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The Percentages: A Biography of Class

1. Bleach

My first connection to magazines, maybe my most immediate, is the smell of bleach.

My father worked in a printers’ shop; it was a trade my mother had gotten him into, when she worked at a newspaper. It worked for him, kept him going, and it was a step up; before she got him in, he’d been mowing lawns at golf courses. I did visit him at work, once or twice; after everyone else was gone, when it was his night to have me but he still had to finish some things. I did see him putting pages together. And he brought me things from work to play with, when I was little: a little booklet full of different swatches of color that I could flip through, which I now realize were colors of ink, and a notepad with “Doyle” on it, personalized, which he thought was cool. But I never knew much about his work, or what he did, really. It wasn’t something he talked about when he was home. So mostly, bleach is what I remember. He’d come home, after work, and take out a jug of bleach, and put it on the edge of the kitchen sink. And then — so that he didn’t “look bad,” he told me, “so he could take girls out on dates” — he’d use it to scrub the ink stains off his hands.

I don’t know what my deal is, around class, but it starts here.


2. Kitchens

Living in Ohio is cheaper than living in New York. My first stepfather worked the night shift at a grocery store; it wasn’t understood that we were doing poorly. My best friend’s mother worked the deli counter at a different grocery store. You could live on that money. The woman across the street sold equipment and moonshine at rodeos, and wasn’t married, and some kids in the neighborhood weren’t allowed to play with her kids, because the understanding was that she’d used to strip. The understanding was also that her husband had committed suicide; this always came hand-in-hand with the stripping rumors, was believed by the nice church-going ladies of our block to be connected somehow. If women were not good women, their men would die: This was the lesson here. So, not all of us had office jobs, or the education or background required to get them. But we had our own houses, we were suburban, the idea that we weren’t firmly middle-class would have been an insult to us. Of course we were. Everyone was.

There were a few hints, of course, that our lives weren’t the only possible lives. For one, there was the nice part of town, where the popular kids all seemed to be living by miraculous coincidence. My friend R and I got an in to the nice part of town, by the time we were in high school — C, a girl a bit younger than we were, who was in our girls’ choir. Her house was new, and to us it was massive; two big floors, both with high ceilings, a basement rec room with a real pinball machine and a TV as wide as three people standing with arms linked. C had two kitchens. In retrospect this still seems impossible, something my memory would have put together out of blurred images just to represent how huge her house seemed, but I have tried to remember it differently, and there it is: We were having a movie night at her house, in front of the giant TV, and we wanted to make some popcorn, and her sister was using the microwave. At which point C said, “don’t worry. We’ll just use the other kitchen.”

R and I made faces at each other behind her back. There was an implicit power relation, a con job we were pulling on this girl; she was younger, we were making her cooler by giving her older friends. R had lost her virginity, which made her a real catch; she could tell other girls about it, cash in on her expertise. But the vast majority of our friendship with C involved getting access to her house and marveling at it. Its size, its gleaming fanciness, its miraculous number of kitchens. C didn’t seem to enter into it, as a point of attraction. Not on her own. And our houses, well: We didn’t quite want her to see them. Why should she? She was the one with the big TV.

But we didn’t talk about class. We didn’t have that language. We used the word “rich,” for people like C; this implied quite a few things, not least permission to heap our endless contempt upon the people we described by it. The rich were weak, pampered, shallow, elitist, didn’t have good values, didn’t have to work as hard as we did. We used “poor,” to describe people who were homeless; this was shameful too, implied you were lazy, couldn’t cut it, didn’t work hard enough to get ahead. This was America, after all; anyone could succeed, unless there was something wrong with them. But us, our deal: class didn’t enter into it. We were middle-class. “Middle-class” meant “normal.” It wasn’t shameful in either direction. So it was the term we used. “Middle-class,” we believed, was about character. Not money. Though character and money, we knew, were linked in crucial ways.


3. Trailer

I never thought my father was not middle-class. Or my stepfather, or my mother during the bad years. To think that would have been to insult him, somehow. So the most I could ever think to say, about my father, was that he was different. There was something different, about how he lived.

There was his accent. I was not allowed to pronounce words the way he did, or use the same words, or string them together in the same order: “Ain’t,” and “don’t” instead of “doesn’t” (as in, “that don’t sound right”), were not how nice people talked. Similarly, I was to say “movie thee-ter,” not “movie thee-YAY-ter,” and “baby doll,” not “baby dowl.” My father was from Ohio, same as my mother; this wasn’t about place, this distinction. This was about “sounding nice.” Some people in our town sounded nice, some didn’t.

And my father didn’t have a house. He lived in an apartment. It wasn’t separated from the city, but close to it — I could see stores from his back yard, and garages, and restaurants. This was different, not quite “nice,” not quite comfortable. He also didn’t look right, didn’t look like nice people looked; his hair was too long, he wore leather jackets and jean jackets, he knew men who had tattoos and dated women with big, long hair, like the hair sexy girls had in videos for metal bands on MTV. His brothers rode motorcycles sometimes and broke their bones, they walked around without shirts on saying “ain’t” and “don’t,” one of them had legally changed his name from Joseph to Boozer, to celebrate getting out of court-ordered rehab. He was the one who broke his bones most often, and my brother was named after him — not “Boozer,” sadly, but “Joey.” But the family accepted the name change, embraced it; he was “Uncle Boozer,” and we said hello to cousins around town. Hey, you’re Boozer’s girl. Also, my father didn’t have two parents. I was confused by this part. He didn’t have a Dad and a Mom, I didn’t have a full set of grandparents on that side. But my grandmother wasn’t dead; she was just not there, and we just didn’t talk about it. So what I had was a Grandpa and an Aunt Mimi.

The history, as I have pieced it together, is this: When my father was very young, his mother was hospitalized. No-one would ever tell me what for, and at this point in my life I’m honestly not in touch with anyone who knows, but it was a “breakdown,” a mental illness of some kind. My grandfather had too many children — they were Catholics, after all — and a wife in an institution who was not expected to leave any time soon, and he had to make some choices, financially speaking. Specifically, he had to choose which children he could and could not afford.

My father didn’t make the cut. He went off to Aunt Mimi. She was my real grandparent. My father had cordial relationships with his father, and with his brothers, but Aunt Mimi was the one he loved.

She was fearsome. When I took a Barbie to Aunt Mimi’s place, she told me to put it away, because Barbie had a short skirt on and no panties; “she needs to hide her shame,” is what Aunt Mimi said. She was a salty old broad, legally blind, fed birds religiously because she liked to hear them sing to her, and was very much not in the mood to be pitied or patronized or taken care of, under any circumstances, by anyone in this world. Anyone, that is, except my father. I never saw him with anyone, the way I saw him with Aunt Mimi; not my mother, not any of his girlfriends, certainly not in the presence of other men. He spoke softly and politely, pulled out chairs for her, cooked her a nice meal when he visited. My father was a passionate and excellent cook; it was the skill he was proudest of, and he would insist that I watch him while he put together every meal and narrated it all, telling me what he was doing that lesser cooks wouldn’t know how to do or would leave out; I dated a man for two years, I think specifically because he had this exact same habit, and to this day my good memories of my father all revolve around food. I didn’t realize until much later, that this all came from Aunt Mimi. That he had cooked for her every day, growing up. That was their relationship, not a simple mother-child transaction of caring and being cared for; they were a team, and took care of each other.

