Dreams and Nightmares: Survivor Guilt in Working Class Crossovers

Barbara Jensen

[1] About fifteen years ago I shared a taxi ride from a working class studies conference to an airport with a younger woman. She had just about completed her Ph.D. in English literature. We were leaving Youngstown, Ohio, the site of the early conferences that spawned working class studies, though we had not yet met. We chatted. She asked, and I told her I had done a presentation on the difficulties people from blue collar backgrounds face in the professional class, in particular on "survivor guilt." To my surprise, she burst into tears.

[2] She told me her father had been about to retire, having worked long and hard years as a factory worker. He postponed his retirement and had taken out a second mortgage; on the home he had spent most of his life paying off, to finance her education. She went to find easier and more meaningful work than his or her mother's. But she was learning a lot more than that. She heard educated people putting down people just like her father all the time.

[3] When she found working class studies she was delighted, it seemed like an antidote to the knee-jerk classism of higher education. At this particular conference she heard a number of presentations dissecting and exposing class bias in higher education with razor-sharp, rapid-fire, reference-laden class analyses. They spoke of what they saw as a hopelessly entrenched education system, reproducing social and economic privilege. They were "brilliant people" she said. She wondered if she had made a terrible mistake by choosing a career teaching English in such institutions.

[4] She felt she was betraying her father: with his money, his non-retirement, she was learning most of her new peers had contempt for people like him. Now, even the enlightened seemed to be saying the problems she wanted to help change in higher education were more intractable than ever. She was moving further and further away from anything like common ground between them. She was learning how not to be him. She was also learning how hard it would ever be to make a difference.

[5] She felt guilty, confused, and a measure of despair. She was finally almost done with the higher education that took ten years of her life, and she was reconsidering her whole career. Here she teared up again. What would that mean? To reject and waste the education her father had mortgaged his retirement to give her? How could she ever explain it to him? And what else could she do with her life?


[6] We hear a lot about the American Dream again these days, despite the fact that it has slowly slipped from view for more Americans than not. But winners sure do win big, much bigger than they did mid-twentieth century. We watch them on our TV sets, receiving awards and prizes. Michelle and Barack Obama proudly speak of their humble origins and seem to embody the dream that any one of us could grow up to be president. Indeed, Obama spoke early and often to working class parents: I will send your children to school so they can have the economic opportunities you did. He was referring back to the mid-20th century when the working class had a bigger piece of the American pie than any other time in American history, after fighting for a hundred years for their fair share. It's true, it was easy to get school loans in the 1940's, 50's and 60's; the GI Bill and national defense loans that followed WWII enabled a lot of working class (mostly) men to go to college and become engineers and other professionals. [1]

[7] But the mid-20th century was also characterized by a devastating critique of mainstream success that followed on the heels of civil rights and the anti-war movement. The anti-war movement was often fueled by the children of affluence, college students who were exempted from the Viet Nam war. There were working class young people there, too, like me. We protested the emptiness of consumerism, of middle-class success, of "the rat race" as we called it at the time. We protested wars of invasion, we said accumulating more and more material stuff was pointless, and we feared consumer capitalism would create the climate problems that have now become commonplace.

[8] Who would have thought then that last two decades of the 20th century would turn out to be competitive beyond our wildest dreams; that we would double the number of millionaires and three-hundredth-upple the number of billionaires, while 3/5th of our population fell down? That we would abandon our little four-cylinder cars for SUV's belching fumes in the face of an increasingly unstable climate? That the upper and upper-middle classes would simply watch (even encourage, by cutting wages and benefits) everyone else falling down, as "our" corporations took our jobs overseas for cheaper labor in not only manufacturing but by answering calls from Hoboken in New Delhi. Who knew that manufacturing and service jobs would lose every right that took a hundred years to win?

[9] A look at the autobiographical writing of higher education's Discontents provides an alternate viewpoint on being a winner in America, and provides some bridge from that time to this one (Zandy, 1990, Dews and Law, 1995, Sackrey and Ryan, 1996, Christopher, 2009, Jensen, 2012). While I covered these class-crossovers at length in my book, Reading Classes, I want to focus now on one particular aspect of that work, the thorn in the side of winners that dogs them in their headlong dive toward immortality: survivor guilt. Survivor guilt is debilitating, even devastating to some, but I also believe it is a gift. It insists on memory and will not rest without justice.

