In many ways it seemed the definitive question for the Seventies, coming after A. Ernest Fitzgerald, the Huston Plan, and Watergate, after the Arab oil embargo and the reports that oil companies were lying about the shortage of gasoline, after the revelations of corporate bribery overseas, the CIA assassination scandals, and the FBI’s COINTELPRO. Now we were being asked to decide whether an energy conglomerate had murdered an employee about to blow the whistle on its slipshod nuclear operations and whether the government had somehow helped to cover up the crime. It was not surprising that the question “Who killed Karen Silkwood?” should soon be asked not only by those recently convinced of the pervasiveness of government and corporate lying and the duplicity of the intelligence agencies and the oil companies, but also by environmentalists just beginning to worry about nuclear safety. The question was asked as well by many in the women’s movement who soon came to see Silkwood as a symbol of feminist concern about health and safety in the workplace and “violence against women.”

The simple facts of Silkwood’s death were provocative enough. On the night of November 13, 1974, as the whole world must know by now, the twenty-eight-year-old laboratory technician was on her way to a secret meeting with a New York Times reporter, David Burnham. She was said to be carrying a manila folder of papers documenting shoddy safety practices or worse at the nuclear installation where she worked. Her tiny Honda Civic somehow veered left across the center line of an Oklahoma highway, hit a culvert wingwall, and flipped on its side. When the police arrived, Karen Silkwood was dead and, according to varying accounts, papers bearing the logo of her employer, the Kerr-McGee Corporation, either were or were not scattered about. By the time Burnham, Silkwood’s boyfriend, and an official of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union to which she belonged reached the crash site, the car had been neatly towed away and her body delivered to a funeral home. Whatever documents Silkwood had had with her—and two women who saw her leave for the meeting recalled that she carried a sheaf of papers of some sort—had disappeared forever.

“Dead because she knew too much!” This was the charge of those in the fledgling antinuclear movement who started to push for a federal investigation of the crash, and then, when the Justice Department concluded that it had been an accident, for the $10.5 million civil judgment her family won from Kerr-McGee, the Oklahoma energy giant whose practices Silkwood had attacked as unsafe. (On December 11, a Federal Appeals Court in Denver reduced the award to $5,000, saying that it was the business of the federal government to regulate the country’s private nuclear industry and that the lower courts should not have punished Kerr-McGee. The Silkwood family’s lawyers said they would carry the question further, to the United States Supreme Court).

Though it may yet set a legal precedent in the field of negligence, the law-suit alleged and revealed nothing about the circumstances of Silkwood’s death. Before it reached trial, judicial rulings had narrowed the family’s complaint to the single question of whether traces of plutonium discovered to have contaminated her apartment in the days before she died had got there through some fault of Kerr-McGee. The company never disputed that the plutonium was its own but suggested that Silkwood herself had stolen a microscopic quantity and purposely contaminated her apartment. The company portrayed her as a nuclear Joan of Arc prepared to die of radiation burns to dramatize her claims of plant negligence. Lawyers for the Silkwood family argued that the plutonium was put there by Kerr-McGee in hopes of frightening Silkwood, an outspoken union organizer whom the company considered a supreme troublemaker, into keeping quiet.

Though the title of his book implies Howard Kohn’s conviction that someone did Silkwood in (his question seems to be answered by a photograph on the jacket of a piece of graffiti declaring that “Karen Silkwood Was Murdered”), Kohn, who covered the case from its inception for Rolling Stone, does nothing to solve the murder or even to establish that one was committed, though he does not shy away from any opportunity to suggest that Silkwood’s death was anything but accidental. But even from Kohn’s description of the evidence it seems highly unlikely that Silkwood’s death could have somehow been engineered. The crash of her car into a concrete wall on the opposite side of the highway would have required a conjunction of forces and objects of the sort that might be achieved on a pool table but not with four-wheeled vehicles on asphalt roads.

