Disgusted But Not Surprised: Flat Broke with Two Goats by Jennifer McGaha


Flat Broke with Two Goats
Jennifer McGaha 
Sourcebooks, 2018


The story arc of Jennifer McGaha’s memoir Flat Broke with Two Goats is relatively simple–McGaha and her husband are victims of the Great Recession having to give up their home and suburban upper-middle class lifestyle in favor of a rural, subsistence one commonly termed ‘hardscrabble.’ But there is a serious problem with this personal narrative, it is oblivious and self-serving.

McGaha isn’t a victim. Having willfully and repeatedly surrendered any participation in her family’s finances, she plays dumb on the decisions her husband made sending them on a massive debt spiral. Wanting but never asking or caring where the money came from, McGaha discovers she and her husband owe back taxes to the IRS and state in the high six-figure range. The reason? They didn’t bother to pay. Instead, they spent on themselves masking it in that common bourgeois lie of doing it for their children. So, when McGahas have to leave their foreclosed upon house, their solution is renting a cabin in the woods. However, this is less Thoreau and more hobby farm, and the book is about how McGaha finds happiness in her hobby farm.

This book was tiresome.

While McGaha attempts to mitigate her own culpability early, she fails to confront and thus to realize her class background has led her down the path it was designed to: “what I should have learned from living in a relatively privileged childhood was the value of hard work and frugality, what I learned instead was that money was not something with which I needed to be overly concerned. If and when I needed it, it would magically appear–like a genie.” Privilege doesn’t and has never valued or taught “hard work and frugality,” rather it has always treated money as magic. What makes McGaha’s memoir at times nearly intolerable is throughout she continues to treat money as a genie never explaining where the funding comes from for her new farmers’ market existence.

While readers expect the thrust of the book to be McGaha rising to the realization “Maybe things would stop happening to me, and I could start making things happen” and showing us just how she actualized this, we instead get a trifling tale of egoism in the woods of North Carolina buttressed with hypocritical animal loving and craft beer. McGaha thinks of herself as “Appalachian in a bone-deep sort of way” but she hardly is.

Many readers will find the recipes McGaha includes between chapters interesting. They are some rather solid inventions mirroring her story quite well. However, even in these recipes she betrays her own casual crassness and carelessness like her homemade yogurt recipe that consists of buying yogurt. For example, when she writes “my taco soup had all the qualities of a meal prepared by and for people in distress. It was simple. It was filling. It did not require overthinking. And it packed enough heat to jumpstart our endorphins.” Her’s is a good recipe but presented it in such a backhanded-compliment manner I can’t help but say, ‘That sounds good. Oh, and fuck you.’ Because as a prole, as someone whose life as always been working class swinging from unemployment to underemployment distress is the cosmic background noise of existence, so when McGaha slums it, I take exception.

Flat Broke with Two Goats would have been a forgettable, pleasant success if McGaha’s editor had cut about a third of the published manuscript and forced the author to focus solely on the hobby farm angle. It would have been inoffensive and mildly uplifting. Instead, we get the worst type of memoir–rambling onanism. Stumbling into the realization “Being poor means not having a lot of options other people have” is stunningly naive. However, McGaha was never poor, rather, she was facing the consequences of her actions, a penalty for being glib, and conflating it with what she guessed was the essence of being poor.

Although easy reading and clearly well crafted, the ultimate thrust of this memoir is petty and myopic–a bourgeois tale of roughing it where responsibility is never taken & the author is never able to see beyond her own nose. Nearly every meaningful moment is undercut by a skin-crawling, privileged point of view seeing working class existence as at once a burden and a novelty.








A native of Appalachia, Jennifer McGaha lives with her husband, five dogs, twenty-three chickens, and one high-maintenance cat in a tin-roofed cabin bordering the Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina. Her creative nonfiction work has appeared in Brooklyner, Toad Suck Review, Switchback, Still, Portland Review, Little Patuxent Review, Lumina, Literary Mama, Mason’s Road, Now and Then, and others. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, running, mountain biking, sampling local beers, and playing with dogs.

25 thoughts on “Disgusted But Not Surprised: Flat Broke with Two Goats by Jennifer McGaha

  1. Thank you for putting into words the overarching entitlement that made my skin crawl through the entire time I was reading this book. I can’t even understand the gushing reviews I’ve read elsewhere.

