/ 4-stars

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

GoodReads: 4 stars

J.D. Vance got the timing just right on this one. The entire liberal establishment is scrambling to figure out how Trump won the election and "Hillbilly Elegy" offers a coherent, empathetic, and deeply personal narrative about who some of these Trump voters are and what their lives are like. Anyone wondering why Trump won should read this book.

As a Kentuckian and a Yalie myself, I'm more familiar than most with the two worlds that Vance writes about. I was born and raised on the fringes of true hillbilly territory (in Louisville, which voted for Hillary). My mother's mother's family came over from Ireland and my mom was the first in her family to go to college. The hillbilly phrases ("too big for your britches!") peppered throughout Vance's narrative brought back fond memories of my childhood. The importance of family loyalty was a constant presence as well - "You never talk about family to some stranger. Never." "Hillbilly Elegy" gave me a fresh perspective and a framework for thinking about some aspects of the culture I grew up in.

On the other hand, me, my dad, and his dad all went to Yale. My experience growing up was completely different than Vance's - married parents, a stable home, no violence or substance abuse, and no financial struggles. Vance shocked me with the poverty and desperation that exist just an hour's drive from where I grew up. I had always known that things were rough in the hills, but I had no idea quite how tough things really were. Mountain Dew mouth - for real? The rough justice and extralegal violence that were constantly present in Vance's life astonished me. I was also struck by his observations on the deep pessimism of hillbilly culture - their lives haven't been getting better and kids are often worse-off than their parents.

His chapters on his time at Yale Law made for fascinating reading. When I was there, I too noticed that "for all of the Ivy League’s obsession with diversity, virtually everyone — black, white, Jewish, Muslim, whatever — comes from intact families who never worry about money." Vance's observations on the social signaling rituals of the upper class startled me with their clarity and obviousness, but I hadn't really noticed this game-within-a-game before. The professional world disqualifies vast parts of the population before they even have a chance. Side note: I found his glowing description of Amy Chua's mentorship sharply at odds with the general public view of her.

In the end, Vance says that his fellow hillbillies have to take responsibility for solving their own problems without the help of the government. While Vance makes a criticism of hillbilly culture and mindset, I was struck by his community's lack of values-instilling institutions - plummeting church attendance, failing schools, lack of civic institutions, etc. I was also surprised that he brushes the usual macro-economic excuses aside too - and his anecdotes about young, able-bodied men getting fired from job after job for sheer laziness was pretty jarring. I'm not sure he's wrong, although I don't think globalization and the hollowing out of industrial America has done the hillbillies any favors either.

Worth a read - certainly useful for humanizing the faceless Trump voters that everyone seems to be wondering about.


Introduction

I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition—their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.

It was Greater Appalachia’s political reorientation from Democrat to Republican that redefined American politics after Nixon.

You can’t ignore stories like this when you talk about equal opportunity. Nobel-winning economists worry about the decline of the industrial Midwest and the hollowing out of the economic core of working whites. What they mean is that manufacturing jobs have gone overseas and middle-class jobs are harder to come by for people without college degrees. Fair enough — I worry about those things, too. But this book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.

The problems that I saw at the tile warehouse run far deeper than macroeconomic trends and policy. Too many young men immune to hard work. Good jobs impossible to fill for any length of time. And a young man with every reason to work—a wife-to-be to support and a baby on the way—carelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance. More troublingly, when it was all over, he thought something had been done to him. There is a lack of agency here — a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.

This book is not an academic study. In the past few years, William Julius Wilson, Charles Murray, Robert Putnam, and Raj Chetty have authored compelling, well-researched tracts demonstrating that upward mobility fell off in the 1970s and never really recovered, that some regions have fared much worse than others (shocker: Appalachia and the Rust Belt score poorly), and that many of the phenomena I saw in my own life exist across society.

My primary aim is to tell a true story about what that problem feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck.

For there are no villains in this story. There’s just a ragtag band of hillbillies struggling to find their way — both for their sake and, by the grace of God, for mine.

Chapter 1

She loathed disloyalty, and there was no greater disloyalty than class betrayal.

