Leaving Home in Search of the American Dream Only to be Forced to Turn Around and Go Back
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In 2008, newlyweds Caitlin Shetterly and her husband Daniel Davis, along with their dog Hopper and cat Ellison, headed west. Leaving their families behind in Maine, the two freelance artists -- a writer and public radio producer, and a photographer, respectively -- hoped to make it big in California. As they drove, Shetterly read Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books and envisioned a promising future for her small family.
Instead, Shetterly found herself unexpectedly pregnant, ill, bedridden, and unable to work for several months. As the recession swept the nation, Davis began losing contracts, eventually unable to find any work at all. Even though Shetterly sold their story to public radio in a series of audio diaries, between a new baby and mounting relocation debt, they were soon too broke to afford the basics. Like countless Americans over the past few years, they felt they had no other choice. They headed home again, back across the country, and moved in with Shetterly's mother.
In her new memoir, Made For You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home, Shetterly sifts through complicated emotions: the devastation of spiraling into debt, the joy of motherhood, the painful loss of a pet. At times overwhelming and heartbreaking, Made For You and Me is also a comforting tale about the importance of family, making sense of shifting gender roles, and believing in the goodness of others.
Brittany Shoot: Some people were put off by your public radio recession diaries. The criticism seems to stem from the idea that you have enough privilege to overcome the difficulties of the economic downturn better than others. Why do you think people responded to your story with such hostility?
Caitlin Shetterly: There are so many good people in this country -- so many people reached out to us after they heard our story on the radio and offered places to stay in their homes, plane fare, and shots for our child. They checked in to make sure that we were ahead of a tornado in Kansas, or how we were coping during a snowstorm. It really made me believe in the goodness of Americans.
As far as the negative reactions, I think there is sometimes a tendency, when you're scared and angry, to want someone else to be worse off than you are -- and to beat them up for it. It's the same mentality that explains why people don't want to make universal health care available. There are some people who have worked really hard for their health care, and they pay through the nose for it. Oddly enough, those are some of the people who don't support universal health care. I think that's counterintuitive.
Also, people can be mean. They can be really mean on the Internet.
BS: Many people have been displaced by natural disasters or conflict in recent years, and it seems as though some people have less sympathy for people who choose their circumstances, as you and Dan chose to move west. How do you think that's also tied into the idea of the American Dream?
CS: In this country, right now, we're all trying to figure out where we fit into the American Dream, and if it still exists. Is the American Dream dead? It's a really important question. I would argue that it's not dead but it needs to change. It got hijacked along the way. The idea that you can make it with enough grit and perseverance, and that you can make it if you just try hard enough, isn't necessarily true anymore.