For me, the toughest part of interviewing someone who is homeless or hungry is when they start to cry while telling me about their misery. Because at that moment, seeing what life can do to you, I see in them a reflection of myself. And I shudder to think: This could be me. Once upon a time, people like Melanie – educated, sophisticated and well-paid – had everything they wanted. But then everything changed.
So when Melanie – a White, middle-class woman in her mid-50s, dressed impeccably in a chiffon top and dainty costume jewelry – broke down saying she went hungry almost every single day because she felt humiliated going to a food pantry for help, I could understand where her self-esteem was hurting.
Years ago, Melanie was a nurse with a degree from Purdue and life was good till an autoimmune disease forced her to give up working. What followed was a web of misfortunes – divorce, her son running into trouble with the law again and again, a second marriage and subsequent death of her husband, astronomical hospital bills, exorbitant medical costs – everything that could go into making a perfect Thomas Hardy novel (remember, Judy, the Obscure? Or, Tess of the D’Urbervilles?).
During the interview, I informed Melanie of the resources that were available in the community and encouraged her to go to food pantries for assistance instead of having ONE meal a day.
“You take strong medicines, you shouldn’t be skipping meals,” I told her.
I explained to her that listening to her story it was clear that she could not blame herself for what had happened to her. She was a pure victim of circumstances and there were organizations that could help her with her meals. Besides, those who stood in line at the food pantries were not less human than her. So she had no reason to feel ashamed.
Melanie recalled an incident when she met an acquaintance while standing at a food pantry line. The person she met was not waiting for food but had come to the pantry for some other purpose. On seeing Melanie, the acquaintance exclaimed, “Why are you standing here? Don’t you have money to buy food?”
One thing that hurt me the most in Melanie’s story was the fact that she did have two working daughters who knew she was going hungry but still chose not to offer help.
“They have high rents to pay, they are struggling themselves,” Melanie rationalized.
“But they can cut back on that and give you the money?” I asked.
“Yes, they can,” she said.
But it was clear: THEY DON’T.
As I wrapped up the interview, what struck me was that not only was there a need to change the way the medical establishment worked to help patients such as Melanie, there was a dire need somewhere to change the way in which families connected in this terribly individualistic society. Coming from a collectivistic culture where family means a lot, I wondered, what does it take for a daughter to know her mother is going hungry and yet turn a deaf ear? Most importantly, do we even qualify to call ourselves civilized when the distress of our own parents fail to draw our attention?
Looking at Melanie, you would never, never guess she was facing hunger. But I wondered which hunger was causing more pain to her: The want of food? Or the want of help from those she called her own?