I fucked up with Aunt Mimi, the first time I met her. I was greeted, I was shown the bird feeder where the birds came to keep her company, I was shown around the place. And then I said, “wow, I’ve never been in a trailer before.”

I meant it nicely. I liked trailers; I got a bit jealous, every time we saw them on vacations; I wanted to live in a house like that when I grew up, self-contained and mobile. It seemed vaguely magical to me. It did not, however, seem magical to Aunt Mimi.

She whipped around on me like a snake.

“Well,” she said, “la-dee-dahhh, missy. You enjoying yourself? Is this an experience for you, coming down to see the poor trailer folks? It’s such a treat, getting visitors from the palace.”

I got sent outside, to think about what I’d done. We were all supposed to be middle-class. We were all middle-class, because this was America, and we were all normal. But there was a difference, between me and Mimi. And I wasn’t supposed to talk about it. There were things I wasn’t supposed to say, about the trailer.

When my father dropped out of high school to mow lawns, it was for Aunt Mimi. Money was scarce; he was old enough to work; he did it, took the full-time job and took care of her, because that was what they did for each other. He was mowing lawns still, when he met my mother.


4. $16,000

“When I married your father,” my mother always tells me, “he was the most brilliant man I’d ever met. And the funniest, and the most charming. At a certain point, he really was just the smartest, most amazing man in the world.”

This is something she tells me, so that I can feel better about him. It’s what she can give me, after all that’s happened. But it’s also a warning, and a lesson —  about people. About how they can change. About who you can fall in love with, and why, and why you should be careful.

My mother came from a different world than my father. “Middle-class” described her, without stretching. She belonged to the first generation of her family to attend college. Her family had moved up in the world; they had been coal miners in West Virginia, but my grandfather became a bricklayer, and had eventually owned his own bricklaying company, so my mother and her siblings went to college and got good, respectable office jobs. I am still, as far as I know, the only one of my high school friends to graduate college. And that was entirely my mother’s doing. Her fight — to get into college, to be the best at her college, to do all her homework on the back of the washing machine when it was her turn to do laundry, and she only ever wore hand-sewn jumpers, young lady, and she cried when she didn’t get straight As — was the subtext underneath everything I believed, about my family, and intelligence, and education. We didn’t cry when our clothes weren’t new or cool, we didn’t want more toys; our family bought books, because we cared about learning. We didn’t hate school, we didn’t slack off, we didn’t resent homework; we were there to actually learn things, not fool around or worry about prom. We didn’t flinch when there were bullies, we didn’t apologize for our intelligence; those people would regret it when we got into college and became their bosses. 

And yet, after all that ascenscion, she wound up supporting a newborn and a three-year-old on about $16,000 a year. Because of my father. Because of what happens when a child is abandoned by his entire family; what happens when a brilliant boy (and he was; he was intimidatingly smart, verbal, without having been educated past the age of fifteen) leaves school and settles in to a life of lawn-mowing and manual labor; what happens when a man waits until he gets married to become a child again and have a woman whose job is to take care of him, just him, no obligation on his end; what happens when that man learns to associate the presence of other children in his house with the idea that he’s not needed, that he’s going to be given away. What happens, when a man carries the weight of that much unfairness, when a man carries that much rage. My mother and my father waited a long time to have children, relatively speaking, but when they had them, that’s when he started drinking. And that’s when he started to beat her up.

I’d like to think it wasn’t entirely my fault. But on some level, it was: When I was born, he got into bed and did not get back out of it for six months, except when he needed to get another beer. I read books of feminist psychology that tell me this is not unique; that a wife’s pregnancy triggers Oedipal complexes and patriarchal assumptions, that men realize they are no longer the center of their wives’ attention (if they ever were) and can’t handle this; that men have breakdowns, have affairs, that domestic violence escalates or begins, during pregnancies; that this is all because of patriarchy and that if we resolve patriarchy it will go away. It explains the fact that my father’s reaction to my existence was not celebration or love, but despair and rage; it does not excuse or alleviate it. Over the next three years, the violence escalated, lulled, escalated again. Until my brother was born, and a priest finally intervened. Told my mother, finally, that she was going to die, and her children were going to die, unless she left; that this was not hyperbole, or worried prognostication, but the probable outcome, and that her obligation as a woman and as a mother was to get out, get out now, get out when he wasn’t looking and make sure he could not find us.

She ran away from home. Which many women have to do. Unlike many women who have to do it, she had the college degree, had the infrastructure of family; we lived in other people’s houses, we lived in bad apartments, we slept on furniture people would otherwise have thrown away, I remember more than anything else from these years my mother suddenly starting to cry when I wanted a sandwich and she had to tell me there was no peanut butter, we’d used up our peanut butter and couldn’t get more. But we ate, we had apartments, we had furniture. Other women who have to run away do not have these luxuries. Which does a lot to explain why many of them never run away at all.

This is something we don’t speak about enough; the role of economic stress in domestic violence, or the role that cash, pure cash, plays in keeping women vulnerable. It’s a knotty subject; some abusers undermine their partner’s financial security, take exclusive possession of the bank accounts or spend all the money or demand that their partners work less often or stop working altogether, and so the women cannot leave because they have become unemployable or simply don’t have access to the cash they’d need to escape. And sometimes, women don’t leave because there is not and never has been enough money. Nobody should have to choose between the violence of extreme poverty and the violence of an abusive relationship. But it remains a choice between violence and violence. Class is not separable from the discussion. Because gender and class have never been separable at all.

When I was twenty-five, I told my mother that my office job was now paying me $30,000; I was complaining about this, actually, that I felt like a failure, hadn’t studied the right subjects in school, would probably spend the rest of my life trying to make ends meet and answering other people’s phones. She told me she hadn’t made that much until I was in my late teens.

“But you had the office job,” I said. “You worked in PR. I thought we were doing okay.”

“Honey,” she said. “I had children. Was your stepfather going to do your homework with you? Who was going to cook dinner? I worked in that office part-time. And when you came home from school, I was always there.”

The argument doesn’t settle into trailers and suburbs, college degrees and high school dropouts. The argument, if there is one, rarely seems to settle along any firm lines at all.


5. Domestic

I didn’t know what we were until I moved to New York. Didn’t know the name for it, until I got here.

I was twenty, the year I moved; old enough for my mother to have told me what happened, with my father, and to let me make my own choices. I had adored him, growing up; he was my best friend, my idol. I blamed my mother for the divorce, throughout my childhood; yelled at her for “hurting” him, for making him so lonely. And she let me do it. She listened to the child psychologists as they explained that in my mind my mother was the strong one who could be a parent, and my father was the weak one who needed me to parent him, that I would probably always turn to her to receive care and turn to him to give it. She didn’t once become angry at me; or, if she did, she didn’t let me know. This, I now see, was her greatest gift to me. She let me adore my father; she let me believe I had a father, until I was old enough to know what he had done. And she never asked me to make any kind of decision, after she told me. I sat with the knowledge for a few days, and the next time I saw him, I told him that he and I would no longer be speaking, and he was not to contact me again. He hadn’t wanted children; now he had one less child. Simple as that.

