Stephanie Land's 'Maid' and the Mysterious Allure of the Poor Person's Memoir
I liked Stephanie Land’s Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, which a friend of mine tweeted about a couple of weeks ago at the exact moment I was in search of another book to read. It’s a well-written, matter-of-fact account of the years 28-year-old Land spent working as a maid, raising her daughter as a single mother, and dealing with abusive boyfriends (including the father of Land’s daughter). If you ever wanted to know what it’s like to work as a house cleaner — or if you ever wanted to feel terrible about the way in which you treat the people who clean your house and needed a reminder to treat them with more dignity and respect — Maid is a fantastic memoir. Also, don’t leave your lubricants and cum socks lying around for the house cleaner to pick up, for God’s sake. And leave a tip every once in a while, because an extra $10 probably doesn’t mean that much to you (because you can afford a house cleaner), but it’s an extra hour’s wages for a maid, or an unexpected opportunity for a single mother to take her daughter to get a Happy Meal for dinner.
Land’s hardships, however, weren’t just exclusive to having to tote around large amounts of supplies from house to house while doing the grueling work of cleaning those houses for a lousy $9 an hour, but also having to stretch that meager amount of money into a living, often with the aid of several different kinds of government assistance. Don’t think for a moment, however, that obtaining government assistance is easy: There are long waitlists and an incredible array of hoops one has to jump through for the right to be judged in a check-out aisle by others for holding up the line because one didn’t buy the precise brand of milk with the precise amount of fat content to qualify for the assistance (seriously, if you ever catch yourself tapping your foot and judging the person in front of you at the check-out line with a WIC voucher, please check yourself, and if you ever disgustedly tell someone on public assistance “You’re welcome,” as a way of taking credit because you pay taxes, please invite me to your third-floor walk-up so that I can throw you out your window).
Land also dealt with the matter of housing, which meant deciding to stay with an abusive father or boyfriend as the only alternative to homelessness for her and her young daughter. Or the matter of healthcare, where she needed to earn more in order to afford a home without mold, but earning too much meant not qualifying for Medicaid, which meant that mold would further contribute to her daughter’s prolonged illness. Also, doctors judged her, both for being on Medicaid and for living in a house with mold, because that’s just what a struggling single mom needs: An extra helping of shame.
Being poor blows, and Maid is a hard reminder about how bad luck follows poor people around like compound interest. When you’re poor, for instance, a car accident is more than just a hassle with the insurance company. It means losing use of that car, which may mean losing a job, which may mean losing one’s home, all because some oblivious jackass backed into you at the gas station where you were spending two hours worth of wages on gas to drive to a three-hour job. Land does a brilliant and insightful job of capturing that frustration, which is a frustration and indignity that far too many Americans must contend with every day of their lives.
But it does make me wonder — as all “poor folk memoirs” do — what is the audience for a book like this? Land deftly captures a slice of life for millions of Americans, but — and this is not a discredit to Land’s story — for those millions of Americans, it’s not a “remarkable” story. It’s a Tuesday. In fact, whenever I used to contemplate trying to get my own memoir published, I would think of my family, or all the people I grew up around, or those like them who might say, “What is so special about being poor? We’ve been doing it all of our lives. Where’s our book deal?” I have to imagine that the majority of the people who read these memoirs are the kind of people who only find Stephanie Land’s story remarkable because she got a book deal and is no longer living that life. In other words, to the average reader who picked up Maid because they read a glowing review of it in The New York Times, Land’s story is remarkable because she got out, while all those other people who are still living Land’s life are just … poor.
I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here, except that Land and her story are remarkable, but so are the stories of the millions of people just like her who do not have the writing talent and wherewithal to turn those stories into a captivating memoir that gets reviewed by The New York Times. I hope that if you choose to read her story — and you should! — you’ll consider more than just the life of Land, but all of those people for whom Land represents.
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