by Joyce Dixon
She has studied culture, cognition, and education in four countries in Asia, two countries in South America, nine countries in Europe, and in populations of African-Americans, Appalachians, and Native-Americans. Her major areas of interest are thinking and learning, multi-cultural education, aging, gender issues, and lifespan development. She has done counseling and consulting with ministerial associations, psychiatric centers, public school systems, and the fashion industry and has taught at seven different colleges and universities; tenured at the last four schools.
Dr. DeRosier is the former editor of the Southeastern Women’s Studies Newsletter and is the author of publications on teaching, psychology, and culture. She served for five years as Director of the Center for Research in Education and Psychology at Kentucky State University and was Director of The Institute for Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University from 1978 to 1980. She has been profiled in Southern Living and her work reviewed in Woman’s Day. Her memoir, Creeker: A Woman’s Journey (published by the University Press of Kentucky in October, 1999) was a finalist for the Appalachian Writers’ Book of the Year award in 2000 and won the ACE Award for “Best Book by a Kentuckian” in July 2000. The prequel to Creeker, Songs of Life and Grace was listed #1 in September on the BookSense List of University Press Bestsellers.
Since August, 1988, Dr. DeRosier has served as Professor of Psychology at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana, where she does private consulting with local agencies, private corporations, and the federal government, and lives in the rimrocks with her husband, Arthur, and Chow dog, Foxxy, who protects her from vicious carriers of mail and pizza but not much else.
As one of the outspoken advocates for Appalachian culture, what would you like to say about
the Hollywood stereotype?
First let me say that there are aspects of that stereotype that I buy absolutely and that I never
want to give up—primarily the allegiance to family and community. Though my own son was neither
born nor grew up in Appalachia, his “family-first” values are pure, unreconstructed hillbilly. He’s a
Washington, DC lawyer yet he has more than once rushed West to help his old mother out of a legal
situation or two. Once when the struggle we’d had was winding down/up? in our favor, he whispered
to me, “Y’know Mom, they gotta realize . . . y’take one of us on, y’take all of us on.” I don’t think it
could be said better. I am proud of being a hillbilly and of my background as a member of a close-knit
family whose roots go deep into the soil of those ancient mountains. I suppose, then, if I want to
accept the positive side of the fam-first image, I must also take the downside—the extreme,
perhaps—which is reflected in the whole hundred-year Hatfield-McCoy conflict.
Other than that, I suppose I am more troubled by the whole “shiftless” hillbilly image than any other.
In my community, if you didn’t work—and work hard—you didn’t eat. Even my sorry drunken uncles
worked when they were sober and I am thus annoyed by the image of the family lazing on the porch,
passing around the jug. And I won’t even go into how deeply offended I am by those who assume the
hill country accent to be a sign of some lack of ability, as if inflection said one damn thing about
CREEKER is being used in courses in women studies, regional history and southern literature.
How do you feel about your life being studied?
Since I have spent most of my academic life studying culture and thinking about what, if anything, an
individual’s background has to do with his future, I guess my own life is fair game for such inquiry. In
some ways it’s frightening to think groups of young people are able to read what I wrote and criticize
not just the writing, but the person who wrote it—sort of double exposure there, I think. Then again,
I have been so very lucky to have been able to have some of the experiences I’ve had, I suppose
the exposure is in partial payment for that. If people—especially young people—get nothing else from
Creeker, I hope they can see that mistakes don’t kill you. Not if you get up and go forth again the
next morning. It seems to me that in Creeker it is clear that though I hardly ever got what I thought
I wanted in life, I was able to take what I got and make myself happy with it. As I said in Songs,
there are no might-have-beens in my life and I hope people go to school on that. If something looks
as if it could turn into a might-have-been, just go for it, dammit! Don’t be worrying what somebody
else is doing or what he or she might think, just figure out what it is you want most and have at it
with all that’s in you. What the experience brings to you is not nearly as important as what you bring
Have you met with any of these classes?
Yes, I have and it’s a trip. For some reason, students always seem to expect me to be more
grandmotherly than I am—more finished, too. Once I was asked about something I said in Creeker
about “those clue-gathering years” and the person wanted to know when those years were over. I
had to admit that I’m still there—still “clue-gathering” just figuring out from one minute to the next
what each experience means.
What are the three most important life lessons that growing up in Appalachia gave you?
A sense of place that is permanent. Whatever my zip code of the moment, I have been, am, and
always will be Lifie Jay and Grace Preston’s girl from over on Two-Mile. I belong to a place and family
that shaped me, that holds me accountable for my indiscretions, but loves me anyway and will always
take me in.
A sense of self-worth—a belief that since my contribution makes a difference for good or bad, I’d
better do my best else everybody will suffer. There’s also a sense of family pride that means I cannot
do anything to shame the family and being sorry lazy would be shameful. That very thought gets me
out of bed on many a morning when I’d like to sleep in.
A sense of fun—this world is a very serious place, so we can never afford to take ourselves seriously.
I come from a family—both sides—where laughter was always the order of the day. Whatever tragedy
came our way, we always found the incongruity, pointed it out, and laughed about it. When we
gathered for dinner, there was stiff competition to see who could tell the best story on him/herself;
making fun of ourselves and each other was the best part of the meal.
People tend to fit or grow into their names. How did your parents Lifie and Grace fit their
Easy answer to that is that each was full of his/her name—Daddy full of life, Momma full of grace. My
Daddy had an exquisite sense of humor and an ability to see fun in almost anything. All I know of
grace—not in the religious sense—came from my mother. Momma strove for perfection in all things and
her hard work resulted in a more grace-full and grace-ious life for everyone she touched.
Lord, it’s all baby steps. I never trained to write anything other than academic pieces for publication in refereed journals, which means if there’s a breath of life in it, it most assuredly won’t get published. When I sat down to write Creeker, I just began with one story, which led into another story, which led to still another one and before you know it I had my requisite 100,000 words. It was all from my own head, just as I recalled it. Since Songs was more about my family, less about me, I had to start the baby steps all over again and try to make certain that the story was, indeed, their own—not just something I had constructed out of my own head, emotionally weighted by me, rather than by them. Thus, I tried to listen—to re-construct, instead of construct. I think that’s why I held my breath until certain of the homefolks read Songs, to see if they saw the Momma and Daddy they knew.
How does the sharing of life stories help us better understand our own existence?
It may be that the only thing we ever really own is our history and if we just let it go, it will tell itself to us. However much we may want to learn from our own experiences, it is certainly easier to see them when they are written down so a great deal of writing is for our own selves. I try not to think of “audience” as I write. Instead I think of my work as an extended letter to my great-great- grandchildren, those folks who will grow to maturity in an altogether different world but trapped in the human condition as I am and as my parents and grandparents were. I hope my work carries to those 21st and 22nd century grandbabies the sense of place and family that have been so significant in my life.
What is your next writing project?
Sometime in July I half promised to do a little holiday book, but so far all I’ve done is daydream about
it in the fifteen-second increments I have between the things I must do just in order to keep on
keeping on. But I do keep my promises—even of the half-promise kind—so I’ve got that up there in
the front of the line of things I’m gonna do when life backs away a bit.
Now that you live outside of eastern Kentucky, what part of Appalachia do you carry with you
and inspires you?
Every bit of it—the good and the bad—all the things I talked about in Creeker and Songs (and in first three questions). I wouldn’t trade lives with anybody and I think the thing that informs my life—its essence, if you will—is my Appalachian sensibility, a way of seeing the world as about a bead off plumb. However bad it goes, there’s that room for laughter, a way of seeing myself as tripping over myself and enjoying the fall.
© 2003, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved