On Tara Westover’s “Educated.”

On Tara Westover’s “Educated.”

A man in my poetry class recently told me, “Ugh, cocaine is awful.  You use some, you’ll want some more, but I hate it.  It makes me such a jerk.  I mean, I’m not like this, I’m never like this, but if I’m on coke, I’m like, bitch, you best make yourself useful around here.”

Cocaine has a reputation as a fun party drug, but nobody in jail has anything nice to say about it.  And it’s not that they’re down on drugs in general – that same man told me:

“Meth?  Meth is great – you should never try it.”

And then he explained the social niceties of trying to shoot up in the home of a friend who was recently diagnosed with HIV.  This friend was apparently cavalierly sloppy with needles:

“Like, blood was spurting, and I was scooting back thinking, like, god, I wish I was anywhere but here … “

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Glasseelskils_0European eels are endangered.  They swim huge distances to complete their life cycles – hatching at sea, undertaking a voracious (oft cannibalistic) quest up rivers, then returning to their birthplaces to spawn – and have been thwarted by hydroelectric dams blocking their migration, and the tendency of an insatiable terrestrial ape to catch and consume huge numbers of their kind.

Now these eels face another obstacle: they must complete their voyages while blitzed on cocaine.  European governments dump drugs into the sea to “destroy” them, but that’s not how water works.  The drugs are still there.  The eels get high.

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576px-Robert_Louis_Stevenson_by_Henry_Walter_Barnett_bwAccording to popular legend, Robert Louis Stevenson was very sick before he wrote his Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Stevenson had tried many cures; all had failed.  Then his spouse bought cocaine.  This worked.  Suddenly Stevenson could write again.  In three days, he composed his novel.

When he read the first draft to his spouse, she said it didn’t seem sufficiently allegorical.  So Stevenson flung the pages into the fire and began again.  In three more days, he’d composed the version of the story that we know today.

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Dr. Jekyll was a fine man.  On drugs, he became a monster.

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IMG_5233When our first child was just shy of two years old, she liked to wear a green long-sleeve with a picture of The Incredible Hulk rampaging.  She’d pull it from her drawer; I’d say, “Oh, you want to wear your Hulk Smash shirt today?”

One day, I asked her, “N., why does Hulk want to smash?”

She looked down at the picture, then back up to me.  First she signed the word hungry.

“Oh, Hulk wants something to eat?”

She shook her head.  No, that didn’t sound quite right.  She looked down again, then made another sign, banging her hands together for the word shoes.

“Hulk is upset because he has no shoes?”

She bobbed her head yes.  No shoes.  That would make her rage, too.

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Once, some runners on the local high school cross country team asked me who would win in a fight, Superman or the Hulk.  They’d reached a detente after one claimed that the Hulk was unstoppable when enraged (“… and nothing calms him down except his girlfriend.”), and the other argued that Superman could turn back time until the moment before Hulk had gotten angry, then smash him.

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Superman vs. Hulk by JD Hancock on Flickr.

I demurred.  I don’t think Superman is a very interesting hero, and the Hulk is interesting only in campaigns, not battles.  I like the idea of a hero who might go berserk and accidentally thwart his own plans, but a single bout of wrestling isn’t like that.  I think it’s more compelling to consider his constant risk of hurting the people that he loves.

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fullsizeoutput_12In Educated, Tara Westover writes beautifully about the horrors of living with the Hulk.  Her early years were controlled by a father in the throes of extreme paranoia and delusions of grandeur:

Fourteen years after the incident with the Weavers, I would sit in a university classroom and listen to a professor of psychology describe something called bipolar disorder.  Until that moment I had never heard of mental illness.  I knew people could go crazy – they’d wear dead cats on their heads or fall in love with a turnip – but the notion that a person could be functional, lucid, persuasive, and something could still be wrong, had never occurred to me.

The professor recited facts in a dull, earthy voice: the average age of onset is twenty-five; there may be no symptoms before then. 

The irony was that if Dad was bipolar – or had any of a dozen disorders that might explain his behavior – the same paranoia that was a symptom of the illness would prevent its ever being diagnosed and treated.  No one would ever know. 

