Kim Wells

12/15/2000

 

Introduction: Context & Apologia

This paper was written for a conference at Texas A&M-- because noted autobiography critic Nancy K. Miller was our keynote speaker (see the interview with Dr. Miller published on the site) I thought it important to organize and participate in panels on autobiography and academic intersections. I promised a paper on myself-- and after reading a lot of really great theory, wound up writing something that used the theory mostly as background for actually practicing autobiographical acts in writing. As a result of this paper, I want to write more about these issues, and have become increasingly aware of class as an important part of who I am-- something I was completely oblivious to a few years ago. I am aware that in publishing the paper on a website, these issues, private issues, become even more public. My family might see the work and feelings could be hurt about me putting the private out in a very public forum. But somehow, though I'm still working out WHY and how I want to do this, I feel compelled to do so... and since you're here, you're just going to have to go along for the ride...


      There are so many reasons why, although I have started to tell my story many times, I have often just stopped. Who would care about my life? What makes me think I'm so special? bell hooks asserts that writing about "one's personal experience or speaking with simple language" can build a sort of connection with others who feel "estranged, alienated" (qtd in Lanza 60). So my story--telling urges are legitimized by helping others in academia, in my classroom, know that they are not alone? This is, perhaps, a cop out. Maybe I'm just a braggart-- arrogantly telling people how bad I had it so that they can admire me. I know that often, when I tell other academics about my life, its extreme poverty, they say "Oh, we were really poor too," wanting membership to the club, entrance into a group of people who often hide their own past, who you can no longer mark with visible signs of difference. I often doubt that their poverty was as extreme-- as I said, this is arrogance, but also a feeling of pride in something that I wonder why any reasonable person would feel proud of. In its simplest form, my life becomes an anecdote: "Ever hear the one about the girl who was so poor she lived in the back of honky-tonk and eventually became a college professor?" For the longest time I didn't tell anyone where I came from, let them assume I was like them-- middle class, upper class, whatever class I was with I pretended to be-- a class chameleon.

Trailer Park to Ivory Tower

      Definition. Self Definition. Is the autobiographical impulse one which attempts to resist the inscription of self by the outside world-- to deny selves we might appear to be but which we would not choose to be? Perhaps the trend to combine feminist theory with the autobiographical is a way of trying to avoid charges of essentialism-- a reasoning that "Women's" experience has been one thing, but "MY" experience fits, or fails to fit, that experience in these ways. . . The numerous declarations towards a feminist- Marxist- white- black- native- Latina- Asian- (etc) poetics" which dispute other poetics as less inclusive is necessarily divisive, a way of asserting difference within grand notions of feminist identity. The autobiographical, finally, is an act of survival, a voice crying out "I exist, and in these ways, and others will understand more about themselves through a hearing of my story."

So to begin. In its attempt to define, the outside world would label us all, beginning with the most obvious, superficial, generic characteristics:

      I am female. White. American. Those labels could apply to many. Feminist. That label narrows it, because many women of my generation choose to disalign themselves with this-- or they say "feminist, but . . ." Academic. This last I, as an individual, find strong reasons to question because to most people, academic = intellectual; privileged; speaking (sometimes wrongly) for the silenced; middle to upper class.

      I am a class climber, an academic gold-digger, using my brain instead of my body to advance myself up from the ranks of the lower class (called white trash by so many). In the academy, I amount to a nouveau riche, recently arrived within the ivory halls, assuming the mantle of expensive clothes & jewelry and middle class respectability. I am not comfortable with casual clothing when I teach or go to class myself because I am still afraid someone will ask me to prove I belong unless I appear in "nice" clothes-- I cannot afford to slum it.

      I can be loud-- in the way that women who work in loud places (waitresses, bartenders, maids, factory workers) all their lives must be. What is the norm in academia's hallowed "Thinking" spaces (I've been shushed in the halls by irritated members of the old guard) was weird in the trailer-parks where the quiet are looked at suspiciously as "too quiet." In the world where I grew up, a woman who cannot speak for herself will not "rise above" her humble status, something a lot of them long to do, without quite knowing how. Because they do not dress well and look like they have any influence, they will be shunned by sales girls, scoffed at when they complain to managers, ignored in bank lines until, angry and red-faced, they "show their class" and become wild women who no one can ignore. They certainly do not become college professors very often (some statistics say only 4% of college graduates with advanced degrees are from lower-class origins).

      So here is my dilemma: do I continue to "pass" as a middle class academic feminist? Or do I show my roots? Do I stand up and shout my difference? In a world where sameness is equated with blandness and both are identified with oppression, there are certain benefits to showing off (like a medal of honor) your lack of privilege, your solidarity with the populace. But in my old world, there were a lot of secrets buried under the middle-class veneer. If I show you my roots, will you show me yours?

      In the world where I grew up, any woman who "showed her roots" would rush out as soon as possible, on her girlfriends advice, to buy a new box of hair dye (usually blonde; blonde being the color of cool, classy women like Grace Kelly) to cover up those (trashy, dark) roots, sprouting in a line along the center of her skull. A woman who showed her roots in my childhood community was making a spectacle of herself, "Showing her class"-- acting trashy, being sexual, being loud, being drunk, fighting. She might be letting her bra straps show, or wearing whore-red nail polish instead of a properly Grace-Kelly-subdued peach, or pearl white. In my case, my difference from fellow trailer-girls came not from whore-red nail polish but from two places-- the fact that I was quiet (weird) and that I read books (weirder). Thus, I aspired, even before I knew I was doing it, to join a group I could never completely become acclimated to. I did not know I would regret leaving anything behind. Why would I?

      As an adult who has found her way up through various means to middle-class education and a house without wheels, I find that the past I am often ashamed of also holds for me a strange source of pride. When Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan squared off years ago over the Olympics, an acquaintance of mine dismissively said of Harding, "Ah, she's just trailer trash." I watched the story of those figure skaters obsessively-- I think, in some ways, the two women represented the battle in my self-- between the upper-middle class princess that Kerrigan seemed to be and the dark-rooted bleached blonde girl with bad judgement that Harding was. Harding too was a climber, and because she did not follow the rules, she was rudely pushed back. Legally, she was never convicted of any involvement with the scheme-- but the court of public opinion decided that, since she was trashy, she must be guilty.

      I do and don't want you to know that I lived in many trailer parks; I, too, have been dismissed as "just trailer trash;" but that today, you wouldn't know it to look at me. I suppose it's because all my life I heard that you can "pull yourself up by your bootstraps"; but who knows, once you've done it, the work it's taken you to get there? Maybe I want people to realize that those "trailer trash" folks are people too, with dreams and plans and, while sometimes poorly executed and a bad idea they mean just as much to the trailer park residents as they do to middle class and upper class America. Maybe I just want you to know how hard it was for me to get what a lot of people take for granted: the right to be here.

Outsider/Insider: Borderlines of Identity

      I never really fit in with the other occupants of the trailer park. In eighth grade, Sammy, a local heartthrob with blue-green eyes, swollen, pouty lips and wavy brunette hair, who was 15 years old in and the 5th grade, spoke these words: "I see you reading at recess. You must be smart." Sammy was the first boy I ever met who exuded sexuality; he was like a young James Dean. I am certain that, like Dean, he has come to a bad end since I last saw him, almost 15 years ago. Weeks after admiring my odd recess behavior, he beat me up because I broke the cardinal rules of the school bus and didn't side with him against the bus driver. While I'm dismayed by the way my mother taught me to cover the black eye with make up, I am also emboldened by the knowledge that I fought back, covering his back with alley cat scratches that didn't go away for weeks. His mother convinced my mother to try and not get him expelled from school; I remember the look on the Principal's face as I explained, black eye barely hidden with greasy makeup, that we wanted to "drop charges." He looked puzzled; I had clearly been abused, why was I standing up for my abuser? "Those trailer park girls just ask for it, don't they?" he seemed to say. I was glad that he expelled Sammy anyway, but had to pretend sorrow because, as the son of our landlord, the boy who beat me up still had power over me.

These are two parts of myself: the princess-in-training and the girl just waiting for a bad dye-job and a waitress position.

