Photo still life of a cattle's skull and cowboy bracelets

By Trevor Pyle

When Jose A. Del Real was on the lookout for people navigating the snarled thicket of American masculinity, he found an unexpected one: a 23-year-old waitress and single mom in northeast Wyoming. He was in the nation’s least-populated state reporting for the Washington Post series “Masculinity in America” when he met Sarah, who had her own thoughtful and fraught experience with the issue.

“We started chatting and she told me she’d like to read a story that reflects how hard it is to raise young boys today, especially for single moms,” Del Real said.

Washington Post reporter Jose A. Del Real

Jose A. Del Real

Del Real is skilled at reporting and writing about capital-I “Issues” in ways that steer clear of abstraction — just see the Storyboard annotation on his 2021 story about a family riven by politics. So he didn’t dismiss Sarah’s comments. Instead, he used them as a clue, a guidepost and a treasure map for A Mother’s Charge,” a nuanced profile about Sarah’s struggle to raise a 5-year-old boy in a world that bristles with traps.

Still, it took much more than Sarah’s comments to summon the story into existence: There were hours of interviews and detail-gathering; a sensitive approach to make sure Sarah understood what participation in the story meant; considerations that balanced reader transparency with privacy for Sarah and her son, and writing that unspooled in what Del Real describes as a “braided” narrative.

“We consulted with Sarah along the way and laid out our thinking. It was important that she have space to voice any concerns,” Del Real said.

Other posts featuring Jose Del Real

Inside America’s political divide

The story and its powerful photos by Jabin Botsford was published as part of the Post’s series exploring the male image in American culture. It fits snugly with Del Real’s pieces about a prevention specialist tackling toxic masculinity,  a bull-riding cowboy and a blue-collar husband and father who wore women’s clothes. But Sarah’s story also stands on its own — a vivid profile of a women trying to raise her warm, curious boy into a good man.

“I was seeing a lot of commentary about the state of masculinity in America, but very few reported narratives about how people navigate these conflicts in their day-to-day lives,” he told me. Real answered questions about the overall series and his reporting/writing approach, then worked with Storyboard to annotate his story. His responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

This story falls under the category of “Masculinity in America” in the Post. How did the idea explore that topic come about?

It struck me a few months into 2022 that I was seeing a lot of commentary about the state of masculinity in America, but very few reported narratives about how people navigate these conflicts in their day-to-day lives. Male grievance, entitlement and drift are at the core of many of our culture wars today. But for whatever reason, journalists often write about gender without writing about men themselves. I thought it would be valuable to try to tell some stories about how men decide what kind of people they want to be and the cues they get from the broader culture about what a “real man” is. It’s the sort of topic that’s particularly suited to a narrative approach because it’s so complicated and so individualistic, yet it adds up to something big and structural. The first story in the series was about Bill Hawley, a county public health official who spends all his time trying to get cowboys and military veterans to talk about their feelings. He is a suicide attempt survivor himself and had thought deeply about male despair. After that, I was drawn back to Wyoming, the Cowboy State, as a setting for several more of these stories. This brought some much-needed geographic discipline to a very broad topic. Next year I’ll probably keep writing about this topic but expand the geographic scope.

What’s been the reaction from readers and from Sarah?

I don’t think I’ve ever had so many people write to me after a story — and I used to cover Trump! I must have received hundreds of direct emails about it. Before publishing, I went through the story with Sarah, section by section, so that she would know what was in it before it showed up online. I didn’t share a draft, of course, but I wanted her to know how it would read ahead of time. She was overcome with emotion and said she was glad someone was writing about working class women and how they navigate these dynamics around male violence and entitlement.

We have not been in touch since. Her life is chaotic and I’m not a priority, which I understand. Her grandmother and I have corresponded quite a bit though. She said she admired the story but her one critical note was that she thinks Sarah will raise her son to be a good man, which is not a foregone conclusion in the piece I wrote. I do hope that’s true.

Here are a few craft gems from Del Real’s comments in the annotation:

  • When I’m spending time with subjects, I’m writing down everything that stands out to me. Later I go through my notebook and decide which details I can use to paint the clearest, most authentic and resonant portrait.
  • A lot of pre-reporting can be done by phone. But there is absolutely no replacement for going to a place and spending time with your subject.
  • The weight of their traumatic history hangs over the rest of the piece and complicates the central question of the story: Can she raise her son to be a good man?

Annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Del Real’s answers in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the HIDE ANNOTATIONS button at the top right of your monitor or the top of your mobile device.

Photo of cowboy boot


In cowboy country, a single mother tries to raise her boy to be a good man

In Johnson County, Wyoming

The waitress knows to be chatty and cheerful. She makes $3 per hour and lives on tips, so she smiles as she walks through the restaurant, especially at the men, who seem to expect it most. Her hair is long and curly; her clothes are tight. A lip ring and several tattoos hint at some irreverence but mostly they draw attention to her age, 23 years old. I’m sure there was no shortage of ways you could have opened this story. How did you land on a scene of Sarah at work? I made a few quick judgements here. I wanted to start the piece in March and end it in June, to give the narrative space to unfold in a longer arc. I knew that Sarah’s abrupt decision to quit her waitress job and leave the ranch would be a pivotal moment in this story, even before I sat down to write. And lastly, the vulnerabilities and compromises inherent to tipped service work overlap nicely with the broader themes in the piece. (If you read closely, her physical appearance also changes over the course of these months, putting her more and more at odds with the expectations at work.) Starting at the restaurant was a way to set up a lot of those tensions right away. I also really liked the idea of readers first meeting Sarah there, which was where I first met her.