Because her father was at war with the federal government, Westover never went to school.  Her birth went undocumented – she didn’t have a certificate that would’ve allowed her to enroll until years later, and even then wound up with a hodgepodge of documents that listed slightly differing names and birthdates. 

And her father needed money, because he was frantically stockpiling food and ammunition.  He needed solar panels (back when they were much more expensive than today) because the power grid was going to cut out after Y2K.

As one of God’s soldiers, he needed to build an ark.  Or tank.  Arsenal.  Whatever.

This constant hustle for money led Westover’s father to subject his children to incredible dangers.  There might be a safe way to do a job, but if the risky way could save two minutes, the man put his kids’ lives on the line.  Westover was forced to ride up to a trailer inside a bin filled with two thousand pounds of scrap iron.  When her leg got caught and she couldn’t jump out, her father still dumped the bucket.  Westover tumbled nearly twenty feet to the ground.  And this was lucky.  If she’d fallen a few inches to the other side, she would’ve been crushed by all that iron. 

Her brothers were injured even more grievously at her father’s hands.

For instance, a brother’s clothes caught fire while he was working with his father.  In Westover’s recollection, the father then lifted his burnt son into the cab of a truck and made him drive home alone.  Only the ten-year-old Westover was there to help him, so she put her brother’s burnt leg inside a garbage can full of ice water.

She thought:

If Dad had been with Luke on the mountain, he would have brought him to the house, would have treated the burn.  Dad was away on a job somewhere, that’s why Luke had had to get himself down the mountain.  Why his leg had been treated by a ten-year-old.  Why it had ended up in a garbage can.

Except that she then realizes that her father must have been with her brother.  He must have been there in order to put out the fire; otherwise the whole mountainside would’ve burned. 

In a footnote, Westover adds: 

Since the writing of this story, I have spoken to Luke about the incident.  His account differs from both mine and Richard’s.  In Luke’s memory, Dad took Luke to the house, administered a homeopathic for shock, then put him in a tub of cold water, where he left him to go fight the fire.  This goes against my memory, and against Richard’s.  Still, perhaps our memories are in error.  Perhaps I found Luke in a tub, alone, rather than on the grass.  What everyone agrees upon, strangely, is that somehow Luke ended up on the front lawn, his leg in a garbage can.

Westover’s father was abusive, and he routinely convinced his children that their memories were in error, instead substituting his own (oft-illogical) versions of events, but he isn’t the Hulk in this story.  Yup, things get worse.  One of Westover’s brothers might suddenly snap and become Hyde.

Westover loved her older brother Shawn, but during an over-hasty job with their father, Shawn fell twelve feet, striking a concrete wall headfirst, and sustained a severe brain injury.  Instead of taking the kid to the hospital, their father propped him against a pickup truck and left him to sit in the hot sun.

His pupils were unevenly dilated.  His brain was bleeding.

Fifteen minutes later, Shawn wandered back to the worksite and started acting wild.  He screamed, flung his father, ran around leaping and howling.  The others tackled him – at which point his head again struck the concrete, hard – and called 911 for a helicopter to airlift him to the hospital.

It took some time for me to realize that although Shawn looked the same, he wasn’t.  He seemed lucid, but if you listened carefully his stories didn’t make sense.  They weren’t really stories at all, just one tangent after another. 

Worse, he was violent.  But unpredictably so.  At one moment, he and Westover might be laughing together.  At another moment, he’d twist her arm behind her back so brutally that she worried her wrist would break, call her a slut, and cram her face into a toilet bowl.  He hacked at the throat of his son’s pet dog with a five-inch knife blade while the animal howled, dying.  He called his sister and placidly explained his plans to visit her university and murder her.

In a lucid moment, he helped Westover install a massive deadbolt in her bedroom door, despite knowing that he was the only person she needed protection from.

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Tara_Westover_1+2-smallerAnd yet, Westover escaped.  Although she’d never set foot inside a classroom, she was accepted to Brigham Young University, where the consensus view of reality was much closer to her own.

