Testify as Sapiro Witnesses; Six Women on Jury.” New York Times, March 16, 1927. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/104209557/3....

“Ford’s Apology Wins Acclaim of Chicago Jewry.” New York Herald Tribune (1926-1962), July 9, 1927. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1131258786/....

Hernandez, Tanya. “The Legal Challenges of Diversity.” The Fordham Law Archive of Scholarship and History, 2014. http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1518&context=fa....

“Jewish Leaders Glad to Accept Ford’s Apology.” The Atlanta Constitution (1881-1945), July 9, 1927. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/499999314/8....

Lewis, Anthony. Freedom for the Thought That We Hate. New York: Perseus Books Group, n.d.

MacKinnon, Catharine. Only Words. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Pool, James, and Suzanne Pool. Who Financed Hitler. New York: The Dial Press, 1978.

Rosenstock, Morton. Louis Marshall, Defender of Jewish Rights. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1965.

“Sapiro Praises Ford; Attacks Senator Reed.” New York Times, July 21, 1927. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpnewyorktimes/doc...

“Sapiro Sought World Empire, Libel Jury Told.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), March 17, 1927. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpchicagotribune/d....

“Witness Links Ford with Sapiro Attack.” New York Times, March 26, 1927. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/103925440/3....

Woeste, Victoria. Henry Ford’s War on Jews and the Legal Battle Against Hate Speech. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2012.

———. “Insecure Equality: Louis Marshall, Henry Ford, and the Problem of Defamatory Antisemitism, 1920-1929.” Organization of American Historians 91, no. 3 (December 2004). http://www.jstor.org/stable/3662859.

———. “Suing Henry Ford: America’s First Hate Speech Case.” American Bar Foundation. Accessed April 15, 2015. http://www.americanbarfoundation.org/research/project/19.

 Wolfson, Nicholas. Hate Speech, Sex Speech, Free Speech. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997.


Wilmer Wilson IV and the Body Surface: Intersubjectivity and a Call to Decenter the Decentered

Hannah McShea

If you had been in Washington, D.C. between April 5 and April 13, 2012, you might have seen a tall, spare figure covered in postage stamps and looking as insubstantial as a slip of paper, cutting determinedly down the sidewalk.  Had you joined the entourage of photographers, curators, and happenstance spectators following him to his destination, you would have witnessed the figure enter a post office, peel a few stamps back from his mouth, and ask to be mailed.  You might have heard the postal clerk tell him, “Baby, I can't mail you.  You're a body!” and you would have seen the young man retreat to the post office lobby and carefully shed his stamp skin, leaving a neat, forlorn crumple on the floor.[1]  The art piece you might have witnessed was called Henry “Box” Brown: FOREVER, and the artist who performed it was Wilmer Wilson IV, a twenty-six-year-old M.B.A. based in the nation's capital.  Delicate workings at the body surface pervade not just this piece but much of Wilson's practice, like in a piece called From My Paper Bag Colored Heart, where the artist inflates small brown paper bags (a reference to the “paper bag test” used historically in black communities to exclude those with darker skin), and ties them with rough twine to his naked body until he is completely subsumed (Fig. 1). 

Given Wilson's youth, no critical interpretations of his work have been written yet, except for two essays in a book produced by the artist to document Henry “Box” Brown: FOREVER and a few newspaper and magazine articles concerning the openings of his shows and the timing of his performances.  Body art involves making an art object of the human subject and injecting subjectivity and its complications into the object, where object means material thing/being and subject means experiencing, living being.  The subject-object distinction strictly delimits what we can know of ourselves and others, and its implications are violent, allowing as they did American chattel slavery.  But Wilson, patching with postage stamps the chasm between subject and object, overcomes. In the West, as described by philosopher René Descartes, we locate our subjectivity in the act of thinking[2], and conceive it as discrete, not accessible to or knowable by others.  This subject, the “Cartesian subject,” is centered in the mind and in the world through which it moves.  Wilson enacts the subject-object transformations of body art and thereby goes to work on the Cartesian subject: he carefully coaxes both the object (art object, thingified human, and material being) and the subject (his self, the selves of his spectators, and the spectral Cartesian self) to the surface of his body, where they meet and fuse.  By relocating his subjectivity at the boundary of his body instead of leaving it in the usual abstract recess of his interior, Wilson coheres object and subject, the first no longer racialized and the second no longer relegated to an inaccessible interior.

