Knowledge at an Atomic Level

Several years ago, my agent mentioned that she was working with a writer whose work I would love: Sarah Smarsh (photo by Paul Andrews).

After we hung up, I found Smarsh’s fierce essay on poor teeth in a rich world. Reading it, I kept thinking of my Texan Granny, who grew up so malnourished that her adult teeth started falling out when she was a girl. Like Smarsh’s grandma, Granny had all her teeth yanked in her twenties. She wore dentures for seven decades, and took three times as long as everyone else to finish her dinner, longer still if she was trying to chew meat. At night she plunked her teeth in a jar and quietly nursed her gums.

Smarsh condemns our culture for encouraging blithe jokes about “meth teeth” while failing to recognize “the psychological hell of having poor teeth in a rich, capitalist country: the underprivileged are priced out of the dental-treatment system yet perversely held responsible for their dental condition.”

Next I read “Dear Daughter, Your Mom,” an essay that begins, “Your mom walks into Hooters. She’s wearing the famous spandex uniform.” It segues into the reasons the mom has taken a job that gives male managers the power to look her over and decide whether she needs a smaller size of tight orange shorts:

Your mom’s previous summer job involved weighing wheat trucks, wearing a hard hat, and hauling feed sacks into the volatile mill of a rural grain elevator just after an elevator down the road exploded and killed seven people. When she was a child, her carpenter dad took a second job transporting industrial chemicals and, after fumes leaked into the cab of the truck, foamed at the mouth in an emergency room. Her uncle died when his tractor slid off a muddy bridge and pinned him to a creek bed. Her great-grandma was raped while closing a small Wichita hamburger stand. Her grandma chased and counseled felons as a cop and probation officer (but was shot at home by an ex-husband with her own gun). Your mom’s mom spent many summers under a hot tent (with your tiny mom), in a field whose stubble was sometimes on fire, unloading and peddling Chinese fireworks that are now illegal. 

The photo above is Smarsh, “hauling feed to mill while working wheat harvest at Collingwood grain elevator in Kingman, Kan., summer 1998.”

I tweeted her work. I kept going back to it. Soon Smarsh* and I got in touch somehow. I probably sent her fan mail. I can’t say for sure how it happened, but we became friendly colleagues, and then friends. Though all this I remained foremost a fan, devouring each new essay, like the one after the 2016 election about media bias against members of the working class.

If you would stereotype a group of people by presuming to guess their politics or deeming them inferior to yourself – say, the ones who worked third shift on a Boeing floor while others flew to Mexico during spring break; the ones who mopped a McDonald’s bathroom while others argued about the minimum wage on Twitter; the ones who cleaned out their lockers at a defunct Pabst factory while others drank craft beer at trendy bars; the ones who came back from the Middle East in caskets while others wrote op-eds about foreign policy – then consider that you might have more in common with Trump than you would like to admit.

If there’s an emotional counterpart to holding your breath, at times I felt like I was doing that while waiting for her memoir, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. I knew it would explore generational patterns around money in families in ways I and our culture writ large needed to see clearly, feel deeply. The book was published last year, and, reader, I was right.

Smarsh grew up in Kansas, a child of parents descended from German immigrants, from generations of farmers. Her parents married young and her mom became pregnant quickly. Financial hardship fell, not like a scythe, but slowly, insidiously, relentlessly, like an inundation of water.

In Heartland, Smarsh writes that she knew her mom’s deepest resentments and most tender struggles “with the unparalleled expertise of any mother’s child. One of them, it seemed clear, was that I existed. Though I wouldn’t know for years that I’d been an accident, I felt the knowledge at an atomic level. I’d materialized over one word that either wasn’t heard or wasn’t heeded, that night she told [Smarsh’s father] not to come inside her: don’t.”

Smarsh’s father wasn’t violent, but he was an exception. Women from prior generations in her family moved constantly, seeking distance “from violent men," strategizing “new ways to pay the bills…. [T]hey always found a way to leave. But in matters of house and home, they often had nowhere to go, and the same cycles would begin again.”

“’It was like living in the circus,’” her Great Aunt Pud recalled, “’Without the fun.’” 

Contemplating her family, Smarsh felt she had two choices: “be a relentless worker with a chance of building her own financial foundation or live the carefree way so many of my friends did. The latter, by my estimation, almost assured my becoming a young mother and an underpaid worker, too. It was an easy choice. The maternal cycle I was born to felt so hostile to my mission in the world – my amorphous intention to do something ‘big’ in places those women had never gone – that I perceived it as a threat rather than a fate.”

Like Smarsh herself, her mom and her grandmother were pretty women who looked young. “I’d grow up to hear I had those same ‘good genes.’” What people didn’t see was “all the invisible ‘bad’ we inherited, cycles handed down for what I have a feeling was centuries and maybe millennia. They were the negative cycles of poverty. One of them was to be a veritable child and have a baby inside you.”

Smarsh addresses her the book to the daughter she was afraid she might have, was determined not to have, and ultimately did not have – the daughter her own sadness and determination and imagination conjured, as an object of love to protect and a fate to be avoided at all costs. She connects the fate she avoided for herself and this daughter to the strength of her female ancestors as much as to their pain. 

Heartland is out in paperback on September 3. The same day, Smarsh launches The Homecomers, her new podcast revealing “rural and working-class America through the voices of people fighting for it.” You know what to do.

Until next time,


* I realize it’s nonstandard to refer to writers and other prominent people by their last names these days, especially if you’re friends with the person, but for now I will persist in my old-person ways. You can read my reasons at the end of an earlier dispatch.