TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY

February 23, 2009

Outsiders looking in

Samantha Swindler


“Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

— Flannery O’Connor

The eyes of millions of viewers who tuned in or TiVoed Diane Sawyer’s 20/20 piece “A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains” were upon Appalachia last week. Undoubtedly, if you haven’t seen it, you’ve heard about it.

The responses were widespread and mixed. Some Kentuckians were disgusted and embarrassed, saying it perpetuated negative stereotypes.

Others said it showed a social problem the majority of Appalachians ignore.

The first time I watched it — I am, admittedly, a Mountain Dew drinker — I questioned the seemingly disproportionate amount of time spent on the evil of “Mountain Dew Mouth,” as if all the dental problems plaguing this area could be pigeonholed to simply an addiction to a particular brand of pop.

“Might as well blame Ale 8 and moon pies, too,” I thought.

This region has the highest rate of toothlessness in the country — Sawyer didn’t make that up. And after talking to the Barbourville dentist featured in the program, he said Mountain Dew drinkers make up 90 percent of his patients with severe decay.

Much can be made about the greater issues of health and diet — obesity, lack of exercise, environmental pollution, tobacco use, junk food in general. A more complete picture would have been painted if all these factors were considered rather than focusing on a single, seemingly benign consumer product and one, stereotypical health issue.

But it’s TV, and it has its limits.

The difficultly in doing a piece like Sawyer tackled is stereotyping and marginalizing problems when you’ve got less than a hour to work with. And while I think she did a good job portraying what life is like for the most unfortunate children of Appalachia, I would have liked to have seen not only a broader look at health problems, but a broader look at the vast differences in the region’s towns and rural areas.

Because, as we know, there are two very different Appalachias.

Last year I read the book “Creeker,” a memoir by Linda Scott DeRoiser who grew up in Two-Mile Creek, a place located between Paintsville and Inez which would be accurately described as a hollow (or “holler,” a term that is woefully missing from my AP style book.)

Opening the book is a Paintsville High School cheer: “Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar, send those creekers back up the holler.”

DeRoiser writes, “I want, at the outset, to differentiate between those Appalachians who grow up in the towns and those from rural areas — the creeks and the hollers. We tend to be lumped together by outsiders: demographers, bureaucrats who fund social programs, and academics who study the region. I would suggest to you that there is as much cultural difference between rural Appalachians and Appalachian townsfolk as between white folk and black folk who happen to live in the same city... The prototypical hillbilly stereotype, while exaggerating the profile of rural residents, is not at all representative of those Appalachians who were brought up in the cities and small towns of that region.”

That, perhaps, is what angered so many Tri-Countians.

The 20/20 footage didn’t show the towns of Appalachia, striving to preserve Main Street, promoting recycling, growing with local colleges, subdivisions and expo centers, and facing the issues of any American community.

It is possible to grow up in Appalachia and never experience any of the problems broadcast on 20/20.

And yet, I don’t think contrasting footage of the Union College campus with the slums just 16 miles away paints a prettier picture of Eastern Kentucky. It does, however, offer a better insight into its problems.

Why is there such a great divide? Why do we accept it as inevitable?

There’s a quote that I may mangle here, but the general point is, “a society will be judged by how it treats the least fortunate among them.” And if that is true, Appalachia will be judged by the folks in the mountains.

Because they are real people. Ask a social worker, teacher, sheriff’s deputy, court clerk or reporter. We’ve seen them.

How many of you Corbinites support foreign charities and decry the problems of inner cities, yet objected when media pointed out the problem in your own backyard?

Incest, pain pill addiction, meth use — it’s not uncommon. We print this kind of stuff daily in the Times-Tribune.

In a region plagued with health, education and economic problems, it hurts when an outsider, even a native Kentuckian like Sawyer, points out our flaws. (But, I would like to remind people that in 2007 she aired a piece called “Waiting on the World to Change” that focused on children living in poverty in major cities.)

Once we move past anger that our deepest embarrassments were broadcast to a nation, what are we going to do about it?

Can anything be changed?

Not only Appalachia, but America will be judged by how we help these children.

I’m not sure what I want to leave you with, so I’ll end with an entirely true story.

Recently, I spoke to two classes during career day at Barbourville High School. The students in the advanced class asked about my degree, the college I attended and the future of the newspaper industry. The students in the second class asked nothing but questions on whether I had covered certain court cases that involved their relatives or friends.

After my short Q&A;, a student who I’d never met and who’s name I don’t know, walked me back to the front office and asked if I remembered a particular abuse trial. She told me, quite matter-of-factly, but with a certain sadness, that she had been raped by a relative, but she had kept the baby.

Am I stereotyping?