      The downward spiral from what was a relatively "normal" middle-class childhood for my two older sisters (camp, girl scouts, family vacations in the station wagon) began when I was about three. There are only short mental snapshots that I really remember about the time before my father dropped off the radar, and my mother was plunged, (as the statistics tell us) down in income about 75%. My memories of that "middle-class" world consist of brief moments-- watching my father bake and ice a rabbit-shaped cake with coconut, fishing/camping, lying on my stomach in the Army-Navy surplus store we owned for a while, seeing my cat get run over by a speeding car while waiting for the bus from Sunday school, and the hysterical tears that followed. These are probably memories that compare with any other kid who grew up in a smallish, suburban, late 20th century family. But another memory stands out, and though I did not know it at the time, it was significant. My father drove me to a house, (I thought it was a restaurant because for some reason there was a neon sign) where a dark-haired plump lady served me lasagna and a jelly roll. When I told my mother about where we had gone, her lips thinned into a line of disapproval and anger (they were already narrow with smoking and poorly fitting dentures, which she was supposed to get replaced but which she wound up keeping for another 15 years; which made her look old at 35; which made her face sour and lined, even when she was happy). She said, "He took you there?" "There" was the home of her former best-friend, the woman my father was about to leave the family for. Apparently my mother already knew about the affair; apparently my father was ending any pretense of secrecy, about to "jump ship" for a life where child-support and parenthood consisted in taking care of someone else's children. I have a photo of our family from this time period and a few years ago, I was shocked that I had finally come to resemble my mother. For so many years, I only saw the sunken lips, the tight eyes-- and they did not compare to my youthful, wrinkle-free gaze. But now, I see the beauty beneath the stress, and I see how close we actually are. My mother was just, as a boyfriend of hers used to say, "rode hard and put away wet."

      For a while after the separation, my mother managed to hold our lives together-- she struggled to pay the mortgage on a home with three bedrooms and hard wood floors in a tree-lined neighborhood, where the mailman came in for lemonade. She worked double shifts at the local hospital and attended night school to become an RN. Mere months before completing the program and becoming a Nurse, after collapsing with exhaustion on the job, she was ordered by her supervising doctor to either "keep working or keep attending school, but she had to quit one of them." He would not allow her to do both because, he said, "It would kill her." How could he know that his sentence would cause, instead, a million smaller deaths by poverty? The system was set up for women who were working nights but who did not "HAVE" to work, who had someone else to pay the bills. In 1974 Kentucky, there was barely a word for "single-mom," and no programs to help a woman who wanted to work, to take care of her kids, but who had narrowing options. The doctor disapproved of my mother's position, blamed her for the divorce and wanted to know why she didn't make my father help out. As a nurse-in-training, she could not keep working at the hospital, though, without also attending school, and she needed what income my father was not paying in child support to feed her daughters (programs that enforce payment by dead-beat dads did not come until I was well past 15). She quit the fairly-decent paying job at the hospital, as well as school, to become a bartender at the yacht club and brought home a bag of kittens someone (intending to drown them in the lake) had tossed from a speeding car. They were too young, not yet weaned, and sucked hungrily at any appendage they could find (ears, fingers, neck). We named them "Starsky, Hutch and Baretta" after TV cops who were popular at the time. They remind me now in retrospect, of myself and my sisters, weaned too early into a world ready to drown us, rescued by my mother, who was barely keeping above water herself.

It Must Run in the Family

      My mom had fallen hard; from a middle-class life to a place where she was forced to live with men who beat her to keep her youngest child fed, a place where she would agree to let her other teenaged daughters drop out of high school because they wanted to get married. My grandparents had been modestly middle-class, married in 1927, living in a nice house in suburban Illinois. I have a photo of my mother posing coyly in front of a new car, leg out coquettishly, when she was confirmed in the Lutheran church. But my grandfather died young from cancer (back then, it was a shameful disease; family members whispered it sotto voce, "he has cancer," the way some people say "AIDS" today). My grandmother worked for the telephone company, and in the 1950's , when the ideal was the nuclear family with mom in heels and a pretty apron, my mother was a "latchkey kid." After my grandfather died, my mother, then about 13, used to have nightmares where a large, winged creature took him away while she stood on a cliff and screamed. Did this disaster contribute to the later depressive fugues that would be a large part of what drove my father away and plunged us into poverty? Was her fall from middle class pre-ordained by some angry "class" god who felt my grandparents reached too far from their own lower class origins?

