[Paleopsych] NYT: Up From the Holler: Living in Two Worlds, at Home in Neither
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Thu May 19 19:04:33 UTC 2005
Up From the Holler: Living in Two Worlds, at Home in Neither
Class Matters - Social Class in the United States of America
[I'll count this as part of the third in a series. Next installment on Sunday]
By TAMAR LEWIN
PIKEVILLE, Ky. - Della Mae Justice stands before the jury in the Pike
County Courthouse, arguing that her client's land in Greasy Creek
Hollow was illegally grabbed when the neighbors expanded their
cemetery behind her home.
With her soft Appalachian accent, Ms. Justice leaves no doubt that she
is a local girl, steeped in the culture of the old family cemeteries
that dot the mountains here in East Kentucky. "I grew up in a holler,
I surely did," she tells jurors as she lays out the boundary conflict.
Ms. Justice is, indeed, a product of the Appalachian coal-mining
country where lush mountains flank rust-colored creeks, the hollows
rising so steeply that there is barely room for a house on either side
of the creeks. Her family was poor, living for several years in a
house without indoor plumbing. Her father was absent; her older
half-brother sometimes had to hunt squirrels for the family to eat.
Her mother married again when Della was 9. But the stepfather, a truck
driver, was frequently on the road, and her mother, who was mentally
ill, often needed the young Della to care for her.
Ms. Justice was always hungry for a taste of the world beyond the
mountains. Right after high school, she left Pike County, making her
way through college and law school, spending time in France, Scotland
and Ireland, and beginning a high-powered legal career. In just a few
years she moved up the ladder from rural poverty to the high-achieving
circles of the middle class.
Now, at 34, she is back home. But her journey has transformed her so
thoroughly that she no longer fits in easily. Her change in status has
left Ms. Justice a little off balance, seeing the world from two
vantage points at the same time: the one she grew up in and the one
she occupies now.
Far more than people who remain in the social class they are born to,
surrounded by others of the same background, Ms. Justice is sensitive
to the cultural significance of the cars people drive, the food they
serve at parties, where they go on vacation - all the little clues
that indicate social status. By every conventional measure, Ms.
Justice is now solidly middle class, but she is still trying to learn
how to feel middle class. Almost every time she expresses an idea, or
explains herself, she checks whether she is being understood, asking,
"Does that make sense?"
"I think class is everything, I really do," she said recently. "When
you're poor and from a low socioeconomic group, you don't have a lot
of choices in life. To me, being from an upper class is all about
confidence. It's knowing you have choices, knowing you set the
standards, knowing you have connections."
In Pikeville, the site of the Hatfield-McCoy feud (Ms. Justice is a
Hatfield), memories are long and family roots mean a lot. Despite her
success, Ms. Justice worries about what people might remember about
her, especially about the time when she was 15 and her life with her
mother and stepfather imploded in violence, sending her into foster
care for a wretched nine months.
"I was always in the lowest socioeconomic group," she said, "but
foster care ratcheted it down another notch. I hate that period of my
life, when for nine months I was a child with no family."
While she was in foster care, Ms. Justice lived in one end of a
double-wide trailer, with the foster family on the other end. She
slept alongside another foster child, who wet the bed, and every
morning she chose her clothes from a box of hand-me-downs. She was
finally rescued when her father heard about her situation and called
his nephew, Joe Justice.
Joe Justice was 35 years older than Della, a successful lawyer who
lived in the other Pikeville, one of the well-to-do neighborhoods on
the mountain ridges. He and his wife, Virginia, had just built a
four-bedroom contemporary home, complete with a swimming pool, on
Cedar Gap Ridge.
Joe Justice had never even met his cousin until he saw her in the
trailer, but afterward he told his wife that it was "abhorrent" for a
close relative to be in foster care. While poverty is common around
Pikeville, foster care is something much worse: a sundering of the
family ties that count for so much. So Joe and Virginia Justice took
Della Mae in. She changed schools, changed address - changed worlds,
in effect - and moved into an octagonal bedroom downstairs from the
Justices' 2 year-old son.
"The shock of going to live in wealth, with Joe and Virginia, it was
like Little Orphan Annie going to live with the Rockefellers," Ms.
