By Mary Childers
Bloomsbury. 263 pp. $23.95
Now in her early fifties, Mary Childers lives in New Hampshire with her husband and, according to her publisher, "is a consultant who mediates conflict at colleges and universities and provides discrimination-prevention training for higher education and corporations." The town where she lives, Hanover, is picture-postcard New England pretty, and the college around which it revolves, Dartmouth, is one of the country's most distinguished and respected. Before going off on her own, she worked there in various capacities; she has a PhD in English literature and has held teaching and administrative positions at Brandeis, Vanderbilt, Villanova and Oberlin.
All in all an archetypal upper-middle-class life, you say, and you're right. But there's more to the story than teaching, conferences, panel discussions and academic politics -- the usual ingredients of life in contemporary academe. Childers got there by a route few of her colleagues and contemporaries could imagine. As a child and teenager she was, as she puts it in the title of this exceptional memoir, a "welfare brat," living with her mother and her many siblings in dangerous neighborhoods in the Bronx -- a hand-to-mouth existence funded by welfare payments and off-the-books jobs. Hers is a classic American success story, Horatio Alger's "Ragged Dick" come true, told here utterly without self-congratulation or sentimentality.
"I am," she says of herself as a kid, "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary." She'd "rather be truthful than polite, even if it makes people uncomfortable." Skinny, driven, independent, tough, suspicious, ambitious, impatient, wary: "My horizon is a desert populated by warning signs: Don't have babies; Avoid depending on anyone; Watch out for traps." A "spiteful streak colors my personality," and "I am capable of reckless, random insolence." The "facts of life," as she sees them, are merciless: "disappointment is the most likely outcome of commitment and the poor stay poor while the rich get richer."
It's the law of the Bronx, not of the jungle, but to all intents and purposes it's the same law. A hard life produces skepticism and bitterness. Childers has plenty of the former and, by her own testimony, has had more than a few flirtations with the latter. Yet her story is one of deep, resilient optimism, of believing that it is possible to pull yourself up and out by hard work, determination and smarts. Along the way, she had a bit of help from a few people who recognized her promise, but mainly she did it on her own, against odds -- and cultural expectations -- that were overwhelming.
The culture she describes assumes failure and disdains ambition: Her mother, with all the best of intentions, reinforced the lesson. "People who speak well and read widely may be admirable, but if you stand out, you'll be picked out. You're inviting trouble and loneliness when you distinguish yourself from your own by choosing to care about good grades, books, accents and magazine clothes. . . . Against my will, I've absorbed resentment and the nagging perception that my ambitions are disloyal, and, worse, punishable. . . . I live in a place where, for better and for worse, tender and tense togetherness matters more than individual accomplishment and effort."
That was the Bronx in the 1960s, a time when New York was undergoing traumatic change, the most severe effects of which were felt at the bottom of the ladder. The racial and ethnic character of the Bronx was in flux. Childers's family were among the few whites who remained while those who could afford to do so fled to Queens and Long Island, driven by fear of the blacks, Puerto Ricans and others who were moving in. Childers is no racist -- quite the contrary -- but the "rumble of trucks moving white people away from the neighborhood leaves me feeling as abandoned as when my father split." Tensions were high, and much higher after the riots and looting of 1968, yet Childers, ever gutsy and resourceful, figured out ways to navigate the streets, discovered that the newcomers were as capable of neighborliness and kindness as those they supplanted, and kept on moving up.
Though she wanted nothing so much as to get out of their cramped apartment by the time she turned 16, her family was the center of her universe:
"Intermittently Mom reminds us of the rules of the tribe. You can fight like cats and dogs with each other, but you'd better beat the [expletive] out of any outsider who tries to lay a hand on one of your own. Family always makes room for you at the table, even if there isn't enough food to go around. . . . No matter how energetically we jostle each other in our small space, like agitated molecules, we remember that family shields us from the world, which is a perilous place for girls and for poor people. Most of the time I tell myself that my family feels like a lifeline, not a prison sentence, but I always have one eye on the door."
The rock on which the family rests is her mother, but it's a shifting, unpredictable rock. As the memoir opens, Sandy Childers is well on her way to having seven children by four different men. She drinks and entertains strange men, few of them much more than bums. Then Mary's younger sister, Alice, is badly injured by "a car speeding through a stop sign." Sandy vows that "if Alice survived intact, [she] would cease drinking and whoring. She would return to the Catholic Church and resurrect herself as a good mother." Alice does recover, after seven hours of surgery and a protracted, difficult convalescence, and Sandy does reform. As the years pass, "it's getting easier to focus on how hard my mother tried instead of how often she failed." Yet her mother also serves as a negative example:
"Mom's always crying that welfare doesn't 'pay' enough, as if it's a job. She's losing her will to earn money and resents any reminder that other folks work hard to support people like us. Since no man has delivered on his part of the deal, sometimes her attitude toward the government is 'I made the babies; the Man should pay the bills.' Her withered face and bent body perhaps justify the way she sleeps through the morning even though she no longer drinks. But I can't come up with an excuse for the younger people in my neighborhood who party at night, ignore their kids during the day and treat welfare like a trust fund."
Childers emerged from her experience deeply aware of the shortcomings of the welfare system and the ways it is abused by some who are supported by it, but she also believes -- rightly -- that public aid for the poor is necessary and morally proper in a society whose rewards are distributed so unevenly and, often, so unfairly. She regrets that we have become a "society that rigidly conserves compassion" and is grateful that "I could develop from welfare brat to chip-on-the-shoulder chick to contributing, dissident citizen because I had the good luck to come of age when many people in the United States approved of a war on poverty rather than what Herbert J. Gans calls 'the war against the poor.' " Her own story is all the proof one could require that when society invests in people, it is society itself, not just those people, that benefits.