It all began with a statistic: white, working-class women in rural America were dying younger, and at a faster clip, than they had in a generation. Monica Potts, author of The Forgotten Girls: A Memoir of Friendship and Lost Promise in Rural America, wanted to know why. Potts grew up working-class and poor in Clinton, Arkansas, a tiny town of two thousand people in the foothills of the Ozarks. Statistics about her home state were just as alarming. Arkansas has one of the highest teen-pregnancy rates in the country, and the highest rate of childhood trauma (56 percent of children experienced at least one devastating event growing up). A Princeton University study described the accelerating mortality rate as “deaths of despair.”
One bright spot in this otherwise dismal picture was Potts’s childhood friendship with Darci—a charismatic extrovert with quicksilver intelligence and an impish grin. From the moment they met, the two girls were joined at the hip: listening to Janis Joplin in Potts’s bedroom, studying side-by-side in the gifted-and-talented class, standing in line for free lunches in the school cafeteria. Their most enduring bond was that both girls hated their hometown with a passion. As fourth-graders, they began plotting their escape. They would drive to Fresno, California, as a high-school graduation present to themselves. Fresno, about which they knew nothing, became a kind of Shangri-La.
However, by the time they’d entered eighth grade, there were already signs that not all was right with Darci. By their senior year, a chasm had opened between the two girls: Potts was awarded a huge scholarship to Bryn Mawr and named valedictorian of her class; Darci had essentially been kicked out of high school. When Potts arrived at college, she vowed to put the town of Clinton behind her, for good. “I could have continued to be friends with Darci, or with anyone from Clinton but I didn’t want to, or really, I thought I couldn’t. They were what I sacrificed. I excised them all from my life and went forward in college as if I had no history.” Twenty-one years later, Darci reached out to Potts on Facebook and the two arranged to meet. In 2015, Potts traveled back to Clinton, and she was shocked by what she found: a drug-addicted single mom with only a GED to her credit. Darci was in and out of halfway houses and in and out of jail, her face a familiar sight on “Wanted” posters around the county. Potts had graduated from one of the nation’s most prestigious women’s colleges and was embarking on a career in journalism.
What had happened to her friend? The Forgotten Girls is Potts’s attempt to find out. “I wanted to tell a story that statistics and data could not tell.” Drawing on old diaries, medical records, and hours of interviews (with Darci and other Clinton residents), Potts’s memoir is a brilliant ethnography not only of forgotten girls but of a forgotten America that most of us, most of the time, are happy to ignore.
The Forgotten Girls is also part of an ongoing conversation by writers who, like Potts, have triumphed over impoverished childhoods in rural America. However, unlike Tara Westover’s Educated or J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Potts’s main focus is the people left behind—and, above all, with Darci. Her downward spiral began, rather unremarkably, at age fourteen when she started sneaking out of the house at night to go to parties. Before long, she didn’t have to sneak out, the parties came to her. A room in her parent’s house, known to partiers around the county as “The Den,” became a “24-hour clubhouse” complete with Xanax, Soma, and cases of beer. Her parents “were willfully blind to it,” Potts fumed. But she was even more distraught with her friend’s behavior. “It felt like her life was being consumed by unimportant things. Boys. Sex. Drinking. Partying. Why didn’t she understand that leaving our hometown would demand the entire force of our beings?” Although the two remained friends, their bond was clearly fraying. “We reached an unspoken agreement that I didn’t want to know about her partying because I didn’t approve,” Potts said. In their senior year of high school, Darci whited out the dates on a doctor’s note excusing her from a week of school after she became pregnant (the note cited an “unspecified illness”—i.e., her miscarriage). She then spent seventy-eight days in the Den, where she smoked pot and did crystal meth. When she was found out, school officials informed Darci that, despite her high grades, she would not graduate. That fall, as Potts settled in at Bryn Mawr, Darci was working part-time shifts at Sonic, carhopping and pocketing tips of methamphetamine. When the two women reconnected ten years later, Darci had done time for an array of charges including drug possession and embezzlement.
