Authors Are Failing to Tell the Real Stories of West Virginia Women

Sarah Mullens on Abortion and Where Narratives Fall Apart

To circumvent the predictable, normally I’d have shown my passport. Without it, the West Virginia driver’s license—its bulky Arial typeset bleeding into the margins, its blurry mountain scene hovering behind my height, weight, and eye color—was this morning’s proxy for identity. Knowing already what came next, I handed the card to the security guard. He flexed it between thick thumbs and index fingers, his teasing biding its time behind faux scrutiny.

As we walked into an elevator carrying us sixteen stories and into a multinational’s Fifth Avenue headquarters, he asked, wryly, Now are those your real teeth? Without the energy to chide back, I flashed a quick smile and vowed silently to get, finally, a New York ID. In the crowded conference room he offered, without bad intentions and loud enough for everyone to hear, We don’t have any moonshine, but can I get you some water?

Only months later, without ever transferring my license, I left New York City and returned to West Virginia after nearly 15 years of being away. To say it was a move back home is oversimplifying: the time had changed both of us, and I’d spent nearly all of it erasing from myself any trace of Appalachia. I mimicked intonation and trained cadence until, victorious, I could navigate a party with no attention to my accent. Even still, at Brooklyn bars, an honest response to Where’s home? invited a voyeuristic lingering.

My grandparents, I assured the titillated strangers, were public school principals. They’d insulated me from the West Virginia of the public imagination. Go on picturing the barefoot-and-pregnant teenager drinking Bud heavy on the back of her boyfriend’s four-wheeler, I was never brave enough to say, but she has nothing to do with me.

The news that I was leaving the city (and for where, again?) inspired mostly bewildered looks and well-meaning questions from friends who had grown up with a narrow portrait of life in West Virginia. Even among circles tightly attuned to bigotry, friends made jokes about Mountain Dew mouth; one suggested that I keep my Brooklyn dentist. I always laughed along. The portrayal we’d grown up with situates West Virginians indelibly on the victimhood spectrum, between angry and aggrieved and piteous and flaccid. We’re all desensitized.

The publishing world, too, shares this blind spot. Christa Parravani’s Loved and Wanted, a memoir released last year, shrinks to a dogwhistle many of the blatantly bigoted descriptions present in her 2019 Guernica piece “Life and Death in West Virginia” that previewed the story. In navigating an unplanned pregnancy, she realizes, aghast, that wealth and status cannot insulate her from crumbling infrastructure and anti-democratic policy in “the reddest state in the country.” In both pieces, West Virginian cliché acts as desolate setting “without the usual charm of a college town” and oppressive antagonist, with its armies of “nosy” nobodies, “amused” at her plight.

The piece shows Parravani, as a tenure-track professor at West Virginia University in Morgantown, consoling her out-of-town students that “they’ve arrived in a place worth writing about,” that “good material is worth some discomfort.” As she did in her own writing, she encouraged her students to mine Appalachian decimation—“coal, fracking, poison water, permit-less gun carry, white supremacy, Mylan pharmaceuticals, an opioid crisis that claims more people than anywhere else in the country”—for use as texture in an otherwise flat personal essay. Time spent living in the state, per the narratives she publishes and shepherds, is redeemed only by its ripeness for claims of trauma by association.

Rather than demonizing a place and a people, let’s talk about the West Virginians who suffer most from the chokehold of regressive policies.

Loved and Wanted, published in 2020, toned down the article’s most egregious language as though anticipating the argument. “A place worth writing about” became “a place in history worth writing about,” and the sources of “good material” have become the “ugly bits” she’s instructed students to hide in their writing “so the beautiful ones can surface.” While I appreciate the reckoning that must have preceded the changes in her tone, Parravani, in centering herself as the benevolent protector of the state, curating her own role in the story based on her audience, is following a long and ugly mountain tradition.

