Dahlia Lithwick on Voting Rights—Plus Katha Pollitt on The Forgotten Girls
Dahlia Lithwick on Voting Rights—Plus Katha Pollitt on “The Forgotten Girls”
On this episode of Start Making Sense, conversations about the Supreme Court, and about girls growing up in a small Southern town.
Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.
The right-wing supermajority on the Supreme Court has returned to a case about racial gerrymandering in Alabama, where Republicans have defied the Court’s order. Dahlia Lithwick will comment about that, and about her book “Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America”—it’s out now in paperback.
Also: Two girls grew up in the 1980s and ’90s in a small town in Arkansas. One made it out and became a successful journalist and writer; her best friend, who had been supersmart as a kid, fell into drugs,getting pregnant too young, and petty crime. How did their lives turn out so different? Katha Pollitt talks about the new memoir by Monica Potts, “The Forgotten Girls.”
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The right-wing supermajority on the Supreme Court will return to a case about racial gerrymandering in Alabama, where Republicans have defied the court’s order. Dahlia Lithwick will comment about that, and about her book Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America—it’s out now in paperback.
Also on this episode: Two girls grew up in the 1980s and ’90s in a small town in Arkansas. One made it out and became a successful journalist and writer; her best friend, who had been super smart as a kid, fell into drugs, getting pregnant too young, and petty crime. How did their lives turn out so different? Katha Pollitt is on the podcast to talk about the new memoir by Monica Potts, The Forgotten Girls.
Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.
A political battle is underway in Los Angeles, where landlords, multi-millionaires, and the police are trying to defeat the leading progressive on the city council. Their key issues are protection for renters and new taxes on mansions.
Also on this episode of Start Making Sense: A new podcast brings us stories from the early days of HIV & AIDS. It's about how the epidemic decimated poor communities of color and the people who refused to stay out of sight. WNYC's Kai Wright and The Nation's Lizzy Ratner are behind the new show, Blindspot: The Plague in the Shadows.
Advertising Inquiries: https://redcircle.com/brands
Privacy & Opt-Out: https://redcircle.com/privacy
Jon Wiener, host: From the Nation Magazine, this is Start Making Sense. I’m Jon Wiener. Later in the show, two girls grew up in the 1980s in a small town in Arkansas. One made it out and became a successful journalist and writer. Her best friend, who had been super smart as a kid, fell into drugs, bad men, getting pregnant too young and petty crime. How did their lives turn out to be so different? Katha Pollitt will talk about the new memoir by Monica Potts, The Forgotten Girls. But first Alabama Republicans’ defiance of the Supreme Court, Dahlia Lithwick will comment in a minute.
The Supreme Court has begun its third term with a right-wing super majority, six to three. We’re especially interested in voting rights, which they will be returning to thanks to the defiance of the Republican state legislature in Alabama. For comment on that and other legal issues, we turn to Dahlia Lithwick. She’s senior legal correspondent at Slate and host of Amicus, Slate’s award-winning podcast about the law. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Her book, Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America is out now in paperback. It won the LA Times book prize and was named one of the best books of 2022 by The New Yorker. Dahlia Lithwick, welcome back.
Dahlia Lithwick, guest: So good to be with you again. Thank you for having me.
JW: Please explain the original Alabama redistricting decision from last June. It was about racial gerrymandering. It was a historic one that surprised a lot of us.
DL: Right. Alabama has seven seats in the House of Representatives, and after the 2020 census, the GOP-controlled legislature set about redrawing their map, dividing those seven districts up. So in a state that voted 62% to 37% for Donald Trump, they somehow created only one seat that was a “majority minority district” and the rest of the Black voters in the state who represent a huge proportion of the voters in the state were the term of art is “packed and cracked.” They were either spread out around the state so that their votes could be devalued or smashed into this one district.
This was subject to two different changes, arguing that that map violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and violated the Constitution. It’s important maybe as background to say that the Voting Rights Act has been systematically eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court in a whole series of cases. Section 2 is the only filament left to hang onto. This was going to be an opportunity for the court to do away with what was left of the Voting Rights Act. As you say, in a huge surprise in the last weeks of the term last year in a case called Allen v. Milligan, the court actually decided to uphold the district court ruling and the district court ruling had said, “No, these new maps are totally unconstitutional, and they violate the VRA.”
