Monica Potts

In late May, Monica Potts, 43, published “The Forgotten Girls: A Memoir of Friendship and Lost Promise in Rural America.” The book — which Kirkus called “a hauntingly cleareyed and poignant memoir with strong, illustrative reportage” — examines why the 2010s have been a decade of disturbing decline in life expectancy for the least educated white Americans, a downturn that’s even more exaggerated for women. This trend, identified by Potts as “the longest and most sustained in a hundred years,” is made tangible through Darci, Potts’ childhood best friend and the primary subject of “The Forgotten Girls.”

Though Darci and Potts grew up together in rural Clinton under similarly modest circumstances and shared a youthful affinity for imagining exciting, wordly futures for themselves, their lives turned out vastly different: Potts left for college at Bryn Mawr and eventually became a successful journalist in New York and Washington, D.C., writing for outlets like The New York Times, The Atlantic, The American Prospect and FiveThirtyEight, while Darci struggled with early motherhood, mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness, incarceration and intimate partner violence. By placing Darci at the center of her story and moving slowly through the ways in which their trajectories deviated, Potts compellingly indicts the cultural and political forces that stifle the potential of women like Darci.

Your mother seems to be a significant factor behind why you took a path different from many of your peers. How would you describe her worldview and approach to parenting?

It was really clear to us from an early age that she wanted us to leave our hometown and experience the world as a big place that we had access to and could explore — and that we would grow if we did that. At some point, she said to me that she would know she was a success as a mom if we grew up and we didn’t need to call her every day. She always had that sense of self-sacrifice. And I think it’s because she wanted to leave Clinton herself and couldn’t.

“The Forgotten Girls” by Monica Potts, via Random House

One of the book’s strengths is the way you point to a multitude of intertwined causes in explaining why the status quo for some rural white women is so dismal. If you could implement one specific intervention, what would it be?

That’s a tough question. Not just for young women, but also for older adults as well, I would like to see more opportunities for education and personal growth. And that’s not just school. I live in downtown Clinton again, and there’s not a way to easily walk out of my house and just be a member of the Clinton community and go to a public space that isn’t a church or a restaurant. I think that sense of civic life is really important. It’s one of the things I miss most about living in cities: You can roll out and go to a public event and make connections with people that aren’t related to identities that can be kind of atomizing, like church and family.

It’s clear the book was crafted with Darci’s blessing, given how heavily she’s quoted throughout it. Why do you think she was willing to let herself be depicted so vulnerably while her struggles were still ongoing?

When we first reunited as friends, I was already working on a book project like this. When I told her about it, she kind of jokingly said, “Well, maybe you should just write about me.” We talked about it over the next few days and weeks, and I think her motivation was that she wanted to help people. She thought that if her experiences and the tough things she had been through in her life might help other people like her, then it would be worth it. Also, she was 35, and I think that’s a point in your life where you’re looking back and thinking about the choices you made and what they all mean. I explained that she wouldn’t get to see the book in advance, and I explained what it meant to interview her and other people about her life, and she was still willing — and I think it was that sense of trying to contribute to the greater good.

When did you move back to Clinton and what motivated you to do so when you were so focused on leaving in your early years?

January 2018. At some point in my mid-30s, I realized how beautiful this area was. I had seen a lot of pretty places, but there was something about Clinton that just felt like home in a way no place else really had. I hadn’t really settled anywhere. That’s partly my personality — I like moving around. But I have really deep roots here. A lot of my family is buried here. My family still has land here. My mother still lives here. I wanted to experience this place again, because when I was growing up and my mom wanted me to leave, it was hard to appreciate the parts of the Ozarks that I really liked. My partner, Samir, gets to pick where we go next, if we go anywhere, because it’s his turn and he came here for me. I don’t know how much longer we’re going to stay, to be honest. But that’s nothing against Arkansas. We just kind of bounce around.         

The post Looking for ‘The Forgotten Girls’: A Q&A with author Monica Potts appeared first on Arkansas Times.

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