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On Being White and Broke in America

With "Rust Belt Femme," Raechel Anne Jolie joins a coterie of writers using memoir to explore whiteness, class, and American hierarchy.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

I’m what one therapist called a “class-straddler, which I prefer to “class-transitioner,” because the truth is, there’s never not a foot of mine planted firmly in Valley View, eating processed food, watching stolen cable, and going to stock car races. A PhD and multiple major-city addresses can never change that being poor is written in my blood and my bones as much as it is sung from my tight skirts and cheap lipstick.

So begins Rust Belt Femme, the new memoir from queer femme writer Raechel Anne Jolie, and quite possibly the first book that’s ever made me well up with tears within the first few pages. The memoir itself, which tells the story of Jolie’s youth and adolescence in one of Northeast Ohio’s dying industrial towns, isn’t overly weepy. Rather, the book summoned an instant and unexpected pang of recognition when I picked it up—the shock of finding a piece of myself greeting me in its pages. Save for some of the big details, it felt like Jolie’s story was my story, from her recollections of anarchist organizing projects and navigating the challenges of living with a severely disabled parent to her habit of using loud, aggressive music to cope, and her continual discomfort in “fancy” environments. That feeling is as rare as hen’s teeth for those who grew up the way I did: broke and rural and steeped in the cultural and class signifiers that mark me as “blue collar” or a “redneck” in America’s sociocultural hierarchies. And as is true for Jolie, this formative understanding of my own identity and place in the world stays with me decades after I left the woods and cleaned up my grammar, as if it’s something for which I—we—should feel shame.

I’ve been a voracious reader since childhood (shout out to the bookmobile that serviced my isolated community), and I’d always refused to accept that our stories weren’t worth telling, no matter what the rest of the world may have decided. There can never be enough written for and from the perspective of America’s working class, and lately we’ve seen an encouraging trickle of memoirs and essay collections from authors who are well acquainted with overdrawn bank accounts, precarious livelihoods, and empty stomachs. With her memoir, Jolie joins a small coterie of notable white working-class writers like Sarah Smarsh, Linda Tirado, Stephanie Land, Tara Westover, and (in a far more limited compass) J.D. Vance—chroniclers of life at the margins who ground their memories and experiences within the broader sociopolitical context of being a certain kind of broke in America.

Jolie’s tale begins in a working-class suburb outside Cleveland, when her father is grievously injured in a car accident, a tragedy that sets into motion a series of events that sounds all too familiar to those who grew up in similar circumstances—the grinding poverty, the house that smells of cat piss, her mother’s string of unsuitable boyfriends, a traumatizing experience with sexual assault. A pair of generous grandparents added a measure of stability and comfort in her childhood years, a privilege she readily acknowledges in hindsight. But throughout the book, our narrator is constantly on the hunt for protection and safety.

She tries to find this elusive state of security in her family and in the arms of various boyfriends, but after a few false starts (and run-ins with various snobbish punk rock gatekeepers), Jolie eventually finds her place among Cleveland’s artsy, witchy ’90s alternative scene. She settles into her own queer identity and finds a new kind of home, but the road leading there is anything but easy, pocked with many varieties of working-class heartbreak. Her story is both remarkable and utterly ordinary; any dreamy kid who grew up broke and weird will see a spark of themselves in this book, which is also why it’s so important.

The term “white working class” itself is a political fiction meant to carve out white workers as an exception to the strains and stresses of working-class experience, permitting certain self-appointed defenders of their alleged cultural birthright to pretend that their needs and concerns are somehow distinct from those of other workers. Jolie cuts through the noise by referring to herself and her family as “white trash”—another phrase with a complex and visceral political history. That history was brilliantly elucidated in 2016 in Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, before the media elite and a newly influential white nationalist pundit class alike seized upon the rhetoric of white working-class exclusion as a rationale for Donald Trump’s bogus calling card as a populist political leader. Jolie adopts Dolly Parton as her muse as she finds gradual recognition within Cleveland’s queer femme community; she describes this particular state of trashiness as a rejection of respectability, a beautiful sort of grotesquerie that is “overabundant in everything but cash.” She pays tribute to the big hair and loud voices of the women who raised her, and to her own defiant penchant for spangles and high heels. Her use of “white trash”—like the kindred adoption of “queer” in LGBTQ+ activist circles—is a reclamation of identity through a term long employed as a stigma, even if it may potentially provoke some outrage from within the broader community she’s describing.

The stories of the white working class and those of other folks living in poverty don’t always overlap, but oftentimes—and especially in this cruel country—they are one and the same. Writers like Jolie make the universal quality of such struggles resonate powerfully for their readers by describing how rapidly a brief respite of comfort can plunge into hopeless despair. As she recounts it, her sense of well-being as she came of age depended entirely upon the dates on the calendar between her family’s last paycheck and next rent payment—and could evaporate entirely in the wake of an unexpected financial hit. Jolie, describing a lecture she gave on the spatial and temporal nature of class to her own students at the University of Minnesota, writes, “My mom lives in a trailer in Ohio now, she’s on welfare, but a long time she wasn’t, but before that we were.” She continues, “My grandparents were fine though. And so that’s one reason I’m here—because for a period we had enough money to not be on welfare, and because when my mom didn’t have the money, my grandparents gave me a $500 check to reserve a dorm room.”

