Moore’s The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women (Sourcebooks, May) details the harrowing story of the women who hand-painted luminous watch dials in the early 20th century and suffered gruesome health problems as a result.
I first discovered the story of the radium girls through a play, These Shining Lives, which I directed in 2015. From the very beginning, the women’s story of sacrifice and empowerment resonated with me deeply. As a director I’ve always focused on characters’ backstories, but because this play was based on true events that immersive work became even more important.
As my cast and I brought these real people to life through script work and improvisation and I researched the radium girls’ backgrounds further, I realized no nonfiction book existed telling the tale from the women’s own perspectives. This seemed wrong: it was their story, after all. In rehearsal, my cast and I were spending hours exploring the women’s emotions and unique journeys, yet the real radium girls had never been afforded a similar opportunity. The girls had given interviews and written about their experiences, but no one had ever stitched those first-person accounts into a narrative.
That’s how The Radium Girls came to be: I wanted to give the women the chance to have their collective voices heard. I’m not a historian, lawyer, or scientist, but I am a storyteller, and I hoped that the same instincts that enabled me to craft the girls’ story on stage would result in a new prose work that might be as powerful.
My research took me from the rehearsal room to the town at the center of the script. I can still remember the tingles down my spine as I stood outside Catherine Donohue’s home—the home I had directed my actors to talk about and occupy. Now the real building was before me. My actors and I had imagined Tom and Catherine’s wedding; in the archives of their local newspaper, I found contemporary articles that described that very event. It almost felt like the ultimate backstory exercise, but as I walked into Catherine’s church, interviewed her relatives, and retraced the steps of her daily commute, I was reminded again and again that this wasn’t about theater. Art met reality in a collision that was sobering, perhaps never more so than when I visited Catherine’s grave. Seeing her name on the gravestone—that name I first discovered in a straightforward cast list—motivated me even more strongly to bring the women’s story to the world.
My research uncovered what the playwright had fictionalized for dramatic reasons, as well as what was absolutely true. It was disconcerting at first to discover the discrepancies, though in a way that realization emphasized the importance of bringing a fully factual account to life. Yet more powerful were the accurate elements: that Catherine presented pieces of her jawbone in court; that her friends rallied round her, despite disapproval from their community.
As I wrote, my director’s vision for the women’s story morphed into an historian’s account, but in a way the two overlapped. My desire to grip an audience and to showcase the women’s suffering and strength with authenticity and dignity dovetailed neatly on both stage and page.