Part memoir, part investigative journalism, Portland journalist Casey Parks’ new book, “Diary of a Misfit,” explores themes of religion, identity and family as she embarks on a mission to find out more about a figure from her grandmother’s past. As a child, Parks’ grandmother lived across the street from a “woman who lived as a man.” His name was Roy Hudgins.
Hudgins was many things. He was a country singer, a landscaper, a devout believer and a friend to some. Park’s book follows her decade-long journey on uncovering who Roy was as she explores not only his past but her own. Parks joins us to share what she learned about Roy and what it means to be queer in the South.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Casey Parks grew up in Louisiana and spent a decade as a reporter at the Oregonian. For most of that time, she would spend nearly all of her vacation days working on her own project. Over and over she went back to rural Louisiana to knock on strangers’ doors. She wanted to find out about a man her grandmother had known when she was young. The result of all of that work is a new memoir. It’s called ‘Diary of a Misfit.’ In it, Parks focuses not just on that man’s life but on her own life. It’s a story of journalistic doggedness and patience, of family secrets and shame, of religion and gender and identity, of never quite leaving the place you’ve moved away from. Casey Parks welcome back to Think Out Loud and congratulations on this book.
Casey Parks: Thank you so much. Your long explanation of what the book is reminds me that I always get stumped when people ask me what it’s about. Like every time I answer something…
Miller: All you need is four sentences.
Parks: Yeah. [laughing]
Miller: What do you say in the end, then?
Parks: Oh, I think I give a different answer every time. Sometimes I say it’s about a trans man who was a country singer in rural Louisiana. Sometimes I say it’s about isolation in the Deep South. Sometimes I say it’s a memoir, but I usually don’t say that because I still feel pretty embarrassed that I wrote a memoir. Sometimes I just say it’s a fruit salad of every southern issue possible.
Miller: [laughs] Is it hard being on a book tour because you get asked the same questions over and over if you’re the kind of person who wants to answer questions differently?
Parks: I think actually people have mostly asked me different questions. I think because it is a fruit salad of southern issues, it allows people to bring their own thing to it. There’s lots of ways in.
Miller: Oh, I want to ask about the mandarin orange slices and this other person wants to ask about the marshmallows, or whatever.
Parks: Yeah. So sometimes people will ask me a lot about Roy. Sometimes people will ask me a lot about my mother. Sometimes people will ask me a lot about journalism. Like I did an interview recently and the guy mostly wanted to talk about what it’s like to work in a bureau at a newspaper, which is very niche but fun. I like to talk about that thing.
Miller: All right, well let’s talk about all of that. But let’s start with Roy. Can you tell us the story of the day that you first heard about someone named Roy Hudgins?
Parks: Yeah, this was back in 2002. I was 18 years old, and I had just kissed a girl for the very first time. And it was awesome. Once I kissed a girl, I pretty much knew I’d never want to kiss a boy ever again. But I also knew that kissing girls meant that life as I had known it was totally over. Because, at that time, I was really religious, and not just forced religious by my parents but it actually really meant something to me. Like I felt really close to everyone at church. One of the things that you learn in church, though, is that you’re not supposed to lie. Once I knew that about myself, I knew I couldn’t not tell my mother. So I had just come out to my mom, who was really against it. Our pastor went in front of our church and he prayed this prayer that was like, ‘Save her and take her.’ The idea is that I would ask forgiveness for kissing this girl and then I would die immediately and then I could go to Heaven. So after all that, I decided to go home for the summer to try to prove I wasn’t evil, and everything kind of came to a head at this Fourth of July barbecue lunch. My mom ran to the bathroom and was crying and my grandma ran in. My grandma eventually pulled me aside and said, ‘I grew up across the street from a woman who lived as a man.’ I was like, ‘What?’ I mean, this was 2002, so there was no Caitlyn Jenner, there was no transgender tipping point. I didn’t know any trans people. I didn’t even know any gay people. So I just kind of looked at her and I was like, ‘Are you serious? What do people think?’ And she said, ‘Well, his name was Roy and everybody loved him.’ That really did not go with my understanding of Louisiana. I mean, my pastor had just prayed that I would die. My mother was writing me every single day to tell me that thinking of me made her want to throw up. So the idea that there was this place where everybody loved what I thought of then as a woman who lived as a man, just blew my mind.
Miller: Did you know at that point – did you ask your grandmother then or in the years that followed – why she told you that then, what she thought it would mean to you?
Parks: I did ask her many years later, probably eight or nine years later, because at that point she had gotten tired of me asking her questions about it. I think she…
Miller: [laughing] ‘Tell me the story about Roy again.’
