In seventh grade, Christian Livermore, a native of Groton, couldn’t afford plaster of paris to make a volcano for her Earth Science class. She built it instead out of kitty litter, a mouthwash cap and cleaning supplies. But when her classmates saw it, they gathered around and laughed. And when her teacher finally called on her to present her project, she lied, redfaced, and said she hadn’t done it.
“The shame of this episode is with me even now,” Livermore writes. “It’s like a piece of gut I’ve coughed up into my throat, and it will be there until the day I die.”
This experience is just one of many memories Livemore recounts in her new book, “We Are Not Okay,” a memoir written as a series of essays about her experiences growing up White and poor in Connecticut, that takes a broader view of the politics of poverty in the United States.
Livermore’s description of Groton, she points out in her book, doesn’t line up with what most people think of when they consider Connecticut — “nothing but big houses and leafy neighborhoods and clench-jawed bankers with Brahmin accents.” While Groton is home to Electric Boat and Pfizer, her family members weren’t among the large number of employees who live in the area.
Instead, she was raised until seven by a mother, said Livermore, who is bipolar and self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. Later, she said, her father gained custody “in exchange for the house.” A hairdresser, he worked less and less until he ended up on welfare, their economic and living situation spiraling downward.
At 12 years old, she moved with her father into Branford Manor, where cockroaches crawled around the apartment regardless of how much they cleaned. At one point, she describes being diagnosed with malnutrition while living off of peanut butter, cereal and government cheese.
The cheese came in a rectangular block of traffic-cone orange, had the consistency of a shellacked eraser, and smelled like sweaty socks. At some point I developed blisters around my mouth and a red, raw crust ringed my lips … A school nurse took me to her office one afternoon and explained that it was cheilitis. She explained to me some of the nutrient-rich foods I should try to eat to get rid of it. In other words, I had malnutrition. Soon after, I was called to the principal’s office and informed that going forward I would receive free school lunches. My father was pleased. More money saved.
Money troubles followed, in Livermore’s account, revealing the domino effect that often keeps poor people from being able to get onto solid financial footing.
But Livermore’s book goes beyond the material problems of poverty and looks at the psychological damage, especially the shame that comes with it. Even after earning degrees from NYU and St. Andrew’s University and moving to the UK, she said, the effects of growing up poor have stayed with her. She talks about walking along the streets with her fists clenched, ready for a fight at any time.
“After all these years, I’m still just the girl with the kitty litter volcano,” she writes at one point. “I don’t know if that ever goes away.”
Livermore said she still struggles with the impulse to spend every penny she has, having grown up learning that if she tried to save, another family member would take it and use it for themself.
At one point in the book, Livermore tells a story about being followed home at the age of 12 by a group of older boys wearing wolf masks.
“For a long time I coped by saying, ‘Oh, it wasn’t so bad.’” she said.
Livermore told CT Examiner that she believes society needs non-stigmatizing ways to address issues like addiction — which she said is often connected with the hopelessness of poverty — and sexual violence toward women.
“We need to stop blaming addicts and victims and start commiserating with them and talking about ways as a society and as a culture that we can stop these things from happening,” said Livermore.
At a book reading at the Hygenic Art Gallery on Nov. 19, Trina Charles, executive director of Step Up New London, said she identified with Livermore’s experience, having herself lived in Branford Manor.
“Honestly, this book will resonate with a lot of people ,and especially with people of color, because we don’t see the other side of it and we don’t realize that it does also happen to other ethnicities besides ours.”
Livermore said at the book reading that she didn’t regret how she was raised, and that she had had positive experiences with her mother, despite some of the craziness that she’d been exposed to.
“I don’t regret anything because I do think my childhood made me who I was,” she said.
As for the country as a whole, she said, the goal is to keep working toward a point where America is as “okay” as it can be.
“What we always like to say is the project of America always striving towards a more perfect union,” Livermore told CT Examiner. “We’ll never quite be okay. Nobody ever will. But we can be better and better still, and better again. So I think the question is not how we’ll know when we’re okay, but how can we continue to make ourselves more and more okay as we go on —- as a country and as individuals.”