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The Wild & Wonderful Whites of West Virginia

Hillbilly Rebel Women v. Corporate Murderers

by Dr. SUSAN BLOCK

Utopian feminists—the ones who profess that if only women ruled, society would be peaceful—should take a look at the ladies who preside over the violent, pill-snorting, gun-toting, hillbilly White clan in “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.” This riveting, hilarious, disturbing and profound new documentary directed by Julien Nitzberg and produced by Johnny Knoxville of MTV Jackass fame, opened to rave reviews at the Tribeca Film Festival and is now playing in Los Angeles.

I interviewed my old friend Julien on radioSUZY1 last week, as he regaled us with tales of how the living legends that are the White family—outlaws, hellraisers, brawlers, speed freaks, gas huffers, kitchen-tattooed rednecks, robbers, shooters, homicidal maniacs and world-class tap-dancers (there had to be something redeeming about them)—is run by a matriarchy of violent, emasculating and generally all-around law-flouting mothers, grandmothers, sisters and coal miners’ daughters.  Yep, even though crazy, charismatic, tap-dancing, knife-wielding Jesco White (star of Julien’s first documentary “Dancing Outlaw”) is the most famous living member of the clan, sister Mamie rules from the center of the White storm like the quintessential Queen of Chaos, while her daughter Mousie virtually rapes her quivering husband upon her release from prison and her niece Kirk brags about stabbing her ex.
So much for the notion that a “return” to matriarchy would ease the violence in the world.  That said, we should already have been clued-in by the war-mongering efforts of far more powerful sisters, mothers and grandmothers like Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, Condi Rice, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher and Lady MacBeth, not to mention ancient Chinese Empress Wu Zetian who is said to have poisoned most of her enemies (so much more ladylike than messy stabbing).

It all just goes to show: Men are not from Mars, and women are not from Venus; we’re all from the same homicidal, hell-raising planet Earth, and we’re far more alike, for better and for worse, than we are different.
But the biggest outlaw—and mass murderer—in the “Wild and Wonderful Whites” story isn’t a woman, nor is it a male member of the notorious Boone County, West Virginia clan.  It’s a corporation: Massey Energy, the largest coal mining company in Central Appalachia.  For centuries, the coal industry has ruled the lives and deaths of the people who inhabit this rural, poverty-stricken area of West Virginia, and for decades “coal” has meant Massey.  With corrupt corporate criminals like CEO Don Blankenship (who has financed multiple WV political campaigns in exchange for laws that favor Massey Energy) allowing lethally hazardous working conditions in their mines, it’s no wonder that folks like the Whites find it honorable to flout the law in whatever way they can.  That’s not an excuse for a family history of chronic violence, just a hell of a catalyst.

A few months ago, on April 5, 2010, an explosion at the Massey-owned Upper Big Branch mine—the worst mining disaster in over 40 years—killed 29 non-union miners.   Now that’s damn emasculating.

Investigators from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration are still searching for the exact cause of the blast, though the MSHA is itself said to be under investigation for accepting bribes.  In any event, it appears to have been a methane explosion—largely preventable with proper ventilation.  Of course, such a significant safety lapse could easily have been lost in the sauce of the 1100 violations at the Upper Big Branch mine over the past three years, 50 of them in March 2010 for improper methane ventilation and inadequate escape routes.

Even President Obama was outraged by such blatant criminal negligence.  “Safety violators like Massey have still been able to find ways to put their bottom lines before the safety of their workers,” he said, shortly after the deadly explosion.

"They placed profits over safety repeatedly," said Tonya L. Hatfield, a WV attorney who sued and won a multi-million dollar settlement against Massey after a 2006 fire at their Aracoma mine trapped 12 miners, killing two.  A 2005 Blankenship-authored memo obtained in Aracoma litigation indicates that before the Aracoma fire, all of Massey Energy’s deep mine superintendents—including those at Upper Big Branch—were put on notice that coal production superseded any other concerns, including safety. 

Yet it’s not *just* a cavalier attitude toward safety.  An aggressive proponent of mountaintop removal mining (strip-mining or surface mining), Massey Energy’s flouting of environmental protocols showed its true toxic colors when, in October of 2000, the containment area for a noxious liquid by-product failed at a Massey impoundment, releasing a 300-million gallon spill of poisonous sludge, considered by some to be the country’s worst environmental disaster east of the Mississippi. So much for coal being “clean.” 

The saga of the rebel White family unfolds against this backdrop of corporate corruption, pollution, criminal negligence and disregard for human life that’s every bit as dark and dirty as a lump of coal.

As Julien opines, “The Whites represent a part of America the media avidly avoids.  Poor and with no ability to buy into the American dream (or interest in buying into mainstream values), they are the part of our country that is too often demonized or stereotyped.  They live in a world of rural poverty that has bred a cycle of dependency and criminality.  These are people with no options at all but who have taken this lack of hope and stood up to it in the only way they saw as possible—creating a badass outlaw persona that thrives on romanticized self-destructive behavior.”

As among urban people with no options, when times get tough (which is most of the time), the women take charge.  They have to, in part, because all of the alpha men are busy killing each other.

Not that “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia” is a political message film—not at all.  It is a tragi-comic, anthropological portrait of an all-American family run by a gang of rebel women who’ll be damned if they’re going to let a bunch of corporate mass-murderers and government thieves tell them what to do.

Of course, the White women always wind up paying a heavy price for their rebellion, as their government locks them up or takes their children away.  But through it all, they are entertainers by trade—tap-dancers, storytellers and now movie stars—and they’re telling us a story that needs to be told.

© June 25, 2010.  Dr. SUSAN BLOCK is a internationally renowned LA sex therapist and author of The 10 Commandments of Pleasure, occasionally seen on HBO and other channels.  Commit Bloggamy with her at http://drsusanblock.com/blog/  Email comments to her at liberties@blockbooks.com

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