The Forgotten Girls

A Memoir of Friendship and Lost Promise in Rural America


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May 30, 2023 | ISBN 9780525500858

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About the Book

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • An acclaimed journalist tries to understand how she escaped her small town in Arkansas while her brilliant friend could not, and, in the process, illuminates the unemployment, drug abuse, sexism, and evangelicalism killing poor, rural white women all over America.

“[A] clear-eyed and tender debut . . . This book is as much the author’s story as a piece of reportage.”—The Wall Street Journal

Growing up gifted and working-class poor in the foothills of the Ozarks, Monica and Darci became fast friends. The girls bonded over a shared love of reading and learning, even as they navigated the challenges of their tumultuous family lives and declining town—broken marriages, alcohol abuse, and shuttered stores and factories. They pored over the giant map in their middle-school classroom, tracing their fingers over the world that awaited them, vowing to escape. In the end, Monica left Clinton for college and fulfilled her dreams, but Darci, along with many in their circle of friends, did not.

Years later, working as a journalist covering poverty, Potts discovered what she already intuitively knew about the women in Arkansas: Their life expectancy had dropped steeply—the sharpest such fall in a century. This decline has been attributed to “deaths of despair”—suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdoses—but Potts knew their causes were too complex to identify in a sociological study. She had grown up with these women, and when she saw Darci again, she found that her childhood friend—addicted to drugs, often homeless, a single mother—was now on track to becoming a statistic.

In this gripping narrative, Potts deftly pinpoints the choices that sent her and Darci on such different paths and then widens the lens to explain why those choices are so limited. The Forgotten Girls is a profound, compassionate look at a population in trouble, and a uniquely personal account of the way larger forces, such as inheritance, education, religion, and politics, shape individual lives.
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Praise for The Forgotten Girls

"The Forgotten Girls is much more than a memoir; it's the unflinching story of rural women trying to live in the most rugged, ultra-religious and left-behind places in America. Rendering what she sees with poignancy and whip-smart analyses, Monica Potts took a gutsy, open-hearted journey home and turned it into art.”—Beth Macy, author of Dopesick and Raising Lazarus

The Forgotten Girls is beautiful and hard, a deeply reported memoir of a place, a friendship, a childhood and a country riven by systemic injustices transformed into individual tragedies. Monica Potts is a gifted writer; I read this extraordinary story of friendship and sisterhood, ambition and loss in rural America in one sitting; it is propulsive, clear and really important.”—Rebecca Traister, author of Good and Mad

“A troubling tale of heartland America in cardiac arrest, of friendship tested, of meth and Sonic burgers and every other kind of bad nourishment, of what we have let happen to our rural towns, and what they have invited on themselves. A personal and highly readable story about two women in a small cranny of America, but which offers an illuminating panorama of where our country stands.”—Sam Quinones, author of Dreamland and The Least of Us

“A tender memoir of a lifelong friendship and a shocking account of hardship in rural America, The Forgotten Girls is beautifully written, painstakingly researched and deeply affecting.”—Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train

“In a landscape where writing grounded in true events is expected to be either objective reporting about events from which the writer is fully detached or confessional lived experience, Monica Potts has created a rare mix of reportage and memoir that brings the best of both forms to bear on an empathetic and nuanced examination, told from an insider's perspective, of what it means to be working class, white, and female in America today.”—Emma Copley Eisenberg, author of The Third Rainbow Girl

“I couldn’t put it down. . . American culture has a toxic forgetting at its heart, a forgetting about communities that have lost their way and a blindness to why they fail. It made me think of so many people's lives in small towns and rural areas in Britain—a powerful reminder that when you forget about people and consign them to eternity in failing places, then you create something deeply harmful for all of us. It is an important book, raw and simple enough that you can’t help but feel it deeply.”—James Rebanks, author of The Shepherd’s Life

“A compelling sociological and cultural portrait that illuminates the silent hopelessness destroying not just [Potts’s] hometown, but rural communities across America. A hauntingly cleareyed and poignant memoir with strong, illustrative reportage.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review​)

“A compassionate look at the rapid decline in life expectancy among “the least educated white Americans” . . . Potts draws on extensive interviews with friends and family to reveal how poverty, generational trauma, substance abuse, and the suffocating righteousness of the evangelical church limit women’s options in places like Clinton. . . . A potent study of what ails the depressed pockets of rural America.”—Publishers Weekly
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The Forgotten Girls

Chapter 1


When I left Clinton for college at eighteen, I thought I’d never come back. My mom, Kathy, had always lived in terror that her daughters would get stuck in Clinton, so for most of my life, I knew I would leave and stay gone. Fear propelled me outward, dominating my relationship to my hometown as I grew up.

