The cackling of one inbred family sounds like a caricature from the most unpleasant of rural cult films. By photographing the Whittakers, “America’s most inbred family,” whose members grunt and growl at strangers instead of speaking, one photographer established that such societies actually exist.
Mark Laita, a 63-year-old documentary filmmaker, remembered the incident on the Konkrete podcast. “It was out of control – the weirdest thing I’d ever seen,” he said. He was recalling his first meeting with the Whittakers, a family that lives in the small, close-knit community of Odd, West Virginia. The town has a population of about 779.
After originally meeting the notoriously incestuous family in 2009 for his book “Made Equal,” Laita went back for an unplanned reunion with them just last year.
His podcast “Soft White Underbelly,” which focuses on “interviews and portraits of the human condition,” has 4.56 million YouTube followers, and he uses it to routinely document this underreported part of Appalachia.
After their brother Freddie passed away from a heart attack, the Whittakers are now a close-knit group consisting of Betty, Lorraine, and Ray, plus their cousin Timmy. Laita may have never met her sister or other relatives, but she was told they existed. Only Timmy, the eldest of the three surviving relatives, has a high school diploma.
The shotgun-wielding neighbour confronted the camera-toting storyteller and threatened to use it if the production crew didn’t leave them alone during the raconteur’s flagship visit. Laita was first suspiciously barred from taking photographs, but she was finally given permission. “They don’t appreciate people coming to criticise these individuals,” she added.
Using the James Dickey novel as a comparison, Laita said that the scene was reminiscent of the Oscar-nominated, terrifying 1972 picture Deliverance, directed by John Boorman and about duelling banjo mountain folk.
The bewildered recorder remarked, “There are these people strolling about, and their eyes are darting in all directions, and they are barking at us.” “There was this one guy who, if you so much as looked him in the eye or spoke to him, he’d scream and run away, his pants falling to his ankles as he kicked the nearest rubbish can. Repeatedly, this would be the case.
The family is shown on the front porch of their dilapidated house, with their things strewn about like a picture from the Dust Bowl, in accompanying footage from a visit in the year 2021. While the three siblings’ now-deceased parents were brothers and sisters, the West Virginia family has a long and tangled history of inbreeding.
The grandparents of these people are both sets of their first cousins once removed. Laita’s recordings on his podcast show that keeping everything in the family led to a variety of mental and physical abnormalities, with some family members communicating solely through grunts and squawks.
The Whittakers appeared to understand the photographer’s questions despite their limited ability to communicate. A family member assured Laita, “They understand what you talking about.” They will “start shouting” if they don’t like anything to make their displeasure known.
A central repository of “expert-created educational content,” inbreeding has been linked to negative outcomes like diminished adult size and fertility as well as an upped risk of developing genetic illnesses.
Rarely, it can cause skin the colour of sapphire, as in the case of the infamous Blue Fugates of Kentucky’s Troublesome Creek. The Whittakers didn’t appear to realise that inbreeding had caused their genetic problems. When the portraitist asked Kenneth, a family member, why no one was looking at him directly, he said, “could be coal mining.”
It’s understandable if Laita’s series makes you feel like you’re watching a funfair freak show. The Real Appalachia YouTube channel’s Melody West and Shane Simmons recently claimed that the documentary is responsible for spreading a “stereotype” about Appalachians that has been around for “decades.”
Laita, who has shot ads for companies like Nike and Apple, stated on Konkrete that he did so to demonstrate the “degree of poverty” the Whittakers experienced.
In order to assist the West Virginian family “with living expenses and home upgrades,” the photographer has started a GoFundMe page. Fundraising has reached over 50% of the $75,000 target.
Ray is shown giving the photographer a Cribs-style tour of their freshly remodelled home in 2022, which features a refrigerator, bed with a box spring, and other luxuries thanks to the fundraising efforts. The video was filmed during Laita’s most recent visit.
Ray squeals with glee as he shows Laita the dent in their brand new truck caused by a collision with a deer. For example, Laita has stated that one of his ultimate goals is to bring attention to problems in under-reported regions of the country.
He elaborated, “People can argue that folks in Appalachia are enjoying these lovely lifestyles, leave them be. They could get a lot more help from the government or corporations or anything, so that people aren’t forced to do things like dig up roots in the dead of winter or climb mountains to make ends meet on less than $10,000 a year.