So I was in New York, and I was twenty, and as far as I was concerned, I had no father. I’d made a mistake, loving him; I’d corrected it; I was done, ready to forget. Which was hard, because the streets were filled with men dressed exactly like him.

The boys were growing their hair long, that year. They were wearing what they called “trucker hats,” sometimes with the John Deere logo, sometimes without. They wore the tough-guy polyester vests, the puffy zip-up kind. They wore t-shirts for metal bands; the understanding was that you didn’t wear those shirts because you listened to the bands, you wore them because they were funny. In a magazine called Vice, I could see that the daring boys were going for the jean jackets. I was puzzled, thrown off; I’d come here to get away from my father, to get away from the world he lived in, and everyone worth knowing wore that world around, laughing at it. And as little as I loved my father, I couldn’t bring myself to laugh.

Because those boys, and the girls they knew, sounded nothing like my Dad. They talked about their time in Prague, their time touring Europe; they talked about bands they’d hung out with, and those bands were The Walkmen and The Strokes and some of the girls had fucked some of them; one of my roommates was one of the girls, and when she saw that I had a Juliana Hatfield CD, she smiled and said, “yeah, I’ve partied with her a bit, she’s awesome.” I try to remember that these boys and girls were children, some of them only eighteen years old; I try to remember that I was stupid too, unbelievably stupid, that I also had bad politics that make me shudder to recall. It still doesn’t take away the way they made me fee. I still remember the way I felt, standing in a grocery store, trying to pick out beer with the Juliana Hatfield roommate. I pointed to a beer that I thought was suitably exotic, something city people would drink (feeling guilty, dirty somehow, because nice people didn’t drink beer at all, my father drank beer, nice people only drank wine or cocktails) and she laughed at me, picked up some PBR. “I only drink domestic beer,” she said, in a voice I’d come to realize denoted “irony.” Feeling sick and weird there, in that moment, because if drinking domestic beer was ironic, then drinking it unironically was bad and funny, and I’d only ever drunk it unironically, only ever knew people who did, which meant we were bad and funny; if I drank the PBR it wouldn’t be a joke somehow, they would know. Or: Going to a bar, with my boyfriend, with the activist friends he’d made through Greenpeace; it was called “Trailer.” It was decorated to look like somebody’s idea of what you’d see in a trailer person’s home. To be precise, it was decorated to look like my home; it was decorated to look like the houses I’d visited growing up. We sat on a couch that had also belonged to my grandmother. And to my mother, during the bad years, right after she left my father; it was a hand-me-down. I traced the pattern of fruit in the print and thought about how I’d chipped my brother’s tooth, bouncing with him on the cushions.

“That whole white-trash chic thing,” said the girl who’d invited us there.

That was when I figured it out, the name for what we were. Our name was trash.

I went to a very liberal school, very radical; I’d thought I was radical, before attending that school, because of my whole feminism thing. There wasn’t a lot of room to discuss the feminism thing, at that school; not enough classes to make a major out of it. But there was activism. There was activism against the war, lots of it. There was activism against the conservatives, a lot of angry white men I could hear on Air America talking about “sheeple.” There was anti-colonialist activism, and anti-racist activism, and there was at last a chance for me to step out of my upbringing, to realize that among other corrosive forces in the town where I had grown up — the hatred of women had pressed down on me most immediately, and had been most visible from where I was standing — I had also grown up in an environment that was overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly racist, and that it had taught me racism which I had to unlearn. And we talked about class. About socialism, about the working-classes, about Marx and alienation.

But I didn’t have a language for my experience. Still. I didn’t have a way to say what made me uncomfortable, when I was hearing about class and socialism and radicalism from a boy in a John Deere hat who had gone to Prague. I didn’t have a way to say why it made me uncomfortable when people picked on George W. Bush for his accent or his language, or called him a “hick,” when they seemed to suggest that the main problem with this racist, sexist, homophobic, extremely wealthy white man was that he was not sufficiently sophisticated or urban; still didn’t have a way, years later, when Palin was talking about “Real Americans,” to pinpoint the obvious vulnerability she was exploiting (you called us hicks, you made costumes out of us, you made jokes out of us, you have a bar in your big fancy city and it’s called “Trailer”: of course we want to hear that the “coastal elite” is worthless, of course we want to hear that we’re better than you, that we’re “real”) and to speak about why the further invocation of “hicks” and “trash,” by liberals, seemed so very destructive. I didn’t have an easy way, when confronting my own racism, to speak about the two kinds of racism I’d been brought up with: That there was the racism which spoke, and the racism which did not speak, and that these two kinds of racism were very much about money. “Nice” white people, with a bit of money, didn’t speak racism, or even race, because they didn’t have to; race became silent, not something we brought up, except to affirm that of course all people were equal, and came from such rich and distinctive cultures as well. If you weren’t a nice white person — if you were like my father, or my first boyfriend — you spoke racism, angrily, and you spoke most virulently about Affirmative Action “stealing” educations, or immigrants “stealing” jobs, or men of color “stealing” white women. You saw the advancement of people of color as a hostile force, taking away money you already didn’t have enough of, and edging you out of a hierarchy you’d been trained to believe you could conquer by being sufficiently white, or male, or (most preferably) both. And you saw the advancement of women, and feminism, in the same way; women “stealing” jobs, women becoming unreliable sources of domestic labor because they had jobs, women being twisted and perverted to the point of not “needing” men or choosing men who were not on your team, although of course the real problem was that men continued to need women and wanted us to believe that need was reciprocal, something powerful enough to withstand just a bit of exploitation or violence on their end. I didn’t have a way to identify the John Deere hat’s dismissal of feminism as “bougie” acenscion up the corporate ladder and the angry hatred of “feminazis” that I’d grown up with as essentially the same thing: A way to condemn women for wanting to work, and to earn money, and to have some independent ground to stand on by so doing. I didn’t have a way to explain how the different oppressive systems interlocked, how they expressed themselves differently within different locations. Of course, I didn’t believe that misogyny or racism or homophobia were any more excusable if you were poor, and couldn’t do so having seen their impact. But as long as all this remained unspeakable, I also couldn’t start to explain how (for example) misogyny caused poverty, or how those forces became less visible as you moved up the class system, but remained just as pernicious with every step.

Because to do that, I would be dissing The Working Class, implying that they were violent or racist or sexist or backwards. And that’s not what The Working Class were, in our enlightened New York City discussions. The Working Class were an exploited workforce, noble in their struggle, possessed of Real American Values, like those people you see in the Michael Moore movies. They weren’t made ugly by their pain; they weren’t made angry by it; oh sure, they didn’t have the resources we did, but that was why we were working to save them, they were noble savages and we stood in solidarity, with our advanced understanding of corporate fuckery, our advanced degrees. The Working Class were nothing like the people I’d grown up with. They weren’t my father. They weren’t Uncle Boozer. They were not even my grandmother, or Aunt Mimi; they were women, and disabled, and so strangely absent from the discussion. The Working Class was an idea. And in fact, they were an idea that looked something like “middle-class;” blurred into it, when we focused our anger specifically against the very wealthy. They were a label, devoid of inflection, accent, specific jobs, levels of education, histories and faces. They were simply what everyone spoke for. What everyone was.


