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command nuclear_blast

“Command and Control” Commentary Continued: Helen’s Own Highly Explosive Nuclear Crisis

Commentary Part 2: Command and Control film by Kenner and Schlosser

A Nuclear Bomb Explodes in My Childhood

by HelenHighly

A Man on the Moon: The Space Age
A Man on the Moon: The Space Age

I was “a space-age baby.” That’s what my mother wrote in my baby album. I grew up being told the story of when we were in the hospital after she gave birth to me: There was this amazing few minutes when all the infants were left alone, even if they were crying, and all the nurses and mothers (along with millions of other Americans) turned to the TV to watch The First American be Launched into Space. It was a spectacular, patriotic event, and my father helped to make it possible.

First American in Space
First American in Space
My Life Is Good. My Life Is Fine.
My Life Is Good. My Life Is Fine.

This was May 5rd 1961 – 4 days after I was born – birthed under the very same sky in which Alan Shepard made glorious history. I was born into the glamorous realm of NASA’s Cape Canaveral, where my father worked, and where America’s bright future was being engineered. Later that same month in 1961, President Kennedy would announce the ambitious goal of sending an American to the moon. This was the Space Age; America was conquering the cosmos. What a great time to be born.

My Dad Was a Rocket Scientist
My Dad Was a Rocket Scientist

I grew up saying “My father was a rocket scientist.” Ha! He never talked about the details, and I was only a baby at the time anyway. But as I grew older, I always knew that those days at NASA were my father’s glory days. Being part of that program meant so much to him. He was not a religious man, but … somehow NASA was that miraculous concept that was larger than us all – some mix of Wondrous Possibility and Great Human Achievement and American Patriotism and… The Right Stuff.  He was a believer.

FYI, The Right Stuff is a 1983 American, dramatic film about the seven pilots who were selected to be the astronauts for Project Mercury, the first manned spaceflight by the United States. The film goes behind the prepackaged image of unblemished saints we knew through the media to find imperfect human beings who were actually even more heroic when seen in full light. In 2013 the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

The Right Stuff movie poster
The Right Stuff movie poster

1983, the year The Right Stuff was released, was the year I graduated from college. I recall phoning Dad to talk about the film. My father was notoriously difficult to please and stubbornly, perhaps excessively, patriotic. (He disliked the TV show M∗A∗S∗H for being disrespectful to the U.S. military and making light of America’s mission.) So I thought to myself, after seeing The Right Stuff, that my father would finally be happy that a Hollywood movie presented the American space program as so courageous and heroic. What did Dad think of the movie? Well, he was offended by the depiction of the astronauts as anything other than absolute, through-and-through American patriots.

How about Apollo 13,  the 1995 film by Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks (two indisputably all-American figures)? In this movie, which depicts a true event from 1970, the spacecraft malfunctions, putting the lives of the three astronauts on board in jeopardy, and NASA devises a brilliant-under-pressure strategy to return Apollo 13 and its astronauts safely to Earth. My father’s take: “There was that one character at Command Center who was a naysayer and had a bad attitude; that is inaccurate. That man did not exist and no one like that would ever have worked for NASA. Every single person who worked there, down to the janitors, were nothing but proud to be there. And no one had a cynical attitude; these were the best and the brightest. It is un-American to suggest otherwise.”

Apollo 13 movie poster
Apollo 13 movie poster

Well, those were fictionalized accounts of history, and my father was not only a purist but a scientist at heart. He did not appreciate the artistic necessity of creating dramatic conflict, which (he was correct) likely did not accurately depict the precise details of what happened. So, although he seemed somewhat dogmatic, I acknowledge (and am proud) that he himself was truly an unwaveringly honorable man. He did not entertain doubts about his principles; he lived a life of relentless integrity and commitment. So, was it too much for him to expect others to do so? My father was a man who did indeed deserve true respect, and it was understandable that he would perceive others as matching his own image.

Command and Control is a documentary that has been meticulously researched by a proven truth-teller. Coincidentally (it seemed), I learned from the movie that there was another major aeronautic event that occurred the same year of my birth. Almost no one knew about it (no one outside of the government), because the information was kept classified until 2013. At that period in 1961 – The Cold War in full swing, the United States had B-52 bombers in the air 24 hours a day, ready to emojiWhoaattack the Soviet Union. On January 24, 1961, a B-52 bomber that was carrying two nuclear bombs developed a fuel leak and broke apart mid-air over Goldsboro, North Carolina, dropping its bombs in the process. The size of each bomb was more than 250 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb.

B-52 Bomber
B-52 Bomber

Five of the six arming mechanisms on one of the bombs activated. In other words, every safety mechanism on the bomb failed, except one simple “arm/safe” switch (a flip-switch, like a light switch). If that switch had been on the equivalent of “on” when the bomb hit the ground, a thermonuclear explosion would have destroyed much of North Carolina and spread lethal radioactive fallout that would have killed most of the citizens of Washington, Philadelphia and New York. Btw, that type of safety switch was later found to be defective in other weapons. In fact, the same switch was found to be in the “arm” position on the second bomb that fell that day, although some other lucky accident prevented that bomb from detonating.

B-52 Drops its Bombs
B-52 Drops its Bombs

Thus, the nearest America had come to a nuclear catastrophe was not the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, as my parents had told me it was, vividly recounting the experience of our family living so close to the enemy at such a dangerous time. The far closer nuclear catastrophe was an undisclosed incident the year before, when America’s own bomb almost detonated over our own country. Plus, three airmen did die during this incident. Schlosser has been credited with unearthing this “lost” bit of history, which is now being made into its own movie. Kenner includes the incident in his film to further illustrate one of his core messages, which is that we are so much better at creating complex technological systems than we are at controlling them.

Only Rocket Science... Not War
Only Rocket Science… Not War

I wonder what my father would have said about that story and its implications, if he had known about it. It didn’t occur to me that my father might have known about the B-52 bomber incident when it happened. Why would he? How would he? That was the military – not NASA.

Okay, technically, my father was not actually employed by NASA. He worked for Martin Marietta (now defunct, having merged with Lockheed Corp). They were an aerospace contractor company that worked for NASA and were responsible for building the Titan missile. I mention this because both of those names –  Martin Marietta and Titan – had been buried 50-years-deep in my memory and only popped up recently when I heard them mentioned in this movie.

Titan II Blasts Off
Titan II Rocket Blasts Off From its Underground Silo

It was the name Martin Marietta that struck me first. Where had I heard that before? “Oh! That was the company my father worked for at Cape Canaveral. That makes sense because, ya know, those aerospace contractors get around.” And then, as I was recalling that detail, I also remembered … “Isn’t Titan the name of the rocket Dad worked on? Well, that’s obviously a coincidence (or maybe I just remember it wrong), because Dad’s Titan was early 60’s in Florida and this film takes place in 1980 in Arkansas.”

(pause) “But wait. I do remember the name Titan. So…why would the emojiDuhAir Force be ‘stealing’ a name from NASA? They are completely separate parts of the U.S. Government; one is military and the other civilian. I mean, this is not like some pop star naming her new song the same as some old song. This is the United States government. You’d think they’d keep careful track of stuff like that.”