Simply being a West Virginian, in this book, is to be complicit in, and to contribute to, the problems that Parravani faces. Of a doctor who, in compliance with the national domestic gag rule, didn’t help her find abortion services, she says,“he didn’t pity me. He didn’t feel I’d been wronged. He couldn’t help me because he didn’t want to. His choice.” When she did find a doctor who was willing to break federal law to provide a medical abortion script over the phone, it was a “nosy nurse” that kept her from pursuing the option. She besmirches the clinic for their begrudging compliance with the 24-hour waiting period, which they were legally obligated to follow. Consistently, Parravani’s outrage is grounded in the misplaced assumption that everyone—doctors to nurses to hourly clinic staff—has the means and desire to put their livelihoods at risk by breaking the law for her.

These laws, of course, justify our outrage. They are part of a decades-long, national campaign against women’s bodily autonomy, which we’ve seen most recently coming to a crescendo in Texas—but they are not the work of individual healthcare providers. I sit on the board of The Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, the last remaining abortion provider in the state, and am consistently floored by its smart, resourceful, progressive staff. Despite onerous legal restrictions and intimidation from anti-abortion protestors, they provide a safe and inclusive clinic environment.

The Women’s Health Center of West Virginia Photo via The Women’s Health Center of West Virginia’s Facebook page.

After the passage of Amendment 1—the state statute prohibiting the use of Medicaid funds for abortion—a right-wing messaging campaign spread lies about abortion’s legality; the Women’s Health Center responded with billboards that read Abortion in West Virginia is Still Legal. In Parravani’s book, she offers comments on these billboards: “It should read: Abortion Is Still Legal for Those Who Live Close. Abortion Is Still Legal for Those Who Can Pay.

Catastrophizing the living conditions in our state is nothing new for storytellers. Of a documentary film guilty of the same, Catherine Venable Moore wrote:

As I sat through this latest iteration of Appalachian grief writ large, I began to seethe—not at some alleged oppressors, but at the narrative itself. I cannot live inside the story of this film, I remember repeating to myself, like a chant. This can’t be my story because nothing lives here.

In covering our disasters—an admittedly long list which certainly includes abortion access—it is easy to name “each and every pain,” to forget the ways the reality of a place is constructed and altered by the stories we tell. The Women’s Health Center operates on a sliding scale, and no one is turned away due to inability to pay—these details do not appear in Parravani’s book, nor does the fact that there are reproductive justice organizations, like Holler Health Justice, who help women find transportation to the clinic. While these resources are slimmer than they should be, their omission from this book, intentional or otherwise, feels dishonest. There are people doing this work; they exist.

*

My defense of West Virginia is not a project in denial. The reality of abortion access is dark here, for reasons that are not covered often enough by the national media and publishing world. Women of color, trans folks, and people who rely on Medicaid for health coverage seek abortions every day in West Virginia, and their access is severely limited. However, as Elizabeth Catte noted in her 2018 book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, “There’s not a single social problem in Appalachia … that can’t be found elsewhere in our country … In the region, we often speak of Appalachia as a mirror that reflects something troubling but recognizable back to the nation.”

Rather than blaming the mirror for the reflection it projects, let’s instead look with clarity, especially when we don’t like what we see. Let’s talk about the loss of state Medicaid funding for abortion. Let’s talk about people without transportation to the clinic. Let’s talk about those who end their pregnancies out of fear of their living children going hungry. Let’s talk about the bodies of people who, as a last resort, attempt to end their pregnancies unsafely. These are the stakes. Rather than demonizing a place and a people, let’s talk about the West Virginians who suffer most from the chokehold of regressive policies. By erasing the state’s history of resistance and indicting assumed motivations, the “Trump Country” narrative enforces itself. Apathy, its most toxic byproduct, inevitably follows.

An episode of The Guardian’s “Anywhere but Washington” docuseries sought to understand Trumpism through the lens of residents of McDowell County, where a “higher percentage of people voted for Donald Trump than anywhere else in America.” It’s the story of a people clinging to an old way of life, intent on dragging the rest of the country back to a time when coal was king. What’s left only technically unspoken, but certainly implied, is that these undereducated hillbillies are the locus of right-wing populism, worthy of scapegoating from progressives everywhere.

But, as Daniel Sidorick has noted, it was 785 votes for Donald Trump in the Republican primary—91.28 percent of 806 Republican McDowell County voters cast a ballot for Trump over Ted Cruz et. al—that earned McDowell the visit by The Guardian. What the episode left out: the Democratic primary had nearly three times the turnout, and in it, Bernie won twice as many votes as Trump. It aired three weeks before the 2016 general election, the day many of my most progressive friends, enveloped by pessimism, stayed home or voted third party.

