I am bone of the bone of them that live in trailer homes. I grew up next to Tiffany ‘Pennsatucky’ Doggett, the hostile former drug addict from the prison TV drama Orange Is the New Black. I know her by her teeth.
Pennsatucky – a scrappy slip of a woman menacing, beating and proselytising to fellow inmates – stole the show during the first season of the Netflix prison series. But amid an ensemble cast of similarly riveting, dangerous characters, it was her grey, jagged teeth that shocked viewers into repulsed fixation. She was the villain among villains, a monster that fans loved to hate; ‘Pennsatucky teeth’ became a pejorative in social media.
Actress Taryn Manning’s gnarly, prosthetic teeth startled viewers because, by and large, poor characters in TV and film are played by actors whose whitened, straightened, veneered smiles aren’t covered up. It’s hard to think of characters besides Pennsatucky through whom heinous teeth convey rather than lampoon the physicality of the poor. The first that comes to mind is the derelict serial killer in a movie actually called Monster (2003); as with Manning, Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning transformation generated astonishment with fake teeth.
In my life, Pennsatucky and her teeth are entirely familiar. She’s the slurring aunt who passed out in our farm’s swimming pool while babysitting me, and later stole my mom’s wedding band to buy the drugs that dug grooves in her cheeks. She’s the step-parent whose brain, organs and teeth corroded over the years and now lives in a mobile-home park with my construction-worker dad.
But Pennsatucky’s teeth aren’t just ‘meth teeth.’ They are the teeth of poor folk, of the young grandma who helped to raise me and for decades worked from diner to factory line to a desk job as a probation officer for the county court system in Wichita, Kansas. She was just 35 when I was born, so I knew her as a radiant thing; at the downtown courthouse, where I tagged along – babysitters are expensive – attorneys turned flirtatious near her green eyes, long limbs and shiny, natural-blonde bob. Then at night, in her farmhouse or the tiny brick house we fixed up in a rough Wichita neighbourhood, I watched her take out her teeth, scrub them with a rough brush, and drop them into a cup of water with a fizzy tablet.
‘Brush your teeth and don’t eat too much candy,’ she’d tell me. ‘You don’t want to end up like Grandma.’ She’d widen her eyes and pop her dentures forward so that they bulged from her lips, sending me giggling. In the early 1970s, a dentist had pried every one of her teeth, too far gone or too expensive to save, from her 20-something skull. She’s 69 now and has worn false teeth for more than 40 years.
‘I had bad teeth all my life. They were straight and looked OK, but I always had toothaches,’ she tells me when I ask how she ended up with dentures. As I was growing up, the story fluctuated – she was in a car accident, her natural teeth just fell out, and so on. ‘I was excited to have them, knowing I would never have another toothache. Now I think it was pretty stupid, but at the time it was really painful, and I thought I was doing the right thing.’
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More than 126 million people in the US – nearly half the population – had no dental coverage in 2012, according to the US National Association of Dental Plans. In 2007, the New York State Dental Journal reported that while only one-tenth of general physician costs were paid out of pocket, nearly half of all dental costs were settled directly by patients. This reflects spending by the uninsured but also those sharing costs with coverage providers; most plans cover routine cleanings but leave patients to pay for 20 to 50 per cent of fillings, crowns and other big-ticket visits. For those who can’t afford to pay that difference, treatment is delayed and teeth continue to degrade.
But expense isn’t the only barrier to dental care. Those on Medicaid find that few dentists participate in the programme due to its low payout. And more than 45 million people in the US live in areas, often rural or impoverished, with dentist shortages, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. Medicare, as a general rule, doesn’t include dental.
