“‘Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,’ by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: An Excerpt”, The New York Times

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Books, January 13, 2020

Is this land made for you and me?

—Woody Guthrie

1: The Kids on the Number 6 School Bus

Dee Knapp was asleep when her husband, Gary, stumbled drunkenly into their white frame house after a night out drinking. Bracing for trouble, Dee jumped up and ran to the kitchen.

Gary, muscular and compact with short black hair above a long face, was a decent fellow when sober, a brute when drunk.

“Get me dinner!” he shouted as he wobbled toward the kitchen, and Dee scrambled to turn the electric stove on and throw leftovers into a pan. But she wasn’t fast enough, and he hit her with his fist. A lithe brunette in her early thirties, with shoulder-length hair and calloused hands, Dee realized that this was one of those times she was destined to be a punching bag. Devoted to her five children, she especially hated to be beaten by Gary because of the loathing for their father this engendered in them.

[ Return to the review of “Tightrope.” ]

“Dinner!” Gary roared again. “Get me dinner!” He grabbed his loaded .22 rifle and pointed it at her menacingly. She bolted past Gary and out the front door into the night.

Gary’s shouting had awoken the children upstairs. “Mom,” Farlan, her eldest son, hissed from the second-floor window as she ran around the side of the house. Dee looked up and he threw down a sleeping bag. She grabbed it in midair and ran into the protective darkness of their two-and-a-half-acre property, seeking a place to spend the night hiding in the tall grass, waiting for Gary to sleep off his rage.

“Damn that woman,” Gary cursed from inside the house. Clutching his .22, he lunged out the front door, then looked wildly into the darkness. A white, wooden Pentecostal church was on one side, one of two churches serving the tiny hamlet of Cove Orchard, Oregon. Beyond the church was Highway 47, leading to the small town of Yamhill, three miles to the south. Dee was sheltering in the darkness somewhere between the church and the neighbor’s fence line. Gary lifted the rifle to his shoulder and fired off a volley of shots into the field where his wife was cowering. Dee stiffened, hugging the ground.

The children listened, terrified. Helpless and furious, Farlan clenched his fists and vowed to himself that someday he would kill his dad. In the field, seventy feet away, with no trees to hide behind, Dee held her breath as bullets smacked into the ground nearby. This happened from time to time, and Dee knew that her husband would soon tire of shooting into the night.

Finally, Gary stumbled back into the house and ordered a sullen Farlan downstairs to cook dinner for him. Dee could hear all this from her hiding spot, for Gary didn’t know how to speak softly. She gradually felt her heartbeat return to normal. She spread the sleeping bag and lay down inside it, listening to her husband’s curses from the house, hoping that he wouldn’t beat Farlan, praying that the other kids would stay quiet upstairs.

It was another violent, tumultuous evening, but strangely Dee says that she was still buoyed by hope that day in 1973, for despite the fear and violence, she believed that in some ways life truly was getting better—especially for her kids. Like her husband, Dee had been raised in a cramped household without electricity or plumbing. The youngest of ten children, she had grown up poor after her father, a construction worker, died when she was nine years old. Dee had dropped out of school in fifth grade, while Gary had had virtually no education and could barely write his name. She and Gary had started their married life as migrant farmworkers, or “fruit tramps,” following the harvests around California and Oregon, paid according to how many strawberries or beans they picked, living in shacks without electric light or running water. As of 1960, only one migrant worker child in five hundred completed grade school. Dee wanted better for her children, and she announced that when their kids were old enough for school, the family was going to settle down.

That’s how they ended up in Cove Orchard, population fifty, in northwestern Oregon, where the grasses of the Willamette Valley merge into the forests of the Coastal Range, where fields of grass seed, golden wheat and Christmas trees, and orchards abounding with apples, cherries and hazelnuts, blanket the earth to the horizon. Gary found regular work and at one point landed a good union job laying pipe, mostly for sewer lines, earning a solid income even if he spent much of it in the bars in Yamhill and nearby Gaston. Dee had a steady job driving tractors on a hazelnut farm near Yamhill. She couldn’t afford day care, so she brought along her youngest, Keylan, a toddler, and kept him on her lap as she worked.

The Knapps had been able to buy their property for $2,500 in 1963, and it had the first electricity they had ever enjoyed at home in their lives. Initially, there was no running water, but Dee was handy with tools, so she bought a pipe cutter and laid down pipes to bring water into the bathroom and the kitchen sink. They also earned extra money refurbishing cars together: Gary fixing the engine, and Dee upholstering the interior.

They were homeowners! They had risen from itinerant farmworkers, one of the lowest rungs on the American economic ladder, to the solid, union-fortified working class and were on a trajectory to claw their way into the middle class. Farlan in his early teens was already growing taller than his dad, perhaps a tribute to better nutrition; there was no shortage of food in the Knapp household. Dee canned beans, tomatoes, peaches, prunes and other kinds of fruit, she made her own fruit jellies, and the shelves were full. All the children—Farlan, Zealan, Nathan, Rogena and Keylan—were far outpacing their parents in education. It looked as if all five might graduate from high school, and maybe some would even attend college.

