Deemed a “new classic of environmental reporting” by the New York Times when it was originally published in hardcover, Toms River (Island Press, 2013) is the story of how the town of Toms River, NJ, was plagued by industrial pollution, and how the community fought for justice. In this excerpt, author Dan Fagin focuses on Toms River resident Michael Gillick, and his lifelong battle with cancer.
To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.
On the rare occasions when Michael Gillick needed to know what day it was, he could check his pillbox. It was the size of a small briefcase and had seven compartments, one for each day of the week. Each compartment was subdivided into sections, for the five times each day that Michael took his pills: seven o’clock in the morning, noon, 3:30, 8:30, and eleven at night. (He set his cell phone alarm to the times, to make sure he did not forget.) Once a week, Michael or his mother would refill the compartments, in a careful ritual that was the pharmacopoeial equivalent of turning the hourglass.
For a typical week, he counted out 138 pills: tiny pink morphine tablets for pain, yellow steroids to normalize his immune system, white phenobarbitals for seizures, and blue oval-shaped antihistamines for nausea and dizziness. There was also Prevacid for heartburn, Corgard for high blood pressure, and a yogurt pill for indigestion. Three times a day, Michael took a powerful blood pressure medication called Regitine. Years earlier, the drug’s manufacturer—the company’s name at the time was Ciba-Geigy—had stopped making Regitine in pill form, but Michael had secured a large stockpile and had been working his way through it ever since.
Michael lived with his parents in a ranch-style house on a shady street in the comfortable Brookside Heights section of Toms River, New Jersey. He did not get out much. He loved movies, but a trip to the theater was an ordeal because he was extremely small. Strangers would point and say, “Oh, what a cutie!” Once, when he was fourteen, he stepped out into the lobby to look for a bathroom, and a woman demanded to know why he was wandering off without his mother. He had tried dating, but it did not go well. When Michael was sixteen, he developed a mad crush on the girl who delivered the newspaper. He would watch her from his bedroom window every morning. But when he finally got up the courage to try to speak to her, he kept his eyes on the floor. Later, he realized why: He did not want to watch her watching him.
Born in 1979, Michael was now a man. He stood four feet six inches tall and weighed about one hundred pounds.
If Michael held a job or attended school, there would be other ways to measure the passage of time besides his pillbox. Michael had tried one semester of community college. He was definitely smart enough—he ended up with straight A’s—but everyone in the Gillick family agreed that school put too much stress on his damaged body; a job would be even worse. So Michael stayed home instead. Most days he would sleep until noon, watch soap operas in the afternoon, exercise (he liked lifting light weights), mess around a bit on the guitar, and then play video games or watch professional wrestling for hours and hours after dinner.
Michael was a night owl, but he had his reasons. Staying up until three o’clock and watching television was far superior to trying to sleep. There were two nightmares he could not shake. In the first, he watched through his bedroom window as the family dog ran out into the street and was hit by a passing car. The second nightmare, far worse, came from the horror movies and fantasy video games Michael loved. It featured a hideous, blood-soaked man brandishing a huge knife in a howling thunderstorm. “I’ll always be with you, and in the end, I’ll come for you,” the man would tell Michael as lightning crashed. Then the ghoul would kill Michael’s parents and older brother, one by one, as Michael watched. After one especially horrific night when Michael was young, his mother asked a police sketch artist to come to the house and draw the imaginary man based on Michael’s description, but it didn’t help much. The gruesome killer was true to his word: He kept coming back. His name was “Sir Kan,” and only later did Michael and his mother invert the name’s syllables and figure out its significance.
The towering fact of Michael Gillick’s life was that he had cancer. He had always had cancer. When he was three months old, Michael was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a fast-spreading cancer of the nervous system. By that time, the disease was already so far advanced that it was apparent that he had been afflicted even while still inside his mother’s womb. The doctors had told Linda and Raymond (Rusty) Gillick that Michael had only a fifty-fifty chance of reaching his first birthday. They missed their guess by decades, but survival came at a terrible price. Tumors cost Michael the full use of his left eye and ear, ruined his balance, and shifted the location of his internal organs. Steroid drugs stunted his growth and bloated his face, while chemotherapy weakened his heart and lungs, destroyed the lining of his stomach, and dissolved his bones to the point that walking was painful. When he was younger, Michael’s body was so sensitive that he would scream if anyone so much as touched him. Now he mainly just felt exhausted, breathless, and nauseated—and that was on a pretty good day. On the bad days he could hardly move. And while his pharmaceutical regimen seemed to be holding his neuroblastoma in check, no doctor ever dared tell him that he had beaten it.
