(Berman concludes his reflections on the intersection of his mother’s path through life with that of Albert Einstein and concludes the great physicist is guilty of murder.)
Roosevelt took the scientists seriously, and put people to work inventing the atomic bomb. The project was set up in New York as the Manhattan Engineer District, to deflect curiosity. Later, under General Leslie Groves, the headquarters moved to Washington, D.C., and became known as the Manhattan Project. And personnel recruiters headed out to find staff, including clerical workers. They came to southwestern Pennsylvania and met the young woman, who was fresh out of high school. That’s when her red dots arc the short distance from Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C., where she joined General Groves’ staff, in a couple of offices in the War Department building, to do the clerical work that went with inventing a bomb. Everything was in place for my mother’s nuclear nightmare to play out.
Using the young man’s equation—that unthreatening looking E=mc2—thousands of people went to work inventing the ultimate weapon and they did it. They called the first test of the invention Trinity—an unholy name, if you ask me—for what they made. They set up a test site in the desert in New Mexico, not far from where they put the bomb together.
A lot of people were very anxious about whether it was going to work and, if it did, what would happen. That was true in New Mexico and back in the head office in Washington. My mom was one of those concerned people. The story that came down to me through my family is that as the date for the test approached, that bright young woman, who never imagined that her very first job out of school would take her into the heart of a drastic invention, stopped eating and began to look very thin and gaunt. Her friends could see something was wrong with her, but they didn’t know why because she and everyone associated with the project had been sworn to secrecy. Much later, they learned that my mother had heard conversations in her office, people talking fearfully about the possibility that once the bomb was detonated, and the nuclear reaction began, it might spread uncontrollably and disastrously and consume all of humanity. Can you imagine dealing with that as a fresh, young, eighteen year old? I regret that I never had a chance to talk to my mother about that, but it certainly makes sense to me that she reacted to the news the way she did.
As we all know now, the worst didn’t happen. The bomb went off exactly as planned, except that it released much more energy than the inventors had predicted. My mother started eating again, and things got back to normal, if you can call a world that now possessed the ultimate weapon of destruction normal. General Groves gave orders to create more bombs and President Truman began the agonizing task of deciding if and when he’d use it against our enemies.
Not long after the Trinity test, a box arrived in my mother’s office. It was placed beside her desk. Inside was a supply of bluish-green rocks called Trinitite. Trinitite is basically sand that was sucked up into the blast from the desert, liquefied by the intense heat, and rained back down to ground, where it hardened into a glassy glaze over the bowl-shaped crater left by the bomb. It had a certain beauty to it, and it was concrete evidence of the earth-changing invention. Gift shops and gas stations in New Mexico somehow got some of it and sold it as souvenirs. In my mother’s office, some people had small pieces of it mounted and wore it as jewelry. My mother sent a shoebox full of it home to her family in Pennsylvania, especially for her twelve year old brother to play with.
It wasn’t long before people realized that wasn’t a very good idea. The people who made jewelry out of it discovered that wherever the Trinitite touched them, the skin turned red and began to ooze. Only then did they come to grips with the fact that this lovely memento of scientific invention was radioactive, and that radiation was attacking them. The military brass told people to stop wearing it and throw it away. My mom wrote to her family and told them to get rid of the Trinitite, which they did, but no one seems to know where they put it.
My mother stayed with the Manhattan Project into 1946, then her dots swung back to Pennsylvania, where she soon married my dad, and they got on with their lives, which included giving birth to my brother and me. By this time, the young man’s dots had landed in Princeton, New Jersey, where he had a teaching job. By a strange twist of fate, I have evidence of his whereabouts in a picture of Jane’s aunt. In the picture, she’s singing Christmas carols outside the young man’s—Einstein’s—house in 1947.
About thirty years later, my mother died of cancer. She fought bravely to beat it, but didn’t really have a chance by the time they found it. She wouldn’t talk to me about it, but she did talk to her younger brother, the one she sent the Trinitite to. I’m not sure I could have made it through that conversation. She told her brother she just couldn’t understand why this had happened to her; she reminded him that she’d never done any of the things that ignite cancer—no drinking, no smoking, no real exposure to harmful chemicals. She told my uncle—and I can’t begin to imagine the tone of her voice and the expression on her face when she said this—she told my uncle she was sure she’d been killed by that lovely Trinitite that sat beside her desk, that she handled, that she carefully packed in a shoebox and sent home to Pennsylvania. She died just as Jane and I got together and thought about starting a family, and I know she ached knowing she would not be alive to enjoy those fresh, new faces. But she died steadfast in her faith, never lashing out and rebelling against God, like I did as I watched her fade away. I was with her when she breathed her last breath, her eyes open, her mouth so dry she hadn’t been able to speak for several days.
If I had to sum up this whole, awful story in one sentence it would be this: Einstein killed my mother. I know he didn’t actually do the work to make the atomic bomb, but he sure as hell paved the way. So, I hold him responsible. It doesn’t make any difference to me that he claimed to be a pacifist when he was younger or that, after the United States kill hundreds of thousands of people with it, he told a New York Times reporter he was sure Roosevelt wouldn’t have dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, or that he later wrote, “I have always condemned the use of the atomic bomb against Japan.”
I can’t excuse him any more than I can the people who invented all the other deadly devices that have snuffed out billions of good, ordinary people, like my mom, over so many thousands of years. I can’t even consider that argument, in the invention book, that it was inventions, some induced by war, that brought us from a state of savagery to civilization. Doesn’t it make sense that if those things hadn’t been created, then the horrors wouldn’t have happened? And there wouldn’t be nearly as much pain and we wouldn’t have to hurt so much? That’s the evidence I came up with for my friend on the bench, and I felt pretty confident we were going to have a lively conversation when I met up with him. But, as usual, it was a while before I ran into him.