Farlan was adept with his hands and smart, a natural engineer. Maybe he would design pipelines, not lay them. Dee invested all her hopes in her kids. Yes, she inflicted punishment by hitting them with a stick on occasion, but they all knew how much she loved them. She made sure they got schooling, and she absorbed punches and black eyes to protect them from Gary’s drunken furies. In the end, she was confident they would have opportunities that she and Gary had never enjoyed.

As she lay in the dark field, a bruise forming on her cheek where Gary had struck her, she was stubbornly consoled by faith in the future, by her belief that America was the land of opportunity, by the certainty that even Gary’s drunkenness couldn’t stop the Number 6 school bus from picking up her kids each morning and taking them to get an education at Yamhill Carlton High School, learning algebra, biology, the use of prepositions and other knowledge that no one else in her family had been exposed to. For ten generations, her forebears had struggled to scratch from the earth enough to eat, and now finally in her generation there was dizzying progress. Her kids were living their version of the American dream and inheriting a cornucopia. Electric lights. Tractors and cars. Education. Television. Medicare. Social Security. Tampons. John Denver and Johnny Carson. Vaccinations. Hot showers. Twinkies. Boom boxes. As Dee lay in her sleeping bag, this certainty sustained her: Life was getting better in spite of Gary, and her children would inherit the earth. Life in Yamhill back in the 1970s seemed to echo Curly’s upbeat refrain from Oklahoma!, when he exulted, “Everything’s goin’ my way.”

Tragically, it didn’t work out as hoped. The Knapps, like so many other working-class families, tumbled into unimaginable calamity.

[ Return to the review of “Tightrope.” ]

Gary and Dee were Nick’s neighbors as he grew up outside Yamhill, and the five Knapp kids rode with him each day on the Number 6 bus to Yamhill Grade School and then Yamhill Carlton High School. When Gary fired his .22 rifle into the yard at his cowering wife, the gunshots echoed to Nick’s farm half a mile away. Farlan was in Nick’s class in school; his siblings were younger.

The Knapps’ optimism at that time was shared by the entire community, and by millions of others throughout the country. We have no soggy sentimentality about those days: we recount Gary’s violence precisely to cure anyone of false nostalgia. But life had improved dramatically, and most expected that rising education levels and improved social services would give the Knapp kids and almost everyone else a much better life. The kids on the bus as it careered toward Yamhill each morning were sure that their world would be better than their parents’ had been.

Yet those kids ended up riding into a cataclysm, as working-class communities disintegrated across America, felled by lost jobs, broken families and despair. About one-fourth of the kids who rode with Nick on the bus are dead from drugs, suicide, alcohol, obesity, reckless accidents and other pathologies. A boy named Mike is dead from suicide, after struggles with drugs; Steve from the aftermath of a foolhardy motorcycle accident; Cindy from depression, obesity and then a heart attack; Jeff from a daredevil car crash; Tim from a construction accident; Billy from complications of diabetes while in prison; Kevin from consequences of obesity. There are different accounts of what Sue died of. Chris has gone missing after decades of alcoholism and homelessness. Others are alive but struggling with dead-end jobs or wrestling with drugs and alcohol. Of the two boys that Nick walked to the bus stop with each day, Mike is a homeless alcoholic living in a park, and Bobby is serving a life sentence in prison for offenses so harrowing that the family has cut him off.

The American economy has dazzled the world and its stock markets have created great riches, but the median American household is actually poorer in net worth today than it was in 2000. Median wages for the majority of the population that lacks a college degree are significantly lower today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, than they were back in 1979. Gallup has been asking Americans once a month for decades if they are “satisfied” or “dissatisfied” with the way things are going in the United States, and for the last fifteen years a majority has steadily answered “dissatisfied.” Gallup reported in 2019 that even as the economy grew steadily, “higher levels of stress, anger and worry nudged Americans’ overall Negative Experience Index to 35—three points higher than any previous score.” Gallup concluded, “In fact, the levels of negative emotions in the past several years are even higher than during the U.S. recession years.” Gallup found that Americans were among the most stressed populations in the world, tied with Iranians and even more stressed than Venezuelans.

Life expectancy continues to rise in most of the rest of the industrialized world, but in the United States it has dropped for three years in a row—for the first time in a century. As we’ll see, American kids today are 55 percent more likely to die by the age of nineteen than children in the other rich countries that are members of the OECD, the club of industrialized nations. America now lags behind its peer countries in health care and high-school graduation rates while suffering greater violence, poverty and addiction. This dysfunction damages all Americans: it undermines our nation’s competitiveness, especially as growing economies like China’s are fueled by much larger populations and by rising education levels, and may erode the well-being of our society for decades to come. The losers are not just those at the bottom of society, but all of us. For America to be strong, we must strengthen all Americans.

We set out in this book to explore that unraveling. We wanted to understand more deeply what had happened to Nick’s friends on the school bus, how our country could have let tens of millions of people suffer an excruciating loss of jobs, dignity, lives, hopes and children, and how we can recover. The Knapps and many of the kids on the bus—and millions of Americans across the country—made terrible, self-destructive choices about using drugs or dropping out of school.

