Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

27161156Nonfiction – print. Harper, 2016. 263 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”, Vance recounts his childhood raised by an often deride segment of America — the “hillbilly”, Scots-Irish living in the Appalachia region of the United States. Vance’s mother — a nurse — struggled with drug addiction throughout his life, and that coupled with the constant cycle of stepfathers and boyfriends in Vance’s life meant he often took refuge in the home of his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw. This refuge provided a steadying hand for Vance; he would go on to graduate from Ohio State, receive a law degree from Yale, and reach the crux of the “American Dream”.

(Early on in his memoir, Vance explains how he’s never heard anyone outside his Scots-Irish community use the terms Mamaw and Papaw. My grandparents were originally from Oklahoma, but the very last birthday card I received from my grandmother is signed “Love Mamaw  and Papa”. I never used their chosen monikers, though, because none of my friends in Texas referred to their grandparents in this manner.)

In many ways, Vance’s Mamaw and Papaw achieved the American dream. They moved from Jackson, Kentucky — where both were raised in abject poverty — to Middletown, Ohio. Papaw worked a steady, unionized job at the factory in town, and the family were able to afford a home in a nicer neighborhood for their three children. Yet their “American Dream” wasn’t without its problems — Papaw was an alcoholic, domestic violence marked much of Mamaw and Papaw’s relationship, their daughter became a drug addict, their neighborhood in Ohio lost value after the factory began shedding jobs, etc.

“I remember sitting in that busy courtroom, with half a dozen other families all around, and thinking they looked just like us. The moms and dads and grandparents didn’t wear suits like lawyers and judges. They wore sweatpants and stretchy pants and T-shirts. Their hair was a bit frizzy. And it was the first time I noticed “TV accents” — the neutral accent that so many news anchors had. The social workers and the judge and the lawyer all had TV accents. None of us did. The people who ran the courthouse were different from us. The people subjected it to were not.” (pg. 79)

Vance places much of the blame for their setbacks on the fact that neither of them was able to leave their “hillybilly” roots behind. The guns and the violence and the drinking permeating the Scots-Irish culture (think Hatfields and McCoys) traveled across the border with them, and their adopted hometown became known as “Middletucky” because so many Kentuckians moved to Ohio for the same economic prospects that his grandparents relocated for. Except the best parts of their community — the extensive family networks, the social trust — failed to be reestablished in “Middletucky”, and Vance explains how he and his grandparents began to see themselves as “better”.

Not solely in the sense of the white-black racism that so permeates American culture, but in a sense of being better than their fellow working class Americans. Because at least Vance and his grandparents didn’t take welfare benefits. (Except they did.) And they didn’t rundown the neighborhood by allowing Section 8 voucher holders to rent from them. And they had jobs unlike, according to Vance, thirty percent of the young men in Middletown work fewer than twenty hours a week and aren’t aware of their own laziness.

“We began to view much of our fellow working class with mistrust. Most of us were struggling to get by, but we made do, worked hard, and hoped for a better life. But a large majority was content to live off the dole. Every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else.” (pg. 139)

This sense of being “better” builds a hatred of both the (white) neighbors and the federal government. Because if welfare didn’t exist, then the neighbor buying T-bone steaks wouldn’t be able to have more than Vance or Mamaw. Because if Section 8 housing didn’t exist, then Vance and his sister could have left their bicycles on the front porch. Because if hard work was the determinate for success, then the white, working class of Appalachia would be more successful than the coastal elites who dominate the political and economic spheres of America.

And that particular refrain is not new or revolutionary or groundbreaking; it’s something well-known to those of us who spent any time in the South or the Midwest. So, no, I did not take anything particularly new or revolutionary or groundbreaking away from reading this memoir. What I did find fascinating, though, was the way Vance’s memoir largely manages to fall in lockstep with the argument so often held up by Republican circles as to why black Americans are economically disadvantaged — the failure of the black community to police their own morality.

Take, for example, the issue of education. Vance was barely holding onto a 2.1 GPA by the time he moved in his grandparents during his sophomore year of high school, and he credits his grandmother purchasing a $180 calculator for him as the kick in the pants he needed to start investing in his own education because he needed to honor her sacrifice to put together that amount of money. Thus demonstrating that if only (grand)parent expressed an interest in their (grand)child’s education, they will success.

Yet he previously blamed his grades on his own lack of interest in school (a “moral” failing), the way he bounced around from one school to another following the collapse of his mother’s latest relationship (a “moral” failing), and the lack of resources afford the school district in Middletown (a governmental failing). And he explained how he didn’t feel prepared for college until the Marines — in other words, the government — taught him that he could achieve. So, despite his grandparents stepping in to police the morality in which he was being raised, he still needed government intervention to help him out.

Or, look at the way he addresses his mother’s drug problems and cycle of poor relationships. He explains how his sister and, to some degree, he have placed the blamed for their mother’s failings at her feet. But he also, at turns, blames her parents and their hillbilly culture for raising her without the example of a stable relationship, and both he and his grandparents tried to protect her from jail time or from losing custody of him. A level of empathy he tries to impart of his readers. At the same time, the African American community has been decimated by mass incarceration for similar crimes without any attempts of empathy for the experiences of those left behind.

Is it fair to take a memoir about life as a member of a specific segment of the American population and criticize it for failing to address the experiences of another segment of Americans? No, it’s not, and I fully recognize that fact. Yet, following the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, there was a rush among Americans — journalists, pundits, my own friends — to understand the white, working-class Americans who cast their votes for Trump. To try to create a narrative to explain why Trump won over the more experienced candidate despite the polls suggesting he would be soundly defeated.

And Vance’s memoir seemed to top all of the “Understanding the Trump Voter” book lists floating around post-election. People are turning to him and his experience to try and foster empathy for a group that voted for a man like Trump, and I do believe it’s important to understand why the Right feel the need to “take their country back” and vote against their own economic interests.

“President Obama came on the scene right as so many people in my community began to believe that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them. We know we’re not going well. We see it every day: in the obituaries for teenage kids that conspicuously omit the cause of death (reading between the lines: overdose), in the deadbeats we watch our daughters waste their time with. Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it — not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.” (pg. 191)

But readers must also be careful not to push the white, working class Scots-Irish into the same trap that the African American community has pushed into. To start to believe that if only government was smaller, if only communities were stronger, if only  white working class folks and black Americans worked harder and lived in stable relationships, then their lives would be better. Because there are systemic issues — lack of educational resources being a major one — affecting both communities that cannot be fixed by morality or a relationship with God alone. (On that particular note, Vance explains how his community claims to be more religious, but attends church far less than they claim in surveys.)

Interestingly, Vance says he worries the true message of his book — the difficulty of achieving the “American Dream” due to the compounding problems of poverty, lack of education, unstable home life, drug addiction — is lost when people try to use his book as a primer on “Trumpism”. His interview with Ezra Klein, which I listened to after finishing the book, expands more upon this and starts to pull his book away from the “if only you were more moral” trap as Vance does actually believe the US government should step in to assist with these problems. (In both the memoir and the interview, he doesn’t really know how or in what shape that assistance should take place.)

This “true message”, though, is an important one, and my critiques should not be taken as justification for passing on Vance’s memoir. It opens a window into a world that pundits, politicians, and “coastal elites” have shut for far too long but, please, look out that window without closing your eyes to the fact that some of the lessons from this memoir have already been put into action — work for welfare requirements, for example — and have not worked in alleviating poverty or opening the American dream to people of lower economic economics.

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