The Forgotten Girls delves into the root causes of Darci’s downfall. Although statistics do not tell the whole story, politics help fill in the blanks. The political argument illuminating Potts’s narrative is that what happened to Darci is not her fault. One cannot fully understand the decline and fall of a gifted twenty-first-century woman without taking history into account. Potts cites a late nineteenth-century geological survey that deemed land in the region unsuitable for farming and susceptible to flooding. Despite these findings, the federal government promoted the area, advocating “rugged individualism” as a panacea for whatever challenges settlers might encounter. “American society left people to find prosperity where it couldn’t be found,” Potts noted. Waves of economic decline and collapse ensued, peaking with a devastating flood in 1982 and a series of economic traumas between 2000 and 2010.
Because of a lack of social services in the town, the only thing that people had to fall back on was the church. For 83 percent of Clinton’s regular churchgoers, this meant Evangelical Christianity. Potts’s family was one of the few in town that did not go to church. Perhaps as a result, she has an unapologetically jaded view of religion. As she saw it, support from the church (mainly Southern Baptists) did not come without a price. For women in particular, expectations were high. Good girls married young, had children, and were devoted helpmates to their husbands.
Over time, a tragic binary developed in the town: girls were either good or bad, students either geniuses or dropouts. Young people were either from good families or bad ones. If you had the misfortune of being born into a bad family, you were doomed. “People who tried to break the pattern were often alone, set against the larger forces of small-town thinking and small-town gossip.” As Darci developed a reputation as a partier, hanging out with her became “increasingly fraught.” Potts felt “trapped” by a system that made her choose between good and bad. Although she didn’t fit into either category, she decided to align with the good kids. “I didn’t have the power to ignore their judgments, so I became judgmental too.”
Who or what is to blame for Darci’s fate? In The Forgotten Girls, Darci is clearly a victim of the town’s elitism and insularity, the church’s judgment, and federal policies that encouraged people to settle in the area to begin with. I cannot disagree with Potts’s summation. Social conditions are indeed the root problem of all the Darcis of the world. But the Darci of Forgotten Girls is also a victim of herself: a master manipulator whiting out dates on a doctor’s note; a con woman convincing doctors to prescribe drugs not only unneeded but downright dangerous; a prankster lying down in the middle of busy thoroughfares, not because she was trying to commit suicide but because “nothing stopped her” from doing so.
One conclusion that can be drawn from Darci’s story is that she needed a tough love that she never got—not from parents who turned a blind eye to her partying, nor from teachers who didn’t notice mounting absences until it was too late. Even Potts is too eager to make excuses for her friend, looking the other way in high school when Darci partied and skipped classes and, years later, avoiding the “honest conversations” that might have made a difference to her friend’s life. Toward the end of the book, Potts laments Darci’s apparent lack of interest in anything besides herself: “I wanted her to ask me about my life.… I wanted her to be curious about what I’d done…and why I’d been coming back home.” However, her friend never asked about any of those things. “Instead, she talked, distractedly, about herself.”
Although the burning questions at the heart of The Forgotten Girls relate to Darci’s undoing, I have a couple of questions about Potts as well. A couple of questions, and a thesis: for all her apparent agnosticism, Monica Potts was touched by the divine. Consider the path by which she was able to rise above everything that dragged Darci (and others like her) into the abyss. This came to be as a result of a summer program she attended at Barnard during her sophomore year—one that happened “by chance.” The Barnard experience was part of an elite pre-college summer program “usually meant for the children of very wealthy parents who want to improve their chances of admission”—and yet Potts was admitted. “I had heard about this one only because Momma had misread the name of a college on the back of a book jacket, because I’d happened to register for a college entrance exam early, because I’d followed up with a college that sent me promotional materials, and because I’d called the admissions office to say I couldn’t afford it. It felt so naïve and accidental, yet it changed my life.”
Accidental, perhaps. But why not providential? And what of her decision to return, permanently, to Clinton in 2017? The only reason she offers is that she had started to feel “at home” in Clinton, and that it would be easier “to keep in touch with Darci” if she returned. On the surface, it’s a rather offhanded explanation. For me, though, it sounds like a calling. The Forgotten Girls is an invaluable examination of the complex challenges confronting the Darcis of the world. However, readers are largely left in the dark about what propelled Monica out of Clinton—and then back again. There are more stories waiting to be told, but we will have to wait until Potts’s next memoir to read about them.
The Forgotten Girls
A Memoir of Friendship and Lost Promise in Rural America
$28 | 272 pp.