Bestselling author Beth Macy talks outsiders, underdogs, and the importance of hope
August 9, 2023
Few authors possess the ability to capture the essence of a region quite like Beth Macy. With an unyielding devotion to Southwest Virginia and its people, Macy’s work delves deep into the lives of the overlooked and underprivileged, mirroring her own experiences growing up as someone who faced adversity head-on.
Macy will be the community keynote speaker at this year’s Rural Education Summit, which will focus on the intersection of rural schooling and community health and wellness.
“Beth’s work has broad appeal and is especially important for understanding systemic roots of unique challenges in our rural communities,” said Amy Azano, director of the Center for Rural Education, which is hosting the summit.
In her breakthrough book, “Factory Man,” Macy, a former reporter with the Roanoke Times who for almost 35 years has made her home in the city, traced the impact of globalization on American manufacturing, specifically focusing on the furniture industry in Virginia.
Her landmark 2018 book, “Dopesick,” delves into the opioid crisis, providing a deeply researched and gripping account of the devastating impact of addiction on individuals, families, and communities. The book was turned into an Emmy-winning Hulu series, on which Macy served as executive producer and co-writer. Her follow-up book, “Raising Lazarus,” tells the story of the third wave of the crisis, driven by the introduction of new, highly addictive opioids such as fentanyl.
A thoughtful and engaging talker, Macy shared her thoughts recently on the challenges facing rural America, growing up poor in a small town, and how education changed her life.
So much of your work is so firmly rooted in the people and places of Southwest Virginia. What is it about this area that keeps you coming back to it in your books?
All my books basically come from rural areas — and my next project as well. I didn’t set out to do that, but I did set out to write about outsiders and underdogs because I grew up as somebody who was very poor and an outsider and an underdog myself.
When I first wrote my first book, “Factory Man,” which came out in 2014, one of the reasons I was able to tell this story from rural Southside Virginia was that the media there were basically nonexistent, and so nobody really had gone back and counted up not just the last factories to close, but all the jobs that closed because of globalization.
My boss at the Roanoke Times let me have at it and tell it from a really global point of view. The story goes from Martinsville to Galax to Washington, D.C., to China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. It’s this really global story, but nobody was minding the backroom of this new global store.
At that point, most Americans didn’t realize how left behind these small communities were. I think that is the crux of a lot of our polarization today and of our rural-urban divide.
You mentioned growing up poor and an outsider. What were your early years like?
I grew up in a small town in Ohio. It was kind of a factory town called Urbana. My dad was the town drunk. By the time I came along — I was the youngest by far of four siblings — he was pretty far along in his dysfunction. And so, I was really raised by my mom. My dad’s mother lived next door. She owned our house. I'm sure that kept us from being homeless at some points, and she taught me how to read when I was 4. I had great riches from her in terms of attention.
When I got to school, I realized that the other kids’ lives were maybe better financially than mine, but they weren’t necessarily smarter than I was, so I became kind of a bit of a competitive person, you know? And I mean, we’re not supposed to say that, right? Or we’re not supposed to say we’re ambitious. But now, looking back, being poor was kind of one of the best things that ever happened to me because it made me feisty.
Did you always want to be a writer?
You know, I don’t really remember. My neighbor says I always wanted to write books. I don’t remember saying that. I always really liked English class, and I had this amazing teacher. She really made it fun, and she made language come alive. She would do all these wacky things, and she really liked my writing.
I thought maybe I could be an English teacher or something, but I had a huge public speaking phobia and I thought, “Well, if it’s journalism, I can just talk to people one on one and I’ll be fine.” And it turns out I love interviewing people and I love writing by myself. And what I really love is that every day is different and I get to do both of those things. One thing is really extroverted, the other thing really introverted.
How did education change your life?
No one else in my family had ever been to college. I got to go on full Pell grants and need-based financial aid because we were so poor. With that money, I paid all my tuition and room and board, and I got money back to buy books. Plus, I had three work-study jobs.
When I first got to college, I felt like a food stamp recipient in the line at a Whole Foods. I felt really out of place. But then again, I realized that the people in school weren’t necessarily any smarter or better than me. They just had different opportunities.
My friends’ parents raised me, too. I had one friend who took me home with her every day for lunch, and her mom fed me. Another friend gave me a ride to school every day, and another friend brought me home after practice every day. It was those things that other parents did for me that allowed me to shine in school. My mom, too, was a great reader and edited all my papers.
Virginia Tech has recently launched the Virginia Tech Advantage, which seeks to ensure that a Virginia Tech experience is financially within reach for everyone, regardless of income. As the first person in your family to have gone to college, what do you think colleges and universities should do to ensure that a university experience is within reach for everyone?
There’s more to be done for first-generation students through programs like Upward Bound, for example. I think colleges need to do more to get them enrolled, and then they need to give students better help and social supports once they’re there so they don’t feel like that food stamp person in line at Whole Foods. Moving up a social class is really hard.