She introduces herself by her first name, Sarah, and for all anyone here knows or cares, these facts mark the beginning and the end of her story.

But at home, after she puts her 5-year-old son to sleep, she sometimes starts to cry and can’t stop. She cries because the man she was building a life with betrayed her trust and abused her body. Because she should have left him but she stayed. Because of all that happened next.

More customers walk in. She gives them menus and takes their drink orders. She summons a bubbly voice to ask how their days are going.

Work, for now, is this steakhouse in Buffalo, a rural town in northeast Wyoming at the base of the Bighorn mountain range.

Home, for now, is a 10-acre ranch owned by her grandmother that has become Sarah’s makeshift safe house. It is March, and winter has turned to spring since they came back home from out of state.

She does not have a plan.

She does not have any money.

Out here in the heart of cowboy country, she barely has any cell reception.

But she has her precious and precocious son. She is astounded by the thoughts he can formulate. She thinks he might be an honest-to-God genius.

“Momma, are balloons made out of molecules just like we are?” he asks her.

“Momma, do you have peripheral vision?”

“Momma, what is the hottest planet? Is it Venus?” I enjoyed these lines … they reveal Sarah’s son’s curious personality, and are probably familiar to anyone who’s been peppered with questions from a child. Did you make note of these questions because you knew you’d use them for this kind of effect? Or did that come together in the writing? My notebook was absolutely full of these quotes. Just full of them. When I’m spending time with subjects, I’m writing down everything that stands out to me. Later I go through my notebook and decide which details I can use to paint the clearest, most authentic and resonant portrait. Here, it was important to me that readers understand who this special little kid is, how sweet and smart, because ultimately his future is what’s at stake. Before I even knew where the story would start, I knew it would need to pivot almost immediately to some of these types of quotes.

He might be able to change the world, Sarah often says, if she can figure out how to raise him the right way. But she is also overwhelmed by the fear that her sweet boy could one day become a bad guy, like so many of the ones who have hurt her. Like the one they just escaped. She is worried about what he has already learned, or mis-learned, about what it means to be a “real man.” About all the ways she has already let him down.

“Men just take and take and take and take. That’s what they are taught,” she says. Sarah presents readers with a fascinating, complex and thoughtful profile subject. How did you meet her, and how did the idea for a story about her arise? I was in northeast Wyoming reporting that first story. One evening, I met Sarah purely by chance at a restaurant where she was working. We started chatting and she told me she’d like to read a story that reflects how hard it is to raise young boys today, especially for single moms. Right away I thought I thought that was a very good idea but I did not know I might want to write about her specifically. I didn’t find out until later that she had just moved back to the region with her son after escaping an abusive relationship. At first, I just asked if we could stay in touch so I could pick her brain about being a young, single mom. I have a lot of conversations with people I never end up writing about; it’s just part of my process as I think through potential story targets. We spoke on the phone several times while I was working on other stuff. I really admired how upfront she was about her own shortcomings and challenges, which is why I started thinking she’d be a strong profile subject. There was also this gap between her ideals and her choices and circumstance that I thought was honest and very human.

When her son was still a toddler, Sarah began to read about “toxic masculinity,” a phrase that had become more widespread on the internet amid the #MeToo movement. She started to think about the ways gender had shaped her own life, about the cruel whims of men she had endured and was expected to endure.

Strict and traditional notions of manhood, she believed, were not just dangerous but an outright lie — used to control women and men alike. Nowhere did this seem more relevant than in the back roads of her home state of Wyoming, the cradle of the American cowboy, where she had seen firsthand how violence, exaggerated masculinity and misogyny could reinforce one another.

These concerns extend beyond ideology into the realm of public health. Males are overwhelmingly responsible for violence in the United States, according to the most recent crime data published by the FBI. They committed about 80 percent of all reported violent crimes in the country in 2020, including 87 percent of homicides and 96 percent of rapes. Men themselves are often the targets, making up nearly 80 percent of people murdered in the country and also nearly 80 percent of suicides.

Women, meanwhile, disproportionately suffer from harm within their households. Among female homicide victims, according to past studies, half were killed by an intimate partner, compared with about 1 in 13 male victims. About 90 percent of all victims of rape are female.

The more she thought about the perils of masculinity, and the violence she had experienced firsthand, the more Sarah committed to raising her son to be a gentle and vulnerable man, an anti-cowboy even here on the frontier. It felt like an act of defiance. She scoured the internet for free research for “boy moms.” She took notes on parenting tips pushed to her phone by social media algorithms.

That was how the world would change, she thought. One child at a time. Her child.

But in the years that followed, Sarah saw her dreams repeatedly collide with her reality. She saw, again and again, how her trauma could be passed down to her son. She has struggled with how much blame she deserves for that inheritance.

Now, she is back on the family ranch. She feels so much sorrow and guilt for what has happened, for what she has exposed her child to, that she struggles to get out of bed in the morning. She is thinking about what her grandmother told her, that she “can’t keep swimming upstream forever.”

