Children of the Mountains

I’m not a regular television viewer.  (This isn’t one of those highbrow I’m-too-good-for-teevee things. It has more to do with the fact that, when we watch prime time, the kids tend ask to uncomfortable questions, such as “what is a sexually-intense thriller?” It’s easier to stick with Disney or Nick where the characters are fictitious, fashionable, perfectly safe, and seemingly sexless.)  However, after I read local inkslinger Joel Spears’ missive about the 20/20 special “Children of the Mountains,” which aired last week,  I knew I’d have to track it down and watch.

I did – thanks to Cajun Boy in the City, who rounded up the links here.

Fortunately, Joel’s take had prepared me for the worst.  I wasn’t expecting to see your typical mountain folks.  I knew it would be people handpicked for their depravity, their desperation and their ability to stir the emotions of viewers.  (Oh, Sawyer can blather on about her noble intent until she’s blue in the face, but we all know these folks were plucked from the trailer park for ratings.)

I do not deny these people exist in our communities.  Even Mr. Smartypants, who watched the special with me,  announced one of the children featured in the series was “sorta like this girl he knows at school.”   However, these families do not represent the majority – and I agree with Joel.  Poverty, broken families, irresponsible behavior, filth and hunger are not regional oddities.  You can find these things most anywhere in America.   So, why focus on us?

Hazard Mayor Bill Gorman,  who appeared briefly in Sawyer’s report, summed it up nicely for the Lexington Herald-Leader when he said the report was  “the same load of crap they’ve been doing for 40 years.”

From Deliverance and Nell to the Beverly Hillbillies, SNL and Jon Stewart,  the media has always turned people of Southern Appalachia into caricatures without consequence – often  portraying us as rednecked,  cross-eyed, racist, cow-licked, tattooed,  ignorant, small-minded, uneducated, impoverished, sloven, slothful, self-loathing, kinfolk-feuding, snake-handling, tongue-speaking, Bible-thumping, cousin-humping manglers of the English language who are confounded by fancy city-thangs like escalators, syllables, cement ponds, toothbrushes and books without pictures.

We saw a reemergence of these stereotypes during the last presidential campaign.  (In case you missed the national media’s in-depth analysis of Appalachian voters, let me fill you in:  we didn’t vote for Obama because we’re a bunch of backwoods, gun-totin’  racists who wouldn’t know a good candidate if he crawled up an bit us on the dirt-smudged spots beneath our Daisy Dukes or Pointer Brands…  you know, on one of those private places only our cousins have seen. And the few of us, who did like dem purty words we heardt the colored-man say on the talking picture box prolly couldn’t get down the mountain to a votin’ place seeing as how we’re all barefoot and illiterate.)

Perhaps we should be accustomed to this image.  Our ability to be offended should be worn out and our sense of outrage simply used up by now, but it’s not.  When I read this was the top-rated prime-time program Friday, attracting 10.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media ResearchIt was the biggest 20/20 audience since 2004, I actually cringed.

By the way, Sawyer will be back on 20/20 at 10 pm tonight for an update on all the children featured in the series and how her big city spotlight has helped them – so we should all be grateful that Sawyer – God love her heart – was willing to walk the creepy hollers and get our poor folks noticed.  We should also be thankful that the “better” parts of America were willing to offer assistance and  that corporations decided to seize an opportunity to improve their image.

Uh – no.  In fact,  Sawyer’s brand of help is the last thing we need.

I admit we have socioeconomic problems which are unique to the area.  Those of us, who live in rural parts of Southern Appalachia, have watched the gradual decline of agriculture as a profitable industry.  We’ve watched as factories moved production overseas or smaller operations shut-down because they could not compete in the global marketplace.  We’ve watched as changes in the coal industry set about destroying our land after it was nearly finished destroying our people.  We’ve seen shops board-up or move-on as incomes decreased.   Around here, a closure or cutback of any kind can cripple a community.   And the increase in crime, alcoholism, and drug addiction: well, it’s all correlated.