It is less easy, however, to dismiss the possibility that Silkwood’s car was, for whatever reason, struck from behind by another. As Kohn points out, tests showed that two dents in the Honda’s rear bumper were fresh ones and that they had been made by a metal object which might have been another car (but which the police suggested was nothing more sinister than the tow truck that pulled the car from a roadside ditch). There are also some corollary questions: if the Honda was bumped from behind by another car, was the collision intentional or could it have been accidental? If intentional, was it meant simply to frighten her or halt her car so that the manila folder, if there was one, might be recovered? In any case and whatever the motive, were the government, the police, or the company necessarily behind it, or might it have been merely an angry co-worker or even a rejected lover? Kohn also dismisses too readily the possibility that Silkwood’s physical condition might have impaired her behavior that night. An autopsy revealed traces of alcohol and fifty milligrams of methaqualone, a soporific sold under the name Quaalude, in her bloodstream. There were two unsmoked marijuana cigarettes in her purse.


There is also the question of the horse and the barn door. On the day of her death Silkwood had been barred from the Kerr-McGee plant and relegated to a company warehouse, hardly the sort of action that would have been taken by those who had some reason to know of her impending death. Moreover, Silkwood had already traveled to Washington to make several of her allegations against Kerr-McGee known to officials of her union and to inspectors from the Atomic Energy Commission, which promised to investigate and did so. Two months after her death the AEC reported its finding that twenty of her thirty-nine claims of health and safety irregularities had merit. There later proved to have been seventy-five violations of federal regulations altogether. In 1976 Dr. Karl Morgan, distinguished health physics researcher, told a congressional subcommittee that he had never seen a nuclear facility “so poorly operated from the standpoint of radiation protection” as Kerr-McGee’s had been. The plant, which fabricated fuel rods containing highly toxic plutonium for use in fast-breeder reactors, was closed in 1975.

Since Silkwood’s charges were already a matter of official record in two places, it is difficult to see what might have been gained, and by whom, in preventing her from meeting with a newspaper reporter. Unless, as Kohn tries to make out, she also had with her that night some especially damaging information—proof that between forty and sixty pounds of radioactive material in Kerr-McGee’s nuclear inventory was unaccounted for. In fact, Kerr-McGee’s MUF (industry shorthand for “material unaccounted for”) was then in the forty-pound range, enough to manufacture four bombs and nearly three times more than the company apparently reported to the AEC.

Kohn supplies some slender evidence that Silkwood might have known the material was missing, and “at a time when such knowledge was very rare and perhaps quite dangerous.” In fact, something on the order of two hundred pounds of enriched uranium was also missing from a Pennsylvania company named NUMEC, and there was evidence enough to convince the CIA that it had been diverted to the Israeli government. But more than seven thousand pounds of plutonium and bomb-grade uranium were then unaccounted for by other nuclear facilities around the country, and only in the Pennsylvania case was there reason to suspect an intentional diversion. The rest of the material, the government believed, had been lost in manufacturing, mistakenly sent to nuclear dumps, or only appeared to be missing because of accounting errors, and there are many reasons to believe that the Kerr-McGee MUF fell into the latter category, not the former. If Silkwood knew or was concerned about Kerr-McGee’s MUF she had not told her union. David Burnham, the Times reporter she was to have met, had been told only that Silkwood was bringing with her evidence of efforts by Kerr-McGee to cover up faulty welds in some of the fuel rods it was producing.

Unfortunately, Kohn permits his fascination with the circumstances of Silkwood’s death and the cover-up that he believes followed it to overshadow what qualifies as a genuine scandal: the allegations Silkwood put on record before she died that Kerr-McGee had a poorly trained work force with scant education about the dangers of plutonium; that the plant had inoperable or malfunctioning machinery and safety equipment; that radiation-monitoring instruments were left unused; that radiation spills were not recognized or cleaned up; that traces of uranium dust were found even in the employees’ lunchroom.

For Kohn it is not enough that such conditions existed or that the Kerr-McGee plant was allowed by the government to operate while in violation of dozens of health and safety regulations (five of Silkwood’s fellow workers there were contaminated by radioactivity a month after her death). Nor is it enough that accounting procedures in the nuclear industry were sufficiently haphazard to permit losing track of enough radioactive material to make scores of bombs; or that some companies, Kerr-McGee apparently among them, were able to hide their true MUF from the government’s inspectors, or that the inspectors were in some cases not diligent enough to find it. Instead, he insists on all of these things as a motive for murder.


