‘The Forgotten Girls’ Review: The Friend Who Was Left Behind

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.

10 thoughts on “‘The Forgotten Girls’ Review: The Friend Who Was Left Behind”

  1. The smartest, most ambitious inhabitants of the countryside move to cities in order to have interesting, high-paying careers, and more often than not they end up having just one or two children, or perhaps none at all. Eventually rural areas run out of people of above-average intelligence to send to the cities, which follow the small towns into terminal decline. It is cognitive strip-mining.

  2. 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.

    I knew this was going to be a factor. I grew up with a set of friends (they were sisters and cousins with each other) who had a similar set of circumstances. Two of the sisters (let’s call them Jessica and Elizabeth) were taken from their neglectful alcoholic mother and went to live with their aunt, whose daughter (let’s call her Annie) I was friends with. Just one day when we were four or five they showed up at the house, like magic.

    Annie’s mom later had two more girls. None of the girls, including her cousins, have the same father, and in some cases the identity is a mystery to the girl. I don’t think I ever met Annie’s father (not sure she ever did, either, to be fair). Annie’s mom would later die from her own substance abuse problems.

    But when we were kids, I thought the eldest girl Elizabeth would become a doctor, because she was always telling me science facts and biology seemed to be her favorite subject. Of all of the girls, she has the most stable life: only one husband she’s still married to, had kids in wedlock, goes to church, and has never had her children taken by the state. But even so, she’s an orderly and not a nurse or a doctor. The girls’ childhoods were so chaotic that most of them were either kicked out or ran away before finishing high school.

    With Jessica and the others I can see the consequences of growing up fatherless: Jessica has odd, virtually non-existent standards for the men she chooses. She has no template, and thinks I might be judgmental when I tell her it’s okay to prefer men who have teeth, a job, and their own place instead of living in their parents’ basement.

    My parents were sort of the back up parents to Annie and the girls. Recently my mother reminisced about the time Annie asked my father to fix her bike when we were little because “You’re all I have for a dad.”

    The OP mentions the loss of blue collar jobs where she grew up. I agree that’s important — we’re in the Rust Belt, and my parents felt the consequences at Ford and Bosch back in the day. But a stable family matters more, and failing to address this fact ensures the cycle of despair will never end.

    • Ages ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned about this very same effect while congress debated The “Great Society” welfare reforms. He was vilified. He was also right. Fatherless children, especially boys, start out life at a major disadvantage compared to their “nuclear family” counterparts.


      The whole “it takes a village” mantra is a pale substitute for a proper upbringing. All it achieves is to perpetuate the cycle of failure to the point the big cities are well into the third generation of single parent households, usually poor and in the same residence, all wards of the state.

      • Preaching to the choir here. What frustrates is a divide I think is called “Belmont” vs “Fishtown” (it’s a Charles Murray concept). Fishtowners are the working class in this scenario. The Belmonters are the socio-political elite who will advocate for fatherless homes and promote them in media and such. They will speak snidely about “family values,” but they sure are careful to live those values even while they denigrate them. They don’t want their kids going to schools where teenage pregnancies are rampant. They stay apart from the consequences of their policies.

        I remember a satisfying moment in the comments at the Wall Street Journal where a Belmont woman dismissed the fact that fatherlessness is truly destructive. She thought it was only a problem when the mother was a poor Fishtowner. A Belmont man responded, “Does your husband know you think he can be replaced with a rich uncle?”

        The woman backtracked and admitted her husband might be important to their children, and his wallet would not be a sufficient substitute.

        As for Moynihan, I’ve always heard of his report, but I never knew why people in his era failed to heed it. Perhaps they needed to learn the hard way. If so, generations of children since that day have paid an enormous price.

        • I haven’t found a clear explanation either but Moynihan was Irish catholic rather than WASPish and more Fishtown than Belmont. From Wikipedia:

          “Moynihan was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the son of Margaret Ann (née Phipps), a homemaker, and John Henry Moynihan, a reporter for a daily newspaper in Tulsa but originally from Indiana.[1][2] He moved at the age of six with his Irish Catholic family to New York City. Brought up in the working class neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen,[3] he shined shoes and attended various public, private, and parochial schools, ultimately graduating from Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem. He was a parishioner of St. Raphael’s Church, where he also cast his first vote.[4] He and his brother, Michael Willard Moynihan, spent most of their childhood summers at their grandfather’s farm in Bluffton, Indiana. Moynihan briefly worked as a longshoreman before entering the City College of New York (CCNY), which at that time provided free higher education to city residents.”