Parks: [laughing] Yeah. Every time I would call her I would ask her about it. One of my first times trying to make this, I bought a little Olympus recorder that we used to use for interviews back in the day – just like a cheap $15, you get at Office Max. I would go home with this and put it in her face and be like, ‘Tell me about Roy.’ or I’d call her and put it on speaker phone and try to record her. She finally was like, ‘Stop asking me about this.’ I was like, ‘Well, if you don’t want me to ask you about it, why did you tell me?’ I remember she was really dramatic: She was like, ‘Do you want to know the truth? Because I like to tell the truth.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, obviously I want to know the truth. That’s my whole job here.’
Miller: It’s always a weird question when people ask journalists that question.
Parks: Yeah, that’s technically what we deal in. I remember she just looked at me and said, ‘Because I knew. About you.’ I don’t think I had actually told her yet at that point that I was gay, though she did know. And she just said… She looked at me, and her voice got really low, and she said, ‘Can you imagine? All those secrets and no one to tell?’ She was talking about Roy, but the way she looked at me said she was talking about me. She never really spoke that plainly; she preferred dramatic tall tales. But I think what she was saying was like, ‘I could see that you were destined for the same kind of lonely life that this person, Roy, had. And I didn’t want you to think there’s no one else in this world that you can talk to – the way that he felt.
Miller: It’s a really generous act then. I mean, it’s throwing somebody a snippet of a narrative as a kind of lifeline.
Parks: She also knew I was a sucker for a story, so it was like the perfect lifeline to give me. It’s like, I’m going to give you exactly what you need and also a story, which I know you love. So it was just perfect for me.
Miller: You were 18, as you noted, then. How long was it before you actually followed through on what you told your grandmother that day, that you were going to learn more about his life?
Parks: That day she told me that he had been kidnapped by a family and then raised as a boy and that she had been really close to him and then she lost touch with him. And she said, ‘I want you to go to Delhi’ [Dell-HIGH], which is this little town about 30 minutes [from] where I grew up. It’s where my grandma and my mom grew up. She said, ‘I want you to go there, and I want you to find out about Roy.’ That day I said, I’m going to do it; I’ll go to Delhi. But I didn’t have a car. I didn’t actually know how to be a journalist. I knew I wanted to be one, but I didn’t know what you do to be a journalist. So I went back to college instead, but I kept thinking about it. Mostly what I did for a while was just interview her. Then 2008-2009, I was mid-twenties, still not that great of a journalist, but I had a car or at least money to get a plane ticket. So I decided I’m finally going to do this. I’m going to go back to Louisiana and learn.
Miller: When I read, at the beginning of your book, your grandmother’s phrase that she grew up across the street from a, quote, ‘woman who lived as a man,’ I thought that this was going to be a story about a trans man whose neighbors didn’t know he was trans, a trans man who wasn’t out. I thought it was going to be about a secret. I’m curious what your assumptions were about what Roy’s life was like and what the people around him knew or didn’t know about him.
Parks: My grandmother initially told me that nobody knew. I mean she framed it… Again, she was dramatic. So what she told me is that the people who raised Roy, there was a woman named Jewel Ellis, who was – as my grandma described – a six-foot-tall Native American. On her deathbed Jewel Ellis called my great-grandma across the street and made this confession: She said, ‘Roy is as much a woman as you or I ever was.’ My grandma made it sound like the only people in the whole world who knew this were her and her mother, so I didn’t think people knew. My grandma told me that Roy was only five feet tall, so I thought there might have been some giveaways. My grandma also told me he sang and that, when he sang, his voice had the lilting warble of a woman. So there might have been some clues, but she was convinced that nobody knew. Then, when I got to town, I thought I would just ask people generic questions about Roy, like I wouldn’t give away his secret. But once I got to town, I realized everybody knew.
Miller: How did people talk about Roy?
Parks: The most common word that they used is one I had never heard before. Everyone in town called him a morphodite, which I think is just a southern version of hermaphrodite. The first time I heard it, I asked the guy. I was like, ‘What’s a morphodite?’ And he… we were both stuttering – I have everything on tape, so I sometimes go back and watch it – he stuttered, and he said, ‘Uh, you know, uh, a half man, half woman? She had the top of a…’ and he kind of just trailed off, like he didn’t want to start naming body parts and everything, but... Everyone in town had a different reason they thought he was morphodite. Like some people thought a piece of tractor equipment had fallen on his head and made him act that way. Some people told me that his family was too poor to buy starch for dresses so they had to put him in pants, and that’s why it happened.
Miller: How did you approach pronouns when talking with people in town and then years later when writing the book?
