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White women in rural America are dying. This memoir examines why

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Two best friends start with the same dream, but grow up to live very different lives. It's the story at the heart of a new memoir about getting out of a small town and the crushing pressures to stay in it. The book is "The Forgotten Girls: A Memoir Of Friendship And Lost Promise In Rural America." It was written by Monica Potts, a journalist who grew up in Clinton, Ark. Monica, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MONICA POTTS: Thank you for having me.

DETROW: So you're the one who, you know, as it were, got out. You went to college, and we'll talk about that in a bit. But let's start with this - your friend Darci didn't. Tell us about Darci, and tell us about when the two of you were really young, the type of dreams you shared.

POTTS: Yeah, Darci and I met when we were really young, like, 5 or 6. And from that moment on, we were almost sisters. We grew up in a small town in the Ozark Mountains - as you said, Clinton, Ark. It's only about 2,500 people, so it's just a really small town. It's a strong evangelical community. When we were little, she used to be at my house a lot, and we would look through an old atlas and dream about getting away when we were older to a big place. We thought towns with bold names in the atlas must be more like real towns like we saw on TV with neighborhoods and sidewalks. And we would love to live there and play there with other kids our age. And later, when we were older, we dreamed about going to concerts in towns like that and listening to bands that we liked instead of the country music that we heard everywhere. So we had a dream of going to California. That was our ambition when we were little.

DETROW: Just focusing in on that marriage message, you also write about the hypocrisy and the confusion about, your life is about getting married; your life is about finding a husband; your life is about having children. And yet if you have sex before marriage and if you get pregnant, that's a terrible, terrible decision - and just trying to make sense of all of these conflicting messages as a teenager.

POTTS: Yeah. Well, it's a terrible, terrible decision, but the path to redemption is through the church. So you can sort of make amends with the community as long as you sort of adopt this worldview or really sort of set yourself right by the church in this way.

DETROW: At the expense of your education in many examples, right? You were...

POTTS: Yeah.

DETROW: You write about people dropping out of high school their sophomore or junior year, even, and getting married once they become pregnant.

POTTS: At the expense of your education, at the expense of whatever else you might have wanted for your life. Your life then becomes about being a mother, and everything else that you might have wanted becomes subsumed by that.

DETROW: So you go to college. You begin a career as a journalist. Darci drops out of college relatively early. She stays in and around Clinton. She's in a series of abusive relationships. She has drug problems. But you ultimately reconnected as an adult. Tell us about that.

POTTS: Well, as it happened, I was working as a journalist for a magazine called The American Prospect in Washington, D.C. And I had started to read a series of studies about particularly white women with the least amounts of education - were losing years of life expectancy compared to the generation before. So that felt very personal to me. I felt that I knew the kind of women that were being represented in those studies. That group of women were similar to the girls that I had grown up with, and I wanted to come home and see if I could report out what was happening in places like Clinton and places like rural Arkansas and across rural America.

While I was here in April 2015, Darci reached out to me for the first time in years by that point and said she wanted to reconnect and get in touch. And we met up, and we started talking, and I told her what I was doing here. She had told me a little bit about her life, and I had heard pieces of it over the years. I told her what I was working on, what I was reporting on, and the kind of book I wanted to potentially write, about what was happening to women in places like Clinton. And she just kind of said, well, maybe you should just write about me. And from there we started to talk more about her life.

DETROW: Yeah.

POTTS: And we spent a lot of time together over the next few years.

DETROW: And she really struggled in those interactions with you. You talk about driving her to court hearings after she gets herself in trouble time and time again.

POTTS: Yeah. It was really up and down, and it was often painful to watch, and it was often hard to live. But she thought at the time that if her story might help other people, then it would be worth it. And that was part of her motivation for wanting to talk to me about this. And it was also part of my motivation for writing the book. Darci's struggles were deep and long. They had come from long-ago traumas, long-ago issues that had never been resolved. And I'm happy to say she's doing a lot better now.

DETROW: And what do you think the big picture lessons are? What is it about Darci's struggles that you think are emblematic of the broader problems right now in rural America especially for younger women?

POTTS: You know, I've spent about five years trying to think about this and trying to answer some of these questions. And I would say that one of the things happening in rural America, especially at least my part of rural America and places like it, is this perception of scarcity. I think it's easy for people here to believe that they've been forgotten, that there's no help for them, that there's no options outside of what they know and what's familiar to them, that life outside of the church and motherhood and marriage for girls is, you know, a path that can be taken. They're just not connected to those options. And so I think the first place to start would be to think about expanding those worlds and connecting people to the broader world a little bit better and giving people the freedom to become who they are and who they need to be.

DETROW: How would you describe Clinton today?

POTTS: It's pretty much the same. It's not much bigger. There's a downtown courthouse square around a beautiful old courthouse with native stone siding. I actually really love the downtown. A lot of the storefronts are still empty. But more recently, since COVID, a few stores have come in there. But it's still pretty small, and it's still pretty reliant on just a few outside industries. It's not very affluent. And it has a lot of problems, and it has a lot of struggles.

DETROW: It has a lot of problems and struggles. And yet over the time period where you began reporting this book and writing this book, you made a decision to move back there yourself. Why?

POTTS: I did. There's a moment when I started to come home in my mid-30s, I would say, that I just realized how beautiful this place was to me, that it's probably not objectively the most beautiful place on Earth. But it's my home. I have really deep roots here. My mother is still here. My sister and my dad are buried here. It's where my grandfather bought back land from the bank after they had lost it during the Great Depression. You can't really pick where you're from. Home is home, and I never really quite settled down elsewhere. And there are things about this place I love - the wildness, the mountains, the rivers, some of the culture. And I felt I needed to sort of close the loop on some of those things before I could move on with my adulthood and experience this place anew and with fresh adult eyes.

DETROW: Well, that's Monica Potts speaking to us from her home in Clinton, Ark. Her new book is "The Forgotten Girls." Thanks so much for talking to us.

POTTS: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARADE SONG, "SING TO ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
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