This will break your heart…well-written and deeply heartfelt essay about poverty, limited choices, and compassion.
Written by Joshua Wilkey.
My mother died the day she turned 55.
This Sunday will be my first Mother’s Day without her, but nearly a year after she died, I still find it impossible to be heartbroken over her passing. As I wrote in her obituary, she suffered from both mental and physical illness for much of her life. However, despite her struggles, she selflessly loved and supported those who meant the most to her. In so many ways, she loved those who society deemed outcast and unloveable, and through her relentless love of others, her relationship with God was readily apparent. While I miss her dearly, it would be selfish of me to wish that she were still alive and suffering rather than at peace.
I suppose that my mother is the single biggest reason that I have devoted much of my career to studying poverty. My mother was what some folks call white trash, and by extension, that made me white trash growing up too. Truth is, she never stood much of a chance of climbing out of the poverty in which she became mired the minute she was born. Her father was an alcoholic and her mother was (and still is) about as wicked a human as I have ever met. Mom and her sister mostly raised themselves, so it’s no wonder they got married and left their abusive home first chance they got. At 16, Mom married an alcoholic who beat her most every day until the night he came home drunk and she rolled him up in the bedsheets and beat the hell out of him with a baseball bat. Not long after, she got pregnant. Her firstborn child died before he was a week old. She named him Dustin David, and his loss laid heavy on her heart for the rest of her life. It was just one piece of a lifetime of heartbreaking burden that took a toll on her mental health.
Not long after Dusty died, she met my father and my conception hastened the bells of Mom’s second wedding. My father is a good man, but they divorced by the time I was out of diapers. After my father, she married a total of five more times, twice to the same man. She had the biggest heart of anyone I have ever known, but picking men was not among her gifts. She told me more than once that she didn’t think she deserved a good man. I was never able to convince her that she deserved a partner who treated her well.
Mom didn’t finish high school, but she decided to pursue an education when I was a kid. She found it harder and harder to make ends meet working as a gas station attendant and grocery store cashier, and education seemed like a good solution. She earned a GED, then a diploma from a technical college. Nobody in her family had ever finished high school, much less attended tech school, and I will never forget how proud of her I was when I saw her walk across the stage and get her diploma. I was in middle school at the time, but I vowed that someday I would go to a tech school and maybe even get a four-year degree because I wanted her to be as proud of me as I was of her in that moment. For poor people, occasions for pride are so few and far between. Sense of accomplishment is a pleasure rarely afforded to those who are impoverished. I suppose that is why I still choke up every time someone I love tells me they are proud of me. The truth is, Mom would have been proud of me no matter what.
As hard as she worked, Mom was never able to fully escape poverty. Even after she became qualified to work in an office rather than behind a cash register, she remained a part of what economists call the working poor. It turns out that all those years of lifting and standing while working dead-end jobs had taken a toll on her body. By the time she finally landed an office job with benefits, she needed lower back surgery. For the last twenty years of her life, she lived with chronic pain, and she tried an endless array of prescription drugs – both those prescribed to her and those not – but she never could keep the pain at bay.
Three years before she died, husband number six threw her to the ground and choked her until she nearly blacked out, then forced her to watch as he put a bullet in his heart. She never recovered emotionally, but somehow she found the capacity for love again. Just months before her own death, she married a final time when a man she had recently fallen in love with was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given less than a month to live. His last wish was that she would accept his marriage proposal, and she obliged.
Because of a lifetime of poverty or a lifetime of mental and physical abuse or some combination of the two, Mom’s mental health began to deteriorate by the time she reached forty. She suffered from anxiety and depression and bipolar disorder. On at least six occasions, she attempted suicide. Twice, I had to initiate involuntary commitment because she refused to seek the inpatient psychiatric care she so deeply needed.
She buried two husbands in less than two years, decades after having buried her firstborn. So many of the people in her life that she should have been able to rely on for love and support over the course of her lifetime betrayed her through abuse and neglect. I am convinced that she died of a broken heart even though the coroner said she died from an abscess in her lung. For weeks after she died, I felt guilty because I felt relieved. However, the night she died was the first night in years that I was able to fall asleep without worrying about whether or not Mom was safe
At first reading, the story of my mother’s life seems like little more than a tragedy. However, it is much more than that. Her story reveals the stark realities of growing up poor. All across Appalachia, there are thousands of women just like my mother working, striving, struggling, just to exist. So many people in Appalachia have broken minds and broken bodies and broken hearts, and they do nothing more than survive because that’s all they can do.