Parks: Very differently in that span. I didn’t know, when I started, what pronouns Roy would have wanted. I suspected that he would have wanted me to call him he because he took time to get up every morning and dress himself in men’s clothing. He got his hair cut into a crew cut. He put effort in to look like a man. But 2008, 2009, 2010, there wasn’t a big pronoun discussion in the world. They didn’t have the empowering or politicizing effect that they can have now. So what I largely did back then was follow what other people said to me. That is really painful to me now because, as I said, I have everything on tape. I go back and I want to shake my 20-something-year-old self and say, ‘Say he.’ But usually people called Roy she to me, and because I was so nervous that if I called him he, they would think that I was being political or something, I just did what they said.
Miller: How do you approach that same exact issue now, when you may still be talking to sources, as a reporter for the Washington Post, who you often write about gender issues. I imagine that using a he pronoun in that case could still rub some of your sources the wrong way. And yet, it’s the right way to proceed in terms of respecting the person-you’re-talking-about’s identity.
Parks: I’m actually going through this right now because I’m writing about a trans woman in D.C. who died homeless. I tracked down her family, and they all live in Mississippi. They actually buried her as a woman, so they do have some respect for her gender presentation. But they call her he, and they call her by the name that they gave her when she was born. I call her just Cel because that’s how she went. But the pronouns… Every time, I get nervous because I’m talking to a mom who lost her child. It’s not just, ‘Am I politicizing something?’ It’s, I’m talking to someone who has endured the most unspeakable thing you can endure. Usually what I just say over and over again, rather than just Cel or she, is ‘your child’ because I’m not gonna call her he, but I also don’t want to upset this mom in rural Mississippi who didn’t ask for me to call her.
Miller: Pronouns – it’s one of many different ways to think about, and write about, gender right now. I was struck by a lot of the people you talked to who continually, as we would say now, misgendered Roy. They would also acknowledge that – unlike a few of the church leaders at churches where Roy attended or tried to attend, who would demand, for example, that he wear a dress if he wanted to keep going to services – a lot of the people you talked to would continually talk about Roy using she or her pronouns and would also say that it was absolutely wrong to force him to wear a dress. Some of them said making him wear a dress would be just as wrong as forcing a man to wear a dress. It’s just one more example of how confounding Roy’s gender was for so many of the people you were talking to. I’m curious how you ended up thinking about… if doing this reporting changed the way you thought about gender issues, not just in the South but everywhere.
Parks: Well, I do think… there’s so much that what you said brings up for me. One thing is Roy lived at a time where his basic identity was not politicized. I often wonder how people in town would treat him now if he was coming up when you have the Alliance Defending Freedom or the Heritage Foundation filing lawsuits in every small town that they can think of against trans people. There was just no global or geopolitical context for him when he was growing up. I don’t think anyone in that town had heard the word transgender, so they weren’t thinking of Roy is representing something. They were just like, this is the guy who mows our lawns, and we have some affection for him, and we want him to live as he lives. But I think the other thing is that…
Miller: Do I understand you correctly in saying that part of you thinks his life might even be worse now than it was in the 70s or 80s?
Parks: Yeah. It’s complicated because, on one hand, he would maybe be able to know that there are other people like him. Maybe he would have a community. Maybe he would have access to medical interventions that he might have wanted; I don’t know. But on the other hand, I think he would have gotten a lot more pushback. It’s both easier and harder for trans people now I think. The other thing I guess is that it didn’t necessarily change my mind about gender, but it changed my mind about southerners, which is that I thought that southerners were just the stereotypes that TV and the news tells us southerners are.
Miller: Even coming from the South, you believed that?
Parks: Yeah, I think because some really horrible things had happened to me. I think I thought, even when horrible things didn’t happen to me, I imagined that they would happen to me if I let people know me. I just thought people are either full of hate or they’re full of love, and there’s no negotiation in between. Every person I interviewed, for good and for bad, totally flipped that on its head. I could never pick what they were going to say because it was all over the map. On one hand they might be defending Roy’s right to wear pants to our church, and then the next they would say, ‘Oh, don’t talk to my neighbor. She’s a queer.’ Every single time I would be like, ‘Wait a second. I thought you just were saying all these nice things about Roy. How could you say something bad about your lesbian neighbor?’ At the same time they would be very nice to me. I didn’t tell them I was gay, but I look pretty gay, especially in the South because women are supposed to wear makeup, and I don’t wear makeup. But then I interviewed this one Pentecostal woman who was telling me that she had recruited Roy to go to Pentecostal church. When you’re Pentecostal, women are supposed to wear long dresses and they’re supposed to never cut their hair. And this woman got really angry that Roy got thrown out of church for not wearing a dress. When I was talking to her… her hair was to her shoulders, and at one point she looked at me and she was like, ‘You know, your hair is really cute.’ My hair is really short. I said, ‘Oh, well thank you. I have a lot of cowlicks. I can’t wear long hair.’ And she said, ‘Well, you know I wouldn’t wear it like that because you’re going to Hell.’ I was like, ‘For my haircut? You just said it was cute, and you just said Roy should be able to go to church.’ And she was just like, ‘Yeah, well, First Corinthians
says a woman’s hair is her glory. So I’m sorry, but you’re sinnin.’