Of course, she made a few stumbles.  Because she didn’t understand what course numbers signified, she enrolled as a freshman in an upper-level art history class.  Worse, she raised her hand to ask after the meaning of a word she didn’t recognize: Holocaust.

During one of my own classes, we were discussing poems from Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony when I mentioned that Reznikoff had also written about the Holocaust.

“Holocaust, what’s that?” a man asked. 

Unlike Westover, this man had grown up in an urban area.  But he’d stopped attending school when he was pretty young, and there’s a lot of cultural knowledge that we tend to take for granted.

I’d like to think that I handled the situation better than Westover’s professor.  Westover was shamed.  In our poetry class, we instead talked about how the word “holocaust” could be seen as offensive when used to describe the years during which members of the Nazi party murdered at least 6 million people, typically because their victims believed in Judaism.  The word “holocaust” originally meant a burnt offering for God, so Jewish leaders instead referred to this period of history with the Hebrew word for “catastrophe.”  Although even that phrasing seems off, because “catastrophe” generally evokes natural disaster, whereas the Holocaust was mass murder and torture on a scale comparable only to American slavery.  A purely human evil.

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Westover became a historian.  After experiencing firsthand the nightmare of having her own account of reality constantly replaced by someone else’s version, she understood how powerful storytelling can be.  Educated is a beautiful book.  And, to my mind, a much more sensible depiction of unequal opportunity in the United States than J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

Westover recognizes how lucky she was to escape, and how narrowly she avoided the fate of her sister-in-law.  And Westover gives a powerful endorsement of government aid:

I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.  My professors came into focus, suddenly and sharply; it was as if before the grant I’d been looking at them through a blurred lens.  My textbooks began to make sense, and I found myself doing more than the required reading.

On keeping someone alive.

On keeping someone alive.

A friend’s father recently suffered a stroke and spent a mostly unconscious week in the hospital.  On the third day, he had a brief spell of lucidity.  My friend was visiting.  The father – who’d reverted to his native language – said, “Keep me alive, son.”

Then rapidly deteriorated.  He was intubated.  The functions of his inoperative organs were replaced by pumping, thumping, wheezing machines.

But it was much more difficult for my friend to finally tell the doctors, “You’re right, it’s time,” than if he hadn’t had that final conversation.  He knew his father wasn’t coming back.  But keep me alive, son sure changes the way it feels.

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Twice in the past year or so, my spouse has had to decide when it was time to ease off on her parents’ care.  Her mother could speak (incoherently) when first taken to the hospital, but then the swelling set in.  Her father, after a stroke, was speechless in the hospital, but during his moments of lucidity was able to wink at our daughter.  He played peek-a-boo by rotating his head.

That night, the bleeding started again.  With aggressive treatment, he could’ve been kept sufficiently alive for a vegetative, ventilated existence in the hospital.  It was up to K to decide.  “Make it easy for him.”

Most doctors forgo aggressive treatment.  Those who’ve seen the fallout know it isn’t worthwhile.

Instead, my father-in-law’s life ended on a high note.  The week before, he’d had a romantic fling with a 22-year-old.  In the hospital, he played games with his granddaughter one last time.  I told him we’d take good care of his rabbit and his dog.  And the stroke itself occurred during a dinner party with his neighbors – thankfully they emptied out his weed grinder before he was loaded into the ambulance.  (Although, why did they return the empty – but still redolent – grinder to his pocket?  Do such accouterments hold sentimental value to potheads?  As far as I could tell, this was a cheap wooden one, no more than a decade old.)

He didn’t ask that we keep him alive.  And yet, in many ways, I am.

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10322431_10101064778337473_5093448295702155029_nMike Milks was a firm believer in community, and he spent his time caring for people less fortunate than himself… this despite the fact that he was often broke, homeless, and hungry.  Each month when his SNAP benefits came through, he’d ride the bus to the discount grocery store, buy a bunch of whole wheat flour, and bake loaves of sourdough bread for his neighbors.  $200 a month isn’t much, and yet his benefits helped a lot of people eat.

