Without a Net
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Without a Net chronicles a young woman’s downward spiral from a middle-class housewife in a suburb of Washington, D.C., to a homeless single mother in a seaside town in Maine. Michelle Kennedy’s down-to-earth narrative takes readers on a bumpy ride in the Subaru she and her three childrenall under the age of fiveinhabit as she strives to jumpstart a new life.
Without a Net reminds one of Jonathan Kozol’s Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America, which humanized poverty and shocked the nation. Like many of the characters in that exposé, Kennedy is a hard-working, loving mother whose homelessness is not the result of wayward tendencies but of financial duress, a failed marriage, and a few poorly made choices, not to mention a dearth of affordable housing.
At eighteen Kennedy, a former United States Senate page from a middle-class background, is an American University undergraduate unable to afford tuition and ineligible for financial aid. To become “independent” in the bursar’s eye and qualify for funding, Kennedy marries her boyfriend, Tom. Before long, her school spirit wanes and she’s “ready to move on to [her] next adventurepregnancy,” first Matthew, then Lydia and Alex.
“Tired of the proverbial rat race” and longing to live “off the grid,” Tom quits his computer technician’s job and disappears on logging stints, leaving Kennedy to fend off creditors and tend to their three children. The call of the wild leads them all to a ramshackle cabin without running water. They eke by, showering in melted snow. When Tom’s logging work dries up, Kennedy enjoys her reentry into the working world until Lydia, three, is hospitalizeda result of Tom’s negligence. Kennedy refuses to further sacrifice her children’s safety for the “simple life,” informing Tom that she’s leaving, with or without him. As she drives south with children in towsans husband, tears flowingshe trusts that her uncertain future will be a better one.
The beach and laid-back vibe of Stone Harbor seem promising, and Kennedy, now twenty-four, swiftly lands a job in a bar and grill. Her calculations make it clear that she cannot save for an apartment while paying for a motel. Childcare is also too costly, and Kennedy reluctantly tucks in her children in the Subaru before each late shift, checking on them when other waitresses take smoke breaks.
Aside from a few coworkers, nobody knows that Kennedy and her cheerful children are homeless, bathing at truck stops, cooking campfire dinners, and scrimping and saving for her first and last month’s rent, but struggling to save enough for a security deposit. As landlord after landlord turns them away, Kennedy braves the maze of public assistance only to find she is ineligible for food stamps. Tormented by powerlessness, Kennedy soldiers on, steadied by her own resolve and her love for her children, and in the end, she triumphs.
Michelle Kennedy’s Salon.com piece about this experience touched a nerve: E-mails and letters poured in from readers who wanted the whole story. Kennedy was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her work in Brain, Child magazine. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor.
What compelled you to write this book? Did you simply want to share your story, or is your aim to bring more attentionand with it helpto the homeless?
I never planned on writing my story at all. In fact, I worked very hard at never telling anyone about what we had gone through. It wasn’t until I read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich that I felt charged up enough to put my story in print. I was so disappointed by that bookhow it vaulted an already “comfortable” person into an expert on being poorthat I just started writing about me and my children. The initial result was an essay published by Salon.com. Letters and e-mails started pouring in from people who read the piece on Salon, and I knew that rather than just writing for me, I had another purpose, which was to bring to light the notion that the homeless aren’t just people who don’t want to work or who are on drugs. I needed to show that anyone could become homeless. From the letters I’ve received since the publication of the book, I know that my story resonates with many people.
More than a million people in the United States are homeless, and families have become the fastest growing subset among them. What is the most important thing you think the average American can do to help relieve this crisis?
The most important thing is for everyone to acknowledge that it could be them. Once you imagine yourself in the shoes of a homeless personand I don’t necessarily mean a person living in a box near a subway gratethen you can truly begin to understand that the housing crisis in this country is real. There are many people who have homes, but barely. Many families spend more than 50 percent of what they earn in a month on housing, leaving very little for heat, electricity, and food.
As your marriage waned, you responded to a friend’s query about divorce: “I would still need his money, and I would still be home with the kids all the time. The only difference would be that I wouldn’t be able to have sex, as opposed to the once every three months that I currently got to have it.” Was it solely for financial “stability” that you settled for so little from marriage, and perhaps yourself?
That’s a hard question. The easy answer would be yes, but it wouldn’t be the whole truth. I really did love Tom, for a long time. And many of our problems were caused by our desire to “live life our way.” But we weren’t very good at compromising. I made myself into a victim very easily. I allowed Tom to say that he wouldn’t “let” me do things, and this began to make him look like the bad guy. If I had been stronger, I would have left before it ever got that bad. But I was young and still thought of us as being in love.
While homeless you question, with heartrending candor, whether your children would be better off without you. Did you ever believe this to be true?
No, not really. I certainly thought it, but whether or not they would have been better off, I would never have given them up in order to find out. My aim was to make sure I was worthy of them. I still work at that every day.
When you were homeless in Stone Harbor, you called your parents to ask for help, but declined to divulge the truth of your situation. Do you regret that decision now?