Chief Justice Roberts writing with the three Democrats, and surprise, surprise, Justice Brett Kavanaugh held that under longstanding Supreme Court precedent, Alabama had violated Section 2 of the VRA and Justice Kavanaugh had a short concurrence where he said, “If Alabama had come back with a different argument, I might’ve thought differently, but here we go.” So that’s where we were effective June of 2023.
JW: June of 2023. Why were they back at the Supreme Court this term?
DL: Well, so this is the crackup. The Alabama legislature again redrew the same map under the directive of both the district court in Alabama and now the Supreme Court. They essentially refused to draw a second majority minority district even though they’d been told to do that. They essentially presented a version of the same map and then defended what I think we can only call some form of nullification or just refusal to follow the Supreme Court’s analysis by saying, “Yeah, we think it’s going to go different for us this time.”
JW: Did Alabama Republicans really think the Supreme Court would reverse its decision of just a couple of months ago?
DL: Well, on Tuesday the Supreme Court told them no. On Tuesday the Supreme Court said, “No, you can’t come back to us and demand. Go ahead and draw the maps the way we told you to.” But I think it’s a really interesting and emblematic case about where we are right now, where Alabama just refused to take no for an answer, and whether they hinge that on what has been reported as insider information that Justice Kavanaugh would flip if they brought a different argument or if they just genuinely believed that if they just keep coming back to the Supreme Court and refusing to take the loss, the court would accommodate them.
So I think what animates it is one of two kinds of terrifying possibilities. One, insider information that they have Justice Kavanaugh in the bag, that’s scary. Scarier still and voting rights advocate Marc Elias made this point on my podcast a few weeks ago is that they just don’t care, that being lawless for the sake of lawlessness is its own virtue, particularly if you’re running for reelection in Alabama. There’s nothing quite as cool these days as saying the law doesn’t apply to me. So if in fact the endgame here is simply flouting the Supreme Court because that is its own form of currency right now, that’s chilling to the bone.
JW: It’s not just Alabama, in Georgia and Louisiana, Republican state legislatures have gerrymandered House districts to reduce Black representation in Congress. Louisiana is a state where Black residents make up 31% of the state population, but five of the state’s six representatives in the House are white. A federal district judge ruled last year that the state legislature’s map very likely violated the Voting Rights Act and ordered a new map drawn up for the 2024 elections. The Supreme Court has stood behind that since its Alabama decision last June. So now the Louisiana Republican legislature has been ordered by the Supreme Court to create a second Black congressional district. Do you think that’s the end of the story? Will Black people in Louisiana elect a second representative to Congress next year?
DL: I mean, again, I think we are in this just deeply, deeply strange moment. If you want to pan back even just from these racial gerrymanders and pan back to what’s happening all around the country where we have North Carolina saying that we’re taking away the governor’s power to determine who is on election boards. We’re seeing, I know we’re going to talk about this, Wisconsin saying, “We’re simply going to unseat a Supreme Court Justice.” We’re seeing the state of Louisiana turn off the mics in the legislature when people are talking about issues that are not popular. Around the country we’re seeing efforts to restrict the power of duly elected state prosecutors to prosecute crime.
So I think what you’re describing, and it’s hard to see it because we see it as these sort of episodic, peripatetic–it’s like a whack-a-mole thing. Like, oh, well,’ maybe they fixed it in Alabama, maybe it’s not fixed in Ohio. Let’s see what’s happening in Wisconsin. But I think that the zeitgeist really is this kind of ‘make me energy, where you are seeing Republican legislatures, and let’s be really clear, what animates this is we’re losing at the polls, look at the 2022 midterms, we’re losing on every single ballot initiative that puts reproductive rights on the ballot, we lose, right? We can’t win through direct democracy. So what are we going to do? We’re going to break democracy.