In the past year, the Affordable Care Act, or ‘ObamaCare’, has changed many lives for the better – mine included. But its omission of dental coverage, a result of political compromise, is a dangerous, absurd compartmentalisation of health care, as though teeth are apart from and less important than the rest of the body.
it wasn’t sugar that guided our dental fates. And it wasn’t meth. It was lack of insurance, lack of knowledge, lack of good nutrition
About a decade ago, at the age of 50, my dad almost died when infection from an abscessed tooth poisoned his blood and nearly stopped his heart. He has never had dental insurance and has seen a dentist only a handful of times when some malady became unbearable. In 2009, according to the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, dental issues caused about 936,000 emergency-room visits and almost 13,000 inpatient hospital stays. Many of these patients had low incomes and dental coverage that restricted care to emergencies or wasn’t accepted by accessible dentists.
‘I notice people’s teeth because mine are so bad,’ Dad tells me during a break from a side job renovating a fraternity house. He has long been the handsome object of crushes, but his teeth have become increasingly askew with time, one of his eye teeth now ragged and long like a rabbit’s for lack of a carrot to file it down. ‘Nutrition affects teeth, right?’
I point out that Gatorade, which he favours when he splurges on a bottled beverage, is full of sugar. But it wasn’t sugar, heaps of which are sucked down daily by the middle and upper classes, that guided his and my grandma’s dental fates. And it wasn’t meth. It was lack of insurance, lack of knowledge, lack of good nutrition – poverties into which much of the country was born.
My family’s distress over our teeth – what food might hurt or save them, whether having them pulled was a mistake – reveals the psychological hell of having poor teeth in a rich, capitalist country: the underprivileged are priced out of the dental-treatment system yet perversely held responsible for their dental condition. It’s a familiar trick in the privatisation-happy US – like, say, underfunding public education and then criticising the institution for struggling. Often, bad teeth are blamed solely on the habits and choices of their owners, and for the poor therein lies an undue shaming.
‘Don’t get fooled by those mangled teeth she sports on camera!’ says the ABC News host introducing the woman who plays Pennsatucky. ‘Taryn Manning is one beautiful and talented actress.’ This suggestion that bad teeth and talent, in particular, are mutually exclusive betrays our broad, unexamined bigotry toward those long known, tellingly, as ‘white trash.’ It’s become less acceptable in recent decades to make racist or sexist statements, but blatant classism generally goes unchecked. See the hugely successful blog People of Walmart that, through submitted photographs, viciously ridicules people who look like contemporary US poverty: the elastic waistbands and jutting stomachs of diabetic obesity, the wheelchairs and oxygen tanks of gout and emphysema.
Upper-class supremacy is nothing new. A hundred years ago, the US Eugenics Records Office not only targeted racial minorities but ‘sought to demonstrate scientifically that large numbers of rural poor whites were genetic defectives,’ as the sociologist Matt Wray explains in his book Not Quite White:White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness (2006). The historian and civil rights activist W E B du Bois, an African American, wrote in his autobiography Dusk of Dawn (1940) that, growing up in Massachusetts in the 1870s, ‘the racial angle was more clearly defined against the Irish than against me. It was a matter of income and ancestry more than colour.’ Martin Luther King, Jr made similar observations and was organising a poor-people’s march on Washington at the time of his murder in 1968.
Such marginalisation can make you either demonise the system that shuns you or spurn it as something you never needed anyway. When I was a kid and no one in the family had medical or dental insurance, Dad pointed out that those industries were criminal – a sweeping analysis that, whether accurate or not, suggested we were too principled to support the racket rather than too poor to afford it.
My baby teeth were straight and white, and I wasn’t obese – an epidemic among poor kids that hadn’t yet taken hold in the 1980s – but I had plenty of ‘tells’: crooked bangs, trimmed at home with sewing shears; a paper grocery sack carrying my supplies on the first day of school while other kids wore unicorn backpacks; a near-constant case of ringworm infection (I kept a jar of ointment on my nightstand year-round); the smell of cigarette smoke on my clothes, just as cigarettes were falling out of favour with the middle and upper classes; sometimes, ill-fitting clothes, as when the second-grade teacher I revered looked at my older cousin’s shirt sagging off my shoulder and said: ‘Tell your mother to send you to school in clothes that fit you.’ In fifth grade, a girl noticed my generic, plastic-smelling, too-pointy boots – a Kmart version of the black leather lace-ups that were in fashion – and for weeks hounded me before and after school, kicking dirt on my shins and calling me Pippi Longstocking.