Jolie’s saga of hard-won personal reclamation is of a piece with the other recent memoirs by white working-class writers finding a perch, and a voice, for themselves in a social order designed to render them invisible and unheard. Linda Tirado, a proudly foul-mouthed writer and political activist who wrote her 2014 poor person’s polemic, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, after an essay she wrote called “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, Poverty Thoughts” went massively viral in 2013. In her book, Tirado breaks down myths and questions about the realities of living in poverty and working multiple low-wage jobs to scrape by. Sizing up her own pariah status in a culture fetishizing upward mobility and professional-managerial success, she is understandably pissed off about all of it—the cockroaches, the fatigue, the glib judgments of her character based on small signifiers of class belonging, such as the “bad teeth” that hinder her job opportunities in a society that expects women to look shiny and perfect 24/7. Her writing is personal, and she pulls no punches (though one gets the impression she’s doled out a few). As she wrote then, “If the average rich person had to walk around for a day wearing a polyester work uniform, they’d need a Xanax. Poverty, or poor, or working class—whatever level of not enough you’re at—you feel it in a million tiny ways. Sometimes it’s the condescension; sometimes it’s that you’re itchy.”

In contrast, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, Stephanie Land’s riveting, often heartbreaking 2019 account of her time as a house cleaner, offsets the drudgery with small rays of hope. There’s even a happy ending—a luxury that so few working-class people ever get to enjoy without scraping their fingers down to the bone. (Though even then, the book’s closing moment of uplift seems uncertain and provisional.) Like Jolie, Land finds herself navigating complicated, unfulfilling dead-end relationships with men who care little about her inner life. When one such relationship results in a pregnancy and, later, a daughter, Land’s world shrinks, and her top priority becomes the struggle to keep her child safe, no matter how much government red tape she has to scissor through or how many filthy toilets she has to scrub. Once again, survival is the goal; the happy ending is a footnote.

Sarah Smarsh and Tara Westover have also found success in the past several years by masterfully drawing out their own impressions of white working-class life. Smarsh’s Heartland was the epic story of an American farm family, a hardscrabble intergenerational saga interwoven with the author’s own razor-sharp sociopolitical and economic analysis; it was another book that made my breath catch in my throat. Her writing is immediate, eloquent, and heartfelt; in reading it, I mentally traded her dusty plains for my pine trees, and her thorny, conservative, but fundamentally good-hearted brethren for my own. Her analysis of the economic hurdles facing poor white families, particularly the rural ones, cut straight to the heart of the systemic forces at fault.

Westover’s book, Educated, on the other hand, was such a unique story as to be almost otherworldly. At times, it was still achingly familiar. In recounting her coming of age in a survivalist family in the unforgiving mountains of Idaho, Westover weaves together many threads—of violence, of isolation, of religion and feverish rejection of the corrupt and fallen secular world. But when she first comes down off the mountain and engages with the wider world, Westover is immersed in a more familiar working-class story of low-paid grocery store work and fateful construction accidents. Her father’s religious fanaticism may have set a course for heaven, but her older brother’s violent behavior and struggles with alcoholism dragged them all back down to hell. The book’s greatest lesson is one of survival, a concept that takes disparate shapes but ultimately echoes throughout each of these books.

The best-known recent bard of the white working-class life is, of course, J.D. Vance. Like Jolie, he is a child of the Ohio rural margins, but all resemblances end there. Vance’s blockbuster 2016 bootstraps memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, was greeted as a timely diagnosis of the unlikely growth of Trumpism in the down-at-its-heels heartland. In evoking the universal working-class themes of survival at the margins and family dysfunction, Hillbilly Elegy often tripped over itself to avoid engaging with any kind of anti-capitalist argument, and throughout his narrative, Vance clings resolutely to the Reaganite totems of respectability, hard work, and the American dream. Much of the criticism around the book has hinged upon Vance’s own erasure of huge swaths of Appalachia’s population—namely those who were anything other than the white, heteronormative, politically straight-laced Scots-Irish patriarchs who raised him. Though he has been styled an expert on the problems and history of this country’s white working class, the book itself is also devoid of any real class analysis. Instead, in the tradition of all conservative uplift tracts, Hillbilly Elegy resorts to a numbingly broad indictment of a “culture of irresponsibility”—which means, in turn, that his family is held almost entirely to blame for the many struggles it faces.

Perhaps most important, Vance gives off the distinct impression that he has committed the cardinal sin of gettin’ above your raisin’. Having escaped the poverty that marked his childhood in Ohio and Kentucky and settled into a lucrative perch as a venture capitalist and cable news pundit, Vance now looks down on those who weren’t so lucky. Like other adopted sons of privilege, he mostly wonders why the Appalachian hangers-on he left behind haven’t yet found their own version of the magical formula that rewarded him so handsomely.

Vance’s attachment to the myth of heroic personal and cultural uplift forms a striking contrast with the decidedly more solidarity-minded accounts of working-class life from women writers like Jolie, Tirado, Westover, and Land. This isn’t to imply that the white working-class memoir belongs to any one gender—of course it doesn’t. But it’s nonetheless striking that the most powerful and persuasive of such memoirs have lately come from women, who also now make up nearly 50 percent of the U.S. working class. (It also, of course, bears noting that the majority of those women workers are black and of color, which separates these white writers’ stories from any broader discussion of the working class.)

It’s also significant that Rust Belt Femme was published by a small, women-owned independent press based in the Rust Belt; one of the major throughlines in all of these books is the idea of looking out for one’s own. Despite the great adversity her family of origin faces, Jolie’s warmest recollections in the book are of her chosen family—the people who helped her discover her most authentic self and encouraged her to spread her wings, no matter what the rest of the world may have thought about it.

“I grew up with rust, buildings abandoned and crumbling like steady snow, but these women I loved, this femme I became, we survived it,” Jolie writes. “We survive it. We do our lips anyway.”