Artist Didier Viodé illustrates Watts for the magazine’s cover
After growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, Jenisha Watts came to New York City as a young journalist determined to make sure that no one would ever know her past. But Watts, a senior editor at The Atlantic, now writes with remarkable candor about the heartrending circumstances of her life for the first time in the cover story of The Atlantic’s October issue.
In “Jenisha From Kentucky,” Watts details what it was like to grow up in a crack house in Lexington, and how she survived it. As a young child, Watts became a de facto parent to her four younger siblings; the children routinely witnessed crack use by their mother, Trina, as well as by neighbors and strangers. “Sometimes the cops would come, four or five at a time. My siblings and I would lie in bed as they walked through our dark apartment with flashlights, their staticky walkie-talkies impossible to understand. In the morning we’d see that they’d trashed the place: flipped mattresses onto the floor, pulled out drawers. My Aunt Soso says they once found drugs hidden in the cereal boxes.” Watts’s mother sometimes left the children home alone for long stretches of time without enough to eat.
Eventually the children were separated, Watts to live with an aunt in Florida and then later with her grandmother back in Kentucky; her brothers and sisters went into foster care and group homes. Of her time in Florida, Watts writes: “I would walk down to a payphone near a convenience store where I could call my granny collect to ask about Trina and my siblings. That’s how I learned that the state had taken them away … They were all gone.”
But Watts was always a “collector of words” and found solace and escape in her deep love of books. She made her way to the University of Kentucky and then to the literary world of New York, beginning with an internship at Essence that would be the start of a successful career in journalism. Watts describes how her experiences hustling through a childhood of deprivation helped prepare her for life among New York’s elites: “I was a very good beggar. As a child, I would approach anyone who looked remotely able and willing and ask them for money to buy my siblings and me a value meal at Rally’s. When I was 8, success meant that we would get burgers and fries for dinner, instead of nothing. Later, it meant a mentorship, an interview, a job.”
But with that success came guilt. Her siblings all remain in Kentucky; one recently survived a drug overdose. Her mother still struggles with addiction. Watts wrestles with the question of why she was the only one who escaped the circumstances of her childhood.
Watts is a mother herself now, and she writes of her present life: “I still worry all the time about money, about losing the opportunities I’ve worked so hard to achieve. I still get flustered when trying to communicate my thoughts or ideas—still worry that I might never catch up. I’ve spent my whole life trying not to be like my mother. I’ve spent my whole life trying to belong.” And, just as she believes a love of the written word was her salvation, Watts is hopeful she can also pass that along to her son: “I want to give him the words he needs to open any doors, and if I can’t, I want him to know where to find those words: in books.”
“Jenisha From Kentucky” is online today at TheAtlantic.com. Please reach out with questions or requests to speak with Jenisha about her story.
Anna Bross and Paul Jackson | The Atlantic