Criminal of Poverty: Growing up Homeless in America
We never hear from the poor. They are simply not represented in public life. Perhaps it is because we don't think they deserve to have a say. After all, one of the strongest myths in American society is that any person can succeed as long as she is willing to work hard and never give up. What I like about Criminal of Poverty is that the writer, Tiny, a.k.a. Lisa Gray-Garcia, proves that is simply not the case.
In her gripping, although often awkwardly written, memoir, Tiny portrays her formative years growing up with her mother, Dee, as a very tumultuous time since they lived in grimy apartments, motels or in their car. She was unable to attend school because Dee was mentally ill – agoraphobia – and relied on her daughter to take care of the most basic tasks of survival, including securing housing, healthcare and community services. At certain points, Tiny even manages her mother's personal relationships with men because these boyfriends can help them survive by providing rent or food money.
Dee is an artist, and it is through this expression that she and her daughter cope with their struggles. She and Tiny come up with creative ways to make art and money by opening up a fashion clothing business, but, ultimately, it is Tiny who ends up doing most of the work, especially after Dee's avant-garde clothes are not selling, and they have to switch to cartoon-based designs for their covert t-shirt business. During this time, Dee's agoraphobia is worsening, and she is unable to fulfill many responsibilities required for the smooth running their operation. Because of Dee's utter dependence, Tiny has no time where she doesn't have to worry about money and having a place to sleep at night.
Throughout Criminal of Poverty, Tiny seems to carefully emphasize how much she respects her mother and does not blame Dee for loss of childhood; it is the system that puts women in such a powerless position that they are forced to make bad decisions. I believe Tiny wants to feel this way, and maybe even mostly does; yet in some places I could feel the tension in her writing between the pain she felt as a young woman and the carefully distanced writer of today. Assigning the blame of her living conditions to the system is deserved, but it doesn't always make for the best reading. Sometimes Tiny's careful protection of Dee got in the way of the narrative because this doesn't allow the reader to make one’s own judgments.
A dense book, Tiny writes with very little dialogue and scene, nor does she often refer to the settings, which are Los Angeles, Fresno and the San Francisco Bay Area. Instead, her writing style is very reflective and analytical; she describes what happens and what the consequences are, which doesn't make for a quick read. Although this book is not gracefully written overall, there are a few passages that stand out as exceptional and the story trumps any writing flaws because it is simply compelling. I was left with a few questions after the last chapter, not completely sure if the cycle of poverty was finally over, but I liked this open ending because it gives me space to think about how the term poor is defined and what wealth really means, not only for American society, but also for me.