I had moments of cool clothes and good haircuts, too, and I was a confident child who earned friends and accolades. But I still think of the boy who handed me a dessert cup from his lunch box every day when a mix-up in the free-lunch programme left me without a meal card for months.
He pulled from my skull the greyed tooth, cracked perfectly down the middle
Common throughout those years was a pulsing throb in my gums, a shock wave up a root when biting down, a headache that agitated me in classrooms. While they looked OK, my baby teeth were cavity-ridden. Maybe it was the soy formula in my bottle when they were growing in, or the sugary cereals to which my brain later turned for dopamine production in a difficult home. Maybe it was because our water supply, whether from a rural well or the Wichita municipal system, wasn’t fluoridated. But richer teeth faced the same challenges. The primary reason my mouth hurt was lack of money.
Once, around third grade, an upper molar that had menaced beyond all – the worst toothache I ever had – finally rotted so thoroughly that it cracked in half while still in my jaw. Mom took me to the dentist, somehow. The pain was tremendous, he explained, because the pulpy nerve at the tooth’s centre was exposed. He pulled from my skull the greyed tooth, cracked perfectly down the middle, and let me take it home. For years, I kept the two pieces in a tiny jewellery box, sometimes taking them out and joining them like interlocking sides of the heart-shaped friendship necklaces I coveted.
Around that time, I had my jaw X-rayed for the first time. The results were grim.
‘You might as well start saving for braces right now,’ my mom recalls the dentist saying. We were at the outset of a post-divorce period that would include much moving and a slew of partial-coverage dental insurance plans: employer-based, which would be cancelled with Mom’s regular job switches, and variations on state-funded, poor-kid programmes in between. Each time the policy changed, Mom had to find a new dentist who would accept our coverage. Then we’d ride out a waiting period before scheduling a cleaning or filling. My dental records were often lost in this shuffle, as was the case with my general health files in doctors’ offices and school districts – I got a new round of shots just about every year for lack of immunisation records on file.
There would, of course, be no saving for braces.
It took years to find out whether the X-raying dentist’s pessimistic prediction would come true. My baby teeth were slow to fall out, their replacements slow to grow in. But at some point came the unequivocal, surprising verdict: my teeth grew in straight.
I don’t just mean straight enough. I mean 99th-percentile straight. I mean dentists call hygienists over to take a look.
‘Doesn’t she have pretty teeth?’ they say, my mouth under hot lamps. ‘Are you sure you didn’t have braces? But you whiten them, right?’
I shake my head no and in the dentist’s chair tingle with the bliss of gratitude. That my environment and genes somehow conspired to shake out a bright, orderly smile is a blessing I can’t explain. But I can tell you what preserved the blessing: me.
When a health teacher said brush your teeth twice a day, I brushed my teeth twice a day. When a TV commercial imparted that dentists recommend flossing daily, I flossed daily. A college room-mate once remarked on the fervour of my dental regimen. After boozy nights, when other kids were passing out, I held on, stumbled to the bathroom and squeezed paste onto a brush. However tired, however drunk, I scrubbed every side of every tooth, uncoiled a waxed string and threaded it into sacred spaces.
Privileged America judges harshly the mouths that chew orange Doritos, drink yellow Mountain Dew, breathe with a sawdust rattle
Poor teeth, I knew, beget not just shame but more poorness: people with bad teeth have a harder time getting jobs and other opportunities. People without jobs are poor. Poor people can’t access dentistry – and so goes the cycle.