Before K and I moved him to Bloomington and started paying for him to have an apartment, he was squatting in his deceased former roommate’s house.  No electricity, no water, no heat, in a mostly-abandoned neighborhood where thieves had stripped most homes of their copper pipes.  Folks broke into his house twice; he was pistol-whipped in the face.

Before he fed himself, he fed the dog.  And, when he could, left out scraps for the stray cats.

In Bloomington, he cared for addicts – his friends here struggled with opiates and amphetamines.  He’d talk to them, and, when they blew their own meager salaries on drugs – or lost their jobs for arriving blinkered at work again – he’d feed them.

167346_736041549673_5510527_nHe cycled through many bedraggled roommates in his time here.  One stiffed us for a thousand dollars, having never paid rent for seven months (yes, rent in Bloomington is very cheap.  But that left K & me to scrape together the money on the salaries of a public school teacher and a full-time writer).  Another has since been murdered in a bungled drug deal.  The alcoholic librarian fancied himself the best of the lot, slurring to me one day, “Yer father sure knows a lotta low-level criminals.”

And yet even he, the alcoholic librarian, vanished… at which point cops came by to ask some questions because the dude’s car had been found abandoned in a field in the run-down nowhere between a town known for meth and a town known for pills.  It was two weeks before the librarian turned up again, and every time Mike asked where he’d been the dude pretended not to hear the question.

Mike Milks gave what he had to those people.  Nobody else cared for them.

And then, after he died, I began teaching in the local jail.

Against all odds – because I should admit that Mike infuriated me sometimes – I am carrying on his work.  When Mike gave a banquet – with those scraps he cobbled together from SNAP benefits – he would invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind … and addicts, lepers of the modern world.  He did so unthinkingly.  All he had was love, and he gave where it was needed.

I am less kind than he was.  But I am learning.

So, thank you, Mike.  I am grateful to be keeping a small part of your work alive.

On Edin & Shaefer’s ‘$2.00 a Day.’

On Edin & Shaefer’s ‘$2.00 a Day.’

K & I live pretty cheaply.

We try not to spend too much on food, but we always buy fresh fruits and vegetables.  We stock up on pasta when it’s on sale — on a recent shopping trip we bought 40 pounds at $0.50 per pound — and we eat a lot of rice, homemade bread, lentils, beans we rehydrate ourselves.  Still, I give us a budget of $30 per day for food, almost double what SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program, or “food stamps”) would let somebody spend.

Then there’s our mortgage, which costs another $30 per day.  We have two phones between us, which together cost $1.80 per day.  Internet, $1.50 per day.  Heat, water, and electricity?  Another $5.00 (which might sound like a lot — our little city prices water such that you pay more per unit the more you use, and N wears cloth diapers).  Our car needs gas and maintenance; even though we had enough in savings to buy it outright, it still costs us close to $2 per day.  Our sundry insurance policies (car, health, life, homeowner’s), roughly $20 daily.

We’re not profligate spenders.  Graduate school stipends aren’t huge amounts of money, and California’s Bay Area is an expensive place to live, but we were able to put away a lot of savings during our time there.  Starting salaries for public school teachers aren’t so high, either — because K had eight years’ worth of continuing education credits from her Ph.D., she started at $37k here — but we were supporting four adults on her salary for a while.  During those first few years we made do without a car, and the rent we were paying was cheaper than our mortgage is now, and I had to cut our food budget back from grad school’s fancy-pants $15 per person per day to about $6.  We had fewer treats like cauliflower, eggplant, and chocolate than we do now.

We’ve been lucky enough to rarely visit doctors or hospitals (except when I’d go retrieve K’s father after his government-funded surgeries).  The cost of what little care we receive is typically bundled up with our insurance.  But we maxed out our co-pay when N was born, and we’ll max it out again when we have another kid.  So — most years, zero, some years, $10 per day.  I’ll budget the higher number.

We pay $1.90 per day for childcare.  People who look after children ought to be compensated much better than they are now; it’s absurd how little this is valued in our country.  At the same time, I’m grateful that we can afford such high-quality childcare.