Sidebar: On the subject of re-using old names, what is up with this … trend? … where a new movie uses the name of an old movie, and it’s not a remake? There were at least three films in the TFF this year that come immediately to mind. I’m looking at you Detour, Magnus, and Untouchable. Well, that stuff seems to be no biggie in the entertainment world, but … NASA?

Helen Highly Hurting
Helen Highly Hurting

So I went home and did a little Googling. And in the process…
a series of nuclear bombs exploded in my childhood. 

Thus, now I am telling:

Helen’s Highly Upsetting Spin-Off Documentary: Contradict and Conspire

I Thought I Knew But I Didn't
I Thought I Knew But I Didn’t

This much history I knew:  As written by Wikipedia, “President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation, encouraging peaceful applications in space science.”

But when I started looking, it was not at all difficult to find evidence that contradicted that widely-believed statement and also seemed to implicate my father in misrepresenting his role. I now realize that he, in fact, did not work for NASA; he worked at NASA for the U.S. Air Force.

1st Bomb: NASA was never truly a civilian organization, nor was its purpose peaceful.emojiWhatThe

2nd Bomb: The space race and the arms race were essentially the same thing, and they both were largely a response to Sputnik.

3rd Bomb: The Titan missile, which my father helped develop while working at Cape Canaveral, was first and foremost created as a delivery system for nuclear warheads (not as a booster for manned space capsules), and it played a key role in the U.S./Soviet arms race well into the 80’s.emojiNoooo

4th Bomb: It is Highly likely that Helen was less of a space-age baby and more of a weapons-of-mass-destruction baby.

The first bomb that hit me came from NASA’s own website, in detailing the background of the agency:

“The two sources of the U.S. space program were the military services and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Charted by Congress in 1915, NACA was authorized to ‘supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight.’

The final meeting of NACA, before being absorbed into NASA.
The final meeting of NACA, before being absorbed into NASA.

“After World War II, NACA began moving into new fields. The Committee authorized work in such new fields as rocket propulsion, nuclear propulsion, hypersonic flight, and exploration of the upper atmosphere. While NACA was conducting research programs in the upper atmosphere, the [military] services were exploring the military uses of space. …The Cold War atmosphere revived interest in ballistic weapons. Specifically, by 1953… scientists and the Air Force… had concluded independently that an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was technically feasible. In early 1954… [it was] recommended that the United States undertake an ICBM program on a highest-priority basis. By the end of 1955, all three [military] services had ballistic missile programs: The Air Force was developing Atlas and Titan ICBMs.”

Titan I ICBM
Titan I ICBM

Kaboom. It was the date that hit me.

Helen Highly Shocked

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s website spelled it out: “In October 1955, the Air Force contracted with the Glenn L. Martin Company [later Martin Marietta] to produce a new ICBM called the Titan. It was the first in a series of Titan rockets and was an important step in building the Air Force’s nuclear deterrent strategy.” So, the Titan missile was being developed by the Air Force (not NASA), before NASA even existed.

From Rockets’ Red Glare to Mushroom-Cloud

It is interesting to note why and how rockets, in particular, became military instruments. This is something else I recently learned while sitting at my computer.

Star Spangled Bombs
Star Spangled Bombs

Another result of a Google search was an article on the Smithsonian’s Air & Space website titled, “The Rockets That Inspired Francis Scott Key.” This is a bit of a tangential sidebar, but it is worth noting that the word “rocket” has been associated with U.S. warfare for as long as we have been a country, and it is included in our national anthem. The article is short and worth reading, but for our purposes, it clarifies that the rockets to which Francis Scott Key referred were little more than fireworks, not at all like modern missiles.

The Flag Was Still There
The Flag Was Still There

“Propelled by gunpowder, rockets had a range of barely a few hundred feet and were wildly unpredictable in flight… The kind fired against Fort McHenry on September 13 and 14, 1814… carried an incendiary mixture” intended to start a fire inside the fort. So, no one was going to destroy an entire civilization with those. Those sparkling “rockets” make me think of the romantic “sky rockets in flight” from the 70’s pop song “Afternoon Delight.”

The H-Bomb
The H-Bomb

It was during World War II that America advanced to building a fantastically lethal bomb – the atomic bomb. But, due to the weight of an A-bomb, there was little prospect of them being carried by rockets. However, a DOI website explains, “in 1949, when the Soviet Union developed its atomic bomb, America responded with an even more powerful weapon — a thermonuclear device that used a small atomic trigger to initiate a fusion reaction in hydrogen isotopes. Successfully tested in 1952, the H-bomb seemed to guarantee America’s nuclear superiority.” The H-bomb was not only more powerful than the atomic bomb, but also much lighter.

Then, in August 1953, the Soviets exploded their own H-bomb. And, it was revealed that the Soviets were making considerable headway with a missile development program that was based on German expertise obtained after WWII; years ahead of U.S. expectations, the Soviets were creating the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. ICBMs are missiles with a minimum range of more than 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles). With an ICBM, the Soviets would not need to fly a plane (such as a B-52 bomber) over U.S. territory in order to drop a bomb on our country. U.S. military experts became extremely worried that the Soviets could soon deliver the H-bomb via an ICBM.

The Race Was On!
The Race Was On!

For the first time, the Soviets seemed poised to surpass the United States in military might, and the race was on. To match the newly revealed Soviet missile programs, President Eisenhower made the U.S. ICBM programs a top priority, and to gain intelligence on the Soviet R&D effort, he did the same with the U.S. spy satellite program. Because it now planned to use reconnaissance satellites in the near future, the U.S. had to modify its policy on the peaceful use of space. What started out as “nonmilitary” became “nonaggressive.”

On January 7, 1954, President Eisenhower delivered his first State of the Union address to the Nation. After declaring that “American freedom is threatened so long as the Communist conspiracy exists in its present scope, power and hostility,” the President outlined his plans for defending the Nation against that threat. “We will not be aggressors,” he said, “but we . . . have and will maintain a massive capability to strike back.” In June of that year, Vice Chief of Staff General Thomas D. White ordered the Air Research and Development Command “to proceed with the development of an ICBM at the highest speed possible, limited only by the advancement of technology in the various fields concerned.”

From Rockets’ Red Scare to Sputnik

The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) eloquently details what happened next: “On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched into orbit the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik.


Ham radio operators in the eastern United States turned their dials to lower frequency bands and anxiously listened as the 184-pound Sputnik emitted a mechanical ‘. . . beep . . . beep . . . beep . . .’ while passing overhead. Other radio operators quickly recorded the broadcast and, within hours, Americans in their living rooms heard Sputnik’s transmission via radio and television news flashes. The message seemed to confirm America’s worst fears: The Soviets had technologically surpassed the United States and gained supremacy of outer space. In the United States, one headline proclaimed: ‘U.S. Must Catch Up with Reds or We’re Dead.’

Arms Race = Space Race
Arms Race = Space Race

“In truth, the significance of the successful launching was not so much Sputnik, but the huge Soviet rocket that hurled the satellite into space. With Sputnik… the Soviets demonstrated the ability of their SS-6 launcher to propel a missile toward a target thousands of miles away. Four years earlier, the Soviets exploded the H-bomb. Now, the frightening prospect of a Soviet missile delivering a nuclear bomb to an American city in less than an hour revived what some called a ‘Pearl Harbor atmosphere’ throughout the United States.”

Intense Fear
Intense Fear

My father had repeatedly told me stories about Sputnik. I grew up hearing about the dark shadow it cast over America – the demoralization and trepidation it caused, and the dangerous shift in world power that it represented. Suddenly, it began to make sense to me that for the rest of his life, my father was a militant Commie-Hater (which was unusual for an east-coast Jew). He was endlessly passionate about the threat of the Soviet Union. He was even a semi-supporter of McCarthyism.emojiTrustNoOne

(He said he thought McCarthy was misunderstood, and his fears were accurate even if his techniques went too far. Communist propaganda was infiltrating America through movies and TV, my father believed, which is why he taught us, his children, to think analytically and independently – to understand the principles of logic in order to discern the truth.)

The Russians Beat Us Into Space
The Russians Beat Us Into Space

But my father never explained that he had a personal connection that fueled his passion – that he had lived and worked in the heart of the fight against a very-tangible Red Threat. He never mentioned that NASA was the center of that fight. Aaah… tectonic plates began shifting underneath me.

The website continues: “Within six months after Sputnik, the Nation’s space research and development budget mushroomed from an average half billion dollars a year to more than $10.5 billion.” That’s twenty times more money, flying at supersonic speed into the arms race.

Better Dead Than Red
Better Dead Than Red

Next up in this explosive timeline: The U.S. government needed to scramble to offset the Sputnik humiliation and associated media frenzy. The Vanguard rocket was intended to be the first launch vehicle the United States would use to place a satellite into orbit. But it was still a highly experimental system. It wasn’t ready. Nonetheless, the government decided to push the Vanguard into speedy completion and launch. On December 6, 1957, with the whole world watching, the Vanguard exploded on its launch pad.

Curiously, this historical detail my father never mentioned to me. I may have once heard about it in a movie, but the name “Vanguard” didn’t mean anything to me. But now I know: This disaster became a symbol of failure for the U.S. space program.

The Russians Beat Us Into Space
Symbol of Failure for the U.S. Space Program

Remember, at this point, the U.S. space program was a combined but generally uncoordinated effort between the multiple military services and NACA. And the government contractor in the center of it all –the company that had built Vanguard and was building the Titan, was The Martin Company, which later became Martin Marietta, and would employ my father, and would build the Titan II, which was that missile that exploded in Arkansas in 1980. In learning these details, I couldn’t help but notice the remarkable continuity between the pre-NASA and NASA eras.

Back to 1957: The Sputnik launch and the Vanguard fiasco were tremendous blows to U.S. prestige, and the events generated significant fear and outrage among the American public and its political leaders. President Eisenhower, bowing to Congressional and public pressure, recognized the need for a centralized space program and policy.

Thus Came NASAemojiWord

These are the events that birthed NASA. NASA was created in direct response to the rocket that put the 184-pound Sputnik into orbit, giving it profound military potential. NASA was the result of the failed U.S. military infrastructure that seemed incapable of keeping up the space race, which I now understand was the same thing as the arms race.

command space race

The Air University, which is “the Intellectual and Leadership Center of the Air Force,” writes on its website: “To avoid the difficulties experienced with Vanguard, which many blamed on faulty management and lack of unified direction, the government created a new agency to solidify national space policy” – NASA.

Even Wikipedia cannot fail to mention the relationship between Sputnik and NASA: “The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 is the United States federal statute that created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The Act, which followed close on the heels of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, was drafted by the United States House Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration and on July 29, 1958 was signed by President Eisenhower. Prior to enactment, the responsibility for space exploration was deemed primarily a military venture, in line with the Soviet model that had launched the first orbital satellite.”

NASA and the DOD: Governmental Incest

The original 1958 act charged NASA with conducting the aeronautical and space activities of the United States “so as to contribute materially to one or more of the following objectives:” Most of the listed objectives emojiSoBoringsay what we all have believed is true about NASA – “expansion of human knowledge,” “peaceful and scientific purposes,” yada yada. But then, if you keep reading, you find “The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defenses of discoveries that have military value or significance,” and “The most effective utilization of the scientific and engineering resources of the United States, with close cooperation among all interested agencies of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities, and equipment.”

So… that says, essentially… NASA does the research and shares it with the military. And there should be no duplication of efforts, which means that whatever militarization of space that “national defenses” want, they simply must ask NASA to do it, so as not to be redundant. Thus, calling NASA a civilian organization is a very limited description of its original charter, which only loosely and ambiguously separated it from the military. And even that slippery, original charter lasted about ten minutes before it was challenged by the Air Force and revised by Congress.

Air University Air Command confirms, “Within its original charter, there was only a vaguely defined relationship with the military. Congress, on the other hand, envisioned a strong military role in space and wished to modify NASA’s relationship with the military. To this end, Congress created the Civilian-Military Liaison Committee, to coordinate NASA and Department of Defense (DOD) activities and keep NASA and the DOD ‘fully and currently informed’ of each other’s space activities.”

NASA’s website explains further: “Neither the Administration bill nor the Space Act settled the matter of one national space program or two. Once it became clear that the agency would be civilian controlled, Department of Defense officials dropped overt opposition to NASA, instead concentrating on making it respond to their needs. The Air Force found NASA something it could live with; top officials saw the agency as merely NACA enlarged and somewhat strengthened but still responsive to Air Force interests and a convenient location for noncompetitive military projects. …At the same time, the Administration bill contained emojiWTFalmost nothing about coordinating military and civilian programs and provided no solution for the jurisdictional conflicts that were bound to arise” and essentially “negated the distinction between civilian and military programs.

Elsewhere, NASA’s website details: “The military space program moved through overlapping phases from 1959 to 1961. First, the most promising ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) projects were turned over to the [military] services; the Air Force was made responsible for ballistic missile development in 1959, for military space development generally in 1961, and for military support of NASA in 1962.” command kennedy

So, yes, despite President Kennedy’s publicly promoting a vigorous, non-military aerospace program and placing the weight and prestige of his office squarely behind the national goal of a manned lunar landing, he also in that same year “assigned to the Air Force responsibility for research, development, test, and engineering of DOD space development programs.” And those programs were taking place at Cape Canaveral, using the same launch pads and test sites, and to the general public, they had the same look and feel as Peaceful NASA.

