• Kerri Arsenault on Life and Death in a Maine Mill Town

    What We'll Never Know About Capitalism's Toxic Aftermath

    From Arthur and Sheila Meader’s back deck in Rumford, Maine, you can hear the 176-foot drop of the Androscoggin River plowing over rocks. But I meet Arthur in his “arrangement office,” where normally a different rush of water occurs: people are breaking into tears.

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    Arthur runs a funeral home—Meader & Son—the same one his father and grandfather owned, first as a partnership and then as a wholly owned operation. Sheila maintained a beauty shop for years and, though she retired from that business some time ago, still cares for the hair of the deceased at Meader & Son.

    Their house and the business are basically one and the same, changed, appended to, refurbished over the years; the upstairs apartment Arthur’s parents lived in became a casket room; a neighbor’s property became a parking lot; and the Meaders purchased a large house next door that became their residence, which they later connected through a small overpass to the funeral home. It’s a property where the past never recedes and the personal is always mixed with business; much of Arthur’s “bread and butter” is from the paper mill that employs the majority of residents in town.

    “My dad told me years ago, the one who truly feeds you is the man who works in that mill.” Arthur leans forward in his office chair, his voice deep, confident. “Those are the ones you want to keep happy.” The early afternoon sun dusts his face.

    He says his one rule is to lead by example. And he is a man of rules, either making them or complying with them. Arthur’s father had rules too. When Arthur started working at the funeral home full-time as a young man, his father laid down the law: “If you want to go to a party, that’s fine. It doesn’t give you the next day off. If you don’t show up at work, you and I are going to have a conversation. The second time, I’m going to give you a warning. The third time, I’m going to ask you, where are you working now?” Arthur always showed up.

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    Arthur shows up for families, too. We engaged Meader & Son when my father died in 2014. We discussed what my father would have wanted, what we wanted, what other people may want, and were shepherded gently through those final tasks: photos to display, writing the obituary, financial matters. Meader gave us multiple-choice questions, which made it easier in our grief: which kind of urn to use, which flowers wouldn’t make me gag. His website, which I consulted at the time, also advises on funeral and cemetery etiquette, like what to wear, what not to say, what you’ll need, how to memorialize someone you love. During my father’s wake, funeral, and burial, we were shown where to stand, where to sit, where to stand and shake everyone’s hand. Rules and procedure got us through.

    In 1982, on Meader & Son’s 65th anniversary, the local paper profiled the funeral home. Proud at his longevity, Arthur said at the time he hoped his then three-and-a-half year-old son, James, would take up the profession after him. When James was in high school, however, Arthur wanted him to do bigger and better things. Arthur hired David Blouin, who is like a son, when he was thirteen. He’ll take over the business when the time comes. The name is still Meader & Son, but there’s no longer a son involved.

    I look at the article Arthur has copied for me. “James always had a goal and if he reached that goal, he’d set another one, and another one, and another one,” Arthur says.

    While four generations of Meader men made goals, showed up, did what they said they would do, James’s goals didn’t include managing the funeral home or living in Rumford, Maine. He’s currently my book publicist and lives in NYC.

    As Arthur and I talk, the unleafed trees outside magnify the sound of birds hiding in them. You can almost hear spring releasing its frost like a cracked rib, the sound of soil shifting in its skin. Spring is when the funeral business tends to pick up, Arthur says, when Meader & Son “serves” more families. I like Arthur’s choice of words, because death is not the kind of business you want to propagate and it’s a more accurate description of Arthur’s allegiance to the community. Duty-bound, uncorrupt, and beholden to his “constituents,” serving this community, to Arthur, was never just about doing things right, but also about doing the right thing. He worked hard and saw what hard work could build: a businesses, a family, his child’s confidence.

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    Arthur and I have been talking for hours, and by now the sun has tilted west. “How about a glass of scotch?” he asks with a quick lift of his eyebrows. We leave his office and walk up the back stairs, through the casket showroom, through a private office on top of the garage, bang a left, and we are in the overpass. From there we walk through a fire door built into a two-foot-thick wall in the basement of the house, which then empties into a big sunroom. From there, we walk up to a landing, and into the kitchen.