Every single iteration that you’re describing, whether it’s refusing to comply with district court orders about redrawing maps, whether it’s simply refusing to abide by the principle that a duly elected Supreme Court Justice gets to sit on that court absent wild misconduct or whether it’s Justice Clarence Thomas saying, ‘I don’t care if I’ve violated ethics rules and disclosure rules and also refuse to recuse, make me.’ I think that big ‘make me’ energy is really going to be the hallmark, if it hasn’t already been the hallmark of the last year, it is going to be the hallmark of how Republicans in power plan to claw back power.
JW: Well, let’s talk about the whack-a-mole problem in Wisconsin. This is a state where a Republican super majority in the gerrymandered legislature has come up with this new idea, impeaching a newly elected liberal Supreme Court Justice before she’s heard a single case. This is Janet Protasiewicz. She won her election in April by an 11-point landslide. This is a state which has been basically 50-50 in the last couple of presidential elections. So that’s an incredible victory, energized mostly by her support for the principles of abortion rights.
During the campaign, Protasiewicz, as the journalists say, spoke with unusual candor about her views on policy issues including redistricting. She said the state’s legislative maps were “rigged”, and of course she’s right about that. In Wisconsin, the state’s voters are nearly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, but Republicans control nearly two-thirds of the seats in the legislature. It’s impossible for the Democrats right now ever to win control of the state legislature. Now, the Republican assembly speaker says the state assembly could impeach Protasiewicz unless she refuses to recuse herself from cases pending at the court that challenge this set of gerrymandered legislative maps.
In Wisconsin, like in the United States, you can impeach somebody with a simple majority in the assembly, but it takes two-thirds of the State Senate. State Senate is not going to do this. But in Wisconsin, if a judge or Justice is impeached, they are suspended until they’re acquitted in the Senate. So 51 Republicans could block a state Supreme Court Justice from ruling on any cases conceivably indefinitely. What can you tell us about Wisconsin?
DL: This is another one of those cases. Protasiewicz is hardly the first judge to openly campaign on issues. Judges who run for judicial elections overtly for years have stated their views on abortion, stated their views on being hard on crime, right? The days in which a jurist running for office said nothing about anything are long over. She won by a landslide. She openly ran on being pro-reproductive freedom. The balance of the court has shifted. It’s not in dispute that the way Wisconsin Republicans plan to hold onto their power is through these wildly gerrymandered districts and maps and through a wildly, for a long time, conservative Supreme Court.
They have lost the power of the state Supreme Court and the only thing to do is take her out. So you are quite right. There’s this incredibly nefarious campaign based on comments she made in advance of the election, which she by the way, cabined and said, “I’m not going to talk about the issue itself.” There’s a secret creepy panel of former Justices who are not on the court that’s been convened by a Republican lawmaker to in-secret give direction. I mean, the whole thing, it is so rank. I think again it goes to this larger point we’re both making, which is there was a time when vote suppression was the way you did this, right? There was a time when gerrymandering was the way you did this.
There was even a time when a little unlawful coup on January 6th was the way that you did this. But now we are at a point where we are seeing around the country in red states legislatures pulling out wrenches and hammers and power tools and drills and saying like, ‘No, we will break the very machinery of democracy on whatever flimsy theory we can advance so that we can keep power.’ I think because it’s happening sort of everything everywhere all at once, it’s hard to clock it and the best way to clock it is it’s all kind of a piece.
I mean, this is all variations on this theme, which is it used to be we would let elections sort of kind of play out. We just make sure you had to have voter ID, or we purged all the felons, or we didn’t let young people vote at their colleges. That’s how it used to be done. I think we’re still used to thinking in those terms. This is not that. This is subverting entire elections after they’ve happened. This is saying in the face of district court orders and a Supreme Court reaffirmation in Alabama to draw new maps that we feel that we have the option to just say, ‘Nah.’
JW: It does seem to me that what’s happening in Wisconsin will give new energy to Democrats in the 2024 election given the fact that Protasiewicz won by 11 points in a 50-50 state. I think Biden is going to be the main beneficiary of this move, whether or not they go ahead with it.
