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Editor’s Column: Being Unable to Wait to Leave One’s Hometown

Washington Post contributing columnist Brian Broome’s contribution this week, “Jason Aldean? Spare Me the Small-Town Nostalgia,” touches an especially sensitive nerve, for me and for society generally, as the Aldean hit song, “Try That in a Small Town” is now hitting the top of the country western charts.

The song is not without controversy already, as it seems to many to embrace barely coded racist symbols, and Broome describes as a Black youth growing up in rural Ohio that “the racism of my small town was naked and powerful; seething hatreds were baked into its soil” facets which got only worse when all the steel jobs disappeared.

But then he wrote how when he got older, and realized he was gay, that “my small town became for me a coffin lined with razor blades.” He explained, “It wasn’t just my sexuality that made it uncomfortable. I was different. I thought differently. I began to question the things I had been taught, and I found no one in my hometown who offered good answers. I was just told to be quiet: by my teachers, by my friends, by my church and even by my parents. And then the smothering feeling set in, the wondering whether there was more to life than what I was being shown. And I knew I had to escape. I wanted to meet different kinds of people, I wanted different experiences, I wanted to learn new things, and none of that was going to happen in a small town in northern Ohio. I couldn’t wait to leave.” He asserted, “We need to start shedding this idea that purity and goodness reside only in the places with one stoplight.”

Yes, it is remarkable how things associated with one’s small hometown, or plural for those whose families moved around, seem to almost calcify, to become hardened and inflexible, especially in terms of attitudes and expectations of those who came from them. I had a hometown of 300, and also one of 50,000 and it was the same for both.

Take the case of Janis Joplin, who grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, a small rural town where she was looked upon as a freak. She had escaped to the music scene in Austin where she went on to become world famous. She was being interviewed upon her return to Port Arthur for a high school reunion when by then everyone was totally in awe of her. She was looking forward to the reunion, but she was unable to hide her discomfort even so.

Going “back home” works only if you can pull it off. But the psychic damage can be overwhelming. You shoehorn yourself back into the coffin-like constraints of your days before you were able to fly away. At least I did, though I grew up in a time when such constraints were more pervasive and confining than today. I view the massive reaction formation that constitutes the MAGA Republican social agenda today as an imperative to return to those awful 1950s conformist days and their awful, suffocating feelings.

Nostalgia is a nasty thing. It tends to gloss over feelings and moods that we lived with at the time and replace them with warm oceanic feelings of bliss. 

My main home town was a very popular resort destination and when I tell my friends I came from there they always ask why I ever left. I think Mr. Broome may have an idea. The main crime against one’s self returning to such places has to do with the sensed compulsion to conform with what became in the meantime an alien time and place. 

Those who insist “you can’t go home again,” ala the title of Thomas Wolfe’s novel, have a point.

My life has unfolded like the final three minutes that concluded the six-year TV series, “Six Feet Under.” To the music of Sia’s “Breathe Me,” it started with the main character lighting out in her VW onto an L.A. freeway headed to New York and an indeterminate future. It flashes through her eventful life to wind up on her deathbed, nowhere near her “hometown,” but surrounded by images of great memories.