When Christopher was growing up, his mom was abusive, addicted to drugs, and absent. His dad worked hard, but he struggled with substance abuse, too, and when Christopher was only three, his parents divorced. As I wrote here, Christopher always told himself that he would be different: he would keep a job, work hard, wait until marriage to have kids, and provide his kids the stability he didn’t have.
In vocational school, he was “the bad kid” in a lot of trouble. But he had a teacher who believed in him, and helped him to land an apprenticeship straight out of high school as an electrician. His boss was a Christian man and a “good man” who “pushed” him to succeed. He got married, and his wife’s family accepted him and showed him love, something that he didn’t have a lot of growing up.
Christopher’s work ethic and the help he found through work and family made a difference: he kept the same job for almost a decade, earning a modest but comfortable living, and he and his wife, Cammi, raised two kids.
But the day that I met Christopher, he had been divorced for about a year. As hard as he worked, he remained a “functioning alcoholic,” and it took a toll on their marriage. As I explained in an earlier post,
In tears, Christopher spoke of the love that he now realized Cammi was trying to give him, but that he kept refusing—because, as he said, “I was afraid when I loved something, it would hurt me.” In retrospect, he thinks that both he and Cammi entered marriage with deep insecurities.
In other words, Christopher was still suffering from childhood trauma. He pointed to his father, whom he now recognized was “sick” with addiction, and pointed out that “I was modeled by him” and “did exactly what my dad did.” On the other hand, he didn’t spare himself, either, saying that “I allowed my addiction” to take over, and “I knew I always had issues and I had to work on them, but I didn’t.” He blamed himself for his and Cammi’s divorce, while acknowledging how his own fear of love was linked to his experiences of childhood trauma.
“Nothing happened to them,” Kevin D. Williamson recently wrote in National Review about white, working-class people like Christopher. “There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence—and the incomprehensible malice—of poor white America.”
What young men need to do, he said, is to “get off your asses and go find a job.” And if you live in a community where Walmart has replaced the factory and you can’t find a decent-paying job, you need to get a U-Haul and leave your “dysfunctional, downscale communities” that “deserve to die.”
In Williamson’s defense, David French agrees that “Citizens of the world’s most prosperous nation, [white, working-class people] face challenges—of course—but no true calamities.” What they lack above all is personal responsibility and perseverance: “Millions of Americans aren’t doing their best. Indeed, they’re barely trying.”
In a follow-up piece responding to critics, Williamson says that he “hates” the word “empathy” because “It’s cowardice, a refusal to look at the thing squarely as it is and to do what it is necessary to do.” Noting that he comes from a white working-class community, Williamson says “When I think about my own upbringing, one of the thoughts that comes to me most is: ‘Why didn’t someone say something?’”
In other words, if we’d just be more willing to tell it like it is, then people living in poverty might stand a better chance of escaping it.
But as Christopher’s story suggests, the problem with Williamson and French’s account begins with the fact that it fails to tell it like it is.
No true calamity or awful disaster has befallen the white working class?
Try telling that to Christopher, whose own mother abused him and whose parents left him. Try telling that to the girl molested by her mother’s boyfriend, or the little girl whose mom and boyfriend passed out in the McDonald’s parking lot because of a heroin overdose, or the 10-year-old boy who walked into his parents’ bedroom to find his dad having sex with a stranger. (Those are just some of the typical stories we heard in our interviews with members of the working class in Ohio.) As one young man told me, “Besides killing a small child I would say that divorce is the second-worst thing that can ever happen. Because divorce is the symbol of violently breaking apart. Like in my case, my dad and my mom separating, it tore the family apart, literally. It was the symbol of breaking apart and shards went everywhere.”
I understand the point that Williamson and French are trying to make: when we speak of divorce and abuse and heroin and father absence, we are not talking about the factory that left, but acts perpetrated by adults with moral responsibilities. But that is no solace to the young victims—yes, we must speak of victims—of those traumatic events.