I also believe there is a cultural cycle of poverty, which draws children in by stifling their expectations – or by eliminating the middle-ground of dreams.  You know, when you’re five-years-old, it doesn’t matter where you live,  you intend to grow up and be a fairy princess, a pop star, an astronaut, or a major league baseball player.  Unfortunately, by the time these kids hit their teens, their dreams have become limited to marrying a good ol’ boy and gettin’ by or joining their Daddy in his steel-toed boot business.  It is a challenge getting these kids to realize there are opportunities available between celebrity and poverty.  These things are all true.

However, contrary to popular belief, Appalachia has never feared progress or modernism.  Hell, we declared our independence and organized our own government long before the Yanks attended the tea party in Boston.  Our coal miners were among the first US workers to unionize.  And the civil rights movement, baby – we birthed it and sent it on down to Georgia and Alabama fully formed and set to music.

We’re not as isolated as Diane would have you believe  – and we’ve always had more than our fair share of  intelligent, determined, dedicated, skilled, educated, progressive, talented and outspoken people – many which have initiated great change or created movements.  This is why we’ve survived despite having our our resources – our people and our land – constantly exploited by companies, corporations, the media, the government and the politicians and the rest of America.

So, while some of you may feel great gushes of love and appreciation for Diane Sawyer –  I think if Kentucky were so near and dear to her heart,  she should have made some effort to ensure the whole eastern portion of the damn state didn’t come off looking like a lot of toothless, unskilled degenerates, who probably wouldn’t take a Wed. evening shift anywhere lest they miss their churchin’…  because as long as she’s painting this picture for the world: no amount of Hannah Montana boots or cash for a kid, who dropped out of college due to lack of spending money is  going to help.

Or as Smartypants said:

“No wonder no one want to come here and build stuff.   That lady made all of us look like a bunch of idiots with outhouses and cavities, and most of the people  I know have teeth, except for Roy but he’s from Nebraska… so, they can’t hold him against us… right?”


24 thoughts on “Children of the Mountains

  1. I heard about the 20/20 show and tracked it down afterwards and saw it. I thought it was pretty accurate for what it depicted. Obviously the people were not typical, but very poor people are not typical yet. However, the very poor in this sort of desperate situation are more common in Appalachia than in many other areas in the US. I know a lot of families locally that are very similar to shown in the report. I also noticed on the abc site there were comments from more well off people in Kentucky criticizing the show as exploitative and atypical. I did not find either to be true though, but I am familiar with the dynamic in which the well off in Appalachia prefer for poor people to know their place and not be making the area look bad just by existing. It is the same as how more well off people in big cities absolutely hate homeless people, and will throw bottles at them, create troubles for them, and sometimes even set them on fire rather than do anything to help, or at the very least, just leave them alone.

    Now regarding the movie Deliverance, for years I heard about how bad it was, and then saw it. I believe it actually is something of the opposite of what people think, and it has been judged unfairly. The outsiders run into some very backwoods, but probably decent, people, and then they have a very bad experience with a single pair of lunatics. This causes them to judge everyone as bad because of their preexisting prejudices, which causes them to kill a guy that probably was an innocent hunter and not the person they thought they were killing. At the end, we see other people in the area who are very nice and who show them great hospitality and care, which is the typical people from around here. We see that the outsiders’ killing was motivated by fear and prejudice and they are the bad people in the movie (with the exception of the two lunatics in the woods).

  2. Rick,
    I have a different opinion of the movie, but my view is likely colored by the fact that I read the novel first. It is sometimes hard to separate the two. Personally, I thought the people were depicted as a different species of humans altogether. A few characteristics were accurate: others were grossly exaggerated.

    It has also not been my experience that this level of poverty is more predominate in our region than elsewhere (nor are the cycles of abuse.)

    A few years ago, I would have argued the exact opposite was true. I’d have also said that people in Southern Appalachia were better equipped to deal with the conditions of poverty for several reasons. Rural areas can allow one to be more self-reliant than urban/inner city spaces. There is also an element of community support here, which does not exist in other places. And I absolutely do not believe classism exists here to the same extent it does elsewhere. There are many places in our country where the invisible boundaries between the haves and have-nots are so present, firm, enforced and understood – they may as well be constructed with brick walls and razor wire. And while that dynamic might be present in some subtle form in these rural counties – no, I don’t see those same territorial, unwelcoming, uncrossable lines I’ve seen elsewhere.

