The New School hosts the 2020 National Book Critics Circle awards which honor literature published in the United States in the previous year. The awards are presented in six categories — autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — and are the only U.S. literary awards chosen by critics themselves.
The following interview, with Josh Levin the 2020 award winner for biography, is part of a series of NBCC interviews conducted by New School creative writing students.
In his critically acclaimed book The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth, Josh Levin, national editor at Slate, introduces us to Linda Taylor, a welfare cheat who drove her Cadillac to the public aid office, kidnapped children, and possibly committed several murders along the way. But the outrage that played out in the news media, on the political stage, and in public opinion focused solely on Taylor’s pilfering of government aid, and she soon became crowned America’s original “welfare queen.” Using Taylor’s story to boost his presidential bid, Ronald Reagan publicly demonized millions of America’s poorest, casting all welfare recipients as lazy black con artists and fueling the powerful myth of the undeserving poor. Now, after years of extensive investigative reporting and writing, Levin gives us the real story of Linda Taylor, while at the same time examining the ugly underbelly of American racism, political manipulation, and the way a story can feel true even when it is not.
L.B. Browne [LBB]: This is a wild story. Even though it’s a work of nonfiction, there are points where it reads like a suspense novel. There are so many layers of conflict that emerge from this one woman, Linda Taylor’s, life. I’m curious to know what you consider the central conflict of the story to be?
Josh Levin [JL]: I think the conflict is between facts and storytelling, between what seems true and what is true. That might sound grandiose, but what’s at the heart of this book for me is the nature of storytelling itself. There was the public story about Linda Taylor’s life that was told and believed, and then there was the more private story that was real and quite different than the story that was told and believed. And in the book, I’m trying to bridge the gap between those two stories. At the same time, I’m questioning why the story that wasn’t true, but that felt true, was the one that was accepted, while the one that was true, the messier, more complicated story, was never understood.
LBB: Linda Taylor herself told quite a few stories, many misleading, about her life. One of the most poignant moments in the book for me is near the end when you describe what was written on her death certificate. None of those details are accurate, but they’re details that she used while she was alive, to create certain parts of her identity. It made me think that this book is raising essential questions on identity — both Taylor’s singular identity and also a collective national identity. And I’m wondering if you feel that in the historical time period of the book, the American identity was in many ways just as unstable and misleading as Taylor’s shifting identities?
JL: I think the mid-seventies were a period of transition and uneasiness for America, and what Ronald Reagan promised was a kind of stability. This was at the time of Reagan’s first presidential run in 1976. It was right after Watergate. The economy was not particularly strong. It was the aftermath of the civil rights movement with prominent racial strife and animus. There were these notions that America’s destiny was to be a shining city on a hill and that certain things were holding the nation back from fulfilling that destiny. In particular, white Americans came to the idea that one of the groups blocking the nation from realizing its potential was embodied by Linda Taylor — this cheater, this woman who’s taking what doesn’t really belong to her, and since it doesn’t belong to her, who does it belong to? It belongs to the “middle class tax payer,” frequently imagined as a white person, somebody who is not getting what they should from their job, from the country.
And what’s preventing them from getting it is this woman who’s perceived to be black and unemployed and stealing, and so that I think is what she embodied and what’s going on with her story, as you said, in this moment when there are questions about what an American is, what America is, and what America should be.
LBB: In what way did the construct of race fit into these big questions that were being posed about American identity?
JL: If you focus on public benefits, in particular, race is bound to it from the 1930s, when FDR pushes through his New Deal programs, which inaugurated Aid to Dependent Children, later Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and then up through LBJ’s war on poverty. There are all these questions around who these benefits are going to, who is a deserving recipient, who’s the deserving poor, who’s the undeserving poor. And that question is always racialized.
From the beginning, the kind of idealized recipient of public largesse is a white widow, a woman who it seems has done nothing to deserve her unfortunate state. And then as these programs evolve and through the civil rights movement and the welfare rights movement, women of color, and black women, in particular, start to be granted access to these programs that had been denied to them previously. There is then this idea that the programs are being ‘overrun’ and that the spending is ‘out of control’ and there’s this idea that the reason that spending is out of control is due to people being on the rolls that shouldn’t be on the rolls. This rhetoric starts to take off right around the time that the programs open up to people that had not been able to access them before, and so that is certainly an issue of race. I think it’s undeniable.
LBB: I wonder if your own role, as a white man reporting and writing this story about a woman who was perceived to be black and who was stereotyped in large part because of that perception, complicated the storytelling for you and complicated your own relationship to the work in some ways?