[10] In "Survivor Guilt in a University Setting," Geraldine Piorkowski (1983) made a discovery: "For low income, urban, first-generation college students, survivor guilt has emerged as a significant explanatory concept for academic difficulty." She goes on to say:

...one minority woman reported that her most stressful experience was being the only one in her south-side neighborhood going to college. Another student described her frustration in trying to persuade family members to take positive steps on their own behalf (e.g. to continue their education or get jobs) with no success. Other first generation college students who work at improving their English grammar find that their manner of speaking becomes the object of ridicule by family members who feel threatened by such differences from family norms. 'So you think you're too good for us' is a taunt frequently directed at the family member who is trying to escape the family socio-economic level. Unless one is very comfortable with narcissistic strivings 'to be special', survivor status tends to create conflict. Thus it is difficult for many of these students to pursue academic work, which represents an escape from the family level of functioning, without a great deal of internal struggle. (1983, pp.620-621)

[11] When I found Piorkowski's work, while writing my thesis on working class people and psychotherapy, I wept with sorrow and relief. But the loss I felt was more complex than guilt. Eventually I combined her research with that of others and found my own conclusions: survivor guilt is one aspect in an array of psychological difficulties that working class students experience. Piorkowski's work also illustrates the psychosocial results of a cultural chasm. For people who pursue professional-middle-class careers, part of their dilemma is that there is value in each culture, as well as drawbacks. Elsewhere, I have pursued these cultural differences at length (2012), here I dive more deeply into the concept of survivor guilt.

[12] Investigating the psychology of survivors of natural and man-made disasters (floods, war, Hiroshima, Nazi Germany) community psychiatrist Robert Lifton's work identified the survivor's haunting dilemma, "Why did I live when they died?" (Lifton, 1967). Piorkowski and her colleagues recast this idea for her troubled lower-class students: "Why did I succeed when they failed?" They found the concept of survivor guilt to be a helpful explanation of why these students have difficulty with: "...higher attrition rates, lower GPA's, significant conflict with less affection toward parents, problems organizing time, lower self-esteem, and more psychosomatic problems than their [dorm-staying, middle class] peers." They also found that using (and explaining) the concept of survivor guilt in counseling sessions and in workshops, helped those students and evoked testimony:

...Another student, a 26 year old, married Black woman, heard about survivor guilt in a study skills workshop. She felt that the concept of survivor guilt was the most important thing she had learned in the workshop...she said: 'If you come from a family that didn't make it, you feel you shouldn't. My sister lost her job and I feel guilty—like why should I have a job. It's typical of my family—always somebody losing their job or something. We just don't have the same types of problems. When I'm around my family I feel I don't have any right to talk about anything positive. They don't have anything positive to say.' The only member of her family attending college, she came in for help with chronic depression and marital problems. (1983, p.620)

[13] Piorkowski found her working and poverty class college students suffering two aspects of survivor guilt as defined by Lifton: survivor guilt and psychic numbing. I have seen a great deal of this in my 35 years of private practice as a counseling psychologist, also as a 20-year college instructor. As a psychologist, I want to mine these as well as Lifton's other survivor's criteria for insight into the hearts and lives of working-class-crossovers. His list of symptoms for survivors of trauma that witnessed others who did not survive also includes: a distrust of nurturance, a loss of meaning, struggles to formulate a new sense of purpose in life, and a preoccupation with life and death. In the case of class-mobility, I believe, the latter becomes an irrational obsession with success and failure. In my counseling, personal, and teaching experience, all of these symptoms are known to working–class crossovers. In my extrapolation, this distress comes as a result of a combination of cultural antagonism, "topdog/underdog" class-based domination in our larger society, and, importantly, the mystification of these processes.

[14] America's winners in the achievement lottery, working-class crossovers (or "straddlers", Lubrano, 2003) go on to live lives that internalize the conflicts between working and middle class cultures and also to control and oppress the people they came from. In Strangers in Paradise, the first book about academics from working class backgrounds, authors Sackrey and Ryan said: "Some [find] their way through creative accommodations. Some have not. Others strike out on their own, or insulate themselves and use the autonomy offered by the career to make meaning elsewhere. Others live with it rather well. But they all speak clearly about the struggle to make sense of their lives" (1995, pp. 116-117).

[15] Some crossovers choose to dissociate their past, the people in it—and even the self they once were, they appear to simply leave their first world behind. Others deal with a variety of dilemmas that arise as they straddle two very different worlds. Some learn early how to keep and balance their different worlds, one example is couples that marry within the working class and change and straddle worlds together. Another example is now-professionals locating themselves solidly in working class neighborhoods or families. These folks go visit the middle class to work then return home at night.

Socially, my best friends are people who aren't in academic life. ...One of the basic problems is that I don't really trust academic people. They are so gossipy and so competitive, and you really can't sit down and let your hair down and discuss with them. You don't know what they're going to do... One of the things I've concluded is that not only intellectual excellence and political commitment or ideological commitment is important, but character is more fundamental. Profoundly lacking are people in whom you can confide, who will go to bat for you out of loyalty. These traits are profoundly absent in the academic world, or if they are there, it is not because they're in the academic milieu, but because of some other reason (Finder, p. 170, from Sackrey and Ryan, 1996).