In fact, it turns out that the location itself reveals the incestuous relationship between NASA and the Air Force. Cape Canaveral (known as Cape Kennedy from 1963 to 1973 – in honor of President Kennedy’s promise of peaceful space exploration) was not even the true home to NASA that it seemed to be. In his book Florida Warplanes, Harold Skaarup writes, “Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) is an installation of the United States Air Force Space Command’s 45th Space Wing, headquartered at nearby Patrick Airforce Base. Located on Cape Canaveral in the State of Florida, CCAFS is the primary launch head of America’s Eastern Range… The Cape Canaveral AFS Skid Strip provides a 10,000 foot runway close to the launch complexes for military airlift aircraft delivering heavy and outsized payloads to the Cape.

Missile Row at Cape Canaveral
Missile Row at Cape Canaveral

“Several major American space exploration ‘firsts’ were launched from CCFAS, including the first U.S. earth satellite (1958), first U.S. astronaut

Launch from Cape Canaveral
Launch from Cape Canaveral

(1961), first U.S. astronaut in orbit (1962), first two-man U.S. spacecraft (1964), the first unmanned lunar landing (1966)…” etc etc. “Air Force crews launched missiles for NASA from CCAFS. …Titan missiles were launched from the site… and launch pads along the coast became to be known as Missile Row in the 1960s.” So… the home of NASA was within an Air Force Base and was largely operated by the Air Force. And just as human incest carries the danger of birthing unhealthy children, this relationship birthed a highly dangerous and enormously unhealthy offspring.

On another page of NASA’s vast website, it reports: “What were the elements comprising the NASA-DOD relationship? In at least four ways their interests impinged on each other: common technologies; NASA’s continuation of NACA’s support of military aeronautics; NASA’s overwhelming dependence in its early years on the launch vehicles and ground support provided by the Air Force; and the persistent attempts by the Air Force to investigate the military applications of space. …As to common technology, there is no discontinuity between civilian and military R&D. …A launch vehicle is only a modified ballistic missile, and it cannot be overstated that NASA relied on vehicles successfully developed by the Air Force between 1954 and 1959, notably the Atlas, Thor, and Titan ballistic missiles in their original or modified versions. …Indeed, few areas of NASA’s R&D were without military application. …The transformation of NACA into NASA did not affect its role in supporting research for the military, except to blur the distinction between support and coordination.

I could go on and on. The evidence that is available is extensive, widely emojiMikeDropreported, and amazingly consistent. But perhaps the most shocking and succinct statement that defines the relationship between the military and NASA was again on NASA’s own history website: “It is as well, then, to set aside preconceptions. ‘Civilian’ and ‘military’ are not the same as ‘peaceful’ and ‘non-peaceful.’” Kaboom!

The Titan Family: My Titan Family

The Titan Missile Family

Okay, so NASA and the Air Force were incestuous siblings pretending not to be married. But what about my father? Before seeing the Titan II depicted in Command and Control, it never occurred to me to check the dates of when my father worked at Cape Canaveral and what exactly was happening there at that time. But, as Wikipedia documented, “the Titan rocket family was established in 1955, when the Air Force (not NASA) awarded the Glenn L. Martin Company a contract to build an intercontinental ballistic missile, “the Nation’s first two-stage ICBM and the first underground silo-based ICBM.”

Just for fun, watch this video of a Titan I LAUNCH FAILURE. It’s spectacular. (In this case, no one was killed.)

It seems my family was its own sort of “Titan rocket family,” and maybe I was a Titan-rocket baby. Wikipedia further explained, “The Martin Company realized that the Titan I could be further improved and presented a proposal to the U.S. Air Force (not NASA) for the Titan II, which would carry a larger warhead over a greater distance with more accuracy and could be fired more quickly. The Martin Company received a contract for the new missile in June 1960” – at the exact time my family was living in Florida and my Dad was working at Cape Canaveral.

It’s interesting that Wikipedia includes details that would have meant nothing to me unless I had seen the movie Command and Control, which

Titan II RFHCO (Rocket Fuel Handler's Clothing Outfit)
Titan II RFHCO (Rocket Fuel Handler’s Clothing Outfit)

makes painfully clear the repercussions of the “improved” features. “The Titan I, whose liquid oxygen oxidizer must be loaded immediately before launching, had to be raised from its silo and fueled before each launch. The use of storable propellants enabled the Titan II to be launched within 60 seconds, directly from its silo. Their hypergolic nature made them dangerous to handle; a leak could (and did) lead to explosions, and the fuel was highly toxic. However, it allowed for a much simpler and more trouble-free engine system than on cryogenically-fueled boosters.” Yes, that “(and did)” is part of the Wikipedia article, not my own addition, and it does not refer to the accident featured in Command and Control. Another quick Google search just brought up this chilling account of a Titan II accident that occurred in 1965, where “55 civilian men returned from lunch to missile silo 373-4. By 1:10 p.m., 53 were dead.”

Another Titan II Disaster
Silo Without Wheat

That explosion was caused by a different type of “benign neglect” – a term the government uses to differentiate the problem from a design flaw, as if to suggest they are less accountable or the problem is less serious. But we learn in Command and Control the scope of the disaster that can be caused by a fuel leak of storable propellants in a missile that launches from inside an underground silo – the exact feature that made the Titan II “better” than the Titan I.

So, let’s recap: All these years I had believed that my father was a part of America’s noble mission of exploring the universe. This belief was crumbling. However, as part of this personal investigation, I checked with my brother, who reminded me that before working for (at) NASA, my father had worked as an engineer at a radio station. It’s possible he went to Florida to help design an audio system of some sort. But still. Even if so; it sure seems as if that audio system would have been connected to the larger project that was taking place at the time. He himself told us that he worked on the Titan. My father was (almost certainly) helping to build a missile for a nuclear bomb – a delivery system for weapons of mass destruction. This was earth-shaking news to me (no pun intended).

The Gemini: Capsule Manned with Helen’s Hope

The Gemini Manned Space Capsule
The Gemini Manned Space Capsule

But wait. There was something else; maybe there was still hope I was wrong. I remembered the name Gemini. My father also told us he worked on the Gemini, which was definitely a manned space mission. Right? Once again, my next blow came from NASA itself, on their website:

“Gemini was an early NASA human spaceflight program. Gemini helped NASA get ready for the Apollo moon landings. Ten crews flew missions on the two-man Gemini spacecraft. (Yes!) The Gemini missions were flown in 1965 and 1966. NASA designed the Gemini capsule for this program. The Gemini capsule flew on a Titan II rocket. (Oh no.) The two-stage Titan II was originally a missile. NASA made changes to the missile so it could carry people.” Ack! It was only later that the Titan missile was adapted for use in space exploration. Sheesh! My family was well gone from Florida by 1965.

Hold on. I found some more details about the research and development phase of the Gemini project, which would have taken place prior to the launch date; maybe that is what my father was doing at Cape Canaveral. “When… approved on 7 December 1961 (already after I was born, but… let’s see) much of the groundwork had already been laid…The Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) itself was not going to build spacecraft, booster, target, or paraglider. In line with the practice pioneered by the Air Force after World War II, NASA relied on private firms to develop and produce most of its hardware. The first priority, even before getting the project office fully in order, was putting the spacecraft under contract and making arrangements with the Air Force for booster and target vehicles.”

command spacecraft

Further defining the contracts: “The choice clearly fell to the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, which had not only developed and was building Mercury but had also been an active partner in drawing up the new design. The company’s president, James S. McDonnell, Jr., signed the contract on 22 December [1961].” Um… that is not the contractor that employed my father.