Three iterations of Henry “Box” Brown: FOREVER were performed, using first 4-, 5-, and 10-cent stamps with arts and crafts motifs, then 20-cent George Washington stamps, then 45-cent Forever stamps to cover the artist's body, which moved respectively through Cleveland Park, a rich white neighborhood, the historically black Shaw neighborhood, and the National Mall (Figs. 2, 3, 4).[3]  Each walk was photographed extensively, and although Wilson never was mailed, the piece's namesake was.  Henry “Box” Brown was a slave in Virginia who mailed himself to freedom in Philadelphia in 1848 “in a box 3 feet long and 2 feet wide,” per the title of the autobiography he wrote afterward.[4]  The journey was over 24 hours long and Brown nearly suffocated several times when the box was upended and jostled.[5]  Once he emerged, Brown reveled in telling his story.  He gave lectures at abolitionist gatherings, often arriving in his box and leaping out of it, resurrecting again and again at the start of each performance.[6]  He painted a giant panorama of his journey and toured the northern United States and Britain.[7]  The tale of his liberation has maintained a transatlantic fascination for over a century and a half.[8]  The staying power of Brown's story is in its neat allegory, as scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. suggests in the introduction to a 2002 reprinting of Brown's autobiography: by cramming himself into a tiny container reminiscent of both the conditions of the middle passage and a coffin, “Brown made literal much that was implicit in the symbolism of enslavement.”[9]  Brown capitalized on his brilliant symbolism and enacted in his career as a showman a practice not too different from that of the modern performance artist.  In her essay in Henry “Box” Brown: FOREVER, Jessica Bell writes, “In the case of Brown, to abscond away as property was the only way to achieve freedom, and in turn, a sense of an unquestionable self;” a performed transformation between object and subject was Brown's salvation, and is Wilson's project too.[10]  Wilson's performance and its titular FOREVER evoke the endurance of Brown's story and the living legacy of slavery and imparts to the subject the same hypervisibility as the culturally thingified[11] and actually material body.

Wilson remembers learning the story of Henry “Box” Brown in school, and notes that they are both from Richmond,[12] connected not just by their home but by their parallel experiences.  Henry “Box” Brown: FOREVER has elicited emotional responses, as when a viewer “for whom,” according to his curator Laura Routlet, “Wilson's embodiment of slavery was real,” tried to rescue Wilson from his entourage because she worried Wilson was being coerced into the performance and humiliated.[13]  He does illuminate how contemporary oppression and alienation force the great-great grandchildren of the African slaves into a new bondage.  Black Americans are repeatedly incarcerated and forced into unpaid or hardly-paid labor, when they are not the victims of state-sanctioned murder by police.  Wilson addresses this complex and diffuse materialized injustice in operation today, and follows with a revelation.  In Henry “Box” Brown: FOREVER he embodies slavery and subjectivity at once: by encouraging objecthood to envelope his body, he frees himself to personhood as Brown did in a box.  But black people have been asserting their Cartesian rationality for centuries.  Wilson does not bring blackness to the Cartesian subject, but draws the subject to the surface where it mingles with the object and with blackness.  He enables this interaction and by carrying it on, rather than in, his body, he asserts its truth and legibility, and challenges the validity of an unintelligible, enclosed self.