Miller: This reminds me: There’s a passage that really struck me that I was hoping you could read, and this seems like a good time to ask you to do it since you just mentioned Hell. I don’t know if this needs any introduction, but if so, feel free to make it.
Parks: This is actually from that scene with that woman. Her name was Linda. She kind of talked like Blanche Devereaux from ‘The Golden Girls.’ Okay:
I have tried my entire life to stop believing in Hell, but something always stops me. My mother used to tell me that blasphemy is the only unforgivable sin. And sometimes when I allow myself to think that Christians have misinterpreted the Bible, that Hell isn’t a place where fire burns eternal, something inside me shakes. Blasphemy. I can still hear the way my mother dragged out the syllables, letting the S hiss the way I imagined the serpent did in the Garden of Eden. I asked her once what the word meant, and she told me, ‘It’s when you tell yourself that God and Hell don’t exist. Even if you think it only once, you’ll spend eternity on fire,’ she said. ‘And you’ll never burn up. You’ll just feel the flames licking at your skin, and it will be so hot you’ll beg Satan to just go ahead and kill you, but he won’t, and you’ll never fall asleep, and you’ll never feel relief. And everyone you love will forget you, so they won’t know you’re crying. And you’ll beg God for mercy, but he won’t hear you anymore. And the pain will go on forever.’ I’ve given up so much that I held onto as a kid. I don’t go to church, and I don’t eat TV dinners. I walk, if my destination is anywhere within a mile. But no matter how much I transform myself, this early fear of eternal damnation has remained stitched into my essential makeup. I want to stop believing, but my mother’s words slink back: ‘Even once and the pain will go on forever.’ I tell myself her version sounds ridiculous. But then a lower, more assured voice inside me whispers back, ‘But what if she’s right?’
Miller: That’s my guest, Portland-based journalist Casey Parks, who is now a reporter for the Washington Post, reading from her new book. It’s called ‘Diary of a Misfit: A Memoir and a Mystery.’ Maybe this gets to the nature of belief itself, and maybe it’s hard to answer, but how do you try to stop believing in something?
Parks: For me, the stopping believing almost happened in the background. There was a moment in my life – and it’s after I kissed the girl and the pastor said he hoped I died – where I put up a wall inside me and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to think about this anymore.’ I just stopped processing it because up until then I’d been praying every single night: ‘God, please take this away from me. I don’t know why you’re making me attracted to girls.’ Then I had gone through a phase where I was like, ‘I just wish I could take God out for coffee and explain this doesn’t have to be evil. It’s just love.’ But after that moment, I just shut something in myself off and I thought, ‘I’m not going to think about this again. I’m not going to talk to anyone from church. I’m not gonna look at my Bible.’ But I don’t think I just stopped believing at that moment. I think I just declared myself tough and went on about my business. And then years passed, probably until I was reporting this, where I would be at the church and… I went to church just for the reporting of this, and it was the first time I’d been to church in 10 years. I think, sitting in there I thought, ‘I don’t think I believe all of this stuff, or at least I don’t believe it the way that I did when I was young, which was historically or without context, where I thought every single word in this book was declared by God. But, as I said in the book, I still have that thing that’s hooked inside me where I just don’t even know how to give that up. Where if someone came in here right now and was like, ‘You’re gonna die,’ I would pray and ask forgiveness. I know I would because I would still be scared of Hell, even right now. I would just start praying, ‘God forgive me, I do believe in you. If I said something wrong to Dave Miller, please forgive me for that so I don’t go to Hell.’
Miller: At one point someone let you look at Roy’s Bible. This is a Bible that he had annotated and written comments in and questions in the margins. Next to a verse from First Corinthians that you mentioned that reads, ‘But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her. For her hair is given her for a covering,’ he wrote, ‘Power is not a hat or a covering.’ What did it mean to you to read that? Which I guess I read as pushback to this word, to the word of God, that he had written in his Bible.
Parks: I would say getting Roy’s Bible was probably, maybe the most exciting moment of the reporting because, up until that point, everyone had described Roy to me as this perfect angel or as a victim, like he wasn’t a real human the way people talked about him. He was almost like a child, and he had no thoughts of his own. The people who gave me the Bible also told me they used to play dominoes with him every Saturday night and that he was really competitive, and if he lost, he’d throw the dominoes out the window.
Miller: [laughing] I love that detail.