DL: One of the things that I think has not been sufficiently discussed in the press is that in the 2022 midterms, when asked why they went out to the polls, an awful lot of people, huge margins of people went out because of the Dobbs decision, but there were an awful lot of people who listed challenges to the rule of law and democracy itself as an issue that was really motivating their vote. I think that even though these things, my God, we’re talking about redistricting and apportionment and one person, one vote, they’re such abstractions and what is a high crime and misdemeanor and what is an impeachable, but all of these things are vaporous, highly technical legal ideas that are very hard for people to get out and vote about.
Yet I think in 2022 they did. They really understood in the wake of election denialism, in the wake of rampant violence in the Capitol that was somehow re-construed as people lost on the way to the gift shop. People understand threats to democracy. You see it in Hungary, you see it in Poland, you see it in Iran, right? None of this is invisible. So what I think voters are doing, whether their issue is climate change, whether their issue is workers’ rights, whether their issue is LGBTQ rights and the horrific trans bans around the country, whether the issue is book banning, or as you say, the right to vote, I think that that connective tissue between outcomes that people hate that are wildly unpopular by huge margins and minority rule have become very plain to voters.
I think voters who didn’t fully appreciate why is it that racial gerrymandering or political gerrymandering or voter ID or having to stand in line for two hours at the poll in Philadelphia or in Atlanta where you can sort of blow through in Connecticut and drop off your ballot, all of that is starting I think to come together as an elaborate understanding of how minority rule preserves itself. I think you’re quite right. I think voters hate that.
My sense is that voters hate it whether it comes in the form of impeaching a popularly elected Justice or whether it comes in the form of nullifying a Supreme Court order to draw new maps or whether it comes in the form of a state like North Carolina saying, “We’re taking away the governor’s power to make sure that elections are fair.” Every version of that seems complicated on its face, but the story it’s telling is very uncomplicated, which is this is how majorities are stifled by very powerful but actually very tiny minorities and, are you going to vote on that in 2024?
JW: Now I’d like to talk about your wonderful book, Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America in the Trump Years. It’s out now in paperback. Let’s start at the very beginning of the Trump years. Sally Yates was still the acting attorney general of the United States a week after Trump’s inauguration. She was the first person in the government to say no to Trump and she got fired for it. What exactly did Sally Yates say no to?
DL: I mean, it’s so interesting, right? We’re here, we’re listening suddenly in the moment of Cassidy Hutchinson and Mark Milley, all the people who kind of sort of said no, but in a complicated way, and there’s a book and there’s a coup. Long before any of that, it seems to me Sally Yates, who you’re quite right, within a week of the inauguration after the 2016 election, the Trump administration was passing this clearly unlawful travel ban which was going to ban entry to the United States from people who happened to all come from majority Muslim countries.
Then Acting Attorney General Yates took one look at it, first of all was never consulted, it wasn’t vetted by her Justice Department. Took one look at it and said, “Nope, I can’t enforce this. I cannot put the perimeter of my DOJ on this ban. I’m not sending my lawyers in to defend it.” As you said in saying no, she wouldn’t defend it, she was just summarily fired. The question that I asked in the book and that I asked a year later is, “Why were there so few Sally Yateses? When thereeswere so many people who knew something shocking and abhorrent was happening?”
You can call them Bill Barr or you can call them Don McGahn, or you can call them any number of people who wrote a memo to the file and said, “I just want to be super clear for my grandchildren’s sake that I was not a party to this one piece of rampant lawlessness.” Or they wrote a book and waited and put it in their book. But the idea that there aren’t hundreds if not thousands of Sally Yateses’, I think, is one of the saddest commentaries on where we are in terms of people willing to just stand up to lawlessness and authoritarianism. We should have had so many Sally Yateses, and the reason she’s kind of the anchor of the first chapter of the book is that we’re so grateful that we just had one.
JW: Yeah. I’d like to talk a little more about Trump’s Muslim travel ban. Remember when lawyers swarmed the airports to provide emergency legal service to travelers arriving from Muslim countries? You say, we can thank Becca Heller for that. I never heard of Becca Heller. Tell us about her.