If she stays here, as her grandmother has offered, Sarah does not have to worry about the electricity getting cut, about paying rent, about constant hunger pangs. But small-town life in Wyoming means small-town rules. It means raising her boy a certain way, according to tradition and all the standards of gender that entails. It means living her life a certain way, too.

And so at work, for now, Sarah is the lightest possible version of herself. She is a pretty thing to be consumed in small bites. This is a striking couple of sentences. Do you remember how you were able to create this analogy? Honestly, it just came to me while I was revising the first section. It’s the sort of second-pass writing flourish that’s only possible, at least for me, once I have a whole draft in place.

* * *

Sarah is driving too fast up the highway into town to pick up her son from prekindergarten. She drives first along the north fork of the Crazy Woman Creek, then past the entrance to Crazy Woman Canyon, and finally past Crazy Woman Square on Buffalo’s main street. Sarah ponders these landmarks as she pulls into the parking lot of the school in a GMC Jimmy that was once teal but is now overtaken by rust. You introduce the pervasiveness of the Crazy Woman moniker here, then revisit in paragraphs later for Sarah’s thoughts. I like how this portion primes readers for the later paragraphs, but did you consider placing those two sections closer together? I thought the best way to make that breakout section land for readers would be by sprinkling references to the Crazy Woman myth throughout the piece, like breadcrumbs. I wanted to create a sort of “aha!” feeling, where various pieces suddenly fall together. As a reader, I love when something clicks all of a sudden, and as I writer I liked the idea of creating this kind of moment for others.

Sarah brushes past the other parents without saying hello, her eyes trained on the ground while she walks her little boy to the car. When Sarah has a day off, they spend the late afternoons together drawing, or playing make-believe, or learning to skateboard. Today they drive to a playground.

“I don’t have even one friend,” her son says. “No one likes me for some reason.”

He is being bullied at school, and sometimes he bullies back. But his face brightens when he spots two children. He swings his head to throw back his hair. It is long, blond and stringy, and constantly falls in front of his eyes.

“Maybe that kid with the long hair will want to be my friend,” he says, running off.

He comes back a few minutes later.

“Mom, it didn’t work,” he says as tears form.

Sarah’s own eyes moisten. Her face falls.

The truth is that stability has been elusive on the meager wages of a single mom with a GED. They have moved around so much over the years, and her son hasn’t had much practice building healthy friendships with other kids.

About 1 in 4 children growing up in the United States live in single-parent homes, according to census data, and about 80 percent of single parents are single mothers. Such households are particularly vulnerable to poverty, hunger and housing instability.

For single mothers raising young boys, there is the added challenge of trying to raise sons amid escalating political polarization over American masculinity. Is it nature or nurture? Good, bad or neither? Sarah’s heart fluttered with guilt a few years ago when her son told her he wanted a dad. Nearly 8 million boys in the United States — about 1 in 5 — are being raised without a father figure in their household. For Sarah, these challenges have been exacerbated by her significant mental health struggles, including bipolar disorder and addiction to drugs that include methamphetamine.

Wherever they go, she imagines people are asking themselves, “What kind of mother is that?” You’re able to weave statistics throughout this story to link it to larger issues. What were your sources for that information? That first sentence represents countless hours of digging through census spreadsheets for raw numbers and then doing some math to convert those into percentages. (I had some editors double-check my work.) But we didn’t want to weigh down the story, as a piece of writing, by stopping to give ourselves too much credit: This Number Is According To An Independent Washington Post Analysis Of Census Data. Success here was measured by how seamlessly we could fold these numbers into the narrative while keeping the piece moving. A lot of the statistics in the piece were from my own original analysis because they weren’t readily available on fact sheets; I couldn’t just Google and then plop them into the story.

Sarah briefly considered an abortion when she became pregnant at 16 years old, but she did not have the money to travel to the nearest clinic in Colorado. Instead, she dropped out of high school. Her son’s father sometimes cheated on Sarah and their relationship didn’t last long. She accused him of domestic violence, which he denied.

Her life had been marked by instability even before then. When she was a toddler, her single mother abandoned her, landing Sarah in foster care. She sometimes thinks back to the intense hunger she would feel before she was adopted at 4 years old. After she was sexually abused in elementary school by a male member of her adopted family, she told therapists and her adopted mother what was happening but soon recanted her story for fear she would be sent away.

As the #MeToo movement kicked off in 2017, Sarah was 18 and living in Casper, Wyo. Her son was still a baby and Sarah was always short on cash. She began to have sex for money. She had struggled with postpartum depression, she said, and when her family found out about the sex work she felt so much shame that she overdosed on pills. For a time after that, Sarah performed in sexually explicit camera shows to supplement her income. No matter what she did, there was never enough money.

That was why, about two years ago, Sarah briefly thought about putting her son up for adoption. But she knew too many people who had been abused in the foster system like she had been. She couldn’t trust that he would end up in a safe home, and so she couldn’t go through with it.

Soon their luck appeared to change: Sarah began a relationship with a tattoo artist who made a good living. Although he did not always treat her well, she says that felt like a small price to pay for some financial security.

“Look, Mom, there’s more kids!” Sarah’s son whispers to her now.