In his quest to establish a shadowy but omniscient government-industry conspiracy to keep the perils of the nation’s nuclear operations hidden from public view, Kohn paints the figures in the Silkwood case against a cartoon landscape where tragedy and near-tragedy seem to stalk everyone associated with the woman in life or in death. Tony Mazzocchi, an official of the OCAW in Washington, blacks out while driving through suburban Virginia and his car runs off the road. Mazzocchi, says Kohn, is sure “that murder had been intended.” Jean Jung, a fellow worker at the Kerr-McGee plant and one of only two people to recall that Silkwood had carried a folder containing some documents when she left to meet with Burnham, is menaced on the way home by “a heavy car with bright headlights” that chases her “down dirt roads at breakneck speeds.” A car driven by a fellow member of the OCAW, whose identity or connection with Silkwood is otherwise unexplained, is sideswiped and almost forced off an Oklahoma highway “shortly after Karen’s death.” A dead duck is placed on the doorstep of a former Silkwood roommate.

Linda Silkwood, Karen’s youngest sister, leaves her Texas schoolhouse one afternoon to find a car “racing toward her, a car she didn’t recognize.” Danny Sheehan, chief counsel in the Silkwood family’s lawsuit, suddenly discovers while driving that he is holding a disconnected steering wheel. “A bolt that locks the steering wheel into place had worked itself loose,” Kohn says, adding helpfully, “or had someone loosened it?”

There’s more: peculiar-looking “bugs” that fall out of clocks, “burglaries” in which nothing of value is taken, the mysterious repaving of the stretch of road where the accident took place, telephones that go dead “unaccountably,” the unavailability in Oklahoma City of certain magazines (including Rolling Stone) containing articles on the Silkwood case, the refusal of two Senators to sign a congressional investigator’s travel voucher, a leaked newspaper story about another key congressman’s liaison with a prostitute, knife-wielding intruders lurking in motel rooms, potshots taken at investigators hired by the Silkwood family—no such incident escapes Kohn’s attention, up to and including the death of Senator Lee Metcalf of Montana. He had reneged on a promised congressional investigation of the Silkwood case after a visit from Kerr-McGee chairman Dean McGee and had ominously been “buried without an autopsy.”

Happenstance, coincidence, enemy action? Kohn chooses every time to suggest the last. He never considers exactly how the deaths of Mazzocchi, the unidentified union member, Mrs. Jung, Senator Metcalf, Linda Silkwood, or the duck would have benefited Kerr-McGee or the government or altered the outcome of the trial. Kohn also asks us to take a good deal of his reporting on faith. His book adopts the novelistic style of reconstructing factual events that is so popular now among journalists, and in his foreword Kohn acknowledges that the quoted dialogue “should not be taken as absolutely literal,” while assuring the reader it is all a “close facsimile” of what was said, or at least is “based on the best memory of other participants.”

The chief difficulty with this kind of book is that at so many key points we cannot know whether the words they speak are their own or the author’s. The fact that they are contained within quotation marks raises the question: who must take responsibility for them? Are these characters in search of an author or is it the other way round? One possible answer is inadvertently provided by the galley proofs of the book, which contain two versions of the same paragraph:

Ikard lobbed a paper ball across the adobe into a corner waste-basket, a shot which he seemed never to miss. He continued down his checklist. “I count fifteen ex-workers who’re willing to testify. Practically everyone is courtesy of Father Bill.” The priest, so skilled at enlisting trust, had become invaluable.


Ikard lobbed a paper ball across the tile and into a corner waste-basket—a shot that he seemed never to miss. He continued down his checklist. “Father Bill has performed one heckuva miracle,” he said. “I count fifteen ex-workers who’re willing to testify.”

In the finished book Kohn prefers the second version, but either he was there when these words were spoken or he was not. If not, he must have obtained the quotes from someone who was. He does not tell us how the same thing was said, or even recollected, in two different ways.