Because the divorce culture is a true calamity for generations of young people growing up in the aftermath. Nor should we imagine that just because a cause is cultural or familial, and not economic, that it involves no victims. As Rod Dreher writes in a response to Williamson’s post, “Children are not empty receptacles into which we can insert knowledge. If they live in homes filled with noise, chaos, violence, and contempt, it doesn’t matter what race they are, they are going to be very lucky to make it.”
Families are in trouble, but people aren’t making bad decisions in isolation. The family is in trouble because marriage is a social institution, and many young people have seen their own parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents divorce (sometimes two, three, and four times). Whatever the reasons for divorce that the pioneers of the divorce revolution had, the young people walking into marriage today—or looking bewilderingly at it from the outside—are left feeling broken. That raises serious questions. As I’ve written before,
How do you strengthen marriage—a social institution that requires trust and core character strengths—in communities where trust and core character strengths are harder to acquire because of such traumatic experiences? Or, more specifically, how does the event that is at least partly the source of some young adults’ childhood trauma—the (temporary) joining of two people in marriage—become the force for personal and communal stability that it’s meant to be?
We can always point to some people who grew up in troubled families and nevertheless succeed. We admire their courage and perseverance. Still, isn’t it self-evident that a child who suffers his parents’ divorce, or the absence of his father, or parental abuse, is much less likely to form good and lasting relationships as an adult? More likely to despair and resort to Oxycontin and heroin? And shouldn’t that fact matter for how we think and talk about the problems that confront the poor and working class, many of whom suffer these traumas?
True, honoring people’s suffering means refusing to deprive them of their great dignity: namely, their freedom and moral responsibility. But as my wife and I have been writing our book about the stories of the young and white working class, we’ve seen that there are two extremes we could fall into. On the one hand, it would be easy to tell their stories in such a way that the challenges they face are all outside forces, but in doing so, we’d ignore their own words about how things could have been different if they had made different choices. On the other hand, and just as lamentable, we could focus almost exclusively on these young adults’ own moral responsibilities, and downplay the cultural and economic forces and trauma clearly impinging on their lives—and about which they have a lot to say, as well. The true story, we have seen, is one that shows how cultural and economic forces and trauma intersect with people’s own free decisions.
Williamson’s account fell flat for me because it reduced the story of the working class to one of personal responsibility alone, and by reduction, distorted the truth. And it’s no good to say that you got at least one chapter right when you insist that the one chapter is the whole book. What’s missing is the drug-addicted mom and the alcoholic father and 18-year-old Christopher acting out because he is afraid to love. What’s missing is the moral and emotional struggle that I see in Christopher, and among the other young people that we interviewed.
Williamson is disdainful of empathy, and believes it undermines our courage to take action. But when I heard Christopher, in tears, describe “not knowing how to love and not even knowing if I really wanted to, because I was afraid when I loved something it would hurt me,” how could I fail to be moved and to recognize a little bit of myself in him? It’s precisely in that moral and emotional drama that I can see my own self—it creates the possibility for a connection between me and the other person. Without that connection, I remain distant and aloof, vulnerable to cynicism. With the connection, I want to draw close and suffer with him (that’s what compassion literally means) and help him.
Because the one thing that we all have in common, no matter our class background, is that we all do things that we don’t want to do, and don’t do things that we do want to do. If I can see that moral struggle in another person, I can see it in my own failures and suffering, and a link between us is made.
And that connection is vitally important: because then “heart speaks unto heart,” as John Henry Newman’s episcopal motto put it. Eloquence and logic are powerless without such a deep connection, whether we want to help someone find and keep a job, or stay happily married, or escape abject poverty.
As my wife, Amber, wrote in a piece about the role of religious congregations in bridging the gap between those from intact families and those from fragmented families, “in the context of friendship or a trusting relationship . . . conversations about values can happen naturally and without fear of judgment.” It’s in trusting relationships that heart can speak to heart, and healing can happen, attitudes be transformed, and lives changed.
But we’ll never be able to form those relationships if we merely scold the “downscale” people about their sins and “entitlement” and their communities “that deserve to die,” as if a person suffering from years of trauma and deprived of good models of family life could just snap out of it with a few good rebukes. Then we will have failed to look squarely at not just “the problem,” but the person in front of us.