    “Now I’m thirsty,” I say, sarcastically. He offers me a glass of his favorite, a fifteen-year-old Glenlivet matured in French oak casks.

    “I want to show you something,” he says.

    On the wall of a downstairs guest bedroom, a photo of him skiing at Black Mountain in 1963, heading through a slalom gate. Next to it, a photo of James, also skiing, also heading through a slalom gate. A generation apart, skiing in tandem to his father, crouched over in the same stance, the same distance from the gate, taking the same tight line, the two of them racing time.

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    James and I both grew up skiing at Black Mountain, and like our fathers, we always kept one eye on immediate obstacles and one eye ahead in order to determine the best way downhill. But what James and I didn’t know, as we carved through those gates in our earlier years, was that we were the last in our line. We broke the rules of our family’s way of life, rules they encouraged us to break; we chose different paths.

    After I leave Arthur and Sheila’s house, I walk over to the Tourist Information Booth parking lot to see the falls. Water stampedes over the crisp edge of the dam. Trees along the Androscoggin are still naked in their transformation. A motorcycle growls by.

    A huge Paul Bunyan statue looms over the river where Bunyan-sized logs once floated downstream toward the mill. In blue pants, a matching blue watch cap, and a short-sleeve red polo shirt exposing his brawny arms, Bunyan proffers an equally enormous ax that could clear-cut even the Amazon. That statue has been around as long as I remember, although it used to tower above the Village Shoppe across the street. I never paid much attention to Bunyan despite his size. He blended into the background, as improbable as that seems.

    Even if a cancer cluster is found in your neighborhood, they may not be able to determine the exact cause or do anything about it.

    Small towns from Maine to Minnesota claim Bunyan as their own, yet everyone agrees the boy giant was the hero to all woodsmen. Legend maintains when Bunyan’s cradle rocked, the motion caused huge waves that sank ships. He also whittled a pipe from a hickory tree and could outrun buckshot. Our Bunyan, I learned, was crafted from the mold of the Muffler Man, a giant fiberglass statue who held mufflers in his outstretched hands as an advertisement on US byways in the 1970s. Other Muffler Men held hot dogs, fried chicken, and one in Illinois was found holding a rocket. The model was a blank slate for whatever fairy tale we chose. No matter the myth, there our Bunyan stands as a guardian for those ambling through the waning mill town of my youth, his shadow sometimes as brooding as the hurtling river beyond.

    He was overhauled between 2000 and 2002, including a paint job, a new ax, and steel supports secured to a huge block of concrete. To add the new supports, workers had to remove Bunyan’s head and shimmy down his neck. After they assembled his improved skeleton, workers wriggled up and out of the neck, one at a time—like the snakes on Medusa’s head come to life in lumberjack disguise—then reattached his head. In honor of the statue’s resurrection, Rumford held a festival featuring a lumberjack breakfast, zip line rides over the waterfalls, a facial hair contest, a flannel shirt dinner dance, and an ax throwing competition.

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    We commemorate resource development and industry with memorials like Bunyan or the marble bust of our paper mill’s founder, Hugh Chisholm, but we don’t memorialize the environmental consequences of their work. We keep them hidden in the earth, invisible to the naked eye. What if we began to enshrine those kinds of legacies, the ones that don’t want to be found? “here in this spot lies a toxic catastrophe” would be a sign of something we are not yet ready to admit. I’d love to see in the Information Booth some real information—a pamphlet outlining the path of mercury, dioxin, and other toxics the paper mill released and are part of our heritage, too. Or maybe an interactive feature so future generations can see what the world was like before we choked it with garbage that contains the half-life of a zillion years. I wonder what kind of festival we’d have for such dangerous shrines as those, or if we’d bother to maintain their perpetual care as lovingly as we shored up Bunyan’s spine.