He points to two boys who have just stepped onto the playground, one about his age and the other about 9 or 10 years old. The middle-aged man they are walking with leaves them at a park bench.

Sarah’s son is beginning to play with the boys when a woman walks over and summons them wordlessly. Their mom.

“Bye,” the smaller boy calls out.

It is a custody handoff between two divorced parents, the kind in a neutral public space where the two parents never interact. But Sarah doesn’t realize that. She thinks the other mom took one look at her and decided her kids were too good to play with her son.

Sarah recently cut her hair very short and is wearing a shapeless Carhartt coat over a Beetlejuice striped crop-top. She imagines all the things the other mom was thinking.

Why is she dressed like that?

Why is her hair so messy?

What kind of mother is that?

I’m impressed with how deep you’re able to dive into Sarah’s thoughtfulness. How many times did you talk to her? Do you have any advice for journalists on interviewing to elicit the kind of details and thoughts you’re able to excavate? Trust is an iterative process. You have to earn it. I think I probably spent a dozen hours on the phone with Sarah before visiting, over the course of maybe five or six phone calls. The first few hours of phone calls were just absorbing her story in a broad way. Then, as more trust formed, we talked about some of the more painful details. After enough time, conversations almost always begin to flow more freely, which provides opportunity to interrogate someone’s interior life more intentionally before you ever even book a plane ticket. A lot of pre-reporting can be done by phone. But there is absolutely no replacement for going to a place and spending time with your subject. This is when you can test what they say against how they live, when you can see how they interact with others, how they engage with ideas, how they structure their time, etc.

* * *

The ranch where Sarah and her son are staying adjoins a 2,600-acre cow-and-calf operation, the heart of the state’s agricultural economy. This is the land of real cowboys, the inspirational backdrop for countless fantasies about American masculinity.

Sarah is in the garden when her brother comes out of the trailer where he lives, across the gravel driveway, and tells her about a branding that’s coming up next weekend. It’s a big community event during which calves are marked with hot iron. But first, the calves must be separated from their mothers.

“It’s so sad. They’re taking the babies away from their moms, right after they’re born,” Sarah says.

“They’ve been together for three or four months already,” he says.

“I don’t know what’s worse,” she says.

Her brother responds with a shrug. That’s ranch life. Hamburgers and steaks make their way to dinner plates across the country from here, including at the restaurant where Sarah sometimes serves an item from the menu called the Crazy Woman Ribeye.

But there are uplifting parts, too. He tells Sarah about a neglected horse he has been rehabilitating, and he invites them to come see it later. It seems like a great activity for a boy.

As they drive down a dirt road to the stable later that day, her son seems less than thrilled.

“I do not want to get kicked,” he tells her urgently.

The neighboring ranches they pass can be sized up in any number of ways. By land. By cattle and crop. By water access.

And also by recent suicides. They are endemic out here, especially among men, who, according to data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2020 accounted for 84 percent of suicides in Wyoming, which has the highest rate per capita of any state. Another part of ranch life. The male suicide rate in the state is more than twice as high as the national average.

The romance of the American cowboy is lost on Sarah. She thinks about the combination of delusion and despair and entitlement she has seen in so many of the men around her. She toggles between empathy and rage.

Sarah suspects that a lot of the unhappiness men feel has to do with the gaps between the script they internalize and the reality of modern American life. “Real men” are meant to be stoic providers, lone cowboys who dole out justice and protection. But the world has changed, not to mention the economy. Why shouldn’t norms around gender change as well? Sarah wonders. What do working women like her get out of the gender bargain?

“I think men are scared,” she says. “They’re so ashamed to even talk about their emotions that they’re not even going to admit that they need help.”

In 2020, still reeling from her favorite cousin’s suicide, Sarah began a serious relationship with one of his close friends. Her new boyfriend was edgy, which she was often drawn to in men, but also willing to be vulnerable with her. They talked about their difficult childhoods. She told him how much it still hurt that the man who sexually abused her as a girl was never held accountable or even ostracized from their family. He shared stories about all the friends of his who had died of overdoses or had gone to prison.

He gave her a lot of affection. Sarah remembers feeling surprised when he said he loved her a few days into their relationship.

“I was just so thirsty for any love that I took it,” she says.

He also began to introduce her to drugs that she had never tried before, she says, an escalating menu of narcotics that included heroin and fentanyl.

Financially, their relationship gave Sarah the greatest sense of stability she had ever known. The amount of money he made as a tattoo artist was unbelievable to her, hundreds of dollars in a single day. He encouraged her to try becoming a tattoo artist, too, and he promised to teach her. She had always loved drawing, and this seemed like a way to get paid for it.

She felt like something was finally working in her life the way it was supposed to. Sarah hoped her grandmother, who had gone to college in the 1950s and had a middle-class life, was proud to see her finding her way.

Sarah was also impressed by her boyfriend’s interest in her little boy. He offered to babysit and began to co-parent with her. The three moved in together in Casper. Her son called her at work one day, she recalls, to say he wanted this man to be his dad.

Some things make more sense in hindsight.