[16] Many do not feel anything but grateful when they are young and starry-eyed about their new "life of the mind." For these people, a punishing psychological cocktail of survivor guilt, imposter syndrome, and a sense of anomie (placelessness) may emerge much later. For still others, survivor guilt and other complications may simply continue and deepen over time.

[17] What is it they are surviving? Inequality and injustice is at the heart of survivor guilt. I, and others, have documented elsewhere that inequality pervades education via the mediums of culture, geographic segregation, and the funding of education through local property taxes (Jensen, 2012; Lareau, 2003; Anyon, 1980, 1981, Bowles and Gintis, 1976). This is social reproduction in action: middle class students' families and culture directs them toward the powerful and successful lives their parents and communities have (Lareau, 2003). The working class survivor suffers the fact that she or he "made it" into a new class with much greater pay, creativity and control, while others they love, whom they know are no less smart or hard-working, did not.

[18] Mary Capello, a college teacher who said she slowly learned to "pass" as middle class in her academic life, said her brother also tried to get to college, was even accepted to Berklee, one of the most prestigious music schools in the country:

...but something snapped at some point in the entry process that I still cannot locate. He became increasingly, violently ill on the long train rip from Philadelphia to the Boston campus with my other brother. ...They visited the campus. They got right back on the train. ...My brother only reports one reason for his decision now: 'I was afraid I'd be alone,' he says. Since then he has worked as a roofer, and he complains about the backbreaking, finger-crippling, and mind-numbing consequences of his job. He married, had two children, and was left by his wife; he has been a single parent for the last five years. He has periodic [music] gigs that reawaken his compositional abilities, but mostly he suffers long bouts of unemployment that result in my niece and nephew receiving substandard medical care, food, educational privileges, and child care. (Capello, from Dews and Law, 1995 p.133).

[19] Lifton said any form of "symbolic breakdown," where the world of people one once inhabited is "lost in a way one can neither grieve nor retrieve" is a source of survivor guilt (1967, p.497). The forced geographical diversity in jobs academics take may make separation easier and the family bond weaker. And, as I have said elsewhere, in youth there may be developmental leaps at play in separating from family but it is unusually cruel to have that separation become permanent, in the worst way, by devaluing the hearts, minds and lives of the people from your first world. "This is a story, one about love and fear. It's about every child's nightmare of losing her family and the ways in which the world I now tentatively live in tries to make that nightmare come true, to make it not a nightmare but a dream, a goal." (Laurel Johnson Black, from Dews and Law, 1995, p. 14).

[20] Living in a professional middle class bubble, it is easy not to see that the increasing opulence of the upper-middle class (and even more so the new upper class or Richistan, Frank, 2007!) is being built on the backs and lives of the poor and working class. [2] Though I have argued that working class cultures are different from the more-homogenized culture of the American middle class and should be recognized as valid, aspects of working class cultures are "colonized" on the job, in terms of power and control, by the middle class people that employ and supervise them. While crossovers know this, their middle class colleagues do not. No amount of personal growth or multiculturalism will undo this structural fact. Though working class cultures can offer a richness of community and other human qualities that tend to be overlooked by the larger society—and frequently by the upwardly-mobile working class, crossovers also know working class work can be hard, even brutal.

[21] University of Minnesota (Duluth) professor Milan Kovacovic, gave an eloquent comparison of his own working and middle class lives that vividly illustrates the source of his guilt. I quote him here at length:

Truly I have no right to complain when I think that so many people earn their living as I once did, from unhealthful if not dangerous occupations, on graveyard, swing, or rotating shifts, in freezing or scorching surroundings, under artificial light and deafening noise, doing repetitive, monotonous tasks, watching the clock tick away the seconds until the first fifteen-minute coffee break, until the thirty minute, unpaid respite of lunch, until the second fifteen-minute break, until quitting time or mandatory overtime, until retirement decades away, and death shortly after. That's for the lucky ones who have full-time jobs with fringe benefits such as health insurance and a two-week paid vacation yearly."

Survivors remember all too well what it was like for them to do working class work:

[Any problems I have now are not] comparable ...to the threat of silicosis that I endured for an entire year in my first full-time job immediately after high school at Ace Metal Refinishers in Chicago. This exhausting and filthy work required wading, to the din of compressors, into swirling clouds of pumice powder and lacquer spray in order to clean and refinish the metal surfaces on the facades of various downtown buildings. We worked from scaffolding enswathed in dingy tarps, often at night so as not to inconvenience the nattily dressed office workers. I can still feel the abrasive dust filtering into my sleeves, down my collar, and through the face mask, irritating my nostrils, and leaving grit between my teeth, my eyelashes itchy from sticky sweat, red hair turned white before mid-shift in the powdery mist.

