Robert Oppenheimer, the creator of the atomic bomb, was the ultimate storyteller, someone who created different personas to “obscure who he was from the public,” according to the novelist Louisa Hall. The head of the Manhattan Project was known for quoting Marcel Proust, John Donne, and the Bhagavad Gita, learning Sanskrit, reciting French romantic poetry and more. But for Hall, this was all an elaborate web meant to hide his inner thoughts, to deflect from his inner turmoil. “He was constantly and actively telling the story of who he was and why he acted the way he did,” she said recently. “But at the end of the day all of those stories were sort of misleading and contradictory.”
The more Hall read about him—American Prometheus, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Standing by and Making Do, biographical essays including Freeman Dyson’s, and, of course the security hearing transcripts—the more elusive he appeared. She said even friends who testified at the security hearings kept returning to the fact that they were not really certain about who he was or what he truly believed. Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, of the Manhattan Project, father of the atomic bomb, communist, the man who ushered in nuclear warfare, the man who tried to stop nuclear warfare, all this is ground that has been plumbed.
In her novel Trinity(2018), named after the site for the first nuclear weapons test in New Mexico, Hall attempts to create a shifting Oppenheimer in all his glory, in all his tragic manifestations. Shortlisted for the 2019 International Dylan Thomas Prize, Trinity consists of seven testimonies from fictional characters who share how they crossed paths with Oppenheimer between 1943 and 1966. In other words, from his rise to fame at Los Alamos to the years where he was deemed a communist, an enemy of the state—a suspicion that led to the 1954 security hearings where Oppenheimer’s clearance was revoked—and his fall from grace. It is an exquisite portrait of Oppenheimer, a figure who looms large in the novel, as if he were haunting it, but who remains voiceless except through these characters.
I met up with Hall at Montana State University where she has been the writer-in-residence this past year. Hall, who is from Philadelphia and who starts a position at University of Iowa in the fall of 2019, is no stranger to science. She wanted to become a psychiatrist and, at Harvard, she finished her pre-meds. But she fell in love with poetry, with the subtleties of language and the power of human expression, which won out over the chemistry of the brain.
While researching her previous novel, Speak, Hall said, “I kept thinking more and more about this intersection between science and the military, and all the scientists who really are just trying to understand and to know for the pure sake of knowledge, and then how, when their work is being funded and supported by the military, alarming and disconcerting results can emerge. That idea led me directly to Oppenheimer. In him, I think, that intersection is just a particularly tragic one.”
To get at the man, Hall deploys the Rashomon technique that she used in her two previous novels where multiple narrators describe events from their points of view. But this time she also had the help of a core principle of quantum physics, Oppenheimer’s field, which, as she said, “Is really all about the dual nature of everything. The fact that things are both particle and wave at the same time, the fact that by measuring them you change them, that by pinning down one aspect of them, you make the other aspects less familiar.”
Trinity, in this sense, is like a hall of mirrors where all the characters absorb aspects of him and reflect them back. Hall said she thinks of her characters as “little Oppenheimers,” each running around trying to claim the true story of the man. He is the “mayor of our little Shangri-la on the mesa,” the man who “left a real trail of ruin,” the “porkpie man,” the “real devil,” the “terribly unhappy person,” “the lonely man,” “the man with blood on his hands,” the man “fighting [an] archetypical battle,” the man who was “good, bad, sinner and saint.” They wrestle with him in the same way that we wrestle with his legacy and in the same way that Oppenheimer wrestled with himself. For Hall, “He seemed like the perfect vessel to illustrate this fear about not knowing, not really knowing yourself, not really knowing the people you think you know.”
Which leads directly into Oppenheimer’s Jewish identity. For Hall, the story of Oppenheimer’s Jewishness is another circle orbiting his multifaceted personas. But for her, the story of his Jewishness is a silent one, an empty circle. Even though, according to Hall, anti-Semitism was woven into the social fabric of Oppenheimer’s life and times, at Harvard, Berkeley, and while he was in Germany, he seemed immune to that reality and tended to ignore the slights, turned away from it to focus on his science.
His biographers share stories that emphasize his ambivalence toward his heritage. One fairly well-known story, featured in American Prometheus, illustrates what Hall calls the “harrowing discrimination” orbiting his identity: While at Berkeley, Oppenheimer sought a position for his colleague Robert Serber, who later worked with Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project. But his department head, Raymond Birge, refused to bring Serber in. “One Jew in the department is enough,” Birge wrote to a colleague. Oppenheimer did not hold it against Birge.
Ray Monk, author of Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center, says that Isidor I. Rabi, one of Oppenheimer’s great friends, believed that the root cause of all of Oppenheimer’s problems lay in the fact that he denied his Jewishness. This, Rabi believed, caused Oppenheimer to suffer from an identity problem, to not know where he truly belonged or who his people were, to imprison him in a world of self-doubt. Unlike Rabi, Oppenheimer could not claim a people.
