Hillbilly Elegy


I was interested when I first heard of JD Vance, whose memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, records how he grew up. He is writing specifically about the Appalachian culture, most of it Scots/Irish, which has lived in the Appalachian mountains for two hundred years and migrated into the midwest in search of economic opportunity. It comprises a lot of people, but they generally feel like outsiders. Their culture is different from the more urban population of the midwest, and while some have been quite successful, many have not.
Early in the book Vance tells the story of a young man who gets a job because his girlfriend is pregnant. The employer wants to help, so he gives the girlfriend a job too–but regrets it. She calls in a couple of times a week and takes long breaks when she does come to work. He isn’t much better. Not as many call-ins, but frequent ones, and he takes long breaks too. Eventually, both get fired, and the young man asks how the employer could do that to him, since his girlfriend is pregnant. He has no idea he’s done anything wrong.
It’s a story that prompts a moralistic response: kids today aren’t responsible, they’re lazy, etc. That much is true, but there’s more to the story. Why AREN’T young people more responsible? Why are they lazy? Personally, I try to resist those interpretations, but to do that I need to understand what’s going on. That story is a lot of the reason Vance wrote this book.
His ancestors had lived in eastern Kentucky a long time. One of his relatives committed the murder that set off the Hatfield/McCoy feud, for instance. His own story starts with his grandparents, who decided rather suddenly to move to Ohio from Kentucky. His grandmother was fourteen at the time, and pregnant, and unmarried, which meant his grandmother’s brothers were likely to come after his grandfather (who eventually did marry the grandmother). They arrived first in Dayton, then moved to Middletown, about midway between Dayton and Cincinnati, where Vance’s grandfather got a job at an Armco factory making steel. He was able to earn enough to support his family, but there’s evidence that all was not well. Vance’s grandmother had a baby who lived six days, then had eight miscarriages in the first decade or so. Miscarriages are often caused by stress, and the grandmother had been used to being surrounded by family. In Ohio they felt isolated until they gradually began to make friends. That’s one difference between Appalachian culture and midwestern culture: the midwest has generally nuclear families who value privacy. Appalachian people are different. Appalachian people are most comfortable with family all around. And Vance’s grandfather was an alcoholic. That meant lots of fights and lots of stress.
Fights weren’t unusual in Appalachian culture. Vance says he heard them around his neighborhood all the time. They were loud and dramatic, and stressful. Two of his grandparents’ three children adjusted well to their surroundings and became successful adults. Vance’s mother was less successful.
She was a smart person, but gave birth shortly after graduating from high school. She took a break from school, but did eventually go on to get an associate degree in nursing, so she wasn’t entirely unsuccessful. But her private life was less so. She couldn’t manage to get into a stable relationship with a man, divorcing and remarrying, or acquiring a new boyfriend every few months. Vance says he thinks she was the most sensitive of the three siblings, and thus the most vulnerable. He also says that the thing he hated most about his childhood was instability: saying goodbye to one husband or boyfriend whom he might have liked, but his mother didn’t, then welcoming another into their lives, and eventually realizing that this one wouldn’t last either. With the relationship instability came frequent moves to different towns or different houses. He eventually just wanted to stay in one place with the same people. That eventually came about because his mother became addicted, first to alcohol, then to narcotics, which she stole from work. She eventually went into rehab, and Vance lived with his grandmother.
His grandmother, who hadn’t had the chance for education herself, definitely wanted it for him. She pushed him to do his schoolwork well, and the stability of knowing where he would be living for the foreseeable future encouraged him. Earlier, his mother had encouraged him to read (getting him a library card, and making sure there were always children’s books around), and his grandfather (who had died by the time he entered high school), had worked with him on arithmetic and then mathematics on a higher level. Vance had been discouraged when someone in his school brought up multiplication, and he didn’t know what it was. His grandfather showed him, and worked with him, giving him more confidence.
There’s a contrast between his family and other families he knew when growing up. His family was relatively successful, though poor. His uncle and aunt were both more successful than his mother, and even his mother had learned useful skills by which she could earn a living. His grandparents weren’t sophisticated, but they weren’t stupid either. But they all were affected by the climate of pessimism in their culture exemplified by the young man who lost the job with which he could have supported his girlfriend and their child.
