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Hill Women: A Discussion with Cassie Chambers

About thirty Kentucky women and a few local men joined together on January 28, 2020 to listen to Hill Women author, Cassie Chambers, discuss her book and it’s themes at Joseph Beth Booksellers in Lexington, KY. For those that haven’t read the book, Hill Women is a memoir about Chamber’s family, specifically three generations of women (her grandmother, mother, and herself), as they grew up in Eastern Kentucky. Much of the novel centers around the role of education in their lives, the poverty in Appalachia, and the pride of the locals who survive their circumstances each and every day.

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The crowd that showed up to support their local author, whose family hails less than a 2 hour car ride away, was eager to voice their approval of Chambers’ view of rural Appalachia, and quick to contrast it with Hillbilly Elegy, J.D Vance’s 2016 memoir about his experience growing up in Appalachia. In fact, many stated that they felt more represented by Chambers and her experience than Vance’s, as well as more respected. Others were eager to compare Hill Women with Educated by Tara Westover, as Chambers discusses the importance of her education.

Personally, being a Kentucky transplant, I felt that Chambers gave readers a window into the Appalachian life, and helped negate the hillbilly stereotype. It gave me a deeper sense of appreciation and respect for the locals who live here. Yet, it also made me contemplate my own fortune in growing up in the middle class in New England, where education is almost a given, not a privilege. Chambers and I both had supportive, hardworking parents who wanted to see us succeed, and I know neither of us took our education for granted. Being able to see how much education meant to her family, and how it gave her the drive to give back to her community, makes me want to do the same and support her cause.

08a6c93d-309a-483f-a6bf-bec7069041cfI agreed with the Joseph Beth representative who introduced Chambers and stated that her book might be one of the most important books for Kentucky this year, so make sure you get your hands on a copy of Hill Women.

In the meantime, here is my best transcription of the discussion that took place at the event, which started off with a few readings and discussion points from Chambers.

Discussion from Chambers, from an excerpt about graduating with her mother as a child. 

My mother had had this education and instilled it’s importance in me. I was able to do things that were certainly beyond Granny’s wildest dreams. I think my mom thought they were possible but they certainly didn’t seem probable to the outside world. But, I was able to go on and graduate from Yale college and Harvard Law School. It was instilled in me by my family and by my community- because people had been so generous with me and given me those opportunities-  when people in communities and families are that generous, you owe it to the world to pay it forward.

And so, I returned to Kentucky, after a lot of identity struggles that take up the entire middle portion of the book {crowd giggles politely}, and began working with low income women who had experienced domestic violence, mainly doing protective orders, custody disputes, and divorces.

One thing I like talking about in the book, because I think it’s still one thing we have some work to do on in Kentucky, is there are a lot of legal barriers and access to justice barriers that exist in our court system. What I found when I was out there in these rural courts, back when I called myself a one-woman travelling law firm- traveling with my printer in the back of my car and meeting clients at Subways- I realize there were a lot of things that were stopping women from being able to use the court systems in a way that they really needed to keep themselves and their families safe. There are a lot of financial barriers, things like having to pay fees associated with having their children have attorneys appointed, or having to pay by the minute to have their cases heard by commissioners. A lot of these fees don’t sound like a lot… $50, $100, $200… but for people who are really, really struggling, that could be enough for them to say, ‘you know what, it’s not really worth it to me’ or ‘ I don’t need a protective order/ divorce that badly’. I tried to do what I could to fix the system, help them how I could, where I could, in the ways that I could.

One thing I could do, which we touched on in the introduction, was the way that I could work with Jeanette, who was a client of mine, to help change Kentucky law. Jeanette’s case came to me while I was an attorney at Legal Aid. She was in a situation where her husband came home drunk one night, he assaulted her, raised a gun and pointed it at her, pulled the trigger. The bullet came so close to her it ripped through her clothing. Her clothes are still in police custody. After the assault ended, he fled, cleaned out their bank account, and Jeanette was left with no money. She decided this was the time she was ready to leave and she wanted a divorce, a protective order- but she couldn’t afford an attorney. So that’s how I came to represent her. Throughout that process, they apprehended her husband, they put him in jail, and it turns out there was a quirk in Kentucky law that actually required her to pay for him to have a lawyer, even though I was representing her because she couldn’t afford her own. The law required he have an attorney, and that she pay for it. So Jeanette and I began to work together to change that, which started off with her giving me permission to tell her story.

One of the things I love about working with women who are in challenging situations is every time that I ask someone if I can use their story to make a difference, if I can tell it because I think it’s going to help someone, every single time people have said yes. If there’s something my story can do to help somebody else, absolutely. At first, Jeanette wasn’t sure she wanted her face and name associated with it (the bill, Jeanette’s Law), so it started off with me talking about it in a Jane Doe sort of way, and then once the policy started moving, one of the most powerful things I ever had the privilage of getting to witness was Jeanette saying ‘You know what, I’m not ashamed anymore, I’m not hiding anymore, I want to make a difference and tell my story, and I’m going to change the system.’ Seeing her step into the limelight… literally, she went on almost every news station in the state, and advocated for the policy and reform… but seeing her transform into an advocate not just for herself but for other women in similar situations as hers was the most powerful things I’ve ever witnessed. Largely because she told her story, we were able to change the law.