Whatever the episode lacks in astute political commentary—its refusal to engage, for example, Bernie’s unprecedented support in the state—it supplements with near-pornographic descriptions of “the poorest county in one of the poorest states” where the life expectancy for men is now on par with that of Ethiopia. With its small and relatively homogeneous population and its meager five electoral college votes, West Virginia is unlikely to determine the outcome of a national race. Politics, here, seems a thin veil for yet another picture of Appalachian squalor. These stories are not built for West Virginian viewers, quite clearly, but we see them. And after the crew returns to D.C or to New York, we are left to live in the narrative they built.

*

When I was nine, my grandfather, Pops, took our entire family to see October Sky, the film adaptation of Homer Hickam’s memoir Rocket Boys. The book and film were set in Coalwood, West Virginia, not far from where Pops grew up as the son of a miner in a company town, and he wanted us to see Hollywood’s depiction of the Depression-era coal country of his youth. He recognized the characters, especially Homer’s coal miner father who insisted his son follow him into the mines rather than pursue his dream of becoming a rocket scientist. It was easy to dislike the father, and after the film, I said as much. In those days, Pops explained, going into the mines was a good way to make a living. He wanted a good life for his son. But you’re right, he could have handled it better. He was challenging me, gently, to put Appalachian characters into proper context without stripping them of agency. In this way, Parravani’s claim that “we don’t speak poorly of our state the same way we don’t speak ill of the dead,” isn’t quite right. The line might be more honestly written as we don’t speak poorly of our state the same way we don’t speak ill of our families. That is to say: it is done all the time, but only in the right company, and nuance and intention matter a lot.

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Watching October Sky was the first time I remember feeling represented in the culture I consumed, and it is the only time I remember Pops in a movie theater. It’s far from perfect, but the film’s treatment of its poor West Virginian protagonist was refreshing: despite Homer’s surroundings, he was clever, perceptive, and worthy of a future of his choosing. Later and with better literature, I found myself living happily inside the nuanced West Virginian settings of Jayne Ann Phillips and Ann Pancake. I recognized the layered characters with complex motivations in Breece DJ Pancake’s stories. My own misplaced assumptions about race in the region were upended by Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days and Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead. These stories and their writers show care to characters, fictional and otherwise, situating them inside “the real conditions of mountain life … the normal complexity of social and economic conditions which prevailed in the mountains as in every other section of the nation”—what Henry Shapiro identifies as lacking in most Appalachian portrayal. This seems a reasonable minimum standard for writing about the region, and it is in stark contrast with the active curation of a sensationalized narrative present in “Trump country” news genre and in books like Loved and Wanted.

Because it has been so forcefully caricatured by monied interests going back centuries, and because the caricatures conditioned a nation to picture a litany of disasters at the mention of its name, even passive evocations of West Virginia deserve scrutiny. Though there’s a naked honesty I admire in Donald Barthleme’s brief and singular use of it in “The Balloon”—“trailer trucks carried away the depleted fabric, which is now stored in West Virginia, awaiting some other time of unhappiness”—the reader’s preconceptions about the state do the work of image-building. The story commodifies, though passively, the state’s default negative frame. West Virginia’s unhappiness runs parallel to the narrator’s. West Virginia is nothing more than a storage facility for what is no longer necessary in Manhattan. Saying either of these things outright would be redundant.

Since before West Virginia’s founding, its economy has been defined by extraction—of timber, of coal, of natural gas—and these foundations have shaped our politics as a state and our identity as a people. The word extraction now carries devastating connotations, but things could have been different. If mining companies had honored the humanity of workers, had treated the land with respect, the story of coal in West Virginia could have ended with less destruction. But because it was simpler to merely take, we are left with silicon in our lungs and toxins in our streams. I’d like to believe we can expect more from those who mine here now, not for natural gas or for coal, but for publications.

Sarah Mullens
Sarah Mullens
Sarah Mullens is a sixth-generation West Virginian, a product manager for social impact technology, and the incoming Development Chair for the Board of Directors of the Women's Health Center of West Virginia, the only remaining abortion provider in the state.





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