Justice said. "It was not easy. I was shy and socially inept. For the
first time, I could have had the right clothes, but I didn't have any
idea what the right clothes were. I didn't know much about the world,
and I was always afraid of making a wrong move. When we had a school
trip for chorus, we went to a restaurant. I ordered a club sandwich,
but when it came with those toothpicks on either end, I didn't know
how to eat it, so I just sat there, staring at it and starving, and
said I didn't feel well."
Joe and Virginia Justice worried about Della Mae's social unease and
her failure to mingle with other young people in their church. But
they quickly sensed her intelligence and encouraged her to attend
Berea College, a small liberal arts institution in Kentucky that
accepts students only from low-income families. Tuition is free and
everybody works. For Ms. Justice, as for many other Berea students,
the experience of being one among many poor people, all academically
capable and encouraged to pursue big dreams, was life-altering.
It was at Berea that Ms. Justice met the man who became her husband,
Troy Price, the son of a tobacco farmer with a sixth-grade education.
They married after graduation, and when Ms. Justice won a fellowship,
the couple went to Europe for a year of independent travel and study.
When Ms. Justice won a scholarship to the University of Kentucky
law school in Lexington, Mr. Price went with her, to graduate school
in family studies.
After graduating fifth in her law school class, Ms. Justice clerked
for a federal judge, then joined Lexington's largest law firm, where
she put in long hours in hopes of making partner. She and her husband
bought a townhouse, took trips, ate in restaurants almost every night
and spent many Sunday afternoons at real estate open houses in
Lexington's elegant older neighborhoods. By all appearances, they were
on the fast track.
But Ms. Justice still felt like an outsider. Her co-editors on the law
review, her fellow clerks at the court and her colleagues at the law
firm all seemed to have a universe of information that had passed her
by. She saw it in matters big and small - the casual references, to
Che Guevara or Mount Vesuvius, that meant nothing to her; the food at
dinner parties that she would not eat because it looked raw in the
"I couldn't play Trivial Pursuit, because I had no general knowledge
of the world," she said. "And while I knew East Kentucky, they all
knew a whole lot about Massachusetts and the Northeast. They all knew
who was important, whose father was a federal judge. They never
doubted that they had the right thing to say. They never worried about
Most of all, they all had connections that fed into a huge web of
people with power. "Somehow, they all just knew each other," she said.
Knitting a New Family
Ms. Justice's life took an abrupt turn in 1999, when her half-brother,
back in Pike County, called out of the blue to say that his children,
Will and Anna Ratliff, who had been living with their mother, were in
foster care. Ms. Justice and her brother had not been close, and she
had met the children only once or twice, but the call was impossible
to ignore. As her cousin Joe had years earlier, she found it
intolerable to think of her flesh and blood in foster care.
So over the next year, Della Mae Justice and her husband got custody
of both children and went back to Pikeville, only 150 miles away but
far removed from their life in Lexington. The move made all kinds of
sense. Will and Anna, now 13 and 12, could stay in touch with their
mother and father. Mr. Price got a better job, as executive director
of Pikeville's new support center for abused children. Ms. Justice
went to work for her cousin at his law firm, where a flexible
schedule allowed her to look after the two children.
And yet for Ms. Justice the return to Pikeville has been almost as
dislocating as moving out of foster care and into that octagonal
bedroom all those years ago. On a rare visit recently to the hollows
where she used to live, she was moved to tears when a neighbor came
out, hugged her and told her how he used to pray and worry for her and
how happy he was that she had done so well. But mostly, she winces
when reminded of her past.
"Last week, I picked up the phone in my office," she recalled, "and
the woman said who she was, and then said, 'You don't remember me, do
you?' And I said, 'Were you in foster care with me?' That was crazy.
Why would I do that? It's not something I advertise, that I was in
While most of her workweek is devoted to commercial law, Ms. Justice
spends Mondays in family court, representing families with the kind of
problems hers had. She bristles whenever she runs into any hint of
class bias, or the presumption that poor people in homes heated by
kerosene or without enough bedrooms cannot be good parents.