We wear clothes till threadbare.  I’d estimate that our whole family spends no more than $0.50 per day on clothes.  Most of my best shirts have come from the dumpsters after the university students moved out.

Still, our current version of austerity has us spending over $100 per day.

Reading Kathryn Edin & H. Luke Shaefer’s $2.00 a Day was brutal.

unnamed.jpgEdin & Shaefer spent time with impoverished families to learn what life is like at the bottom of our nation’s income distribution.  Their work focuses on anecdote and portraiture.  Despite the fact that, as a math brain, I love numbers and statistics, I was completely convinced that their method was best for this project.  In their words:

In big, nationally representative surveys (like the one that provides the hard numbers for this book), families may not always tell researchers (usually government employees) about income from all of the survival strategies described in this chapter.  A mom with one child who tells a researcher that she had $120 in income during a particular month might actually have had $180 because she donated plasma twice or sold $100 in SNAP benefits in exchange for $60 in cash.  When queried by researchers, a mother may fear prosecution if she reports that she got money from a “friend” in exchange for sex.  Some may simply forget to report the cash they get from collecting aluminum cans — perhaps because it is so irregular or the profit is so small.  Others — particularly those who are homeless or otherwise on the move, shifting from the home of one relative to another — may not even appear in big government surveys because they have no stable address.  The only way to get a true accounting of the resources of the $2-a-day poor is to spend large amounts of time with them, build trust, and meticulously document their circumstances.  But this kind of research is time-consuming.  Without millions of research dollars, it is impossible to identify and follow a large random sample of the $2-a-day poor, which would be the only way to paint a reliable national portrait of what they must do to survive.

Because it takes a lot of ingenuity to survive extreme poverty, everyone’s solutions are unique.  Aggregate statistics would cause you to overlook the idiosyncratic blend of trash picking, plasma selling, sexual favor trading, and apartment sharing that allows people to scrape by.  But Edin & Shaefer, by taking time to get to know people, were able to see these strategies.

Edin & Shaefer argue — correctly, I’m convinced — that you can’t learn what it takes to survive poverty when you think about people as numbers.  You have to get to know people as individual human beings.  Then you can understand.

Here’s a quick summary of what they found: 1.) People are hungry.  2.) When you’re depending on others for shelter, sexual assault is rampant.  3.) These assaults, and negative encounters with the police, and pervasive fear — that the car will break, that Walmart won’t assign enough hours, that there won’t be food tonight — has led to innumerable cases of PTSD.  Which makes it even harder to think, to plan, to do anything but worry.

The statistical problems Edin & Shaefer described in the quote above mean we don’t know how many people are living this way.  But a reasonable guess is: many.  In their words again:

unnamed (1)Where do we see hard evidence of the rise in extreme poverty among families with children?  It is evident in the SIPP, the nationally representative survey that does the best job of capturing the incomes of the poor.  It is seen in SNAP administrative records, which show a sharp uptick in the number of families reporting no other form of income save SNAP.  In fact, the SNAP estimates match those from the SIPP survey remarkably closely.  Reports in some major cities suggest increased demand for family shelter beds starting in the early 2000s, as well as an increase in the number of families seeking emergency food services that predates the Great Recession.  But the best proof of all that the $2-a-day poor exist is that finding people who fit this profile … is not that hard.  It can be done in a relatively short amount of time in a number of locales across the country.  This virtually cashless form of poverty is out there, even though we wish it weren’t.  And it has grown.

Perhaps I should mention, now, that the comparison between my family’s spending and the daily cash allotment of many people in extreme poverty is somewhat flawed.  For instance, I included our mortgage.  Many people in extreme poverty spend a portion of each year paying no rent — they might be renting an apartment but using their money on other expenses, knowing that they’re about to be evicted, or they might be in a shelter, or sleeping in a car, or sharing housing with a relative or romantic partner or complete stranger.

