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'Mothertrucker’ Author: Gabby Petito tragedy is one of countless stories in America’s epidemic of intimate partner violence

A headshot of author Amy Butcher on the left, and the book cover for Mothertrucker featuring dark mountains and the Northern Lights on the right.
Amy Butcher
A Little Books
Amy Butcher is the author of MotherTrucker.

The horrifying news update on Gabby Petito – the cross-country traveler who was found strangled to death in a remote corner of Wyoming – became a national fixation and garnered worldwide media attention. But with Amy Butcher, author of a new memoir Mothertrucker, it quickly becomes very personal. When Butcher was in her twenties, she too toured the American West with her partner.

“One evening, my partner became enraged suddenly and uncontrollably,” wrote Butcher in a recent column titled, “I know All Too Well How a Lovely Relationship Can Descend Into Abuse,” for The New York Times. “I didn’t tell anyone about it then because I was embarrassed that the person I loved was someone who could be so cruel to me.”

Butcher weaves her own story with that of Joy, a rural Alaska truck driver with the handle “Mothertrucker,” in a new book out this month. The subtitle is “Finding Joy on the loneliest road in America.” Just prior to her book’s release, Butcher visits with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about intimate partner violence, Petito and Joy, the woman remembered as Mothertrucker.

“I imagine goodness … imagine mercy as if a coat I can slip on, I imagine wearing it everywhere, I imagine wearing it in a house where I don't feel threatened by a man's anger.”
Amy Butcher in Mothertrucker

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I'm George Prentice.  A new book, certain to be one of the most talked about of the season, has a subtitle that reads “Finding Joy on the Loneliest Road in America.” “Joy” is not just an experience. Joy is the birth name of the woman whose handle was MotherTrucker.  And “MotherTrucker” is the title of a book that you will not soon forget; and Amy Butcher is the author. Ms. Butcher. Good morning.

AMY BUTCHER: Good morning. Thank you so much for having me.

PRENTICE: May I call you, Amy?

BUTCHER: Please, please do.

PRENTICE: MotherTrucker: a good part of your book takes us to the Dalton Highway of Alaska. It runs from Fairbanks north to the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay. So, tell our listeners about that infamous stretch of road.

BUTCHER: So, when I began this book, I really had no idea what the Dalton Highway was like. All I knew was that it was essentially 414 miles. It is unlike any other road in America, in the sense that it really has no barriers, no shoulders. There are no police; there are no lines. There is… It's really a rural road that cuts through one of the wildest parts of America. And it has been called the loneliest road in America, the most isolated road in America and the deadliest road in America. And it was for these reasons I was really interested about the men and women whose work takes them on that road several times weekly.

PRENTICE: And the woman is Joy. Tell us about Joy…. and the light that she spread… in the darkest of places, including this highway.

BUTCHER: Well, I found Joy, as these things so often go these days, on social media. She came to me on Instagram. I found her account one day just while using the “discovery” tab and immediately felt drawn to her. Joy was the only female Ice Road haul driver, which means that she was the only woman driving an 18-wheeler on this highway. The industry is comprised of hundreds, if not thousands, of men. And many women drive pilot cars, which are essentially pickups that go ahead of big loads and warn oncoming traffic of this expansive vehicle… this truck hauling materials behind them. But Joy was the only female driver in an 18-wheeler… and so I found her Instagram account, and was really taken by all of these photos of this essentially very smiley, petite small woman… in this incredibly desolate and dangerous landscape and in this industry comprised of men.

PRENTICE: And danger does define, very much, not only her surroundings but her life, and, to a degree, yours.  And you weave into this story, your own with a man identified as Dave.  And I want to quote something here: “Dave is lovely…, mostly…, but when he isn't lovely, I feel terrified, stripped of all the strength I feel I have and all of the realms -professional and personal - that extends beyond him and our relationship.” And you chronicle instances where your partner, in a flash becomes livid, enraged and violent. So, this is a fairly amazing narrative of Joy.  But along with it, is your story all within this frame…this epidemic of violence within intimate relationships. Goodness knows you're a writer by trade. My sense is… tell me if I'm wrong… that you needed to write this.  Because goodness knows I needed to read this.