Not entirely. While I wish we hadn’t lived in the car for so long, I do know what it would have been like to just cave and go back and let my father take care of me again. Looking back, I am completely satisfied that I did it the way I did. I came out of it knowing that I was a stronger person and that I could provide for my children myself. I came out of it a “grown-up” rather than the teenage girl I had beenplaying house with my boyfriend.
You were an English major before you dropped out of college, and you clearly were an avid reader throughout the period you relate in Without a Net. Did you write or keep a journal during the years depicted in this book?
I am a horrible journal keeper. I try and then I forget and then I go back and tear out the horrible stuff I wrote before. I didn’t really keep a detailed log of what we did, but I did write a lot of bad poetry and essays about it after we were housed again. I am fortunate that I had Hogan and my kids here to keep me honest when it came to details. It took a long time to reconstruct some scenes, but at the same time, the whole thing is so vivid in my memory it seems like it just happened. If I had known I was going to write a book about it, I would haveI would have taken a few pictures toobut it really never occurred to me.
The pioneering Mrs. Hopkins, your first landlady after being homeless, seems to represent everything you’d like to be. Do you feel like you’re moving closer to that, having survived your travails and having become a writer in your own right?
I never feel like I am completely together. But I guess I feel like I have more to offer, having been through so much already. I really hope that one day I can be a wise woman and have much sage advice to offer the young, but as for right now, I just hope that a few people can learn from the mountains of mistakes I’ve made.
“To support your children in the manner they deserve,” you take a job working at a credit card company, where you “ruthlessly” encourage others’ debt. Do you think being able to live in accordance with one’s moral principles is sometimes a luxury the poor can’t afford?
It depends on your definition of poor. I really worked for a long time to make up to my children what I had denied them by working for a place I hated. What I’ve realized since is that my time is worth more than the latest Gameboy and that they have come to expect me being there for them emotionally more than to buy them stuff. I have struggled to find a balance between living in a shack without running water and living in the suburbs with both John and I working and giving our children every name brand thing you can think of. When you are truly poor, you do what you have to do to get your kids the bare essentials. I have had a couple of people write to me and tell me that they can’t believe I left that job, that I should have just sucked it up for the good benefits. I can’t live like that. If it had been the only job available to me, I would have stayed until I could afford to go elsewhere, but that is it. I am not the kind of person who is willing to make a career out of being miserable just for the sake of a “good job.” And I might add, that it wasn’t finding a job that was difficult. It was getting over the huge hump of finding enough cash to get into an apartment. The ratio of housing costs to earned wages in this country is unbelievable.
When you left the cabin in northern Maine, why did you invite Tom to come with you?
Because I felt like I owed him that much. I felt like it wasn’t right for me to just bail out. I needed to give us a chance once last time. In the end though, I had obviously cared too much, because he just let us drive away.
In the epilogue, you have just bought your parents’ Vermont farm, have a loving family, and have found success as a writer. This life sounds idyllic. Do you believe that the challenges you overcame were necessary for you to find happiness?
It does seem relatively idyllic, but I think that the only challenges to my happiness were my own mental ones. I am still learning how to settle down. I still wonder if the grass is greener over another fence, but with five children, I don’t get the chance to look over too many fences. I think happiness is available to anyone at almost anytime, but we have to be ready to go and get it. And some of the joy has to be in the journey of achievement, not just in the achievement itself.
You write that you love to explore and felt destined as a young woman to have adventures, and your book reads somewhat like a down-on-your-luck adventure tale. What adventures lie in store for you now?
I have no idea. That’s the great thing about life: you never know you’re having an adventure until you’re out of it and you look back in awe of what you’ve been through.
- Throughout Without a Net, Kennedy repeatedly accepts Tom’s poorly thought out decisions and his accusations. Discuss the points in the story in which you feel that she crosses the line between accommodation and self-deception in her life with him.
- There is a tendency in society to stigmatize the homeless and the poor. Kennedy allows Diane to believe, albeit briefly, that she is a widow. What role do you think shame plays in Kennedy’s efforts to keep her situation secret?
- Kennedy and her children are awoken one night in the station wagon by a police officer who insists that they move on. What does it say about society when the homeless are treated like criminals?
- In what ways is Kennedy’s decision to stay with Tom for so long selfish and in what ways is it self-sacrificing? Can the two ever be the same?
- How has this book changed your conceptions about homelessness and financial security?
- Discuss the interpretation of Without a Net as an indictment of a rich country that doesn’t do enough to help its poor.
- Kennedy’s father believes that work is inherently unpleasant (“or they wouldn’t call it work”). And when she tells Hogan she wants to be a writer, he compares it to wanting to be a rock star. Without a Net seems to prove that hard work and dedication can be the path to finding a fulfilling vocation. What do you think about the idea that enjoying one’s job is an option available only to the middle-classthose who don’t live paycheck to paycheck?
- “After three months of living in the car . . . we have a place to live. . . . All it took was one nice person willing to take a chance. Just one and our life is completely different.” Think about ways in your own life that you could try and become that “one nice person.”
- Hogan seems to be everything that Tom is not: responsible, compassionate, considerate. Although Kennedy and Hogan try to take it slowly, their relationship evolves quickly. What is your opinion about Kennedy’s becoming involved again so rapidly?
- In your opinion, how large a role should financial stability play in the decision to have a child?