6. 99 Percent

I don’t begin for a second to think that what I’ve described for you is a comprehensive idea of The Working Class, or can speak to that huge idea in any comprehensive way. It is only what it is: One history. It comes from a specific location, a specific state and town; it comes from whiteness; it comes from femaleness; it comes from a history. Which is one history, which cannot be exchanged for any other.

But I believe in the value of specific histories. The more I write, the more I know this: “Objectivity” is nowhere to be found on this Earth. Everything you are, as a writer or an activist — every place you come from, everything you’ve learned — is called upon, every time you set forth to speak or to change the world. The less we know what we carry, the more it undermines everything we do. And to write from one’s own experience, to construct a biography, is to understand where one connects with the world. This is specifically a biography of class. But I see gender, in this history, very clearly; I see heterosexuality, and I see race, and I see disability; I see location in time and space, and don’t believe any of these things are fundamentally separate from the ways money and culture (and culture is money, of course, always was; “taste” has never been an absolute good, never divorced from the reality of production and consumers) construct our lives in the world.

I have friends who are Occupying Wall Street. Good friends; people I trust. And I respect them, and I know the work they’re doing is good. But I’ve confessed, to at least one of them, that it scares me a bit, uniting behind a banner of the “99 percent.” I worry that this erases differences, erases histories, puts us into a position where all that matters is whether you are extremely wealthy or not, and I can’t match that up with my understanding of how class works, how it gets tangled up in all of these separate identities and oppressions. I realize now that this is the opposite of why they’re there; they want to bring the differences to light and make them connect without erasing each other, to create some model of solidarity that actually works. This is good work; this is necessary work. But before I can think of joining them in doing it, I have to do this, here. I have to begin to break that 99 percent apart, to speak to why it scares me.

Because the 99 percent includes C, who I envied and exploited while pretending to be her friend. The 99 percent most likely includes the boy in the John Deere hat, and maybe even the Juliana Hatfield roommate, who made me feel so dirty and ashamed and angry that to this day I make too many mean jokes about Brooklyn. The 99 percent includes my father, wherever he is. But it includes my mother, too. The work of occupying my specific space between them, the work of understanding that each of them had privileges forever denied to the other, growing up to understand how I can exist as the product of them both without imploding from the contradictions and hostilities, is the work I have to do to understand the idea of a “99 percent.” Everyone I see on the street in Queens, most likely, is a 99 percenter, and that doesn’t mean I don’t inevitably benefit from the oppression of many or most of them, or that they don’t inevitably benefit from my oppression about 49% of the time. Embracing a “99 percent,” for me, means that solidarity is not sameness; it never was. I don’t want that fucker in the John Deere hat representing my Aunt Mimi; he’d hate Aunt Mimi, and fear her, and to be honest if it were a bad day Aunt Mimi would probably give him a few reasons. I don’t want to believe that he’s only pretending not to laugh at her, right now, because he had a hard time getting a job after he left college. And I don’t want to believe that, if she were still alive, and if I visited her trailer now, I’d still give her a reason to kick me out.

That, to me, is what understanding the 99 percent is. I need to say that, yes, I am a part of it. But I am also this. And no matter what street I stand on, no part of me is disowned there. That I am this history, and that I do want and require a solidarity. But that my vision of solidarity requires understanding that history doesn’t wash off, doesn’t get bleached out. That none of its marks on me wash away.


  1. treesa wrote:

    thank you for sharing yourself. as someone with a hazily working-class background reading your story made SO many things click with me about classism’s intersectionality and why the idea of the 99% scares the fuck out of me. thank you for inspiring others to investigate their own biographies and what we bring to the table. this is some good work.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Permalink
  2. Monica wrote:

    I’m tearing up, here.

    It’s just so good to know that I’m not the only person struggling directly with class as an idea we talk about vs. class as lived experience. I have similar reservations about OWS and its offshoots.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Permalink
  3. lineara wrote:

    As a fellow Ohio-to-East Coast transplant, thank you. This hit home in ways I’d never considered.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Permalink
  4. emjaybee wrote:

    What is it you are afraid will be erased? My assumption about “we are all the 99%” was never that therefore, we are all the same or even that we like one another. Just that those getting screwed in this country, in large or small ways, are overwhelmingly below the 1% line.

    That’s why I like the Tumblr site so much; people get to tell their stories directly, as you are doing.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Permalink
  5. atheist wrote:

    Thanks for the well-written memoir, Ms. Doyle, with the fine grained details. I like your descriptions of the wierd snobbery of hipness. I also envy your experience of being able to step outside of your upbringing.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 8:01 pm | Permalink
  6. Cynthia wrote:

    Thank you for posting this. Very well written and thought provoking. I hadn’t planned on reading it…but it gripped me. And that is a good thing!

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Permalink
  7. wilywoman wrote:

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece. You bring together so many meaningful experiences and make it appear effortless. It’s a relief to read something that makes me think about the current efforts.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Permalink
  8. lineara wrote:

    @emjaybee Whats being erased is those 99%’ers, who send in digital photos to a tumblr blog and appear to be 99% white and college educated, do not speak for the majority of the 99% that Sady grew up with.

    You should expect that when our democracy addresses the issue, the results will not necessarily please the tumblr-99%. That’s what I fear.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Permalink
  9. Lori wrote:

    Amazing. That’s all I can say. Thank you for sharing this.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Permalink
  10. emjaybee wrote:

    Lineara, have you read the site? Many of them are kids who can’t afford college, or went into the military, or dropped out, or whose parents are supporting them. It is whiter than I’d prefer, but it’s been up, what, a week? Hopefully it will improve.

    I grew up with the same people Sady did; my granny lived in a trailer, my parents never went to college, and neither did two of my siblings. And lots of those on that site say explicitly “I know I’m luckier than a lot of people.” I think there is quite a bit of promising awareness out there in the protesters about their relative level of privilege, if only because they don’t want to be seen as whiners.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Permalink
  11. Ironically, our society has no language at all for talking about the difference between the top 1% and the bottom 99%, either. Our entire discussion of the economy is based on erasure, from top to bottom, and vice versa.

    From WW2 until about 1978, we didn’t really need a special vocabulary because rich people had extra kitchens and cars and maybe an estate and that was the end of it. A CEO made 20 times as much as the average worker and that was that.

    You could summarize the differences pretty accurately by dividing society up into quarters: poor, working class, middle class, and rich. We had ordinary English words that pretty much captured reality, even if there were taboos about using them in polite company.

    During this time, the entire country was getting richer, fast, and the prosperity was broadly shared. Then, towards the end of the seventies, our entire economic system shifted to shunt all the wealth into the hands of the few and all the risk onto the backs of the many. Big business got organized and politically militant and big labor fell on hard times.

    We were never good at talking about class. But the numbers say that in the last 30 years an overclass, the top 1%, has emerged that’s scarcely glimpsed even by your average doctor or lawyer. We don’t have the concepts to talk about how much wealth, power, security and influence the top 1%–let alone the the top .05%–of the wealth curve has over the rest of us.

