Tuesday, 26 November 2013
Meet the Woman Who Accidentally Explained Poverty to the Nation
During the course of therapy, they tested my IQ. You have to understand that it isn't actually terribly impressive. It is higher than average, to be sure. But my mother grew up quite poor in Detroit and she is very impressed by these things and so she decided that I was a genius. And she nurtured it. She is a teacher. I was given music lessons and she learned languages with me. I have no aptitude for dance or art, but we tried those too. I was in competitions when I was five, and they lasted until college. And so that is how I know how to talk to people who are in the upper middle class. Because I got a partial scholarship to Cranbrook but we couldn't afford the other half. But my parents knew damn well what Cranbrook was and they were determined that I would have a chance at it. They gave up much to send me to private schools. Not expensive ones, I went to a small religious elementary. They taught me much about Satan and also had strict academic standards for the ten kids or so in every grade.
If you are old enough, you will recall that there was a time in the late '80s and early '90s in which Donahue was talking about the secret satanic sex cults that were a plague in private daycare centers, because of course. My mom had just bought a daycare. It was her dream. But as it turned out, there was a child being sexually abused that was under her care. It was just happening at home instead of at the school. The kid's mom couldn't believe that her new husband would do such a thing, and so she called everyone. Everyone. This is not the first time in my life reporters have been on the line when I picked up the phone. It's just that the last time this happened I was eight. It was a nightmare, and it was one of those things that went fucking viral. Not in reach, but in ridiculousness. Children actually told grownups that my mother had tried to shoot them with a gun she kept in her desk and so they got the other gun and shot her in the arm. And the adults believed this. My mother, quite reasonably, promptly went completely nuts. We suddenly left Michigan and moved to Utah. And so that is why stability and trust are not things that I have easily. I was taught to be ready, to be wary, to be mistrustful, because the world is a hard place.
And that is how the real troubles started. My parents found solace in the local religion. I was wearing flannel and listening to grunge. My mother was not a rational person most of the time. It is why I am willing to reason with unreasonable people. And what you have to realize is that I was very young and my world was spinning too. I could not understand that she was overwhelmed. I only saw her battening the hatches and driving me into perfection and going ballistic if I fucked the slightest thing up with the best of intentions. I was a teenager, but one dealing with parents who were barely holding themselves together. It was hell for everybody involved. And so I worked very hard at excelling and I graduated high school when I was sixteen and I went away, as far away as I could get, to college. That is how I know how to make it on my own.
And I promptly made the sorts of decisions you would expect out of a kid that age with low self-esteem and no social skills and access to what I saw as the cool kids who saw me as an intelligent kid sister and were willing to include me in things. I didn't make it long.
I spent some time bouncing in and out of school and joined my first political campaign. It was amazing. And so I went for it. I moved all over the country and chased jobs and found that I was never quite a good fit, because I never have fit in anywhere entirely. And when it wasn't campaign season I worked pretty much whatever I could find. It's not high pay compared to relative expense until you're pretty well-established, particularly if you are not good with money. I was poor in the way that most people who do not have resources are when they are young and idealistic. I didn't mind it much. I thought it would end when I was ready. And so that is how I know things about media and framing and what sort of good I can do and how to pick stories out of shared experience.
And then I was hit by a drunk driver, fucked up my teeth, and took the insurance check before I realized that it meant they would not be covering dental, thankyouverymuch. I was 19, I think. I simply trusted what I was told by the people in authority. I don't think I can be blamed, although I have never been so foolish since. But my teeth kept getting worse. There are a lot of reasons, I have not been gentle on them, but I have at least cleaned them. I know what Crest is. It's just that when teeth crack and are not attended to, they develop problems, which spread no matter what you do unless what you are doing is going to a dentist. Which I could not afford. And as the problem got worse I saw my prospects fade. I understand it. I would make the same call. Many people think I am simply too dumb to know how to brush my teeth. Whether or not that is true, it is not a first impression on behalf of a candidate or company that you can give. And so that is where the slide started.
