I’ve had people tell me that I’m “disparaging” of rural people. That I don’t understand the “benefits” of living in a small community where everyone watches over everyone’s kids, and gets together for festivals and re-unions.

And I tell them about growing up in small town Alaska. My home town was about 4x the size of Tanana, and I’ve been to Tanana.

And they look at me in horror as if I’m suddenly regurgitating beetles that scour their flesh away when I do so.

Because the town I grew up in? It was a lot like this.

Except more “competitively hyper-Christian.”


When I was 10, my brother was 7, and my mother was drunk. My mother got pissed at my brother and lunged at him. He ran under the dining table and hid. My mother got so mad that her face turned purple.

I honestly thought she was going to kill him. I got in between her and the table.

She grabbed my head from the right side and repeatedly smashed my left cheekbone and the side of my head into the table until she realized that I was bleeding and had stopped screaming.

Only then did she come to on what she’d done.

And sutured up the mess she’d made of my left cheekbone, said she was so damned sorry she’d done it and said she’d kill me if I told anyone what had happened.

My mother was the teacher of the year for the school district.

I told everyone at my elementary school that I’d fallen down the stairs and hit a shovel blade face first. I was only recently able to see, you see, so it was plausble.

And compared to what about a third to half of my friends dealt with?

I was one of the lucky ones.

When you grow up in a house with a violently abusive parent, it’s your normal. You assume everyone else’s house is the same as yours, they’re just better at hiding it. That you never have friends over because you’re never sure which version of your parent is going to show up: The cheerful one, the indifferent one, or the bully.

It shapes you. I still have NO IDEA how to act socially at a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. Being around certain kinds of drunken behavior skeeves me out. The first time I had enough alcohol to actually impair me, I was 37, and it scared the living shit out of me.

My mother never stopped drinking, but the physical abuse turned to verbal and emotional abuse when I got big enough to hit back, and took martial arts.

My brother was better at making friends than I was; he made enough friends that by the time he was in junior high school, he could be ‘away’ for most weekends so long as his grades stayed up.

He got good enough at sports that he could train out of state.

I dove deep into writing games and running them for my friends and playing them with my friends.

Quite literally, the last time I saw my mother in person was at my college graduation in 1990. I left Alaska then. She died in 2003.

I got to see rural Arizona up close. I was a county resources case worker in northern Coconino county. Lots of little villages and teeeeeny tiny towns where everyone is part of the same church.

Some towns are literally on the Utah/Arizona border. When the town patriarch/church/’ruling clique’ did something bad enough that the staties would try to intervene, they’d get in their trucks and stay at a parishioner’s place on the other side of the state line. The towns were close-knit like that.

My coworker and I drove from little office to little office; we were like the original definition of a circuit judge: We’d go from town to town, sleep on two twin beds for two days and have office hours for people who needed help filling out AFDC paperwork, or untangling their paperwork with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Or to come in for free baby formula and diapers…and tell us stories about how so-and-so was ‘being improper’ with his niece, who was pregnant from it and being forced into marriage with someone else to cover up for it.

Some of you may remember Warren Jeffs making the news. Or the Elizabeth Smart abduction.

Those are only the cases where they did something too prominent to ignore. There were plenty of others, and no matter how much we wanted to help them, unless they were willing to take a stand and report a deposition to the police or to the courts…there was nothing we could do.

And they wouldn’t, because in these little tight knit cultic communities, doing so would mean not going to Heaven or seeing your parents or siblings or possibly your kids, ever again.

I resigned from that job after 9 months. I was 23. I couldn’t handle it.

When you read about Tanana in this article, understand that you’re reading about every isolated community where “everyone knows everyone else, and nobody can really leave.”

I’ve seen the signs of this in rural Iowa, rural Wisconsin and rural Texas.

I find that the people who idealize the “small town American life” have never lived in a place more rural than a suburb. Largely, they have this mythologized view of a place where everyone is the same religion (as them) and everyone’s a Good Moral Person and they discuss politics amicably, because none of them are Democrats…

And nobody goes home, gets drunk and tries to fuck their daughter or niece. None of their kids commit suicide because they’ve been raped by their pastor.

When I find people who have lived that life, they, like me, put huge amounts of effort into GETTING OUT OF IT. They are often devoted to gun rights, somewhere bewtween agnostic and anti-theist, and they have no desire to ever go back if they can avoid it.

And I remember:

I was one of the lucky ones. I was perfectly willing to walk away from my parents and the town that raised me. I graduated, my father dropped me off at the graduation party, a friend took me back home, and I loaded all my belongings into their truck and moved into a sublet near UAF.

At least three of my classmates got pregnant at that party, based on when their babies were born.

I saw that pattern repeated in Northern Arizona.

My high school class had four teenaged moms out of 185 graduates.

At least I could get out.


12 thoughts on “I’ve had people tell me that I’m “disparaging” of rural people. That I don’t understand the “benefits” of living in…

  1. I think the only idyllic small towns that exist any more have been engineered as such for tourists. Even those usually have freaky underbellies of addiction and old violent beefs. I think I’ve been to literally every village off the beaten path in Arizona and there’s not one of them I’d stay in overnight if I could possibly avoid it.

  2. I’ve seen everything described here in action. I’d add that extremely tight-lipped communities, particularly religious ones, can create a similar dynamic even within suburban or urban areas. To those born within (many? most?) small towns or isolating religious communities, they are a test you only pass when you leave.

  3. But like, figuring out your options is hard. I call cities urban hellscapes and literally can’t imagine making the decision to live in one. My town of 6000 is surrounded by agriculture and flood-plane, but it’s only 20 minutes into the edge of the burbs and 45 minutes to either twin-cities downtown on a good traffic day. The tradeoffs are working for us so far.

  4. urban hellscapes and literally can’t imagine making the decision to live in one. My town of 6000 is surrounded by agriculture and flood-plane, but it’s only 20 minutes into the edge of the burbs and 45 minutes to either twin-cities downtown on a good traffic day. The tradeoffs are working for us so far.]]>

  5. Whereas I was spooked out in Chicago because it was so not-dense :).

    As a costal elite, I am cautious. But this post fits my gut sense of things.

    I suspect a lot of this also happens in insular communities in cities, but I believe it’s limited by how much time you’re spending with others.