    At the river’s edge, I see Edmund Muskie’s smaller, more serious memorial of squat, dark gray granite (he grew up here too). Bookish and six feet four inches tall, he was a giant in real life although painfully shy (admittedly so) and smart: so smart that, as a student, he was asked more than once to substitute for his teachers when they fell ill. He pushed to overcome his shyness, a flaw he wore like a hair shirt, yet it vanished when he stood in front of a chalkboard or in front of the debate team, which he joined despite his reticence

    Muskie always saw both sides to every argument, the kind of guy who went hunting as a kid but would never shoot anything. Chris Matthews, in the Sarasota Herald Tribune in 1966, said of Muskie, he “did not enter politics to have his sentences appear in the newspaper. . . . He sought election to make the country better.” So Muskie adopted a tailor’s mien and went to work. Against a resistant president and House of Representatives and industry inaction, he helped enact the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act by trying to answer a question he often asked himself: how do you create an environment people can enjoy while protecting it?

    In Rumford, however, Muskie was no match for the silhouette cast by Bunyan. Both giants memorialized and their acts equally significant, however, one deforested the woodlands and the other tried (in a way) to reclaim them, the rocky pools on the edge of the Androscoggin spanning the gap between them.

    My father used to make fun of Bunyan and the ludicrous blue hoofprints made by Babe, Bunyan’s sidekick blue ox, that started at the Information Booth and colored the sidewalks downtown. The Rumford selectmen had voted in 2009 to use $6,500 from their economic development fund to create Babe, figuring he would encourage tourists to follow his meandering line around town. What they forgot to consider was there’s not much left in town to see but Bunyan himself and those garish blue hoofprints that end abruptly at Rite Aid.

    When we leave home, as James and I did, we leave behind our past but when we return, we encounter a version of home built of legends true and false. For me, those legends are so big—Chisholm, Muskie, Bunyan, Black Mountain ski area, my father—that it is hard to see beyond their shadows. So when I drive back over the Piscataqua River Bridge with Mexico and Rumford in my rearview mirror, I may not see “true love,” as E. B. White did when he drove over that same bridge on his trips to Brooklin, Maine, but I can see where my lifelines are drawn.


    When I get back to Connecticut, I examine my father’s death certificate, which I had gotten from Arthur. It indicates his immediate cause of death was esophageal cancer “due to (or as a consequence of)” lung carcinoma; “due to (or as a consequence of)” prostate cancer; “due to (or as a consequence of)” coronary artery disease, with “other significant conditions contributing to the death but not resulting in the underlying cause given in the above consequences: COPD, respiratory failure with PE, failure to thrive, aspiration.”

    Those two words “underlying cause” seem to mock his death. “Under” means less than or below, the condition beneath his actual death, and “lying” is something the death certificate may do—lie—because his esophageal cancer was supposedly gone, as the doctor indicated just months before he died. And “cause”—his condition before his death was obvious, he was sick. But why? Was it because the sacs in his lungs took all they could take? What about before he was sick, when he worked as a pipefitter in the mill? Was that a condition of his death?  No mention of his asbestosis from his work or that he was a smoker until 1986. If they were listing all underlying causes, “veteran” should be there, as he probably was exposed to asbestos then. There’s nothing in the recent medical records to show my father’s triple bypass decades ago contributed to his death. Why was his heart weak in the first place? Was it stressed from working amid chloroform, benzene, mercury, dioxin, and butadiene? I read somewhere because the heart and lungs work together, asbestosis can contribute to cardiac issues. Was that lying under his prognosis? His prostate removal in 2008 was successful, and, in the year before he died, the word “prostate” was never discussed as a risk factor for lung cancer so why was it on his death certificate now? There was no mention of his father’s metastatic stomach cancer or that his father worked in the bleach room before there were many rules. Did toxics like dioxin bioaccumulate in my grandfather’s blood, and in doing so, crawl up the food chain to my father and probably to me? I mean, if we are talking about underlying conditions as a consequence of things, we should try to be thorough.

    My father’s obituary says he died peacefully with his family by his side, but that’s not true either. I was there. There was nothing peaceful about it. Everyone’s emotions were splintered and raw. He died a terrible death, his chest working overtime like he often did in the mill. And as my mother stated in her letter to the nursing board, he “died in excruciating pain.” The nurse tending him inserted a catheter improperly. He got an infection from the mistake, and died of sepsis four days later; wasn’t the fucked-up catheter insertion an underlying cause?