DL: So this was one of my favorite moments, and I think another moment that I wish we’d seen repeated thousands of times since, but I describe that moment where the Muslim ban goes into effect and suddenly at every major international airport in the country, random lawyers, whether they do probate or whether they’re divorce attorneys, or whether they’re real estate lawyers, just jump in their cars, go out to the airports, show up at arrivals and hold up these signs in Pashto and Arabic that say, “I am your lawyer.” People who got onto their planes often having sold all their worldly possessions with the belief that they either had asylum or that they had work papers or that they were going to be allowed to enter were suddenly stateless in the sky.
And that these lawyers just showed up with the understanding that if these folks have a lawyer who’s willing to file a habeas claim for them, they might just be able to get into the country. It was, in my view, as somebody who having graduated from law school where every single comment about lawyers ends with at the bottom of the ocean, it was the high-water mark for what attorneys can do to not just kind of change policy, but to serve and serve democracy. Becca Heller was this young lawyer who had together with a couple of other people crafted IRAP, which was a refugee project.
The notion of, this travel ban is coming, we are not prepared, I’m going to put out some spreadsheets there and see if we can get some lawyers out to the airports to defend these people in a pinch was very much engineered by Becca and some of her team and really supported by the ACLU and other groups that then litigated the travel ban. I use it as an example, not just of where did that energy go, the energy that every single one of us had skin in the game, and we would go out to airports and chant ‘let the lawyers in’ the way they did at CTAC, but also that any one person can make a huge difference, which is very, very, very much the message I was trying to communicate throughout the book.
JW: Let’s compare and contrast Sally Yates and Becca Heller. Would you say they had different approaches to the law?
DL: I mean, I deliberately put their chapters side by side in no small measure because Sally Yates I often say comes across as this kind of Frank Capra, Jimmy Stewart character, such a deep and abiding belief in the power of law, in the dignity of law, such a deep sense that these things we learned in law school are clarion calls to be lawful and be better and do better. Then Becca Heller, who could not be more different. I mean, Becca really essentially says straight up in her interview with me in the book, master’s tools to take apart the master’s house, the famous Audre Lorde quote about I don’t know another way and so I’m just using the tools of the law to try to affect change, but I have no illusions that the law makes us whole or better or brings dignity or equality. It’s just the law basically is an instrument of oppression all the time. So I’m going to try to use it to make it fair.
So I love kind of the contrast between the two of them. I guess I would say one other thing, which is I finished the book right before the Dobbs decision came down last year, and I had to rewrite big swaths of it after Dobbs came down. One of the things that I really noticed in every chapter of the book, whether I was talking to Anita Hill or Roberta Kaplan who sued the Nazis who marched in Charlottesville in 2017 and won, every single one of them lives on this seam that we’re describing, that somewhere between the extreme aspirational, the law makes us free, the law lifts us all up, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, and the other side of it, which is the law is a machine that for centuries has been used to keep minorities and women and vulnerable people down.
I think that that tension, every single person I interviewed, including Vanita Gupta, who’s at the Justice Department now, said some version of, “Yeah, the law is both the cause of and the solution to all our problems.” I love the ways in which even within any one chapter each of these women I interviewed sometimes toggles between those two extremes very comfortably with the understanding that the Roe v. Wade that gave women a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy could flip into Dobbs, which is the reason there are women who are now in jail for sending text messages or for miscarrying in a way that the government deemed suspicious. I mean, that notion that the law can be used to make women free or to put women in jail is one of the themes that I found absolutely consistent across every chapter in the book.
JW: Dahlia Lithwick, you can listen to her award-winning podcast, Amicus, and read her wonderful book, Lady Justice. It’s out now in paperback. Heather Cox Richardson, who was on our show a couple of weeks ago, wrote that Lady Justice is “smart, incisive and engaging, and a must read not only for its recounting of the events of those dangerous four years, but for its evocation of the resolve, courage and principles of those women holding the line against the rise of authoritarianism, not least of whom is Dahlia Lithwick herself.” Yes! Dahlia, thanks for talking with us today.