    I also think that the outrage over this special has nothing to do with needing the poor to “know their place” or that the well-to-do are ashamed that they exist.

    There’s no shame in being poor – but on the other hand, poverty doesn’t excuse one from being responsible for their actions and behaviors. Whereas some of those behaviors were characterized as “regional” – you’re damn skippy we’re ashamed.

    You know, I actually grew up in a holler without two nickels to rub together and just like the kids in the special – we couldn’t afford to buy food, after food, after food. This does not mean that I lived in filth and squalor. My parents didn’t mistake poverty as a license to beat or otherwise abuse me. My daddy didn’t think it was okay to stay drunk all the time because he had no money.

    Being poor sure the hell shouldn’t be used as an excuse to abandon or molest a child/relative.

    So, those children featured on 20/20 are just as much or more so the victims of the adults in their lives as they are the region. And in seeking to help the children in this region, which Sawyer claimed was her intention, what has she done? What changes or long-term improvements will come from this? My guess is none – because you do not improve conditions of poverty by simply making a sideshow out of the people.

  3. I have not read Deliverance the book, I will try to track it down.

    I am confused by your response.

    Is there someone here or elsewhere saying that poverty is an excuse to beat, abuse, abandon and molest children?

    ABC claims that “Central Appalachia has up to three times the national poverty rate, an epidemic of prescription drug abuse, the shortest life span in the nation, toothlessness, cancer and chronic depression.” Do you think this is true that “Central Appalachia has up to three times the national poverty rate”, or is it something they made up as part of their sideshow? It’s possible. Their claim about short lifespan is not true – I know for a fact that the shortest lifespan in america belongs to the residents of the Lakota reservation in South Dakota, where men can not expect to live past 48 on average.

  4. Hey let me tell everyone something here. I am a redneck and I dont care not a bit to let everyone know it. There’s nothing wrong with it like alot of people thinks it is. I was raised this way and I am going to live this way untill the day that I die. A huge amount of my my family are just like me. we love are mountains and are rolling hills and lakes. we also love our rugged land scape and our way of life. No body will ever be able to change that and will never ever be able to force a change into our lives.

  5. I would like to share a past encounter that I experienced. Back in the good ole days, I traveled via Greyhound bus from Rogersville to Knoxville to attend college. On a trip home for the weekend one Friday evening, I observed a young lady about my age who was peering intently out the windows as if searching for something in particular. Being bored and curious, I asked her where she was going. The conversation came around to what she had hoped to see. What else would a “big city” girl from up north want to see? Our outhouses, of course! Bein’ that hillbillies don’t have bathrooms, don’t ya see? Being the helpful person that I am, I explained that most of us do have indoor plumbing. Then I innocently, in a most curious timid voice asked her, “Is it true that your rats are as big as our cats?”

    (Other passengers’ laughter….. priceless!)

  6. I really want a responce from this. My question is why in the world do other people have a problem with a Appalachian person like me. I mean, what in the world did we ever do to any body. That is something that I just can’t never ever understand from you city folks. I mean it, I want a really good responce from someone here and I really do mean it. I just want to know.

  7. @Kandy, that’s a great story. I guess she told you our field mice are bigger than her city rats: it’s the cockroaches you’ve got to watch out for.

    @Rick: You said “the well off in Appalachia prefer for poor people to know their place and not be making the area look bad just by existing.” I am just pointing out much of the outrage over this special stems – not from the fact our poor were put on display – but from the fact that some of those irresponsible behaviors were portrayed as the norm for this area. They are not.

    Sawyer could have just as easily found one (or three) functional families, who were financially unstable, uninsured, and qualified for federal assistance. She could have profiled any number of the elderly people settled up in the mountains, who are no longer able to fend for themselves (carry coal, chop wood, maintain the home place or lack transportation to get to dr. appointments or market.) There’s certainly no shortage of these folks, who are poor but decent.