If Pennsatucky ever gets out of poverty, it will be thanks in part to a prison-yard fight in the season-one finale, when the upper-class protagonist knocks out her nasty grill; early in the second season, her rotten gums nearly toothless, she blackmails the warden into a new set of teeth. Upon incarceration, Pennsatucky traded meth for ‘born-again’ religious fanaticism, but her new teeth are a harbinger of a more substantive rebirth. If the eyes are the soul’s windows, its door is the mouth – the fence across which pass food, drink, words, our very breath.
Privileged America, ever striving for organic purity, judges harshly the mouths that chew orange Doritos, drink yellow Mountain Dew, breathe with a sawdust rattle, carry a lower lip’s worth of brown chaw, use dirty words and bad grammar. When Pennsatucky gets out of prison, she’ll need respect, rehabilitation, employment. To that end, for all her praying and testifying, Pennsatucky’s pearly gates might be her pearly, albeit prosthetic, whites. She cries with joy in a prison van on the way to get them, and later shows off with an over-the-top smile during laundry duty.
‘You’re acting a little, like, retarded,’ an envious inmate tells her.
‘I’m not retarded,’ she says. ‘I got new teeth!’
When I was a young adult, I learnt I’d been born without wisdom teeth. The dentist told me I was ‘evolutionarily advanced’ since human beings, no longer in the business of tearing raw flesh from mastodon bones, don’t need so many teeth now. So many TV shows, bad jokes and bucktoothed hillbilly costumes in Halloween aisles had suggested that my place of origin made me ‘backwards’, primitive and uncivilised, that the dentist’s comment struck me deeply, just as in fourth grade when I read the word ‘genius’ in a school psychologist’s evaluation notes to my mother and wept on the sidewalk.
Having straddled a class divide and been wrongly stereotyped on both sides of it, throughout my life I’ve found peace in the places and things that don’t evaluate my status: nature, animals, art, books. ‘I sit with Shakespeare,’ wrote du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), ‘and he winces not.’ Social disadvantage and hazard engender what he called ‘double consciousness’, the ever-present awareness of more than one self. For du Bois, his most challenging two-ness in the wake of slavery was to be educated and black – a tension of socialisation still at work, to be sure, as President Barack Obama’s raw first memoir attests. Today, for me and millions of people in the US living on one side of a historic income gap, the defining double consciousness is to be educated and poor.
The latter, for many of those who suffered losses after the economic collapse of 2008, is a terrifying new identity, its horror projected on to Pennsatucky’s serrated mouth and hard to reconcile with the Americans they thought they were. But in my academic and professional ‘climbing’, I learnt early and often that one doesn’t leave a place, class or culture and enter another, but rather holds the privilege and burden of many narratives simultaneously.
Friends who know my background sometimes kid me when I’m drunk and misconjugate a verb or slip into a drawl, or when, thoroughly sober, I reveal a gross blind spot in the realm of book-learning (if, say, the question involves whatever one learns in sixth grade, most of which I spent playing in red dirt outside a two-room schoolhouse near the Oklahoma state line). They smile at the pleasure I take in scoring solid furniture from yard sales or, once, for expressing delight over a tiny cast-iron skillet, a miniature version of the pan my grandma once used to fight a drunken stepfather off her mother. I enjoy the kidding and feel appreciated when they recognise the true clichés that weave my story.
But here’s the thing: wealthy people use cast-iron skillets and bad grammar, too. It’s just not their narrative and thus passes without remark. I’ve observed fellow journalists, the same ones who made trailer-park tornado survivors famous for a loose grip on the past participle, edit dumb-sounding quotes by city commissioners to suit the speaker’s stature. And while I took the education I wasn’t given through libraries, encyclopedias and my former stepfather’s New Yorker subscription, plenty of members of the middle and upper classes refuse or lack the ability to seize the opportunities handed them. It can be useful to acknowledge the cultural forces that carve us, or edifying to indulge in the tropes of our assigned narratives, but true distinctions of character, intelligence, talent and skill exist at the level of the individual, not of the class – or the ethnicity, the gender, the sexual orientation, the religion and so on. To claim otherwise, as we’ve discovered across time and countless persecutions of our own doing, is at best an insult and at worst an excuse for enslavement and genocide.