But we saw that these were compounded by terrible choices that the country made on multiple fronts. The kids on the bus who floundered weren’t somehow worse than their parents or less prepared—indeed, they mostly had more education—and they didn’t have weaker characters than their counterparts in other countries. American kids don’t drop out of high school at higher rates than in other countries because they are less intelligent. So while we look unsparingly at failures of personal responsibility, let’s also examine equally rigorously the failures of government, of institutions and of society. And let’s seek solutions.

In doing our research and reporting for this book, we came to see that life’s journey for affluent, well-educated American families is like a stroll along a wide, smooth path, forgiving of missteps. But increasingly, for those from lower on the socioeconomic spectrum, life resembles a tightrope walk. Some make it across, but for so many, one stumble and that’s it. What’s more, a tumble from the tightrope frequently destroys not only that individual but the entire family, including children and, through them, grandchildren. The casualties are everywhere in America, if we only care to notice.

Some 68,000 Americans now die annually from drug overdoses, another 88,000 from alcohol abuse and 47,000 from suicide. More Americans die from these causes every two weeks than died during eighteen years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet much of affluent America has shrugged, with elites paying little attention to the disintegration of communities across the country—or, worse, blaming the victims. In fact, plenty of blame could go elsewhere: Politicians, journalists, religious leaders and business executives were too often derelict as communities cratered and tens of millions of people endured the pain. The United States still doesn’t have a coherent plan to address the challenges.

This journey of exploration has taken the two of us to all fifty states, and we tell stories here from Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Maryland, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. But many of the tales are from Yamhill, because it is close to our hearts and because it reflects the challenges of working-class America. Another reason to write about the people of Yamhill is that they bared their souls to us. Nick has a lifetime of attachment to local friends, and Sheryl has been visiting Yamhill ever since our engagement, when she amused people by locking the car door. Our kids grew up partly on the Kristof family farm, and our ties to Yamhill give us a deep empathy for the community’s struggles. The consequences of lost timber jobs in Oregon and disappearing coal jobs in Kentucky are not so different from the consequences of erased factory jobs in North Carolina, Maine or Michigan. In talking to our friend Wes Moore, an African American who grew up in poverty in Baltimore and New York, it struck us both how many commonalities there are between a white farm town in Oregon and a black neighborhood in Baltimore: what they share is deep pain.

This has been a wrenching book for us to write, because old friendships threatened to rob us of the protection of professional distance. In past books, we have tried to shine a light on urgent and neglected topics, such as the oppression of women around the world; now we are trying to illuminate similarly urgent and neglected crises in our own backyards. Some of these stories are of dear friends whom Nick had crushes on, passed notes to in class, danced with or competed against on the high-school track. Together we’ve covered massacres, genocide, sex trafficking and other tragedy and heartbreak around the globe, but these struggles hit so close to home because Yamhill and America are home.

The Knapp kids undertook their own Dantesque journey through drugs, alcohol, crime and family dysfunction. Farlan, a talented woodcarver and furniture maker, died of liver failure from drink and drugs. Zealan burned to death in a house fire while passed out drunk. Rogena suffered from mental illness and died from hepatitis linked to her own drug use. Nathan burned to death when the meth he was making exploded. Four siblings, once happy kids bouncing on the seats of school bus Number 6, dead, dead, dead, dead.

Keylan, particularly smart and talented, whom Yamhill Grade School recognized as a math prodigy, is the lone survivor, partly because thirteen years in the state penitentiary protected him from drugs. He soldiers on with HIV, hepatitis and more broken bones than he can remember; he says he uses drugs much less now.

Today Keylan shares a home with Dee in Oklahoma. She survived Gary and, at seventy-nine, remains sound of mind and strong of body. She gets by on Social Security, doesn’t touch alcohol or drugs, and makes daily visits to the grave site of her four dead children. Pulling out family photos, Dee pointed to her kids in happier times; over the doorway, the word FAMILY practically jumps off a wooden sign. “Our family is cursed,” Keylan said. “Something went wrong with our generation, and so there was alcohol abuse. There was drug abuse. There was prison.” He began weeping.

So many Americans have wandered off course “into a dark wood,” as Dante described his journey in Inferno, exploring the corruption and hypocrisy of medieval Florence, then one of the world’s great cities. Dee Knapp knows as well as anyone that the America of the old days was no simple Leave It to Beaver kaleidoscope of happy families passing the gravy around a dinner table. It was even more difficult for African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and others who did not even have a seat at the table. Yet in those days the dream of advancement was real, and it sustained people like Dee through difficult times. For much of working-class America, of whatever complexion, the dream is now dead. It’s dead along with all those children on the Number 6 school bus. It’s dead along with Farlan, Zealan, Rogena and Nathan Knapp. Personal responsibility must be part of the turnaround, but so must collective responsibility, especially for children now struggling. We as citizens have failed in this, and so has our government, and that must change. The United States took a historic wrong turn over the last half century, and for the Knapps and so many others life has become an inferno. We will take you through that inferno, but also show how America can do better.

[ Return to the review of “Tightrope.” ]

The New York Times