The last part of his statement may be the most telling, illustrating the lack of human value working class people have to those above them on the class ladder:

And, supreme humiliation, this was not even a heroic, essential blue-collar undertaking like coal mining or steel-beam riveting but mere cosmetic work to make the metal surfaces shine more brightly, at the expense of my and my co-workers' lungs." (from Dews and Law, 1995, p. 236-237)

[22] While the lower-middle and middle-middle class has lost more and more ground over the last twenty years (15% in net worth), working class paychecks have fallen almost into oblivion (over 20% loss in net worth), If we had kept apace with wages in the mid-20th century, minimum wage would now be about $24 an hour, as it is in Denmark. The wild, shoot-'em-up, winners-take-all, deregulated economics of the last thirty-five years have hurt working class people more than anyone (even more than poverty class folks) as all across the country wages, benefits, jobs, and labor rights won from over a hundred years of fighting have been taken away. For all those being asked to take $2 cuts in their $10 an hour jobs, and those being asked to simply give up half, or all!, of the $500,000 pensions they worked a lifetime to earn, others are buying second homes, vacation apartments in New York City and San Francisco, private jets and making money off their money all day and night through hired international traders (2000, DeGraff, et al). Working class life never was easy, but since the seventies, it just keeps getting worse. Entry-level jobs at fast food and cheap retail stores have filled with grandmothers and grandfathers while their grandchildren can't find work at all. The obscenity of the current income and benefit gap teemed with the awareness of one's own complicity in the oppression of one's people can be intolerable for those who know both sides of the class divide.

The insidious element in meritocratic thinking is the way it contributes to a dominant ideology that is rooted in the notion that privilege is earned and, hence deserved, rather than a result of initial social-class advantage. Further, universities and university professors are part of the weeding and ranking process that reproduces hierarchy which, far more often than not, is based on initial class positions." (P.104-105 Sackrey and Ryan, 1996)

[23] The greater the connection maintained to one's former life, the greater one's sense of grief and anger about the treatment of the people from that life. "Why me? Why not them??," becomes the torturing question.

Although academics from the working class may never find a true home in another world, telling our stories helps at times to reconcile some of the painful ambivalence. I long to write and read scholarly essays that would sound like my sister when she's talking—my sister who lives in a trailer house a few miles from my parents house and continues to talk the way I used to talk, the way I often wish I still did, the way that feels honest. Unfortunately, I can't get rid of the contamination of the academy. I can't put the Genie back in the bottle. I find myself using words like hegemony against my will. I just can't shake it. So what happens is that I shift back and forth between these styles (I sure didn't know what "style" was until college, if I really do know now). I vacillate (college word) back and forth (that's pretty comfortable) between my old way of talkin' (very comfortable) and the new discourse of the academy (academic language again). If I take a few deep breaths, then type as fast as I can, I out run the academic censor and write something my sister and a colleague might understand. But if I go too slowly, I end up thinking too much and my sister gets lost. That's my new goal: not to leave my sister behind, because when I leave her behind I leave myself, my family, and other working class people behind." (Dews, p.335. From Dews and Law, 1995)

[24] Many crossovers find that life in the middle class only increases their awareness of inequality and unjust privilege. In professions that provide lots of money, long vacations, and never, ever endanger their lives at work (or fingers or toes), crossovers may have few illusions about "deserving" this better life. Particularly for those who entered the middle class through the cultural capital route (ie: educators and psychologists), there may be a loss of ability to deny the injustice. With advanced study into economics, political science, sociology, and more, the mystification of class and classism are penetrated and there you are—rediscovering, with fancy procedures, what your family always told you. All that stuff about equal opportunity really is "a bunch of bullshit."

A constant refrain among my colleagues is that they are overworked and underpaid. In my experience, the reverse is true. Academic work isn't work, and academic pay is more than I remember anybody around me getting when I was growing up. I have always felt like I won the lottery—a cushy job and fat income compared to what I remember. More than this, what seems to me the insularity of my colleagues' complaints has undercut a large fraction of whatever respect I might otherwise feel for them and the academic community at large. How can such a privileged group, and one so blind to its privileges, ever fathom what is going on with the rest of the world? (Brent p.273, from Sackrey and Ryan, 1996)

[25] Psychic numbing is an asset in the new professional middle class, where expected hours of work have skyrocketed along with CEO salaries (Gini, 2000, Hochschild, 1997). In my counseling work with people who have crossed classes, I have often seen difficulty or inability to feel certain emotions: likely candidates are joy, sorrow, and faith in one's abilities. Often there is a general numbing, a fear of feeling, as if feeling emotions might disturb a delicate psychological balance that may never be regained. We may rush forward to stay ahead of the cluster of feelings that we feel would drag us down. Lifton suggests that psychic numbing also suppresses anger and, more broadly, resistance to the source of injustice.