But, during those times when people at the bottom of the income distribution do pay for their own housing, they often pay more than my family does.  For unsafe, unsound properties.  This phenomenon is described in Matthew Desmond’s Evicted:

unnamed (3)… rent in some of the worst neighborhoods was not drastically cheaper than rent in much better areas.  For example, in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where at least 40 percent of families lived below the poverty line, median rent for a two-bedroom apartment was only $50 less than the citywide median.

This has long been the case.  When tenements began appearing in New York City in the mid-1800s, rent in the worst slums was 30 percent higher than in uptown.  In the 1920s and ‘30s, rent for dilapidated housing in the black ghettos of Milwaukee and Philadelphia and other northern cities exceeded that for better housing in white neighborhoods.  As late as 1960, rent in major cities was higher for blacks than for whites in similar accommodations.  The poor did not crowd into slums because of cheap housing.  They were there — and this was especially true of the black poor — simply because they were allowed to be.

There are so few options at the bottom that poor people get squeezed much harder than those who could actually afford it.

Similarly, my family’s $100+ daily expenses includes everything we spend on food.  At the bottom of the income distribution, most people have access to SNAP — other than my wife, everyone in her family received these.

K’s father actually had enough to eat when he was on SNAP.  We helped him buy a bus pass, so he was able to ride out to a real grocery store.  But many people who receive SNAP don’t have access to transportation, which forces them to shop at the one small store nearby, which means they often pay more than wealthier shoppers for equivalent items.  When you’re getting gouged, food stamps don’t go far.  Worse, you might need to buy gas so that you can get to work.  Food stamps don’t buy gas.  You’d be stuck trading your stamps for cash at something like 50 or 30 cents to the dollar.  At the end of the month, you & your kids won’t eat.

Childhood food insecurity causes lifelong mental and physical changes.  My dear friend who made it gets laughed at all the time because food makes her behave so strangely — she still hears that voice in her head urging her to stake out her own portion when she sits down to a family-style dinner with people.

The people laughing have never been hungry.

The people laughing have bones that break less easily.

And I included the amount K & I spend on insurance.  So many types of insurance!  People living in extreme poverty often pay nothing for insurance.  There’s no money for it.

But this means, obviously, that poor people have to spend more eventually.  In Hand to Mouth, Linda Tirado writes that she did not grow up impoverished.  But she was poor enough as a young adult that she couldn’t afford insurance, which meant she was a single flood away from losing everything she owned.

There are countless stories of U.S. citizens who were getting by — not doing well, but not struggling to survive — until a medical disaster left them unable to work & swamped with unpaid bills.

Which means yet another challenge that poor people in this country have to face that us lucky wealthy ones can remain blissfully ignorant of.  Honestly, the fact that I could list my family’s expenses at all reveals how well off we are.  We can budget our spending, because spending, for wealthy people, is relatively stable.  We have enough money that we can set some aside for eventual car repairs, which means we won’t have to borrow when our car breaks, or lose a job, or…

Could people living in extreme poverty set aside money for those eventual expenses?  Honestly, no.  If you’re hungry — worse, if you’re watching your kid be hungry — you spend money on food.  Or so I’ve heard.  I’m lucky.  I get to learn about poverty from books instead of by living it.

Of course, this also means I have to deal with the attendant shame of reading books like Edin & Shaefer’s.  The message is clear: we, as a people, are failing.  We should not have made a world where people have to live like this.

It’s not as though the solution is so difficult to come up with, either.  I disagree with some of Paul Theroux’s economic ideas here, but you should take a moment to read his lovely editorial, “The Hypocrisy of ‘Helping’ the Poor.”

Yes, food stamps help.  No, they don’t help enough.  But the real solution isn’t to boost social welfare spending (although that would be a step in the right direction).  Many people living in extreme poverty want to work.  But there aren’t jobs.  (In the future, there’ll be even fewer).

And yet much of our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling.  We would all be better off if the federal government started pouring money into laying fiber-optic cable; fixing roads; manufacturing, installing, & maintaining solar panels; providing low-cost, well-compensated, high-quality childcare…

There’s plenty that could be done, and there are people who would be thrilled at the chance to do it.  Instead, we’re leaving them stranded: hungry, assaulted, cold, traumatized.