Parks: That was the first time I was like, ‘This dude was a human.’ He wasn’t just an archetype for all of us to put whatever we’re putting on him. So, to see that line in the Bible… I also took it that way, that he was like, ‘You know what? I don’t think I agree with this.’ Similarly, people had told me that he was very religious and that he wanted nothing more than to be close to God. That was the first moment where I thought, ‘You know, he actually might have been a critical thinker.’ He wasn’t just taking everything this place gave him and just metabolizing it.
Miller: From the very beginning of working on this project you were, it seems, completely allergic to having this seem like it was going to be about you. When people would say, ‘Why are you doing this?’ you’d say, ‘My grandmother’ or come up with some other reason. Any time it got close to anything about your personal life, you would just somehow deflect it. How did you decide, then, that in order to make this work, this was going to be at least as much about you and your family as it is about Roy?
Parks: That’s a 12-year question. [both laugh] It took me a long time, and I still don’t feel super comfortable with it. Yeah, as you said, from the very first trip… My mom went with me on the first trip, and she told someone that this was a journey of self discovery for me because I was gay. In the video tape I can see myself; I just look at her and say, ‘Don’t tell people I’m gay.’ Over the years I had a person, Aubree Bernier-Clarke, who filmed everything with me, and they would often try to get me to be in it. They would say, ‘Go sit next to that person, and I’m gonna do like a double shot where you’re both in it.’ Or they would make me, after our interviews, recap what had gone down in the interviews. In all of that video footage, I look like a total brat because I just did not want to be interviewed. That’s not… Sorry, Dave, but that’s… [both laughing]
Miller: No, I get it. I wouldn’t want to be…
Parks: …that’s not what I like to do. Even right now I’m super sweaty over here. I love to interview people, and I do not like talking about myself. Later I became grateful that Aubree made me do all those interviews because I had all this contemporaneous footage of how I was feeling. I really grew up, I mean I’m about to be 40, so I grew up in the 80s and 90s, really looking up to journalists whose main mantra was ‘Be invisible.’ I loved narrative journalists like Anne Hull and Katherine Boo. They talked about journalism as, ‘You go into a scene, and you sit in the corner, and you disappear, and you don’t ask questions, and you don’t put yourself in there. You just write down what happens.’ And that’s what I wanted to be.
Miller: Is it possible for you to disentangle a kind of abstract version of ‘that’s what journalism is because that’s the best version of journalism’ because it shouldn’t be about me, this also works for me because I don’t want people to know my secret.’
Parks: Well I think journalism is a perfect profession for me. I don’t like telling anyone about myself even in real life, as you would say. As I was writing it, I realized there are things in here I never told my spouse and I’ve been married. I was married five years at that point and my spouse and I have been together 8 [or] 9 years and I just had never told them. There were things I never told my best friend whom I talked to all day long.
Miller: Was it easier on some weird level to write this stuff down in a book that millions of people could have access to, than to have a one-on-one conversation with a best friend?
Parks: Yeah. I didn’t think about . . . thank you for thinking millions of people are going to read this, that’s very optimistic! But for that I wasn’t thinking about the 237 people were gonna read [chuckling] it when I wrote it. I don’t necessarily lie to myself, I do keep really detailed diaries. And so I do think I was thinking of this as my diary, probably, as I was writing it. Actually what I did is I distanced myself from myself and I thought, how can I write about Casey Parks the character? And then I just tried to report on myself the way I would on someone else, which is the first thing I’m gonna do is collect any artifacts that you have, because memory is infallible. And so I’m going to get every journal you kept, every one of these interviews, Aubree made you do, every G chat that you did while you were on these trips, every text message you sent. I mean I’m a really a bad memory hoarder. So I have every chat I’ve ever had, and then I just like tried to piece together what that person felt, and what that person had gone through and . . .
Miller: As if it wasn’t you?
Parks: As if it weren’t me, yeah.
Miller: So when you would see video like you were describing, of your mom saying ‘oh, this is this is Casey’s journal of self-discovery’, and then you could see your reaction, was the idea then that you would try to just report on yourself, and figure out based on what you could see, or put yourself back in that time, and try to remember what you were feeling? Because they seem like you can come up with sort of different answers based on how you were thinking about your own past.
Parks: Yeah, it does require you to be kind of two roles, like both God and the character. I started as just the third person omniscient. So when I’m watching that video, honestly the first thing that I felt when I watched that video was just extreme heartbreak. Because at that point my mother was dead, when I watched the footage. I could see that my 26-year-old self did not know how to talk to her mother, did not know how to be vulnerable with her mother. And you know, by extension, didn’t know how to be vulnerable with anyone else. And I thought at 26 that I had no hang ups about being gay. And so to see myself, still not wanting people to know I’m gay, still not wanting my mother to talk about me – and at that point I knew I could never tell my mother anything about myself ever again. I just wanted to go through the screen, I guess, and hug my younger self and be like, ‘you don’t have to be so tough’.