[26] The unfortunate result can be a suppression of the feelings associated with success, an inability to enjoy and/or acknowledge accomplishments—good grades, graduations, excellent evaluations, admissions to fancy schools, or post-doctorate placements at places like the United Nations—places one feels they were never meant to go. Or, a sense that "I fooled them" can persist indefinitely. Sackrey and Ryan believed imposter syndrome is a result of trying to maintain the connection to those one has left behind by never fully identifying with, or feeling at home within, your new social destination. Lifton also suggested survivor guilt is a form of "fidelity to the selves we were" (1967, p. 484).

[27] Whatever its sources, this shrugging off of success stands in sharp contrast to the obsessive attention ignited by any hint of failure. The note from a boss we are convinced is trouble (only to find she is inviting us to a Sunday brunch), wondering why the department chair said, "needs improvement" in that one small area (though all the rest of the evaluation said "excellent.") Suddenly, the crossover is obsessed with self-doubt, even self-hatred. Psychic numbing gives way and buried emotions fuel a blurry sort of "flashback," a flood of repressed feelings that are clearly out-of-proportion to the current situation.

[28] When I was in graduate school, in a year-long internship at a prestigious local clinic, one day our supervisor spilled his coffee all over the floor. I blurted out, "Hey! Even PhD's spill their coffee!" Immediately horrified, it had popped out of my mouth before I could stop it. I can't describe the torment I put myself through for the next twenty-four hours over having made that stupid comment. I barely ate or slept. Distraught after a sleepless night, I called my best friend at 8 am, wailing that I had done the most horrible thing. I had blown my internship! My career was over before it started! After I told her what I had done, my friend, from the upper-middle class, just said, "Honey, take a nap!" To my amazement, when I returned to the clinic, no one said anything at all about it and my internship proceeded without incident. They offered me paid work when I finished my internship.

[29] One way I see people overcome guilt, but cement some amount of psychic numbing, is through psychological dissociation—the psyche divides into compartments with little, sometimes no, relation to each other. Some people live out whole lives in this kind of alienation, and have no map to bring these parts together into a personal sense of wholeness. For many, it means trying desperately to pass as middle class in one's new life, often to the point of becoming someone else.

One of our respondents from such a background reports his experience when he had to confront his imposture, the performing self he carefully developed over the years. He had occasion to view himself on a video-replay of a program on which he was an expert panelist. The person sitting behind his nameplate on the panel was a stranger to him. Worse yet, he didn't like that stranger. He talked and looked much like people he had disliked in the past. He had, that is to say, become one of them."(Sackrey and Ryan, pp.113-114)

[30] Psychic numbing and this sense of imposture can lead people to another of Lifton survivor characteristics: distrust of nurturance. In a re-made but not integrated new self, loneliness for a past forgotten or devalued is compounded with a sense that the ones who love or respect us (in our new life) actually don't really know "the real me." How does one trust loving connections if one believes, on some level, that a large part of oneself is not present? We may feel that even we don't know the real me anymore. As long as we feel ourselves to be hiding on the inside (perhaps unconsciously), we will mistrust those who claim to know and love us. We will not feel all there. To escape is not to integrate, which requires a continuity of personal meaning, an evolution of one's past, present and future selves. Without consciousness of who we are and where we came from, there may be long-term cognitive dissonance that can result in recurring (but inexplicable) inner tumult, anxiety, depression and marital problems.

[31] When the working class part of oneself involves all of one's early memories and experiences, all of one's child-self and childhood, its denial or devaluation is no small psychological act. Internalized classism can manifest in an active dislike of working class people, places and styles; or as simply a silence, an erasure of (and shame toward) that part of oneself. But whatever one's attitude toward working class people is, it will also be one's attitude toward one's original self.

[32] Others build psychological defenses against the facts of inequality and convince themselves they really do deserve to make five (or ten) times more than their siblings and parents do. Psychological defenses, of course, also shield painful feelings from the view of others. But defense mechanisms are only supposed to be used for immediate protection. Such defenses employed for life-long protection, and especially from one's own past or inner life, can come to dominate a person's whole personality.

Of course, at best, such a mechanism for coping can lead to a life divided between a 'performing' self, and an 'actual' one. At worst, the actual self is lost totally to the imposter. This is a bitter price to pay to get some respect in the world." (Sackrey and Ryan, 1995, p. 114).

[33] Over-employed psychological defenses often result in substance abuse and the autobiographies in This Fine Place So Far From Home (1995) frequently mention it. Psychic numbing and substance abuse are also criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, where they are seen in a more pervasive form. A compartmentalized psyche easily lends itself to addictions of all kinds, including sex addition and workaholism, often ones that endanger one's new life (think Bill Clinton).

