Just like a famous country artist sings about The House that Built Me, some people can say that a place had everything to do with their upbringing. Bobi Conn, whose roots run deep in Appalachia near Morehead, would surely say that the holler where she grew up is just such a spot.
Conn describes in heart-wrenching detail what it was like to grow up poor in Appalachia in her memoir, In the Shadow of the Valley. She and her family knew the stereotype firsthand—food instability, addiction and abuse at the hands of a loved one. And while there is a greater bullying awareness in schools now, Conn feared the bullying that happened at home much more.
“Words were weapons, just another form of violence that I hid from,” she explains in her book. “I waited for moments to pass, for the confusion to subside, for the adults around me to say, ‘Everything is OK’. No one ever did.”
Conn grew up in fear of her father’s angry outbursts that often resulted in a beating. She learned to normalize the use of her room as a marijuana greenhouse. The only truly safe place she knew was her grandmother’s house where she could count on a hot meal, freedom to play and the fervent prayers her grandmother spoke over her.
By her teen years, Conn found herself falling into the same life she witnessed but still managed to make it to Berea College where she hoped for a clean slate. “…I thought that if I spoke carefully, I might be able to hide the shameful truth of exactly where I came from. I realized it was an uphill battle,” she explains. “I had spent most of my childhood learning to survive our home and very little of it learning to survive in society.”
Years later, motherhood was finally the turning point for Conn, knowing with certainty that her children would feel loved and wanted—a basic need unmet in her own life. Going on to earn a master’s degree in English, Conn wrote her story along the way, healing in the process. Today, she chooses to focus mainly on the beauty of that holler, the refuge its forests gave her and the story it wrote for her.
Conn’s debut memoir, In the Shadow of the Valley, (Little A, $24.95), can be ordered on Amazon or through local booksellers. Hear Conn’s playlist of accompanying songs and podcast interviews, or read her essays, at www.bobiconn.com.
Her alma mater, Berea College was the first school in the American South to integrate racially and to teach men and women in the same classrooms. Berea maintains a no-tuition promise. Students hold on-campus jobs instead, allowing them to graduate debt-free. Learn more at www.berea.edu.