Young, White, Female and Dying of Despair in Rural America

THE FORGOTTEN GIRLS: A Memoir of Friendship and Lost Promise in Rural America,by Monica Potts

As part of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a subsidiary organization called U.N. Women released a report last year looking at global trends toward gender equality. By nearly every available metric — from access to clean water and a path out of poverty to feeling safe while walking alone in the dark — the report’s authors found that women’s push for parity is losing ground. At the current rate of progress, U.N. Women projects that it will take another 286 years — nine generations — for women to achieve legally protected equality.

Reading Monica Potts’s expansive first book, “The Forgotten Girls,” got me thinking about this grim scenario. The central question for Potts is why the life expectancy of America’s least educated white women has recently been shrinking. Many women are dying from what researchers call “diseases of despair”: suicide, drunken driving, overdoses. Using her rural hometown, Clinton, Ark., as a focal point, Potts drills down into the lives of women for whom such indicators are realities.

She found that their lives were playing out in the same dismal ways the research portended: a teenage bride who, years into an abusive marriage, crashes her car while fleeing her husband; a 14-year-old who goes into labor just days after she learns she is pregnant.

Then there is Darci, Potts’s closest childhood friend. The book opens with Potts, now an adult home for the holidays, collecting a drunken Darci from a disheveled trailer on a Christmas Eve morning. Darci borrows $20 from her current boyfriend, apologizing to Potts for her frazzled state. Darci’s poverty is that of hand-me-downs and empty refrigerators, of a place where “meth was always around. It was easier to get than alcohol.”

As children, Potts and Darci dreamed of a better future, which they imagined taking place in Fresno, Calif., because it “had an exciting, bold name.” Partway through middle school, however, their friendship begins to falter. Darci goes “boy crazy” and, in high school, experiments with pot and crystal meth. Potts graduates and escapes to college at Bryn Mawr, then New York City and, eventually, Washington, D.C. On visits home, people ask if she fears living in big cities. Her answer is haunting: “The worst things that had ever happened to me or to Darci had happened here, just a few miles from where we were born.”

In Clinton, one misstep can derail an entire life. Darci’s life is upended when, despite her good grades, she is informed late in her senior year of high school that she’s missed too many days to graduate. She immediately spirals out of control: early pregnancy, an abusive relationship, drugs, addiction, multiple rehabs, jail and homelessness.

Potts blames a variety of systemic failings for Darci’s fate: gender violence, poor health care, a depressed rural economy and rampant underemployment. But she is at her most persuasive when she describes how religious fundamentalism — nearly every family she knew growing up attended church — marginalizes women, filtering into local policy in such a way that it becomes “less a personal belief system than a tool for social control.”

In Clinton, like other rural Southern small towns, Christianity permeates every aspect of life, from prayers before high school football games to church leaders, invariably men, holding local government positions — as mayors, sheriffs, quorum court justices and school board members. Even those who don’t share evangelical beliefs, like Potts’s family, are forced to live by an authority informed by a worldview that “set girls up to be of service to everyone and in charge of nothing.”

The book is awash in research, held together less by Potts’s own story than by Darci’s. The first 50 pages or so are mired in exposition. Over and over we are pulled from Darci’s story into long passages on everything from geologic history and Potts’s ancestral background to religion, health and social welfare markers. Such data is interesting but at times gives the book the feel of a textbook.

This is not to say we aren’t taken fully into this world of hardscrabble lives and tenuous survival. Potts portrays Clinton in all its rugged beauty (a swimming hole is “a milky-blue refuge”), and even the people with whom she disagrees are given fair treatment, including Darci’s mother, Virginia, who, Potts believes, arguably failed her daughter by refusing to discipline her. Virginia ignored the teenagers partying in her den, and didn’t push Darci to attend school regularly or intervene when she was clearly getting into trouble with drugs and men.

Two-thirds of the way through the book, Potts writes disconcertingly of her friend: “She wasn’t aware of my research about diseases of despair and about women like her who were dying younger and younger.” Is Potts saying she didn’t share with Darci — her primary subject — the driving question of her book? Or is she saying Darci simply didn’t view her life as a template for this research?

Potts writes that Darci gave her permission to read her diaries and record their conversations, and that she “knew I wanted to write about our lives and our hometown.” But this generic description obscures the difference between recounting a history and using that history to illustrate a portentous point.

One of the great challenges for those of us who work in the fraught and fragile spaces where public journalism and private citizens meet is to intuit how much our subjects understand of the larger story we’re trying to tell. Stories of violence and poverty and death have long tails for the families who live them.

I wanted Potts to be transparent about what she did and didn’t reveal to Darci. After all, she repeatedly mulls what she might have done to alter the course of Darci’s story. “What do I or any of us owe to the people we leave behind?” she asks at one point. The question stems from Potts’s abiding empathy for Darci. But it’s also a necessary one for every journalist in her position to consider.

Rachel Louise Snyder is the author of “No Visible Bruises,” one of the Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2019, and the forthcoming memoir “Women We Buried, Women We Burned.”

THE FORGOTTEN GIRLS: A Memoir of Friendship and Lost Promise in Rural America |By Monica Potts | 254 pp. | Random House | $28

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