[34] The loss of and struggle to formulate meaning is a survivor challenge that can also plague people who cross class lines. Again, an intimate sense of injustice can make one's new, improved life much more difficult. When the loved ones left behind are subject to increasing joblessness and wage-slave earnings (like under ten dollars-an-hour) it is harder to skip merrily into a new life where a sudden $200 or $500 fee is no big deal. Meanwhile, loved ones back home that cannot pay a fine or fee and may end up with unresolved arrest warrants (thus ensuring they will be unable to seek further legal employment). In the new upper class, and the upper rungs of the middle class, $20,000 birthday parties for kids are not uncommon. The entire bottom 40% of our population only averages about $26,000 in a year!

[35] For the working-class crossover, the gaps between one's two different lives can produce profound cognitive dissonance and the world may cease to make sense anymore. We are not generally aware of how much we rely on the world and the things that happen in it making sense to us, until some tragedy hits us square in the face and that sense of order is lost. Psychologist Robert Kegan has claimed that "making meaning" is central feature of human development, that consciousness itself consists of a progression of meanings made and re-made (1982), and I agree with him. For the survivor, when life stops making sense, meaning may be hard to find. Lifton called this "a breakdown of inner imagery of connection, integrity, and motion," a "loss of human continuity." (1967, p. 502). Where there once was a stable psychological foundation, a basement, if you will, upon which the house of personality is built, there may be a feeling of free‑fall, of being lost. Not lost in a known or an unknown universe, but worse, lost in a universe that is a bizarre mixture of the known and unknown.

[36] Many live by a religious philosophy that says God rewards people who are good and punishes those who are bad. Those that work hard and live right should get to live good lives. When we confront meaningless tragedy for innocent people, religion itself—one's whole framework for perceiving and understanding life—may be called into question. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote the book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" out of just such an experience. He lived a righteous and religious life and yet his son was born with a rare disease that seriously handicapped and killed him by age 13 (2001). His book describes his survivor struggles and reflections on the harsh facts of his son's life—in short his new formulation of meaning and faith.

[37] But few of us have the time or resources to struggle so carefully and to such confident conclusions as Rabbi Kushner. And, unfortunately, even if thoughts and feelings on the surface can be reupholstered with the fabric of faith, there is a deep unrest when one's sense of God as just and powerful is shaken. Indeed, some would say our sense of justice was put there by God to make it so in the world.

[38] Non-religious people are not any less susceptible to a crisis of faith. We all tend to assume, more unconsciously than consciously, that we live in a more or less just universe. We think things happen for reasons that can be understood, and altered. We believe if we try hard and do well we will be rewarded. We believe it even when it clearly isn't true. Maybe we need to believe it in order to motivate ourselves. In any case, justice is frequently not the case in human and natural affairs and it is this with which we are left to struggle.

I may have moved physically and economically into a new class, but my psyche is dragging. ...My stepmother does indeed offer me up as her son, the college professor, the first in the family ever to go to college, the one who 'Granny always said would amount to something.' Yet when I go home, no matter how hard I try, I cannot go home. The gulf is there, and the praise seems ludicrous. ...The culture I came out of was one in which men and women worked for long, difficult hours for small amounts of money and prestige. Many died young. Many were ignorant. Many were wise. Is what I have done so marvelous that I deserve special recognition? (Koonings, from Sackrey and Ryan, 1996, pp.287-288)

[39] Loss of meaning is generally followed by a loss of purpose, and an inability to believe that anything one does will make a difference. That loss of faith may result in an internal journey toward a new sense of order, one in which justice and unjust experiences can coexist, as it did for Rabbi Kushner. For others it may result in bitterness and cynicism. For still others it results in a commitment to live lives that create antidotes to these dilemmas, fighting class injustice provides a new sense of purpose, and making the world a better place for all of us. But, if then one's entire life is consumed with this sort of compensatory "paying forward" I still have to ask, have they really survived?

[40] No Cinderella, Renny Christopher's autobiography tells a disturbing story of unhappiness in her (very successful) new life as an academic, her sorrow that she never really "fit" in the working class, and the awareness that now she never will (2009). Nor does she feel she fits in her new world, though she is exceptionally bright and successful. Though she had published several books, multiple review/rejection notices to her autobiography A Carpenter's Daughter said it was well-written and interesting, but still it took years to get it published (2009). Having read it myself, I suspect that the content is what really troubles the folks who reviewed it. In particular, reviewers disliked her unhappiness with her new life. When she compared her experience to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, one reviewer said she was trivializing PTSD.

[41] It is my hope that this article will help others see clear similarities between survivor guilt and PTSD, indeed Lifton himself conceived the category and lobbied for the inclusion of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel for Mental Disorders, the diagnosis tool used by psychiatrists and psychologists. Symptoms include: numbing of feeling in general, feeling a profound sense of guilt (or being irrationally driven by it), loss of meaning and struggles to formulate a new sense of meaning in life, substance abuse, insomnia, psychic flooding of repressed emotions such as rage, grief, and more (emotional flashbacks).