DL: Thank you so much for having me back.
Jon Wiener, host: Two girls grew up in the 1980s and 90s in small town America, Clinton, Arkansas. One made it out and became a successful journalist and writer. Her best friend, who had been funny, sensitive, and super smart as a kid, fell into drugs, bad men, getting pregnant too young, and petty crime. How did their lives turn out so different? That’s the story told by Monica Potts in her new memoir, The Forgotten Girls.
For comment, we turn to Katha Pollitt. Of course, she’s the poet, essayist, and award-winning columnist for The Nation. She also writes for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. Her most recent book is Pro: Defending Abortion Rights. We reached her today in Connecticut. Katha, welcome back.
Katha Pollitt, guest: Hi, Jon. Thanks for having me on the show.
JW: First of all, who is Monica Potts?
KP: Monica Potts is a name you should know. She is a wonderful journalist. She’s now working for fivethirtyeight.com. Before that, she was at The American Prospect and she’s written for The Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and she’s been on NPR.
JW: She and her best friend Darcy grew up in what we call the heartland, this little town of Clinton, Arkansas. For Darcy, it seemed like the events that changed her life, where they really parted company, was when they were 15 or 16 or 17 years old. And Darcy, the best friend, decided that instead of focusing on college as a way of getting out, she would, in her words, “enjoy life,” which meant partying and drugs and boys and sex. The experts say this is part of a well-known pattern. It’s the difference between the kids who stay in school and do well in life and those who don’t. And the name the experts give this difference is the ability to delay gratification. They have found this, our experts, even among little kids. Some kids can do this, some kids cannot. They got famous using something called the marshmallow test. Remind us what that was.
KP: The marshmallow test: They would put a marshmallow in front of a five-year-old and they would say, “Darling, if you cannot eat this for 15 minutes, you can have two marshmallows.” Now, 15 minutes is an eternity to a five-year-old, and if you really like marshmallows, it might be an eternity to someone even older than that. But some kids were able to do this, and they got the two, and others were not, and the theory was that the ones who could not withstand the lure of the too-early marshmallow would be the ones that throughout life would not be able to delay gratification, and this would have great terrible consequences for them.
JW: But, as Monica Potts explains in the book, turns out this test is completely bogus. Other tests have found out that the marshmallow test really doesn’t predict anything much, and that in the case that we’re interested in, Darcy and Monica, Darcy’s turn to partying and drugs and boys and sex you might call the inability to delay gratification. But really, this book is about all the other things that happened in their lives. One of the biggest differences in their childhoods was their mothers were really different. Tell us about that.
KP: Well, Monica’s mother, Kathy, was not religious, and we have to talk about the role of evangelical Protestantism in this whole thing, and also of poverty in the closing of the big factory and everything that’s bad that we know that contributes to terrible lives for lots and lots of people in this part of the world. Monica’s mother was laser focused on Monica and her sisters going to college and getting out of there, and she emphasized this constantly. And her father, who was not the world’s ideal father, he was an alcoholic and he died in his mid-fifties, but he too, and there was no question that Monica was really smart, and Monica was going to get out of there. Darcy’s mother had a much more chaotic life. She was also a reader, interestingly, and a Seventh Day Adventist, so she was religious.
It was much earlier than when she was 15, actually, it was in middle school when Darcy went a little boy crazy as many girls in that town did. The mother just threw up her hands and said, “Well, that’s her choice.” What does that mean? That a 12-year-old is making a choice. That’s ridiculous. This book makes a case for a little bit of strictness in your parenting, that just because the kid wants to do something, there are larger things at stake. But I don’t think the larger thing at stake in the case of Darcy or indeed anyone has anything to do with marshmallows, so likely you’re fine.
JW: Evangelical religion: Darcy, the friend, is taken to a Southern Baptist church every Sunday where she gets taught about the proper role for women and men.
KP: Yes, this is really terrible, that this church and this denomination reinforces the subjection of women in the most naked and overt way, that you are here to be a helpmate to your husband. The important thing is being a good wife, a good mother, and you get praised for that. It is a very harsh sexual morality that’s, of course, quite sexist because it falls on the girls that you have to postpone sex till you’re married, so you should marry very young and then you should start having babies right away.