BUTCHER: Well, thank you. That's incredibly important and kind of you to say. When I began writing this project, I really considered it a book about Joy on the highway exclusively. I couldn't see any path forward of any role that I would play in the larger narrative, in the sense that I really was out of my element in every single way or so I thought. But the larger… you're absolutely right… the larger impetus for flying to Alaska and wanting to shadow and profile this dynamic woman was… I was in a relationship at the time that I was so far unwilling to call abusive, because it didn't fit the initial framework that I thought abusive relationships fit. Which is to say…I called this relationship toxic. I called it unhealthy. I commented frequently to friends that I, at times, feared him, but I really wasn't yet using that term abusive. I largely wanted to profile this woman because she seemed to evidence strength in all of the ways that I felt at the time that I lacked. But of course, I had no idea that Joy herself was also struggling in an abusive… not one, but two abusive partnerships: a marriage to her first husband and a marriage to her second husband, which she was still in at the time that I met her. But as so often is the case, Joy committed to that highway, and committed to that work because it provided her a sense of security and stability should she need to for her safety and well-being… leave the marriage, and be able to support herself and her dependent daughter.

PRENTICE: I'm going to ask you to read a brief passage of MotherTrucker… and for the record, for our listeners,  you don't know what passage I've chosen. I'm going to ask you to turn to Page 178 of your book… about two thirds of the way down the page. There's a paragraph that begins with the words “I imagine…”. Could you read that paragraph aloud for us?


“I imagine goodness… imagine mercy as if a coat I can slip on, I imagine wearing it everywhere, I imagine wearing it in a house where I don't feel threatened by a man's anger.”

PRENTICE: “Imagine.”  That’s a pretty powerful word. Is that reality? Is that a possibility for you… and the women and the men who live in the shadows?

BUTCHER: I think in our current state of affairs in America, George… absolutely not. As I began writing this book, I really knew very little about intimate partner violence. As I mentioned, I was even unaware of the fact that my own relationship was abusive in a myriad of ways. The rates, however, are generally reported to be 1-in-4 women will experience in their lifetime severe intimate partner violence and 1-in-9 men. And the rate is much higher for LGBTQ individuals as well. And so, I think at the forefront of my mind these past few weeks has been the case of Gabby Petito, the young woman who was murdered in Grand Teton National Park, and very likely allegedly by her boyfriend and fiance’ at the time, Brian Laundrie. And I know that's been at the forefront… and also at the forefront, and rightfully so are the many thousands of missing and women of color…Indigenous women specifically. And so, writing this book, I really grappled with the fact that ultimately I am a white woman. Joy was a white woman.  And our narratives are so often sort of at the forefront of American consciousness… and news coverage and media as well. But it was something that I was really cognizant of and thinking about, especially set against the larger landscape of Alaska. This land… the Dalton Highway, in particular, cuts through Indigenous land. And these are the women that are predominantly affected by the high rates of intimate partner violence, especially in the state of Alaska, which consistently has the highest rate of domestic violence than anywhere in the country.

PRENTICE: We're talking with Amy Butcher, author of the new book MotherTrucker. Do you have a sense of where this disease lurks?  Where it stems from?  It’s in our history, Goodness knows it crosses cultural lines. Is it mental illness? Is it acquiescence? Is salvation beyond our reach?

BUTCHER: That's a really fantastic question. And I think like most things… like all things, it's incredibly complicated. In the book…in earlier iterations, I was really cognizant of what I feel is sort of a culture of fear that is perpetuated against women. And I also was really critical of what I feel is this trend that we raise young women from a very early age to assume roles as caretakers and nurturers. And this was certainly something that came up in conversations with Joy. This sense that, in many ways, our  culture insists that it is a woman's job to care for….. Joy and I sort of “termed the broken man” or “the man who does not have the healthy coping mechanisms to express his anger, his frustration, his grief, et cetera”. So, I think there are a lot of things that contribute to it. But for the purpose in writing the book, I was certainly aware of the way in which both Joy and I felt pressure from society and even more intimately from friends and family. But in some way it is the responsibility of women to stick it out and to endure sort of a man's violent behavior, abusive behavior so long as it doesn't escalate to a point. I brought up sort of this idea of a hierarchy of abuse in which really only the most extreme cases warrant leaving. I think we're easily sort of pacified with instances of emotional or verbal or even financial abuse. The idea that it could be so much worse. And so, I'm critical of that in the book, and Joy was certainly critical of that in her own life.

PRENTICE: And the name of the book is MotherTrucker. It's just out. If you're waiting for it on order, you should find an op-ed, recently published in The New York Times and written by Amy Butcher. It is titled “I Know All Too Well How a Lovely Relationship Can Descend Into Abuse.” I found this book dangerous… and truthful/// and even beautiful all at once/  And for that, congratulations. It is a rare piece of nonfiction. I'm grateful for your time.  And have yourself a really good rest of your morning.

BUTCHER: Thank you so much, George. I so appreciate you reading.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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