Miller: What do you mean when you say tough?
Parks: Well when I was young, I thought tough meant ‘nobody can hurt me, and I don’t care’. Now, I think the process of writing this book made me realize that I wasn’t tough in that way. I think I was just walled off, and now that I’ve written it, I have a million friends writing to me being, ‘wow, I didn’t know any of this, why didn’t you let me hug you?’ But I guess I’m just trying to practice being vulnerable now, which I still find very difficult and that’s why I like just having my day job where I force other people to be vulnerable and then tell the one million readers of the Washington Post all those vulnerabilities. That’s much more comfortable to me.
Miller: It may be that toughness and bravery are similar in the way you might use them, but I was struck by how many places you have a line, like ‘I thought I was being brave, but I had just run away’. I’m curious how you think about bravery and if you actually now have examples in your life, whether people in this book who you wrote about, or others who seemed truly brave to you.
Parks: Oh, I don’t think of myself as brave at all. Bravery to me is staying. So bravery is the people who you . . . there was a point in the reporting where I was in Mississippi with my mom, and it was the day the legislature had passed this rule that was like ‘anyone can discriminate against gay people’. It’s legal, like a doctor doesn’t have to treat you, a waiter can kick you out of a restaurant. And I remember there was an event to try to fight the bill. And there were these middle-aged lesbians, and I went up to them and I said, ‘why do you stay, like your life doesn’t have to be like this? Like come to Portland.’ I remember even saying our governor is bisexual and the speaker of the house is a lesbian. There’s a Xanadu out there. And the woman said something I can’t really say on the radio, but she said ‘f that’. She said ‘I get to have my state, and they have to take me.’ She said, ‘you know summer lasts all year long here, I can drive to Walmart. I love the food.’ And that to me is bravery: ‘no, this belongs to me too, and you are not taking it from me’.
Miller: I want to turn to your mother. You paint a full picture of her, or what seems like a full picture as a reader of her, her humor and her passion and her dance-loving and music-loving self, but also her decades-long struggle with opioid addiction and with mental health problems. How did you decide what you felt comfortable sharing about her in your book?
Parks: Initially, just as I didn’t want myself in there, I didn’t want my mother in there. And I kind of came to both, because I had spent 12 years on this project and had gotten basically nowhere. And then I left The Oregonian to go get my master’s at Columbia. And there’s this really famous book writing class there that I took. The professor, he was like, ‘you have to write six sample chapters’ in that class, and he made me write one with myself in it. He was like, ‘just try it and see’. And after I wrote that one chapter with myself in it, I conceded this is way better than anything I’ve been trying. And he also pushed me to include my mother in the book. And my mother died while I was at Columbia, and I initially told him ‘you only want her in here because she died and she actually doesn’t play a role in this at all’. And he’s the professor so he can make you do whatever he wants you to do. And again I just started at that same place that I started with myself, and what, how can I report on this person? How can I not just draw from my memories, but what documents did she leave behind? How did she want to be known? And while I was at Columbia it was what I like to think of as the year of the opioid stories. Every journalist just was obsessed with the opioid stories, and none of them felt right to me. Like all the stories, somebody was always slumped over the steering wheel at Walmart waiting for a Narcan, and everyone had just lost their job at the factory. My mom was addicted to pain pills my entire life, and first of all we didn’t have the word opiate, I mean that we just called it taking medicine, we didn’t have Purdue to blame. We didn’t have some worldwide epidemic and also my mother wasn’t always slumped over the steering wheel at Walmart. And so I think these things kind of converged for me where I was angry at all of this coverage, and I wanted to show my mother as she was, in all of her fullness. And I do think the best kind of journalism is specific. And so even in one small thing, my mother’s, I guess, drug of choice for better for no better way to put it, was actually an opiate nose spray called Stadol. And usually everyone is just hoarding OxyContin in these stories, and there’s lots of ways to get it. And so I think I just kind of started from that, like, okay, I want to say that she was using Stadol. It sounds weird to put together 150,000 words without thinking about it. And I did think about structure and I wrote a million outlines, but I really just tried to not think about reception, or like who’s going to be betrayed or who’s gonna be . . . I just tried to write like the truest thing that I could about myself about my mom, about everyone I interviewed, and once I had the 400 pages assembled, kind of stepped back and said, what do I have of this? And the mom stuff was very hard to write though, because it allowed me, it forced me to think about things that I don’t want to think about in my regular life. And also I went back to all of her siblings and my dad, and I learned things both good and bad that I didn’t know. My dad told me that she started taking Percocet in the early 1980s and by 1984, she had prescriptions for Percocet at 11 different pharmacies. And I didn’t know that, like in my mind she always struggled, but it literally was my entire life. Sometimes I would just . . . my mom had me when she got pregnant just as she was finishing high school. And like I’ve always known that she was young, but sometimes I go back as I was writing about her, and I would think, as I was growing up, I thought she was so old. When I go back and write and I’m like, oh my God, she was 20, she was a baby. When I graduated high school, my mom was 36 years old, like I’m already older than that. And so I have a lot more compassion for her. I’m thinking, ‘oh you poor 20 year old going through all of this’.
