Adam Shepard, this one’s for you:
(Song dedication inspired by Siege, thanks.)
Shepard is the author of Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream, a book that’s getting an awful lot of buzz right now. From an article at the CSM:
Alone on a dark gritty street, Adam Shepard searched for a homeless shelter. He had a gym bag, $25, and little else. A former college athlete with a bachelor’s degree, Mr. Shepard had left a comfortable life with supportive parents in Raleigh, N.C. Now he was an outsider on the wrong side of the tracks in Charleston, S.C. But Shepard’s descent into poverty in the summer of 2006 was no accident. Shortly after graduating from Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., he intentionally left his parents’ home to test the vivacity of the American Dream. His goal: to have a furnished apartment, a car, and $2,500 in savings within a year.
To make his quest even more challenging, he decided not to use any of his previous contacts or mention his education. During his first 70 days in Charleston, Shepard lived in a shelter and received food stamps. He also made new friends, finding work as a day laborer, which led to a steady job with a moving company.
Ten months into the experiment, he decided to quit after learning of an illness in his family. But by then he had moved into an apartment, bought a pickup truck, and had saved close to $5,000.
Adam Shepard asks, who is John Galt? No, really… who is he? Why are you laughing? (photo by Nicole Hill)
I’ll preface my opinions by stating that I believe wholeheartedly in the power of self-perpetuating positivity, of elbow grease over idle hope. Self-pity is certainly one of the more corrosive emotions in the human canon, and I have to think that even in the most dire circumstances, one can improve a bad situation by somehow preserving their sense of self-worth. (Easier said than done, of course.) That being stated, Scratch Beginnings is a self-aggrandizing, dishonest account that does not deserve the hype.
A fresh-faced, educated young man in excellent mental and physical health who keeps an emergency credit card tucked into his back pocket isn’t starting from scratch. He’s starting from privilege. Shepard has had a lifetime of parental “you can be anything you want to be, sweetie” hand-holding to bolster him. It shows in every page of his solipsistic account.
Shepard took on his ambitious pet project after reading (and disagreeing with) Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, in which undercover journalist Barbara Ehrenreich investigates how the 1996 welfare reform impacted the working poor in America. I actually share Shepard’s skepticism. (Ehrenreich never fully submerged herself in the conditions faced by her coworkers or deeply bonded with them; she lived in hotels and ate/ordered out while they all went home to a far more harsh and complex reality. Nickel and Dimed focuses in on her own tales of woe while the more profound stories of those she encountered fade into the background.) That doesn’t mean I can stomach the “yep, can-do” simplifications of Scratch Beginnings, either. Despite their concerted efforts at immersion, both the keyed up Marxist and the lobotomized Objectivist fail to convince.
An astounding excerpt from Shepard’s recent ABC news interview:
ABC: Would your project have changed if you’d had child-care payments or been required to report to a probation officer? Wouldn’t that have made it much harder?
Shepard: The question isn’t whether I would have been able to succeed. I think it’s the attitude that I take in: “I’ve got child care. I’ve got a probation officer. I’ve got all these bills. Now what am I going to do? Am I going to continue to go out to eat and put rims on my Cadillac? Or am I going to make some things happen in my life?”
Hang on. You’re telling me the state of South Carolina unknowingly squandered their depleted resources to help feed, clothe, house and employ Shepard for several months while he lied to everyone’s face about his circumstances, ostensibly slumming it for political science? This chucklehead gets notable mainstream media air time? Really? Is his perky “I beat poverty, and so can you!” infomercial tone truly relevant? Edifying? Constructive?
Shepard knew he could escape any time he chose, and in fact, he bowed out early. The minute the reality of a serious family illness lessened the novelty of his little game, he dove into a waiting safety net.* He’s been patting himself on the back ever since. “It’s a grrrrreat book. My mom and dad love it!” Awesome. Glad they enjoyed it. Personally, I’d lost all patience with its condescending tone by page 200 and merely skimmed the rest.
If Shepard had hired a mop handle-wielding professional dom to abuse and belittle him for several years prior to picking a ghetto “randomly out of a hat”, I might’ve found his bootstrapping story more compelling. Had he pulled a few teeth out of that gleaming white smile, been charged with a couple of misdemeanors and undergone voluntary trepanation before embarking on his incredible journey, or habitually dropped acid during it, I’d be impressed! As it is, I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth and an urge to point anyone interested in reading truly constructive, thought-provoking accounts of destitution, hope and struggle towards the following literature:
- The Working Poor by David K. Shipler
- The Pursuit of Happyness by Chris Gardner and Quincy Troupe
- Poor People by William T. Vollmann
- Member of the Club by Lawrence Otis Graham
- Finding Fish by Antwone Q. Fisher
- A New Introduction to Poverty by Louis Kuchnik and James Jennings
- the NCH’s tract “Why Are People Homeless?” (PDF)
*From Cynical-C blog: “Interesting that he quit the “experiment” as soon as something bad happened. Everyone else who is living in poverty [isn't] able to quit being poor just because someone in their family falls ill.”