It is as popular now as ever to blame poor people for their station in life. Republican politicians love to talk about how poor people could stop being poor if only they made better choices or worked harder. If only they’d stop buying iPhones, they could afford insurance! These assholes – and I do not use that slur lightly – have no clue what it is like to grow up poor. They have no clue how hard it is in many places in the US just to keep the lights on and food on the table. It is easy for them, from the comfort of their cushy offices and homes, with full bellies and bank accounts, to pretend that poor people like my mother are poor because they are stupid or lazy or ignorant or irresponsible rather than confront the broken systems that perpetuate poverty in Appalachia and all across the US. Poor people don’t contribute to reelection funds, but those who profit from poor people sure do. Therefore, truth be told, most politicians couldn’t care less about the plight of the poor. There’s so much profit to be made from poor people – think payday loans, high-interest rent-to-own stores, for-profit colleges, and overpriced mobile homes – that politicians and their crony-capitalist donors have a vested interest in keeping them poor.
Many of us who have personal experience with poverty understand that addiction, mental illness, poor health, and lack of education are symptoms of poverty rather than causes. When I think about all the suffering my mother endured over the course of her life, I can’t help but wonder how anyone could think that she was to blame for her poverty. She started working at 12, and she worked every day for years, long after her body gave out on her. She made choices, some good, and plenty bad, but poor people have fewer options when faced with impending and potentially life-changing decisions. Poor people like Mom are often forced to choose from a small number of shitty options, and most of them try to find the one that is slightly less shitty than the others. When people are eaten up mentally and physically by a lifetime of compounded shitty choices, they reach a point where they can’t even decide what is best anymore, because they realize that no matter what they do – no matter how hard they try – they are cogs in a broken machine and nobody cares about them anyway. Poor Appalachian people are broken, but not nearly as broken as the systems that keep them poor.
In the days since I posted a blog entry titled “Blessed are the White Trash,” my website has been visited by over 35,000 unique users. The link has been shared over 500 times on Facebook, just counting the shares I know about. Over 100 new people have connected with me via social media, and I get dozens of emails every day from folks reaching out to share their stories and let me know that my own story resonates with them. I started this blog as a means of reorienting my own writing style away from academic jargon and back toward narrative-driven language aimed at general audiences. I didn’t imagine anyone would read it other than my wife and a few friends. However, I struck a nerve, it seems. The overwhelming response is not at all a testament to anything I have done, but rather, a clear indication that people just need to know that they matter and that somebody gives a damn about them and their stories, especially if they are poor.
David Joy, who is by my estimation the most talented and important young writer in Appalachia right now, recently wrote: “The truth is we live in a world where we don’t listen to people anymore. So often we’re just waiting for the next opening to respond. What we need to realize is that sometimes people don’t need advice. Sometimes people just need to be heard. Sometimes the greatest gift we can give someone is just to keep our mouths shut and let them empty themselves into our hands. When they’re finished, we don’t need to do anything with what they’ve given us. We just need to show them that we’re holding it for them till they can catch their breath.”
Sometimes, that’s all Mom needed. Someone to be present while she screamed and cried. Somebody to hold her while she caught her breath. Somebody who would listen to her problems rather than tell her how she ought to solve them. I am ashamed to admit that, particularly after I reached adulthood and found financial stability, I was more interested in trying to fix her problems than in listening to her tell me about them. When I finally began climbing out of the murky bog of poverty, I thought I could just hand her a fifty dollar bill or pay her car insurance and make things a little better for her. Surely, I thought, helping her out financially would be useful and meaningful. Looking back, I realize that, like most poor people in Appalachia, giving a damn to her meant listening and loving, not fixing. Like so many people in her situation, she was robbed of her voice for her entire life. Nobody wanted to listen.
