I just finished a fascinating and important book called “Maid,” by Stephanie Land, which seems to have been shepherded to publication by Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of the best-selling sensation “Nickel and Dimed,” and founder of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
I say the book is important because it strips away virtually all the cultural baggage of the war on the poor and, I assume unintentionally, asks the simple question: what do you do about people who are poor because they are idiots?
Library shelves groan under the weight of books about the underlying causes of poverty stemming from racism, sexism, free trade, sudden sickness, economic dislocation, alcohol and drug addiction, and so on. But Stephanie Land doesn’t suffer from any of those problems. She grew up in a white middle class household in Alaska, went to public schools, moved to Washington State, and was admitted to the University of Montana in Missoula (more on that later).
And then her life went to shit, for no obvious reason.
Why is Stephanie Land a maid?
Despite “Maid” being the title of the book, this question becomes more and more bewildering as the book progresses. As the narrative opens, she’s living a carefree life in Port Townsend, Washington, an isolated, aging hippie community, where she works at a cafe, hangs out in bars, and meets Jamie, the soon-to-be father of her soon-to-be child, Mia.
After discovering the pregnancy, which she decides to keep, and being violently threatened by Jamie, who she decides to continue living near so he can have a relationship with his daughter, she moves into a series of inadequate transitional housing arrangements, and begins her career as a maid.
Why she does this is never adequately explained, and as the book goes on it becomes increasingly bewildering. She hates all her co-workers. She hates driving between houses and she hates paying for gas, neither of which she’s reimbursed for and the combination of which leave her making much less than minimum wage. She terrorizes her clients by constantly blurting out uncomfortable information about her personal life, and hates most of them as well (the central section of the book is a recitation of all the grievances she developed against every one of her clients in the roughly two years the book covers).
But most of all, she hates filth. “Disgust sensitivity” varies widely between individuals and cultures, and is even correlated in some studies with political orientation, which you can see in people like Donald Trump who describe immigrants as a kind of filthy, sick, penetrating, and contaminating force that has to be stopped and sterilized. Stephanie Land suffers from an extremely high level of disgust sensitivity, which is not particularly unusual, but makes cleaning people’s kitchens and toilets an obviously strange career choice.
The Strange Story of the Car Accident
About two thirds of the way into “Maid,” Land recounts a breathtaking story, which I’ll try to share the highlights of:
“‘Can I have my window down?’ [Mia] asked, her sick voice squeaking a little. ‘I want Ariel’s [a Little Mermaid doll] hair to blow like in the movie.’ I did it, not caring how ridiculous that seemed. I just needed to get to work. I needed to finish work. I needed to sleep…
“I glanced to my right as an older brown Ford Bronco passed us. I locked eyes with the other driver, and he gave me a smile, then pointed to Mia’s window, just as I saw a flash of red hair in the back window behind Mia’s seat…
“Over the next bend was a stoplight where I could do a U-turn. I have time, I thought. I could turn around, stop on the eastbound side of the highway, jump out, grab her doll, and then take the next exist, go under the bridge, turn back around, and we’d be on our way…
“As I stepped from my car out onto the asphalt, the wind from cars speeding by felt hot, blowing through my favorite green t-shirt that had thinned over the years. I scoured the grass that divided the east- and westbound traffic, my ponytail smacking toward my face, so much so I used one hand to hold it against my head. I must have looked odd, searching for a doll amid the candy wrappers and soda bottles full of piss that had been dumped in the median…
“Then I saw the shape of the tail, fanned into two sections, but no sign of her shell-bikini-clad upper body. ‘Shit,” I said again. I bent down to pick it up, and heard it.
“The sound of metal crunching and glass exploding at once. It was a sound I knew from accidents I’d been in as a teenager, but I had never heard it like this.
“A car. Hitting another car. My car. My car with Mia sitting in the back seat.
“That sound was the window next to my baby girl’s head exploding, popping like a glass balloon.”
Her daughter is unhurt in the accident, but her car is totaled and she’s unable to work for several more days until she’s able to borrow a car from a different casual boyfriend. Weeks or months later (the book’s timeline is always a little bit confusing) she collects an insurance check and is able to replace her car.
The Strange Educational Journey
Throughout “Maid,” Land relates her studies at Skagit Valley College, a 2-year public college in Washington State, mainly through the prism of the Pell grant that covers her tuition there. But there is no sense that she learns anything from Skagit Valley College. She takes online math and physics courses, and passes open-book tests after putting her daughter to sleep. She even passes physical education courses by lying about her workout routine. She is doing all this based on an intuition or hunch that doing so will somehow, someday, “improve her life.”
Hilariously, what actually improves her life is going down to the financial aid office and taking out a student loan, since once she does that she finally has enough cash to put down a deposit on an apartment that’s not infested with “black mold,” one of the many contaminants she’s obsessed with fighting. The fact that she could have done so on page 1, instead of page 200, of her harrowing tale genuinely never seems to have dawned on her.
The Strange Case of Missoula, Montana
Finally, as promised, let us return to the question of Missoula, Montana, which happens to be my hometown. Stephanie Land moved from Alaska to an isolated community in Washington State in order to be closer to Missoula, Montana, where she planned to study writing at the University of Montana. This is not an unreasonable thing to do: I myself often refer to the “conveyor belt” running between Missoula, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon.
But here is the strange part: having made it all the way to Washington State, she then stopped. Despite spending 20+ hours in her car every week driving on county roads between isolated mansions, it’s only in the final pages of the book that she is able to hop onto I-90 and drive straight east, arriving in Missoula about 9 hours later. I’ve done this drive dozens of times. It’s no big deal.
Once she arrives in Missoula, she realizes that all of her dreams were true, Missoula really is paradise on Earth, and she transfers to the University of Montana creative writing program.
The same program she had been admitted to years earlier, in the opening pages of the book.
Conclusion: we need a welfare state that accommodates the existence of idiots
“Maid” is written in a way that seems almost deliberately designed to elicit as little sympathy as possible. That’s not to say it’s poorly written: in the car accident scene I paraphrased above I gasped when the other driver’s car smashed into hers from behind. But all of Land’s problems flow directly from her own actions: her pregnancy, her housing choices, her career choices, her educational choices, and her life choices are all made freely, with none of the kind of coercion we’re used to seeing in emotional pleas to stamp out poverty. She’s simply terrible at navigating the basic structure of life in the United States of America circa 2010.
And I think that is ultimately the most powerful message one can take from this book. If it doesn’t fit in with your existing preconceptions about the deserving and undeserving poor, “Maid” won’t change your mind. But if you’re the kind of person who already believes the key to fighting poverty is a generous and comprehensive welfare state, “Maid” can serve as a reminder that not everyone in poverty is the victim of this or that misfortune, historical injustice, natural disaster, or the policy decisions of your political enemies.
Some people in poverty are just idiots, and that forces us to ask the inconvenient question: do idiots, too, deserve healthy food, adequate shelter, comprehensive health care, public education, and even the joys of parenthood? If so, we need a welfare state that accommodates them, too. Because Stephanie Land is proof that they need all the help they can get.