Jenisha Watts of ‘The Atlantic’ on Making Peace With a Difficult Past

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Senior Editor Jenisha Watts spent more than a year working to tell her own story of neglect and abuse as the result of her mother’s crack addiction. It now graces the cover of “The Atlantic.”

Read my story at Shondaland.

enisha Watts’ powerful story gracing the cover of October’s edition of The Atlantic, entitled “I Never Called Her Momma,” begins with Watts meeting Maya Angelou for the first time at a literary event. As she writes:

“By then, I knew how to mingle with literary types at networking events. But I always felt like my worth was tied to my job, or my education, or my family background. This night was different. I didn’t have to prove myself. It was assumed that everyone here was important because who else would possibly be invited to Maya Angelou’s brownstone? In my head, I created stories about who I might be to these people. Maybe I was a young poet of great promise, or a family friend of Maya, or even her granddaughter. Having Maya Angelou as my grandmother would have been nice. Toni Morrison too. And James Baldwin for a granddad.

I’d done this as a child as well, imagining who I could have been if I’d had a different kind of family. Who I could have been had my mother been a professor, an artist, a writer.

But I didn’t grow up in a Harlem brownstone. I didn’t have a professor or an artist or a writer for a mother. And Maya Angelou wasn’t my grandmother.

I was Jenisha from Kentucky, and I was raised in a crack house.”

Watts’ story is powerful in its unflinching honesty about her own past and her current life, one that has been deeply affected in many ways by the neglect of her mother, Trina, a woman who spent much of Watts’ childhood addicted to crack cocaine, and whom Watts has never called momma.

Watts is the eldest of five children, and her cover story touches on her path from Lexington, Kentucky, to New York, where she’s currently a senior editor at the award-winning publication The Atlantic. She tells her story of how she made her way from Lexington, where she was the keeper of her younger siblings until they landed in foster care, to New York City and the publication.

She vividly describes finding her mother getting high in a closet, and the parade of people and police who frequently invaded the house. At age 9, she and her four siblings and their mother moved into a Salvation Army, where she talks about brushing her teeth next to homeless people who muttered to themselves, and how the lights would go out at a set time each night. Aaron, her youngest brother, came down with a fever while they were there, and Trina called an ambulance. Shortly thereafter, Watts’ two aunts, Chantelle and Soso, came to get Watts and take her to Florida with them. The rest of the children ended up in foster care, and Watts says in her piece that she felt deeply guilty for it. “The adults seemed to have known that this was the likely outcome — that’s why I’d been sent away, to keep me out of the system. But I felt so guilty for leaving, like it wouldn’t have happened if I had been there, like I was the only one who could protect them,” she writes.

She candidly reveals details that, by her own admission, are not her proudest moments. Events like her short stint in juvenile detention at age 15 after she got furious at her mother, who’d just moved back in with Watts and her grandmother. Watts got angry with her mother when she refused to do her hair. Watts punched Trina and then took a pair of scissors and cut off a chunk of Trina’s hair. Her grandmother called the police, and Watts spent a few days in juvenile detention.

During these tumultuous times, Watts says she found solace in books and writes poignantly, “I was a collector of words.” She read Ebony and Jet magazines at her grandmother’s house and consumed books like James McBride’s The Color of Water. Watts was determined to get out of her situation and spent two years at a community college before transferring to the University of Kentucky, where she met one of her first mentors, Nikky Finney, a poet and creative writing professor. Finney took an interest in Watts and got her the tutoring help she needed to bring her up to speed after spending much of her childhood out of school, thanks to her mother’s addiction.

While there, Watts says she worked at Chase Bank, then quit to work full-time for the college newspaper and freelance for the Lexington Herald-Leader. After college, Watts hopped on a Greyhound bus and left Kentucky for New York, where she landed an internship with Essence magazine in August 2008. She credits the then-editorial director of the magazine, Susan Taylor, for taking a chance on her and says that she continues to remain in touch with her to this day. After Watts’ time at Essence, a Kentucky friend introduced her to Marie Brown, a literary agent who champions Black writers, which was how she eventually met Maya Angelou. Watts decided to apply to graduate school and was accepted to NYC’s elite Columbia Journalism School.