Judging from the emails I have received in the past few days, a good many people are interested in the way their own communities and stories are playing out right now to a national audience. They realize that people are listening, it seems, but are unsure that their voices are actually being heard. At least a fourth of the folks who have reached out since I published “Blessed are the White Trash” have asked how I feel about J. D. Vance’s bestselling book Hillbilly Elegy. This book has, for many Americans, become their primary source of information about Appalachian culture and poverty. The short answer is that I disagree with both Vance’s conclusions and his methodology. As I told a group of my students recently, I am heartbroken that Hillbilly Elegy will likely be the most popular and important book about Appalachia in a generation.
Vance writes: “I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better” (256). While this is not blatant victim-blaming, it comes close. This line of reasoning promotes the individualistic philosophy so prominent among those on the political right in the US. It sounds like it came directly from the pen of Ayn Rand. It calls for a bootstraps-up set of solutions for people who lack boots. It calls on poor people to fix their own problems by changing their culture. Vance calls it a “culture in crisis.” What his book lacks, however, is the important historical and economic context that explains how Appalachia came to be impoverished. While he is critical of Appalachian culture, he doesn’t bother to find out how it came to be as it is.
For generations, first with timber and coal and later with tourism, Appalachia has served as a sort of internal colony for the rest of the United States. People with no desire to live here came to pillage and plunder. They cheated Appalachian people out of their land and their resources, their dignity and their humanity. In central Appalachia, coal companies engaged in ruthless and ethically bankrupt tactics like using the broad form deed. They moved people into coal camps where they paid them poorly and forced them to buy everything from the overpriced company store. They were compelled to work and remain silent or become homeless. In southern Appalachia, timber barons came for the lumber. They clear-cut the mountains and left environmental and economic devastation in their wake. In both instances, Appalachian people were transformed from independent farmers and craftspeople into laborers treated like nothing more than replaceable parts. They were deprived of their resources, and the profit most certainly didn’t flow back into their communities. Today, all that remains in much of Appalachia are minimum wage service jobs. In the more touristy parts of the region, the people whose ancestors once thrived in these mountains now serve sweet tea and fried chicken to the vacationing descendants of those whose communities and wealth were built in part with the resources extracted from Appalachia.
In the United States, our approach to solving Appalachian poverty doesn’t differ substantially from our approach to solving African poverty. In both cases, outsiders came in to exploit resources and left generations of poverty in their wake. While the process was substantially more extreme, racist, and violent in Africa, in both cases conservative political leaders think those left behind economically should just make better decisions and stop being poor. That approach will not work in either instance. Neither will sending food and secondhand clothing. And don’t even get me started on the idiotic and theologically-flawed thinking that leads fundamentalist Christians to think they can solve poverty by evangelizing the poor folk.
While we must not approach any instance of poverty, whether in Kinshasa, Congo or Frakes, Kentucky, with the flawed notion that we fully understand it, we must understand that the solutions will be found in action both by those who are impoverished and by those who are not. This is not a problem to be fixed by condescending outsiders, but neither is it a problem to be fixed only by those who are impoverished. Neither group can fix it alone.
The process starts, I think, with taking time to listen. Then, we can try to understand. I might understand it a little better than most because I grew up white trash. I have seen my mother and my family members and my neighbors be forced to make impossible choices between a limited number of shitty options. I have at times had to make those impossible choices myself. Even having grown up poor and having spent my academic career researching and writing about poverty, I do not claim to understand it fully. We must realize that there exists no single narrative about Appalachian poverty. Not all poor people are the same. Not all impoverished families fit into a single category even if they are united by similar demographics.
When my mother died, she had fifty-six cents in her bank account. Had someone told her they really needed that fifty-six cents, she would have given it to them without a second thought. She lived in a world that led her to understand the importance – no, the necessity – of helping others. If there’s any hope at all for fixing the brokenness in Appalachia, it lies with those who have a servant’s heart. It starts with putting aside condescending and selfish beliefs. It starts with taking a lesson from my sweet little mama and loving the outcast and the unloveable.
It starts with listening instead of talking.
If you enjoyed this, I encourage you to visit This Appalachian Life for more stories by Joshua Wilkey .