    We can easily conceptualize the material differences between middle class and working class people. But thinking of it in those terms is also a kind of erasure. When you’re living on a salary, and dependent on private health insurance (if you have it at all), and working with no job security and few benefits, you’re never very far from economic ruin. You know you can’t ever afford to retire, or send your kids to public university, or weather a major illness or job loss. There was a time when being middle class meant you had a defined benefit pension that would pay you a set amount of money every year no matter what for the rest of your life. Being middle class meant a job with life insurance and health insurance and a semblance of job security. Being middle class meant that saving for your kid’s college education meant something because a middle class family could afford to put a couple kids through the public university system. None of that is true any more.

    The fundamental insecurity Sady is talking about, the stress that wears people down and eats away at them, that doesn’t go away with a middle class income. It’s buffered a little, but not to the extend that it is in countries with a decent social safety net. Middle class people in America still stay in abusive relationships for financial reasons, get married for health insurance, and go without medical care they desperately need. They still lose their homes, or fear that they will. They still get laid off in their 40s and 50s and pretty much know they’ll never work again.

    So, yes, we should worry that the OWS movement is erasing the differences between working class and middle class people.

    On the other hand, the OWS is creating language to talk about a gulf that most people literally don’t know about.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 10:45 pm | Permalink
  12. rrp wrote:

    Thank you for this amazing piece.

    Perhaps because it’s October I thought that we’re probably going to see a bunch of black-face wearing parties hefting 40s at the end of the month. It’s not different, this dressing up as other.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 11:06 pm | Permalink
  13. Megpie71 wrote:

    Thanks for that, Sady.

    I read it, and I saw a lot of parallels with my own (Australian) experience. I identify myself readily as working class, although it’s probably more accurate to point to lower-middle-class as the class I thought I was as a kid, and the class my mother aspired toward. My parents both worked what could be termed “white-collar” jobs (my mother was a nurse, part-time; my father worked as an office worker and field worker for a charity on weekdays (and most weeknights) as well as being a minister of religion on Sundays) as opposed to the blue-collar jobs some of my friends parents had. Money was always an unspoken source of friction in the family (among other things).

    But we weren’t “like them” – my brother and I weren’t raised to be what in Australia is called “bogan”. “Bogan” in many ways is unreconstructed working class, working class as an aggressively maintained identity. The image hasn’t changed much over the years – I can still identify bogan kids these days by their dress, their behaviour, and by most of the same social markers I knew in primary school and high school over twenty years ago. There’s the flannelette shirts in winter (the “flannie”), the ugg boots or desert boots (DBs), the tight jeans, the cigarettes, the rock or metal band t-shirts – all of those still spell “male bogan” to the world at large. Meanwhile, the female “uniform” hasn’t altered much either – tight fitting clothing in bright colours, bleached blonde hair, lots of makeup, cigarettes, and (post-twenties) the pram and a growing brood of (usually ill-disciplined) kids. The loud voices, the loud music, though, those haven’t changed. Oh, and the Strine.

    By contrast, I was raised to think and act in an imitation of upper middle class (and only really realised how pale and thin the imitation was when I was in the presence of the “real thing”). Nice, well chosen clothes – nothing too revealing or tight – that required a certain amount of maintenance. A more “natural” hair colour and style – nothing extreme (but a class marker none-the-less, because a good subtle colour job requires a well-trained, well-practiced, more expensive stylist), but something which requires a certain amount of skill and maintenance as well. “Natural” makeup, rather than the more “obvious” version of the bogan look. Classical music rather than loud rock. Drinking wine rather than beer. A house maintained in the best facsimilie of “Better Homes and Gardens” hyper-cleanliness and stylishness that could be accomplished with the time and energy available. Standards of behaviour for both adults and children which relied on social shaming to enforce them. Attending church regularly (preferably either the Anglican or Catholic congregations, because that was where you socialised with the neighbours). Reading books and newspapers. Reading the “right” books and newspapers (we got the West Australian, not the Daily News, because the morning paper was a bit less tabloid than the afternoon one). Oh, and the accent hearked back to Standard Australian Broadcasting Commission (as it was then) Recieved pronunciation – we didn’t watch too much commercial television because my mother didn’t want her kids talking like Americans.

    These days I come face to face with my mother-in-law (my partner’s mother) who was raised as upper-middle class straight up, and I realise what we were trying to become – and how far we were from becoming it, because we were missing a whole heap of dimensions of the actual object. In particular, my rather tired and isolated parents were missing the social component of what being upper-middle class means – things like going out to dinners, doing fund-raisers, being actively involved in multiple causes and charities and networks. But neither Dad nor Mum had any energy to spare at the end of the week for this kind of social activity (and in Dad’s case, being an introvert by nature, he didn’t have the inclination in the first place). They were worn out just from earning a living, and trying to maintain their self-imposed standards.

    These days, I identify myself as socially isolated, mentally-ill working-class. I’m not able to spare the time and money to get involved in “causes” or “charities”. I’m not able to spare the time from attempting to look after myself, and working to maintain my partner and myself in a reasonably sanitary environment. And I’m starting to come to understand a lot of the parents of my schoolfriends – the ones who had washing up constantly accumulating in the sink, the ones who never had the house “clean” or “tidy”, the ones who would have been labelled “white trash” if we hadn’t had the label “bogan” instead. Because those behaviours which were so scorned and which my primary and teenaged self looked down on? Those were adaptive strategies, ways of dealing with the mismatch of time and money and resources available to achieve the goal of “perfection”. Flannelette shirts are warm and cheap, and mean you can go longer without putting on the heater. So are ugg boots. A home dye job may not be perfect, but it’s a damn sight cheaper than paying for one in the salon. Cheap makeup is harder to make look “natural”, and beer and mixers get you just as drunk and happy as wine, but for a lot less dollars per glass (plus the beer comes in a tinnie or a stubbie, so you don’t need a special glass for it).

    So I look at the bogans I once scorned, and I see how they’re doing the best they can with what they have. And I find myself challenging a lot of the “aspirations” that I once had, and questioning a lot of the social rules and mores. So these days, I’m a bit more comfortable in the “hippy” and “feral” end of things, where I’m questioning just how much of the prevailing social order I need to comply with in order to be able to eat and survive, and just how much of it is needless hamster-wheel running, put in to make the rat push the lever, or run the maze.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 11:25 pm | Permalink
  14. Sady wrote:


    I am sorry, but this was bothering me, because it is a part of what I remember that makes no sense. I do not think Aunt Mimi could drive, because of her vision and her age, and yet: A trailer. So I had to talk about it in the comment section, because otherwise it’s just a big part of the story that makes no sense at all.

    My understanding — from what I picked up, as a kid — was that she’d used to have a house, and she was getting up there, and the neighborhood was “getting bad” (that is, shifting from white working-class to something more diverse) and so there was some effort on the part of my Dad’s family to get her into something safer and smaller. They must have raised money together; I think my dad’s sister wound up with slightly more money than his brothers, so she must have helped. And this was what they came up with. There were non-mobile trailers and mobile trailers, in my town, and I think this was probably non-mobile. She died when I would have been about twelve or thirteen, so my memories aren’t as clear as they could be. So there. That makes more sense now.