However: “Although NASA could deal directly with McDonnell for emojiInterestingspacecraft development, launch vehicles were another matter.” The report continues: “The program belonged to NASA but… the Air Force, acting as contractor, would see that NASA got its Titan II and launch vehicles.” Okay, that brings in the Titan II and the Air Force.

Reading on: “The ‘NASA-DOD Operational and Management Plan’ of 29 December 1961…  assigned launch vehicle development – Titan II – to the Los Angeles-based Space Systems Division (SSD) of the Air Force Systems Command.” Oops. That means the work was done in L.A., not Florida, where we lived.

Continuing: “The ‘Operational and Management Plan’ assigned two other major functions to the Department of Defense, with SSD acting as agent… One required SSD to oversee the modification of launch facilities at Cape Canaveral, Florida, to meet the needs of the new program.” Okay, this is where my father worked. “The other involved SSD in the support of program operations – launching, tracking, recovery –  along the same lines already worked out for the Mercury program… On 26 January 1962, the plan was endorsed as a working arrangement between NASA’s Office of Manned Space Flight and the Air Force Systems Command by the heads of the two agencies.”emojiICannot

Well, now we are into 1962, which means my father has already been at Cape Canaveral for several years. Doing what? Not working on the Gemini project, apparently, because it had not yet started.

“NASA Headquarters juggled its fiscal year 1962 research and development funds to come up with $27 million, which it allotted to MSC (Manned Spacecraft Center) for Titan II on 26 December 1961. As soon as notice came that funds were on hand, MSC wired SSD that work on the Titan II could start. SSD told the Martin Company’s Baltimore Division to go ahead on 27 December.”

Okay! Now we’re getting somewhere. Because my family moved toemojiYES Baltimore at some point during or after 1962. Suddenly, the timeline was coming together. Now at least that explains why (likely) we moved to Baltimore; my Dad did indeed work on modifying the Titan II for use in the Gemini program. So, his depiction that he worked for a NASA space-exploration program was almost certainly accurate.

BUT that does leave the entirety of his time in Florida unaccounted for. Dad! I want to pull you from the grave and shake you, and make you emojiWhatHappenedexplain! What could I be misunderstanding, or overlooking? I concede: No, I am not applying the thorough rigor and multiple years of research that Eric Schlosser used in his book. (I simply don’t have the time or resources. Although, already I have delayed delivery of this article by over a month, due to my continuous stumbling onto more and more evidence that seems to support my disturbing realization about what my father did while at Cape Canaveral, where I was born.) Sorry, Dad; I could be making a statement that is imperfect. But, based on my best understanding at this time, I am going ahead and saying:emojiICantEven

I am not as much a space-age baby as I am a weapons-of-mass-destruction baby.

Color me mind-blown.

Maybe I shouldn’t judge so harshly. Maybe I should view my father as a patriot. The Red Threat was real and he was part of the solution, even if a few (or many) people (Americans) died accidental deaths. All is Fair in War. Except the story doesn’t end there. The saga continues.

The Patriotism Syndrome

When I was in the 6th grade, my father helped me build a model of the solar system, complete with revolving and rotating parts, for my science command solar systemproject. It was a terrific father-daughter bonding experience. And it reinforced my belief that my Dad, who had worked for NASA, knew all about outer-space, which was so cool. I mention this because my relationship with my father was so closely connected to this image of himself that he persistently presented – an idealized, altruistic, cosmos-conscious man who believed in high-minded principles such as “knowledge for the sake of all mankind.” He was nothing like a war monger. He was thoughtful. He was measured.

In fact, the one item I have saved all these years as a memento of my father is his slide rule. (Totally true; I do not have a typical keepsake such as a watch or a gun – which he never owned btw, but I kept his slide rule.) command slideruleI remember how, after dinner, my brother and I would do our homework at the dining room table while my father worked on his engineering studies. I cherish that picture of him, in his white business shirt with pocket protector, black frame eyeglasses, sitting with us at the table, emojiHomesickcarefully calculating with his slide rule, which we were not allowed to touch because it was “a precision instrument – not a toy.” He was that kind of guy – respectful of slide rules, dedicated to the reliability of numbers, and a father who helped his daughter with her science projects.

That solar system project would have been 1973, well after Dad’s beloved Titan missile had been adapted for use in the space-exploration program. At that point, my family was living in Maryland, and I now understand that it was NASA and Martin Marietta’s part in the Gemini project that brought us there. However, those days were behind us; my father no longer had any association with NASA, and he was working an entirely unrelated job. (sad snigger) After he left NASA, where I now know he helped build nuclear missiles, my father took a new job working in….   wait for it….   the nuclear power industry. What a coincidence!

emojiDohYup, my Dad worked for Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant. He had explained to me that when he worked for NASA, he was the kind of engineer that specialized in meeting government regulations. He was a Quality Engineer who was experienced at maintaining compliance with government contracts. And so, he told me, this made him especially qualified to work in the nuclear energy industry, which also had a lot of government-regulated standards. This made sense.

OR, this also makes sense: He had just finished working on a nuclear missile, so it was an easy transition into nuclear power. Duh. Of course, I never made that connection, until now. And maybe I am wrong and making more assumptions. And it doesn’t really matter how or why he got into nuclear energy. What matters is what he told me versus the truth. And so this section of the story deals with misinformation, which brings us back to the movie, Command and Control, which also looks quite a bit at that subject.

The System Didn’t Work

5th Bomb: The system didn’t work; the “conspiracy theorists” were right; and my father must have known and didn’t tell.

china syndrome poster
The China Syndrome movie poster

In 1979 I was a senior in high school. A movie called The China Syndrome was released on March 16, 1979. In this fictional drama, Jane Fonda plays a TV reporter who finds what appears to be a cover-up of safety hazards at a nuclear power plant. The plot suggests that corporate greed and cost-cutting had led to potentially deadly faults in the plant’s construction. My father, as by now you might imagine, was not a fan of the film. In fact, he was so outraged by its “un-American” theme and spreading of what he considered to be dangerous lies, that we were forbidden to see the movie. And he went even further; we were forbidden to see any movie involving Jane Fonda, who my father deemed to be a traitor to her country. (Okay, yes, he was influenced by Jane Fonda’s anti-war shenanigans, but this film was beyond the pale.) No one who lived “under his roof” would in any way support that “enemy of the State.”

Twelve days after The China Syndrome hit movie theaters, the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown – the worst accident in the history of U.S. commercial nuclear power plants. The incident was rated a five on the seven-point International Nuclear Event Scale. No one was hurt, but the Three Mile Island incident helped propel The China Syndrome into a blockbuster.

Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Accident
Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Accident

My father could not have been more irate. He declared again and again: “No one was hurt! The system worked!” He insisted that “the system” was designed to protect Americans from every possible type of accident or attack. Some type of problem occurred at Three Mile Island but the fact that no one was hurt PROVED that the system worked. There had been no real danger. And anyone who suggested otherwise was not only wrong but traitorous.

emojiAreYouForRealSee, this is the voice I keep hearing over and over in my head – my father so vehemently insisting that nuclear power was absolutely, unequivocally safe, that NASA was absolutely, unequivocally heroic, and that he knew the truth, because he worked on the inside.

And yet, in a 2009 article, Victor Gilinsky, who served two terms on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, wrote that after Three Mile Island, it took five weeks to learn that “the reactor operators had measured fuel temperatures near the melting point.” He further wrote: “We didn’t learn for years – until the reactor vessel was physically opened – that by the time the plant operator called the NRC at about 8:00 a.m., roughly half of the uranium fuel had already melted.”

Several state and federal government agencies mounted investigations into the crisis, the most prominent of which was the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island, created by Jimmy Carter in April 1979. The commission consisted of a panel of twelve people, specifically chosen for their lack of strong pro- or anti-nuclear views. The commission released a completed study on October 31, 1979. The investigation strongly criticized the NRC (among other organizations and corporations) for “lapses in quality assurance and maintenance, emojiYIKESinadequate operator training, lack of communication of important safety information, poor management, and complacency.” The heaviest criticism concluded that “fundamental changes were necessary in the organization, procedures, practices and above all – in the attitudes of the NRC and the nuclear industry.” The report stated that the actions taken by the operators were “inappropriate” but that the workers “were operating under procedures that they were required to follow, and our review and study of those indicates that the procedures were inadequate” and that the control roomwas greatly inadequate for managing an accident.”


I just don’t understand why Dad would have continued to insist to his own family – to his children whom he had diligently taught to respect the Truth, that nuclear power was … well, none of the things written in that report.

In 1983, the year I become a college graduate, another relevant movie was released.

Silkwood movie
Silkwood movie

Silkwood was inspired by the true-life story of nuclear-whistleblower Karen Silkwood, who died in a suspicious car accident while investigating alleged wrongdoing at the Kerr-McGee plutonium processing plant where she worked. And it was not flagrantly un-American Jane Fonda who played the lead role, but America’s finest and perhaps most credible actress, Meryl Streep, who won an Academy Award nomination for her role (as did the film’s director, Mike Nichols). Factual accuracy was maintained emojiOhNothroughout the script, with some incidents exactly parallel to the real life experiences of Karen Silkwood. One scene in particular involved the activation of a radiation alarm at the plant. Silkwood herself had forty times the legal limit of radiation in her system.

In real life, Silkwood’s death was vindicated in a victorious 1979 lawsuit, Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee. The jury rendered its verdict of $10 million in damages to be paid to the Silkwood estate (her children), the largest amount in damages ever awarded for that kind of case at the time.

My father never wavered. Nuclear power was safe. All other accounts were false. I can only assume that he believed his loyalty was the honorable thing to do.

And so this brings me back to Command and Control, which states, “The command nuclear explosionstory received a good deal of attention at the time. It was covered by the nightly news, made headlines in our major newspapers. But the Pentagon was adamant that there was absolutely no way the warhead on the Titan II missile could have detonated. The press didn’t challenge that assertion. The story was soon forgotten. And we now know that the Pentagon’s reassuring words were a lie.

Did my father not know about the monumental incident involving his Titan missile? I can’t believe he didn’t know the truth. And his not telling would have been consistent with the same type of repudiation and secrecy that were his response to the nuclear power accidents about which he surely knew.

Image from the documentary film Keep Quiet

Perhaps my father himself was a victim of “the system” he so heartedly defended. As with the young men who were at the center of the incident depicted in Command and Control, and also with the young men depicted in another war-related documentary at Tribeca, National Bird, and I will even add in another stunning Tribeca documentary, Keep Quiet (which tells the true story of young political firebrand and virulent anti-Semite who became vice president of Hungary’s far-right extremist party when he was only in his mid-twenties, and then discovered that he was actually Jewish), it seems that all countries and political establishments use the romantic ideals of patriotism, the charismatic persona of heroism, and perhaps most importantly, the spiritual sense of unity and belonging to something greater than oneself, to indoctrinate young citizens into service and loyalty that includes a dangerous component of silence and denial.

emojiDealWithItSo: it’s time for me and everyone else to shake off this denial and face the harsh reality. For starters, seek out and see Command and Control.

And then, I have one more bomb to share – yet another Google find. This bomb is not from my childhood. This bomb is in the future, and it’s heading straight toward us all. Click here to read the final part of this commentary: Arms Race in Space

Click hear to read my review of the movie Command and Control.

"Untouchable" Documentary Film

“Untouchable” Documentary Interview w/ Director David Feige and Editor Jay Sterrenberg

Helen, Highly Alarmed by the Shocking Revelations in “Untouchable,” Interviews the Documentary Director and Editor.

Ricocheting from the halls of power to the cardboard homes of a marginalized pariah people, “Untouchable” is an enlightening documentary that defies expectations and challenges assumptions to argue for a new understanding of how we think about and legislate sexual abuse.

Shawna Baldwin, sex offender, watches her children board a school bus.
Shawna Baldwin, sex offender, watches her children board a school bus.

Interview by Helen Kaplow, writing as HelenHighly

“Untouchable” Film Synopsis: When the most influential lobbyist in Florida discovers that the nanny has sexually abused his daughter, he harnesses his extraordinary political power to pass the toughest sex offender laws in the nation. “Untouchable” chronicles his crusade, and its impact on the lives of several of the 800,000 people forced to live under the kinds of laws he has championed. 

Attorney-turned-filmmaker David Feige delves fearlessly into a confounding and taboo issue, weaving together stories of sexual abuse victims with those of sex offenders as well as the advocates and academics who argue the many sides of the situation. The result is a strange sort of documentary-thriller that reveals a surprisingly twisted, interconnected public health crisis where the victims and perpetrators are inextricably linked by a legal system gone awry.

HH: A film about sex offenders. Not exactly an appealing outing to the movies. Why did you choose this unlikable topic, how did you get funding, and do you really expect people to go and see it?

Feige: Why this issue? Because I didn’t think anybody else was going to pick it up. I worked 15 years as a public defender, and even as the Trial Chief of the office, I tended to take on the most difficult cases. That’s what I do. Look, there are lots of people who are willing to take on certain issues – innocence, the death penalty, the drug war. All of these things already have a built in constituency and already have a lot of people who are willing to write and talk and make movies about them. In a way, they are the low-hanging fruit of the criminal justice reform discussion. This is not.

David Feige, Director of "Untouchable"
David Feige, Director of “Untouchable”

This is about as difficult a subject as you can find. It is complicated terrain and few people are willing to venture out into it. For that reason, the film was nearly impossible to fund. Basically, no one would fund it. But I made the film for exactly the reason that nobody would fund it – because I was interested in the most complex and most difficult questions. I was interested in the hardest questions in the criminal justice system, not the easy ones. The film is still in debt but… at least it got made.

Will people see it? Well, when people do see the film they react positively and strongly and they recognize the value of what we’ve done here. It’s an extremely thought-provoking film that makes you see the entire subject in a new way, and I believe that despite the subject matter, it’s really engaging and emotionally satisfying, which makes it absolutely worth seeing.

HH: And what is the status of the movie now? You won the Best New Documentary Director award at Tribeca. Has the film been picked up for distribution or broadcast yet?

Feige: Nope. We are still looking. We are talking to distributors, and we are also interested in finding a broadcast partner. It’s my hope that the film will have a wide release and a vibrant life and reach a huge and diverse audience. That’s my hope.

HH: Jay, talk to me about the structure of the film. When watching it, it was almost like a thriller in that you saved the most powerful punches for the end. I mean, I was so profoundly shocked by all the “twists” that come late in the film that I almost wanted to go watch it again because I felt I had been watching it wrong, or with the wrong assumptions. Why did you opt to keep the audience in the dark for so long?

Sterrenberg: It’s interesting that you saw it that way. That was not specifically our strategy. But it’s a very complicated issue, and people tend to come into it with preconceived notions and very strong feelings. So, we thought it was best to meet people where they are. We wanted to leave room for the audience to have a lot of different opinions and perspectives and then bring them along slowly, through the complexity, point by point.

We bring you in through Ron and Laura’s personal story. They have had this nightmare experience where she is repeatedly sexually abused by her nanny, and as her father, he has a desire to punish the offender as harshly as possible and forever. And it’s a sensible and legitimate desire. And any audience can totally relate to that — the horror and outrage. So, we wanted to start there. And then we slowly take the audience on this journey down the rabbit hole of part of the criminal justice system that no one wants to engage with.

Jon Cryer, Admitted Pedophile
Jon Cryer, Admitted Pedophile

Feige: You gotta remember, we’re making a movie, which has to have a narrative and an emotional flow to it and so you can’t just… I could make a movie like Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and just do a PowerPoint with a bunch of numbers, but that’s not going to be effective with this subject. So, we do present a lot of data, but this film is fundamentally character driven. It’s about delving into the life experience of people. It’s not a science lesson. It’s not a polemic. It’s a very complex and emotional look into the lives of people on several sides of this issue, who have all suffered tremendously.

Sterrenberg: It needed to be a carefully paced process, introducing these people who are considered monsters by society and looking at them as if they are human. It’s not that we are showing these sex offenders as sympathetic as much as human. That’s why we have three characters (real people) who are parents of children who have been abused as well as three characters (also real people) who are sex offenders. And it’s a dramatic evolution, the way these characters themselves transform in their own stories and their own attitudes. And different people watching will have different reactions, but we do take them through a range of perspectives.

HH: You talk about transformations, and one of the most jolting is Patty Wettlerling, who is the mother of a boy who was kidnapped at gunpoint by a masked man, never to be seen again.

Sterrenberg: Right. That case resulted in the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children Act — the first national sex offender registry.

HH: But after we go through her heartbreaking story and see how she had dedicated her life to advocating for the memory of her son, we finally learn that she has changed sides in the legal battle; she no longer supports the law that was named for her own son. That felt like a bomb exploding in my brain.

SterrenbergYes, she says that she feels that the law named for her son has been “hijacked” and that now it has become counter-productive. The Wetterling Act was about police notification. It was later that Megan’s Law and other public notification laws were enacted, and those have become extremely controversial.

Against Myth-Based Sex Offender Laws
OnceFallen Rally Against Myth-Based Sex Offender Laws

Feige: I want to be clear that I’m not advocating any particular position on this. It’s important to me that when I’m talking about this I’m talking about either what the science shows or what the experts in the film argue rather than my own point of view. I want to raise the questions, flag the social science, and then I want people to agree or disagree as they see fit. That said, the social science is quite clear.

HH: Yes, but the misunderstanding has been enormous. So, the data the film presents is truly amazing. Astounding, actually.

Feige: Right. And so many people want to discount these numbers by saying they were done by some, you know, some pro-sex-offender social scientist or something, but what’s so amazing about these numbers is that they are almost all done by departments of corrections, and probation departments and such.

HH: And the irony is that the opposite of that suspicion is true. The facts as we all think we know them – have repeatedly been told are facts – are actually completely erroneous and unsubstantiated. The movie explains that the phrase “frightening and high recidivism rate” for sex offenders came from an old “Psychology Today” article in 1986, which was simply invalid and dead wrong.

Feige: Exactly. 80% was the number that was in the “Psychology Today” article. And that recidivism rate, and that exact phrase, is still used today to justify, over and over and over, these very, very stringent laws – hundreds of laws across the country, which have enormous impact on people’s lives. And that article had no backup data at all and was not even written by a social scientist. The guy was a “rehabilitation counselor.” But he doesn’t have a PhD, and he’s not a social scientist. And there was no study.

That is why, in every place in the film that we quote a statistic, I felt it was extremely important to make clear where we were getting it, so we actually show the cover page for each report that we quote in the film.

HH: And the actual recidivism rate, according to recent, legitimate studies is not even close to 80%. It’s not even double digits.

Feige: 3.5% is the most reliable number. We took the biggest study – that’s the 1994 DOJ study that followed literally everybody released in 15 states, and that had a number of close to 10,000, so that is really the best three-year recidivism number around, from the study with the biggest sample size. It’s the study done by the United States Department of Justice.

HH: And you’ve explained to me that this 3.5% recidivism rate is the lowest recidivism rate for any crime other than murder. Lower than any other violent crime.

Feige: Correct.

HH: And this is information that wasn’t even included in the movie. The movie is full of dramatic statistics, and still there is more.

Feige: There are a lot of other subjects – related subjects that we cut out of the film, which deserve their own treatment. We didn’t dig into all the data because … as I’ve said, it’s an extremely complicated story.

Sterrenberg: And it was most important to follow the characters and understand their diverse experiences. That’s what makes the numbers make sense.

HH: Okay, so the film does address the issue that we have a completely different category of restrictions and continued punishment for sex offenders after they have been released from prison than we do for any other type of criminal, even other violent offenders, all based on false beliefs.

Feige: Today, a large part of the misunderstanding comes from the way people count. If you count re-incarceration due to “technical violations,” you get a much larger number. Technical violations might be drinking alcohol, associating with another sex offender, not having compliant housing, staying at an unapproved address, or if you’re still getting polygraphs, there is one called “masturbating to an unapproved script,” where if they don’t like what you thought about when you masturbated, you are in violation – you go back to prison. In the movie, we show one man who was eight minutes late arriving home (he was wearing a GPS ankle bracelet), and he was sent back to prison for four years.

Homeless sex offenders squat in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Miami.
Homeless sex offenders squat in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Miami.