    She could have focused on the fact that we have a higher rate of diabetes, cancer, tooth decay etc. Are these caused by lifestyle, environment, or a combination of both? How does lack of access to adequate health care weigh into that – and does the type of care we receive play a role in our prescription drug abuse problems?

    She could have been a spokesperson for the area, but she wasn’t. Instead, she selected families plagued by issues such as drunkenness, abandonment, incest and she did this for a reason. Her reason wasn’t to be helpful. It was to gather viewers.

    Do we have three times the national poverty rate? I’d say if it’s not the truth, there’s a good possibility it soon will be. In 50’s, we had three times the national rate. By the mid to late 80’s, this had improved dramatically (particularly if you take into consideration the cost of living is substantially lower in many of these rural counties than it is in urban areas.) But think about what has happened since then: incomes have fallen because we’ve lost our ag and manufacturing industries, strip mining has replaced traditional mining. There’s only so many tourists to go around – and beyond tourism, we have attracted nothing to revitalize the regional economy. These rural counties aren’t a target area for high-tech jobs because it’s a common assumption we lack a skilled workforce and support industry. (Now, I wonder where they got that idea?)

  8. Ray, no one has anything against you. I would like to add though that you are propagating the stereotype by completely butchering the English language. I am not sure I even understand some of your posts.

  9. Angelia, i am planning to write a piece on local hunger. Just as demand for food here is growing, supply is decreasing and our local food ministries need food on the shelves. You repeated something in one of your posts that one of the children in the special said, “…can’t afford to buy food after food after food.” Can you illustrate that and what do you think those mothers do? i was just reading my Bible last week about gleaning and that struck a chord in my mind. Please share your thoughts.

  10. Anger would be an understatement of my feelings about the Diane Sawyer “special, and I can’t say it much better than you did, Angelia. It was almost racist, in a perverse sort of way…the stereotypes were typical. White, conservative, uneducated, backwards people live in Appalachia, and those are the only folks who live here.

    It reminded me why I have never cared much for liberals of the snotty Northern variety…and yes, I know that not everyone in New York thinks like Diane Sawyer. For this we can thank God.

  11. I love your article. I think the first part is very funny and the last…very true and serious. I know Diane could have picked a better bunch 2 represent us hill folk, but it wouldn’t have gotten the ratings it did and we wouldn’t get the opportunity 2 discuss this on here! I don’t let things like that get 2 me cause it just shows their ignorince! But I really like reading ur stuff. Ur awesome!

  12. I commend Diane for what she has done. I haved lived in Chicago..delivered FEDEX in the area she was in. Left there and went to Palm Beach and delivered FEDEX. Shes right I worked with people from Cuba…Puerto Rico…Dominican Republic..we compared stories of “our countries”..mine of Eastern Kentucky..poverty is poverty..but rural poverty is different. She didnt do a story on the “high on the hog” “big headed” “too big for their britches” city folk. She probably tried and they didnt want to be seen in the same story. Our country is our country, good and bad….for richer or poorer. Besides, where would our government find all the “brave” soldiers to fight for this country of ours. Thanks Diane Sawyer…….you are a credit to Kentucky, because you are not ashamed of our down trodden

  13. I came across Diane’s ‘series’ last winter. I was raised up a holler in Eastern Kentucky in the early 1940’s. My grandpa worked for VanLear and granny put out a big garden and canned, dried and pickled more food than we needed. Life in the hollow was not easy, but they did it with coal oil lamps, a well and a lot of hard work.
    I have thought about the little girl, Courtney, many times. Does anyone have any information on this child? Is the family still intact? I would love to know.
    It is okay to contact me at

  14. The piece was enlightening and it was about the downtrodden in a remote area. It wasnt about your super duper country cottages on the mountainside and folksy middle class who get by on their tough little britches. God forbid attention is paid to those less fortunate. I wish there was more coverage on the disenfranchised and poor here in NY instead of the media portrayals of the uber rich and sophisticated having lattes lounging in the coffee shops.

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