To see how he does this, we must consider how Wilson exploits and extends the tools of his genre, particularly an implement called intersubjectivity.  In Body Art/Performing the Subject, poststructuralist Amelia Jones describes body art's inherently postmodern nature and its radical potential “as a set of performative practices that, through... intersubjective engagement, instantiate the dislocating or decentering of the Cartesian subject of modernism.”[14]  Intersubjectivity injects itself between subject and world, insists that the subject is not discrete and original but rather one of many malleable subjectivities that flow into each other and create meaning outside of (and only outside of) themselves.  In other words, the only (meaningful) subject is the socially accessible subject.  Knowing this, Wilson wrenches the Cartesian subject from the unintelligibility of his interior and smooths onto his skin on a spring day in D.C.  His work is of the sort that Jones would say “insistently [poses] the subject as intersubjective (contingent on the other) rather than complete within itself (the Cartesian subject who is fully centered and fully self-knowing in his cognition).”[15]  If most art is concerned with the construction of objects—paintings, sculptures, photographs—for the subject-viewer to interpret, body art requires a different and more vulnerable role for the spectator.  Especially in the instance that the artist is the performer of their own piece, as in all of Wilson's performance work, the art object is now also embodied subject, and this compels the viewer to engage both with their own subjectivity and that of the artist-performer: “As the artist is marked as contingent, so is the interpreter,” says Jones.[16]  The result is a continual interchange of understanding and power that entails extreme vulnerability.  A space of transformation – of intersubjectivity – opens between subject-and-object performer and subject-and-object viewer into which both participants can step.  Jones also invokes Vivian Sobchack's definition of the interobjective, “an insistence on the interrelatedness of subjects and objects, our inevitable simultaneous existence as subject and object, and our interdependence with our environments.”[17]  Wilson insists on such  simultaneity in a spatial sense, acquainting his material and experiencing selves at his surface, where they are finally able to meet with those of others.  However, Wilson does not abandon the Cartesian self as poststructuralism prescribes, but frees it to interact with other selves.

The art object of Henry “Box” Brown: FOREVER is dispersed.  It is not only in the sparse materials of some stamps and Wilson's own body.  By iterating the piece over three sets of carefully-chosen starting locations, walking spaces, and post offices, Wilson incorporates the neighborhoods of Chocolate City (Washington, D.C.) and their inhabitants, histories, and economic-cultural relations into his piece as well.  With him on the walk was a cortege of curators, photographers, people who helped him apply the stamps, friends, and spectators, all of whom became part of the substance of the piece.  His soft insistence on being mailed drew into the performance postal workers as well as the regulations, bureaucracy, and bewilderment that prevented Wilson from mailing himself.  The photographs of the piece and the accompanying book containing them and three essays, which was printed in only 85 copies, further enact the dispersal of the art object.  The book exists also in the strange liminal space of issuu.com, where it can be viewed but not downloaded, accessed but not possessed.

 The object nestles near the overlapping perforations of Wilson's suit of stamps, skin of stamps, rushing over the artist's body like scales or chain mail or tiny tongues lapping and healing.  In a 2013 interview with the artist, Deborah Anzinger of New Local Space Kingston notes of Wilson's work, “I find that you have a very emergent approach to sculpture and the performance that you do in that you take a lot of these really tiny repeating elements and then you just build them up, build them up, build them up, until they start to take on a whole different meaning.”[18]  Wilson says his task is “constructing things out of other things that already have meaning and trying to shift their contexts in that way,” creating an object that is irreducible and emergent – hardly object at all.[19]  Wilson's object is the same as his subject and it is highly specific: it is not just “the stamps” or even “the performance,” but the surface of his body.  It is not the whole body or the skin or the stamp skin, but the surface, a non-object coercively made object long ago by the invention of race and then again, intentionally, by the adherence of hundreds of FOREVER stamps.

In other pieces Wilson makes us interrogate the surface further: in Voted and Legalized (2012), he covers himself, respectively, in I Voted stickers (Fig. 5) and un-imprinted notary seals (Fig. 6), iterating the same second skin, the same unrealized liberation (for neither by a trip to the post office, nor by a successfully submitted ballot, nor by a notarized mortgage is the black subject yet freed), and the contingency of object and subject.  Wilson removes the object from the material composition of his performance: he has displayed shed sticker skins on plain box pedestals in the gallery at Theaster Gates' black artists retreat, and, most instructively, worked the same concept in band-aids in 2011's Bandage (Fig. 7) and black post-it notes in Black Mask in 2012 (Fig. 8).[20]  The shed skins, which lie forlorn and crumpled in the gallery space, evoke more strongly the negative space of their emptiness than the positive of their presence.  They are antiobjects, degenerate surfaces of nothing, representatives of a body no longer present.  A residue of subject remains in the implied act of their discard, but subjects do not inhabit non-objects.  In contrast, the applied band-aids and black notes form complex interobjective systems with the skin under them, the flesh under that, the performer-subject, and the viewer.  The band-aids have, as Wilson notes in the New Local Space interview, a “really direct relationship to flesh, and to healing flesh,” which, along with “the particularities of my own body, particularly my skin tone and the historical contexts of America and its racial relationships... ends up loading the bandage with much different meaning than what's expected,” and ends up looping the object continually between the embodied subject, the first skin, and the second.[21]  We witness the band-aids and their relationship to Wilson's darker-than-them skin, and the post-its whose deep black becomes dense with significance against Wilson's lighter-than-them skin, locating object and subject too in the enacted adherence, the sticking of a skin to a skin, the melding and writing of the body surface. 