HH: I remember that. He was late because he was on a bus that was running late, and he was returning from his low-paying job that was two and half hours away, due to the legal restrictions that prevented him from living anywhere near civilized life. And he actually phoned his parole officer at the time, while on the bus, to explain that he would be a few minutes late. And still he was sent back to prison. For a ten minute delay. It seems unbelievable.

Feige: It was actually only eight minutes, to be exact. And that’s not an isolated incident. His story is fairly typical.

If you’re counting actual sex-crime convictions for previous sex-crime offenders… For every 100 sex-offender prison releases, 70 are sent back and only one of those is for a sex crime. That’s according to California Department of Corrections data.

HH: You turn on TV any night of the week and there is an episode of Law & Order or such, and they are always telling us this misinformation – that the recidivism rate for sex offenders is dangerously high; they will always re-offend. We hear that over and over, so we believe it. It’s mind-blowing to realize that these people are essentially being forced into a lifestyle that is unlivable, where it’s nearly impossible not to have some sort of technical violation.

SterrenbergThere are multiple areas of misunderstanding. Let’s say you’re a 17 year old teenager dating a 15 or 16 year old teenager. When you turn 18, and your girlfriend or boyfriend is now 16 or 17, suddenly you are a sex offender. And you are treated by the law the same as a violent rapist, and you will live under these same sex-offender restrictions for the rest of your life. These laws are forever. And they paint all offenders with a very broad brush.

In the film, we meet Shawn Baldwin, who is an example of this type of situation, and we see her many years later, now trying to raise her own children but unable to even accompany them to the playground because of her sex offender status.

HH: I think the general public has no idea that this type of confusion is going on. And what I learned in the film is that there is a significant shame factor that prevents people like Shawna from speaking up and arguing for her own justice.

Feige: And these miscalculations and misunderstandings have severe consequences, because they are used to validate these draconian laws. Residency restriction laws in particular – for example, sex offenders cannot live within 2500 feet of a school or park, which often leaves little to no viable real estate where these people can live. This is what pushed a lot of folks under bridges and into makeshift homeless encampments. These laws have a devastating and destabilizing effect on the population because they are so effective in preventing people from forming relationships, getting homes, keeping jobs, etc. They actually decrease the ability of released convicts to be successful. And so that perversely suggests that they are increasing the likelihood of recidivism.

In addition, it appears that Megan’s Law and public notification have essentially no effect on suppression of sexually related violence, and what that in turn means is that we are subjecting three quarters of a million people to some very serious penalties for no real gain.

That begs the question: Then why are we doing it? And it may be that it’s because it feels good. And it also may be that that’s not a sufficient answer to justify what we’re doing.

HH: The details we’ve discussed here are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the insights and revelations in your film. (Truly: I want readers of this interview to understand that there are so many pieces to the story this film tells, more than even an educated person can imagine, and each is more startling than the next.) You have really succeeded at shattering this mass of misinformation and misconception and then intricately examining all the shards.

Your background as a criminal attorney definitely makes its mark on this movie. The film has an indisputable logic to it, and a kind of relentless veracity that threads through the various emotions and personalities that are presented. You are quite the legal mind and also quite an excellent writer.

Feige: I jokingly say that I’m one of the only people in America who made more money as a writer than as a lawyer.

HH: How would you compare your two roles? Do you feel you’ve had more impact as a lawyer or as a writer and filmmaker?

Feige: Being a public defender, I had a profound impact on a relatively small number of lives. Being a writer or filmmaker, I have a much more diffuse and tangential impact but on a far larger number of lives. I think a robust democracy relies on civil discussion and honest debate, and there is real value in promoting that, especially on topics as complex and emotional as this one.

HH: And you have truly made this an honest discussion. It’s not manipulative; it’s not a tear-jerker.

Feige: I didn’t want this to be one of those movies the viewer has to suffer through.

HH: Well, your intention to involve the audience in a legitimate conversation is apparent. And it is indeed compelling. I’m writing about it because I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

Feige: Most people come away saying “It was challenging and interesting and I couldn’t stop talking about it.” Everybody who has written to me says they couldn’t stop talking about it.

Watch the Trailer:

Update: “Untouchable” Documentary Doesn’t Go Far Enough & Ron Book is A Monster Yet to Be Slayed, According to OnceFallen.com

I recently saw an online comment about this film, posted by Derek W. Logue, founder of the Sex Offender Advocacy Site OnceFallen.com — a group that fights against what it considers to be unfair and unconstitutional laws, such as those championed by Ron Book, who is the central figure in this documentary. (A Newsweek article called Book, “The Lobbyist Who Put Sex Offenders Under a Bridge”.)

Logue is also shown, briefly, in the documentary; he is the one who organizes the sex-offender rights rally. But his own story is not shown in full in the film. A visit to the OnceFallen site shows just how passionate and hot a topic this is, and gives an indication of how scary-powerful Ron Book is as a lobbyist and political force. The website has an extremist tone (understandably), but it definitely merits a look. And Logue’s comment also merits a read, so I am posting it here (as I found it on the web — without any fact-checking), along with my own comment back to Logue:

Logue: I was in this film briefly, protesting the Book family. This film didn’t do anything to challenge those monsters. The Books are responsible for forcing hundreds of Miami’s registered citizens into homelessness. It is disgusting to see clips of Ron Book attending fancy dinners, eating steak tartare and getting his shoes shined knowing his policies force hundreds of registered citizens to live by the railroad tracks behind a warehouse.

The film fails to discuss Ron Book’s plea of no contest to a theft charge in the 1980s and a guilty plea for illegal campaign contributions in the 1990s. Ron Book was recently under FBI investigation. Lauren Book is literally BUYING a senate seat, yet she can’t even answer her own questions during a post-screening Q & A. Lauren is inept and nothing but a puppet for daddy Ron and his political cronies.

It is here where Feige fumbled the ball worse than Cam Newton in the Super Bowl. In order to guarantee he wouldn’t get sued by the Books or have them pull their support of the film, Feige had to cater to Ron & Lauren. Thus, instead of any direct challenge to the Book family, Feige’s film dances the issue around them. The Books are never grilled about anything in the film. Feige minimized my rally in the film out of concerns that our message was “too harsh.” He asked me to be nice to Lauren Book because she is “skittish.” I guess it was because Daddy wasn’t there to do the talking for her.

Ultimately, this movie was an utter disappointment. The Books get away again like the bad guys from a Saturday Morning cartoon to return and continue their wicked ways.

Sex-offender humor from OnceFallen website.
Sex-offender humor from OnceFallen website. But…not so funny because it’s true.

HH: I don’t doubt that much of what you say about the Book family is true. But the Books are revealed in this film to be something very different than they originally appear. Feige handles their story, and others, with amazing sensitivity, while carefully and slowly building his case that essentially everything we think we know about this subject is FALSE. When you come into the issue cold, like most of us do, and watch it from beginning to end, the film packs a powerful punch. But it’s smart and dispassionate, which leads to a kind of meticulous fairness that is bizarrely unsettling. In my mind, Feige is like Solomon, but he actually cuts the baby in half.