Diane Sawyer's Portrayal of Appalachia

A few Friday's ago, 20/20 aired Diane Sawyer's A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains. I missed the original airing, but my sister mentioned it during her visit so I went and had a look. I had to watch it in a series of 8 or 10 video's. I encourage you, if you have 50 minutes or so to spare, to give it a go. It's an illuminating portrait of a different America and it's something that fills my heart with an unusual mix of hometown pride and a unique pain.

The documenary presents vignettes of three or four families, all living in extreme poverty in the hills of eastern Kentucky. I find it amusing the way Sawyer insists on calling them "mountains". I have always said that I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachians. Sawyer explores their lives and challenges, but mostly she is trying to make portray these families as the "forgotten people of Appalachia". It's all rather melodramataic. She has selected to follow families involved in the OxyContin epidemic (although they could have as easily discussed the meth problem there, too). And acknowledging the stereotype, she examines the toothless epidemic (blamed on a region-wide addiction to Mountain Dew). Personally, I've never liked the stuff. But the people they follow are true hillbillies. They are uneducated. They are coal miners. They are dirt poor. I grew up in eastern Kentucky. I have seen these images before. The places that Diane Sawyer visits--Inez, Paintsville, Columbia--all within a 30-40 minute drive from my home. I have driven down the country roads in Inez and marveled at the Joe Pye weed growing in ditches along the side of the road, and goldenrod, Queen Anne's lace and wicked twists of Kentucky bluegrass rising up from steep, rocky roadside hills. I ran in the Paintsville 10K race and enjoyed sorghum and wandered the trinket booths at the Paintsville Apple Festival. I have wondered at the disorganization of houses and trailers dotted on "family farms" in Columbia in a maze that obeys no road or discernible plan. I did not grow up dirt poor. I was lucky, but no one who grows up in that region is blinded to the poverty surrounding them.

I remember riding the school bus home in junior high school through some of the poorer sections of my town and seeing kids get off and go into houses with no windows or doors. Tar paper shacks with no electricity and no indoor plumbing. I'm sure they washed in tubs in the back and slept God knows where. We used to laugh about cars on blocks and toilets in the front yard with grass growing up around them. I'm sure these people had the best of intentions, but time or circumstances or lack of knowledge (or maybe the lack of pipes to the house) prevented them from making good on them. The relics on the front lawn were a testament to failure. I hated that part of the bus ride home. I wondered if the kids who lived there were embarassed to get off the bus.

I recall driving through the reservations of Arizona and coming upon poverty like I remember back home. I saw it on the outskirts of Belize City. I saw it in the faces of children picking pockets in Florence, Italy. I want to be clear with you all up front. I did not grow up like that. I grew up in an "urban" area of 27,000 people. We had municipal services, decent schools, relatively stable employment, and opportunities for people of all educational levels. Much like the town I live in now. You know, not doing great but living better than just scratching by. In fact, I think the town where I grew up may be doing a little better than the town I live in now. When kids dropped out of school in my town, it was a big deal and a private shame. It was not the status quo.

When I was in the tenth grade, my father told me to "go to college, get my education, and don't come back." I always found this interesting because my father had moved us to Pittsburgh when I was very little and moved us back because he had found a good job back in Kentucky. My father was the most stable man you ever wanted to meet. He wasn't swayed by popular opinion. I asked him how much of his money would he bet on a wager giving him a 90% chance of winning. He said, "nothing". My father had worked his way through college, while married, working full time, and raising four kids. I was about a year and a half old when my father graduated from college. Sure, it took him ten years, but he made it. That college education put his family in a whole different set of living conditions from some of the kids at my school. To say the least, I did not grow up like those people in Diane Sawyer's documentary. But I believe my father did. His father was an alcoholic. A house painter when he was sober. My mother told a story of how my father had to hunt down his father in some strange man's house and carry him home. She told of how he found my grandfather on the street, passed out and having pissed himself. Oh, he had sobered up by the time I was born. But my father didn't have some idyllic upbringing. And certainly had to grow up a lot faster than any of his children did. Both of my grandfathers wore full dentures for as long as I can remember. How they lost their teeth is a mystery to me. Both of them had that look of the women in the documentary who had lost their teeth. There is something about the chins of people with no teeth. It still makes me shudder.

My Dad's mother, my Gram, was a pinnacle of faith. Despite what anyone thought of her, she is a remarkably strong woman. I think, in many ways, that had she not had the determination she had to be there for her son, that I would not have enjoyed the opportunities that I have had in my life. She told me recently that if she were a young woman today, she probably would have gotten a divorce. But, as she says, things were different back then and you just put up with them--meaning the men who did you wrong. My grandfather drank away the paycheck many a week, I'm sure of it. She told me stories of having to put my father in a seat at the movie house and telling him to stay put, and then running to the grocery store. She recalled all these years later of coming back and finding him crying on the street in front of the cinema. He was about 3 years old. I'm sure the guilt nearly killed her. But her son graduated from college. I hope she doesn't lose any sleep over that even though it breaks my heart.

My parents were from Huntington, West Virginia. My grandmother was from West Virginia, and her husband from southern Ohio. When Appalachia gets in your blood, it's there for good. Most people never leave. You will find "hollers" with five or six houses in a row--all with the same surname on the mailboxes. You don't move away, you just move down the road. Maybe it was my Dad's insistence. I prefer to think that I always had wanderlust, but maybe he just planted a seed and I let it grow. All of us left, just like Dad had wanted. That place I knew so well growing up seems foreign and unnatural to me now. The people seem more backward and frustratingly uneducated. I get so angry. I want them to want more for themselves. I want them to do what I did. They either can't or won't. And so it remains the same.

No matter how long or how removed I am from "home", no one from eastern Kentucky escapes the stereotype. My sister told me the story of going to the doctor in Pennsylvania and having a nurse ask about her home. When told it was Kentucky, the woman shook her head and asked if she had shoes and things like that growing up. She was dead serious. I have had similar comments made to me by people who should know better. I've been asked if my parents are cousins. I've been asked if we burned coal for heat. I've been asked if my family tree forks. There seems to be a preoccupation with incest and people from eastern Kentucky. And Diane Sawyer does not disappoint. She highlights an allegation of incest in her documentary.

But Diane Sawyer did capture the people. I used to be embarrassed of them. Sometimes, I still am. I loved Kentucky, but I hate the way it is. Here I am, a child of Appalachia, pursuing a doctorate in botany. If I make it or I don't make it to graduation, I made it out of that place. I don't know if Appalachia made me stronger, or prouder, or more hard headed, but watching that documentary simply made me sad. Sad for all those who couldn't or wouldn't get out.

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