2 Pulitzer-Prize Winning Journalists Cover an Epidemic of Despair in the US

Photos by Stefan Radtke

Together, journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have covered genocide, massacres, sex trafficking, and other humanitarian crises around the globe. But the most recent reporting for this husband-wife journalism team brought them closer to home.

While Kristof and WuDunn live in Westchester, their latest book, Tightrope — the fifth they’ve coauthored —focuses on Yamhill, Oregon, Kristof’s hometown, and then expands to shed light on other working-class communities across the country. The authors argue that far from being immune to the strife they’ve witnessed on other continents, America is itself in the midst of a crisis, one largely ignored by the media.

Readers of The New York Times are likely familiar with Kristof’s byline. He’s written an op-ed column since 2001 and before that was bureau chief in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Tokyo. WuDunn, who had stints as a journalist for the Times and The Wall Street Journal, now works in investment banking, as senior managing director at Mid-Market Securities in Manhattan. The two are the first married couple to share a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, awarded in 1990 for their reporting from Tiananmen Square in China. Kristof won a second Pulitzer, in 2006, for his columns on the Darfur genocide and has been a Pulitzer finalist seven times.

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One might think that these experiences have numbed the two, making them impervious to less dramatic, if no less tragic, situations. But Kristof and WuDunn say that the crisis they’ve witnessed in this country is just as compelling.

“Because we were foreign correspondents, what we saw, particularly in the developing world, were just horrific problems,” WuDunn says. “But when we actually focused our lens here, on the U.S., it was absolutely surprising to us how much pain and suffering and sorrow and dysfunction there is. I think it boils down to the human condition.”

For Kristof, the new book is personal, right down to the Number 6 school bus he rode as a kid in Yamhill. An astonishing 25% of the children who rode on that bus with him are now dead, many from what the authors call “deaths of despair” — alcohol, drugs, reckless accidents, and suicide.

“To a degree unnoticed in more privileged parts of America, working-class communities have collapsed into a miasma of unemployment, broken families, drugs, obesity, and early death,” Kristof and WuDunn write.

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Kristof rode the school bus with kids from the Knapp family, whom he remembers as bright, cheerful, and rambunctious. Today, the family is wiped out. Of the five Knapp children, Farlan died of liver failure from alcohol and drugs; Zealan burned to death in a house fire while passed out drunk; Rogena died of hepatitis caused by drugs; and Nathan blew himself up while cooking meth. The only surviving Knapp child, Keylan, had planned to help tell his family’s story by joining the authors on part of their book tour, but he died from a heroin overdose the month Tightrope was published.

“For those from lower on the socioeconomic spectrum, life resembles a tightrope walk. Some make it across, but for so many, one stumble and that’s it.”

Then there’s Kristof’s good friend Kevin Green. The book features a picture of the two boys back in high school, both slim and smiling in their cross-country uniforms. Kevin died of multiple-organ failure caused by obesity. Kristof’s buddy Mike Stepp — with whom he used to walk to the bus stop as kids — is an alcoholic and homeless. The desperate lives of others, including Kristof’s seventh-grade crush, are chronicled with compassion and grief.

What happened to these once-promising kids? While Americans have a tendency to point to individual responsibility as a cause, the authors argue that much of the suffering has been caused by misguided social policy and indifference, if not cruelty, to the plight of the working class. They point to the loss of blue-collar jobs, the war on drugs leading to mass incarceration, inadequate healthcare coverage, an unequal educational system, along with courts and a tax system increasingly benefiting the super-rich. A headline on one of Kristof’s NYT columns puts it bluntly: “Who Killed the Knapp Family?”

“We hope that readers will appreciate that in some cases, these are complicated people who may have done some really stupid things, but who are also smart, talented people who were capable of an awful lot more,” Kristof says. “Where they made bad choices, it was bad choices in a context.”

Kristof and WuDunn know better than to write an impersonal book about policy failures. The two are steeped in scientific research on empathy, which shows that throwing out statistics doesn’t move people emotionally, much less galvanize them into action. Moreover, humans respond to the suffering of individuals far more than they do to that of groups. Kristof once wrote a column titled “Save the Darfur Puppy,” noting that a picture of a big-eared, sad-eyed dog evokes a greater emotional response than an overview of genocide in Sudan.

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Over the years of coauthoring, Kristof and WuDunn developed a style that is both strategic and compelling, by getting at the larger picture through individual stories. Their previous book, the best-selling Half the Sky — an impassioned call to fight the oppression of women and girls in the developing world — focused on specific women, like a Cambodian teenager sold into sex slavery and an Ethiopian woman who was left to die after devastating childbirth injuries.