 As Wilson walks to the post office, his alien appearance in the second skin becomes both weirder and more easily assimilated as the stamps begin to slough off of him at the back of his head and at the joints of his limbs, and his applied and actual skins vie for validity and significance.  It is not in the stamp skin, nor just in Wilson's body, nor in the varied surroundings and lush documentation where the object and subject of Henry “Box” Brown: FOREVER and its satellite and sibling pieces are most concentrated, though all of these critically constitute it.  Rather the object is in the space Wilson says he is most interested in, the “in-between space between... recognizable and unrecognizable.”[22]  And the subject is there too.  Carefully, we find it there at the body surface: it may be that the Western post-postmodern “millennial” (Wilson is 26) subject is necessarily decentered, a little fragmented, a little alienated, but the black subject is always already decentered in America, thrown to the periphery while the black body is hypervisible.  Anti-black conceptions of black being relegate it to the skin, to relative darkness and lightness and violence, and to nowhere like a brain-centered Cartesian interiority.  Wilson isn't doing decentering work in Henry “Box” Brown: FOREVER by the fact of his blackness, but by actively making himself object, he is seizing the subject on its way out, emulsifying it and applying it to his surface.  He bears there at once slave narrative and forceful subjectivity, placing, as he has stated, “identities or contexts that are in opposition, together.”[23]  That surface space, where the self meets the world, is the only place that self is relevant or intelligible anyway, the only place where intersubjectivity can occur certainly, but also the only place where we can make sense of our own being and its histories.

The extreme vulnerability Wilson allows by making his subjectivity intelligible, by layering skins and moving through public space, is both ahead of his time and still a member of a long lineage of shifting subjectivity that runs through the history of the West.  It is of the celebratory political narcissism of those long oppressed, but also of a deeper and more worried interior space, coaxed to the body surface and into intersubjective exchange through careful construction of a flaky faux skin that references as it falls apart the fragility of the human skin beneath it.[24]  It is again in the interesting lumen between skins that Wilson locates the subject and the object of his art piece, and it is there that he creates an authentic and meaningful space of transformation.  Wilson's revolution is an embrace of Enlightenment solipsism in his confident engagement with “the experience of the individual that I understand most deeply . . . my own.”[25]  His works involve a singular, not necessarily universalized but certainly de-particularized body, and emphasize not fragmentation but connection with the creole past of America (in the story of Henry “Box” Brown, with light brown band-aids and dark black post-it notes, and in From My Paper Bag Colored Heart, which links the pervasiveness of shadism and the personal nature of anxiety) and the fraught past of Western ontology.[26]  By locating the self and subject at the body surface, Wilson does the radical work of disengaging the object from blackness (which is left ecstatically intact), and with his free hand modulates Descartes' notion of self away from its centeredness into something coherent with material being.  Postmodernism would have us abandon the Cartesian subject (easier said than done) to decolonize our selves and live in community, but Wilson's idea is better.  By moving the subject to the surface through iterative disappearance and revelation from beneath second skins built up and sloughed off, he creates a decentered subject that is intelligible and interactive, primed for intersubjectivity with other people but also for self-understanding.  The transatlantic slave trade and Cartesian ontology kicked off at near the same time.  Wilson's is a project four hundred years in the making, and he is only twenty six.


[1]    Wilmer Wilson IV, Laura Roulet, and Jessica Bell, Henry "Box" Brown: FOREVER, A Narrative. 2013, 105.

[2]    “I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind” (René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 17.).  Colloquially: I think, therefore I am.

[3]    Roulet, 100, 102, 104.

