Tightrope: A Powerful But Problematic Deaths-of-Despair Narrative

March 4, 2020

Through the 1970s, Nicholas Kristof rode the Number 6 bus to school with Donna King, the Knapp’s five children, and a gaggle of other little boys and girls attending Yamhill Grade School and Yamhill Carlton High School in small-town Oregon.

“The kids on the bus as it careered toward Yamhill each morning were sure that their world would be better their parents’ had been,” the veteran New York Times journalist writes with Sheryl WuDunn in their bestseller Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope (Knopf, January 2020). “Yet those kids ended up riding into a cataclysm, as working-class communities disintegrated, felled by lost jobs, broken families and despair.”

“About one-fourth of the kids who rode with Nick on the bus are dead from drugs, suicide, alcohol, obesity, reckless accidents and other pathologies,” the book continues.

Mike, Cindy, Jeff, Tim, Billy, Kevin, Sue and so on. They’re all gone. Others⁠—Chris, Mike, Bobby⁠—remain alive but are homeless, in prison or missing.

Kristof told Filter that the things that killed his childhood friends are not the problems per se, but rather are only indications of much larger, systemic issues.

Kristof and WuDunn—who is married to Kristof and who, with her husband, won a Pulitzer prize for their coverage of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests—craft an intimate exploration of why so many of Kristof’s grade-school peers and so many more people across America are dying young.

Tightrope has won widespread praise. NPR called it “deeply necessary.” Newsweek said it “may well be the timeliest and most engrossing work of nonfiction this year.” The Washington Post’s review was mixed and hinted at a controversial reception, calling it “earnest and oddly endearing, but often slightly muddled; the authors want to speak to conservatives as well as liberals, but they can’t quite pull off their own balancing act.”

In a telephone interview, Kristof, who’s 60, told Filter that the things that killed his childhood friends are not the problems that the country grapples with today, per se, but rather are only indications of much larger, systemic issues.

“Drugs are a symptom of something much deeper,” the two-time Pulitzer winner said. “It’s a psychological crisis that manifests itself, not only in drugs, but also in rising alcohol-related deaths and in the highest suicide rate since World War II.”

The US is a rich country, but inequalities mean that many people don’t benefit, the book shows.

“The American economy has dazzled the world and its stock markets have created great riches,”  it reads, “but the median American household is actually poorer in net worth today than it was in 2000. America now lags behind its peer countries in health care and high-school graduation rates while suffering greater violence, poverty and addiction.”

The effect is profound. In 2017, the number of deaths attributed to drugs, for example, surpassed 70,000. Compare that to a rough average of 15,000 fatal overdose each year two decades earlier, through the 1990s.

Kristof and WuDunn

Yamhill is a white town, but Tightrope is more than another entry in the crowded cry-for-whites genre that exploded with 2016’s Hillbilly Elegy. The authors devote chapters to the earlier experiences of majority-black cities like Baltimore and Pine Bluff, Arkansas for example, where self-medication with drugs like crack cocaineand the ugly political and law enforcement response—saw devastating outcomes.

“In many ways, I’d say that what Yamhill went through is something that a lot of African American communities went through about 20, 25 years earlier,” Kristof said. “In terms of life expectancy, in terms of job options and, to some degree, in terms of neglect, there are a lot of parallels.”

“Jobs left these urban areas⁠—places like Baltimore—and then people self-medicated as drugs came through,” he continued. “And then there was a very harsh crackdown. Men, in particular, then acquired criminal records that made them less employable and less marriageable. And then social fabric unraveled very quickly. That describes what happened in a lot of African American communities in the 1970s, say, and it also describes what happened in rural Oregon or Maine or Kentucky and white areas, a generation later.”

Kristof acknowledged, however, that the tone of the US response to the opioid-involved overdose crisis is dramatically different from its earlier response to crackand he immediately named racism as a primary reason.

“In the 1990s and 2000s, there was a lot of pejorative, nasty commentary about suffering in African American communities, about how it was supposedly a reflection of black culture and deadbeat dads and bad choices. Meanwhile, the great Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson said, ‘No, this is about jobs leaving’,” Kristoff said. “He was exactly right.”

If 2020 policymakers’ relatively compassionate response to overdose victims who are white is leading America to a slow erosion of the War on Drugs, that is racist. But the way Kristof describes it, a bad motive can be put to beneficial use.

“The fact that you have a lot of pain in red states, in white populations, has made the political system somewhat more responsive to these problems,” Kristof said. “It is hypocritical and it is a double standard, but it is a hypocrisy that may lead, belatedly, to more enlightened policies.”

Kristof and WuDunn note that in the US, a person’s income is roughly as inheritable as height.

Tightrope also emphasizes the long-term impacts of generational wealth disparities. Severely limited opportunities for the accumulation of generational wealth among African American families have produced a devastating racial-inequality gap today; “the median black family,” the book notes, “has only 10 percent as much wealth as the median white household.”

Quoting the Princeton University economist Alan Krueger, Kristof and WuDunn note that in the US, a person’s income is roughly as inheritable as height. “The chance of a person who was born to a family in the bottom 10 percent of the income distribution rising to the top 10 percent as an adult is about the same as the chance that a dad who is five-feet, six-inches tall having a son who grows up to be over six-feet, one-inch tall,” Krueger observed. “It happens, but not often.”

The book describes how, for white working class families, the post-World War II GI Bill of Rights made it easier for veterans to attend college, and housing initiatives greatly expanded home ownership. Black families were excluded.

The decline of such opportunities in recent decades saw suffering similar to that long experienced by black families increasingly experienced by white ones, too.

“This psychological crisis is partly driven by the loss of well paying, blue collar jobs,” Kristof told Filter. “If wages had kept pace with the economy than the average man in a non-supervisory job would now be earning, not $43,000 a year, but $90,000 … And then, when working class men began to earn less, that also diminished their marriage prospects. And so they’re less likely to have families to provide perspective and support. And loneliness is lethal.”

“Marriage and family” is a traditionalist’s remedy, and should surely not be a prerequisite for equality. At the same time, research has shown—for better or worse—that marriage is associated with better economic outcomes in the US, and that a stark racial gap in marriage rates has developed.

The similarity of black and white communities’ suffering does not extend, for example, to policing practices and incarceration rates.

The book provides valuable context for America’s overdose crisis, deftly explaining the economic factors that comprise many of its roots. But Kristof, who self-describes as a “progressive,” is a controversial figure in some left-wing circles.

That Tightrope’s central narrative unfolds in Yamhill reflects Kristof’s personal connection to these issues. But the fact that many black communities have been suffering for far longer will be uppermost in many readers’ minds, notwithstanding Tightrope’s chapters addressing the experiences of black populations. The similarity of black and white communities’ suffering does not extend, for example, to policing practices and incarceration rates. Some of the book’s language, such as “blacks,” also jars with 2020 progressive norms.

In addition, advocates for drug policy reform will be disappointed that Tightrope doesn’t include more on the roles that governments and policymakers have played in compounding the damage. The book has received criticism for centering the supply of illicit and prescription drugs, rather than the drug war, as a cause of misery.

Kristof and WuDunn do mention their opposition to the drug war and support for decriminalization, but merely a mention is about as much time as these issues get. The “solutions” section of the book focuses on very worthwhile ideas such as universal healthcare, improved family-planning programs and wage insurance. But I was hoping Tightrope’s pages would push for measures like amnesty for past drug convictions, for example, which would greatly help people with criminal records gain meaningful employment.

The authors also praise problematic approaches without mentioning that similar positive outcomes could be accomplished with far less collateral damage. For example, they correctly note that many people addicted to drugs find recovery following an arrest and time in prison. But of course there are ways to enter treatment—or should be—that don’t involve getting arrested, being locked up or spending the rest of one’s life with a criminal record.

Kristof and WuDunn also highlight (again, correctly) how the US military may steer someone from a small town with few opportunities to higher education and a better career. Here, at least, the authors acknowledge that youths could also find structure and purpose through programs that don’t involve PTSD and unjustified ventures in the Middle East.

Tightrope’s compelling narrative therefore has problems. At the same time, much of what it does, it does well. More people are using drugs, not just for fun, but in response to painand using in a manner, and under circumstances, that lead to overdose and death. With deeply human anecdotes, Kristof and WuDunn have illustrated a considerable part of this. There is much more to the story.


Photos of Yamill, from the cover of Tightrope, and of the authors courtesy of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Travis Lupick

Travis is a journalist based in Vancouver and the author of "Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City's Struggle with Addiction" (Arsenal Pulp Press, June 2018).

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