    I don’t think my intent here was to undermine Occupy Wall Street, or to imply that valuable discussion isn’t being had there. I think some of the language — “99 percent,” “middle-class values” — could legitimately erase difference, and lead to what happens a lot in all sorts of movements, which is the movement being co-opted or softened to serve the interests of the most privileged people within it.

    I also think that, for what’s happening now, “we are the 99 percent” is a great slogan. And I do think it’s raising class awareness. But I worry about what the take-away is going to be, when this particular movement is over. Whether the middle-class portion of the 99 percent is going to think about its privilege, relative to the rest of the 99 percent, afterward; whether the ways race and gender and sexuality inflect class are going to continue to be addressed; whether the face of class protest is going to continue to be white and male. As I’ve said, there are a lot of people doing good work there, especially around intersectionality, and I support and respect them immensely. My only concern here — and I’ve stated it in the piece, so maybe I should just leave it there — is that calls for unity don’t become a means of erasure, that “we are all this thing” doesn’t come to mean “we are all the same thing.” Because I just don’t think we are, and I think rendering those differences unsayable is a big part of why they haven’t really been resolved.

    Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 1:01 am | Permalink
  15. MAPMAPMAP wrote:

    Sady, Thank you so much for this. You’ve helped me clarify, a little bit, some of what was very difficult in my relationship with my mother when I was at college, around rich kids for the first time. I remember coming home and her accent sounded poor. I remember trying to talk with her on the phone about all the radical politics I was learning about, and her saying she was too tired to discuss such things. She tried to tell me I was being classist, but she didn’t have the right vocabulary, and I wasn’t listening. I’ve been such a shitty daughter. Thank you. I need to call my mother and tell her I love her.

    Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 3:37 am | Permalink
  16. slutego wrote:

    I haven’t read the other comments yet.
    I will. This comes first though.

    I link the hell out of this site. Like, a crap-ton. Especially to people who need to learn some Very Basic Yet Important things.
    I’ve been reading your words for the majority of the site’s lifespan. I don’t comment much, but I’m an accomplished lurker.

    So when I say this is my favourite thing you’ve ever written, um, well, yeah.

    This hurt to read. So fucking much, Sady, this hurt to read.
    I often scream, when I read your work, and I’ve cried before as well.

    This is the first time I’ve wept.
    In a searing, nausea-inducing, personal and deeply bitter way.

    This is the story of all those little flinches of shame, the thousand tiny slights, the overwhelming You Don’t Really Belong Here, Do You? that came with realizing everyone else was laughing at *you* for… being, basically.
    And then later for attempting to be involved with this working class activism shit like you and your messy life-experience derived opinions on these topics should matter or something.

    Your story, my story, fucking countless identical-just-almost stories.
    And this, here, neatly broken apart is the Why and How for some part of the Whole fucked mess.
    Why this society business can’t ever work if it’s All for Some, or some privileged group is allowed to determine which of the All *really* count.
    Why, for all of my support for the occupiers, there’s been unease alongside it. And sadness.

    This is excellent.
    And thank you.

    Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 4:31 am | Permalink
  17. Kathy wrote:

    Thanks for posting this. I think what gets lost is the difference between the kind of systemic poverty that’s almost impossible to escape, and being someone who identifies as “working-class,” but not without opportunities. I feel as though I vacillated between the two for most of my life. I think that’s what bothers me about the 99percenters I see getting reblogged throughout the day — the “I payed $20,000 for college and I still don’t have a job,” ones. It makes me want to scream, “What makes you think you were entitled to that job in the first place?” I understand the frustration, but I think we’re missing the larger truth.

    Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink
  18. James wrote:

    Growing up I had the unusual experience of attending one of the most exclusive schools in the state (on a scholarship) whilst living in public housing. To this day I’m surprised I never got mugged whilst walking home in my fancy blazer and all.

    And so I feel like I should have something insightful or at least useful to contribute her, but I don’t. I just wanted to say: thanks Sady. Not only for this piece which struck a number of chords for me, but for all the others you’ve written that’ve made me think, and feel.

    I only discovered this site a short while ago (off the back of the George R. R. Martin stuff) but – speaking as a white, het, cis male (but hey, I’m left-handed!) – it’s quickly become one of my favourite places on the internet.

    Thanks again.

    Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink
  19. Gnatalby wrote:

    Sady this is fantastic. I sent it to everyone I know who is interested in class.

    Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  20. atheist wrote:

    I meant it nicely. I liked trailers; I got a bit jealous, every time we saw them on vacations; I wanted to live in a house like that when I grew up, self-contained and mobile. It seemed vaguely magical to me. It did not, however, seem magical to Aunt Mimi.

    There are so many contradictions, traps, and tight corners in “class”. It is like we train ourselves to ignore class because to even consider it opens us up to so much sadness, guilt, anger & hurt. Honesty doesn’t really protect us either.

    Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  21. duck-billed placelot wrote:

    Beautiful piece. Knotty and complicated and beautiful.

    Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink
  22. Kathy writes, “I think that’s what bothers me about the 99percenters I see getting reblogged throughout the day — the “I payed $20,000 for college and I still don’t have a job,” ones. It makes me want to scream, “What makes you think you were entitled to that job in the first place?” I understand the frustration, but I think we’re missing the larger truth.”

    Usually, it’s more than “I payed $20k,” it’s “I owe $20k.”

    The larger truth is that all American high school grads who aspired to join the middle class, or remain there, were told that college was their only option.

    As a matter of public policy, mass college attendance was considered so important that the federal government provided guaranteed student loans. But these guarantees mean that the federal government will bail out the lender, not the borrower. The lender makes money either way. The lender never had to stop and think about whether it was sustainable to be lending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to youngsters with no job experience because these were guaranteed loans. So, there was no check on rising tuitions. Of course they’d lend more money, they couldn’t lose! And the taxpayer subsidizes the lender’s massive profits.

    Student loans are non-dischargable debt, which most students started accruing before they were even of legal age. If you have gambling debts, or an underwater mortgage, or virtually any other kind of financial implosion, you can at least declare bankruptcy and start over. Not so with student loan debt. That’s a public policy choice.

    So, we’ve got a whole generation graduating with massive debts that they can’t discharge and they can’t pay off because they don’t have jobs.

    Then there’s the underlying truth of why college tuition is so expensive even at public schools. Funding for public universities has been slashed in favor of tax cuts for the rich. So, the cost has been passed on to college students and their families.

    Our education policy screwed these kids and they are owed one of two things: Jobs that will enable them to pay back this debt, or debt forgiveness.

    Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Permalink
  23. Sady wrote:

    @Beyerstein: As usual, you’re very smart and I don’t want to debate you or contradict you. I think what Kathy is pointing to, though, is the “larger reality” of the assumption of “middle-class” as an identity for the protest, and how the unquestioned presence of this assumption subtly erases the realities of working-class people. For example: It’s undeniably true that there is a generation of college-educated people saddled with massive debt, who don’t have a lot to go on in terms of career opportunities. This isn’t the “whole generation” though, because in this generation (like every other) there are a lot of people who never had a realistic shot at going to college or graduating college in the first place, and a lot of those people didn’t even have a realistic shot at getting through high school. And for them, the problem isn’t student loan debt. The problem is that they are and will remain the working class or the working poor; opportunities for those folks are vanishing, too, as we lose manufacturing jobs and other blue-collar mainstays. For those folks, McJobs are steadily becoming the only jobs there are, so when a college kid gets upset because there are “no jobs” (meaning he or she might have to enter food service or work at Target or KMart) that person is really expressing frustration at a lack of opportunity that’s been felt within other communities for a very long time.

