Without a Net's Memoirs of Poverty in America Will Haunt You. Let It.
These women are not simply simulating scenes of poverty for the reader; they experienced it and now they own it as one constant facet of their diverse identities.
Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class
Michelle Tea, ed.
Seal Press (reprint)
Without a Net is a book that should be read quickly. Is there any more undauntedly gripping, more inescapably terrifying, more hauntingly supervillainous character than poverty? No, there is not. These short memoirs, each about ten pages long, will run together no matter how fast or slow one reads them. Despite the different backgrounds of the women who tells these tales—their unique intersections of class with gender, with race, with religion, with sexuality, with rural or urban environments—most of them carry the same hardscrabble cadences, similar easygoing vocabulary, a host of well known traumas.
They go hungry; they suffer violence. They cope as their parents did—with drugs or alcohol, with violence of their own. They learn to use their bodies as income. They learn to pass—and to feel disgusted with themselves within the worlds of privilege that they pass into. They learn to keep secrets and tell lies. They feel shame and embarrassment that congeal into a will to barely survive. They engage in self-sabotage out of a fear of success. They are afraid of what little money they can save, afraid of what rages they might pass on to their own children.
Every single one of these writers makes sure to point out that a lot of people had it worse than they did growing up. At least they had one decent parental figure. At least nobody got killed. At least they had a coat during the winter. At least, at least, at least—always grateful for any crumbs, scattered though these crumbs are across a lifetime of resentment toward broken families, government bureaucracies and unfeeling societies. Each story ends with an awkward dead-stop—the feeling of "whatever is next cannot be very good", the wild-eyed uncertainty of being forced to live one day or one hour at a time and having nowhere to turn for reliable help.
And yet, here are all these women who have piled themselves, somehow still alive and kicking, into the pages of this book. By some miracle, they have been allowed to grow up and to sort of get out of the poverty that defined them as children. But one never really gets out. Sure, you can get a bank account and a college degree and a steady job. You can afford groceries and find a partner who won't beat you. Maybe even buy a house. But how quickly their childhood wounds give fresh blood when picked at just a little, even at a distance of ten or 40 years. How easy it is for them to remember the most precise details—the flash of a broken wine bottle, what kind of car it was, whose cousin gave her that dress.
This is not an easy book to read. For some, it will be hard to read because you can't believe any of it is true—that people have no choice but to live in the ways these stories describe. You'll want to believe these are tales from the Dust Bowl era, or some other inner city planet long since eradicated. For others, it will be hard to read because every line will call up some fierce, ugly detritus still floating through their own younger years—experiences they have long fought to destroy and disown with physical or financial distance. Indeed, in a blink, there is your little girl self alongside all these other little girls, all just trying to keep afloat in a world that either neglects them or targets them. Or is it just me?
If Michelle Tea's achingly powerful collection of storytellers sometimes dips down into the rocky terrain of what Baudrillard called disaster porn, so be it. The first edition of this book debuted in 2003. Fifteen years later, every word rings as true today as it did then. To be broke and female in America means you have stepped out of time, flattened out into a statistic and a stereotype. These women are not simply simulating scenes of poverty for the reader; they experienced it and now they own it as one constant facet of their diverse identities. They were scattered through my nightmares after reading Without a Net.
The happy ending is just that these voices are from people who are still alive. You can take the girl up out of poverty, but you cannot take the poverty up out of the girl. That's a figure of rhetoric called "chiasmus", which is a fancy word I learned at college. The most famous example of a chiasmus is JFK's way of asking what we can do for our country. Tell you what we can do: give it a goddamn net.