Before her memoir "Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive" was even an idea, Stephanie Land was a single mother who had escaped an abusive relationship, was living in a homeless shelter and cleaned houses for money.
Land was inadvertently thrust into the private lives of her clients, getting an up-close and personal look at how the other half lives. She began journaling everything she witnessed, which turned into a small piece, then a viral essay, and eventually, a bestselling memoir. It even made former President Barack Obama's summer reading list in 2019. He called it an "unflinching look at America's class divide."
The Netflix adaptation, "Maid," debuted on October 1, exposing an entirely new audience to a fictionalized version of Land's life. The series follows Alex, a hardworking mother played by Margaret Qualley, who grapples with leaving an abusive relationship as she struggles to survive in a system that seems destined to fail her.
CBS News spoke with Land about how she wrote "Maid," the feelings of watching your life's story become a television show, and what people don't understand about welfare.
CBS News: "Maid" was a big hit when it was first published. Why do you think your story resonated so strongly with readers at that time, and why do you think it continues to entice audiences?
Stephanie Land: Going into publication, I thought people would be attracted to that story because it was a true story of a house cleaner. I think there was a lot of voyeurism there.
I assumed that people would pick up the book to read and purchase it because of that: "What's it like to be inside of other people's houses?" But I tried to kind of give them a gut punch on how the safety net programs and the government assistance programs and that what we think of as welfare is actually a system that works against you.
I really didn't think that people were going to listen to that or care about it because I had lived such an invisible life. There was a part of me that knew why they were listening. I mean, I'm a White person. I am a success story. I'm on the other side of things. We don't like to listen to people who are still angry, who are still in poverty, especially people of color. I kind of saw that happening leading up to it and it terrified me.
But I at least hoped that if they were listening to me they would start listening to others and it would open doors for more marginalized people to talk about their lives.
Tell me about the experience of watching your story come to life?
There were obviously a lot of mixed emotions. (My child and I) watched the first two episodes in my bed on my laptop, kind of cuddled up together. It was of course really triggering and hard to watch and traumatic in some parts. It was also a huge relief to see how good it was and how authentic it was.
The reason why I wanted to write the book that I did was because I never saw myself in any form of media. There was no authentic representation of my life anywhere. Our main purpose of writing is so we don't feel alone and that others don't feel alone. So before i watched the series, I was really nervous because there's so many ways you can get poverty wrong and perpetuate stigmas even more. But the creators did such a fantastic job and I was so thrilled that it was something that I could proudly stand by and talk about.
What influences of yours can you see in the final product?
Definitely the ponies.
(In one episode, a fellow resident at the battered women's shelter gives Alex and her daughter hundreds of left-over My Little Pony dolls. Alex and her daughter parade around the house with the toys, in one of the first times the shelter feels like home).
They were mentioned very briefly in a sentence in the book, but when I got to hang out with the creators, they all came to Washington and did the "Trauma tour." We drove around, I showed them the trailer that I lived in but I also shared hundreds of photos with them. They recreated a lot of those and one of those things was the ponies.
And that was the first time I cried watching the show.
The show almost makes you root for the abuser in some episodes. Was it important to show how difficult emotional abuse can be to categorize? Is that something others have confided in you about?
Someone told me they didn't like that Sean was a likable character and they had feelings or some kind of sympathy for him. I thought they did really well with showing that this person who is totally charming on the outside and everybody else thinks is this wonderful guy, everybody's heartthrob, can be really violent at home and just kicks you down in so many ways. And it was really incredible how close to my experience that was.
I've been getting a lot of comments about "I realize my current relationship is toxic and I need to leave, or "I was able to process past relationships and be more forgiving of myself" and I had a lot of people either tweet or comment that they immediately donated to a domestic violence shelter or started volunteering.
In the book, I didn't really talk up the emotional abuse because one, my kid was going to read. But two, I didn't want to make the story about him. I didn't want to give him more space than he deserved, so if focused more on how it affected me. The "show don't tell" type of writing I guess.
But now that the series is out, that's a lot of the focus. It's been fifteen years and I don't really think about him unless I absolutely have to and I didn't realize... It's been weird what has come up for me physically and how it feels to talk about that time in my life again. I don't know… the body remembers and I think the series is doing that for a lot of people.
What have you learned since you wrote your book? How have you grown both as a mother and your own person?
I think my biggest role as a parent is teaching empathy. I of course wanted them to be smart and to read and write, but they kind of do that on their own. But I dole out lessons in empathy as much as I can, [which is] not only my biggest challenge but my goal in being a parent.
I also think I've learned how important it is to be able to advocate for others. As my platform has grown and the reach of my audience has grown, I have continued to be very raw. I also started to get really angry.
I am not an angry person, I try to avoid it as much as possible, but the more I spoke in public speaking events, not only the book tour audiences but the public speaking audiences, they were mainly White people who maybe had house cleaners of their own. But for non-profits, who had the ability to reach others in their communities and still chose to fly me out, I basically tell them it shouldn't be me up here. You need to listen to people in your own communities and you especially need to listen to people of color. I think even though it's exhausting for me, I see an importance in my role in advocating.
What emotions get brought up whenof national safety nets like child tax credits or paid leave get placed on a national stage? What do you think people misunderstand about the nature of poverty?
The thing is, most of the people on safety net programs are working already and they're working two to three jobs just to feed their families. When I was on food stamps, there were a lot of talks and memes and hatred on social media about how we need to drug test people on welfare. And it really affected me for a really long time. I just constantly felt like someone was watching me, like, if I sat down and wasn't working for a few minutes, I felt like suddenly I had lost value as a human being because so much of my value and dignity was wrapped up in how many hours I could work.
I just think America is so work-focused, and it goes back to that stupid American myth that if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps then you'll make. But if you're not making it, then [people] think you're just not working hard enough. They forget people aren't actually being paid a living wage.
It's also because we assign dignity to the type of jobs people do. People think that the janitor in the airport has less dignity than the pilot does and really the janitor is supporting that pilot and making that pilot's job possible. So, I think that we really just need to take dignity out of the equation as far as work is concerned and assign it all to us equally as human beings. I think we all deserve the same amount of dignity.
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