Tom Mould

 

On his book Overthrowing the Queen: Telling Stories of Welfare in America

Cover Interview of August 05, 2020

The wide angle

The idea for this book started at a cocktail party. It was April 2011, just over a year after Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As ACA continued to be tweaked, conversations about healthcare remained common and heated. I was prepared for arguments against universal healthcare, but I was not prepared to hear a story I thought had died out in the 1980s about “welfare queens” buying steaks for their dogs while wearing fur coats and driving Cadillacs. And yet here I was, almost forty years later, hearing the same story, this time used to deny the poor affordable healthcare.

Up until this point, my research had focused primarily on sacred narratives: the creation stories and prophecies of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the stories of personal revelation among Latter-day Saints. Hearing this story, I realized that stories of the American Dream and The Welfare Queen operated similarly: as foundational stories to explain the world.

Overthrowing the Queen is situated within the contested area of perception and reality that narrative so often negotiates. It is not difficult to show that the stories of outrageous fraud are representative of neither the majority, nor even a significant minority of aid recipients. Why then do we continue to tell them? Answers lie not only in our political system and our inability to see structural inequity, but in the nature of stories and storytelling.

Narrative is not value-neutral. Stories demand complications, climaxes, and resolution. They require protagonists and antagonists. The asks narrators to position themselves in relation to the actions and actors in their stories. And they ask us to do this in culturally specific ways, shaping our experiences to fit the narrative traditions we have grown up with. It is a self-perpetuating cycle that operates powerfully but often invisibly.

I approach these stories primarily as a folklorist, attending to theories about narrative construction and transmission that help answer questions about why some stories stick with us and get retold again and again while others fall on deaf ears. In asking these questions, however, I draw heavily on research in anthropology, communications, rhetoric, psychology, and sociology.

While the book is very much about the stories people tell about welfare, it also serves as a case study to consider larger questions about the nature of narrative, storytelling, and legend, particularly within everyday discourse. For examples, for decades scholars have approached legend in terms of truth. It is doubt, however, that defines the legend. A doubt-centered approach to legend goes a long way to explaining how stories can open up discourse for debate. Similarly, a performance-centered approach to narrative helps us move beyond simple textual analysis to consider the role that public perception and stigma have on the stories we choose to tell and how we tell them. Further, structural analysis reveals a host of narrative types that have been under-theorized, particularly generalized experience narratives that allow people to recount memorable events as habitual, widespread experiences.