Gypsy Blood

      We moved to Mississippi because, in the early 1970's, the news about the new "Gold Coast" and the tourist industry growing there drew my mother like a moth to a candle flame. I use this stereotyped simile because it really is the best image I can summon up for how my mother's (and consequently, my) life was to go from here. I remember the zealous hope on her face when she said how much money bartenders were making in the hotels and restaurants there. I don't know who gave her this information, but the propaganda (the scholar in me now knows from reading history) was everywhere. A large migration of low-wage workers had begun to move from the North to the South-- people in search of better wages and less winter snow. My sister, her much older boyfriend, and I, drove down first in his beat-up old blue Cadillac. Once we got there, we lived in the first trailer park I had ever even seen. I was afraid to go to sleep in my room because the ghost of a small, black cat used to jump on my bed at night and suckle my ears and neck. (I don't know if it was the memory of those three kittens we had left behind or some sort of recurring dream. My memory insists it was a real ghost in my room). I feigned sleep on the living room floor to avoid being put in bed; it did not work and I suffered a nightly torment, lying under my covers, waiting to feel phantom paws circling my head. I knew I couldn't tell my sister because she wouldn't believe me. At the same time, I had several dreams where my mother lay in bed, in the back room of our trailer, while flames engulfed the building and I, with a garden hose too short to reach, screamed for her to wake up.

I'm going to interrupt my narrative to comment on the process of writing this autobiographical sketch. There are two sides of my persona at war as I write; I am both a small-poor girl afraid and too proud to tell, and the adult scholar she has become, who wants to discuss the class issues and the life of a child who, although raised in poverty, has climbed a ladder towards socio-economic success that few of her childhood peers traversed. But as the child of a very poor family, I cringe: we don't talk about the things that happen at home. Yes, for four weeks straight we ate nothing but drop biscuits and thin soup made from stolen bags of instant mashed potato that my mother stuffed under her shirt because she had lost her job when she got a kidney infection and couldn't work, but still didn't qualify for food stamps. I cringe because as a kid, when, and if, I inadvertently broadcast these every day facts of my life, severe consequences followed (a social worker blinking with very big-eyes at my mother as I, pretending to sleep, lay on the floor; later another social worker asking my mother to explain my frequent absences from school, along with statements I had made which clued my normally clueless teachers in to exactly how poor we were). It feels self-indulgent, it feels like complaining, to tell this story. At the same time, I read autobiographical scholars and know that their theorizing about their lives has taught me something, made me feel that "click" of self-recognition and consciousness-raising-- a place to belong that I hope to show to others.

As a scholar who has been trained in coherent narrative and the importance of "EVERY" perspective, I want to analyze who I am because it might help others understand the students like myself who show up in their classes. I hope it will stop people from assuming that because someone shares their white skin, they also grew up sharing white privilege. I want people to not lump me in with others who I (sometimes incorrectly) assume had an easier time of it, as a professor once did, when, discussing the poor in America, he said "let's face it, we're all middle class here." (I was the only one who argued with him about this blanket statement but others later told me they, too, were alienated by his assumption of shared privilege and prosperity, but too embarrassed to say otherwise). So now I argue for those who can't, no longer the "too quiet" girl who reads too much, I show my trashy roots and get loud, for others. This war must be considered a part of my intentions to make some sort of argument and theory. How can I summarize the ups and downs of an entire lifetime into 12 pages of double-spaced, smoothly logical discourse with a thesis statement and conclusion, and a point, an argument to be made? I have promised to do so-- and I plug away, thinking that perhaps somewhere an argument exists to be made.

