Portrait of the poor both sharp and bleak
December 16, 2001
by Teresa K. Weaver
Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass. By Theodore Dalrymple. Ivan R. Dee, publisher. $27.50. 256 pages.
Theodore Dalrymple begins his book of essays with one dark and foreboding sentence, free of literary niceties or political disclaimers:
"A specter is haunting the Western world: the underclass."
Compared with the rest of "Life at the Bottom," that first sentence is all lightness and hope.
"The real picture is worse than I paint, actually, in some areas," Dalrymple says by telephone from his home in England. "It is very bleak. Very large numbers of people."
Dalrymple, 52, is a psychiatrist who has practiced for a decade in a hospital in a British slum and in a nearby prison. He also is a remarkably engaging and prolific writer --- a columnist for the London Spectator, a contributor to the Daily Telegraph and a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal (www.city-journal.org).
This book, drawn from columns written over the past seven years, brims with very proper rants on illiteracy, litter, fast food, free love, ungrateful patients, unruly children, incorrigible criminals, "professional redeemers," tattoos and much more.
"It doesn't take long or cost much to have a small tattoo done," Dalrymple writes. "You can stigmatize yourself thoroughly in an hour or more for a mere fifty dollars. . . . Watching as yet untattooed young men browsing through the patterns in the parlor reception areas, I felt like a Victorian evangelist or campaigner against prostitution, an impulse rising within me to exhort them to abjure evil; but their adoption of the characteristic expression of the urban underclass (a combination of bovine vacancy and lupine malignity) soon put [an end] to my humanitarian impulse."
"Bovine vacancy and lupine malignity." Savor the phrase and try to shake the image.
Dalrymple is unrelenting. Poverty isn't caused by economics, he argues, but rather by a wildly dysfunctional --- and rapidly spreading --- set of values. And a blindly forgiving welfare state in which being "nonjudgmental" is the highest objective has helped create a permanent, irredeemable caste of victims, morally adrift and ineducable.
The ideas certainly are not new. What is instructive, though, in reading Dalrymple's unvarnished accounts of these lives, is realizing how much of this conversation we could not have on this side of the Atlantic. Here, any discussion of an "underclass" --- the very word is difficult to stomach --- is firmly and perhaps forever rooted in race.
But almost all of Dalrymple's subjects are white. Without the immediate and automatic risk of being called a racist, he is freer to explore the birth of the mind-set that makes and sustains members of the underclass.
"This is a way of life that doesn't really have much to do with race," he tells me. "It's not a racial problem. That's a very important lesson for Americans, I think."
During the past decade, Dalrymple estimates he's heard firsthand the stories of some 10,000 impoverished Brits, each of whom told him about the lives of four or five others around them.
"From this source alone, therefore, I have learned about the lives of some fifty thousand people; lives dominated, almost without exception, by violence, crime, and degradation," Dalrymple writes. "My sample is a selected one, no doubt, as all samples drawn from personal experience must be, but it is not small."
Sprinkling a few relevant statistics throughout, Dalrymple tells of generations of abusers and abused, single women who have multiple children by multiple men, drug addicts who blame the heroin, burglars who fault the people who keep replacing the stuff they steal. And just when you cannot bear to read one more word, he props you up with the driest of British wit.
He tells of a woman named Gay Oakes, for instance, who's serving a life sentence for the murder of her common-law husband, Doug Garden, father of four of her six children. "She poisoned his coffee one day in 1994, and he died," Dalrymple writes. "She buried him in her backyard; ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and Doug Garden to dug garden, as it were."
Dalrymple swears he doesn't make this stuff up. If anything, he says, he doesn't use the most horrific stories simply because they're too identifiable.
"To reach Saturday night is the summit of ambition of much of English youth," he writes. "Nothing fills their minds with such anticipation or eagerness. No career, no pastime, no interest, can compete with the joys of Saturday night, when the center of the city turns into a B-movie Sodom and Gomorrah, undestroyed by God only because (it must be admitted), there are worse places on earth, which call for more immediate elimination."
Reading this book is saddening, infuriating and ultimately not terribly empowering. Is the situation hopeless? Is there anything that an individual or a well-intentioned government can do? Dalrymple never really says.
"Does the fate of the underclass matter?" he writes. "If the misery of millions of people matters, then the answer must surely be yes. But even if we were content to consign so many of our fellow citizens to the purgatory of life in our slums, that would not be the end of the matter. For there are clear signs that the underclass will be revenged upon the whole pack of us."
After scaring the bejabbers out of us, he might at least offer a few ideas on turning everything around. But the decision not to enter the realm of problem-solving was a conscious one.
"I'm less good at solutions," Dalrymple says with a laugh. "And second, there's a rather peculiar situation in England in that there is a great deal of denial of the phenomenon. . . . The first task is to get people to say that there is actually this problem.
"People would much prefer to pretend that none of this exists."
That's not so peculiar. Many of us would prefer not to make eye contact.
Early in the book, Dalrymple takes readers on a tour of a suicide ward in his hospital, introducing us to the six lost souls present on a given day. "Nothing unusual or out of the ordinary today," he chirps, "just an average trawl of social pathology, ignorance of life, and willful chasing after misery.
"Tomorrow is another day, but the same tide of unhappiness will lap at our doors."
Surely nobody will ever accuse Dalrymple of being a cheery sort of fellow. But look around the streets of any city. Reality would suggest that we at least try harder to understand the causes and the consequences of all these lives spent at the bottom, or at least on the brink.
©2001 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution