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Christine Walley

Year of Graduation: 
’83
​Christine Walley

"Our history is integral to our stories, integral to how we will move forward.”

By Daneet Steffens ’82

Christine Walley’s life changed seismically in 1980.As part of a family whose life and livelihood were inextricably tied to the steel industry of southeast Chicago, 14-year-old Walley witnessed first her father’s job loss and then the extensive repercussions that rippled through her community as all the area’s mills closed one by one.

“It was an enormous concentration of the industry,” she says.“The region was completely built around it, so when the industry started to collapse. . . .” She pauses. “People had spent generations assuming that their way of life would continue. It was a very dislocating experience.” Her father, in fact, never held down a full-time job again.

Currently an associate professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Walley recognizes that what she perceived as a very local experience was, in fact, part of an extensive, ongoing transformation of America’s social, economic and political landscape.

Her ticket out was a scholarship to Exeter. Originally, she says, her parents didn’t want her to go: “Where I came from, sending your kid away to a boarding school was considered being cruel to your kids.”As it transpired, Exeter fueled her curiosity about different worlds and, ultimately, her career choice.

“The culture shock was fairly intense, coming from an insular, working-class community,” Walley says. “There’s an American tendency to not talk about class very much, so I didn’t have the language to talk about why everything felt so different, even in terms of small things like how people dressed, or how they talked or how they walked. It was very disorienting.” Her search for a wider understanding led to anthropology.

Though she did her doctoral fieldwork in Tanzania, Walley found herself personally and professionally drawn back to those early and continuing effects of deindustrialization. Using her southeast Chicago experience as a starting point through which to examine those effects across the States, she and her husband, filmmaker Chris Boebel, have created Exit Zero, an ongoing project encompassing a book, a documentary and a proposed interactive website.

Exit Zero originated as a family affair 10 years ago, with Walley and Boebel approaching her father, a moment poignantly caught on film: “We were wondering if, before we go to lunch, can we just ask you a couple of questions about the neighborhood?” The camera lingers on a slight, mustachioed man whose basic life expectations—work, health, pension, providing for his family—were unceremoniously obliterated. The 8 1/2-minute trailer captures a man willing to speak about the past, but assiduously trying to avoid future disappointments. “How,” asks Walley’s voice- over, “do you make sense of the story? How could things as concrete and seemingly eternal as the steel mills just disappear?” Especially, as Walley points out now, when what takes their place are massive toxic brownfields and chemical plants that pose continuing environmental hazards.

She and Boebel began the film at the same time that Walley was writing a book about the subject; they quickly realized that both mediums, sharing a common root, were growing synergistically together. Walley’s family stories drive the anthropologically focused book while her great-granduncle’s 16 mm home movies—celluloid anecdotes that bring 1930s and ’40s southeast Chicago to life—pepper the documentary, mixing with found footage and first-person narrative.

“It always seemed right to pursue both the film and the book through a personal route,” Walley explains,“to use family stories as a way to get at larger questions about immigration,deindustrialization, class and gender in America. It felt more honest to do it that way because it was family stories that drove me to think about the project. But I was also hoping that the stories would make the subject more accessible, that they would create a meeting ground for people from different backgrounds to come together.

“My childhood experience was that people’s analyses of the world often came out through their stories. When I would talk to my dad about abstract ideas I’d learned in college, he would start his response with,‘Here, Peanut . . . ’—because that was my nickname—and then he’d launch into a story. So focusing on stories seemed like a great way to go, and the multigenerational structure gives a sense of the trajectory—from the beginnings of industrialization to today’s postindustrial reality, where entire communities have been living with the effects of deindustrialization for 30 years. It’s been very interesting showing the rough cut of the film: People from different backgrounds or experiences, they start relating their own stories, maybe about class in their family or about deindustrialization in an East Coast textile town. So the stories breed more stories. They are a way of creating the conversation.”

It’s a conversation that Walley feels people are hungry for. "When I started my work, deindustrialization was kind of a passé topic, but people are really interested in it again. Given the expanding inequality that people are seeing in the U.S., I think they are wondering, ‘What did we lose along the way that we weren’t really paying attention to? What are the long-term implications of that?’ Our history is integral to our stories, integral to how we will move forward.”

In anthropology, Walley found her own direction.“It emphasizes listening, more than any other discipline,” says the woman whose Exit Zero project offers a critical platform, encouraging marginalized communities to re-find their voice.“To me, that’s very powerful. Listening is important.”