Two American Families
Watch Frontline’s Two American Families, 23 years in the making, as soon as possible. Like all Frontline episodes, it is available in full and for free on the PBS website.
It is difficult to watch: At times I cried such that I could not speak. Why? Because Frontline could have filmed our family in Detroit, over the same period of time, and much of the story would have been the same.
There is the Neumann family in Wisconsin. Like my parents, they had children when times were good, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We now know that these were the very last days of decent wages for working class people in the U.S. It was so hard to watch the destruction of their family by the greed of almighty business and capitalism, which exists for absolutely nothing but profit.
Like my parents, Mr. and Mrs. Neumann eventually both have to work fulltime and have to work two different shifts. They never see each other and, not surprisingly, grow apart. If my mother had a job teaching ESL at night, Dad worked during the day. When Dad could only find work on nights, Mom worked during the day. My brother and I marveled that they stayed married as long as they did.
Like my brother and me, the Neumann children begin to develop behavioral issues without their parents around. This should surprise no one. My brother and I were hauled into child psychologists a few times over the years, but they said our behavior was essentially normal given the circumstances: lives uprooted, anxiety, depression, lack of safety or moorings.
And always, declining wages were my parents’ reward for killing themselves for a greedy employer. My dad makes less per hour now at age 62 than he did in the late 1970s, without benefits.
We see Mrs. Neumann needing food assistance from the church food pantry. If not for my grandparents bringing us groceries, we’d have been there too. It was plain, dumb luck that we had grandparents who were A) still alive, B) lived nearby, C) good enough to care to help AND D) had enough money to spare for our groceries. They also prevented my parents from losing our house. My grandparents were the only difference we had and it is one that the Neumanns did not.
I was three-years-old the first time I saw my grandparents come through our back door with groceries. It was, and still is, burned into my mind because it was so unusual. To this day, I can see the motion they make as the door pushes open, what they are wearing, what their glasses look like, how happy they are to see me standing there waiting for them. I ask “Grandma! Grandpa! Why do you have groceries?!” and my grandfather, setting them on the kitchen table before picking me up, says “We accidentally bought too many and they’ll go bad!” I knew, even then, that it wasn’t true, that my grandparents would never do such a thing, and that it meant things were bad – really bad. I knew this in a deep sense without really having the vocabulary to describe it. Simple dread, I guess.
To this day, I need to have a few pounds of dried black beans in the house to feel secure. I just need to be able to see them. I feel unreasonably anxious if we eat the black beans and I haven’t bought more yet, and there is no bag of beans. A good friend of mine is the same way with canned goods. She doesn’t even like them, really. She just needs to see some cans on the shelf. She suspects this is because, when she was little and both her parents had to start working, she was only sure she could feed herself if the food was in a can, because she knew how to open a can.
I want to find Keith Stanley and hug him: Keith, I decided long ago not to have children. Even though I’m married and 36 and we’re both employed, I am not so foolish as to take the chance. My brother, age 34, is the same way! My parents worked so hard to protect us, but there’s an inescapable fact when you’re a child in a family that just can’t seem to make it: you are one more mouth to feed and you know it. No matter how much you know you are loved, there’s the plain fact that you are one more mouth to feed and the financial side of life would be easier if you weren’t there. Besides, we have our parents to take care of. We can’t support ourselves and three aging parents AND some kids. Uh uh.
Keith Stanley, I thought I was the only one in college working three jobs and still having to make some tuition payments on a credit card! I thought I was all alone. I knew logically that I couldn’t be, but until I watched Two American Families I was so ashamed of it that I realized I had never (at age 36) told anyone that. I told my husband tonight and realized I’d never SAID it before.
Watch this program. You’re not alone and it’s not your fault.