“Hillbilly Elegy” is subtitled ‘A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis’. J D Vance admits that, on the face of it, he’s not a celebrity, not achieved anything particularly significant and finds it “somewhat absurd” that this book exists. But this is one of J D Vance’s survival mechanisms – this shrugging off and playing down of achievements is part of the same dissonance that helps some survive trauma. What makes “Hillbilly Elegy” a compelling read isn’t just the writing skills learnt as an editor of “The Yale Law Journal” or his honesty, but also his ability to step out of his personal situation and place it in a wider context.
In a nutshell, J D Vance was born in Middletown, Ohio but spent most of his summers in his grandparent’s birthplace of Jackson, Kentucky. After graduating from school, he joined the army for a tour of Iraq before studying law at Yale where he met his wife and now lives amongst the middle-classes in Cincinnati. Like many, his grandparents had moved north in search of work. Armco, like other steel companies, encouraged employees to recommend family members. However, after a hurried marriage, not all family members moved with the grandparents so there were frequent visits back to Jackson, not the best way of setting down roots in Middletown. There were three children, a son and then a ten year gap before two daughters. During that ten year gap there were several miscarriages, thought to be a result of the constant arguments between the grandparents often provoked by the grandfather’s drinking problem and the grandmother’s frustration, instead of pursuing her dream she stuck with being a housewife and mother. In turn, not helped by family loyalty being uppermost and a belief that outsiders should not know what happened behind closed doors. Whilst two of the children seemed to shrug off the arguments, one daughter, J D Vance’s mother didn’t. She become a pregnant teenager in a short-lived marriage and then married again quickly into another short-lived marriage, leaving her a single mother to two children, Lindsay and J D.
Despite the revolving door of stepfathers, grandmother or Mamaw, remained a constant in Lindsay and J D’s lives. She urged both to study and do well. Grandfather helped J D with maths homework. J D acknowledges his grandmother’s consistency and support enabled him to turn around his school grades and realise he could aim higher than a job at Armco. Even though by this time, jobs at Armco were scarce, most teenagers in Middletown had a relative who still worked there and there was an assumption they would work there too. There was a collective denial about the decline of the manufacturing industry. Needing money and lacking confidence, J D deferred applying to college and joined the Marines. One key lesson from the Marines was that, if you failed at something, you simply tried again instead of quitting. Another crucial lesson was finance: he figured out that, as a poor student, he was better off applying for an Ivy League university than a hometown one. At Yale, he felt impostor syndrome and it took a professor to challenge his application for a clerkship to realise that he didn’t have to push so hard and could opt for a more appropriate route. The culture at Yale took some adjusting to: not just figuring out which utensil to use at a networking event in a restaurant, but also overcoming the urge to stay behind and help clear up. Networking was novel too: undergraduates didn’t apply for jobs but went to cocktail event and dinners to meet potential employers. Other students would lean on a family contact to open a door, which wasn’t an option J D had and he marveled at the confidence and lack of hesitancy others had in simply asking.
Alongside his story are insights into the attitudes of he society he grew up in. J D Vance’s chaotic family home wasn’t unusual. He and his sister scored 6 on the scale of adverse childhood experiences such as being humiliated by parents, feeling a lack of familial support, having parent who are separated or divorced, living with an addict, living with someone who is depressed and watching someone be physically abused. Both married spouses who scored 0. During a temporary job in a store, J D Vance witnessed people on food stamps buy soda in bulk to sell off later and noticed that these same people rarely bought fresh food. Children lost their baby teeth to “Mountain Dew Mouth” where sugared drinks were put in baby’s bottles (Mamaw intervened to prevent J D’s mother putting Coke in his bottle) and then later lost their adult teeth in fights or to a poor diet. Those in Middletown who were in work resented those out of work and on food stamps who seemed to be playing the system and doing better. Those out of work would say that welfare should be for the deserving poor who would work if there were jobs available and that work was the way out of poverty, whilst conveniently ignoring their own situation. In another temporary job, J D Vance witnessed a nineteen year old and his pregnant girlfriend get offered jobs in a warehouse. The girlfriend worked in the office when she actually turned up – in a five day week, she might make it in on three days and never gave notice or reason for absence. The boyfriend was invariably late and took lengthy bathroom breaks. After a serious of warnings, both were sacked and the boyfriend complained, asking how the employers, who knew their circumstances, could sack them.
In conclusion, there is a discussion about how the problems of those living in poverty and without work can be solved. He doesn’t see it as a problem that can be solved without a profound shift in hillbilly culture. There’s not much point in creating jobs if, like the nineteen year old and his girlfriend, people can’t be bothered to turn up and work. There’s not a lot of point in expecting children with no working adult in their household to have aspirations to get a good college degree, although putting poor children alongside middle-class children in schools, raises expectations in poor children, that can’t be achieved if the middle-classes have deserted places like Middletown. One thing the American government could help with is to redefine a family to include aunts, uncles and grandparents. J D Vance argues if his grandmother could have fostered him, he would have had less chaos in his background, but instead he was left dreading social workers getting involved because his grandmother would not be recognised as a potential fosterer and he’d have been shipped out to strangers. His chief argument is that hillbilly families need to take a long hard look at themselves and accept that chaotic backgrounds and parental addictions harms children and the state of denial where all problems are someone’s else’s fault is a trap of their own making.
These conclusions are compelling argued in non-legalese. J D Vance uses language to communicate, not obfuscate and his vocabulary is engaging. “Hillbilly Elegy” is both a successful memoir and a social history of growing up in the 1980s. It’s also proof you don’t have to be a celebrity or prize-winner to be interesting.