Sunday, April 13, 2008

Vicious Cycles

Gale encouraged me to post this piece from All Things Considered for your consideration. Warning: it's not a happy one. The narrator is a young woman who was essentially orphaned by domestic violence in childhood and who is now aging out of the foster care system. It touches on many themes I see in my work on a fairly regular basis, themes not unique to foster children: alienated adolescents seeking belonging and affection, the emotional logic of teen pregnancy, the effects of poor modeling of self-sufficiency, hopelessness. She is open and honest in a way that is both startling and refreshing, in the way that only adolescents with all their ego-centrism can be - the way that makes working with them so exasperating and rewarding. (For some reason, also, the occasional chirp of what I assume to be a smoke detector with a dying battery which is heard in part of the piece is one of the more affecting parts of it. And perhaps one of the most illustrative.)

We, all of us, are/were raised in an environment which lays out for us the path which we are to take. We mobilize our parents' capital, social and material, to forge this path for ourselves. This is the cycle of that mythical "American Dream" - that we will be better off than our parents. The assumption that underlies our system of government, our economy, our society as a whole, is that this cycle is intact. Even the welfare system, such as it is, assumes that both the impetus and the tools to become self-reliant, to "succeed in life," have been provided.

Unfortunately, for many of us (now speaking broadly), the cycle is broken and replaced by a new one. The cycle of generations of welfare ("victims of welfare," as Kanye West puts it), of people who eke by on whatever is provided by the government or nonprofits. The cycle of crime and incarceration in our minority communities. The cycle of children left emotionally wanting and starting their own families to fill that void. The cycle of undereducation and school segregation. These are broad strokes, of course, and many many people don't fit this description, but the theme is the lack of capital, in any or all senses of the word. Generations of people who, for whatever complex convergence of history, politics, and personal circumstance, were not provided with the same tools for "success." The consequences: violence, suffering. But don't we all start from the same starting line? Isn't one's failure to achieve solely one's own doing?

This is America. See what she has wrought, basing her domestic policy on the twin myths of a classless society and radical self-reliance.

Caveat: Remember that this piece was not solely recorded and produced (or even conceived) by she whose voice it depicts. That work was done by the NPR editors, who are likely not so different from us. Even the lack of editing (say, removal of the sound of a chirping smoke detector) is an editorial decision made by those whose voices you don't hear. The 'authenticity,' if such a thing exists, is therefore somewhat limited.

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