Her boyfriend could be controlling, though it began in small ways that were hardly perceptible to her. He would pour water on her when he didn’t like what she was wearing. Other times, he would physically restrain her when they argued, enough that it hurt. He would also hound her to take drugs with him, she says, even when she was too tired and not in the mood. She went along with it. She told herself it was okay because she only did so when her son was safe and asleep.

“I’d think, like, ‘You’re never going to find somebody to love you if you don’t loosen up every now and again,’ ” she says. “I should have known better, but I didn’t.”

Even when her boyfriend hurt her, Sarah thought about all he had endured as a child, and she felt pity for him. She felt like she could help him.

In late spring of 2021, they moved together to Mississippi’s Gulf Coast on the promise that he could make good money there doing tattoo art and Sarah could continue learning as an apprentice. One day, while they were arguing, she recounts, he wrapped a seat belt around her neck and began choking her.

She found a private safe house for battered women, she says, where they spent her son’s fifth birthday.

Sarah felt shocked by how isolated and vulnerable she had become. She looked down at her body and realized it was covered with tattoos inked by this man, brandings that now felt grotesque. She realized that he had used affection and curated vulnerability as a weapon against her. It was another kind of toxicity.

“We’re brainwashed as women. We’re so sympathetic to men to the point where it’s dangerous,” she says. “We’re supposed to give and give and give until you have nothing left to give. And then you continue to give.”

Nearly $3,000 in stimulus payments from Washington helped her get on her feet. She bought a used car and got her own place.

That should have been the end of it.

But when a male neighbor began to bang on her door one night, she called her ex-boyfriend for help. They had been texting. He started coming around again.

“That’s when I really f—ed up,” she says.

Back at the ranch now, Sarah’s brother is giving her and her son a tour of the equipment they use to brand the calves. He assures Sarah that they are treated well and with dignity. He begins showing them how to train a horse not to buck, to “break it” so it is safe to ride.

Here, Sarah sees proof that a “real man” can be someone who helps people around him without exacting a price. It was her brother who drove down to Mississippi from Wyoming to bring her back home. They refer to it as “the rescue mission.”

“I feel like when men hear us talking about toxic masculinity, they think we’re trying to make them into the bad guy,” she says. “That’s not really how it is. I feel like they just don’t understand what masculinity is. It doesn’t have to be toxic.”

Sarah looks around the property, breathing in the familiar scent of mud and manure. She feels bittersweet. They have a steady life here. But she is unsure how much longer she can stay. She drinks heavily some nights and is becoming restless. Since she left Mississippi she has stopped shaving her armpits, another reclamation of her body, another rebellion.

Is this the kind of life she wants for herself? For her son?

She asks him what he thinks.

He says the ranch is okay.

“I didn’t like the South because I was attacked,” he adds.

The adults hold their breath.

“What do you mean?” she asks.

Her body is tense, but her voice is sweet. Her face is neutral.

“When I was attacked by the ants!” he tells her.

He bursts into a laugh.

It’s just a funny story. This section is so tense, and wrenching, and at the end, surprising. How deliberate was the choice to shift into single-sentence paragraphs here to keep it taut? It was absolutely intentional. Just before this exchange, in the shift from past to present, readers have already been alerted that they need to brace themselves. Here, I wanted to drive the tension forward with an almost staccato drum cadence that builds but is not resolved, which would then carry into the next section. This is true to life; Sarah is always bracing for what might come up, and the stakes are very high each time.   

* * *

When he misbehaves or throws tantrums, there is nobody better suited to soothing this little boy than Sarah. If he is getting frustrated, she patiently tells him things like “let’s slow down, kiddo.” If he is unable to focus, she calmly instructs him to “remember your breathing.” When he begins to yell, she tells herself and then him that “anger is usually just sadness with nowhere to go.”

Right now, he is refusing to pick up the Legos at the public library in Buffalo, so she goes over what they’ve learned together about compromise. He interrupts her repeatedly and yells at her. These paragraphs kick off a real high-wire section of writing. You begin with a single incident in the library and use it to open up into recounting the most harrowing part of Sarah and her son’s background, before returning to the scene: “Finally, he calms down and they begin cleaning up.” Can you tell me anything about how you conceived and wrote this passage? I wanted readers to connect to this everyday parenting moment we’re all familiar with: a public tantrum. From there I wanted to provide the context necessary to understand all of the raw and complicated decisions Sarah is making at every moment. There is, on the most urgent level, her son’s trauma. Then beneath that there’s also her own suffering, and then the guilt she feels for the ways she has made him vulnerable. The weight of their traumatic history hangs over the rest of the piece and complicates the central question of the story: Can she raise her son to be a good man? In this moment, she needs to maintain absolute control and composure, even though she is falling apart on the inside.  

“If you want to do fun things, then you need to respect me, kiddo,” Sarah says. “Compromising means we can do things you want to do, but also things I want to do.”

He starts to clean.

He stops again a few minutes later.

“Mom, when I was in — what state was that?” he asks.

Sarah’s entire body tightens. Her eyes narrow.

“Mississippi? Louisiana? Montana?” she asks, one by one, trying not to sound urgent.

“Montana,” he says, referring to a recent trip with his grandmother. “Mom, when I was in Montana, there was a guy who was a king. But he turned out to be a bad guy. His name was Pete!”

Sarah’s shoulders relax suddenly, but her eyes stay dim.