Watts freelanced for everything from People magazine to ESPN, writing that she “slept in a walk-in closet, stayed with acquaintances, lived for a while with a boyfriend. I couldn’t afford rent.” One day, a close friend of hers stumbled across a job listing at The Atlantic and told Watts to apply.

Watts said she never expected to land the job, but did, and in the reporting of her own story, discovered and revealed some deep, dark, and difficult periods of both her own life and her mother’s life. Her mother had been raped by Watts’ grandfather, and in digging further into the legal paperwork, Watts discovered that her grandfather had a record of molesting other young people.

“‘Dishman, William [Watts’ grandfather] … did rub his granddaughter in the vaginal area while waiting [in] the car at North Park Shopping Center.’ The papers said the child involved was only 3 years old. Her initials were J.W. I was 3 in 1988. My initials are J.W.,” Watts writes in her story.

Watts says that she’s still trying to make sense of what she discovered in the reporting of her own story, and that the fallout of these revelations has made some relationships with her family more strained. Despite her ailing health, however, her mother, Trina, has continued to support Watts and her pursuit of her own truth.

Shondaland sat down with Watts to talk more about her story, what she hopes it offers for others out there, and her path to one of the most prestigious publishing outlets in the world.

ABIGAIL BASSETT: You said you spent a year working on this story, yet you’ve written, reported, and worked on stories for everyone from Essence and People to ESPN and The Atlantic. Why do you think your own story has been so difficult to tell? What has it been like to tell it?

JENISHA WATTS: In 2020, I was married, and then a year later, we had a son. And I think that when I became a mother, something inside of me changed. I think that a lot of it had to do with me grieving the OG Jenisha. Like, I just wasn’t that person anymore. I think with my mom, I realized that “Okay, you’re going to be a mom. So, you can’t call her up and complain to her about things she didn’t do for you [in] your childhood, because now you have a different person to protect.” I think that there’s just a lot of reflection in becoming a mother, and it’s something that had always been inside of me. It’s something that I’ve always got to work on and work through. And I just thought it was time. But mostly, it happened more in an organic way.

Originally, I was supposed to write an essay about me leaving Kentucky and moving to New York and being this country girl from Kentucky and just kind of fitting in in the Black elite world. But then I just kept getting pulled into my childhood, my mom in Kentucky. One of the editors kept saying, “You know, you should maybe meditate on that more.” And I was encouraged to think about it. I tried to write it for, like, six months, and bits and pieces would come up; sometimes at night, I would just wake up and have a moment. So, I’d just type the scene out on my phone. I would say it came from a combination of just being in a new stage in my life, and I credit a lot of it to being a new mom and being a mother.

AB: What do you hope that readers will take away from your story?

JW: It’s interesting because it — I guess, when I think about the impact, I think a lot of it is more so just facing the truth. One thing that someone once told me, they said, “Do the thing that makes you the most uncomfortable because if you do the thing that makes you the most uncomfortable, it forces you to use all your senses.” And I think in this instance, this essay was that. I experienced every type of emotion, and I went through so many different phases with this essay. And I think the biggest thing was that it was just uncomfortable. And I think that the more uncomfortable I was, the more I knew I had to write it or share it. And I think, perhaps, maybe the impact is just that I want people to know: Don’t be afraid to look in the mirror. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself those hard questions, to interrogate yourself and your experience.

I think the biggest thing is that I want people with the kind of backgrounds that I have to understand that there are possibilities for them. You don’t have to be a strict straight-A student either. Because I was average. I was average in high school. I was average in college. I’ve always kind of been average. But I worked really hard. I just want people that have my kind of background to know that you belong. You can have a mom who’s an addict and some dysfunctional family, but you still belong.

