A friend recently posted on Facebook a local news story of a battered five-week-old baby. The story portrays the child’s father as the culprit of his multiple head injuries and broken bones. It also states that the baby’s mother attempted to cover up her partner’s abuse of the baby, which she witnessed firsthand on several occasions, and failed to seek medical treatment for the child in a timely manner. One person commented, "How does this happen?" Indeed, it is difficult to understand the abuse of a child by anyone, let alone the battering of a tiny baby by the kid’s own father. And it is equally as hard—if not harder—to fathom that a mother could stand by and watch her innocent five-week-old be beaten and shaken and then neglect to have his injuries treated.
I was reminded of this news story a couple of days later as I finished Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina (1992). The semi-autobiographical novel depicts the childhood of Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatright, who is born to the “white trash” Anney Boatright, promptly labeled a bastard by the state, and, later, physically and sexually abused for years by her stepfather, Daddy Glen Waddell. The story ends with the absolutely heart-wrenching portrayal of Glen’s brutal assault and rape of the then 12-year-old Bone. Anney interrupts the attack and pulls Glen off of Bone, only to turn away from her daughter to comfort Glen when he cries and apologizes. Anney takes Bone to the hospital for treatment but disappears as soon as the young girl is signed in. She turns up a last time to visit Bone as the child recovers from the attack, which left her with a dislocated shoulder and various other physical injuries, at Aunt Raylene’s. At this time, Anney turns over to Bone a new copy of her birth certificate, one that she has managed—after countless attempts—to have printed without the word “Bastard” stamped on it, and then leaves for good. Bone knows that her mother is headed to another state to live with Glen.
Just as it is difficult to understand the abuse and neglect of the five-week-old baby in the news article, it is hard to muster much sympathy for Anney, a mother who ignores the long-term abuse of her daughter and finally runs away with her daughter’s attacker and rapist, presumably to continue an emotional and sexual relationship with this brutal man. But as much as readers struggle against it, the book urges us toward an—albeit tenuous—understanding of Anney Boatright Waddell. In the somewhat puzzling final words of the novel, Bone seems to come to peace with her mother’s betrayal and even goes so far as to posit her mother as a sort of role model, saying, “I was who I was going to be, someone like her, like Mama, a Boatright woman” (309). Surely, this statement is partially the product of Bone’s still traumatized state-of-mind, but it seems to be more than that. Bone sees that, like herself, her mother has struggled against adversity her entire life and persevered in the way that she knows how. Ultimately, then, we are given little choice but to read this in many ways despicable mother as victimized by a social system that has positioned her as “trash” and triumphant in finally (though certainly belatedly) giving her daughter the chance for a better life.
There’s no doubt about it, Anney’s life is defined and limited by the systematic oppression of the poor, white, working class. As a Boatright, a member of a family reputed in the Greenville, South Carolina community for shiftlessness, fighting, drunkeness, and sexual immorality, Anney has struggled against the stereotype of “white trash,” a label that she felt inscribed upon her very being when the state officially designated her first child a “Bastard.” J. Brooks Bouson points out that although Anney resists the label of “trash” by working hard on a daily basis and repeatedly seeking to have Bone’s birth certificate changed, she internalizes the stigma of her position as a poor white woman, ultimately passing on the shame caused by this stigma to Bone and her other daughter, Reese (106). As if the shame of her position as “white trash” were not enough, Anney struggles for the means to feed her family as Glen loses job after job because of his bad temper. She works full-time at a local diner, periodically takes a second job at a factory, and once—after she is forced to feed her children a meal of crackers and ketchup—even turns to prostitution. Anney is also portrayed as psychologically tormented by the knowledge—however deeply denied—of Glen’s hatred and abuse of Bone. Anney dates the seemingly doting Glen for two years to ensure that he will “make a good daddy” (15) and, after the marriage, leaves Glen two times because of his physical mistreatment of Bone (she is not aware of his sexual abuse until the final rape scene). During the times when Anney and her girls do live with Glen, Anney is careful to remove Bone from the house at the times when she cannot be home to oversee her care. She sends Bone to Aunt Alma’s after school and to stay with Aunt Ruth or Aunt Raylene during summer vacations. On the rare occasion of witnessing Bone’s abuse, Anney cries for Glen to stop and afterward encourages her daughter to just stay out of Glen’s way in order to avoid the beatings that she knows Bone does not deserve. Anney is depicted as physically and psychologically exhausted by the trials in her life; Bone notices that she looks more worn with every passing year.