[42] I am not, however, saying it makes you sick to become middle class! On the contrary, for most it is a better life with greater resources, more leisure time, and far more personally meaningful work. I am saying that for a subset of crossovers, the awareness of (and participation in) class inequality; the knowledge that the smart and funny people you loved all your life are being cheated, combined with what feels like undeserved privileges (in addition to the nagging sense that you don't really "fit" and no one really knows you) can give that life a nasty edge.

Put another way, the academy in its ordinary functioning contributes much more to keeping in place the distribution of power and privilege and the ideas that legitimate these distributions, than it does to change or weaken them. (Sackrey and Ryan, 1996, p. 104)

[43] I believe it is also the case that crossovers may simply be more sensitive to, and perhaps have developed less resilience against, the stressors in professional life that affect everyone. Academic John Koonings articulated the dilemma some crossovers face:

It seems then...that I have alienated myself from my beginnings by moving into a culture that offers me few, if any, binding, sustaining, points of contact. I do not work as hard as my father did, though I make at least five times as much money as he ever did. But I must admit that there are moments when I believe that those things have cost me the relationships, the cultural ties, the human interactions that define people most humanly. (Sackrey and Ryan, 1996, p. 288-289).

Survivor Solutions

[44] When all is said and done, I am very grateful for my two worlds, despite difficulties holding it all together sometimes. Hunger of Memory author, Richard Rodriquez, talked with Alfred Lubrano. Al says, "I ask him if he regrets the dichotomy and the difficulty of the crossover from one class to another. Doesn't the duality weigh on him? He looks at me, surprised that I don't get it, surprised that I don't see that the lives people like us lead are enriched. 'This movement in a life is nothing less than remarkable,' he says. "Yes, this movement produces anxiety. But the quandary of being in two worlds deepens your humanity rather than restricts it. Why should you want to be less?'"(Lubrano, 2004, p. 218)

[45] I have no doubt my life is enriched. I do not wish I came from the middle class (though I once did), and I do not wish I had stayed wholly in the working class (though sometimes I wonder). But I never dreamed, way back then, how complicated and unsettling my "life of the mind", with my feet in the dirt, might be. I have found great satisfaction in working with working class, poor and middle class people in a way that validates their real lives, all their selves, as well as their dreams for a better world to live in, rather than simply stamping bandages on problems that stem from increasingly leaky social support systems in America. Beyond mounting economic (and corresponding lifestyle) struggles, it is the dreams of these Americans that are collapsing into a sense of powerlessness. Manipulating people that feel powerless has become big business in the political arena by turning that frustration into hatred of others who are also relatively powerless.

[46] Lifton said survivors need an "animated relationship to guilt."(1983). Pain and cognitive dissonance drive people to resolve conflicts. Survivors of class injustice, rather than falling silent and angling to grab all we can now that it is finally "our turn," are in a unique position to perceive and explain how class works, and to challenge it. Lifton later also talked about the 'survivor's mission of illumination' (1983). We may be called ungrateful, but we can use unresolved feelings of guilt, betrayal, and anger to motivate us. When we engage in activities that save others from injustices we have endured, we make new meaning of those obstacles, and our lives.

[47] When it comes to challenging deepening inequality in our society, or winners-take-all politics and policies in our nation, we may find ourselves uniquely equipped for the job. Our position gives us a vantage point that illuminates the grave social problems inherent in run-away competition alongside the decline of community. School teachers made fun our language? Let's be, or teach, school teachers who learn how to use empathy and ethnography to understand their student's real lives. Let's be the administrators who support and reward these teachers, not enslave them to an impossible curriculum. We are in a unique position to remind people of the need for real face-to-face community ties, that is if we haven't forgotten what that community feels like. Mary Capello, who's brother never got to Berklee, goes well beyond whining in her life as a crossover in her essay, "Useful Knowledge":

Sympathy, understanding, will not do. Rather, I mean this essay as an intervention into institutionalized self-definition and, most importantly, as a map that might be applied to the terrain of academe and then explored for the differences that emerge: riffs, valleys, bulges, blindnesses. ...What had been deemed lack is now better understood as delegitimized knowledge, knowledge that needs to be acknowledged...Rather than quiet the noise of the working class neighborhood now internalized along with other cultural voices, rather than transmute the distracting din into a convincingly serene Muzak, we might learn to mine such sounds for their worth, their instructive tension. ...I want to suggest that we can't afford to work our psyche's into a permanent grimace because of the lack of fit of working-class face to middle-class mask. Instead we need to tell the things we see as what we know: a knowledge that is just as valid as any and possibly more instructive than most. (From Dews and Law,1995, pp. 130-131).

