Thoughts on Hillbilly Elegy, by JD Vance

After the results of the 2016 General Election, many in the “intellectual, liberal” community were stunned that an unfathomable Presidential candidate like Donald Trump could actually win.  Yet he did.  In the discussion and introspection that occurred afterwards, a common tidbit of advice passed among friends who sought to understand what had just occurred was to “read Hillbilly Elegy”.

It’s said that the defining characteristic of a person’s success or happiness in life is nothing that a person is born with.  Rather, it’s who one’s parents are, who it is that will shape a child’s early experiences and prepare them to become contributing members of society.  It’s clear from reading this book that a massive chasm exists between the privileged and nonprivileged in this country and that chasm begins with parenting.

Hillbilly Elegy is essentially the fairy-tale story about how a Scots-Irish Appalachian male, a hillbilly, escaped the circumstances of his childhood and overcame all of the norms, mores and lack of expectations imposed on him by the society around him.  I imagine that the early parts of the book would be a hard read to anyone, but as a parent of two young boys I struggled not to feel the pain that Vance described from his early years.  With the knowledge of my two sons vulnerabilities and the role that their father and I play in their lives, reading a story of a child’s struggle to establish relationships with the ever revolving cast of men who were his mother’s ephemeral boyfriends was hard to digest.  His mother is no saint–her instability and increasingly out-of-control drug use force the author to find other shelters in the world.  Luckily, his grandmother Mamaw and grandfather Papaw are reformed delinquent parents themselves who turned their lives around to be strong pillars in his life.

A good portion of the book illustrates in very interesting detail the belief system that is ingrained in Appalachian culture, largely defined by a Scots Irish heritage.  A main value in this culture is loyalty to family beyond any expectation or rationale.  Aside from the typical playground fisticuffs that might be required in the defending of a mother’s honor–this belief system has made it so that the forced consumption of a sister’s undergarments were an apt punishment for someone who had insulted that sister.  Or even that the author’s mother could expect him, out of loyalty, to provide a cup of clean urine to prevent her from failing a surprise job related drug test–despite all of the pain and suffering that her drug use had personally caused him.

The book reaffirms many unfortunate stereotypes of poor working class whites, with portrayals of colleagues that Vance encountered in his work in Ohio.  In one example, a fellow laborer could only be bothered to come to work four days a week, and of those four days would take three or four bathroom breaks of over a half hour in a single day.  In another example, parents in the community would repeatedly espouse the value of hard work, but would be unable to themselves hold on to a job because of lack of work ethic.  Vance himself joined the military where he was inculcated in the importance of even showing up being the first step in accomplishing something worthwhile.  Through pushing himself past his own limits, it gave him the confidence to think of the world beyond the hardship of his upbringing and to reach for it.  Most importantly the military ingrained in him the value of his word, and of keeping his word.

Some of the most poignant passages of the book come from Vance’s reflections on the differences in the norms of his current life in the professional class to his prior life as a hillbilly:  how everything, from his understanding of what makes the world run to his diet have gone through 180 degree reversals.  Children in urban professional environments are expected to excel–where children in hillbilly environments weren’t even expected to show up.  To me, these were some of the most interesting passages of the book.  It’s clear from the tribalism and vitriol pervasive in today’s civic environment that there is so much that must be done here.  Bridging the gap and helping to change the opportunity-less, and often miserable, worlds of the other JD Vances out there should be everyone’s problem.

Interestingly, Vance also touches upon even how stereotypes shape the poor whites’ perception of themselves in frankly self-defeating ways.  A stunning example of this is the role of religion in people’s lives.  Where most people viewed themselves as “highly religious”, the reality is that going to church or even practicing goodwill towards their neighbors was a seldom occurrence for those in his community.  Ironically, having the benefit of a church community providing necessary stability and support would improve the lives of those children who are similarly trapped in difficult upbringings like the one that Vance faced.

Like many readers, I hoped the book contained a silver bullet solution to this problem and part of my motivation for reading the book was to understand more about what can be done, whether by the government, we in the “elite, liberal” parts of the country, or specifically by the technology industry.  I’ll spare you the surprise–there is no one solution.  Vance goes so far as to say that the problems which underlie the societal despair of poor whites can’t be solved by any one institution, but can only be influenced by exposure to what is possible.  While this is disheartening, I sincerely applaud the author’s courage in shedding light into a dark corner of American society and illustrating what it’s like to be in another person’s less fortunate shoes in such a compelling way.

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