Quickly after its publication, J. D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, jumped to the top The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. There are two likely reasons. First, Vance’s portrait of his family and white Appalachia, in general, shows these people as shiftless, destructive, and unwilling to do the hard work necessary to change their lives. That, pretty much, supports the right’s stereotype of these people, whom Donald Trump is courting assiduously though Trump is not mentioned in the book. Second, reading his memoir, the left will conclude that they’ve been given an insight into why their policies to help these people have failed. Their self-destructive actions cannot be helped, a conclusion that Vance himself makes: “I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.” Readers on both sides of our political debate will see their stereotypes reinforced.
Vance does know, since he’s one of the lucky ones. It’s education, mostly, but also strong parenting, the two working together. Vance had a bit of both but not in the conventional pattern. He didn’t care much for school anywhere along the way, but his grandparents tried to convince him to take his education seriously. His grandfather started doing math exercises with him when he was still quite young. That paid off because his strongest scores in high school were in mathematics. Enough to get him admitted to a university, but Vance realized that he didn’t have the discipline to succeed. He made a smart move, joined the Marines for four years and then got his B.A. in less than two years, followed by Yale law school. His adulthood worked beautifully after he floundered as a child.
The beginnings were much more difficult, largely because of his family. Instead of cataloging all of these family complications, let’s cut to a later phase in his life, just as he was completing law school. He learned that his mother had started taking heroine. “She’d stolen some family heirlooms from her fifth husband to buy drugs (prescription opiates, I think), and he’d kicked her out of the house in response. They were divorcing, and she had nowhere to go.” Vance had lived with several of the husbands and probably an equal number of boyfriends between marriages. Alcohol and drugs often controlled his mother; she had trouble holding down any steady job. He frequently lived with his grandparents, who were heavy-drinkers and given to violence, but offered more stability than his mother (plus a positive attitude toward education).
Vance was born in Middletown, Ohio, in 1980. As he grew up, he watched the jobs disappear as the steel industry collapsed. His mother tried to kill herself, and on another occasion she tried to kill him. He says that he had “about a dozen stepsiblings,” but the one source of stability for him was Lindsay, his full sister, five years older. He talks about the “revolving door of father figures,” and his mother’s willful acts: she lost her job as a nurse’s aid at the local hospital for rollerblading through the emergency room (she was high on drugs). She was sober for a year when he was thirteen, but, still, Vance does not mince words when he talks about his mother and other mothers he knew.
“During my junior year of high school, our neighbor Pattie called her landlord to report a leaky roof. The landlord arrived and found Pattie topless, stoned, and unconscious on her living room couch. Upstairs the bathtub was overflowing—hence, the leaking roof. Pattie had apparently drawn herself a bath, taken a few prescription painkillers, and passed out. The top floor of her home and many of her family’s possessions were ruined. This is the reality of our community. It’s about a naked druggie destroying what little of value exists in her life. It’s about children who lose their toys and clothes to a mother’s addiction.”
Then, Vance reinforces what he’s just said: “This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and pay-day loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend that we’re upper-class. And when the dust clears—when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity—there’s nothing left over. Nothing for the kids’ college tuition, no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund if someone loses her job. We know we shouldn’t spend like this. Sometimes we beat ourselves up over it, but we do it anyway.”
These are harsh words, which only someone like Vance can say with impunity. And then one final emphatic statement: “Yet the message of the right is increasingly. It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.”
Vance says that after he was admitted to Yale, his father (with whom he had occasional contact) asked him if he had “pretended to be black or liberal” in order to be accepted. Sadly, that’s just one of dozens of stereotypes that we confront as a society every day.
Vance says that to succeed in an environment such as the one he grew up in, you have to leave, leave your people or you will not survive. That’s the only “path of self-preservation.” He loves his people (especially their loyalty to one another), but he had to break with his hillbilly upbringing (loose living, violence, drugs, multiple parental figures, many of them weak) or his life would have been like most of the people with whom he grew up.
JD. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy
HarperCollins, 264 pp., $27.99