In the charming village of Odd, nestled 75 miles south of Charleston, West Virginia, an extraordinary family known as the Whittakers has led a life unlike any other. Their story, illuminated through the lens of documentary producer Mark Laita in a captivating 12-minute film on his YouTube channel, “Soft White Underbelly,” unveils the remarkable intricacies of their daily existence and the hurdles they navigate due to their distinctive genetic heritage.
The Whittaker clan, comprising Larry, Betty, Kenneth, Ray, Timmy, and Lorraine, have been leading a life secluded from the outside world, communicating in a language of grunts and barks, evading contact with the broader society. Their eccentric way of life has often drawn comparisons to the enigmatic characters from the 1972 thriller film “Deliverance.” Laita’s initial encounter with the Whittakers in 2004, as he sought to photograph them for his book, “Created Equal,” aimed to celebrate the diverse tapestry of cultures across the United States.
At the heart of their genetic complexities lies the fact that their parents were double first cousins, sharing both sets of grandparents. This unconventional familial bond has given rise to various behavioral idiosyncrasies, thoughtfully documented by Laita. Returning to the family in 2020, he delved deeper into their lives and subsequently embarked on the creation of a documentary, driven by a profound desire to share their unique story with the world.
In the latest installment, Brandon, a 20-year-old mine maintenance worker and an integral member of the Whittaker family, takes the spotlight to introduce his newfound son, Braxton, to the world. This heartwarming addition to the family marks a momentous event. Brandon’s revelation of an unnamed daughter adds layers of complexity to their intricate familial relationships.
Laita’s documentary not only unveils the Whittakers’ struggles but also captures poignant moments, such as great-grandmother Betty tenderly bouncing baby Braxton on her knee, all while smiles radiate. These intimate glimpses into their lives offer a richer, more nuanced perspective of the Whittakers, shattering the stereotypes that have long clung to their reclusive existence.
However, the documentary doesn’t shy away from portraying the challenging living conditions that the Whittaker family endures. Their cramped and humble abode in the impoverished village of Odd, West Virginia, is far from ideal. Sharing their living space with several animals underscores the daily hardships they confront.
While the documentary artfully portrays the family’s struggles, it also raises questions about the consequences of inbreeding. Discover Magazine notes that inbreeding can lead to a gamut of side effects, including diminished cognitive abilities, stunted growth, reduced lung function, and a heightened susceptibility to diseases. Remarkably, the Whittaker family members themselves did not initially connect their genetic issues to inbreeding.
In a bid to improve the living conditions of the Whittaker family, Mark Laita initiated a GoFundMe campaign in 2022, which has thus far amassed a generous sum of $46,433. Nonetheless, the documentary has not been without its critics, who argue that it treads the fine line of exploitation. They contend that it perpetuates stereotypes surrounding inbreeding in the Appalachian region, a burden that has plagued these communities for decades.
West Virginia, as one of the United States’ poorest states, faces its own share of challenges, and Odd, the Whittaker family’s home, boasts a population of just 800 residents. A staggering 17 percent of West Virginia’s 1.77 million inhabitants live in poverty, surpassing the national average. This glaring wealth disparity adds yet another layer of complexity to the struggles faced not only by the Whittaker family but also by countless others in their community.
In conclusion, the Whittaker family’s extraordinary journey serves as a poignant reminder of the multifaceted nature of their isolated existence and the hurdles they surmount due to their unique genetic heritage. Mark Laita’s documentary offers an intimate portrayal of their lives, prompting vital discussions about inbreeding and the imperative to support impoverished communities like Odd, West Virginia. While the documentary has faced its fair share of criticism, it underscores the importance of addressing the underlying challenges faced by families like the Whittakers, as we collectively strive toward their betterment.