I love Barbara Ehrenreich, and think she is absolutely a brilliant social reporter. I loved her Nickel and Dimed experiment and the myths it busted. She did a remarkable job of telling the story of poverty and welfare reform through the construct of trying to survive on the salaries of a maid, a waitress and a Wal-Mart worker.
But much as I respect the impact of awareness work about poverty, I also agree with the critiques of Nickel and Dime and similar social experiments. There are two inherent problems in the design: one is that you have to come from a place of privilege to be able to construct such an experiment, and the other is that the experiment is temporary.
Otherwise there is no point of comparison. And because of that place of privilege and timeframe, there is absolutely no way to replicate the years of disadvantage that are the REAL story behind the struggle of making low wages work and maintaining even marginal employment, and no way to act out the worry, fear, dread, parental guilt and shame that color every waking moment.
So who can tell us the whole story? We make the most of faux reports because authentic stories are hard to come by, for obvious reasons–the same worry/fear/shame/exhaustion/physical and mental health issues/lack of access to resources/etc. that compromise every part of a struggling life–we need them, but they are hard to come by.
For someone who has experienced a lot of life that is hard, what are the chances she will be able, physically and emotionally, to find the time and support to tell her own story, all while still trying to survive without a net? And what are the chances the publishing industry will get that story onto shelves and into e-readers? It seems impossible, almost too greedy and too much to ask for, that a struggling person get ahead of the curve enough to voice their narrative in a way that will help us understand the voiceless. It’s all too hard.
But Jane Devin did it. She has published her first memoir Elephant Girl: A Human Story, and you should read it, because it is a rare and beautiful thing.
I have read author Jane Devin’s blog for a few years now, and followed her journey across the country, so having tracked her discuss her work and decision to self-publish deepened my experience of reading Elephant Girl. Jane writes beautifully, and we’re so lucky she’s written her experiences, harrowing as they are.
I’m not sure how she did it, but she told her story with an unflinching open-handedness that does justice to her own will and to the complexities of other voiceless women who have lived similar lives. Lives grounded in abuse and dependent on creativity and perseverance because they were never taught or mentored how to survive; lives moved forward on sheer will against massive obstacles.
Jane shows what permeated her skin and entire sense of self, what was surmountable and what clung. Her story may remind you of your own struggles or may open a door that helps you understand others a little more. I imagine it will put a fire under a lot of people to write their own memoirs–stories given voice tend to beg for a chorus.
I hope Elephant Girl also inspires people to support writers who have lived in poverty, abuse, or other oppressed experiences, because most of all Elephant Girl: A Human Story is a reminder that we haven’t read some of the most compelling and complex human stories yet. I am so proud of Jane for telling hers so skillfully, and so grateful, so very grateful, because reading it helped me understand.
I want Elephant Girl to reach a wide audience, so I’m supporting a Kickstarter project that will help the book do just that. Please join me! You can pledge a small amount, and for larger amounts there are rewards, including great ways to get copies of the book. Kickstarter is so much fun–they make it easy to throw a little money in the pot to make cool things happen. In this case, your dollars vote for indie publishing, for writing against all odds, and for bringing forward stories we need. The only downside to Kickstarter is if the project isn’t fully funded none of the funds are tapped, so please do what you can to tip it over the funding mark this week!