JW: What are you supposed to do if you have a husband who’s violent, abusive, unfaithful, and you go to the place you go for help, your pastor, what advice are you given?
KP: Well, it’s probably your fault. You’re probably doing something to provoke this. And the solution is to pray a lot and Jesus will make it better. It’s just the worst messages you could give. These girls are not brought up to see themselves as independent actors in the world. They’re not brought up to think you might have to support yourself. You might have to support your children. And so, what happens is a pattern of having their kids too young before they’re ready, marrying whoever or being with whoever, and then that doesn’t work out because you’re both too young. And then you go from man to man. You don’t feel that you can be an effective person in the world on your own. It’s the worst possible message that you could give a young woman. And they don’t wait until they’re young women. It starts when they’re little kids.
JW: And it wasn’t just the churches that were destroying girls’ lives. Monica Potts writes, “The malign influence of religion was matched by the negligence of adults, especially the authorities at the high school.” Please explain that part.
KP: Oh, this was so disturbing. Darcy continued to get good grades throughout her high school years, but she was defiant. She was not a teacher’s ideal student, and they just didn’t tell her until it was too late to do anything about it that she had cut too many days to graduate with her class. Now, why couldn’t they have sat her down and said, ‘Darcy, you are in danger of not being able to graduate. We really, really think you need to come to school every day.’
JW: ‘Because you’re very smart and you could go to college.’
KP: ‘You’re very smart and you could go to college.’ Nothing was said to her. She had no idea. This was so tragic. Another way in which this high school was very deficient. And I have to say by way of parenthesis, of course, it’s the boys who get all the attention. Sports is a big deal there. So the other thing that they did, and this is I gather very common, they had the idea that the kids weren’t going to amount to much, so they didn’t go the extra mile to find out about scholarships to schools out of town and out of state. They didn’t seem aware that these scholarships existed. They didn’t investigate. They didn’t stand behind the kids and say, ‘No, go for it. You can do it.’ And the reason that Monica got to go to Bryn Mawr was really almost an accident, that she made this phone call about something else to Barnard. And she got someone at Barnard who said, “Oh, you should come to our summer program,” and she did.
And then colleges sought her out because then there is help. There are possibilities for low-income kids from these places who are smart and good students. And the school seemed completely unaware of that. And you can tell in my voice, I’m mad about that. Can I say one more thing about school? Because it’s important. The kids from the more prosperous families were treated much better than the kids from the working-class families, and the kids from the working-class families where school tells them, “Well, you’re not doing so well in school. It’s not really that important for you.” There was no recouping people, no saving them, no saying, ‘I see something in you.’ So many people have said, “There was one teacher who saw what I could do, and that made the difference.” And at this school, there were not enough people like that.
JW: And one other thing at this school, and I think at a lot of schools: the kids who are not doing well, they encourage to drop out so that the graduation rate will be higher. The graduation rate is only of the seniors who graduate. So if they can convince students who are having problems to drop out as juniors, then the school looks better in the statistics.
KP: That’s really terrible.
JW: So the churches are beating her down, the schools aren’t helping her, and then there were the drugs. Darcy worked at a drive-in burger place, and Monica Potts writes, “People sometimes gave her meth as a tip. Meth was always around. It was easier to get meth than alcohol.”
KP: Yeah. Well, this is what a lot of people have been talking about is the role of drugs, illegal drugs, in the high death rates for every cause. For suicide, for car crashes, for deaths of violence. It was what was called the deaths of despair. And these places are saturated in these very lethal drugs. Meth is very dangerous. There’s another thing I felt about this book: it shows that the adults do not protect the kids. The adults are in there. The men are being predatory. The women are helping to promote this awful ideology of subservience. In another place, Darcy might not have even gotten into drugs because they wouldn’t have been so available.