          Also, his 1965 report went against the economic and labor market theory of black poverty and instead pointed to social and cultural roots. Which suggested the then proposed welfare reform would amplify and make things worse. (Which it did.)

          As to the general failure of LBJ and Nixon’s reforms, beyond thr inner city black community, the best answer I can figure out is demographic economics. In a word (heh) boomers.

          As the largest demographic cohort ever, boomers hit the labor market in the late 60’s and beyond leading to a workforce glut leading to the massive increase in dual income families:


          From 25% in 1960 to 60%+ in 1990 and father-only from 70% to 31%.

          And that was for dual parent families that stayed together.

          At the low end of the scale, the welfare model typically substituted state support for the “father’s wallet” and Headstart and schools for maternal care, thus making the fatherless family viable and in many cases better funded than a full nuclear family. Add in contraceptives, the sex revolution and legal abortions, and out of wedlock births (40% as of 2014) and you get to 30% fatherless kids by 2014.

          Classic law of unintended consequences: trying to fix one problem (low income for the underfunded families) ended up removing the main incentive for families staying together (for the children) and boosting the viability of the (preexisting) “player” lifestyle, thereby creating a much bigger problem, the multi-generational fatherless family.

          Not the only case of good intentioned welfare reform creating a bigger mess: way back in the 60’s, welfare food assistance was just that: food. USDA standard grocery supplies. Cheese, peanut butter, canned chicken, etc. Hardly gourmet food but nutrionally defensible. And while there was something of a black market in the groceries it was a minor problem. But for political reasons, the grocery packages were replaced by foodstamps which became a secondary currency used to pay for drugs and “services”. Plus, they were good for any food items, not just nutritionlaly sound ones. More recently the vouchers were replaced by debit cards and in at least some states the cards are functionally indistinguishable from regular bank cards, good in restaurants and fast food stores, not just supermarkets. Net result: unbalanced spending leading to recipients running out of food at month’s end, creating food insecurity for the very people the program intends to help because the state just throws money out with no effort to teach proper budgeting or nutrition.

          The same effects are found all over where government intervention is worse “cure” than the “problem” which, to make matters worse, wasn’t really a problem. Pretty clear by now that governent power has limits and exceeding its bounds helps no one. Even when warned ahead of time.

          Whether prohibition, welfare reforms, or “green energy” subsidies, it never ends well. And they never learn.

          • FWIW, here’s an overview of the Moynihan report:


            Signature quote:

            “Moynihan argued that without access to jobs and the means to contribute meaningful support to a family, black men would become systematically alienated from their roles as husbands and fathers, which would cause rates of divorce, child abandonment and out-of-wedlock births to skyrocket in the black community (a trend that had already begun by the mid-1960s), leading to vast increases in the numbers of households headed by females.”

            More recently, it has been noted that:

            The report concluded that the structure of family life in the black community constituted a ‘tangle of pathology… capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world,’ and that ‘at the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time.’ Also, the report argued that the matriarchal structure of black culture weakened the ability of black men to function as authority figures. That particular notion of black familial life has become a widespread, if not dominant, paradigm for comprehending the social and economic disintegration of late 20th-century black urban life.[7]

            Of course, his insight as to the root cause was ignored and the attempted remedies only addressed the sympthoms. By throwing money at the matter.

            That said, social engineering rarely works so even going to the root might not have worked. But they didn’t even try.

          • The Fishtown element makes sense re: Moynihan. And I’m noticing a consistent theme in all of the programs you mention: the proponents claim they will help, but they accomplish the exact opposite.

            Also consistent is “they never learn.”

            But perhaps they don’t want to learn (there is no obvious impediment for doing so).

            I remember reading about LBJ in this context, so now I’m putting some pieces together. I can confirm there was a black market in government cheese at least, simply because an old editor mentioned it happening in the Detroit suburb where he grew up. I gather that cheese was really good. But I also agree it’s unlikely the black market justified the switch to the corruption-enabling stamps and cards.

            Thanks for those links.

            • The chrse was actual pure cheese, not “cheese food” or “cheese product”. And the bricks were enormous: 5 lbs. More than most families could consume but perfect for restaurants and corner groceries.

              But it helped funnel money to the dairy industry. Which made some pols happy and others…less so. Wheels within wheels in the statist world.

        • “but I never knew why people in his era failed to heed it.”

          Because it told people what they didn’t want to hear–namely, that government intervention was not a panacea, and that acting in a personally responsible manner was helpful for your well-being and the well-being of others.

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