From The Wall Street Journal:
When journalist Monica Potts came across research detailing a striking drop in life expectancy among the least-educated white Americans, she returned to her depressed rural hometown of Clinton, Ark., to investigate. She was especially interested in understanding the rise in midlife deaths among white women, but her focus promptly narrowed to one woman in particular: her childhood best friend, Darci Brawner.
In the years after high school, Ms. Potts had attended Bryn Mawr College, earned a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, and established a successful career as a reporter. (She currently covers politics for the website FiveThirtyEight.) Ms. Brawner, on the other hand, had failed to complete high school and developed addictions to methamphetamines and methadone, cycling in and out of prison and rehab while her mother and stepfather raised her two children.
The question driving Ms. Potts’s clear-eyed and tender debut, “The Forgotten Girls,” is why, given that she and her friend were both smart and ambitious and hell-bent on escaping their blighted hometown, did one succeed and the other fail? The author hopes that determining how their paths diverged will illuminate the drop in life expectancy, which is widely attributed to suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol-related fatalities—the so-called “deaths of despair” identified by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton after their 2015 study of rising mortality. While Ms. Brawner does not belong to that sad demographic—hers is rather a life of despair—Ms. Potts wonders whether her repeated attempts to turn her life around are “just delaying the inevitable.”
Ms. Potts is well-positioned to explain her insular birthplace to outsiders. She retains strong ties to the community in the foothills of the Ozarks, and she didn’t merely helicopter in to report the book: She left the Washington, D.C., suburbs to move back permanently in 2017. People there trust her and speak to her candidly. They include not only Ms. Brawner, but other friends from the ’80s and ’90s, along with their parents and former teachers.
As its subtitle, “A Memoir of Friendship and Lost Promise in Rural America,” suggests, this book is as much the author’s story as a piece of reportage. Ms. Potts reconstructs events with the help of her teenage journals (she’s granted access to Ms. Brawner’s as well), and she considers ways she might have failed her friend. “When I began my investigation into what was happening to women like Darci,” she writes, “I didn’t realize how personal and emotional this journey would become.”
While “The Forgotten Girls” glancingly addresses larger forces like the disappearance of solid blue-collar jobs in Clinton and the desertion of the downtown business district, the narrative is rooted in the two women’s experiences. Readers might feel that the solution to the riddle of why one girl grew up to succeed and one to fail is hiding in plain sight: Ms. Potts, though poor like Ms. Brawner, came from a relatively stable family that prioritized education.
Though the author hesitates to assign blame to Ms. Brawner’s mother and stepfather, their parenting appears lax by any definition. Ms. Brawner’s home had a den with its own entrance to the street, and she and her older brother turned it into, in the author’s words, “a twenty-four-hour teenage clubhouse, complete with alcohol and, later, drugs.” Meth, in fact, was more easily accessible than alcohol.
In a town without much to do, and where smart kids were unlikely to be challenged by their schoolwork, Ms. Brawner began drinking and taking drugs in her early teens; she became sexually active at 14 and essentially had a live-in boyfriend by 16. Ms. Potts is critical of the town’s dominant evangelical churches, which stressed trust in God’s plan above all else. This, she argues, encouraged people to surrender control of their own lives. Ms. Brawner’s mother seemed to be a mere spectator to her daughter’s slow derailment. When Ms. Potts asks her how she handles problems, she replies, “Oh you know, I just give it up to God.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal
This story resonated with PG because he grew up under somewhat similar circumstances. Fortunately, there were no drug problems, but there were more than a few problems with alcoholism.
PG graduated as the valedictorian of a class of 22 students. His high school girlfriend was the salutatorian. PG and his high school girlfriend were the only ones who graduated from college. The #3 graduate went to nursing school for a couple of years. Most of the others didn’t apply to college and the two or three who did dropped out well before completing a degree.
The schools in that tiny town closed for good a few years after PG graduated. The students from the town and adjoining farmland were bussed to a larger town nearby. The town’s population is about two-thirds its size when PG left for good. Based on what PG has been able to determine from online research, there are a lot of abandoned houses in the town. The house where PG lived was torn down a few years after he left.
Some parts of rural America are thriving due to improvements in agricultural practices, but a great many of the towns are in stasis.
PG’s younger brother was a successful real estate broker in Iowa prior to a premature death. Iowa farmland is right at the top of the most productive farmland in the world, due to a combination of very good soil and a good climate for growing corn, soy beans and similar midwestern staples.
PG’s brother recounted a typical conversation he had frequently with some of the older farmers who had spent their entire lives farming. When he asked them what would happen to the farm after they were unable to handle the hard work of fertilizing, planting, cultivating, harvesting, etc., they would often respond that their children would take over the family farm which had remained in the family for 75-100 years.
“Well,” my brother would say something like, “Is your daughter who’s an ophthalmologist in Los Angeles going to come back to take over the farm or will it be your son who’s a stockbroker in Manhattan?”
The farm provided for a good life for the family, but the kids found something that interested them more than farming.
On one such occasion, my brother sold a large family farm to Goldman Sachs, a large stockbroker and financial firm headquartered in New York City, who recognized the asset value of the farmland, but which hired a farm manager to oversee its large Iowa land holdings, but the land was unlikely to ever revert to a family farm.