"The norm is, people that are born with money have money, and people
who weren't don't," she said recently. "I know that. I know that just
to climb the three inches I have, which I've not gone very far, took
all of my effort. I have worked hard since I was a kid and I've done
nothing but work to try and pull myself out."
The class a person is born into, she said, is the starting point on
the continuum. "If your goal is to become, on a national scale, a very
important person, you can't start way back on the continuum, because
you have too much to make up in one lifetime. You have to make up the
distance you can in your lifetime so that your kids can then make up
the distance in their lifetime."
Coming to Terms With Life
Ms. Justice is still not fully at ease in the other, well-to-do
Pikeville, and in many ways she and her husband had to start from
scratch in finding a niche there. Church is where most people in town
find friends and build their social life. But Ms. Justice and Mr.
Price had trouble finding a church that was a comfortable fit; they
went through five congregations, starting at the Baptist church she
had attended as a child and ending up at the Disciples of Christ, an
inclusive liberal church with many affluent members. The pastor and
his wife, transplants to Kentucky, have become their closest friends.
Others have come more slowly.
"Partly the problem is that we're young, for middle-class people, to
have kids as old as Will and Anna," Ms. Justice said. "And the fact
that we're raising a niece and nephew, that's kind of a flag that we
weren't always middle class, just like saying you went to Berea
College tells everyone you were poor."
And though in terms of her work Ms. Justice is now one of Pikeville's
leading citizens, she is still troubled by the old doubts and
insecurities. "My stomach's always in knots getting ready to go to a
party, wondering if I'm wearing the right thing, if I'll know what to
do," she said. "I'm always thinking: How does everybody else know
that? How do they know how to act? Why do they all seem so at ease?"
A lot of her energy now goes into Will and Anna. She wants to bring
them up to have the middle-class ease that still eludes her. "Will and
Anna know what it's like to be poor, and now we want them to be able
to be just regular kids," she said. "When I was young, I always knew
who were the kids at school with the involved parents that brought in
the cookies, and those were the kids who got chosen for every special
thing, not ones like me, who got free lunch and had to borrow clothes
from their aunt if there was a chorus performance."
Because Ms. Justice is self-conscious about her teeth - "the East
Kentucky overbite," she says ruefully - she made sure early on that
Anna got braces. She worries about the children's clothes as much as
her own. "Everyone else seems to know when the khaki pants the boys
need are on sale at J. C. Penney," she said. "I never know these
As a child, Ms. Justice never had the resources for her homework
projects. So when Anna was assigned to build a Navajo hogan, they
headed to Wal-Mart for supplies.
"We put in extra time, so she would appear like those kids with the
involved parents," Ms. Justice said. "I know it's just a hogan, but
making a project that looks like the other kids' projects is part of
Ms. Justice encouraged Will to join the Boy Scouts, and when he was
invited to join his school's Academic Team, which competes in quiz
bowls, she insisted that he try it. When he asked her whether he might
become a drug addict if he took the medicine prescribed for him, she
told him it was an excellent question, and at the doctor's office
prompted him to ask the doctor directly. She nudges both children to
talk about what happens in school, to recount the plots of the books
they read and to discuss current events.
It is this kind of guidance that distinguishes middle-class children
from children of working-class and poor families, according to
sociologists who have studied how social class affects child-rearing.
While working-class parents usually teach their children, early on, to
do what they are told without argument and to manage their own free
time, middle-class parents tend to play an active role in shaping
their children's activities, seeking out extracurricular activities to
build their talents, and encouraging them to speak up and even to
negotiate with authority figures.
Ms. Justice's efforts are making a difference. Will found that he
enjoyed Academic Team. Anna now gets evening phone calls from several
friends. Both have begun to have occasional sleepovers. And gradually,
Ms. Justice is coming to terms with her own life. On New Year's Eve,
after years in a modest rented townhouse, she and her husband moved
into a new house that reminds her of the Brady Bunch home. It has four
bedrooms and a swimming pool. In a few years, when her older cousin
retires, Ms. Justice will most likely take over the practice, a solid
prospect, though far less lucrative, and less glamorous, than a
partnership at her Lexington law firm.
"I've worked very hard all my life - to have a life that's not so far
from where I started out," she said. "It is different, but it's not
the magical life I thought I'd get."
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