Some people may conclude that I come from a clan of lunatics. But the stories made me feel like hillbilly royalty, because these were classic good-versus-evil stories, and my people were on the right side. My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of something — defending a sister’s honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes. The Blanton men, like the tomboy Blanton sister whom I called Mamaw, were enforcers of hillbilly justice, and to me, that was the very best kind.

Their paper suggests that hillbillies learn from an early age to deal with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them, or by pretending better truths exist. This tendency might make for psychological resilience, but it also makes it hard for Appalachians to look at themselves honestly. We tend to overstate and to understate, to glorify the good and ignore the bad in ourselves.

Chapter 2

My grandparents—Mamaw and Papaw—were, without question or qualification, the best things that ever happened to me.

As Mamaw used to say, you can take the boy out of Kentucky, but you can’t take Kentucky out of the boy.

And as scary as her lineage was, Mamaw Bonnie herself was so terrifying that, many decades later, a Marine Corps recruiter would tell me that I’d find boot camp easier than living at home. “Those drill instructors are mean,” he said. “But not like that grandma of yours.”

Mamaw’s first foray into adulthood ended in tragedy. Today I often wonder: Without the baby, would she ever have left Jackson? Would she have run off with Jim Vance to foreign territory? Mamaw’s entire life — and the trajectory of our family — may have changed for a baby who lived only six days.

Researchers have documented two major waves of migration from Appalachia to the industrial powerhouse economies in the Midwest. The first happened after World War I, when returning veterans found it nearly impossible to find work in the not-yet-industrialized mountains of Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee. It ended as the Great Depression hit Northern economies hard. My grandparents were part of the second wave, composed of returning veterans and the rapidly rising number of young adults in 1940s and ’50s Appalachia. As the economies of Kentucky and West Virginia lagged behind those of their neighbors, the mountains had only two products that the industrial economies of the North needed: coal and hill people. And Appalachia exported a lot of both.

The scale of the migration was staggering. In the 1950s, thirteen of every one hundred Kentucky residents migrated out of the state. Some areas saw even greater emigration: Harlan County, for example, which was brought to fame in an Academy Award–winning documentary about coal strikes, lost 30 percent of its population to migration.

Significant parts of an entire region picked up shop and moved north. Need more proof? Hop on a northbound highway in Kentucky or Tennessee the day after Thanksgiving or Christmas, and virtually every license plate you see comes from Ohio, Indiana, or Michigan — cars full of hillbilly transplants returning home for the holidays.

Hillbillies have a phrase — “too big for your britches” — to describe those who think they’re better than the stock they came from.

Rather, these migrants disrupted a broad set of assumptions held by northern whites about how white people appeared, spoke, and behaved . . . the disturbing aspect of hillbillies was their racialness. Ostensibly, they were of the same racial order (whites) as those who dominated economic, political, and social power in local and national arenas.

In the mountain homes of Jackson, privacy was more theory than practice. Family, friends, and neighbors would barge into your home without much warning. Mothers would tell their daughters how to raise their children. Fathers would tell sons how to do their jobs. Brothers would tell brothers-in-law how to treat their wives. Family life was something people learned on the fly with a lot of help from their neighbors.

Still, Mamaw and Papaw believed that hard work mattered more. They knew that life was a struggle, and though the odds were a bit longer for people like them, that fact didn’t excuse failure. “Never be like these fucking losers who think the deck is stacked against them,” my grandma often told me. “You can do anything you want to.”

Chapter 3

“But yeah, like everyone else in our family, they could go from zero to murderous in a fucking heartbeat.

“I don’t know those people. You never talk about family to some stranger. Never.”

“How dare you speak about your sister to some little shit? In five years you won’t even remember his goddamned name. But your sister is the only true friend you’ll ever have.”

Mamaw told Papaw after a particularly violent night of drinking that if he ever came home drunk again, she’d kill him. A week later, he came home drunk again and fell asleep on the couch. Mamaw, never one to tell a lie, calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest. When Papaw burst into flames, their eleven-year-old daughter jumped into action to put out the fire and save his life. Miraculously, Papaw survived the episode with only mild burns.

Mamaw and Papaw may have failed Bev in her youth. But they spent the rest of their lives making up for it.

Chapter 4

People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.