That pessimism is characterized by a lack of belief one could control one’s life, and that there was any use striving. He says many of his friends began smoking marijuana in high school, and his grandmother wouldn’t let him see them, telling him if she caught him with any of them, she’d run them over with her car. Since family lore had her being interrupted when trying to kill a man who had tried to steal the family cow in Kentucky, he believed her. He had tried alcohol and marijuana, but then left them alone–because he was happy, he says. As his life became more stable, his grades improved, and he began thinking about college.
College was really unknown territory. No one in his family had gone to anything but community college. He decided he wanted to go to Ohio State, and was accepted there, but felt intimidated. He didn’t want to fail because of lack of discipline. One of his cousins told him he should consider joining the Marines, and suggested he talk to a recruiter. The recruiter told him he wouldn’t make much money, but would learn about leadership, and  that discipline was the primary thing being a Marine would give him. That turned out to be true.
Becoming a Marine put him in better physical shape, and taught him about a lot of things. He says the Marines assumed their recruits didn’t know how to do ANYTHING, and so made sure they were taught how. So they taught Vance to balance a checkbook, persuaded him that buying a BMW when making about $1000 a month wasn’t realistic, then made sure he wasn’t ripped off when he bought a more appropriate car. When he left the service he had become an outsider of a different sort: he was optimistic against a pessimistic cultural background. He believed he could work hard enough to attend to his studies and earn a living at the same time. He wasn’t totally realistic about that, and got very sick for awhile, then adjusted and paid more attention to living in a healthy way. In his last year of school he decided he wanted to go to law school, and was accepted at Yale Law School, arguably one of the best schools in the country. He hadn’t thought he could afford to go, but was told they had assistance for qualifying students, and did qualify. While in school he met his future wife and her family, and got a good job as he left the school.
He spent a lot of time trying to understand himself, his family, and his culture. When he was about fifteen he read The Truly Disadvantaged, by William Julius Wilson, who talked about migrant cultures that were vibrant but fragile. Such a culture could succeed in a place previously foreign, but if conditions changed there, they might be at worse risk than if they’d stayed in a more familiar place. He felt this was the first time he’d read a description of his own way of life. Ironically, Wilson was writing about black communities, not white ones. That’s an interesting point to reflect on.
Both black and white communities are composed of outsiders in the broader culture, whom other cultural groups have felt they had a right to look down on. One of the reasons for segregation was to prevent these two cultures from becoming allies, a point Vance doesn’t address in his book. But this, as he has said in other places, is one reason people from Appalachian culture are likely to support Donald Trump. Trump knows how to talk to people who have been looked down on by elites. In an interview, Vance said that he couldn’t support Trump himself, but understood why many of his family would, though they didn’t necessarily believe he’d do anything for them. Poor whites have had hard times for quite awhile, as much as poor blacks. They’re tired of promises that never get fulfilled. They, like other less than powerful communities in this country,  aren’t taken seriously. When Vance told his father he’d been accepted at Yale Law School, his father asked if he’d pretended to be black or Latino. When more minorities get accepted in such schools, it’s rarely whites from a wealthy background who are displaced, it’s poor whites.
Vance began running into cultural phenomena outside his experience, first in the Marines (he served in Iraq, but didn’t see combat), and then in college and law school. In all these places he lived with ethnicities he was unused to and cultural customs he hadn’t encountered before. He discovered there were opportunities he hadn’t been aware of that people would tell him about when he asked. He also discovered that his girlfriend (later to become his wife) and her family were very different from the people he was used to.
When he and his girlfriend argued he resorted to calling her names and saying terrible things to her, just like the arguments he’d witnessed and participated in with his family. Those arguments had been fight or flight ones: so much rode on them he was ready to run if he couldn’t get his way. His girlfriend insisted he talk to her and tell her what was wrong. When he visited her family he found they were NICER to each other than his family. They didn’t say terrible things about each other behind each other’s backs, and didn’t act as if they said nasty things in private either. In the book he says he hasn’t entirely learned the other way of talking to his (now) wife, but is working on it. He thinks there’s a terrible insecurity in himself (now less acute), his family, and his culture which prevents them from succeeding as they otherwise could.