JW: So Monica goes off to college, does well, becomes an editorial intern, becomes a writer, is mentored, and goes home, as everybody does, on holidays, to visit her own mother–and also to visit her friend, Darcy. And what has happened to Darcy in their twenties?
KP: Well, Darcy has had some children. Darcy has been with one man after another and finally ends up with men who are violent and are drug dealers, I think. And she has nothing. She has nothing. And then I forget what crime she commits, something that she should have probably gotten probation for, and she spends a little time in jail. And you just watch this person. Some of her good qualities are helping to destroy her, like her optimism, her sense of, “I should be having a good life.” And yet there are no jobs except the most low-paid jobs. I think she does go to community college at one point, and this was very interesting because, especially in view that community college is now something that is being promoted a lot, is that these kids go to community college. They don’t really understand that community college is not going to set them up for more college. And they have to take a lot of basic courses that are very boring.
They’re working and they’re driving a lot because they can’t live near the college because it’s too expensive. And so the combination of all those things, the boredom, the work, and the commuting, it just becomes too much, and you just feel like, “Why am I doing this? I’m just going to drop out. I can always go back.” And that was very sad, it seemed to me, and unnecessary. I still have the reactionary idea. High school should prepare you for college. College should not be where you have to go back and learn high school subjects, but it is.
JW: Hear, hear. And I want to shift the focus for a minute from the girls to adult women. They’re mothers. What’s it like to be a middle-aged woman in a place like this with a daughter or two who have little kids, abusive husbands, and live in poverty?
KP: Well, this is another terrible thing, is that there are so many grandmothers who are raising their grandchildren.
JW: And when you say grandmothers, how old are these grandmothers?
KP: A grandmother might be 40. And that whole middle generation has been hollowed out by drugs, and the older generation are left raising the youngest ones. And the older generation, they have heart problems. They’re not healthy. They’re obese. They have heart problems. They don’t get exercise, they don’t have any fun. They’re often in not great relationships with men and they don’t have any money. It’s very stressful, and this is part of these early deaths that we’re seeing now.
JW: One last thing, abortion rights. I wonder if the recent ban on abortion in Arkansas affected the lives of young women like Darcy at all. Wasn’t the whole system set up decades ago to prevent them from getting abortions even when they were legal?
KP: Yes. And Arkansas became one of the first, if not the first, state to ban abortion after Dobbs. But before that, it wasn’t easy to get an abortion. And you can see how a community like this — it would be very hard to even go to Little Rock or wherever to get your abortion. Even if you could have the thought of, ‘I don’t care what everybody else says that says it’s murder. I’m going to go do this.’ And what Monica told me when we talked on the phone is that the common pattern is to have your kids young and then you get your tubes tied so you don’t have any more. I don’t know. I guess that’s one way of doing it. But by the time you’ve done that, you’ve missed a lot. You’ve missed college, you’ve missed the early stages of a good career, and you’re probably on not a good path with men. Because there are some women who do okay. I don’t mean to slight that. And I don’t mean to say that having children is a terrible thing.
The other piece of it is our society does nothing for mothers with children. If this story had taken place in, let’s say, Germany, where even for all its faults and its lamentable history, which we must never forget, if you are a single mother, they take care of you. You have a place to live, you have enough to eat, there are opportunities for you. And that’s the way it should be. It shouldn’t be, “Oh, I had a baby when I was 17, that was a terrible mistake, and now the rest of my life is going to be garbage.” It shouldn’t be like that.
JW: At the end of the book, Monica Potts visits her friend Darcy at a county jail in Arkansas, where Darcy says she was in for 103 days. And after she gets out, Darcy asks Monica about the book she is writing, the book we are now reading. She asks Monica, “At the end of this book, will they know we’re best friends?” And Monica Potts writes on her last page, “I never had a better friend than Darcy.” That is a heartbreaker.
KP: Really. Really. It’s a great book and everybody should read it. And I learned so much from it – about a part of the world I don’t know very much about.
JW: Katha Pollitt wrote about the book The Forgotten Girls by Monica Potts for The Nation. You can read her column at thenation.com. Katha, this was great. Thanks for talking with us today.
KP: Thanks for having me, Jon.