J. D. Vance. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. HarperCollins Kindle Edition, 2016.
First, I want to express my discomfort with the word “hillbilly,” a word I have rarely spoken. For many, it is a derogatory term. Vance uses it because that’s the way his family described themselves, but I will use the quotation marks to indicate that it is his term, not mine.
J. D. Vance is a young man who overcame a troubled family history to graduate from Ohio State and Yale Law School. He says that he still identifies with the people he grew up with, “the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition–their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times.” The story of such people is a story of generations of economic hardship, considerable upward mobility during the booming manufacturing economy after World War II, but a return of hard times for those displaced by the recent loss of manufacturing jobs.
This is not, however, primarily a book about economics. It is a book about the “hillbilly” culture that often gets in the way of personal achievement. Vance sees it as “a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” Vance found that he had to overcome many of the self-defeating attitudes and behavior patterns he encountered among his own friends and relations. Fortunately he got some more positive messages too, messages about working hard and doing well in school, especially from his grandparents. They had gotten out and moved up themselves during the postwar boom, although they continued to lead troubled lives in many ways.
Vance says that he always thought of Jackson, Kentucky, where his great-grandmother lived, as his home, although he was born and raised in Middletown, Ohio. His grandparents, always referred to as Mamaw and Papaw, moved to Ohio “at the tender ages of fourteen and seventeen,” forming a hasty union as a result of teenage pregnancy. They joined a massive migration out of Appalachia to the industrializing cities, a migration Vance describes as spreading the “hillbilly” culture as well as the people. Papaw got a job at a steel company and provided a good income. The first baby lived only a few days, but the couple had three more, the second of whom was J. D.’s mother Bev. The marriage became increasingly troubled, however. Vance describes his grandfather as a violent drunk, and his grandmother as a socially isolated violent non-drunk.
Vance describes his mother Bev as a good student, but she chose marriage over college when she became pregnant at eighteen. She went on to have five failed marriages and a serious drug problem. Vance says that what he hated most about his childhood was “the revolving door of father figures.” He was born in 1984, a product of his mother’s second marriage, which lasted only a couple of years. He was later adopted by his mother’s third husband. After that marriage ended too, his mother became more erratic in her behavior, more drug-dependent, and sometimes abusive. J. D. began to live much of the time with his grandparents, who still lived close by, although they too were separated. “Mamaw told me that if Mom had a problem with the arrangement, she could talk to the barrel of Mamaw’s gun.”
Vance also relied heavily on his older half-sister Lindsey, whom he describes as the person he has been proudest to know. As their mother’s parenting deteriorated, Lindsey assumed a more adult-like role, and went on to have a successful marriage. After she moved out, J. D. lived for a time with his biological father, who had remarried. Then he came back to live with his mother and her latest husband. When that marriage ended, he spent the last two years of high school living with Mamaw exclusively. That’s what he says turned his life around. During that time he showed dramatic improvement at school, both academically and behaviorally, for which he gives Mamaw much of the credit.
After finishing high school, Vance entered the Marine Corps, which “taught me how to live like an adult.” The Marines assumed that everyone needed to learn basic things like personal hygiene and how to balance a checkbook. By the time he left, he had risen to the position of media relations officer for a large military base. After the Marines, he attended Ohio State and Yale Law School. Because he was poor, Yale gave him a substantial financial aid package. He was the first person in his nuclear family to go to college and the first in his extended family to go to professional school.
At Yale, Vance had the good fortune to meet, and later marry, a law student from a much more stable background. Here he uses a standard list of “adverse childhood events” (ACEs), to make the point. They include things like parental divorce, drug abuse, domestic violence, depression and suicide. Vance had six ACEs in his background, while his partner had none. While his basic approach to relationship issues was fight or flight–attack or run away–he learned from her how to stay and talk problems through. Here is Vance’s rather caustic summary of what he had learned about conflict resolution in his childhood:
Never speak at a reasonable volume when screaming will do; if the fight gets a little too intense, it’s okay to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t hit first; always express your feelings in a way that’s insulting and hurtful to your partner; if all else fails, take the kids and the dog to a local motel, and don’t tell your spouse where to find you— if he or she knows where the children are, he or she won’t worry as much, and your departure won’t be as effective.
As such comments make clear, the book is not just an autobiography, but a critique of “hillbilly” culture. My next post will go more deeply into that critique.