When I was twenty-four, in 2004, my dad, Billy, was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was given less than two years to live, but he responded well to treatment. Two years later, in the summer of 2006, the cancer had gotten so small that doctors couldn’t detect it on scans. That was what my sister Courtney and I were told. Courtney was living in Denver, and I was in New York.

Then in the fall of 2006, his cancer came back suddenly and fiercely, leading to a two-week hospital stay. My mom didn’t tell us. My dad was released from the hospital, but he was so weak that my mom and her friend had to help him up the stairs. They still didn’t tell Courtney or me how ill he’d become. I was working at The New York Times as a news assistant and had vacation days that I needed to use before the end of the year, so I could have gone home, and if I had, I would have been with them during his last week. Instead, I stayed in New York, having dinners and drinks with friends, spending long days at museums, relaxing. I think about that week a lot, imagining my dad stumbling into his bedroom for the last time.

A few days after he came home from the hospital, Daddy was watching the TV show Lost when he called downstairs to my mom and said something weird: “Doesn’t that actress look like her grandfather?” Momma rushed upstairs and found him seizing. He was rushed to the hospital again, for what proved to be the last time. Finally, Momma called us. By the time Courtney and I flew home, our father was in the Veterans Administration hospital in Little Rock, receiving treatment. Tumors covered his brain, and the doctors said they could do nothing but make him comfortable in his last days.

He couldn’t talk to us, just made a whispery whir whir whir sound. We saw in his eyes, though, that he was trying to communicate something. We struggled to decipher it. Was he trying to tell Momma to take care of his dog, Puppy? we asked. He nodded and sighed with the most relieved look I’ve ever seen. We hugged him, and he combed his fingers through our hair, as he’d done when we were little. He was fifty-five. We’d always known that Daddy, a heavy smoker and drinker, would die young. He’d known it too.

Courtney and I stayed as long as we could but then had to return to our respective cities. He died soon afterward, and we flew back to bury him. The last time I’d been inside the town’s United Methodist church, I’d attended someone else’s funeral. Mourning him in the same place now felt like closing a grim, traumatic loop.

I’m not sure I’ve ever forgiven Momma for not telling us before it was too late. “Your daddy didn’t want you girls to know,” she said during our first fight about it. “We were afraid you’d quit your jobs and rush home.” For years afterward, whenever someone else died, or when Puppy died—which she told me about very casually in a text message—I’d call her up and yell at her, angry and accusatory. I’d ask her again what I’d asked her then—“Why on earth would we have quit our jobs and come back?”—and she’d just say she didn’t know. But her fear was so deep and irrational that she thought we would lose the opportunities that leaving had afforded us simply by coming home. She couldn’t imagine a world in which we had stable lives while also staying connected to our family.

She had actually gotten out once. After high school, she’d lived for a few struggling years in and around Chicago. She had moved back after a personal trauma that she told us about only when we were grown. So our being able to live elsewhere felt momentous to her. It had taken so much effort on her part to ensure that we left, and then she worried that she would ruin it for us, that some family trauma would force us to return, as she had had to return. So she hid the struggles of people in Clinton from us. She was proud that Courtney and I didn’t live in Clinton, but her pride came at a cost: I’d missed that last week with my dad, and I often felt a little unmoored and displaced, as if I had no home at all.

About the Author

Monica Potts
Monica Potts is a senior politics reporter for the website FiveThirtyEight. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Republic, among other publications, and on NPR. She has been a New America fellow and a senior writer with The American Prospect magazine. More by Monica Potts
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