I am bone of the bone of them that live in trailer homes. I grew up next to Tiffany ‘Pennsatucky’ Doggett, the hostile former drug addict from the prison TV drama Orange Is the New Black. I know her by her teeth.
Pennsatucky – a scrappy slip of a woman menacing, beating and proselytising to fellow inmates – stole the show during the first season of the Netflix prison series. But amid an ensemble cast of similarly riveting, dangerous characters, it was her grey, jagged teeth that shocked viewers into repulsed fixation. She was the villain among villains, a monster that fans loved to hate; ‘Pennsatucky teeth’ became a pejorative in social media.
Actress Taryn Manning’s gnarly, prosthetic teeth startled viewers because, by and large, poor characters in TV and film are played by actors whose whitened, straightened, veneered smiles aren’t covered up. It’s hard to think of characters besides Pennsatucky through whom heinous teeth convey rather than lampoon the physicality of the poor. The first that comes to mind is the derelict serial killer in a movie actually called Monster (2003); as with Manning, Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning transformation generated astonishment with fake teeth.
In my life, Pennsatucky and her teeth are entirely familiar. She’s the slurring aunt who passed out in our farm’s swimming pool while babysitting me, and later stole my mom’s wedding band to buy the drugs that dug grooves in her cheeks. She’s the step-parent whose brain, organs and teeth corroded over the years and now lives in a mobile-home park with my construction-worker dad.
But Pennsatucky’s teeth aren’t just ‘meth teeth.’ They are the teeth of poor folk, of the young grandma who helped to raise me and for decades worked from diner to factory line to a desk job as a probation officer for the county court system in Wichita, Kansas. She was just 35 when I was born, so I knew her as a radiant thing; at the downtown courthouse, where I tagged along – babysitters are expensive – attorneys turned flirtatious near her green eyes, long limbs and shiny, natural-blonde bob. Then at night, in her farmhouse or the tiny brick house we fixed up in a rough Wichita neighbourhood, I watched her take out her teeth, scrub them with a rough brush, and drop them into a cup of water with a fizzy tablet.