    1. …and my library (I adore libraries) has chosen this book for their group read. //head thunk// The world has gone mad.

  2. I could not believe she never once seemed the least bit ashamed of totally screwing her friends over, and her rationalization for breaking into THEIR house to retrieve their last belongings. She admitted they had quit making payments months before, but still thought the house “technically” belonged to them. No shame, no remorse.

  3. ALSO…. how obtuse must you be not to get that all your craft beer name-dropping does nothing to elicit empathy from your readers. At least own the hypocrisy.
    And those ridiculously inserted recipes? Girl, please. That literary ploy is getting so tired. It worked for Nira Ephron in Heartburn in 1985. Everyone has a taco soup recipe. Everyone has a pesto recipe.

  4. Thank GOD I’m not the only one who thought this book was nothing more than a self-absorbed whinefest aout having to live with the consequences of decades of poor decision-making and willful ignorance. My guess is they moved to the house and bought a couple of backyard farmer animals (the same ones zoned into the leafy suburbs of D.C. and other similar upper-middle class environs so stay at home mommies can harvest a few eggs between drop-off and pick-up of the kiddos and feel she “grew” their food) so she could manufacture this horsesh*t story. I would imagine the people giving this book rave reviews are exactly like her – out of touch, tone deaf and disingenuous – but because she wears Chacos and is snobby about about craft beer is somehow likeable and relatable. All I know is if I saw her in REI, I know I’d hate her on sight.

    1. I have never understand any author who felt the need to describe clothes or food down to the name dropping brands. In the dialogue? yes, that’s okay; not in the narrative.

  5. I read the book and enjoyed it. The reviewer seemed to forget that it was written as a memoir. It’s memories written from the viewpoint of the writer herself. I was curious as to how her husband might have written it, but it’s not his book.

    Whether I agree with everything in the book is totally beside the point. I found it very interesting and difficult to put down.

    I confess that I skipped over the recipes. That’s fine for other people though. In my case, I just wanted to read HER story told in HER way.

  6. I thought it an incredibly honest, forthcoming book about mistakes and starting over. More importantly, owning those mistakes.
    But, everyone has an opinion, and I’m sure all of you have always made great choices. Every time.

  7. So glad I found your great review. I had just finished reading this for a book club and found myself angry.I found her lack of insight and internal reflection stunning. The need to justify what happened by blaming the recession is disingenuous.Because it really wasn’t the recession it was their ridiculous spending years before that and never once looking at what they were truly doing. They had been living above their means for years. This is a woman who lived through intense, almost deathly domestic violence and almost complete poverty. Two events that most people escape.Yet we don’t get to understand why, in her psychological makeup ,her life took these almost catastrophic dimensions. I completely understand and accept battered wife syndrome and clearly the victim is never ever at fault. But even in the t harrowing telling of that tale there are times when you just think to yourself ..this isn’t battered syndrome ..this is somebody who’s not quite right in her own mind. So for me the book lacks the kind of in-depth reflection that you would expect from a memoir. I read Susan Klebold’s Memoir about her son, Dylan, one of the Columbine shooters. To me, that is a true gripping memoir because of its honesty and true reflection. But McGaha is a wonderful writer and I think that she probably should focus on things that don’t require any real soul-searching. She’s not up to it.

  8. I thought I was being punked the whole time I was reading his book. Could anyone actually be as educated as this woman and yet be this out of touch with reality? The book was a long blame shifting tome of victim hood and narcissism. I about lost it when half way through the book she was still denying any culpability in the whole overspending mess, “I’m the victim here” she says as she rebukes her long suffering husband who was obviously trying for years to keep this domineering and self indulgent woman happy by juggling the finances while she fiddled as Rome burnt.

    I think the really spellbinding story would be the one written by the couple that they shafted when they let the house fall into ruin and disrepair and then into foreclosure while they freeloaded for months in the couple’s house saving money by skipping mortgage payments and rent. What a story I’ll bet they could tell! All I can say is FOR SHAME, LADY! Or have you no shame?! Every page she offered problems for every solution, shifted blame and tried to absolve herself of any blame in what I can only call a debacle, waterfall or no waterfall. In the end, it’s a well written shrift that absolves her for absolutely nothing and only exposes her extreme narcissism and no amount of two bit recipes or bleating goats can take the edge off of her blinding willful ignorance.