    My mother was his best caregiver and spent every day trying to get him to live. His “failure to thrive,” may have been because the last nurse was careless and the nursing board even more so. My mother had wanted to sue them for medical malpractice, but she didn’t have definitive proof; no autopsy was ever done. The nursing board determined there was no violation of the law and voted to dismiss my mother’s complaint a year after my father died in their care, and they considered the matter closed. But if no autopsy was done, how did they determine these causes of his death?

    We lean on science for proof but it rarely provides it.

    I want to review his medical files, but my mother’s pain of unburying everything would be too great. She tried to remedy what she could and has moved on. Besides, what could I do? If I learned anything in ten years of research, it was that records are wrong all the time. I’ll never know the answers, or possibly even the right questions to ask about how he or anyone in my town died, especially if the documents were written by people who have their own story to tell. One more question: why wasn’t my father’s name on his union’s memorial that commemorated men who died from working at the mill? Speaking of cause and effect, it’s what I’ve been looking for: in cancer rates, in wealth disparity, in the disappearance of the working-class, and in the past itself and all the concomitant truths it holds. I’d found no shortage of effects but determining causes was like catching pollution in plastic buckets in the wind as one environmental group tried to do. My father’s death certificate is testimony to these things. All I can do is continue to connect the dots, drawing one line to another until some kind of shape emerges.

    Yet it’s almost impossible to draw a straight line from our mill to cancer. Someone leaves town. They get cancer. Some people never leave. They get cancer. Or vice versa. My grandmother smoked.. She didn’t get cancer. You work in a paper mill like my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, you get cancer. Some people do not. At least not yet. There are long delays between environmental exposures and cancer, too long to calculate, and each cancer comes with individual risk factors, symptoms, causes. If you think your town contains a cancer cluster, consider the criteria: clusters require a greater-than-expected number of cancers in a narrowly defined group, i.e., the people must have the same type of cancer, in a limited geographic area, over a limited period of time, and all these factors have factors, including the limitations of science itself. In addition, if several family members get cancer, it doesn’t count toward the cluster evidence you need. Ordinary cancers don’t count either. And it doesn’t appear the CDC analyzes how individual bodies respond to specific environmental factors. And even if a cancer cluster is found in your neighborhood, they may not be able to determine the exact cause or do anything about it. One in three people develop cancer over their lifetime, so maybe the question is, when will we get cancer?


    We lean on science for proof but it rarely provides it. Science thrives on skepticism, interpretation, hypotheses, predictions, assumptions, uncertainty. Scientists are trained to be inconclusive and cautious. If you go to the doctor and ask, am I going to die tomorrow? she’ll say she’s not 100 percent sure you won’t. When science fails to answer or explain, we sometimes turn to law, a recourse my mother considered in her grief. But the proof is no less elusive. Tort laws and regulation provide some protection for people with cancer but, as William Boyd writes in his paper “Controlling Toxic Harms,” laws are “inadequate” because of their demand for scientific precision and evidence of harm, especially when trying to prove community exposure, where risk factors can be as diverse as the people who live there. The law also includes the EPA, which has been accused of colluding with industry at the expense of humans and the planet it’s tasked to protect. How can we trust the law?

    The European Union’s method for regulating chemicals is better safe than sorry or “the Precautionary Principle,” whereby industry must provide rigorous proof people or ecosystems won’t be affected by industrial substances. “No data, no market” is their approach. In the US the regulatory approach is largely innocent until proven guilty. This places the burden of proof on us to prove toxics cause harm. In addition, testing of chemicals is standardized to a degree, but it depends on the country where they will be used and the will and power of the agency regulating them. Nobody is coordinating such a thing. So if the law fails us, what else can we do? I’m not sure I know.

    The standards for permissible amounts of toxics allowable for humans to intake usually only deal with one substance at a time, and don’t consider the burdens of one chemical or carcinogen or toxic in coordination with another, or the cumulative effects of all of them or some of them together. Tampons, diapers, beef, breast milk, cheese, air: what’s the total intake? Nobody knows. And if they did? Imagine for a moment the United States eliminated all the toxic chemicals it has created. Who’s to say China, Germany, Japan, Finland, Canada, Brazil would do the same? The permutations mirror what it’s like when we look at galaxies in outer space. As for the two thousand new chemicals introduced into the US every year and the eighty thousand chemicals still untested, how can any agency—let alone an underfunded, understaffed, and often industry-friendly government agency—possibly keep up?