the liberal proponents of Occupy Wall Street are often the same people who think Southerners are inbred and Walmart shoppers slovenly miscreants
In Thomas Harris’s best-selling crime-novel series, the FBI consults the imprisoned serial killer and mastermind psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter in its search for ‘the Tooth Fairy’, a family-slayer who bites his victims with dentures made from a mould of his grandmother’s distorted, razor-sharp teeth. Years after that manhunt, the FBI again turns to Lecter for help; this time, the refined sociopath – a former philharmonic orchestra board member and mannerly purveyor of his victims’ flesh – finds it more interesting to analyse the agent than the latest case.
‘You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes?’ he asks the young agent Clarice Starling – who comes from the same place as Pennsatucky but whose intellect, health, grit and ambition, presumably, landed her on the right side of the prison bars. ‘You look like a rube. A well-scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Good nutrition’s given you some length of bone, but you’re not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling? And that accent you’ve tried so desperately to shed: pure West Virginia. What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner?’
Lecter’s condescending soliloquy from a cell decorated with sketches of the Duomo cathedral in Florence – a place Starling surely hadn’t heard of when she left her family sheep farm for the FBI Academy at Quantico – hits home but doesn’t derail her. His most famous line – the aggressive posturing about fava beans and good Italian wine – happens when Starling sends a psychological evaluation through the glass and tells him to look at his damn self. We should do the same in the US, where the liberal proponents of Occupy Wall Street are often the same people who think Southerners are inbred and Walmart shoppers slovenly miscreants with no social awareness.
A century ago, du Bois wrote: ‘The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line.’ The problem of the 21st century is that of the class line. For the American Dream to put its money where its mouth is, we need not just laws ensuring, say, universal dental care, but individual awareness of the judgments we pass on people whose teeth – or clothes, waist lines, grocery carts, or limps – represent our worst nightmares.
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is a journalist covering class in America. Her book In the Red, on the working poor and her upbringing in rural Kansas, is forthcoming from Scribner.
There’s a certain kind of personal essay that, for a long time, everybody seemed to hate. These essays were mostly written by women. They came off as unseemly, the writer’s judgment as flawed. They were too personal: the topics seemed insignificant, or else too important to be aired for an audience of strangers. The essays that drew the most attention tended to fall within certain categories. There were the one-off body-horror pieces, such as “My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina,” published by xoJane, or a notorious lost-tampon chronicle published by Jezebel. There were essays that incited outrage for the life styles they described, like the one about pretending to live in the Victorian era, or Cat Marnell’s oeuvre. There were those that incited outrage by giving voice to horrible, uncharitable thoughts, like “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing” (xoJane again) and “I’m Not Going to Pretend I’m Poor to Be Accepted by You” (Thought Catalog). Finally, there were those essays that directed outrage at society by describing incidents of sexism, abuse, or rape.
These essays began to proliferate several years ago—precisely when is hard to say, but we can, I think, date the beginning of the boom to 2008, the year that Emily Gould wrote a first-person cover story, called “Exposed,” for the Times Magazine, which was about, as the tagline put it, what she gained and lost from writing about her intimate life on the Web. Blowback followed, and so did an endless supply of imitations. By September, 2015, online first-person writing was so abundant that Laura Bennett, at Slate, could refer to a “first-person industrial complex” in a takedown of the genre. “Every site seems to have a first person vertical and a first-person editor,” Bennett, who also cited Gould’s Times story as a turning point, wrote. One could “take a safari” through various personal-essay habitats—Gawker, Jezebel, xoJane, Salon, BuzzFeed Ideas—and conclude that they were more or less the same, she argued. While she granted that not all first-person writing on the Internet was undignified, there were far too many “solo acts of sensational disclosure” that read like “reverse-engineered headlines.”
