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Alumni Profiles
reed magazine logoSpring 2009

A Tortuous Parody

As the author of books such as Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich ’63 is no stranger to controversy. Still, she was astonished to see her name linked to a prisoner at Guantánamo in a recent edition of Britain’s Mail on Sunday.

Ehrenreich ;63

photo by Sigrid Estrada

In February, the U.S. government dropped charges against Binyam Mohamed, a British resident and Ethiopian citizen who was imprisoned for more than six years. Aside from passport fraud, it seems the crux of the charges against Mohamed hinged on his admission that he had read a parody titled “How to Make Your Own H-Bomb,” written by Ehrenreich and two co-authors in 1979 and published in the now-defunct Seven Days magazine.

Commenting on the case in The Guardian, Ehrenreich recalled that the purpose of the original piece was to defend free speech during Supreme Court attempts to censor stories about the Atomic Energy Act:

The satire was not subtle. After discussing the toxicity of plutonium, we advised, that to avoid ingesting it orally, “ Never make an A-bomb on an empty stomach.” . . . [T]he challenge of enriching uranium hexafluoride included the instruction: “Attach a six-foot rope to a bucket handle. Now swing the rope (and bucket) around your head as fast as possible. Keep this up for about 45 minutes. Slow down gradually, and very gently put the bucket on the floor. The U-235, which is lighter, will have risen to the top, where it can be skimmed off like cream.”
(Visit to view her essay in its entirety.)

However, after September 11, America was an “irony-free zone,” as Ehrenreich points out. According to lawyer Clive Stafford Smith’s declassified notes, Mohamed “confessed” to having read the H-bomb article online after repeated beatings and hanging by the wrists, insisting to his interrogators that it was a “joke.” Now Ehrenreich is protesting the attempt to connect Mohamed’s alleged nuclear ambitions to American citizen Jose Padilla, nicknamed “the dirty bomber.” The prosecutors’ evidence: Padilla had been scheduled on the same flight as Mohamed.

Mohamed was finally released in February and flew back to the United Kingdom, where human rights groups are pressing for an official investigation into his case.

—Raymond Rendleman ’06

reed magazine logoSpring 2009