[The first question was more of the guest thanking Chambers for writing a memoir of the Eastern KY, and one that reflected their own experiences.]

img_0324I will say, that was what I was most nervous about- how people in Eastern Kentucky would perceive it, because I recognize that through my experiences, although my roots run here deep, I went away, and when I left, I was changed by that. I came back to Kentucky, and I worked in rural Kentucky, but I am not the same person I was when I left, and I haven’t had the same experience. When I was writing it (Hill Women), I was very aware and really tried to highlight the voices of women living there as much as I could. I really wanted it to be something that women in Eastern Kentucky would be proud of. I have just been really pleased and honored with how many women have just said what you have said, about how it is much more the story of their family and what they know as Eastern Kentucky, so thank you for that comment.

Where in your process, of your education and career, did you decide to come back to Kentucky?

For me, for so long when I found myself in these really privileged environments of Yale and Harvard, I was so focused on fitting into them, and erasing anything that had to do with Eastern Kentucky because all these people went to these fancy private New England schools. I wanted to fit in with all that and I thought I had to really lose my roots to do that. It wasn’t until I got to Harvard Law School that I realized I wasn’t really good at being a lawyer, and that I wasn’t going to get the best grades, and that I wasn’t going to fit in perfectly to this sort of privileged world. That made me began searching for things that I could genuinely gain meaning from, and feel like I was good at, and for me that was working with women living in poverty.

I started working at a legal clinic in Boston, that provided similar services to what I did when I came back to Kentucky. I got such a sense of meaning from it, and seeing the strength of these women that I was helping who were living in these situations where they were struggling, helped me reconnect with the strength and struggle in communities, and made me feel, not just okay about my roots and Eastern Kentucky, but it made me feel really proud of it. So for me, that was the turning point where I was like, you know what, it’s actually really cool where I came from, and that I managed to find my way here, and I want to go back because I like doing this work.

When you’re in a city like Boston or New York, there are maybe ten organizations that are working in areas of poverty law, and that’s not a bad thing, we need to fix urban poverty, absolutely, but in rural poverty, it presents unique challenges where you have a few people in one holler, and a few in another. It’s hard to get services to people, and people to services, and there just aren’t enough organizations who do it. A lot of times, you have services based in a Louisville or a Lexington, and some people can’t afford the gas to drive there, or a vehicle, or vehicle maintenance. I came to see that there were problems that I can address and what a better place to do them than in the community that formed me.

Can you discuss further some of the challenges in living in a rural setting?

img_0322I’ve had people say a lot of times, it’s so hard to live in the mountains and ‘Why don’t we just pay everyone to move [to the cities]?’ and one of things that I wanted to show is, I believe the mountains are worth saving. There is so much good about living in rural communities, and I think we have to provide opportunities for people who want to leave to be able to do so. But, I absolutely believe you can make a legitimate, valid choice to live in a mountain community, and a struggling community. I wanted to show people that, and give people living in cities that they should stop this idea to pay people to move to where they’re at!

When you go back [home], how do you feel about your relationships with those who you wrote about in your book? Did any of those relationships change because of the book? Do they understand more about what you went through after you left?

The interesting thing about writing a memoir is, it didn’t really occur to me until a few months before the book came out that other people were going to read it! {Audience laughs} I was really nervous about it. I went to Owsley County this weekend and talked to Aunt Ruth about it and she told me she loved the book, and that was the best thing I’ve been told. Out of all the people that liked it, that was the most important thing to me.

I think it’s always good whenever the people that you’re close to can understand. It’s really rare for us to sit down and really talk about our life story and all the complexities, and take a time to understand. Even the people, like our friendships, who say we were born here and I thought this when I was five, but then it shifted and thought this when I was ten, we don’t really have that sort of linear, full understanding of the people in our lives. I think if this book gives people more of that, especially the people I’m close to, then it’s a good thing.

I was glad you didn’t focus on, but also brought up, the struggles with the opioid crisis. You were young when it began- What did you notice upon your return, in regards to the crisis? What stood out to you that you knew was a direct result of it?

I would say, even this past weekend when I was visiting- I actually had my book editor with me, and she really wanted to see where the book takes place. Many people don’t realize that editors are just as invested in the book as the author, and that it’s a two year process where she’s probably read the book more times than I have. And so, she came down and wanted to meet everyone, and we were driving around and showing her different parts of Owlsey County, and family members were point out houses, saying, ‘oh that house there is where they’re selling this or that’ and ‘that’s a drug house’. You could see that they weren’t good situations for people to be in, and it was a visible marker that people living in those circumstances were having a tough time.

In my experience, a lot of people have moved out of these communities, and friends talk about losing their kids, not just leaving for other opportunities but to drugs, to violence. Have you found that the decline in tobacco farming and the increase in opioid usages has broken up the tight knit communities? 

That’s an interesting question and one that I would like to ponder on. My initial answer is that I think neighbors still help neighbors. Just because people are now struggling with the opioid crisis, in some ways it’s different in kind but not in nature of the struggles these communities have encountered before. These are places where neighbors have problems of poverty, sickness, or whatnot, and the community has come together to help each other. I think that people still do that. If anyone else has thoughts, I would love to hear and feel free to come up and talk to me about it because I think that’s an interesting question.

People would say to me, I didn’t know you were from Eastern Kentucky. I don’t know whether to take that as a compliment or not, but what are your suggestions for how you counter that bias against people?

I think you tell people things that surprise them. I think you tell them stories, like some of the stories told in this book, about people having more complicated political views than you think they would, or people who have viewpoints who directly counter the stereotype. Even just stories about the really smart, creative, gritty people who live there, because I really do think that other book about Appalachia does sort of put the problems on the people. The unfortunate result of that has been, a lot of what the rest of the world thinks about Appalachia is that the problems are because the people aren’t working hard enough, or their problems are morality, and so they’re problems of systems. I think the best way to do that [counter the bias] is tell them stories about people that they don’t expect to hear.

 

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