The only reason I had gone to a college campus before I graduated from high school was with an older friend for a party. I didn’t know anything about college. I did the FAFSA by myself. A high school guidance counselor told me there was aid out there and that I could probably get it, but I had to do all the work myself. I think my mom helped me with her W-2s. But there’s a lot of people who don’t have parents who would help them do even that.
I’m seeing that now with the people I’m writing about — students who have a lot of issues but also have a lot of potential. But the most shocking thing is they are so much more traumatized than I was. They’ve lost parents. Their parents are in and out of jail. Molestation. I mean, things I can’t imagine that they’ve dealt with.
One teacher told me, “By the time they come to us in middle school, it’s already too late for these kids. They’re hopeless.” That floored me. I started interviewing these kids, and she’s right. These communities have been hit with the double whammy — economic hardship and addiction — and then add to that a lack of mental health services. We need more counseling services, and we need to go to the kids earlier.
These students are trying to go to college, but it’s really, really hard. A lot of them are getting community college scholarships, but the community college is a half-hour away and so they don’t have a ride. Transportation is so important in a rural area.
One person I’m writing about has two full scholarships. He started classes in June and then his car broke down, and he had to drop out. Another student lives way out in the country and couldn’t get a ride to work. She didn’t have a bike, so she borrowed her little sister’s scooter with a little pink bell on it. It would have taken her an hour to get to Burger King. Thankfully, a neighbor ended up taking her.
I think that those sorts of barriers would never occur to people who weren’t raised in a rural area. They might just think the student is lazy and doesn’t work, but, no — that student lives way out there. How are they going to get to work? How do they get to the community college?
The opioid epidemic has devastated communities throughout Southwest Virginia and beyond. Is there something about rural communities that made them a target for the opioid manufacturers?
It really started first in rural places and then spread out from there. OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma targeted places with a high incidence of workplace injuries and a lot of people on disability. It was all numbers and money to them.
They hired this data scraper called IMS Health that could tell them every doctor in the country who was already prescribing competing opioids — Percocet, Vicodin. They could go to those doctors and say, “Look, the FDA let us say that our drug is less addictive than these competitors because we have this fancy time-release mechanism.” Patients could get a prescription for a dollar with a Medicaid card, and then they would take half and sell the other half. Various iterations of that became a kind of a side hustle for people.
Those communities have been dealing with the epidemic the longest but have the fewest resources. And it seems many of these communities are also less likely to come around to things like medication-assisted treatment or drug courts that allow needle exchanges. We know people who visit needle exchanges are five times more likely to eventually get into care, but often those in power think the way they’re doing things is the way to do it.
It’s what we all grew up in thinking: Drug users are bad. People who use drugs are criminals and moral failures. We’ve been acculturated in the war on drugs, and if that’s all you know, that’s all you know. But there is this world of other information out there. Incarceration is still the No. 1 tool we use to deal with people who are addicted, and it’s just setting them up for failure and death.
Our health care system also does a terrible job at treating mental health and addiction. We've basically left it to parents of the dead and sisters of the dead and people like Tim Nolan, a nurse practitioner who is driving around in his personal car giving life-saving medications. Here’s this guy who is purely not doing it for the money. He does it because he knows it’s going to help.
I love holding that kind of thing up. And I also love holding up what’s wrong and showing, for example in “Dopesick,” who the real criminals are: It’s not your cousin who’s in jail for selling a user amount of heroin; it’s the people who run the corporations that want to get rich off people’s pain and suffering.
A theme running through much of your work — even going back to your Roanoke Times days — is economic disparity, both across the region and in the wider world. Why is this such a meaningful subject to you?
Growing up in a disadvantaged situation, I realized that some people didn’t have to work as hard to get as far. I’ve always had a sense of what’s fair and also that we all deserve a shot at a life better than the one we were born into.
There’s just something that feels really good about learning something that nobody else yet knows and getting to present it in a way that is going to hopefully help people understand and elevate everyone’s humanity. The new book is really about how to make change in a community, so I focus on people who are doing that and all the challenges that they face because I think it’s really important to have hope.
Rural Education Summit
The Center for Rural Education, part of the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment, opens its second annual summit on Wednesday, Aug. 23, at The Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center.
The summit is free, but space is limited and registration is required. Participation in the summit is not required to attend Macy’s community keynote address.
Beth Macy’s community keynote address
- When: 7 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 23.
- Where: Moss Arts Center.
- Cost: Free.
- Open to the public. Registration is required.
Parking is available in the North End Parking Garage on Turner Street. Virginia Tech faculty and staff possessing a valid Virginia Tech parking permit can enter and exit the garage free of charge. Visitors may park in the garage by taking a ticket at entry and paying with Visa or Mastercard upon exit. Virginia Tech has also partnered with ParkMobile to provide a convenient, contactless electronic payment option for parking, which may be used at any parking meter, campus parking space, or lot with standard F/S, C/G, or R parking.
If you are an individual with a disability and desire an accommodation, contact Jamie Wiggert wat least 10 days prior to the event at 540-231-5300 or email firstname.lastname@example.org during regular business hours.
Written by Diane Deffenbaugh