In other words, despite all of the environmental pressures from my neighborhood and community, I received a different message at home. And that just might have saved me.

Chapter 5

Mamaw and Papaw ensured that I knew the basic rules of fighting: You never start a fight; you always end the fight if someone else starts it; and even though you never start a fight, it’s maybe okay to start one if a man insults your family. This last rule was unspoken but clear.

Getting hit in the face wasn’t nearly as terrible as I’d imagined. This was one of her most important rules of fighting: Unless someone really knows how to hit, a punch in the face is no big deal. Better to take a blow to the face than to miss an opportunity to deliver your own. Her second tip was to stand sideways, with your left shoulder facing your opponent and your hands raised because “you’re a much smaller target that way.” Her third rule was to punch with your whole body, especially your hips. Very few people, Mamaw told me, appreciate how unimportant your fist is when it comes to hitting someone.

And then she said something that I will never forget: “Sometimes, honey, you have to fight, even when you’re not defending yourself. Sometimes it’s just the right thing to do. Tomorrow you need to stand up for that boy, and if you have to stand up for yourself, then do that, too.” Then she taught me a move: a swift, hard (make sure to turn your hips) punch right to the gut. “If he starts in on you, make sure to punch him right in the belly button.”

Mom and Bob’s problems were my first introduction to marital conflict resolution. Here were the takeaways: Never speak at a reasonable volume when screaming will do; if the fight gets a little too intense, it’s okay to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t hit first; always express your feelings in a way that’s insulting and hurtful to your partner; if all else fails, take the kids and the dog to a local motel, and don’t tell your spouse where to find you — if he or she knows where the children are, he or she won’t worry as much, and your departure won’t be as effective.

Chapter 6

I was screaming in terror, but after a U-turn on a three-lane interstate, the only thing Mamaw said about the incident was “We’re fine, goddammit. Don’t you know Jesus rides in the car with me?”

The theology she taught was unsophisticated, but it provided a message I needed to hear. To coast through life was to squander my God-given talent, so I had to work hard. I had to take care of my family because Christian duty demanded it. I needed to forgive, not just for my mother’s sake but for my own. I should never despair, for God had a plan.

In his religious habits, Dad lived the stereotype of a culturally conservative Protestant with Southern roots, even though the stereotype is mostly inaccurate. Despite their reputation for clinging to their religion, the folks back home resembled Mamaw more than Dad: deeply religious but without any attachment to a real church community. Indeed, the only conservative Protestants I knew who attended church regularly were my dad and his family. In the middle of the Bible Belt, active church attendance is actually quite low.

At the time, the only thing I knew about gay men was that they preferred men to women. This described me perfectly: I disliked girls, and my best friend in the world was my buddy Bill. Oh no, I’m going to hell. I broached this issue with Mamaw, confessing that I was gay and I was worried that I would burn in hell. She said, “Don’t be a fucking idiot, how would you know that you’re gay?” I explained my thought process. Mamaw chuckled and seemed to consider how she might explain to a boy my age. Finally she asked, “J.D., do you want to suck dicks?” I was flabbergasted. Why would someone want to do that? She repeated herself, and I said, “Of course not!” “Then,” she said, “you’re not gay. And even if you did want to suck dicks, that would be okay. God would still love you.” That settled the matter. Apparently I didn’t have to worry about being gay anymore. Now that I’m older, I recognize the profundity of her sentiment: Gay people, though unfamiliar, threatened nothing about Mamaw’s being. There were more important things for a Christian to worry about.

Chapter 7

Most of all I thought about Papaw and me. I thought about the hours we spent practicing increasingly complex math problems. He taught me that lack of knowledge and lack of intelligence were not the same. The former could be remedied with a little patience and a lot of hard work. And the latter? “Well, I guess you’re up shit creek without a paddle.”

I thought about losing my temper with Mom or Lindsay or Mamaw, and how those were among the few times Papaw ever showed a mean streak, because, as he once told me, “the measure of a man is how he treats the women in his family.” His wisdom came from experience, from his own earlier failures with treating the women in his family well.

Chapter 8

There were three rules in her house: Get good grades, get a job, and “get off your ass and help me.”

She didn’t believe in using the legal system until you had to.

