‘Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,’ by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: An Excerpt

Some 68,000 Americans now die annually from drug overdoses, another 88,000 from alcohol abuse and 47,000 from suicide. More Americans die from these causes every two weeks than died during eighteen years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet much of affluent America has shrugged, with elites paying little attention to the disintegration of communities across the country—or, worse, blaming the victims. In fact, plenty of blame could go elsewhere: Politicians, journalists, religious leaders and business executives were too often derelict as communities cratered and tens of millions of people endured the pain. The United States still doesn’t have a coherent plan to address the challenges.

This journey of exploration has taken the two of us to all fifty states, and we tell stories here from Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Maryland, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. But many of the tales are from Yamhill, because it is close to our hearts and because it reflects the challenges of working-class America. Another reason to write about the people of Yamhill is that they bared their souls to us. Nick has a lifetime of attachment to local friends, and Sheryl has been visiting Yamhill ever since our engagement, when she amused people by locking the car door. Our kids grew up partly on the Kristof family farm, and our ties to Yamhill give us a deep empathy for the community’s struggles. The consequences of lost timber jobs in Oregon and disappearing coal jobs in Kentucky are not so different from the consequences of erased factory jobs in North Carolina, Maine or Michigan. In talking to our friend Wes Moore, an African American who grew up in poverty in Baltimore and New York, it struck us both how many commonalities there are between a white farm town in Oregon and a black neighborhood in Baltimore: what they share is deep pain.

This has been a wrenching book for us to write, because old friendships threatened to rob us of the protection of professional distance. In past books, we have tried to shine a light on urgent and neglected topics, such as the oppression of women around the world; now we are trying to illuminate similarly urgent and neglected crises in our own backyards. Some of these stories are of dear friends whom Nick had crushes on, passed notes to in class, danced with or competed against on the high-school track. Together we’ve covered massacres, genocide, sex trafficking and other tragedy and heartbreak around the globe, but these struggles hit so close to home because Yamhill and America are home.

The Knapp kids undertook their own Dantesque journey through drugs, alcohol, crime and family dysfunction. Farlan, a talented woodcarver and furniture maker, died of liver failure from drink and drugs. Zealan burned to death in a house fire while passed out drunk. Rogena suffered from mental illness and died from hepatitis linked to her own drug use. Nathan burned to death when the meth he was making exploded. Four siblings, once happy kids bouncing on the seats of school bus Number 6, dead, dead, dead, dead.

Keylan, particularly smart and talented, whom Yamhill Grade School recognized as a math prodigy, is the lone survivor, partly because thirteen years in the state penitentiary protected him from drugs. He soldiers on with HIV, hepatitis and more broken bones than he can remember; he says he uses drugs much less now.

Today Keylan shares a home with Dee in Oklahoma. She survived Gary and, at seventy-nine, remains sound of mind and strong of body. She gets by on Social Security, doesn’t touch alcohol or drugs, and makes daily visits to the grave site of her four dead children. Pulling out family photos, Dee pointed to her kids in happier times; over the doorway, the word FAMILY practically jumps off a wooden sign. “Our family is cursed,” Keylan said. “Something went wrong with our generation, and so there was alcohol abuse. There was drug abuse. There was prison.” He began weeping.

So many Americans have wandered off course “into a dark wood,” as Dante described his journey in Inferno, exploring the corruption and hypocrisy of medieval Florence, then one of the world’s great cities. Dee Knapp knows as well as anyone that the America of the old days was no simple Leave It to Beaver kaleidoscope of happy families passing the gravy around a dinner table. It was even more difficult for African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and others who did not even have a seat at the table. Yet in those days the dream of advancement was real, and it sustained people like Dee through difficult times. For much of working-class America, of whatever complexion, the dream is now dead. It’s dead along with all those children on the Number 6 school bus. It’s dead along with Farlan, Zealan, Rogena and Nathan Knapp. Personal responsibility must be part of the turnaround, but so must collective responsibility, especially for children now struggling. We as citizens have failed in this, and so has our government, and that must change. The United States took a historic wrong turn over the last half century, and for the Knapps and so many others life has become an inferno. We will take you through that inferno, but also show how America can do better.

[ Return to the review of “Tightrope.” ]

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