But by the end of high school, their fates had already split: Potts got scholarships to attend Bryn Mawr and went on to establish a career in journalism, while Darci languished in their hometown, with spotty employment. Darci struggled with domestic abuse and substance abuse, and her mother ended up raising her two children.
When I spoke to Potts earlier this week, she said part of her motivation for writing the book was that the conversation about who is struggling in America had been very focused on men. For all the advances we’ve made for girls and women, Potts said, “There are a lot of communities around the country where women are still really expected to take a back seat for men,” and they’re expected to rely on men. There’s also a permissive attitude toward boys that girls don’t benefit from. “Boys could get by with anything,” one of Potts’s childhood friends tells her, “but girls were held to a higher standard.”
In “The Forgotten Girls,” Potts, who graduated from high school in 1998, describes schoolmates as young as 14 having babies, and one who got married at 15. (She had to cross the state line into Missouri, where at the time it was legal to marry at that age.) Though Potts said getting married at 15 was an outlier, it was not unusual for girls to get married and start having children in their later teens. Theirs was a conservative Christian, and judgmental, culture, Potts writes, that frowned on premarital sex even though it was as common as anywhere else in America. “As if they were living in the Victorian era,” the girls in Clinton “assumed that because they’d gone all the way with someone, they had to marry him.” Many of these young marriages didn’t work out well.
At the heart of Potts’s book is the question: Why was she able to build a thriving, financially stable life and career for herself, when so many of her counterparts, who came from the same background, weren’t? After all, Potts had a horrible family tragedy occur just weeks before she left for college, and could have easily been diverted from her path up and out. She told me she thinks that her mother, who lived in Chicago in her 20s before returning to Arkansas, and hadn’t wanted to come back, was an influence. “The whole time she was raising us, it was all about how she didn’t want us to be satisfied in life in Clinton,” she said. But her mother’s propulsion came at a cost; Potts says she missed out on relishing some joys of her hometown culture, and its natural beauty, because she was so focused on leaving.
Potts did ultimately return to Clinton, where she now lives with her partner. And after years of struggling, Darci is now sober and doing well, she says. But Potts is careful to note that there’s a dearth of opportunity in towns like hers. “The kinds of jobs available and the kinds of opportunities available are just slim,” she said. The takeaway is that problems for girls and women in some parts of America are as sticky and complicated as the problems for boys and men: They’re cultural, they’re economic, and they’re entrenched.