The market, in Bennett’s view, had overinflated. She was right: a year and a half later, it barely exists. BuzzFeed Ideas shut down at the end of 2015, Gawker and xoJane in 2016; Salon no longer has a personal-essays editor. Jezebel, where I used to work, doesn’t run personal essays at its former frequency—its editor-in-chief, Emma Carmichael, told me that she scarcely receives pitches for them anymore. Indie sites known for cultivating first-person writing—the Toast, the Awl, the Hairpin—have shut down or changed direction. Thought Catalog chugs along, but it seems to have lost its ability to rile up outside readers. Of course, The New Yorker and other magazines continue to publish memoir of various kinds. Just this week, The Atlantic published a first-person cover story by Alex Tizon, with the provocative headline “My Family’s Slave.” But there’s a specific sort of ultra-confessional essay, written by a person you’ve never heard of and published online, that flourished until recently and now hardly registers. The change has happened quietly, but it’s a big one: a genre that partially defined the last decade of the Internet has essentially disappeared.
What happened? To answer that, it helps to consider what gave rise to the personal essay’s ubiquity in the first place. Around 2008, several factors converged. In preceding years, private blogs and social platforms—LiveJournal, Blogspot, Facebook—trained people to write about their personal lives at length and in public. As Silvia Killingsworth, who was previously the managing editor of The New Yorker and took over the Awl and the Hairpin last year, put it to me, “People love to talk about themselves, and they were given a platform and no rules.” Then the invisible hand of the page-view economy gave them a push: Web sites generated ad revenue in direct proportion to how many “eyeballs” could be attracted to their offerings, and editorial budgets had contracted in the wake of the recession. The forms that became increasingly common—flashy personal essays, op-eds, and news aggregation—were those that could attract viral audiences on the cheap.
Sarah Hepola, who worked as Salon’s personal-essay editor, described the situation to me in an e-mail. “The boom in personal essays—at Salon, at least, but I suspect other places—was in part a response to an online climate where more content was needed at the exact moment budgets were being slashed.” When I worked as an editor at the Hairpin and Jezebel, from 2013 to 2016, I saw up close how friendly editors and ready audiences could implicitly encourage writers to submit these pieces in droves. For the first two years that I edited personal essays, I received at least a hundred first-person pitches and pieces each week.
But an ad-based publishing model built around maximizing page views quickly and cheaply creates uncomfortable incentives for writers, editors, and readers alike. Attention flows naturally to the outrageous, the harrowing, the intimate, and the recognizable, and the online personal essay began to harden into a form defined by identity and adversity—not in spite of how tricky it is to negotiate those matters in front of a crowd but precisely because of that fact. The commodification of personal experience was also women’s territory: the small budgets of popular women-focussed Web sites, and the rapidly changing conventions and constrictions surrounding women’s lives, insured it. And so many women wrote about the most difficult things that had ever happened to them and received not much in return. Most sites paid a few hundred dollars for such pieces at most; xoJane paid fifty dollars. When I began writing on the Internet, I wrote personal essays for free.
For some writers, these essays led to better-paying work. But for many the thrill of reaching an audience had to suffice. And placing a delicate part of your life in the hands of strangers didn’t always turn out to be so thrilling. Personal essays cry out for identification and connection; what their authors often got was distancing and shame. Bennett pegged her Slate piece to an essay that Carmichael and I edited at Jezebel, written by a woman who had met her father for the first time as a teen-ager and engaged, under emotional coercion, in a brief sexual relationship with him. Bennett deemed the personal-essay economy a “dangerous force for the people who participate in it.”
