When Pulitzer-winning New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof and Pulitzer-winning former journalist Sheryl WuDunn were traveling the world covering humanitarian crises, it occurred to Kristof that one was taking place in his own hometown.
Kristof grew up in Yamhill, Oregon, southwest of Portland, where his family still owns a farm. Many of Kristof’s childhood friends, with whom he rode the school bus, had died, many due to drugs, drinking, unemployment, and even suicide. Some were screwed over by a lack of jobs, education, and healthcare. Some just made bad choices.
“We were regularly visiting Yamhill and saw that my old friends were dying of deaths of despair,” Kristof tells Los Angeles.
“We discovered that the level of pain and suffering here is no less than what we saw in other countries,” adds WuDunn. “We were shocked at the kind of dysfunction in these lives, and these are people we had known for decades.”
What resulted was the married couple’s co-authored book Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, published in January of last year. Now that book is the basis of the Skirball Cultural Center’s new virtual exhibit of the same name, which runs January 21 through May 31. On January 26, the authors will discuss the book and their journey to observe the “unraveling” of families on a “tightrope walk” through poverty, drugs, and alcohol abuse. Using images by the book’s photographer, Pulitzer Prize winner Lynsey Addario, the museum visualizes the American working class’ woes before 2020 made them even worse.
This is the third time the Skirball has teamed up with Kristof and WuDunn, who in 1990 won a Pulitzer for their coverage of the student protests in Tiananmen Square (WuDunn was the first Asian American woman to receive the honor); Kristof won a second Pulitzer for commentary in 2006. In 2011 and 2015, the museum organized gallery installations, featuring photographs and interactive components inspired by the couple’s previous books, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide and A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity.
“The great strength of WuDunn and Kristof’s journalism is that they’re able to make really complex things understandable,” says the Skirball’s Cate Thurston, who curated the Skirball’s hugely popular 2018 exhibit, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “It’s part of the reason the Skirball wanted this story. They’re able to unravel a great many social problems and predicaments and explain how we got here.”
The subjects of the book and exhibit include Dee Knapp, a Yamhill mother who outlived a violent husband and four of her five children; only one son, Keylan, survived, partly because he spent 13 years in the state penitentiary. Brothers Kevin and Clayton Green died from obesity and other health issues. And then there’s Kristof’s closest neighbor, Mike Stepp, whom he found homeless and living on the street.
Over the years, Kristof had written about Yamhill’s people in his columns, and in 2017, he and WuDunn started putting together the book. But the two don’t just empathize with one community. They explore similar problems plaguing the rest of the country, as well as the factors behind them: a loss of blue-collar jobs, and an explosion of prescription drugs, alcohol, and mass incarceration. The exhibit’s more than 30 images by Addario put a face on Kristof and WuDunn’s subjects, some who’ve turned their lives around despite the odds.
Daniel McDowell, for example, is a Baltimore veteran who became homeless and addicted to heroin because army doctors got him hooked on large amounts of prescription painkillers. He overcame his addiction and recovered thanks to a program for veterans.
“There are probably few problems as difficult to tackle as homelessness and addiction, and Daniel was wrestling both of those,” Kristof says. “He went through some wretched times, but he got help. He got the assistance that he needed and he took advantage of it. We do have policies, and they don’t work perfectly. But they do make a huge difference and they should be available to more people.”
“It’s a very moving portrait because he is now on the mend,” WuDunn adds. “That’s one of the themes of the book. There are a lot of people walking on the tightrope of life, but there are some incredible solutions that some incredible people have come up with. We just need to implement them at scale throughout the country. You can really help a lot of people get back on their feet so they can be fully functional on their own.”
Sadly, the economic fallout from COVID-19 has had an even more disastrous impact on the people the authors wrote about. Kristof notes that two more of his friends have perished in the past year.
“He died of a heroin overdose in March,” says Kristof of Keylan Knapp. “He’d lost his job. He was actually going to join us in Los Angeles for a book event. He was looking forward to it. He wanted to tell his family story. We obviously wrote the book before the pandemic. We focused on the toll of an unequal healthcare system, unemployment and loneliness. What has the pandemic done? It has magnified unemployment, increased social isolation and underscored the consequences of unequal healthcare. I would like to think that one result is that these cascading problems become more evident and the public will see all the more reason to address them.”
In the book, Kristof and WuDunn list an appendix of ten steps readers can take to make a difference, such as becoming a mentor, contributing to non-profits, volunteering at homeless shelters, etc. Similarly, the exhibit includes a local “action guide” that helps viewers learn about community organizations, namely the Downtown Women’s Center, Los Angeles Community Action Network, Journey Out, and others.
“Homelessness and the rights of the unhoused are a big theme of the book, but especially for our audience,” says Thurston. “Even though the images focus on different parts of the country, they can speak to our lived experience here. People can take lessons from them into their own lives. We wanted to make sure there’s ways for them to donate, volunteer and mentor here in L.A.”