    The “vanishing middle class” is a concern — for people like me, who were raised to maintain middle-class identities and find ourselves disappointed at the lack of middle-class comfort in our lives. But the continual lack of opportunity and social support for the working class is a concern, too, and I worry about what happens when that “vanishing middle class” becomes the focus of our attention, at the expense of the working class. A huge percentage of black people are unemployed. Women live in poverty more often than men do, across racial lines, whether or not they’re single mothers, and black and Latina women are faced with particularly high rates of poverty; elderly women are about twice as likely to be poor as elderly men (13 percent of elderly women are poor, as opposed to 6 percent of elderly men). Obviously, the wage gap, the “second shift” and the glass ceiling restrict women’s opportunities and class mobility. Disability checks are absurdly small, support systems for the disabled (particularly those with mental illness, from what I understand) are being slashed in many locations, and that means that the disabled population is often living in extreme poverty. All of this happens within the 99 percent. Which is not a unity in practice, but a very promising basis for a coalition to challenge all of these things. Just like the label “feminism,” if you think about it; “woman” contains a multitude of identities and interlocking privileges and oppressions (to say nothing of the label that I’d argue feminism really speaks to, which is basically “people who are marginalized on the basis of gender”) and so does that “99 percent.” I think feminism has to be held accountable for who it centers in the narrative, and the 99 percent does as well.

    Which is not to say those college kids haven’t been screwed, or that they aren’t suffering, or that they aren’t owed better. It is only to say that, just as I (a cis, straight, white lady) am not feminism’s primary recipient of oppressive bullshit, and am privileged in many ways, those kids aren’t the primary recipients of class-based oppression, and are privileged as well.

    Monday, October 10, 2011 at 12:31 am | Permalink
  24. Small Sauropod wrote:

    I feel silly being comment 22 of so many that mostly say “thank you! I can relate!” but that is what I need to say, and I need to say it.

    I’ve been trying to find a way to articulate a lot of my feelings about my own class experiences, and they are really hard to articulate because even though I talk and talk and talk about it, we don’t really have the language.
    I come from what I now identify to be a working-class background, also in the Midwest, also mostly white. At a certain point in my life, my parents moved to the suburbs and I went to school with kids who had pools and parents who went to college. Before I was old enough to notice the difference, my dad starting trying to reassure me by saying “we’re middle class. really. we are.” Really he was trying to reassure himself. Mine was the generation that was supposed to go to college and truly join the middle class with its pools and extra cars. I dropped out of art school. The phrase “middle class” makes me extremely uncomfortable to this day. I have had friends from more affluent backgrounds who ironically wear John Deere hats. My dad is obsessed with his John Deere. I have friends who come from less privilege that is awkward too.

    Anyways, my personal information aside, this made a lot click in my head. I am so glad you posted it.

    Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Permalink
  25. JL V. wrote:

    This was an incredibly moving and educational piece, thank you so much for writing. I still don’t know how to talk about class and my family’s experience immigrating to the US in the 90s. As I was reading different memories started coming up and I feel inspired to write them down, to really look at everything that happened. Thank you.

    Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 8:16 pm | Permalink
  26. Flewellyn wrote:

    Sady, have I mentioned how amazingly awesome you are lately?

    Well, regardless, I shall do so again.

    Monday, October 10, 2011 at 12:21 am | Permalink
  27. Small Sauropod wrote:

    Regarding Aunt Mimi’s Trailer:

    This wasn’t a conflict for me in the story. In the part of the midwest I am from, there are more non-mobile trailers than mobile ones. There was a distinction between “mobile homes” and “regular trailers” (non-mobile). I remember having the impression that this was part of the secret hierarchy: because at least “regular trailers” were TRYING to look middle class.

    Monday, October 10, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink
  28. Jamie wrote:

    Thank you for this, Sady.

    Monday, October 10, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Permalink
  29. MK wrote:

    This hit really close to home. Thanks for putting the subtle grain of these struggles into words.

    Monday, October 10, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Permalink
  30. Geek wrote:

    Wow. This made me think of my paternal grandparents vs. my mother. She came from a working-class background and got an associates degree (not the norm for her family) and they ruined their relationship with her for life by looking down on her for not having a bachelor’s or more.

    Monday, October 10, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Permalink
  31. Gabrielle wrote:

    Awesome post – thank you!

    Monday, October 10, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  32. NervousAboutAngels wrote:

    I too clicked with this. I grew up in rural Colorado, somewhere between the town’s haves and have-nots. Your piece really made me look at myself and my motivations. For too long I’ve been looking down my nose at friend’s parents in dirty trailers, telling myself I’d never be one of ‘them’. I suppose I’d never have felt threatened by it if I’d actually been whatever the heck middle class is, rather than an increment away. I’m the first of my family to go to college, and I’m working on a degree that I was hoping would enable me to one day travel for pleasure, dress more fashionably… pretend to be a higher class. Be what the fashion magazines tout. It’s all about that ladder. Thanks for making me re-evaluate all that.

    Monday, October 10, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Permalink
  33. whimseywisp wrote:

    Sady, I don’t have words to express how much this essay means to me. You have put into words feelings I have never been able to properly express. The thing about the girl with the nice house and the two kitchens? Really hit home for me. Especially thinking she was “rich.”, and how all of the popular kids seemed to live in a nicer part of town. I was so, so conscious of that in middle and high school and had so much inner shame about where I lived.

    @MegPie71 – Thank you so much for sharing your story in the comments. My family comes from a similar background (just American) and my mother was always very, very conscious that whatever I was doing/wearing not be “trashy.” Anything but that.

    Monday, October 10, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Permalink
  34. Katie wrote:


    Monday, October 10, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Permalink
  35. Krissy wrote:

    You know, I’m not sad that you put this into words. Thanks.

    Monday, October 10, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Permalink
  36. tarian wrote:

    Oh, wow, yeah. Thank you for writing this. My experience was not the same (is anyone’s?) but I distinctly remember things like scrounging pennies around the school and getting laughed at for it. I didn’t think of myself as “trailer trash”, but yeah, my first home was a trailer (there are pics!) and we weren’t that far out of the thing. Still, though, relative privilege; we *got* out, and I went to college, and I am now fine and not feeling the pain that so many people are. I hope to have the empathy to notice when I am exhibiting privilege, and I hope I have people around me to call me out on it when I screw up.

    Monday, October 10, 2011 at 11:11 pm | Permalink
  37. Joe Z wrote:

    This is really reminding me of my family in so many ways. I grew up on food stamps, so many of my relatives live in trailers, or did at one point in their lives. My brother-in-law, who built his and my sister’s house himself with a little help from my cousin and uncle, loves John Deere. I’m so glad I’ve never run into anybody who wears a John Deere hat “ironically.” I’d be so pissed.

