Over the past decade, stories of auto plant closures have become unnervingly common, but often they’re reduced to statistics about unemployment and the number of jobs leaving a city. Janesville, Wisconsin, is one of these cities: Its General Motors plant largely shuttered in December 2008 (closing for good in April 2009) and Rock County lost approximately 9,000 jobs between 2008 and 2009. But writer Amy Goldstein didn’t want to simply give a flyover view of Janesville’s struggles, and in her new book, Janesville: An American Story, she sought to capture deeply personal stories of hardship, as well as of the resiliency shown by Janesville residents.
“My basic idea was to try to create a kaleidoscope, so you would see from different vantage points what this dramatic loss of jobs looked like from different peoples’ perspectives,” Goldstein tells Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff on the latest episode of his podcast, I Think You’re Interesting.
“I’m not an opiner for a living, I’m a journalist who prefers to keep neutrality and credibility with people on all sides of the issues I’m writing about,” says Goldstein, who is a staff writer for the Washington Post. “I really wanted to show this story from lots of peoples’ perspectives; I didn’t want to take sides. At the same time, I felt as if I couldn’t ignore that this was a period of five years during which the politics of what was going on in Wisconsin were becoming harsher.”
VanDerWerff asks Goldstein what she feels we miss when we talk about these kinds of stories from a purely statistical standpoint.
“Losing work is very personal,” points out Goldstein, who helped craft a survey with University of Wisconsin researchers to look at the economic attitudes and experiences of Rock County residents in 2013. “A question that really grabbed me emotionally was one that asked, ‘Do you feel ashamed or embarrassed that you lost a job?’ And just over half the people who answered this survey said they did.”
To capture that feeling in Janesville, Goldstein split the book up into 55 very short chapters that focused on a single scene in the lives of specific residents. One of these characters was Matt Wopat, who decided to start commuting to Indiana for work in order to keep his family in Janesville.
“He’s sitting in his truck in his garage, having just said goodbye to his family, knowing he’s got to back down his driveway and start driving to Indiana which he really does not want to do,” Goldstein says. “He told me about that the first time and I thought that was a very emotionally compelling moment in his life and I must’ve interviewed him 10 to 20 times like, ‘Tell me one more detail.’”
But in addition to capturing the powerful stories of personal sacrifice that accompanied the plant closing, Goldstein made sure to also focus on the resolve and resourcefulness of Janesville residents, as well as its institutions — in particular a technical college that focuses on vocational training.
“The level of ingenuity of this small city was pretty impressive,” Goldstein says. “The technical college was really going all out to figure out how to help these autoworkers who needed something new to do for a living. They actually persuaded a senator at the time, Sen. [Herb] Kohl, to get an earmark to bring $1 million for each of two years to the college just to train dislocated workers.”
After that, Goldstein wanted to look at the impact of these retraining efforts on Janesville residents.
“My inner nerd came out and I did, with a couple of labor economists, a statistical analysis of what happened to people in that part of Southern Wisconsin who did and did not go back to school, what happened to them afterwards in terms of wages and in terms of their odds of having a steady job in the first place,” she explains. “And the results were not very encouraging. It turned out that if you looked a few years after this job loss happened, people who retrained were less likely to have steady work and more likely to have bigger pay drops from before than people who hadn’t gone back to school. None of that is because the college wasn’t trying really hard.”
But she also found the relative definition of success in the face of the GM plant closing to be quite fascinating, and in the book writes about a couple who went through retraining and remained in Janesville.
“It was interesting to me what different people thought doing okay looked like. One of the families in the book, after a few years, were making much less money than they were in their manufacturing jobs, in their auto jobs,” Goldstein says. “Both the husband and wife had retrained, eventually got work in the fields that they were interested in— in the case of the wife it took her a few tries to figure out what path was a good path for her — and they felt that they were really lucky that they had redefined themselves and managed to find other work in town.”
Listen to the full episode for more with Goldstein about how the plant closure affected Janesville’s other businesses, how Janesville voted in the 2016 presidential election, and what working on the book taught Goldstein about journalism.
To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.