The Forgotten Girls by Monica Potts review – addiction and escape in the Ozarks | Autobiography and memoir

When journalist Monica Potts came across multiple studies concluding that, over the past decade, the life expectancy of the least-educated white Americans showed the longest and most sustained decline in 100 years, she determined to investigate. The downward trend was most marked among women, and she could easily have become one of those statistics.

Potts grew up in Clinton, Arkansas, a rural, majority-white town in the Ozark mountains, where poverty and lack of educational opportunities combined with the pervasive culture of evangelical Christianity to steer girls into early marriage and motherhood. Addiction and domestic abuse were widespread, though rarely acknowledged or addressed. A 2015 study by Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton attributed the drop in life expectancy among poor middle-aged white people to increases in drug overdoses, suicides and complications from alcoholism: “a trio of ailments they called ‘deaths of despair’”. “Words like malaise and despair hint at stories that can’t be told with data and statistics,” Potts writes. So she returned to Clinton, “with its ageing, shrinking population, governed by a small group of people who worshipped at the same churches as their parents and who had knit around themselves an ever thicker and tighter web of personal and political self-deceits”, in search of the women behind the statistics.

One male science teacher tells the girls in his class that women have an extra layer of body fat so they can tolerate hot dishwater

“It turned out, though, that I was looking for only one person.” Darci Brawner, the author’s closest friend from high school, was, like Potts, a straight-A student and talented athlete. As young teens they dreamed together of getting out, pointing to random places on the map and imagining alternative lives. Darci set her heart on California. But she never left Clinton. Potts finds her living in the trailer of a man she hardly knows, addicted to meth and opiates, a single mother who is frequently homeless and has served time in prison. The Forgotten Girls is Potts’s attempt to retrace their paths and work out where they parted ways.

Memoirs of hard-graft childhoods are not the ubiquitous genre they were a decade or so ago, though the success of accounts such as Tara Westover’s Educated show that there is still an appetite for a glimpse into lives that can seem at once alien and potentially all too close. Potts remains to one side of the picture in her own book; this is not so much the story of her personal triumph over the odds, but how so many other promising young women, such as Darci, were blocked from following a similar path. With access to her own and Darci’s teenage journals, as well as interviews with adults of her parents’ generation, she pieces together a picture of low expectations, lack of concern and regressive attitudes to women. One male science teacher tells the girls in his class that women have an extra layer of body fat so they can tolerate hot dishwater.

Monica Potts.Pin
The one who got away… Monica Potts.

Potts’s findings are depressing, though perhaps more nuanced than expected. Education is viewed as the way out of generational cycles of poverty and unemployment, but low-income students from rural areas are not routinely given the information or support that would point them to top universities (Potts discovers that she is eligible for financial aid largely through her own initiative). Those who do get out rarely return, resulting in a “rural brain drain”. Early marriage and motherhood are often seen by girls not as traps but as achievements, until they know better.

The Forgotten Girls is written without sentimentality, but it is elegiac all the same: a lament for lost opportunities and wasted lives; a controlled expression of rage at a system that continues to fail so many even as it exploits their despair. “Places like my home town are still romanticised as the American heartland, but the reality of life in those towns drifts further from that idyll every year,” she concludes. “If we don’t reckon with this disparity, rural America won’t be able to break out of the cycle of despair.”

The Forgotten Girls: An American Story by Monica Potts is published by Allen Lane (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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