    Tuesday, October 11, 2011 at 2:58 am | Permalink
  38. Kendra wrote:

    Thank you. I too get anxious and upset when I consider “the 99%” as a blanket concept of how America is fucked in terms of class, and money, and opportunity. I don’t see all the facets of my own class identity reflected in the protests nor in the 99% Tumblr. I too have felt really uncomfortable with the dominant face of this new movement.
    As I’ve struggled to untangle my discomfort around the Occupy Wall St movement, I’ve been reading lots of articles and linking them to Facebook and having comment discussions about the intricacies. This is the first thing I’ve read that really delves into what’s been bothering me, and I’m even more inspired now to write out my own history and what that might mean in terms of how to be in this movement. Thank you.

    Tuesday, October 11, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  39. m wrote:

    Thank you. Thank you thank you thank you.

    Tuesday, October 11, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink
  40. Sarah wrote:

    Awesome story. Maybe I can ask you guys for some advice?

    I want to go and Occupy Wall Street but I am uneasy telling my story because I feel ashamed. I come from an upper-middle-class family. I went to college on a full scholarship but fucked it up because of anger problems (making death threats to people I was angry at, which I didn’t mean, but still) and had to go back to living with my parents, which I hated because since age 17 I’d had recurring nightmares about my dad trying to rape me. I decided to get a job so I’d be financially independent and not feel like a whore. This worked, but also put me into a cycle of crappy jobs with low pay and unsteady hours. I feel bad about telling my story, because even though I’m one of the economically oppressed, I feel like it’s my own fault for not doing “all the right things”.

    I really hate the people who wear trucker hats ironically, who do all this shit ironically. I hate them because they really seem to look down on strong emotions, and I have strong emotions, and if that’s considered abnormal then they can lock me up in a psych ward for it and have already done so 3 times. I feel like I don’t fit into any of the current mainstream narratives because I’m not a college graduate but I’m not one of Sarah Palin’s “real Americans” either, by a long shot.

    People sometimes tell me I should go back to college. The problem is that I’d have to combine that with whatever crappy job I’m working to pay the bills, plus playing music which is my passion, my real career, the reason I’m on this earth. Also I’d have to write a college application essay, which my parents have drilled into me must portray me as this happy optimistic person who cares about learning and is either altruistic or ambitious depending on social class, but never what I really am, which is angry and heartbroken. Like they ask you who you are but what they really want is a Horatio Alger story, or How Volunteering At a Soup Kitchen Made Me Appreciate Humanity.

    Sorry I know this post kind of devolved into a long rant but maybe you guys can help me? I mean, I feel sometimes like I don’t have the right to say anything. But I’ve been working in low-paying crappy jobs my entire adult life and I can’t, I just can’t take this anymore.

    Tuesday, October 11, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink
  41. Quercki wrote:

    go to Occupy Wall Street and LISTEN. You don’t have to “tell your story.” You could just listen and learn.

    Tuesday, October 11, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  42. Pachyderm wrote:

    Been a regular reader here for some time now, but never commented until previously. I am at work in the lunchroom and there are literally tears running down my face after reading this.

    There are two reasons for the tears, first the number of parallels in your story with myself, my family and people I knew growing up in small-city Canada.

    Then there is the fact that my job, which is the highest paying job I have ever had and for which I am ridiculously grateful to have….does not cover medications and I live in an expensive city making barely more then poverty level wages. I have been involuntarily off my antidepressants for about 2 months now as I keep having to buy food so nearly everything makes me cry.Maybe next month I’ll be able to scrape together a prescription again.

    But yes, the growing up in a “classless” environment and the realization of the divides that came so much later. Add that to the continual biting my tongue around my husband who now makes similar wages to be but grew up upper middles class and sometimes says things about my family and upbringing that make me want to strangle him but I don’t because I know he doesn’t know and doesn’t mean it.

    Thanks you for writing this. Time now for a quick trip to the bathroom to clean up before going back to work.

    Tuesday, October 11, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Permalink
  43. Krissy wrote:

    This piece of writing helped me figure out a few more pieces of things about why I identify as white trash, and thank you for that.

    I feel out of place all the time because I changed social positions. My husband tells me I am nouveau riche, which I’m more than a little uncomfortable with. I still feel so raw and wounded by the things that happened to me that I can’t overcome the really f*cked up childhood I had. I will never be anything other than culturally white trash regardless of my bank balance. It’s a weird thing.

    So uhm, anyway. I liked following that thought more and I appreciated you spurring it. Thanks again.

    Tuesday, October 11, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Permalink
  44. Rich wrote:

    I was very impressed with your thoughts on class and gender. I too have issues with class and these seem to have followed me my whole life, I guess we can’t escape it in America. The strange thing is, every time I go out to just enjoy a quiet beer I end up in a discussion (OK, sometimes, argument!) over class or race in the US. I obviously need to chill out a bit but you encapsulated everything I’ve ever wanted to shout at people. Keep up the great writing!

    Wednesday, October 12, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  45. tedra wrote:

    My two cents on the discussion between Lindsay Beyerstein and Sady Doyle:

    I’m totally cognizant of what Lindsay’s saying: I’m acutely aware that, if it were not for the grace of my husband’s job and associated benefits, my family would have no income, no health insurance, and we’d lose our house.

    But it is also true that my husband *has* that job (and income and benefits), and that my best local friends have none of those, and that for instance one consequence of this is that I can take my cats to the vet *now*, and my son to the doctor, but they cannot do those things for their pets/kids, because of money. And that my potential poverty worries me, but not nearly as much as their current, actual poverty worries them.

    And yeah, boy howdy, my own class/status/money history and present is crazy complicated, and I don’t really have the language to talk about it, either.

    Wednesday, October 12, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink
  46. Jake L wrote:

    I guess I am upper middle class, raised that way, but I guess the part of your story that struck was how wonderful your mother was. Obviously you realize that. There has always been something about those hipsters that has struck me as more than just annoying, and you really nailed it. It’s the mockery. A bar called Trailer? really? that’s real? You actually have helped me see why people cling to people like Sarah Palin, I could never understand it. I found this article through and it was well worth it.

    Wednesday, October 12, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink
  47. Edward Houle wrote:

    Thank you for this article, which is excellent in so many ways.

    Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 3:53 am | Permalink
  48. Moi wrote:

    Brilliant fucking essay.

    This carbon dates me, but I remember having the same kind of realization in college when well-educated, well-off kids made jokes about Tonya Harding and “trailer trash.” Which was my dad’s half of the family. I sat there listening to them merrily mock the entire demographic of People Not Like Them and never forgot it.

    Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 7:20 am | Permalink
  49. Marcel wrote:

    Very reminiscent of Orwell’s essays about similar topics. Good stuff.

    Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  50. Joe wrote:

    As someone that grew up in a large family that went through poor periods but was quite shielded from the rural poor trailer side of things,

    Sometimes you read things that make you feel more compassionate about people you normally put in that ‘other’ box as is the human way.

    Thanks for that.

    Friday, October 14, 2011 at 1:09 am | Permalink
  51. Jed wrote:

    You’ve a stunning talent here and this an extraordinary piece of writing. Chimed with many of my own experiences, evocative, honest and containing a great articulation of conflicting feelings about ‘we are the 99%’. I am recommending it far and wide.

    Friday, October 14, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink