Tightrope, the latest book from New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof and former Times business editor Sheryl WuDunn, starts off with a horror story.
Dee Knapp, an Oregon woman, is awakened by her drunken husband, who demands that she make him dinner. Angry that she's not moving fast enough for him, her husband punches her, then chases her out of the house with a rifle. She's forced to spend the night in the fields around their house, hoping her husband doesn't hurt any of their five children.
The story, like many in Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, doesn't end well. Four of the Knapp children, whom Kristof knew from his childhood, died in the years following. Two succumbed to complications from substance use; two burned to death. The lone surviving child has HIV and hepatitis. It's a bleak story, one of several in Kristof and WuDunn's shocking book, a call to arms that warns that America is in deep trouble and needs to make big changes if it is to save itself.
Kristof and WuDunn, a married couple, follow several of Kristof's ex-schoolmates with whom he grew up near Yamhill, Ore. "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," they write, saying the fates of Kristof's friends led them to examine "how our country could have let tens of millions of people suffer an excruciating loss of jobs, dignity, lives, hopes and children, and how we can recover." They examine a host of issues, including unemployment, health care, substance use disorder and the prison system.
The stories they present are mostly depressing ones. There's Kevin Green, whom Kristof knew as a child, who took to overeating, drinking and meth use when he lost his job. When Green died, Kristof posted a remembrance of him on Facebook, only to receive a host of cruel comments: "He had free will," one person wrote. "Obesity kills, not inequality." Reactions like that, the authors write, "reflect an increasingly cruel narrative that the working-class struggle is all about bad choices, laziness and vices."
Later in the book, Kristof and WuDunn travel east to explore problems facing residents of a different location. "We went to Baltimore because as a city with a large black population it offered a counterpoint to Yamhill, but we found many parallels in the suffering as well as a uniquely American story about betrayal," they write. It's there that they meet Daniel McDowell, a veteran who was grievously injured in Afghanistan. He became addicted to narcotics after doctors prescribed him oxycodone and eventually lost his family and ended up in jail.
"The government failed him, blamed him and jailed him," Kristof and WuDunn write. "A couple of generations ago, the United States rewarded veterans by affording them education and housing benefits. More recently, the United States helped get veterans hooked on drugs and then incarcerated them." This is Kristof and WuDunn at their best: When they let themselves express the anger they feel over the failures of the government, their writing stands out.
And there's a lot that they're angry about. One is the bootstrap narrative that has forever been popular in America — the idea that literally anyone can succeed with the right attitude, regardless of the person's circumstances. "One hazard of our social Darwinism is that it is absorbed even by those who are themselves on the bottom, leading them to stigmatize themselves," they write. It's a perceptive observation — the unfortunate in our society have been led to believe that they deserve their troubles, and it mires them in a self-hatred that's difficult to overcome.
The authors offer a host of proposed solutions, including the expansion of social programs, treatment instead of prison for drug offenders, universal health care and more early-childhood programs. The book ends, helpfully, with an appendix listing suggestions for how people can make a difference in their own communities: volunteering at a homeless shelter, for example, and boycotting companies that don't pay their employees a living wage.
Tightrope is a convincing argument that it's not too late to change the course of the nation. "We remain optimistic about what is possible," Kristof and WuDunn write. It's also an agonizing account of how apathy and cruelty have turned America into a nightmare for many of its less fortunate citizens. "This has been a wrenching book for us to write, because old friendships threatened to rob us of the protection of personal distance," they write. "In past books, we have tried to shine a light on urgent and neglected topics, such as the oppression of women around the world; now we are trying to illuminate similarly urgent and neglected crises in our own backyards."
It's difficult to read, and it was surely difficult to write, but it feels — now more than ever — deeply necessary.