The coauthors of five books, Kristof and WuDunn are the first married couple to share a Pulitzer Prize for journalism (for their coverage of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests for The New York Times); Kristof won a second Pulitzer, in 2006, for his NYT op-ed columns.

Another part of the Kristof-WuDunn formula is revealed by their books’ subtitles, which always offer hope. The subtitle of Half the Sky is “Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” and the book presents solutions that can lift women. Indeed, the Cambodian teenager escaped her brothel and began a retail business that now supports her family. The Ethiopian woman survived and herself became a surgeon.

The authors explain the title of Tightrope: “We came to see that life’s journey for affluent, well-educated American families is like a stroll along a wide, smooth path, forgiving of missteps,” they write. “But increasingly, for those from lower on the socioeconomic spectrum, life resembles a tightrope walk. Some make it across, but for so many, one stumble and that’s it.” A fall off the tightrope can affect generations of a family.

The Knapps, Kevin, Mike, and the others flesh out the statistics that WuDunn and Kristof want you to grapple with. Suicide rates in America are at a 30-year high. After having dropped in this country for the three previous years (for the first time in a century), life expectancy barely stabilized in 2019. One in seven teens don’t graduate from high school, which means that at best, they’ll only scrape by financially.

And then there’s Tightrope’s subtitle: “Americans Reaching for Hope.” Again, the book describes programs that are effective in combating drop-out rates, opioid addiction, and more. The authors argue that the crisis can’t be fixed by nonprofits alone; government must be involved.

Despite the familiar formula, writing Tightrope was a new experience for Kristof and WuDunn. As Kristof puts it: “These are people we were very close to in a community that means a lot to us. We don’t have the protective armor in reporting. If we’re off in a refugee camp in South Sudan, you can maintain a certain professional distance. You can’t do that when you’re talking to people you know extraordinarily well and that you care deeply about.”

WuDunn grew up in Manhattan, but she has been visiting Yamhill with her husband for 30 years. The couple’s three children, now young adults, spent a great deal of time on the Kristof farm in Yamhill, where Kristof’s mother still lives. Friends in the community trusted the authors with their stories, some of them intimate and even embarrassing. Kristof and WuDunn had initially wondered about how they would react to the book.

“The Yamhill response was fantastic, despite our anxiety,” Kristoff says. “We had a book event in the nearby county seat of McMinnville, and it was filled to the rafters with many families [from] the book. It must have been one of the biggest gatherings ever in town and just a wonderfully warm and positive response.”

He added that since Tightrope’s publication, the local drug-treatment program has received many donations. Some of those who’d lost family members to overdoses were glad their stories could inspire support for programs that could help others.

The authors’ writing process is collaborative. Kristof and WuDunn write different sections of each book and then edit each other before turning the manuscript over to their editor at Knopf. Tightrope reads as one voice, but in person, the two authors differ in personal style. Kristof is earnest, slightly disheveled, and has an amazing talent for storytelling. WuDunn is polished, careful, and quick to point to statistics, economic studies, and solutions. She is also strongly protective of her family’s privacy, in part because her husband’s high-profile reporting on terrorism has  led to personal threats.

Suggest the two are saint-like in their drive to address humanitarian crises (they donated their advance for Half the World to build a school in Cambodia), and both bristle at the idea. WuDunn points to people who are working on the ground instead.

“You meet these incredible people who, in the face of all the horrible things they see, come up with nonprofits to really address situations,” says WuDunn. “They’re like saints. I’m thinking of Annette Dove…” whom WuDunn describes as a woman from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, who runs an afterschool program for kids.

Kristof, who gets far more public accolades because of his platform at the Times, says his wife and kids keep his ego in check, especially when WuDunn has him take out the garbage. The couple moved to Westchester 20 years ago for the reasons most families do — good public schools and proximity to the city. Sometimes returning to their peaceful home after their travels can be a culture shock. Growing up, the kids accompanied their parents on trips to places like Cambodia, Angola, and South Sudan, where their father says they learned “how lucky they are that [they have] a school to go to and that warlords aren’t busy rampaging through their town.” 

But this time, there’s less distance between the reporting and the personal.

“The stories in this book aren’t about women in Pakistan or Rwanda,” Kristof says. “My closest neighbor growing up is now homeless. It’s not research when I go out and talk to Mike. It’s seeing an old friend. It doesn’t feel like a story.”

Kristof sighs, but continues, trying to finish on a positive note. “At this point, it’s just too late for Mike to end up in a good job and live happily ever after,” he says. “But there are a lot of kids who are on the tightrope who we can help get to the other side and prevent the kind of crashes Mike endured.”

Kate Stone Lombardi is a Journalist and former New York Times columnist who has been covering Westchester for more than 20 years.

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