Sometimes her son shares normal stories from his imagination, but other times he shares difficult memories from their time living with her ex-boyfriend. Sometimes those things blend together.

One evening in August 2021, about a month after Sarah and her ex got back together, her son’s babysitter came into the tattoo shop in Mississippi where Sarah and her boyfriend worked.

The sitter pulled Sarah aside to say that her son had recounted being abused by Sarah’s boyfriend. The boy, standing with Sarah now, struggled to explain where and when it happened; the last few years were a blur of new states and new apartments. But Sarah believes much of the abuse must have taken place in Wyoming, before she stopped using drugs. While she was unconscious.

Disparate memories crashed together like puzzle pieces. Red marks on the child’s ear that he said were from Miles, his imaginary friend. The escalating pressure from her partner to use harder and harder drugs. The offers to watch her son while she did so.

Overcome with emotion outside the shop, Sarah vomited onto the street.

A co-worker took her and her son to the Gulfport Police Department. The department later interviewed her son, Sarah says, but would not pursue charges on the sexual abuse claims she made on her son’s behalf because the alleged abuse happened in Wyoming. Sarah told friends she felt disrespected and belittled during the initial interview. A police escort accompanied Sarah home to gather her essential belongings, according to the co-worker, who added that they were never contacted for questioning.

Sarah also called police in Casper, where officers opened a case. They requested notes from the Gulfport police’s interview with her son, but the investigation went nowhere because of a lack of evidence. A month later it was closed, according to public records; no one told Sarah and she never followed up.

Those first few days, she would break down crying in front of her son. But a therapist warned her that if he saw her get upset, he might not tell her — or anyone — if something like that were to happen again.

Sarah felt herself pulled back to the sexual abuse she had experienced as a child. She thought about how family members were still mad at her for saying something. How inescapable the cycles of male entitlement and violence and trauma that had shaped her life seemed now. And she felt like she was to blame. Perhaps what hurt Sarah most was the realization that her substance abuse, which she had rationalized as a Band-Aid to her pain, had played a key role in her son’s suffering. This piece thoroughly explores Sarah’s situation — her struggles, her hopes for herself and her son — but takes pains not to reveal too many identifying details.Balancing what’s needed for the truth of a story with the concerns of a story subject can be tricky. How did you navigate through that? Throughout the reporting process, Sarah and I spoke under the agreement that I would have permission to use her full name in the story. There were certain conversations we needed to have before that point, though, because she is not a public figure. I explained what it meant to be on-the-record and off-the-record, the sort of corroborating interviews I would need to do along the way, that she would not necessarily know whom I was speaking. I also told her I would honor her decision to stop participating at any moment, up until publication, if it became too much. That would obviously be disappointing as a reporter, but it is important to clarify when working with trauma survivors who are private citizens. From there it was more complicated. Her 5-year-old son could not consent to having his story shared. This was ethically really prickly. To leave out what happened to him would distort the story, which at its heart is about the intergenerational cycles of trauma and toxic masculinity. It felt like too big of an omission. But I did not want to create a situation where his privacy was taken away from him for the rest of his life, every time someone searched his name or his mom’s name on the internet. His right to privacy (now and in the future) was ultimately what drove the decisions we made about how many identifying details to include. We consulted with Sarah along the way and laid out our thinking. It was important that she have space to voice any concerns. Jabin Botsford, the photographer on the story, and I talked at length about capturing their life in truth and detail without showing their faces. He did a great job, and under extraordinary constraints.

In the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys are sexually abused as children, and in the vast majority of cases the abuser is known by the family. The abuse can cause a lifetime of mental health challenges including depression, addiction and increased suicide risk.

On the internet, Sarah found research that said children who are abused are likelier to become perpetrators. She asked herself, could her son one day hurt others?

Sarah struggled financially being on her own again, even with a few loans from her grandmother. She didn’t try to sign up for public assistance because she hadn’t been able to recover her identification from the home she shared with her ex-boyfriend, who did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post that were delivered through four active social media accounts and by email. He was also unreachable by telephone and text message, including at a phone number associated with his tattoo business in Las Vegas, where a man who picked up the phone said that he did not know anyone by the name of Sarah’s ex-boyfriend before ending the call.

Sarah felt herself unraveling.

She and her son moved in with friends, but she quickly wore out her welcome. She began to use meth regularly during that time, and soon relied on it to stay awake at various jobs. She would go long stretches without bathing and relinquished basic care of the boy to roommates for days at a time.

What kind of mother is that?

In her spiral, Sarah became consumed with her own pain, an unreliable narrator of her story and his.

She kept going like that for several months.

In a moment of clarity, she realized something needed to change.

That’s when Sarah’s grandmother persuaded her to let go of her pride and to come back to Wyoming. To live on the ranch and to start over closer to home. She and her son could be home by Christmas.

Now it is late May. They have been back in Wyoming for six months. Sarah stopped doing meth the day before she left Mississippi, she says, and hasn’t started again, though she has cravings. On the ranch, so long as her grandmother is alive, Sarah has enough money to buy her son toys and even to go to the nail salon occasionally.

On social media, raucous debates among white-collar professionals over the virtues and limits of the #MeToo movement draw millions of clicks.

In the American heartland, conservative politicians warn of a war against American masculinity.

