‘Tightrope’: A working class in tatters

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn will make a series of local appearances to talk about their book, "Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope"

Many Yamhill County residents will recognize the street scene on the cover of Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope as downtown Yamhill. New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof grew up in the 1970s on a farm outside the tiny town and rode the bus to school with people whose stories are told in the book written by Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn.

The couple, the first husband and wife to share a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, will visit McMinnville on Friday to talk about the book, which, despite its title, largely focuses on Americans who have lost hope after decades of vanishing blue-collar jobs.

Tightrope is the latest in a growing body of journalistic work examining what George Packer in 2013 called The Unwinding in his book of that name: The seismic economic shifts that have left the working class in tatters, trying to find a way in an economic world very different from the one their parents grew up in.

Yamhill County native Nicholas D. Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, are authors of “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” which chronicles the epidemic of loneliness that has overtaken the American working class. Photo by: Michael Lionstar, courtesy Penguin Random House

What distinguishes Tightrope, however, is its deeply personal nature. Kristof is writing — with great respect and obvious affection — for many of his former classmates. He estimates that about one-fourth of those kids he grew up with died in adulthood from drugs and alcohol, suicide or reckless accidents — “deaths of despair,” as they have come to be called. One official quoted in the book talks about the epidemic of loneliness, a social phenomenon that’s hardly surprising in a society coming apart at the seams.

A few weeks ago, piles of Tightrope appeared at Third Street Books in downtown McMinnville and also at the McMinnville Public Library, in anticipation of the latest MacReads, a community-wide book discussion series that traditionally culminates with an appearance by the author.

Kristof and WuDunn will appear at 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 7, in the McMinnville Community Center. Additional discussions will be held at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 19 in Linfield College’s Nicholson Library and at 7 p.m. Feb. 20 in McMinnville Public Library’s Carnegie Room. All those events are free. In addition, the couple will appear at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 6, in Portland’s Newmark Theatre in a ticketed event.

I caught up with Kristof by email, and he was gracious enough to respond to a few questions. Our exchange appears below:

Not that it’s important to fit Tightrope into a neatly defined genre, but given that you’ve known some of these folks for most of your life, it occurs to me that it has elements of memoir or autobiography. Maybe that’s a stretch, but beyond the straightforward work of reporting, did you ever think of it in those terms?

Yes, we did. Tara Westover, author of Educated, is a friend, and I hugely admire not only her journey but also her book. I also knew that a personal story would be more accessible than an analysis from 30,000 feet about Americans left behind. But Sheryl and I were also clear that we didn’t just want to write a memoir, and we wanted the focus to be on the issues and solutions, and not on my journey. One of my frustrations with Hillbilly Elegy was that it didn’t offer enough in the way of solutions.

So the kids on my old No. 6 school bus riding into Yamhill each day are a narrative thread throughout the book, but we also wanted to move policymakers and start a national discussion, and we didn’t think we could do that with a purely narrow focus.

As a reporter, I’ve found that people in rural areas and small towns often have a built-in suspicion of the press, particularly when it’s the “big city” reporter swooping into town. Granting, of course, that Yamhill already is your town, did you encounter any of this?

Oh, plenty of my old Yamhill friends are deeply suspicious of the press, especially the national media organizations based in New York and Washington. And frankly, I don’t think that national news organizations have done a great job covering this demographic. There has been a greater effort since President Trump’s election, but it sometimes involves reporters parachuting into red states and acting like anthropologists meeting an obscure tribe in the Amazon basin. I think we could all do a lot more listening.

That said, I think the hostility to the press is overdone and unfair. I’ve lost journalist friends in the line of duty because they risked their lives covering stories, and I’ve been shot at more times than I can count.  I have little sympathy for Fox News hosts or GOP politicians sitting comfortably in studios and demonizing journalists to sow hatred and bitterness and divisiveness.

In any case, I find that while my old friends may be suspicious of the national press generally, they seem OK with me. Most are more conservative than I am, but they forgive my liberalism and regard me as perhaps a befuddled lost sheep, but one who tries to do my best. And old friends were so helpful in writing Tightrope. They shared stories that were often painful and embarrassing, because they wanted the public to know how things were. It was a huge responsibility, and we tried to honor it.

Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope

The lives in Tightrope are not the sort one often sees realistically and, perhaps more to the point, sympathetically, represented in art, but one fairly recent exception is Lynn Nottage’s Sweat. I know that you catch plays in Ashland, so I’m wondering if you’ve seen the play.

Yes, I saw Sweat and thought it was terrific. I admired its empathy. Lynn Nottage presented each side as complex, rounded people. No caricatures for her just to make a point. We tried to convey a similar complexity in Tightrope.

I recall hearing someone say that the play helps explain how working-class support for Trump emerged. Given that you interviewed people who voted for Trump, would you agree?

I think that’s right. There has been a lot of condescension toward Trump voters, or suggestions that they are all bigots, and I don’t think that’s helpful. The working class, whether black or white, tends to be socially conservative and economically liberal. So these voters are against abortion but in favor of a higher minimum wage. At the end of the day, for most black working-class voters, the economic and racial issues have been paramount, and they have voted for Democrats. For many white working-class voters, especially men, the so-called values issues have been foremost, and they have supported Republicans. But there is ambivalence there, which is why the two politicians who have appealed most to working-class voters are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who are polar opposites.

The book really does, it seems to me, offer a portrait of a society that’s at the end of its rope, or close to it. Given the social conditions you’ve depicted, and given, too, the nation’s mood, what’s the role of art at a time like this?

This is an unusual time because for tens of millions of Americans, it’s like the Great Depression — only worse. In the Great Depression, life expectancy was still rising sharply, yet life expectancy recently fell for three years in a row, for the first time in a century. We lose more Americans every two weeks from drugs, alcohol, and suicide than we did in the entire 18 years of the Iraq and Afghanistan civil wars, and those deaths are symptoms of a broader malaise that does feel like a Social Great Depression. Yet at another level, it’s crazy to make a comparison with the Great Depression when stock markets have been rising, corporate profits surging, and unemployment tumbling. The top end of Americans have never had it better, while the bottom end is in terrible shape.

As for the role of art in addressing this, it’s notable that when Franklin Roosevelt was trying to build support for the New Deal in the 1930s, he understood that he needed more than policy arguments alone. So he sent writers and photographers across the country to document the suffering and build a constituency for change. That worked, and we have iconic photographs from that time that were hugely influential. Likewise, the novel Grapes of Wrath shapes our understanding of the Depression.

So when we were planning Tightrope, we wanted to be sure to paint the suffering in human terms, and that influenced not only our writing but also the photographs to illustrate the book. We invited the great photographer Lynsey Addario, an old friend who won a “genius award” for her photographs of conflicts around the world, to shoot photos for Tightrope. She came to Yamhill and traveled to Alabama, Oklahoma, Baltimore, Arkansas, and other sites to document Americans left behind, with power and poignancy. She captured the people in the book with great sensitivity, showing them as more than their condition.

I always like to ask people about reading, and I know you grew up in a household filled with books and you were read to daily. Any special memories? Either books that were read to you, or books you encountered on your own? And what are you reading now?

I’d say that children’s books were a huge part of my life as a kid — everything from the Freddy the Pig books to the Hardy Boys, and of course the Beverly Cleary books, even before I knew that Cleary lived in Yamhill during her early years. Cleary told us that the town of Pitchfork, in her book Emily’s Runaway Imagination, is based on Yamhill. So I devoured children’s books, and then inflicted them on my own kids when they were young. Thank God for libraries, with the caveat that it’s the kids who most need help who are least likely to be taken to libraries.

As an adult, I still read a lot, mostly nonfiction but also a fair amount of both literary and commercial fiction. I’m off on a trip tomorrow to promote Tightrope and am taking with me a new book about politics, a book about child poverty, and the latest John Grisham novel. And when I’m backpacking, I bring a Kindle and sometimes a fantastic little book of poems that inspire as much as the scenery.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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