Caitlin Shetterly queries the myth of the American dream

December 1st, 2011 by Cathleen Miller

Today, I hosted my first book group as part of the Maine Women Write state-wide book club.
This morning I had the realization that I should be prepared to ask questions of the people who would join our book discussion group.  I thought of a few general questions I could ask to get the conversation started, but I felt pretty confident that author Caitlin Shetterly would help to generate discussion.  I never even had to do as much as try to recall my morning’s questions.

Caitlin began by playing her first audio “recession diary” for NPR.  You can listen to it here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102062255.  In it, she describes her husband’s desperate job search after all of his freelance jobs had been canceled.  She details the strategies they consider to stretch their dwindling money, and finally looks at the possibility of moving back home to Maine to live with one of her parents.

After we listened to this two year old dispatch from California, Caitlin described her reactions to hearing her husband’s pained voice, their struggle and demoralization.  She said she teared up while listening, and, to be honest, I did too.  There is something about the power of the story told out loud that cannot compare to the written word.  When you can hear someone’s anguish, they are that much closer to you, that much more a part of your own story.  When we read other people’s stories, too, it brings us into some kind of understanding and helps dissolve the walls of perceived difference.

Caitlin Shetterly by Lisa Bowe

What I felt reading Caitlin’s book was that this is a profoundly human story, and it is one opening into some kind of larger perspective on the reality of poverty and the fear that grips us when we experience food insecurity or the possibility of losing our housing.  I was happy to hear Caitlin herself say that she wanted her book Made for You and Me to be a beginning of a conversation.

To begin our book group conversation, Caitlin asked each of us what we thought of when we heard the phrase “The American Dream.”  What emerged were a very interesting set of responses:

  • hard work and perseverance would bring success (definitions of success varied)
  • a house with a white picket fence with a two-car garage
  • you could have the freedom to be and/or do anything you dreamed of
  • a person could go grow up in a small town in Maine and end up working at the L.A. Times
  • the American dream is a myth of consumerism
  • that it’s a load of crap

The reality of our privilege as North Americans was brought into focus when one participant reminded us that our ideas of poverty were so far from the sort of desolate existences that many people in the world experience as normal.  It is true that we cannot understand the type of suffering and poverty that exists as a fact of life in places like Somalia or India.  What is also true is that our society is completely structured around the ability to purchase what we need.  Over the past 50 years, Americans have been losing crucial skills that are essential to human survival.  We consistently rely upon packaged foods, pre-built furniture, clothes sewn in factories, and tools that are powered by electricity.  We have been taught to believe that this is progress.  We have few examples of people who live outside of the consumer economy.  Our poverty, it seems, is built on the concept of a financial system that requires us to participate or starve.  How many of us currently have friends or family who produce enough food to feed us if we were to lose everything?  How many of us know how to make seeds grow?

While the conversation about one family’s experience of the current economic downturn/recession/depression was powerful, what was more amazing was that in a room of no more than fifteen people, at least four had had to significantly change the ways that they were living in the world.  This economy is hurting so many people, and yet it is also bringing people closer to home.  The subtitle of Caitlin Shetterly’s book: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home is an accurate representation of what people in the room described of their own experiences.

The need to rely on other people is part of what makes us human, and the myth that we as rugged individuals can go out and make it on our own is crumbling before our very eyes.  At least some of us are moving back toward multi-generational living.  Many of us are rediscovering the joys and necessity of community.  We are finding sanity in the ways that struggle sometimes acts as the thread that connects us.  As Caitlin said toward the end of the discussion, this is hardly a tale of doom.

In one of her audio diaries (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104131481), Caitlin wrote, “Maybe that’s the real story here — that despite everything we lost, what we got in the end was a deeper sense of family. And that, actually, as we rebuild our lives, might really make us millionaires.”

This is, in fact, the story I took away from the discussion.  However you define family or community, it is these ties that keep us whole and allow us to make it through difficult times.  It is only when we are severed from a deep sense of connection with others (whether it be our family of origin or our chosen family of friends) that we suffer from true poverty.  By this definition, most of this very rich nation is suffering from extreme and desperate poverty.