In this little library in Buffalo, Wyo., Sarah’s eyes strain to keep the Legos in focus. I love how you take us from more-abstract battlefields such as message boards, then zoom in to a very real person’s struggles. What did you want to accomplish with these three sentences? I guess I wanted to raise a question: For all the attention this topic gets within a certain cultural caste, to what extent has our discourse over toxic masculinity changed the lives of Sarah and her son and working-class people like them? What protections are in place for the most vulnerable victims of male entitlement and violence? Who falls through the cracks and why?  

Sarah’s son climbs onto her and she holds him while he yells. Sometimes she hears from other parents, strangers, that she should not let him throw fits like that.

Finally, he calms down and they finish cleaning up.

As they drive back to the ranch, they pass Crazy Woman Liquors and Crazy Woman Fine Art Gallery and Crazy Woman Candles and Gifts. Beyond it all lies Crazy Woman Mountain.

“I just know there’s going to be so much for me to do in order to make up for all the s— I put him through,” Sarah says later that evening. “So yeah, he has room to throw a temper tantrum. I don’t even call it a temper tantrum. It’s him expressing his emotions. And that’s fine.”

She will carry the guilt for the rest of her life.

She worries about all her son will carry.

* * *

With some research, two versions of the myth of the Crazy Woman emerge, though the sourcing is thin no matter where you look.

In the first version: A White woman’s family is killed by Native Americans, and she goes crazy from grief.

In the second: A Native American woman is the sole survivor after a deadly attack on her village, and she goes crazy from grief.

That’s it.

The woman’s reaction to this immeasurable trauma is all anyone knows about her, or cares to know about her. The Crazy Woman label is so ubiquitous in the region that few people ask any follow-up questions. The woman’s race and context shifts, but her hysteria remains. She is at once a phantom and a cautionary tale, inscribed into the landscape of northeast Wyoming.

What is this story for? What is it about?

Sarah thinks she knows.

“Nobody gives a s— what you’re going through, what you’ve gone through,” she says before a double shift at the restaurant, drawing pulls of relief from a vape pen. “If you don’t leave that at the door, you just become the crazy b——.”

The details don’t really matter to anyone. The shame is what sticks.

But did she ever find a way to cope with her sorrow?

Did she go to work the next day?

What was her name? The “Crazy Woman” iconography is so fitting for the story you’re telling. At what point did you realize that phrase had to be part of the story? By the time I sat down to write, I knew that I wanted to interrogate the myth of the Crazy Woman somewhere in the story. The Crazy Woman just kept coming up while I was in northeast Wyoming. It was literally everywhere I turned. But it wasn’t obvious where or how to do that in the piece. This breakout section might have been a risk. It’s not the sort of thing I’ve really seen anywhere else, and certainly not in a newspaper feature. But I needed a shorter, quicker section in this precise spot in the story, to release some of the tension, and so I decided to just experiment. And it just felt to me like it worked.

* * *

Every day now, after he gets home from prekindergarten, Sarah’s son insists that it was the official last day. And every day Sarah argues with him that he still has a few more days to go.

“I have a calendar at home,” she says one afternoon after she picks him up.

“Well then look at it!” he responds.

She knows exactly when his last day is. She has been counting down.

It is June now, and Sarah has abruptly decided it is time for them to leave the ranch. They’ll leave as soon as school is out for the summer.

Sarah quit her job at the restaurant last week, hastily, after the other women at work began to make comments about her refusing to wear a bra. They accused her of trying to sexualize herself, Sarah fumes, though she just wanted to be more comfortable.

“What part of my body don’t they understand?” she says on her way to pick up her final paycheck. “My Nana keeps saying I can’t always swim against the current, so I’m switching rivers.”

She has managed to save up $650 during her time on the ranch.

Sarah is sporting a new tattoo on her forehead, a Japanese symbol in red ink inspired by an anti-hero, Gaara, from an anime series she and her son like to watch together. Sarah finds comfort in the show’s characters. Each one has a terrible past, but, despite all their struggles, they change for the better.

Her son likes that there are bad guys that the good guys have to battle.

Sarah’s plan is to move to a nearby town with her sister, who has a 1-year-old baby. They will help each other with child care; her sister will work the overnight shift, and Sarah will work swing shifts from midafternoon to late evening. She has submitted four applications for temporary jobs while she figures out what to do next. She feels steady.

Sarah is starting to dream again about working as a tattoo artist, maybe even at an all-women tattoo shop. Or perhaps she will enroll in courses at the local community college.

But she is startled when her son tells her that he choked one of his classmates recently on the playground.

She asks what he means by “choked.”

“This is the backstory: He caught me taking his stuff,” he tells her. “Then he taught me a lesson. He whacked me in the head.”

Now she is remembering that a teacher offered her parenting classes.

What kind of mother is that?

Sarah thinks about how her little boy sometimes puts his hand across her mouth, and she wonders if he learned it from her ex-boyfriend, who she has recently been looking up online. She has been following the Johnny Depp defamation trial against Amber Heard and worries she could get sued for warning others about the alleged abuse, especially in the absence of official police charges.

“What if someone came into your room and took your stuff?” she asks her son.

“I would probably punch them in the face!” he says, laughing.

She is always trying to figure out which of his behaviors are just normal boy things.