      So here my narrative jumps several years to a trip to Louisiana. My mother and her current boyfriend, who looked a lot like Abe Lincoln and could sleep with his eyes open (a trick he learned in prison), for some reason unknown to me went for a weekend jaunt to Delcambre, Louisiana. While we were there, the driver of the expedition got angry and drove off, taking my mother's purse with him. We were stranded, with no money in a very tiny, very poor, shrimping town. Somewhere my mother had met a woman who owned a local bar-- and she offered us a place to stay and my mother a job as a bartender. The bar, which was a large, lime-green, gay disco on the edge of a largely Catholic town, had a room in the back that was a living space-- bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, corrugated tin walls and roof, and the nightly throb of disco and rows of eerily glowing pickled eggs and pigs feet, stored on a long shelf in the back, by my thin cot-bed. The apartment where we lived in Mississippi-- along with my collection of teddy bears, my clothes, the bike bought with the 25 dollar check my grandmother sent for my birthday-- had been repossessed for nonpayment of rent while we were stranded in La. My sisters lived with their respective love interests (the oldest was newly married and the other was attending Job Corps). I think that my mother was ashamed to call my grandmother for another cash-draft which could have gotten us a bus ticket back to Mississippi, and anyway, what did we have to go back to? Maybe Grandma didn't have it; although I imagine she would have found a way to get something to us if she'd known. My father was remarried to a wealthy woman. We "made do" in Louisiana-- I enrolled in school, where students initially impressed with how fast I could write my name in cursive, soon began to hate me for being poorer than they were, and for picking up the school bus in front of what they knew was the town's only gay bar. I wore clothes donated by the bar-owner's sister (too big for me and out of style, but all I had). Funnily enough, despite all the things wrong with this picture, (no food, no money, living in the back of a bar and despised by my peers) this is a bright spot in my life-- my mother met and made friends with several drag queens, who used to bring me coca-colas loaded with maraschino cherries and laugh when I didn't recognize them as a large-breasted blond woman in a black velvet pant suit. I also, prompted by my mother's love of books, discovered the public library.

      This part of my life has been well-mined in my poetry, and fiction. I tell people who are all agog with 70's retro nostalgia that I knew how to do the YMCA back when they were still playing with Barbie and eating fish sticks for dinner. When I tell someone about this time of my life, they usually laugh admiringly-- this stigma of childhood has become cool, today. I don't think anyone outside my family but my husband, though, knows how bad it became, how, for about a month, in January, we lived in an unheated 10x10 ft boat instead of the back room of the bar because the woman who owned the bar was angry with my mother and told her to get out. About how a girl at school tormented me mercilessly and told everyone that I had eaten a spider in the girl's bathroom (I know now that it was one of those pecking-order things, by diminishing me, she gained status, but then it was devastating). Again, the scholar knows that these issues can be mined, as well, for rhetoric . . . perhaps about the status of sexual difference in our culture (how I was stigmatized at 10 years old for being picked up in front of a building shows us how deep the prejudices go, illustrating how children who may have had no concept of what made the difference between that bar and others on the main strip of town still reflected the hatreds of their parents. But the little girl just wanted someone to be nice to her-- and the only people who were kind were society's outcasts, bisexual men who transgressed gender and got beaten up in "straight" bars when the truckers figured out who the blonde in the velvet pantsuit really was.

      So you will want to know the secret of how I went from that poor little girl to the academic you see before you. Another move-- escaping years with my mother's abusive boyfriend and many untold horror stories-- to Florida. Soon after, I turned 15 and got a job. A tiny bit of money and control over my own school clothes buying and the "kids at school" were convinced I was like them-- I successfully passed as middle class and gained the friends I had never had before. Despite being qualified, gradewise, by poverty level & with test scores, I didn't get any offers of scholarships-- no counselors even suspected I could qualify for need based aid. After graduation, and a few years as a waitress, I applied for and received full Pell Grants. This paid for two years of college, where I was officially "in"-- all college students are poor, so my need wasn't appreciably different from anyone else's. Attracting him with my ambitions to be like the teacher in Back to School, reading Joyce's Penelope sequence, I married a Naval Officer who, in the great tradition of Jane Austen novels, swept me up into a completely different class (that I was well on the way to joining via education anyway).

      Once, when we were first married, I held a small dinner gathering for some of my husband's friends. While I was in another room, the wife, who grew up a Colonel's daughter-- the upper class of military life, was impressed with my waitress--learned skills and said to Andrew: "Kim's so sophisticated, is she a professor's daughter or something?" He just laughed, but from then on, I knew, unless I tell you, you won't suspect my kinship with Tonya Harding. And surprisingly, that makes me sad.

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