Michael had no memory of living any other way, so he tended not to wallow in his problems. When he was younger, he had at times doubted his Catholic faith, but he had since come to believe deeply in an afterlife and in a god that was both just and merciful—even if there was precious little evidence of that in the circumstances of his own life. He salted his Catholicism with New Age ideas about the healing power of crystals (he sometimes wore one around his neck) and tried hard to avoid being morose. “Every night you’re still alive, that’s been a good day—even if it’s a bad TV day. Tonight is wrestling, so it’s a good day,” he would say. “People take things for granted, and they shouldn’t.” Michael always made a special effort to sound upbeat when his mother, who ran a cancer support group, asked him to talk to a newly diagnosed child.
Only his parents and a few close friends knew the secret behind Michael’s stoicism: He was waiting. Michael had long ago resigned himself to the fact that he would never be healthy, but there was something he wanted almost as much—sometimes, even more. What Michael Gillick wanted was justice. For as long as he could remember and with a certainty he could never fully explain—“I just feel it, here,” he would say, tapping his scarred chest—Michael was absolutely convinced that something, someone, was responsible for giving him cancer and making his life so painful. And thanks to a remarkable sequence of events in his hometown of Toms River, events in which Michael and his mother played a significant part, he was now equally certain he knew who had done it.
“When I first heard about what might have caused my cancer, when I was young, I said, ‘I want to live and fight, so I can see them punished,’ ” he recalled years later. “I said, ‘I won’t die until I get retribution.’ I didn’t know the word retribution at the time, so I probably said ‘revenge.’ That’s what I want. We’re still waiting for it, and we’re not going away. As far as I’m concerned, there’s a lot more we’re going to find out, and when we do, it’s going to blow people’s minds.”
Many of his neighbors didn’t believe him, and it was easy to understand why. Michael’s convictions about the cause of his illness threatened almost everything that the people of Toms River believed about themselves, their town, and even their country. With its strip malls and package stores, its subdivisions and ball fields, Toms River was no different than thousands of other towns. It had grown very fast—as fast as any community in the United States for a while—but growth was the engine that created its wealth. If the detritus of Toms River’s prosperity had been quietly buried, dumped, or burned within the town’s borders, then many residents seemed to regard that as a necessary if unpleasant tradeoff, like rush-hour traffic or crowded beaches in July. Besides, environmental risk was everywhere. The choices that the people of Toms River had made over the decades—to defer to authority, to focus on the here and now, to grow at almost any cost—were hardly unique. If Michael Gillick was right, then all of those choices were wrong—and not just in Toms River.
Michael had been waiting for a very long time, and he was willing to keep waiting. In bleak hospital wards as far away as New York City and Philadelphia, he and his mother had met dozens of other young people from Toms River with cancer—far too many to be a coincidence, he was certain. Many of those friends were gone now, gone forever, but Michael was still here, waiting. He had sat through hundreds of committee meetings and press conferences and strategy sessions in lawyers’ offices. He had waited for the results of scientific investigations that seemed to drag on forever, including the big one—the one that was supposed to prove that he and his mother were wrong, that they were just being emotional, hysterical. The so-called experts had gotten a surprise then, hadn’t they?
Michael and Linda Gillick had started out knowing nothing, and now, more than thirty years later, they knew almost everything. Along with many other people, some of whom they had never even met, the Gillicks had helped to uncover the secret history of Toms River: a dark chronicle of dumpers at midnight and deceptions in broad daylight, of corporate avarice and government neglect. They had fought the fears and delusions of their own neighbors, and they had been vindicated. Now Michael felt he was closer than ever to achieving his final goal. It was just a matter of biding his time, and then the whole truth would come out at last. He could wait a little longer for that.
Reprinted with permission from Toms River, by Dan Fagin, and published by Island Press, 2013.