“Do you remember what I told you about respecting people’s boundaries?” Sarah tells him.

He looks at her. His face turns tough. Then it turns sweet.

“Oh, yeah,” he says.

In this moment, in every moment like this, Sarah maps a way forward: If she can raise her son to be a good man, it will be by teaching him to talk about his feelings and to ask for help. No matter how painful it is.

She wants him to know that his sadness has a place to go. That she can handle whatever it is.

She wants that to be true, at least.

But some days, Sarah’s despair is once again becoming so profound that it consumes her entirely. It leaves little space for her son. Her addictions are under control, she tells herself, and yet she also admits the ache is there — for alcohol now in particular, but also for male attention. The feedback loop of pain and temporary relief and more pain is familiar; she doesn’t know if she is really strong enough to break it. She relies on her son to steady her, to give her purpose.

Sarah wonders briefly if she should stay on the ranch after all, where her grandmother acts as a guardrail. But she dismisses it just as quickly.

A few minutes later, Sarah’s son cuddles up to her. He is carrying some balloons Sarah bought him at the grocery store earlier in the day.

“Momma, I want to use these balloons for my birthday party because I don’t want them to go to waste.”

In a few weeks he is turning 6. Describe your reporting and writing process for this story. I eventually asked Sarah to consider letting me write about her and her son. I explained all it would entail in terms of process and access. I also told her I didn’t want an answer right away, so that she could consider it carefully. You have to take extra care when dealing with somebody who has experienced abuse; you need to approach them with humanity and even care. That means slowing everything down and thoroughly explaining the process, over and over again. She ultimately saw the value in it and agreed to participate. We must have talked by phone for a dozen hours over the course of several months. This was sometimes a challenge because she didn’t have much money, so her phone would get cut off every few weeks. But we made it work. When I finally showed up in Wyoming again, she had just decided to leave the ranch where they were living with her grandmother as a sort of safehouse. It was very unexpected and a little unnerving, but I ended up with a front-row seat to their final week there. When I sat down to write, I realized that because of the amount of time it took for this story to come together I had managed to see the entire arc of her time on the ranch, where she was trying to put her life back together. This is ultimately reflected in the structure of the piece. The present-day narrative backbone of the story is couched in what I observed firsthand. Then I decided to use a kind of braided structure to bring in the summary narrative from the past. It’s a useful move, in terms of packing biography and history into the piece while keeping the narrative moving forward. Because of that, structurally, the past continually echoes throughout the present in this piece; and, by the way, that’s true to life and true to trauma. This isn’t a pat story that treats healing as a linear thing. It’s about the long reach of abuse and how difficult it is to escape across time and across generations.

* * *

The little boy waves a bubble wand at Sarah, whose eyes look far away. He looks puzzled as he flips the see-through tube upside down, then right-side up. He asks why the air pocket always stays on top and the liquid falls to the bottom.

“Do you know what gravity is, baby?” Sarah asks, focusing in on him.

“Yeah, it helps you stay on the ground, like stay on the earth,” he says. “We’re using gravity right now.”

Sarah explains that the water is heavier than the air in the tube, so it always gets pulled down to the bottom. He is impressed.

Sarah beams with pride.

She rubs her hands through his hair.

They giggle together.

* * *

[dcl]S[/dc]arah has already packed two black trash bags full of clothes and is beginning to fill a third when tears start to fall down her face. The past year hits her all at once.

“He probably hasn’t even told me half of what was done to him,” Sarah says now, in private, taking big gulps of air.

She can hear the boy outside talking to the other grown-ups. She marvels at his resilience, and fears it, too.

“Congratulate me because it’s my last day until kindergarten!” he tells them, ecstatic.

Soon there will be a new home and a new classroom and a new schedule. Maybe at his new school, he wonders, there will be some kids who want to be his friends.

Sarah gets her breathing under control.

Her son is in the next room, pulling out school supplies from his backpack. A crayon box. A miniature blow-up beach ball. A paper crown that says “I did it!”

Sarah believes that it is not too late to turn trauma into triumph. That she can keep her focus on her son’s future and not her past. That she is strong enough to do so. This is a mother’s charge, she tells herself, and it may yet save her or break her.

She dries her face and steps out into the living room, where her son runs to ask her if they can draw together. Why did you choose this as the story’s final image? When you have the kind of access I had on this story, there’s a temptation to just keep reporting, to keep adding more scenes, to bring readers to their new town and new home and beyond. In honesty, I did keep reporting. But stories need to end! Sarah wasn’t going to tolerate me following them forever. I chose this moment as the final image because I liked that the possibilities were wide open. They are at a real inflection point in their lives.  

* * *

The Washington Post does not identify victims of sexual or domestic violence without their consent. To protect the privacy of Sarah’s son, The Post has not named him and has identified Sarah only by her first name. The Post has not named Sarah’s ex-boyfriend because no charges were filed against him by two police departments that Sarah contacted with allegations of abuse. He did not respond to numerous requests for comment from The Post. The present-day action described in the story was observed firsthand. Events taking place before 2022 were reported through public documents and corroborating interviews.

* * *

Trevor Pyle was a newspaper reporter in the Pacific Northwest for several years, and now works as a communications officer for a regional nonprofit.

Further Reading