“For me,” Hall said, “there’s just no way that he wasn’t facing all kinds of anti-Semitism at every stage of his life. But he grew up in a family that was very successful and therefore felt like they had a lot at stake, a lot to protect and to hold on to, and showing their Jewishness was not part of that equation. It seems like that success changed their relationship to their heritage and to Judaism.”
J. Robert Oppenheimer grew up on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, the son of a wealthy German Jewish family. His father, Julius Oppenheimer, was a first-generation immigrant from Germany, his mother, Ella Freedman, an artist from Baltimore who also purchased paintings from artists like Renoir, Picasso, Van Gogh. It was a time when, as Hall said, the future of German American Jewish communities depended upon their turning away from the East. “It was a ‘Lose your Jewish identity’ motto, embrace a clean slate of understanding yourself according to ethics rather than an understanding of yourself according to the tradition and heritage of where you come from.”
Oppenheimer’s family embraced a path toward assimilation by participating in the ethos of the Society for Ethical Culture—a school that espoused deeds, not religious creed—started by Felix Adler in 1876. Oppenheimer and his brother were educated in the Ethical Culture School, which favored universal moral tenets over those attached to any single religion, such as Judaism.
At the midpoint of Hall’s novel, we hear the fourth testimonial from Sally Connelly, a fictionalized character rooted in Oppenheimer’s own secretary while he was at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study in 1954, the same year his security clearance is revoked. This testimony stands out not only because it is the only one where the reader hears the emotional tenor to Oppenheimer’s background, but because it evokes a fallen hero looking to the past and wondering about his choices. At this point, Oppenheimer is cast as a lonely man, left alone to wrestle with his soul, a “flawed but still noble hero, the figure fallen from myth,” as another character describes him. It is a chapter that has Oppenheimer wondering, “How did this, I, come to be?”
He shares with Sally the spirit of the Society for Ethical Culture, “which advertised itself as a modern replacement for ancient religions.” It was a society that “embraced a global intellectual culture. Jews in society were meant to give up their biblical identity, distinguishing themselves instead through social concern and good deeds.” How, one imagines, did Oppenheimer believe he stacked up against this creed? How did he stack up against the neglected traditions of his ancestors?
In the security hearing transcript, Oppenheimer states that beginning in 1936, he became aware, so to speak, of his surroundings, of the political climate, of the treatment, for example, of the Jews. “I had,” he says, “a continuing, smoldering fury about the treatment of Jews in Germany. I had relatives there, and was later to help in extricating them and bringing them to this county.”
And that’s it. That one sentence is left there to smolder on the page. We don’t really hear more about his thoughts on the treatment of Jews in Europe, and much less about the treatment of Jews in the United States.
Oppenheimer’s not knowing himself led Hall to a question, central to her novel, the unnerving, the terrifying fear that we all harbor; that of not knowing the person we think we know. For Hall, we can only begin to understand another by understanding ourselves.
“I wanted to write my next novel about the difficulty of really knowing people, even the people we think are closest to us, that we love the most dearly,” she told me. “Because even those people, those that we love the most dearly, sometimes evade us in ways that, for me, are really terrifying.”
When I asked Hall if she thought Oppenheimer regretted participating in the creation of the atomic bomb, she hesitated. “I think for me,” Hall said, “I’m just somebody who’s congenitally incapable of coming to a firm opinion on anything. As soon as I see it one way, I start to edge to another side and see it from another way, so the freedom to rotate perspectives is much, much easier for me than trying to really start in the beginning. Circling something feels much more natural to me than a line.”
“But,” she elaborated, “I do think he experienced this intense wrestling with his capacity for badness. He wrestled with his capacity for evil, something we probably all wrestle with, as if we were all those little Oppenheimers like my characters. But he ended up being put in charge of the atomic bomb so it was exacerbated. I think he had this intense fear of the evil inside him which was pitted against the moral perfectionism that was instilled in him from his education in the Ethical Society. He had to continually justify the idea that he was not bad, but good. Then you’d see this kind of anger, or backlash to that moral imperative, as if he were asking, ‘Why should I have to carry all the morals of the entire world on my shoulders? I didn’t choose to drop the bombs.’”
Upon finishing the novel, we don’t know Oppenheimer any better than before except that we have access to a shifting emotional landscape, the jigsaw puzzle of his soul. As the character in the last testimony says, “You never know, absolutely, what another person was feeling, just as we never know the velocity and the position of a particle at any one moment, all knowledge being by nature incomplete, all studies missing an aspect at least of the object they study.”
Bridget Kevane is a professor of Latin American and Latino literature at Montana State University in Bozeman. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, ZEEK, the Forward, and Brain, Child, among other publications.