They say it takes a village to raise a child. For me, it was a village… of books.
However, a select few had the greatest hand in shaping me. Of the hundreds I have devoured over the years, these rise immediately to the surface.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
This book, in a word, is absolutely devastating.
Author Matthew Desmond here compiles research with on-the-ground reporting as he follows eight families struggling to keep a roof over their heads in Milwaukee, WI.
Many of you remember how it felt, being strapped for cash. The bills loom over you. Every moment of every day becomes a feverish calculation for survival. All the while you stare down into the abyss, its roaring maw waiting to devour your entire world.
But what happens if you fall in?
What is there on the other side?
Desmond, like a beat reporter, brings a whole cast of characters to life who are living your worst nightmares. Its intensity and immediacy is overwhelming; I frequently had to set the book aside as I keenly felt the distress, rage, grief, and hopelessness pouring from every page.
This work’s greatest impact upon me, however, came in the epilogue and appendices. Desmond here shares the how of writing the book — literally following his subjects, recording interviews and interactions, watching as they are evicted, arrested, and freed over and over again — and his underwriting of numerous research projects in order to tell the macro of his micro-study of homeless and eviction in America.
He also reveals here the severe emotional impact this project had upon him. The shadows of Milwaukee’s slums still hang over him, leaving him with intense feelings of shame for living a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. He related how once, upon receiving a gifted bottle of wine, his immediate thought was: “This would be enough to keep someone off the streets.”
How does one live after fundamentally intruding on these people’s lives? After living in their skin?
These very questions confronted me as I reached the end of my journalism studies in college. As a news-editorial student, I was NOT smart about getting internships and getting my hands dirty… until it was much too late.
It was during a capstone reporting course that I broke. I was interviewing a young local female artist — part of a silly store-opening feature story — and she opened up as to why she wasn’t in college, wasn’t finishing her degree, wasn’t working as a nurse (her chosen profession). Here is her story:
She was just beginning college, a time when everything is possible. One day, she realized she was drowning in fatigue and had absolutely no energy. None. She was taken to the hospital. Diagnosis: lymphoma.
Radiation treatment was successful. (A godsend!) But returning to her studies (now at least a year behind), something strange happened: her studies, once a breeze, now were utterly impossible. Mathematics, once her forte, might as well have been written in Mandarin.
Slowly, her dreams began to evaporate.
At the same time, she experienced severe bone density loss due to her radiation treatment. She already had several joints replaced (as a young woman in her 20s!) and would need surgery on every single one at some point in her life.
I thanked her for her time and returned to my car. After a moment of quiet, I placed my head on the steering wheel and sobbed.
I felt dirty. I felt evil. I had trespassed into the innermost sanctum of another’s life, and I felt unworthy.
I returned to class the following day. My professor (and classmates) showed excitement for where the story could lead:
Call up her hospital! UNL administration! There is something real here!
And I couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to do so. The pain was too much, and I realized I had utterly no courage for this project, this class, or this profession.
I still have not forgiven myself for letting them down. My instructors. My mentors. The cause. And most of all, for letting her down.
Desmond revealed to me that what I felt was real. That it was okay. And that there are no easy answers: only moving forward.
I hope someday I, too, will learn to be courageous. To advocate for the voiceless, to fight the good fight, to change the world.
And to also forgive myself.