Hillbilly Elegy seemed to have garnered a lot of attention after it’s 2016 release as many people sought to find some explanation of how Trump had so much political support stemming from the Appalachian region. However, I think it is important to recognize that this isn’t some great sociological investigation or commentary; Vance is writing a memoir of his childhood and young adult years. He’s writing about his life and the people who both contributed and inhibited his growth, the opportunities and setbacks he encountered and what he believes to the reasons he has been able to make a life for himself.
Vance was essentially raised by his Mamaw (he writes it’s pronounced ma’am-maw) and Papaw in Middletown, Ohio in the 1980s, a place where troves of Kentucky Appalachian transplants relocated in the wake of massive recruitment by manufacturing companies seeking blue-collar workers. Mamaw and Papaw Vance, in Vance’s words were true Jackson County, Kentucky “hillbillies”– they abide by a set of societal norms of which defending the family’s honor is the singular most important rule. Vance’s memoir is filled with stories, some more legend than truth, of his Mamaw’s no bullshit attitude: when she caught some theives stealing her family’s cow, she took a shotgun and managed to hit one guy in the leg. She would’ve shot the downed thief again to kill him if not for her brother holding her back. Mamaw cussed, called people out on their mistakes and encouraged J.D. to beat up a school bully who would repeatedly beat up a scrawny classmate. J.D. clearly worshipped his grandmother. Vance’s mother, Mamaw’s second child, was largely absent in his life, moving from boyfriend to boyfriend, eventually falling into drug addiction. Vance’s father broke up with his mother a few months after he was born and started a new family of his own, living a conservative religious lifestyle after joining the Pentecostal Church. Vance’s grandparents and family from Kentucky believed in God but didn’t attend church (Vance comments that people from Appalachia think they go to church more than they do; apparently, the actual rate of church going is very close to the rate of church attendance in liberal San Fransisco). Vance’s older sister Lindsay was one of the only constants in his life, protecting him from their abusive mother and taking care of him when no one else did. He writes about ACEs or Adverse Childhood Experiences, a metric used by psychologists and social services to understand childhood trauma and the likely problems adults who experienced ACEs as children, will have. For example, if a child experiences parental separation or divorce, has a family member who abuses drugs or alcohol, has depression or is suicidal, all these different ACEs affect the child in profound ways, even altering brain chemistry for life. Adults who experienced ACEs, especially multiple ones, have higher rates of obesity, heart disease, psychological problems, substance abuse and even have problems maintaining normal relationships and holding down a job.
While Vance experienced multiple ACEs, he writes that he was able to “make it” because of people in his life: his Mamaw, who instilled in him importance of doing well in school and took him under her wing after Vance’s mother proved time and time again she was unable to provide for her son, his sister Lindsay who protected him during his childhood, his mentor (Amy Chua) in graduate school, various friends and his future wife, Usha. He also had the opportunity to enlist in the Marine Corps after high school and later enroll in college at Ohio State University with minimal debt thanks to need-based financial aid, Pell Grants and the GI Bill. Yale, where he attended Law School, also gave him essentially a free-ride; the irony being that it was cheaper to attend a private, out of state school than a public, in-state university. It is clear that Vance is grateful for the people in his life and the opportunities he had, but he feels that in addition to things happening to align for him, he also worked incredibly hard and sacrificed his fair share. He worked two jobs to support himself through college, sleeping less than four hours a night in order to graduate with minimal debt and a double major in just under two years. He worked for a remodeling company after college, lifting tiles in order to save up money for law school. His work ethic was what contributed to his success: while his peers from Middletown and Jackson County got caught up in adolescent parenthood, drugs and unemployment, Vance did the opposite, focusing in energies to excel in school and provide for himself. A obvious conservative, Vance believes that what set him apart from his peers and others in his community was not only having a few saving graces along the way like supportive relatives, but the fact he also worked to get where he wanted to go, instead of wallowing in excuses and self-pity.
This is where things get dicey. Many readers thought this attitude of “I worked hard, so should they” was pompous and completely neglected the systemic pressures Appalachians and other poor working whites face, including disappearing manufacturing jobs due to processes like globalization, trade wars and unchecked capitalism, the incredibly extractive coal and mining industries (which have also wreaked substantial environmental havoc), the overprescription of of opioids, contributing to the ensuing epidemic, the increasing political isolation, brain-drain, and a whole host of other issues Vance largely fails to address. Vance writes off these experiences as it’s just what happens when people make poor life decisions. Until young women stop having children with multiple men, people decide to work hard at their job, stop taking drugs, start working hard in school, things will continue to deteriorate, all at the expense of the next generation of children. Vance writes of many neighbors who were those stereotypical “welfare queens”: each of her children have a different father, she’s addicted to drugs, has a new boyfriend every month, she uses her food stamps to get food, then sells it for cash to fund her drug habits. He writes of his co-worker with a pregnant girlfriend coming in perpetually late to work, taking extensive bathroom breaks, who slacks. After multiple warnings, his boss fires the guy who later complains that it isn’t his fault he got fired and that it was unfair as he has a child on the way. Vance writes that there are so many people who completely neglect the opportunities right in front of them. You can’t help people until they help themselves. It’s not a policy problem, Vance argues, but a mindset problem. Poor working whites have created a construct in which they are the victims.
I can see why this rubs people the wrong way, but I think it’s important to understand this is a memoir of Vance’s life. Take his work for what it is, rather than critique his take on social policy. Vance is not a sociologist trying to understand why people are they why they are. I think he is very brave in writing about his family history and putting it out there for strangers to read. There are too few narratives of what upward mobility and the accompanying challenges are like for everyday Americans and his story should be read with empathy and compassion though admittedly he veers into dangerous territory when he writes about Appalachians as a whole, rather than his own experience. Vance was in his early 30s when the book was released; it would be interesting to see if he writes another part to his memoir some decades later and if his attitudes and beliefs change at all in the future.