Miller: That’s your family. But you also wrote about many other people, many of whom died in the course of the reporting for this story. Just partly because it went on for so long and partly because a lot of them were young, but had various demons or issues they were dealing with. How did you think about telling the stories, of whether it was Roy, or other people, who at that point didn’t have a way to tell their own story?
Parks: I do think a lot of them were kind of archetypes in their own way. Some of them probably could have whole books. I mean each chapter is kind of a trip back down there, and then each trip kind of focuses on a different person. I was amazed at how often they were willing to talk. It’s always amazing to me that anyone is ever willing to talk to a journalist, because I’m having to do it now to sell these books, but otherwise I would never say yes. But most people had never been on video or anything, and they’re all just like ‘yeah, sure, come on over’ and would tell . . .
Miller: You went to the library once with the film crew and said, ‘hey can we film you look to the card counting’, and they said ‘absolutely no problem’.
Parks: Oh yeah, just as if it happened every single day that people came in with three video cameras to film the library. Again, a lot of this, I was reporting this during the rise of Trump or like pre-Trump, but around the time when the national consciousness was like awakening to rural issues. And so again, all of that coverage often feels unsatisfying to me because everyone is just two-dimensional. So it allowed me, I think, to just go in and see people for all of their complications and say, yes, this person works overnight at the factory. Yes, they’re planning to vote for Trump. But they also have all of this compassion, and all of these losses in their lives and there’s just a rich history of this place. And I don’t know that there’s a rich future unfortunately, but I wanted to really get at what it felt like to be from there.
Miller: Were you at all concerned about writing a book that could give fodder to non-southerners who were eager to look down on the South?
Parks: I don’t think my book looks down on anyone, but . . .
Miller: I don’t either. And I guess I want to be careful the way I ask the question, but it’s a carefully reported personal story about all kinds of things, but it acknowledges all kinds of individual or societal problems as well. And we live in a society where I think it’s still not uncommon for people who are not from the South, to look down on the South in various ways as a kind of backward place. That’s a place that’s racist. That’s the place that has all these serious problems with poverty, and often to not look ourselves in the mirror. And I’m curious as a southerner if you were worried that people would latch onto anything you’d written to, to just be able to deepen their own preconceived notions?
Parks: I really didn’t worry about that, I guess because I don’t feel that when I toured any of the people in it. I kind of think my superpower in life is probably empathy. Like I really feel like I can empathize with anyone. I mean at The Oregonian, I did stories about people who ran conversion therapy for gay people to make them not gay. And I even felt empathy for them. Like I know people don’t believe in objective journalist, but I really, for the most part, can always understand how people get to where they are, even evil people, and that’s how I felt with the people in the book. I mean, yes, there are scenes where all of my relatives stay in their nightgowns for whole weeks at a time, and they don’t leave the carport and they, in the case of my mother, take copious amounts of pain pills. But I feel like what if you get through the whole book? Like it explains the context of how. So even just in the case of my mother, she had a horrible tragedy happened to her when she was a teenager, her boyfriend died by suicide, and then at his funeral an oak tree fell on her head and then she got pregnant with me just basically right after she was grieving met my dad, got pregnant and then because she was pregnant was not allowed to go to college. And so her life possibilities were cut short. And then, because of when I was born . . . so Louisiana in the 1980s was just totally dependent on oil. Almost the state’s entire budget was oil, and the price of oil just completely crashed. And so the whole economy went to pieces. And so there was no way for her to get jobs. And so all of that, I think contributed to her depression and her reliance on medications. And so to me, I guess you could look at that and criticize the 1980s Louisiana government for not diversifying their revenues, but I think that’s a fair point. But I don’t think I don’t think readers will come away from this feeling like southerners are hateful idiots for no reason.
Miller: One of the underlying exciting narratives here is your search and struggle to get access to Roy’s diaries, which goes on for, was it literally a decade?
Parks: Yeah. I asked in 2009. And then I asked the final time in 2019.
Miller: It’s and it’s the most amazing journalistic patience game I’ve ever seen. What was your strategy?
