In November 1974, a Honda Civic slipped off a highway in rural Oklahoma and collided with a concrete culvert, killing the driver, a young woman named Karen Silkwood. She had been on her way to meet a newspaper reporter and to deliver to him papers supposedly damaging to her employer, the Kerr-McGee Plutonium Corp. Silkwood had charged that Kerr-McGee systematically altered quality control reports at its Crescent, Okla., plutonium factory, and allowed workers to become contaminated with radioactivity. Silkwood's friends also believed that she carried proof that plutonium pellets had been routinely stolen from the factory -- a possible source for nuclear weapons developed in other countries.
If the charges were true, then Kerr-McGee and the federal government had good reason for wanting Silkwood silenced and her papers deep-sixed. The car crash was suspicious; the envelope Silkwood carried was never found. Yet the Oklahoma authorities refused to conduct a real investigation, and the FBI botched its own. The Justice Department abruptly dropped the case, after strong initial interest. Kerr-McGee and federal investigators characterized Silkwood as an undesirable, addicted to Quaaludes, who caroused and slept around. But as a member of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, she had shown courage in opposing the hiring and safety procedures at powerful Kerr-McGee, one of the nastier participants in a nasty business. She herself had been mysteriously contaminated. In death she became different things to different people: feminist, flake, union stalwart, suicide, victim of corporate/government connivance and, to the author of "Who Killed Karen Silkwood?", heroine to all those opposed to developing nuclear power.
Howard Kohn's efforts to enshrine Silkwood have produced a book that is neither investigative journalism nor a comprehensive analysis of the evidence and the action. Instead, it is a lengthy record of Kohn's hanging-out with the principals in the Silkwood affair, full of extraneous detail and conversation, much of it apparently imagined. A contributing editor of Rolling Stone, Kohn writes in the breezy, fawning style of rock apotheosis. "Skinny lady that she was," he says of Silkwood, ". . . She was an awfully fine looker -- too fine . . . The black of her hair made her skin all the more sheer." It was cold the night she died, "the kind of cold that sucks heat from the furriest of animals." When a friend heard about her death, his "sculpted beard dropped to his chest."
So it goes. For more than 400 pages we amble through a strange, disturbing case, without focus or the kind of technical detail that such a book demands. Others who involved themselves in the Silkwood affair had "found out just how mean a little puff of radiation can be." Kohn glosses over Silkwood's common-law marriage and the fact that she left three children in Texas to go to Oklahoma. Similarly, the attitude of Silkwood's parents toward their daughter remains unclear. They were caught up in a congressional investigation finally brought about by the efforts of the National Organization for Women, and then in a suit against Kerr-McGee that involved private detectives, a double-agent, and two more mysterious deaths. The corporation eventually had to pay $10.5 million in damages, an anticlimax that fails to answer the larger questions.
If the title is meant to be rhetorical, then Kohn has failed to indicate clearly who he thinks is responsible for Silkwood's death -- Kerr-McGee or some government functionary. As simple exposition, the book follows by half a year another one published on the same subject, "The Killing of Karen Silkwood," by Richard Rashke, and adds nothing new.
Unfortunately we still don't know if someone killed Karen Silkwood, or if she was killed, exactly why. We probably never will.