The same was true of Charles Murray’s seminal Losing Ground, another book about black folks that could have been written about hillbillies — which addressed the way our government encouraged social decay through the welfare state.

We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job, but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise and selling it on eBay, or for having a customer complain about the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minute restroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance — the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.

Not all of the white working class struggles. I knew even as a child that there were two separate sets of mores and social pressures. 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.

At that moment, I resolved to be the type of man who would smile when someone gave him an eraser. I haven’t quite made it there, but without that day in Iraq, I wouldn’t be trying.

When I first ran three miles, mildly impressed with my mediocre twenty-five-minute time, a terrifying senior drill instructor greeted me at the finish line: “If you’re not puking, you’re lazy! Stop being fucking lazy!” He then ordered me to sprint between him and a tree repeatedly. Just as I felt I might pass out, he relented. I was heaving, barely able to catch my breath. “That’s how you should feel at the end of every run!” he yelled. In the Marines, giving it your all was a way of life.

But I do know this: “Bloody Breathitt” allegedly earned its name because the county filled its World War I draft quota entirely with volunteers—the only county in the entire United States to do so.

There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day. Here is where the rhetoric of modern conservatives (and I say this as one of them) fails to meet the real challenges of their biggest constituents. Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers.

There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites. Well over half of blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites expect that their children will fare better economically than they have. Among working-class whites, only 44 percent share that expectation. Even more surprising, 42 percent of working-class whites—by far the highest number in the survey — report that their lives are less economically successful than those of their parents’.

A student survey found that over 95 percent of Yale Law’s students qualified as upper-middle-class or higher, and most of them qualified as outright wealthy. Obviously, I was neither upper-middle-class nor wealthy. Very few people at Yale Law School are like me. They may look like me, but for all of the Ivy League’s obsession with diversity, virtually everyone — black, white, Jewish, Muslim, whatever — comes from intact families who never worry about money.

The wealthy and the powerful aren’t just wealthy and powerful; they follow a different set of norms and mores. When you go from working-class to professional-class, almost everything about your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst.

I went to Yale to earn a law degree. But that first year at Yale taught me most of all that I didn’t know how the world worked.

Our career office had emphasized the importance of sounding natural and being someone the interviewers wouldn’t mind sitting with on an airplane. It made perfect sense — after all, who wants to work with an asshole? — but it seemed an odd emphasis for what felt like the most important moment of a young career. Our interviews weren’t so much about grades or résumés, we were told; thanks to a Yale Law pedigree, one foot was already in the door. The interviews were about passing a social test — a test of belonging, of holding your own in a corporate boardroom, of making connections with potential future clients.

It was around this time that Amy Chua, one of my professors, stepped in and told me exactly how things worked: “Journal membership is useful if you want to work for a judge or if you want to be an academic. Otherwise, it’s a waste. But if you’re unsure what you want to do, go ahead and try out.” It was million-dollar advice.

It’s no surprise that every single person in my family who has built a successful home — Aunt Wee, Lindsay, my cousin Gail — married someone from outside our little culture.

Papaw’s rare breakdown strikes at the heart of an important question for hillbillies like me: How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children? How much is Mom’s life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?

In a paper analyzing the data, Chetty and his coauthors noted two important factors that explained the uneven geographic distribution of opportunity: the prevalence of single parents and income segregation.

And if that chance is to materialize, we hillbillies must wake the hell up.

I believe we hillbillies are the toughest goddamned people on this earth. We take an electric saw to the hide of those who insult our mother. We make young men consume cotton undergarments to protect a sister’s honor. But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian? Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children? Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us.

These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.

Acknowledgements

Besides Tina, the person who deserves the most credit for this book’s existence is Amy Chua, my Yale contracts professor, who convinced me that both my life and the conclusions I drew from it were worth putting down on paper. She has the wisdom of a respected academic and the confident delivery of a Tiger Mother, and there were many times that I needed (and benefitted) from both.

and Peter Thiel. Many of these folks read versions of the manuscript and provided critical feedback.

Max Nova

Max Nova

I love books! My reading theme for 2017 is "The Integrity of Western Science." I'm also the founder of www.SilviaTerra.com.

Read More