AB: When did you know you wanted to be in journalism?

JW: It’s funny because I still don’t look at myself as a writer. I think I identify more with being an editor than a writer. I feel like I can maybe do good reporting and tell a story, but I don’t look at myself as a writer. So, I think I have to get comfortable with that title. I think I’ve just always been a words person, or a person connected to stories and just working with words. But it’s always been in me. I knew I really wanted to do journalism when I found that it was actually professional, like it was something where you can literally ask people questions and get paid to do it.

I always tell people I’m so grateful to be able to work in journalism because I truly cannot imagine any other thing. Some people can have a plan B. I don’t know what else I could do. I just, I truly can’t. I don’t know what other job I can work in.

jenisha watts

The October 2023 cover of The Atlantic, featuring an illustration of Jenisha Watts.DIDIER VIODÉ/THE ATLANTIC

AB: How vital was it to have mentors and people you could reach out to and call on? How important was it? And how did you identify the people who were around you who could offer help?

JW: They were my lifeline. I didn’t have the family. So, I mean, I had family support, [but] not in the ways that, like, would mentor. So, I would say mentors were extremely important. I mean, I would not be where I am today if it was not for mentors. How did I pick them out? I think it was just more of just who I like. For example, Dr. Willam Turner at the University of Kentucky — he was a brilliant historian. And I do love learning about history. I love listening to him talk. He also had this confidence about him. So, I was just like, “Okay, I want to talk more to this person.” He was like a father I never had.

This was edited out of the story, but what I wrote about him in the story was “Dr. Turner was a no-nonsense man and a beautiful writer. He was an early supporter of me and saw something in me that at the time I was too blind to realize. He’d proofread my cover letters, articles, and résumés and email me back with feedback. He wrote me emails with encouraging messages: Get up earlier than the rest. Go to bed later than they do. Get to know the right people. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. He was a proud Black man who had three children and a great wife. In those years, I was desperate for a father figure.” And same thing with Nikky. I love Nikky Finney. When I was at the university, she was just so confident. She just knew words and had this quiet brilliance. I guess, maybe in some ways, it was like dating, like, who could you sit and listen to for hours? Who do you want to be around?

AB: Tell me about what it’s been like to work for The Atlantic and what it means to you.

JW: I think for the first year, every day I kept thinking like, “What am I doing here?” You know the writers, and you know the legacy and the history, and it is extremely intimidating. I guess the short answer is: I’m surprised. Like, I cannot believe it. I still have moments of where I am just overwhelmed. Just this morning, my sister Ebony said, “You know, they counted Trina’s kids out.” She said, “Look at you; you’re a senior editor at The Atlantic.” She said, “I know you never thought about that as a little girl. I know, you never dreamed of being a senior editor at The Atlantic.” And I was like, “You’re right.” I didn’t. I really didn’t.

AB: For all the other young women out there who are overcoming a family history that includes addiction, neglect, and even abuse, what is your one piece of advice? What do you want them to know?

JW: Don’t allow people to chip away at your spirit, and don’t chip away at your spirit yourself. What I mean by that is that when I think about my 20s, I just spent so much time beating myself up, and I just wish I would have been gentle with myself. You’ve got to give yourself grace. Sometimes when I’m in a tough situation, I literally would just hug myself and just say, “You know, it’s okay. If they walk away from you, if they abandon you, it’s okay. There are other people who love you.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Abigail Bassett is a full-time freelance journalist, content creator, and television, video, and podcast host whose work has appeared in publications like TechCrunch, Fast Company, Inc. Magazine, Forbes, Fortune, Motor Trend, Shondaland, Money Magazine, and on CNN. Her passion is telling unique stories that change the way we see, interact with, and relate to the world. She is also a Yoga Alliance Registered 500-hour yoga teacher.

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