    While cancer is not provincial, neither are pollutants; they do not stay where we put them. They move and seep into silt, get ingested by cows and babies, soar through smokestacks across the world, or crawl downriver into the ocean and into lobster flesh. Rachel Carson called chemicals “sinister” in her 1962 landmark book Silent Spring. Our post–Agent Orange, post–atomic bomb, post-DDT, R&D industrial defoliated landscape proved her claim. Then, people started fearing chemicals of any kind, even ones exonerated by science. It didn’t help that industry fought back against regulation with corruption and lies, deploying an alphabet soup of sinister acronyms like CERCLA, which sound like chemicals themselves.

    Perhaps it was our fault in the end. We’ve been creating the very thing that could be destroying us in the landscape of the American Dream.

    Yet because you can’t draw a straight line doesn’t mean there’s no line. While we largely accept the risks of our own bad behaviors— smoking, drinking, lying in the sun with iodine on our skin—we are trapped in a much bigger environment, one in which we don’t know what all the risks are. Our body burden—the total amount of toxic chemicals present in a person’s body—is exactly that: the burden an individual must bear because our regulatory organizations, science, and laws can’t or won’t. It is also our burden to decode the vernacular of toxicologists and environmentalists and academics and journalists who feed us the news; don’t we already have burdens enough? In the meantime, toxins accumulate in our bodies, their presence a placeholder for something that may or may not multiply out of control.


    It’s not fair, I thought, when the doctor delivered my father’s prognosis of cancer, for which she gave no definitive cause. But asbestosis, which my father definitely had, can develop into lung cancer in ten, thirty, or fifty years, and if you ever smoked like he did, the likelihood increases with every puff you take. Yet connecting asbestos exposure to lung cancer is difficult to do. Many cancers are “idiopathic,” a Greek word meaning “of local origin,” i.e., not seemingly caused by some- thing outside the body: idio (one’s own) and pathos (suffering). An idiopathic diagnosis, like in my father’s death certificate, blames the body itself for its own undoing.

    Perhaps it was our fault in the end. We’ve been creating the very thing that could be destroying us in the landscape of the American Dream. But blame, like a river’s flow, is a fugitive act, because its target shape-shifts as the current of time presses forward, as fugitive as finding the link from pollution to disease.

    For years, asbestos manufacturers knew about the dangers of the fiber and did nothing except block the government from regulating it. Today scientists are certain: asbestos causes harm. It’s a known human carcinogen, and like dioxin (which our paper mill created) there’s no safe level of exposure. You’d think that’s the end of the line for asbestos—a carcinogen banned in most developed countries except a few, a substance that ruined a generation of lives. Yet on June 1, 2018, the EPA announced a “significant new use rule” to allow US companies to manufacture, import, and process new asbestos-containing products.

    At a 1964 conference on asbestosis sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences, scientists presented data showing that asbestos was found in people “who lived in the same house with workers who came home with asbestos dust on their clothes.” It turns out asbestos can cling not only to someone’s clothes, but to their lunch basket, shoes, hair, car, bedding, skin, sofa, and subsequently end up in their family’s lungs, too. My father always showered after work at the mill but it didn’t matter. My mother, who laundered so many clothes, didn’t know the shit didn’t wash off.

    There are lines we follow (family lines), lines we shouldn’t cross (picket lines), and lines we hardly dare to bridge (silences among ourselves). There are also lines that lead us down an odd path (Babe, the blue ox) or lines that bisect the haves and the have-nots (sacrifice zones, football teams). Then there are lines we follow because it’s the fastest way downhill (skiing). The only straight line I’ve found in this whole damn mess is the clothesline where my mother hung her wash.


    mill town

    This essay was adapted from Mill Town, published by St. Martin’s Press.

    Kerri Arsenault
    Kerri Arsenault
    Kerri Arsenault is a literary critic, co-director of The Environmental Storytelling Studio at Brown University; Democracy Fellow at Harvard’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History; fellow at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia; contributing editor at Orion magazine; and author of Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains. Her writing has been published in the Boston Globe, The Paris Review, the New York Review of Books, Freeman’s, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

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