Besides being just a really bad guy, on a figurative level, Glen seems to embody the system of power that keeps Anney in a state of poverty and shame. Although his relationship with his family of origin is strained and despite his failure to secure a steady job, Glen is from a different social stratum than the Boatrights. He is depicted as coming from affluence and uses his marriage into the Boatright family to “shame his daddy and shock his brothers” (13). As he ensnares Anney and her girls within an ultimately dysfunctional family unit, then, Glen becomes representative of the inescapable dominance of the bourgeois over the poor working class. Anney is no match for his brutality and manipulation; she finally gives in to the system against which she has struggled for so long and, in the process, betrays her daughter and loses herself. She abandons Bone and leaves with Glen because she so badly wants to escape the degradation of her position as “white trash.” She receives from Glen the attention that she never got within a family defined by a culture of shame, a family in which the highest form of compliment to a child seems to be to call him or her “ugly,” a title which ensures that the child is “a Boatright for sure” (21). However misguidedly, Anney also seems to see in the middle-class Glen her chance to flee the shame of her existence as a Boatright, a family regarded in the larger community as worth little more than garbage.
Despite her ultimate abandonment of Bone, Anney does succeed in re-writing the originally sordid story of her daughter’s beginnings by securing for Bone a new birth certificate. Indeed, the whole lower section of the paper that Anney gives to Bone before she leaves with Glen is “blank, unmarked, unstamped” (309), signifying that because Anney has managed to unmoor Bone’s origins from the stereotypical origins of most “white trash,” Bone’s future is no longer bound to the restraints of her class position. It is perhaps because Anney gives Bone this gift of hope that Bone is able to face her future while still acknowledging her family’s past. The new birth certificate comes to signify, as Tanya Horeck states, “the inextricability of the daughter’s future from that of her mother’s at the same time [that it] contain[s] the possibility the child will script her life differently” (56). In the final words of the novel, Bone claims the strength and perseverance of the Boatright women, but she is able to imagine a fate different from that of her aunts and especially her mother.
Bastard Out of Carolina challenges us to look beyond Anney’s inability to consistently protect and nurture her daughter, despite her appalling behavior in the final scenes. The novel points to the ways that Anney has herself been brutalized by a system of oppression that works to keep her in a state of disempowerment and shame. I don’t claim to understand Anney’s refusal to face her daugher’s abuse or her final choice to leave her daughter, but I can sympathize with the physical and psychological exhaustion inflicted upon Anney by a lifetime of debasement as “trash.”
So, the news article about the abused five-week-old bothers me, not only because I am horrified by the terror and pain inflicted upon this little guy by the very people who are supposed to care for him in the first weeks of his life, but also because I read the subtext of this article to say of the parents, “What more would you expect from these trash?” From their separate addresses, which are provided in the article, we can infer that the parents are unmarried and also that they live in some of the most impoverished areas in our city. Furthermore, the article cites the particular obscenities that the mother claims to have heard the father shout at the child, making both of them seem ignorant of the social norms that dictate the acceptable use of these terms in both private and public settings. The mother is also portrayed as either slow to understand that her child was being abused or a heartless bitch to deny him treatment. The father is depicted as using an imagined medical condition to excuse his abuse of the baby. He is further discredited by the detailed recounting of his past convictions: “Wihebrink is no stranger to local authorities, having been booked into the Delaware County jail nine times. He was convicted of battery by body waste (in 2006), possession of marijuana (2008) and receiving stolen property (2004).” Like the Boatrights are regarded by the greater Greenville community, then, these people are clearly perceived by the writers of this article as poor, stupid, lazy, and morally bankrupt, and readers are invited to see them this way as well. Given the details provided in the news article, these parents may be all of these things, but to characterize them in this light might also allow all of us to ignore the social circumstances that have almost certainly contributed to the awful mistreatment of this baby. To represent and perceive these people as “trash” is to dismiss our own culpability in maintaining a system that shames and debases our poor simply for being poor and, in doing so, might very well perpetuate the abuse of children.
Bouson, J. Brooks. “’You Nothing But Trash’: White Trash Shame in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.” Southern Literary Journal 34.1 (2004): 101-23.
Horeck, Tanya. “’Let Me Tell You a Story’: Writing the Fiction of Childhood in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.” New Formations 42 (2000): 47-56.