JL: It made me think deeply about the story and how to tell it with sensitivity and accuracy and fairness. What really struck me about the power and persistence of the welfare queen stereotype, which was created in a lot of ways in Linda Taylor’s image, was that this negative impression of a woman who as you said was perceived to be black, was so sticky. It stuck so easily onto our culture and our society. It was important for me to think through why it was that right around the time that Linda Taylor’s crimes were being reported, often in the same newspapers and by the same reporters, there’s reporting on fraud committed by pharmacists and optometrists and doctors, and yet no similar stereotypes emerge about those groups, no ideas that these are cheaters and are bleeding the system dry. Again it’s hard to look at that set of facts and not come to the conclusion that racism is the differentiator. One of the toughest and most moving aspects of this reporting process was speaking to Taylor’s victims. I was very conscious of not wanting to further a stereotype because Linda Taylor did do, if not all, at least many of the things that she was accused of doing. She was a very prolific criminal, and so the truth of the matter is that debunking the welfare queen myth doesn’t mean Taylor was a total innocent. A lot of the people she victimized were people of color. And when talking to her victims, one thing that I heard consistently was the belief that the police didn’t care about their stories because of their race. There was this idea that they weren’t considered important and didn’t matter, and so that was another way that race factored into the story and how I thought about telling it.
LBB: At times, Linda Taylor might have been perceived as black, but there were other times, she was identified as other races. She also went by a slew of other names, inaccurate ages, different professions, in different states. No matter how much investigative reporting you could do, and it’s clear you did an astounding amount for this book, it must have been challenging to write a character who at the end of the day is destined to remain somewhat elusive, and perhaps even unknowable.
JL: Linda Taylor’s life was inherently confusing so there’s no escaping that or running away from it in trying to tell it. She was someone who lived her life to confuse and to obfuscate and to change her name and identity and be different people in front of different audiences. It’s hard not to come away feeling humble about your own knowledge and understanding when you talk to people who did know her during her lifetime and say that they didn’t even understand her, that they couldn’t explain her patterns of behavior. I tried to have humility throughout the process and that often left me with gaps that I didn’t feel comfortable filling in. I hope that’s a strength of the book because I feel that we as journalists should be comfortable saying that we don’t know things rather than trying to go beyond what it’s possible to know. In my opinion, the journalists who wrote about her in the seventies, at the height of her infamy, made the pretty consistent mistake of presenting “facts” and conclusions with a certainty that was not necessarily based in reality — reporting that she stole X amount of money, for instance, when there was no evidence to back up that number.
And even when she was accused of kidnapping and homicide, the stories were presented in such a way that insinuation became assertion. And no journalist circled back a day, a week, a month, a year later to say what was the deal with that story we reported? What actually does stand up now and what doesn’t seem like it was right? If I’m spending a lot of time critiquing the work of other journalists, I don’t want to do what I’m accusing others of doing. I want to be careful and clear about what I know, what I don’t know, what are people’s best guesses, and what are things that don’t stand up to scrutiny.
LBB: The book casts its eye on a very specific period in American history, the mid-1970s. But I would argue that these interweaving narratives that you build on race and welfare and national identity provide insight into our sociopolitical climate today. What lessons do you think we as readers can take away from this book?
JL: First, I would say there is value in telling individual stories in a political context because I think those stories allow us to make abstract concepts concrete and can help us understand the world, but I would say that we need to be more careful consumers of the stories that we’re told on a daily basis and ask ourselves if they might actually be more complicated than what’s being presented to us, and what might be left out, and what biases are being played upon. And so being active readers and questioners in that way is important. And I would also say that there is always going to be a set or sets of people that get blamed for the problems in the world, and the people that are vilified are most often the ones that don’t have a powerful voice in the media and the political system.
The analogy I see today is the rhetoric around undocumented immigrants. Donald Trump likes to cite individual cases of immigrants committing crimes as evidence that all immigrants are criminals when if you look at population level statistics, immigrants commit crimes to a lesser degree than non-immigrants. And yet you can take individual sensationalized stories and paint the totally opposite picture and one that sounds and feels compelling to people who want an individual or a group to blame. So I think a lesson from the book is that a story that feels true often isn’t true in a deeper sense and that we need to be vigilant about how those stories spread and are consumed.
This interview was first published on March 2, 2020, at the Creative Writing at The New School blog, thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School.
L.B. Browne is an MFA candidate in The New School’s Creative Writing program. She is at work on her first novel. Follow her on Twitter @LB_Browne_.
Josh Levin is the national editor at Slate and the host of the sports podcast Hang Up and Listen.