By that point, writers, editors, and readers had become suspicious of one another, and the factors that produced the personal-essay boom had started to give way. Some of the online publishers that survive have shifted to video and sponsored posts and Facebook partnerships to shore up revenue. Aggregation and op-eds—the infamous, abundant takes—continue to thrive, although the takes have perhaps cooled a bit. Personal essays have evidently been deemed not worth the trouble. Even those of us who like the genre aren’t generally mourning its sudden disappearance from the mainstream of the Internet. “First-person writing should not be cheap, and it should not be written or edited quickly,” Gould wrote to me. “And it should be published in a way that protects writers rather than hanging them out to dry on the most-emailed list.”
There are still a few outlets that cultivate a more subtle and sober iteration of this kind of first-person writing, some of them connected to book publishing. There’s Hazlitt, launched by Random House Canada, and Lenny Letter, which now has a publishing imprint, and Catapult, which describes itself as a book publisher with a daily online magazine. (The managing editor of Catapult is Nicole Chung, who previously worked for the Toast.) But the genre’s biggest migration has been to TinyLetter, an e-mail newsletter platform. Gould, who writes a newsletter called Can’t Complain, suggested that TinyLetters are doing what personal blogs did fifteen years ago: allowing writers to work on their own terms and reach “small readerships in an intimate, private-feeling, still public enough way.” Carrie Frye, formerly the managing editor of the Awl, also has a TinyLetter. She told me that it seemed like “writers—particularly female writers—had said, ‘O.K., I’m going to make an Internet on which my essays go out in pneumatic tubes to just who I want them to go to, and no one else.’ ”
It’s clear, in any case, that the personal-essay boom is over. If it had already peaked by the time Bennett wrote about it, in the fall of 2015, we can locate its hard endpoint about a year later, in November of last year. After the Presidential election, many favored personal-essay subjects—relationships, self-image, intimate struggle—seemed to hit a new low in broader social relevance. “I feel like the 2016 election was a reckoning for journalism,” Hepola wrote to me. “We missed the story. Part of why we missed it might have been this over-reliance on ‘how I feel about the day’s news’—and now the journalism world recognizes that we need to re-invest in reporting.” Killingsworth echoed this, talking about her work at the Awl and the Hairpin: “I want to encourage people to talk about mostly anything other than themselves.”
There’s been a broader shift in attitudes about this sort of writing, which always endured plenty of vitriol. Put simply, the personal is no longer political in quite the same way that it was. Many profiles of Trump voters positioned personal stories as explanations for a terrible collective act; meanwhile, Clinton’s purported reliance on identity politics has been heavily criticized. Individual perspectives do not, at the moment, seem like a trustworthy way to get to the bottom of a subject. (Even Tizon’s piece, which was published posthumously and uses his damning closeness to his subject as a way to elucidate the otherwise invisible captivities of the Filipino katulong servant class, prompted an immediate backlash—which then prompted a backlash to the backlash, mainly among those who think Western readers have misunderstood Tizon’s understanding of his own position.) Writers seem less interested in mustering their own centrality than they were, and readers seem less excited at the prospect of being irritated by individual civilian personalities. “The political landscape has been so phantasmagoric that even the most sensationally interesting personal essays have lost some currency when not tied head-on to the news,” Bennett said in an e-mail. “There just hasn’t been much oxygen left for the kinds of essays that feel marginal or navel-gazey.” These days, she tends to see pitches “that center on systemic rather than personal trauma,” she added, “or on orienting personal trauma in our berserk new reality.”
No more lost-tampon essays, in other words, in the age of Donald Trump. And yet I find myself missing aspects of the personal-essay Internet that the flashiest examples tended to obscure. I still think of the form as a valuable on-ramp, an immediate and vivid indication of a writer’s instincts—one that is accessible to first-time writers and young people who haven’t developed experience or connections. The Internet made the personal essay worse, as it does for most things. But I am moved by the negotiation of vulnerability. I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason. I loved watching people try to figure out if they had something to say.