Kohn goes further, recounting scenes that could not have been drawn from anyone’s best memory, as when Silkwood, distraught over the discovery that she and her apartment had been contaminated by plutonium, drives herself to a pay telephone to call her union office in Washington: “Karen had parked the Honda in a U-Tote-Em lot. She was in a phone booth. As she talked, her shoulders slid down the length of the glass wall, were hauled upright, but slid weakly down again, a slow-motion calisthenic.” This sort of liberty may be relatively harmless, but others border on the shameless, as with the unnamed police lieutenant who “felt a helpless kind of pity” for Silkwood’s father, who had come to Oklahoma in search of the truth about his daughter’s death. “From what the lieutenant had heard,” Kohn writes, “the dark, terrible truth would break the man’s heart.” Who was this lieutenant? What had he heard? How does Kohn know? We never get the answers.

Kohn, who notes in his foreword that after some thought he decided not to “insert” himself in the narrative but to remain in the “unspecified background,” consequently makes no distinctions between conversations he overheard and those he reconstructed later. By the time we get to Danny Sheehan, the family’s chief counsel, declaring the theory that “the CIA, or some other intelligence agency, was involved in this all along,” the reader is entitled to ask: whose theory is it?

Reconstructing reality is an inordinately demanding task—one cannot know just how much until one has tried to sort out the conflicting recollections of a dozen eyewitnesses to a murder or even to an automobile accident. But with the advent of television “docudramas” and “nonfiction novels,” the line between fiction and journalism has become badly blurred. (A forthcoming movie about the Silkwood affair is likely to blur it further.) The line is a hard one to hew to in any case, and for the journalist it seems there is less and less incentive to search for it at all and considerable temptation not to. In his essay “False Documents,” E.L. Doctorow explains the temptation when he suggests that “there is no fiction or nonfiction as we commonly understand the distinction: there is only narrative.” Novelists, he argues, “have it in us to compose false documents more valid, more real, more truthful than the ‘true’ documents of the politicians or the journalists or the psychologists. Novelists know explicitly that the world in which we live is still to be formed and that reality is amenable to any construction that is placed upon it.”*

Rarely does a reporter happen to witness anything firsthand—his account of what took place or was said is almost always an amalgam of versions provided by those who did witness it, or worse, by those who were involved and therefore have a point of view. It is not reality but their reality, their narrative, he reassembles. Allowances must always be made for some discrepancy, but Kohn appears in some instances not to have met even the journalist’s basic obligation to speak to the people he writes about, and it may not be gratuitous to note here, as his book-jacket biography does not, that Kohn was discharged by the Detroit Free Press in 1973 after he admitted falsifying “parts of” a dramatic published account of his kidnapping by an underworld figure. (He was later convicted of having submitted a false report to the police about the kidnapping.)

Kohn describes in some detail the motel room where Burnham waited for Silkwood that cold November night, the place where Burnham was sitting (on the edge of a bed), the color of Burnham’s pencil (yellow) and his notebook (brown). In fact, Burnham has told me that Kohn never spoke with him. But Kohn goes on to quote words of Burnham’s he never heard. “Is she usually like this?” the restive reporter asks when Silkwood is two hours overdue for their meeting. Kohn then tells us how Burnham behaved when he learned Silkwood was dead.

Every instinct demanded he rush to the scene. But it took him a few minutes before he got the two younger men to clamber into his rented car [where] Burnham strained forward behind the wheel and shivered in his lightweight trenchcoat, [pushing the accelerator] hard to the floor despite the obvious futility in their speed.

Burnham remembers no such instinct for haste, no such deliberate caution, no such race to the scene of the crash, but rather that because of the late hour and the unfamiliar roads he drove exceedingly slowly.

When A.O. Pipkin, an accident-reconstruction specialist hired by Silkwood’s union, arrives on the scene in Oklahoma, Kohn has him wearing “sunglasses and a Day-Glo orange jumpsuit.” The walls of Pipkin’s office in Dallas are described as bearing “a certificate of graduation from a course in Newtonian mechanics” and a “faded newspaper clipping” that tells of his work investigating the accident that killed Jayne Mansfield. The only problem, Pipkin says, is that Kohn has never met him or visited his office, that he does not remember wearing his orange jumpsuit on the plane to Oklahoma, and that no such certificate or newspaper clipping adorns his office walls.