During this time I was simply spinning around the world and hoping to make sense of my life. I struggle with things sometimes. I do not know why, whether it's inherent or whether my mother is right or whether what happened to my mother is what did it. But sometimes the world seems suddenly bizarre and I have to practice a strict control in order to behave as though the world were real. I have seen many therapists. I know what it is. I can't afford the medicine, and so I have learned simply to control it because it is not the worst case in the world. But it took me a lot of years to figure out how to function properly. And I am often depressed because I am intelligent enough to see that I have much to give if I could figure out a way to do it. Those things are what I struggle against and why I have made many demonstrably bad decisions in my life, because I had lost the fight with myself. And so that is how I kept sliding even when I had all the potential in the world. I simply had too much life to process. Mental illness is a common thing in the world I live in.
And that is the answer to the question many of you have asked. How is it that someone with such clarity and evocation has any right to assert that they are poor? It is likely untrue. Well, it is and it isn't. You have to understand that the piece you read was taken out of context, that I never meant to say that all of these things were happening to me right now, or that I was still quite so abject. I am not. I am reasonably lower working class. I am exhausted and poor and can't make all my bills all the time but I reconciled with my parents when I got pregnant for the sake of the kids and I have family resources. I can always make the amount of money I need in a month, it's just that it doesn't always match the billing cycles.
When I got pregnant, we were in a typical lower-working-class bit of fuckuppery. We had moved to a city so my husband could go to school on his GI bill. But due to some sort of oversight, we never did start getting the living stipend that we had budgeted for. We had decided that my career was over and it was his turn, so instead of looking for work in the field I loved, I took a job in fast food. So did he. We saved two pay periods and got the cheapest apartment we could find, figuring that we would be getting the stipend soon and could move someplace better when we did. And the checks didn't come for five months. I eventually reached out to legislator's offices and they got the wheels turning. We would get a lump sum for what was due us. I was well along and while I had medicaid, I couldn't find anyone accepting new patients except a charity clinic that told me that Jesus wanted me to keep my baby but had very little information for me about the state of my uterus. So instead of missing a day of work to hear about Jesus, I got books and read websites and did what I could on my own. Women have been pregnant for thousands of years and humanity seems to be doing okay. And I am smart. And then our apartment flooded and we still didn't have the check and then suddenly everything that we had carefully saved for this baby was gone. We had two feet of water in the place. We went back to the motel, which at least did not have bedbugs. In Cincinnati, that's a big deal. But the cost was double our rent, and we had barely been floating when we had clothes and things, much less nothing and extra rent to pay. And the frustrating thing about it all was that we had done the fucking thing correctly. We would have had more than enough money for a decent apartment and baby things if we had been getting our stipend, the one we were contractually due. And so that is how I know what it is to rage at the universe because you are doing everything you can and it is still not enough.
When my parents came to be there for the birth and they saw what we were dealing with they moved us to Utah and gave us a trailer to live in. And then when we had our second and final daughter they helped us find a house to live in and now we have some space for once. That is the sort of person I am. I chased dreams that I couldn't afford for longer than was strictly necessary, and only gave that up when children made life suddenly more stable. But fate is a chancy thing, and I am after all perfectly suited to write about poverty. I have been privileged while poor, because I am fucked up and spent decades in therapy, because I have been given access to these words, I am well-suited to this. I do not speak for everyone that makes the same amount I do. I speak for many of us. Those are different, and I do not confuse them. I did not think that I would ever do better than scrape by, but I am managing that without relying on charity.
I have had much luck and many breaks. Things could always have been much worse for me. But I have lived in the places where the worst situations are dealt with. I have seen what it is to be worse off than I am, because I am white and all of my class markers are fixable because I did not develop them as part of my being and my mental problems are not so severe and I do not live with a disability and my parents were kind and loving and just didn't know what to do. Because I happen to have been given this outlet I am telling these stories. Some are mine, some are things I have seen. All are a mix of luck and strength and intentions and failure and success. Very few people in this world are saintlike. Most people who are poor have not gotten there faultless. I didn't. And so I am talking about the people who are of average moral character, not the ones who have a clearly obvious leaning toward evil or good. The people I speak for are not the ones shooting each other, but everyone damn well knows what it sounds like when those people visit. And they are likely to hustle and make the most of every chance, because that is what success is.
Coming up with enough money that you are comfortable is the real American dream, and it is one that the people I am used to don't believe in as much as hope hard for. I have spent my life on the margins due to my own actions and an equal amount of things that I cannot control. One does not negate the other, but if you are looking for a paragon of virtue you will not find many among the people who have had to decide whether to work in a morally dubious establishment or not work at all.
