By Roberta Silman
What makes this book so necessary is that these are writers willing to state realities that members of both parties prefer to keep under the rug.
Tightrope, Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Knopf, 304 pages.
This is an important book, and if you are overwhelmed by the number of tomes coming out about how we have gotten into the mess this country seems to be in, even before the coronavirus, I suggest that you resist reading about the pathology of our present administration and turn to Tightrope. Here is a book that debunks myths, gives you real facts about our country’s shortcomings and documentation to support those facts, confronts real people who have nuanced stories about how they have failed and/or succeeded, and, most vital, will give you hope that we can turn this around and do better in the future.
Many of you know Nick Kristof from his Op-Ed pieces in the New York Times. Sheryl WuDunn is his wife and collaborator; they have written four previous books together and are the first husband/wife team to win a Pulitzer Prize. They are impressive and caring researchers who have been all over the world uncovering problems of the disenfranchised, especially women, but this time they started with Nick’s hometown, Yamhill, OR, and have followed the stories of several of the kids with whom Nick rode the bus in elementary, middle, and high school. As they tell us very early on,
Life in Yamhill back in the 1970s seemed to echo Curly’s upbeat refrain from Oklahoma!, when he exulted, “Everything’s going my way.” Tragically, it didn’t work out as hoped. The Knapps, like so many other working-class families, tumbled into unimaginable calamity. . . . About one-fourth of the kids who rode with Nick on the bus are dead from drugs, suicide, alcohol, obesity, reckless accidents and other pathologies. . . . Together we’ve covered massacres, genocide, sex trafficking and other tragedy and heartbreak around the globe, but these struggles hit so close to home because Yamhill and America are home.
What makes this book so necessary is that these are writers willing to state realities that members of both parties prefer to keep under the rug. In the second chapter they state their themes: 1) They are going to reveal the ways in which democratic capitalism has failed working-class communities whose population now numbers about 150 million. 2) That this suffering “reflects decades of social-policy mistakes and often gratuitous cruelty” which engenders “a harshness and at times a nastiness” that “have crept into America policy rooted in the misconception that those who struggle with unemployment, finances, drugs, and life’s messiness are fundamentally weak, in danger of dependency, in need of hard lessons.” The italics for the word, misconception, are mine because I feel so strongly we have been fed these misconceptions at various times by both parties and that our acceptance of these misconceptions have given us a skewed view of the realities which we now need to face head-on. And 3) “The challenges are not insurmountable, and we can adopt policies that are both compassionate and effective.”
Some reviews of this book have called it “a muddle” or make fun of the Dr. Seuss epigraph from Cat in the Hat, which a smart editor should have warned against using; others think Kristof and WuDunn are preaching to the liberal choir and that conservatives will never take their arguments seriously. I think that is defeatist and just another example of the laziness that is pervading our culture. Just because you have heard something before doesn’t mean that you don’t need to hear it again. Here in the space of 300 pages are good arguments to arm yourselves with when you are talking to relatives and friends who may not agree with you. And because Kristof and WuDunn weave the personal stories with the policy facts so deftly, things like the opioid and homeless crises, mass incarceration, alcoholism and obesity and other chronic missteps take on a human face and stay in the mind.
Perhaps the most important challenge is called ACE among the helping professions and which, I am very proud to say, my oldest child Miriam Silman has been working on for her whole career as a social worker. This is an acronym for Adverse Childhood Experiences, which have been with us for time immemorial but never in such daunting numbers as now. ACE cuts across all populations, is probably more prevalent in communities of color, but since this is a book about white working class communities, it is relevant here and makes an indelible and horrifying impact in chapter 17 of this book which is entitled, “We Eat Our Young.” Here the authors state as baldly as possible: “America as a nation is guilty of child neglect.” One of the reasons given here is that children do not have the vote, but implied are age-old prejudices that are rife in our society which can be encapsulated in the question: Do we not care about our children because so many of them are no longer from what used to be called the “nuclear family” and are presented with challenges we don’t want to hear?
It is time to take stock, to admit that we have 13 million children in this country living in poverty and, according to global statistics, 2 million of them may be in “extreme poverty,” which means households living on less than $2 a day. This is shocking and should be a wake-up call to everyone, including people who care more about endangered wildlife or their pets, or crazies who think it is more important to explore the possibilities of living on Mars or the moon or some planet yet undiscovered than take care of our children who live right here, sometimes within driving distance. Our children are our greatest resource, but we are failing a lot of them. And the simple fact that almost half of the pregnancies in America are unintended gives us only a clue of how much work has to be done to remedy these problems which are threatening to overtake us.
Fortunately, Kristof and WuDunn offer some important, concrete steps for taking action and end their book on a note of optimism. As all our political candidates have reminded us over time, we are a resilient people, and not only is “no man an island,” to quote John Donne, as these writers do, but we are a people who have excelled in the past in getting done what seems impossible. So I will close with that wonderful quotation from James Baldwin which introduces their last chapter, “America Regained”: “I know what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least we can demand.”
Roberta Silman is the author of four novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her new novel, Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review), is in its second printing and is available on Amazon and at Campden Hill Books. It was chosen as one of the best Indie Books of 2018 by Kirkus. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for the New York Times and Boston Globe, and writes regularly for the Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.