He talks about problems experienced by his culture: because of family instability many people experience trauma, especially as children. Abuse of one sort or another, or simply witnessing family fights can be things that affect children for many years. But, he emphasizes, having a caring adult in the picture can make a big difference.
Maybe this somewhat explains some of why working class people in general are less successful: they talk about hard work, and believe they’re practicing it, but have been conditioned not to look objectively at their problems. A family and cultural ethos is never to expose problems to outsiders–understandable, but counter-productive if outsiders could help. An unwillingness to confront problems and desire to escape made his mother vulnerable to addiction. And she’s hardly alone in that population. Heroin is no longer solely urban; it’s become rural too, along with prescription drugs and alcohol, the comforters for lives hard to understand and stressful. With those problems (as well as lack of understanding how to conduct relationships) come broken families with children who don’t learn enough to be able to succeed. If Vance’s family was better than average, and he still didn’t know how to balance a checkbook or buy a car, what must other Appalachian (and other poor families) be like? He quotes a teacher as saying that many of the children they try to serve have been brought up to be wolves. They don’t fit in public schools. Where will they fit?
He also thinks of all the people who have helped him, and says that if any had failed to, he wouldn’t have succeeded. His grandparents were most important, but his sister, his cousins, uncles, and aunts all helped him. What happens to children who don’t have help?
The narrative that people are lazy isn’t untrue, but is hardly the whole story. How can such people be helped if they don’t know to apply themselves because their families are too chaotic to teach them? If they learn to apply themselves, how can they learn WHERE to apply themselves, and get into position to succeed? As Vance says, public policy, while important, can’t solve all these problems. Much of the solution belongs to individuals willing to help one person at a time.
And there’s little ethos in his community to analyze problems and devote one’s self to solving them. Some do, and earn successful lives, but struggle to do so. There are fewer easily obtainable jobs for unskilled people to support themselves and their families, many reject school (whether because their families are too chaotic to allow them peace in which to study, simple distaste, or lack of realistic alternatives to college), which closes possibilities for opportunities later. It’s easy for those of us who grew up in secure families to just dismiss such people.

Vance mentions an HBO special about Appalachian people in which a family patriarch talked about what kinds of work was appropriate for men, and what for women. It was unclear just what was appropriate for men, since he himself had never had a paying job. His son said it was their mother who had ensured they would survive.

On the other hand, Appalachian families enter into anxiety about Christmas, planning to spend immense amounts of money on presents, and often going deep into debt to do so. Vance was surprised to find that his wife’s family wasn’t concerned about spending large amounts of money on presents.

He concludes by saying that his culture won’t solve its problems by blaming elites represented by presidents or faceless corporations, but by individuals thinking about what they can do to improve things. Elites are part of the equation in the problems of poor people, but they can’t, by themselves, save anyone.  Better public policy could help, but is not enough alone. Vance says that wealthy people and businesses often give presents at Christmas, a pleasant thing to do which won’t help substantially. I think alcohol and heroin usually indicate that people feel hopeless. That may not be objectively true, but people often need help to be able to see it. And that takes much time and effort. That help probably comes best from within the culture, though people outside it may be able to help too. The problems just get more difficult when the economy is bad and there are fewer jobs for unskilled people, especially if they’re too discouraged to make much effort. The problems will continue for a lot of people for a long time, and a lot of communities. Unfortunately, many will probably be lost.

Vance emphasizes that he writes his memoir not because he thinks he’s accomplished anything fabulous, but because he could so easily have been lost. His message isn’t ideological. On one hand, he says that people in his community in particular (but the message includes others) need to make better choices. On the other, that people (emphatically including him) who succeed owe a lot to others, and thus need to repay them. He tries to help his mother, who continues to struggle with addiction, as well as young people, some of whom may already be lost. He says his culture doesn’t turn its back on family because they don’t love each other, but because some family members can cause craziness. If they don’t see people they love, it’s in order to survive. It would be easy to write off people we don’t identify with with horrifying problems, but few of us survived without any help at all. Vance remembers where he came from, and wants others to join him.


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