Parks: Oh gosh, I guess my ultimate strategy in hindsight was to wear this man down. I didn’t feel like I had one at the time, it was mostly a lot of sweating and being nervous and like trying to talk myself into going there. I do this a lot with journalism, where like I’m so scared to interview anyone or call anyone. And then I think you’re either going to look like an idiot to this stranger, or to your boss. So who do you want to look like an idiot in front of? And that will usually talk me into calling people. I didn’t have a boss on this project, but I did have people who flew down there with m, and so I thought I can’t have them waste their money. I have to go knock on this trailer door. The last time I went to ask him, he had told me no six or seven times?
Miller: And we should say that this is neighbors and friends of Roy who ended up with a whole bunch of his diaries.
Parks: So Roy hoarded cats and dogs at the end of his life and his neighbors forced him into a nursing home and took everything out of his house, including four decades worth of diaries. And I asked them in 2009 and they said leave this story alone. And then I found different ways of asking them were like, you know the old journalism trick where you ease into it? And they would sometimes I wouldn’t even ask, I just have a glint in my eye and he’d say I can see you thinking it, and the answer is no. So 2019 I go and I knock on his door again, and he came out and he was like, ‘Casey? You’re still doing this?’. And I don’t know if you if he just kind of thought like, if I don’t do this, this girl is gonna show up on my door every year until I die, or if he thought like, maybe I seemed serious because I hadn’t given up in 10 years.
Miller: Probably he took pity on you.
Parks: I did tell him my mother had died. I know that you shouldn’t be using pity to get journalistic documents, but they knew his wife was actually my mom’s junior high PE teacher. So I thought, I could say, feel bad for me, my mother has died. I need these diaries. But even then he didn’t say yes. He said, ‘well, I gotta go pick up my brother from the Washington area. So, I can’t talk to you right now’. And then there was a whole dramatic day that followed, but . . .
Miller: Which I will leave that day and some of the exciting, potentially divine interventions, to people’s reading ears and eyes. But can you describe a little bit about what it was like for you when you could actually read some of those diaries?
Parks: It’s so wild to wait that long for something and like you imagined something in your head. And when we picked them up, I think the first entry was just about the weather, and my heart sank and I thought, oh my God did I just spend 10 years waiting to read about the weather? I picked up the next one and it’s ‘got a lot of lawns to mow today’, and I just started to get more and more nervous, like are these all going to be really boring? And I’ve looped all these people into this. But eventually I found some entries where Roy became quite vulnerable. And I don’t have a lot of time, but one thing that I really struggled with over the course of this, is whether this was the right thing to do, because I couldn’t ask Roy for his consent to do it. And I just didn’t know if he would want me digging into his life. People told me he was private. But then when we got to the diaries, everyone starts with an introduction that’s like ‘if you’re reading this, I’m Roy Hudgins, I’m a female dressed in men’s clothes, I’m really stupid and I’m really ugly’ and he would post pictures of himself in there and he would write next to it, ‘this is me’. And then he wrote songs and poems, and one of the poems that we found was called the Town Misfit. And he wrote in there, ‘when I die no one is gonna remember me and no one is going to miss me’. And I think for me that was where reading them, I finally felt at peace of whether this was a good project to do or not, because I thought this is someone who did want to be known and who wrote . . . because in my diaries, I do not write, ‘if you’re reading this, I’m Casey’, like I don’t put pictures of me.
Miller: The expected reader number is zero, it’s written for you.
Parks: Yeah. I mean you just get a lot of grocery lists honestly. But his were written to an unnamed reader. I do think that he wrote them hoping that someone would see what his life was like.
Miller: One of the big themes that goes through this whole book is about feeling alone or not wanting to feel alone, or looking for ways to find out that you’re not alone. I’m curious if, since the book has come out, if you’ve gotten feedback from readers who say that your book now has made them feel less alone?
Parks: I have, and from people I don’t even know, which is really exciting, because . . .
Miller: You do, people who are strangers are going to read this book. I can’t believe that surprises you!
Parks: Eleven people that I know, my sales on Amazon started slipping. I was like, well all of my family members have already bought it.
Miller: You were on the cover of the New York Times Book Review.
Parks: It’s hard for me to think that anyone will read it or like it, and there are people who haven’t liked it. I’m trying to make my peace with that, but it’s out of my hands, I have to tell myself that. But no, it makes it all worth it to hear that, because I still feel horribly uneasy about having my name and memoir on the same cover together, because I do still think of myself as that kind of journalist who can go to any situation and be invisible. But ultimately I came to see that this book is only gonna work if I put some of myself into it and I guess it was a deal I was willing to strike with the world and when I get messages like that, it feels like it was worth it.
Miller: Casey Parks, thanks very much for giving us an hour of your time. I appreciate it.
Parks: Thank you.
Miller: Casey Parks is a reporter for the Washington Post and the author of the new book Diary of a Misfit, a memoir and a mystery. Thanks very much for tuning in to TOL on OPB and KLCC this week. I’m Dave Miller.
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