When people say that I am perhaps not legitimate, it is maybe sort of true if you mean that when I was at the low points I did not have time for blogs and since I do now I am not at the bottom. That is a true thing. But it is untrue if you mean that you think that because I have some knowledge of and access to an intellectual culture higher than my station I must be the average Gawker or Times reader. I am not. There are a lot of us, particularly since the economy collapsed and, well, you read the same news I do. You remember. We remember what it is to be professional a little bit and we have a few close friends who have done well for themselves and a few that haven't. My closest friends are both living with family. One has chased work all over the country and just can't seem to find the right door for her foot. One is a single mom of a severely autistic teenaged daughter who has hocked her future to put herself through grad school. And all of it while supporting her family and spotting friends if they were desperate. They are the ones who have done everything correctly. I just happen to have this skill to tell the stories. I didn't even know it until last week.
The point is, I did not ask for any of this. I just wrote a thing on a Gawker forum. Everything that has come after is because something about the way I said it has resonated with hundreds of thousands of people. Everything that has come after is magic. I do not know if it is earned, precisely, but I am familiar with the concept of grants, and if people are determined I would be remarkably stupid to turn it down. I have learned not to make promises that I am not certain I can keep, and so here is what I have:
This is a shot at a second start, now that I have gotten over myself and understand what it is to be an adult. I have always had great potential and some talent for things. I am lucky that way. I have the tools that I need to take this gift and do good things with it. I think that even if everything ends tonight, if the Internet finds another talent in some corner and moves on, I have done something good here. That makes me happy. That people are willing to reward me for that is humbling, and I consider it a grant to give me the time to keep speaking about these things I have seen, because I am the sort of person who reads Woodward and Stiglitz and also the sort of person who has lived with three prostitutes who were great because they always paid the rent on time. I can explain one to another, a little. At least I can shed a tiny bit of light on it, and maybe that is how we manage to get the votes we need to extend SNAP benefits if we can afford to extend agricultural subsidies. Because I know those policies, I watch politics and policy instead of pop culture because I am a nerd, but my best friends are directly impacted by that change. And so I can speak about the human impact. I do not think, overall, that people are giving me this money because they feel poorly for me. There are a lot of fundraisers that are unfunded of people in much more dire circumstances.
I set up a fundraiser after the first 50 people asked how they could help me write. I think that people are giving me this money because they think I can do a good thing and they do not care so much about how I got here because they understand that it is easy to do. Not that it is good, but that it is average. I think that they are giving me this because they see that I have the skill and will be able to do something to help. I am not stupid enough to not take this shot. But I would like to tell you how I am going to handle it.
First, I have been contacted by an agent and am writing a book proposal. If I manage to sell the book, it will reach people I could not on my own. If it doesn't sell, I will have a rough outline of something that I can publish for free on the Internet. I will write about these things on my blog. Because people have given me this money to write.
Be very clear about this, please: I am quitting one of my day jobs. The one that is an hour's drive through snow in the mountains. And I have actually nailed a bigger contract with my second job, which pays better hourly anyway. This has given me the tiny break I needed to be able to make it without utter exhaustion. I will use the extra time to sleep more than I am used to. I will see my kids more because now I can work from home, and so our budget is expanded because childcare is not an issue. Tom is keeping his job. This is all magic and wonderful, but it is fleeting. We have learned and are careful now. And we have more than us two relying on us taking this oddity and using it wisely.
And so I will accept with gratitude, and I will give this money to tax lawyers to deal with and I will use it as long as I can to speak about these things I have seen, since that is why it has been given to me. I will not waste it on frivolity, but I will spend it on being healthy and making sure that if one of us gets the flu the electric bill is still paid. And I am giving some away, because many people have helped us and I think they need some magic. I am an arbitrary pick out of millions of hardworking and talented people. People had raised some money for dental surgery. I am grateful, but have found someone to give it to given my changing circumstances. I will pay a bill or two to the people who have loved me that are struggling. I might take a thousand just to do things like get a really comfy blanket that fits the bed perfectly. I am being told that it is wisest in my situation to simply pick a small bit and that is what you have to spend. That makes a lot of sense. So I will have a bit of luxury, because if nothing else I have spent endless hours on the Internet discussing these things and being patient with trolls and I have earned a small bit, I think.
I will say that I will always speak about this in any medium or venue that I can access. For some reason I have this chance to explain realities that a lot of people never imagine, and I will do it at every opportunity. That is all that I can promise you, but I think it is enough.