[48] As life goes on, and the very immediate successes of school —its satisfying string of "A's"— get further behind us, we also may find we are not so lucky after all. The usual rules of loyalty and camaraderie, of 'like family' connections, of un-earned community and mutual aid, may be conspicuously absent in our middle class relationships and lives. But we can use our closer relation to working class people to see and illuminate the injustice there, just as we can use our middle class skills to tell truth to those in power who will only listen to those who speak their complex language. We can also employ our particular knowledge to remind middle class folks that community is essential to human survival. We can use our access to the halls of privilege to sing a different tune than the usual self-effacing gratitude for being allowed into places not made for people like us.

[49] As people who have seen life from both sides of the class divide, we are living testimony to all the incorrect assumptions that dominate our society's images of working class people. While we are often used as proof anyone could do what we have done, if we can get over ourselves enough, we can see that luck, and willingness to leave a lot "behind," played a more significant role. My luck was considerable: how many got taken under the wing of a kind-hearted college student at the age of fourteen? And, especially, how many find mentors who value working class people and hold little prejudice against them and their styles? My aunt and uncle in New York were also crossovers from the working class, and we often discussed class, my sociologically-minded aunt would jump in with her own memories as a crossover. How many can find that in their personal lives? How many are not asked to give up everything they knew, the usual price of admission to middle class life. Luck is so frequently mentioned in crossover literature that I found it impossible to pick one quote.

[50] Let us use our sense of community, or our poignant awareness of our lack of it, to help turn the tide back toward people. I think working class crossovers, and their sympathetic friends, are in a good position to see the obvious human conflicts created by a society that urges everyone toward an individual, head-long pursuit of success.

[51] Finally, I return to the differences in values that different class-based cultures offer. Because it is not only the case that professional middle class values are a poor fit for working class crossovers, but they may well be a poor fit for anyone! It is beyond the scope of this article but I, and others, have written of the trouble in paradise for the affluent (Jensen, 2012, Levine, 2006, De Graff etc, 2000, Wise and Rosenfeld, 2000). I have contrasting middle- and working-class values elsewhere and drawn lines between cultural trends that send working- and middle-class people in opposite often opposing directions: cooperation vs. competition; belonging vs. becoming; mutual aid vs. individualism; people over things and certainly people over profits.

[52] The class divide is very effective in making sure that no one gets to the top of the economic or status ladder without being fully reformed and assimilated into the current ruling ideology of social Darwinism, winners will win and losers will lose. Too bad. As class-cultures pioneer Basil Bernstein once said, by the time one has had that much education they will have been "made safe" by meritocracy and the classism inherent in higher education (1990). In other words, you will identify with the winners and forget how smart, resourceful, and good the people who once were yours truly are.

At one and the same time, this experience has been mundane and metaphysical, banal and rich, frustrating and exhilarating, crude and holy. I hate it and I love it. (Hall, 1983, From Sackrey and Ryan, 1995, p. 216)

[53] If you suffer from or sympathize with any of the above problems, you are not alone. Many class-crossovers have come together, along with sympathetic others from the professional middle class, and started a new interdisciplinary field: working class studies. In May of 2015 the Working Class Studies Association will celebrate 20 years of new working class studies at its conference at Georgetown University. Also, young people are once again challenging unfettered capitalism and the even greater inequality, misery, and pollution it has wrought since the last American young peoples' rebellions in the 1960's and 70's. Don't all of us need more solidarity, community and places where we nether perform nor compete? Don't all of us need more time to just hang out together with loved-ones or like-minded others and enjoy feeling comfortable just being?

[54] As Psychologist Martin Seligman, who pioneered the theory of learned helplessness to explain Major Depression, once put it: "For one thing, a society that exalts the individual will be ridden with depression [due to escalation of individual blame]...A second, and perhaps more important factor is meaninglessness. I am not going to be foolish enough to attempt to define "meaning," but one necessary condition for meaning is the attachment to something larger than you are...The self alone, to put it another way, is a very poor site for meaning." (Seligman, 1992, p.xxxiii)


Some parts of this article were previously published in Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America; they are reprinted courtesy of Cornell University Press.


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[1] The working class became "middle class" in the mid-20th century because, after a hundred years of fighting for more of the profits that their work creates, they could finally—for the first time in American history afford to buy homes in "nice" non-urban neighborhoods. They could buy homes and cars and boats, at least many of them and still work working class jobs. They had seniority, sick and vacation pay, etc.

[2] My choice to focus on differences between the middle and working classes is a strategic one, together they make up 90 some percent of our population. If middle class people identified with the working class, instead of the upper class they aspire toward, we could easily legislate a living wage for all working people and give back the health care and other benefits slowly lost over the last forty years. Most of America's new wealth has gone to the top 20% and the vast majority of that has gone to the top one or two percent, where only a very few crossovers have landed (over 70% increase in net worth to the top 20%, Zweig, 2012, Collins, 2012). Still those in the middle class who work for the upper class have seen their fortunes rise significantly, while those who work for working class people (social workers, teachers, etc) have seen their fortunes fall (Zweig, from Yates, 200).