“Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance

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March 3, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy” has been on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks. The author is a 31 year old Yale law school graduate who grew up in “Rust Belt” Ohio, but whose roots are from Appalachian Kentucky. He explains the culture and circumstances of poor working class whites. As he puts it, “Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family”. The book was published earlier in 2016, but has gained much more attention since November’s election.

Our Lady Docs group recently had a book club meeting centering around this memoir. The impetus to reading it was to understand the despair in this area. However, I found the book compelling on a more personal level. Vance struggles through his family’s poverty, addiction and abuse. He has multiple “father figures” due to his mother’s boyfriends and ends up moving from place to place. His mother suffers from addiction and he both tries to help her and at the same time distance himself from her.

I am a sucker for memoirs of people who have had difficult childhoods and have ultimately succeeded. The author strikes me as a very open and loving person. He feels very deeply for the people in his life, even when they let him down. He is also very grateful for those who protected him, such as his sister and his grandparents, even though they couldn’t make everything in his life perfect.

This book, started as a project at Yale Law School, serves both as self examination and as an examination of hillbilly culture. While it is interesting as a description of a group of people who suffer from under or un-employment and addiction and who have lost hope, there are not many answers in its pages. Vance describes what it took to help him grow up and adapt to a culture outside of his home community and how he handles the psychological damage from his childhood. As he says, “I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.” I think on some level any of us who has had a traumatic childhood or who has been expected to succeed in a culture that is new to us, can relate to Vance’s journey.

We started our book group with a list of questions but veered off after question 1. Have you lived in the Midwest or the south? Have you lived in a city/town/state where the economic opportunities are disappearing? A surprising number of us have lived in the Midwest or the south and in very small towns and many have noted the decreased economic opportunities in our home towns. But, we have moved out and moved on. And so, much of the rest of the discussion focused on somewhat unanswerable questions such as what makes some people able to escape poverty and addiction and others succumb? How can we as private citizens help these people and how can the government help?

One common thread we shared with JD Vance was that those who succeeded in moving on had a cheerleader – either in their oppressive home situation or in their new environment where they settled. For Vance it was his grandmother who, although she had her own previous struggles with addiction, was relentless in making Vance understand the importance of a good education and his own responsibility for his future. We also realized that we’re so fortunate in our current positions and discussed our potential to help others, through mentoring programs, for example.

One thing that Vance noted is that these communities are very wary of outsiders. They are also very pessimistic about their future and lack the ’social capital’ of adults in their life who can guide them to a better life. He was one of the rare ones to succeed. His grandparents emphasized education and gave him a stable home through most of high school. The marines gave him structure and educated him about nutrition and finance, among other things. He states that even as a child he knew that there were two sets of values in his society: “My grandparents embodied one type: old fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.”

Vance gives explanations, not excuses for his friends, family and neighbors. This book elucidates how the opportunity gaps and the gaps between rich and poor, which have grown in the past few decades, have contributed to the “learned helplessness” of this demographic. He describes the breakdown in trust between neighbors due to addiction and lack of community, including a decrease in church attendance. He sets a good example by neither rejecting people, as none of us is perfect, nor excusing them from partial responsibility for their circumstances.

Vance’s book is worth reading, both for his remarkable story and his perspective about this area’s culture and I would highly recommend it.