Other errors of fact leap out: Kohn places the Cookson Hills “not far from” Oklahoma City when in fact they are east of Tulsa; he identifies the CIA cryptonym JM WAVE as a designation for “the CIA guerrilla army that warred on Castro in the Sixties,” when the term was the code name for the CIA’s Miami station. Small points, these, but errors that could easily have been rectified by checking and were not, and where there are small errors the possibility of larger ones cannot be dismissed.

For example, Kohn asserts flatly that the day after Silkwood’s death, “Burnham’s editors had ordered him back to DC over his objections.” But no one at the Times who was involved in the story, including Burnham, remembers any such order being given or objection being raised. Burnham returned home on his own to pursue the case with officials of Silkwood’s union at their Washington headquarters, but the reader is left with the impression that his newspaper either did not know a story when it saw one or that it too was part of some larger conspiracy to cover the matter up.

Perhaps most disturbing, Kohn quotes Pipkin as reporting to union officials his conclusions that Silkwood “had company” on the highway that night, that the indentations in her car’s bumper “were made by some sort of blunt object, maybe the knobby point of a bumper or a homemade cowcatcher” and that while the collision “was kind of a fluke,” “it wasn’t no accident.” But Pipkin says he never concluded any of these things, only that the car’s bumper had been struck from behind by some kind of metal object—not necessarily another car and not necessarily on purpose.

Still, despite Kohn’s sloppiness and the liberties he takes with some facts, there is plenty here that ought to give serious cause for concern if not outright alarm, including the apparently coordinated attempt by some federal agencies to mute the questions being raised about Silkwood’s death and the bizarre and still unexplained role of a Tennessee woman named Jacque Srouji. She was a newspaper copyreader, a naval reserve officer, the author of a book about nuclear power, and for some years a paid informer for the FBI. Somehow, perhaps through her previous close relationship with the Oklahoma FBI agent assigned to investigate Silkwood’s death, Srouji obtained hundreds of pages of classified FBI reports on the Silkwood case, many of them filled with derogatory information about the woman’s personal life. Srouji’s own book about nuclear energy, Critical Mass, was published in 1977 by a company Kohn tags as a front for the CIA, which may have also employed her to gather information about the Soviet Union’s fast-breeder reactor program from Soviet diplomats in Washington.

What is more, government documents obtained by the Silkwood family’s lawyers indicated that the FBI had worked closely on the case with Kerr-McGee security officers, that it assumed, as the company did, that Silkwood herself had placed the plutonium in her own apartment, and that somebody might have been tapping Silkwood’s telephone, a not unreasonable suggestion given the climate of corporate concern about her activities.

Even more disturbing is the evidence Kohn presents that the FBI gathered and leaked several unsubstantiated claims about the sexual habits of people who criticized its Silkwood inquiry, among them a congressman, a congressional investigator, the publisher of the Nashville newspaper for which Srouji worked, and an official of Silkwood’s union. Most of the innuendoes were reserved, however, for Silkwood herself. At the trial lawyers for Kerr-McGee first tried to intimate that Silkwood had allowed herself to become a tool of her union, and then proceeded to smear her. Who, they suggested, could believe a divorced mother of three who had left her own children, who swallowed Quaaludes and tranquilizers with regularity, and had used them at least once to attempt suicide, who drank a good deal, who visited lesbian bars, and who told one of her boyfriends she had slept with women?

There is good evidence that some of these things were true, but nothing in her personal life necessarily colored the depth of Karen Silkwood’s concern or her credibility. At the trial, in fact, other Kerr-McGee workers testified to shoddiness and shortcuts taken with deadly substances at the plant, of painting over cinder-block walls where plutonium had become lodged in the crevices, of early warnings of “surprise” AEC inspections that permitted violations to be hidden. There was even testimony supporting the most serious of Silkwood’s charges—that fuel rods shipped by Kerr-McGee had in fact been manufactured to specifications dangerously below standard. Quite as much as how Miss Silkwood died one might wish to know where those rods are today.

This Issue

January 21, 1982