[4]    Henry Box Brown and Charles Stearns, Narrative of the Life of Henry “Box” Brown Who Escaped From Slavery, Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide.  Written From a Statement of Facts Made by Himself.  With Remarks Upon the Remedy for Slavery (Boston: Brown and Stearns, 1849) via Hollis Robbins, 'Fugitive Mail: The Deliverance of Henry 'Box' Brown and Antebellum Postal Politics.” (American Studies 50: 5-25), 5.

[5]    Marcus Wood, 'ALL RIGHT!': The Narrative of Henry “Box” Brown as a Test Case for the Racial Prescription of Rhetoric and Semiotics. (The American Antiquarian Society, 1998), 73.

[6]    Robbins, 5.

[7]    Robbins, 5.

[8]    Wood, 73; Robbins, 5.

[9]    Henry “Box” Brown, Narrative of the Life of Henry “Box” Brown, Written by Himself. Introduction by Richard Newman and Forward by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), ix-x, via Robbins, 5.

[10]  Bell, 114.

[11]  Martin Luther King, Jr., "Where Do We Go From Here?" (Speech at the 11th Annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Atlanta, GA, August 16th, 1967)

[12]  Wilmer Wilson IV, interviewed by Deborah Anzinger, New Local Space. youtube.com/watch?v=rSVyGCs4euc, May 21, 2013.

[13]  Routlet, 104.

[14]  Amelia Jones, Body Art/Performing the Subject. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 1.

[15]  Jones, 10.

[16]  Jones, 9.

[17]  Jones, 18.

[18]  Wilson, 10:12.

[19]  Wilson, 10:00.

[20]  ”Retreat.” Curated by Theaster Gates.  Valerie Carberry and Richard Gray Galleries, John Hancock Center. 875 N Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611. August 22 – October 10, 2014.

[21]  Wilson, 10:40.

[22]  Wilson, 31:00.

[23]  Wilson, 3:10, 5:26.

[24]  Jones, 9.

[25]  Wilson, 3:57.

[26]  See also Wilson's “Faust” works: Faust in the City, 2013; Priestess Faust, 2015.


Jones, Amelia, Body Art/Performing the Subject. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota   Press, 1998).

Robbins, Hollis, “Fugitive Mail: The Deliverance of Henry 'Box' Brown and Antebellum   Postal Politics.” (American Studies       50: 5-25).

Wilson IV, Wilmer, Laura Roulet, and Jessica Bell, Henry "Box" Brown: FOREVER, A      Narrative. 2013.

Wilson IV, Wilmer, interviewed by Deborah Anzinger, New Local Space.   youtube.com/watch?v=rSVyGCs4euc, May 21, 2013.

Wood, Marcus, 'ALL RIGHT!': The Narrative of Henry “Box” Brown as a Test Case for the           Racial Prescription of Rhetoric and Semiotics. (The American Antiquarian Society,  1998).



Fig. 1 – Wilmer Wilson IV (American, 1989-present).
From My Paper Bag Colored Heart, 2014. Performance. r-e-c-u-r-r-i-n-g.info/heart.

Fig. 2 – Wilmer Wilson IV (American, 1989-present). Henry “Box” Brown: FOREVER, 2012. Performance. r-e-c-u-r-r-i-n-g.info/forever.

Fig. 3 – Wilmer Wilson IV (American, 1989-present). Henry “Box” Brown: FOREVER, 2012. Performance. r-e-c-u-r-r-i-n-g.info/forever.


Fig. 4 – Wilmer Wilson IV (American, 1989-present). Henry “Box” Brown: FOREVER, 2012. Performance. r-e-c-u-r-r-i-n-g.info/forever.

Fig. 5 – Wilmer Wilson IV (American, 1989-present). Voted, 2012. Performance. ny.voltashow.com/Wilmer-Wilson-IV.7383.0.html.


Fig. 6 – Wilmer Wilson IV (American, 1989-present). Legalize, 2012. Performance. connersmith.us.com/exhibitions/volta-ny/installation-views?view=slider#8.


Fig. 7 – Wilmer Wilson IV (American, 1989-present). Bandage, 2011. Performance. ny.voltashow.com/Wilmer-Wilson-IV.7383.0.html.

Fig. 8 – Wilmer Wilson IV (American, 1989-present). Black Mask, 2012. Performance. connersmith.us.com/artists/wilmer-wilson-iv/featured-works?view=slider#13