    1. I have to agree with the author and most of the comments. The author speaks about taking trips to Europe and buying luxury items without a concern where the money came from. Their “poverty” is entirely due to their criminal behavior – tax scofflaws. Her husband is an accountant, for goodness sake! First they rip off their friends and are shocked that it killed their friendship, then, they chose to live in an area where they couldn’t earn a decent income, despite their skill sets and mounting debt. Before, both of her older children attended elite private schools, now they live in a dump and are spending money they owe to the IRS on animals, craft beer and internet service. The narration was good but I must say I do not like this woman. She is an ignorant snob, good at spending money and ignoring her own culpability. I have plenty of compassion for people who are trapped by poverty, struggling to earn enough money to cover their basic needs, however, she boasts that her husband has scaled back his hours, working only enough to cover their rent and other expenses and she works part time. No sympathies here.

  9. I like what you had to say–you put into words what nagged me about the book. I found parts of the book inspiring because they worked so hard and I too have had to live in situations where the “critters” crawled more than I wanted; her ideas that she did not communicate about money with her husband were spot on for me and I found great pleasure in her description of the area having moved to Florida a year ago after 50 years of life in NC piedmont/mountains; however, I also found the descriptions of what they ate and drank and the “lifestyle” off. They still had money for wine and liquor and treats. They also worked well together as husband and wife–my husband would not be as industrious nor would I–what I related to most was “weakness” from eating candy as a supper–but was that because she had no money for food? or because she was just busy doing something else? I don’t know anyone in impoverished situations that make their own soap to save money…a bar of Ivory is still one of the cheapest things you can buy.

  10. I’m so thankful to have read your review. I enjoyed parts of the book and even felt like recommending it but was also somewhat irritated and really couldn’t identify why. You did, thanks!

    1. Thanks. It was an oddly difficult book–well crafted and I was really interested in how the author overcame her abusive relationships but as I noted there is so much blind classism here it just drove me nuts

  11. Face palm. I too want to tell the author to fuck off. Every time she veers off on a tangent about her forefathers I want to stab myself. Good point about the editor cutting about 1/3 of the book out – it’s extraneous.

  12. I’m curious to know what kind of dent they’ve actually made in repaying their exorbitant debt. I never got the feeling they’ve accepted full responsibility for their deliberate actions. Passing the buck solely to the husband is preposterous. I’m interested in payment plans, what they’re doing to counteract years and years of foolish, irresponsible choices. If she can’t find a job in her preferred field, why isn’t she scanning groceries at Walmart? Why don’t they both have multiple jobs? Have they ever heard of Dave Ramsey?

  13. Thanks for your ‘fair’ review. As well, having read various comments of the fellow-readers, I said to myself: “Always good to share the thoughts and ideas with others!” My first impression of the book was ‘honest and well-written memoir.’ Then I remembered the time when, as a new US citizen with my meager income as a seamstress, I used to see the tax consultant at the public library to make sure my paper was done correctly to pay my due Tax. The ‘honesty’ of the book ended there.
    The experiences the author had had with her first husband, or the education she had earned, and all; and yet, without paying attention about their financial situations, the author chose to live the life of the upper-middle class ‘beyond the means,’ and further, ‘stop to pay bills,’ while devoting herself for ‘crafting the hobbies.’ My thanks to MISANTHROPESTER for inviting us to share our thoughts. So. I refrain myself from saying; “Yeah, this is America”; instead, let me say that I will keep reading books to see other people’s honest stories, and continue to learn the world…

  14. Confession time…I listened to this book. I did not see the word “Memoir” underneath the title. (This happened to be once before when I read Mary Karr’s Memoir). Then she said something like, “I took a picture of it and posted it on instagram.” Which made me think…is this non-fiction. I went back and looked at the cover and to my horror i saw that it is a memoir! Holy smokes…well that made the book really weird and unbelievable. Now she is making yogurt and raising chickens. Do they get out from under the debt? Are they still married? Google was no help and I dont think the end of the book will answer those questions either. Yeah, I’m done with this one!

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