‘Tightrope’ looks at how America failed the working class

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Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn reading “Tightrope." Credit: Bob Rozycki.

In the 1960s and 70s, the small town of Yamhill, Oregon was known for launching a family into the middle class -- and promising a better life for the next generation. There were good jobs and schools, plus strong social networks of churches and community groups.

That’s where New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff grew up. He regularly rode the number six bus to school. But now decades later, about one quarter of the kids who rode that bus with him are dead. Many died from so-called diseases of despair: alcoholism, drug abuse, and obesity. 

Yamhill and the many struggling towns across America are the subject of a new book by Nicholas Kristoff and his wife Sheryl WuDunn. It’s called “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.” 


The cover of “Tightrope.” Credit: Penguin Random House. 

The book opens with a harrowing scene of Kristoff’s neighbors, the Knapp family. Dee Knapp is hiding in her yard as her drunk husband shoots a rifle into the air -- after he physically abused her. 

Read an excerpt from “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.” 

“Gary Knapp shooting at his wife Dee as she lay cowering in the grass outside their home was a good reminder of things were pretty screwed up then too, but at least … there was a sense that things were moving in the right direction. … And that hope has kind of trickled away, frankly. Four of the five [Knapp kids] ended up dying young. The fifth didn't die because he was in prison,” says Kristoff. 

Farlan Knapp died of liver failure from drug and alcohol abuse. Zealan died in a house fire when he was unconscious from drinking too much alcohol. Nathan died in an explosion when cooking meth. Their sister Rogena died of hepatitis from injecting drugs.

“The only survivor was Keylan because he was spending 13 years in a state penitentiary. And when a penitentiary is what rescues you, that's pretty tough,” says Kristoff. 

Poor choices and (no) second chances 

Some people may say these deaths resulted from poor personal choices. 

 Co-author Sheryl WuDunn responds, “This is the most troubling narrative that we have right now, and that has governed the way a lot of the country thinks for the past few decades. And it says that basically, if you dig yourself into a rut, you have to get yourself out, lift yourself up by the bootstraps. Well, they neglect to say that picking yourself up by the bootstraps … defies the laws of physics. And it's just a nomenclature that gets us thinking on the wrong track.” 

She says although Farlan made bad decisions (dropping out of high school and taking drugs), people get second chances all the time, particularly those at the top of the socioeconomic ladder. 

“Your company fails, we give you a second chance, we give you a third chance. We like when your company fails because you've learned something from it. Well, why is it that when people who are poor fail, we don't give them a second chance?” says WuDunn. 

Kristoff brings up another classmate. Clayton Green was his good friend and a good mechanic, but he was kicked out of school in the ninth grade for fighting, so he never took chemistry. 

“He turned out to be a very good chemist because he became one of the first people in the area to cook meth. We as a society spent a ton of money incarcerating Clayton and his friends. ... We would have been so much better off trying to keep Clayton in school, and giving him an education so he could have become a pharmacist, or a chemist for a company, or whatever it may be,” says Kristoff. “And so, of course he made mistakes and did dumb things, and he would have acknowledged that. But we also have to look at our own responsibility for putting kids on trajectories in which they make dumb decisions.” 

Lower life expectancy for the working class

The authors saw this trend in other cities nationwide. WuDunn points to statistics from Princeton economists, Angus Deaton and Anne Case, who discovered that life expectancy is rising for most people in the U.S. -- except for the working class. 

“Mortality rates are rising for that group. … Those deaths of despair (from alcohol-related diseases, from drug overdoses and from suicides), they are overwhelming the average lifespan for Americans, so that in the past three out of four years, life expectancy has declined. We haven't seen that for a hundred years since that pandemic flu in 1918,” she says.

Accessing help

WuDunn says it’s important for people to recognize that they can get help, and there’s nothing wrong with doing so. 

But Kristoff acknowledges that there’s not a lot of help being offered. “If you think about how we treat drugs, for 50 years in the U.S., our basic go- to response has been to lock people up, including users. And in fact, it's far more effective to provide medical treatment, psychosocial support. And yet only one in 10 Americans with a substance abuse problem gets treatment, even though it pays for itself (by some studies) 12 times over,” he says.

Same roots, different trajectories 

Unlike the kids he grew up with, Kristoff graduated Harvard University and became a celebrated columnist and author. He says he absolutely has survivor’s guilt. 

“I particularly think about these two kids who walked to school with me every day, Bobby and Mike. And Bobby is serving this life sentence in prison. …  And I think what if I had been in their house? Their parents were alcoholics. And I don't think there were any kids’ books in the house,” he says. “What if they had been in my house, what the differences would have been? And it's very strange to have these kids that you were close to and friends with, who were just full of zest in life, and now to see them in these very, very different trajectories.”

Book excerpt: Chapter 1: The Kids on the Number 6 School Bus

Is this land made for you and me?
—woody guthrie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s how they ended up in Cove Orchard, population fifty, in northwestern Oregon, where the grasses of the Willamette Valley merge into the forests of the Coastal Range, where fields of grass seed, golden wheat and Christmas trees, and orchards abounding with apples, cherries and hazelnuts, blanket the earth to the horizon. Gary found regular work and at one point landed a good union job laying pipe, mostly for sewer lines, earning a solid income even if he spent much of it in the bars in Yamhill and nearby Gaston. Dee had a steady job driving -


The Knapps around the Christmas tree in Cove Orchard, Oregon, circa 1968. Dee Knapp is in the back, and from left the kids are Nathan, Rogena, Farlan, Keylan and Zealan. At that time the family’s prospects seemed to be soaring. (Photo courtesy Dee Knapp)

- tractors on a hazelnut farm near Yamhill. She couldn’t afford day care, so she brought along her youngest, Keylan, a toddler, and kept him on her lap as she worked.

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpted from Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Copyright © 2020 by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy

Credits

Guests:
Nick Kristoff - co-author of “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope”, Sheryl WuDunn - co-author of “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope”

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Alexandra Sif Tryggvadottir, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Angie Perrin