By Melissa Martin – Contributing Columnist
After scanning the media storm of comments about the book, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (published in 2017) I wanted to read it. Any book that sparks debate and passionate conversation whereas individuals read, think, reflect, and share ideas, perceptions, beliefs, reasoning, and opinions with others whether social media, face to face dialogue, or multiple book reviews is a book indeed. Any book that can generate discussion about economic vs. culture whereas people, both inside and outside Appalachia, respond with both emotional and cognitive reasoning is a book indeed. I also wanted to read Hillbilly Elegy and scrutinize his definition of hillbilly.
Critics pointed out that Vance did not grow up in the hills, hollers, or coalmine towns of Appalachia. He was born in Butler County; a nonAppalachian county close to Cincinnati. That fact rubbed readers the wrong way. His parents and grandparents migrated from rural Kentucky to Ohio. But, children learn most from parents and grandparents and his family persona sounded like Appalachian to me; however the domestic violence and drug addiction that inundated his family is universal and found in other social classes and cultures. Vance explores how “hillbilly justice” was part of his heritage and violence was a solution to protect family honor and loyalty to kin. The word “hillbilly” generated fiery rebuttals from some Appalachians as they identified it as stereotyping and degrading to Appalachian rural folk while others owned “hillbilly” as a testament to their proud redneck lifestyle.
Vance was raised by his working class white grandparents in an Ohio town located in the Rustbelt. Vance discusses the Rustbelt in regards to the instability of factory employment. According to Ohio Story Central, during the 1960s and 1970s, Midwestern and Eastern states, such as Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, became known as the Rustbelt after jobs tanked and abandoned factories rusted from exposure to weather.
In his book he is traveling back into a time capsule and questioning working class poverty—and concludes that the past is the present and will be the future if something does not change in Appalachia for the struggling white working poor. He talks of hopelessness, despondency, and despair. The following are excerpts from Hillbilly Elegy.
“This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads…Thrift is inimical to our being…Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like we’re spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs…At especially stressful times, we’ll hit and punch each other, all in front of the rest of the family, including young children…We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. Our kids perform poorly at school. We might get angry with them, but we never give them the tools — like peace and quiet at home — to succeed….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…We talk to our children about responsibility, but we never walk the walk.”
Many readers took offense and proclaimed that Vance’s story of his childhood is not their story. One autobiography does not speak to the experiences of all in the same culture—I agree. I do admire Vance for opening his front door and sharing his “dirty laundry.” That takes courage in a culture that houses family secrets for generations. Other readers identified with certain aspects of his Appalachian upbringing experiences.
When Vance concluded that people are trapped in poverty due to their own poor choices, some readers got riled. From my viewpoint and experience, there is disability fraud in Appalachian, but there are also families with legitimate reasons for receiving government services. Vance wants individuals to take personal responsibility for their own lives and decisions and I agree, but there is so much more to complex social societies. Like the game of dominoes, humans affect each other. Many overcome ruinous childhoods and many do not.
I attribute some of his mother’s bad choices to drug addiction. And today, society looks at addiction through the lens of a disease model instead of the blame/shame model. No person wants to be a drug addict and I’ve found the core of an addicted person to be self-hatred. Nonetheless, kids ride the emotion roller-coaster ride of addiction with the parent and children wear the scars to prove it. Eventually, Vance’s criticism of his mother turns into compassion. He acknowledges addiction and the generational pattern of domestic violence and the fallout.
Being human means we will experience degrees of heartbreak, tragedy, and suffering and that includes every social class and cultural group. Both poor and rich have broken families with issues of divorce, domestic violence, drug addiction, and physical and mental illness. Human suffering is not just experienced by the poor; the rich also belong to this club. However, the rich do not belong to the poverty club. Like many others before him, Vance asks the million dollar question—why are working people poor? He explores economic vs. culture looking for the answer. But in my opinion it’s not one or the other but both along with a bundle of other causes, reasons, and factors.
Vance’s grandma is portrayed as a feisty pioneer woman; the matriarch of the family. And Vance is quick to give her kudos for standing by him and encouraging a college education as a way out of poverty. The “Mamaw” part of his story put a smile on my lips and warmed my bones. What a plucky gal! However, the grandmother’s violence toward her intoxicated spouse is not the norm in Appalachia.
My memories returned to my grandmother and the Appalachian women who stood by me. I dedicated my dissertation for my Ph.D. to them:
“I thank the Appalachian women in my family tree who embody the gentleness and creative beauty of a flower petal, yet symbolize the strength and durability of a stone. And when a gusty wind blows, the blossoms sometime scatter while the sturdy stem bends but does not break. And when the rock is pressurized it does not shatter, but instead transforms into a brilliant gemstone of resiliency. The legacy of these pioneer women follows me wherever I roam; their collective spirits breathe belonging into my soul; their fiery courage bids me to rise when I plummet; their kindness of heart whispers into my essence; their humbleness walks before me; and their hardy work ethic challenges my hands and feet. I am who I am and what I have become due to the role models of my upbringing; salty women who sweetened life with laughter and tears, joy and grief, hard work and play.”
Vance also credits his time in the military for lifting him out of poverty. Although I’ve not been in the military, I can recognize Vance’s patriotism toward America because he enlisted in the U.S. Marines and deployed to Iraq during Operation Iraq Freedom.
He touches on religion in his book, but I perceived a “God helps those who help themselves” attitude. This phrase is nowhere to be found in the Bible. But he does posit religion as a piece of the answer to poverty and churches as places of support. Appalachia is seeped in Christianity and ensuing faithful helpers.
“Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” is his motto, but what about people who are barefooted or people who wear boots without bootstraps? And Vance is a white male; but he does not address white privilege or male privilege. Maybe he needs to walk a mile in the shoes of other Appalachians before he throws judgment stones at people who did not go to college. The world needs blue collar workers and white collar workers as people possess different talents and skills. Vance touched a nerve with some readers when he disparaged the hard-working blue collar workers of Appalachian America. I am grateful for the opportunity to secure a college education, but I have utmost respect and admiration for my grandmother and mother who painted and wallpapered houses. They took pride in their work and charged a fair price—and they loved what they did. What a privilege it was for me to work with them and observe their work ethic and playfulness with each other and with customers.
Vance does credit his grandparents for supporting and encouraging his education and to certain school teachers. So he does allude to the village that helped shaped his motivation and opportunity to complete a college degree and become a productive citizen. Studying at Yale Law School, he earned a law degree in 2013.
As a psychotherapist, my perception is that Vance used his book as writing therapy (unintentional) to try to make sense of his chaotic childhood with an opiate addicted suicidal mother and alcoholic grandfather as well as domestic violence in his home. Add poverty to the mixture along with several stepfathers and you have an environment ripe for low self-worth, lack of confidence, and the gamut of emotions: shame, guilt, resentment, frustration, rage, fear. I stand up and cheer for Vance! He made it. No suicide or homicide. No drugs or prison. No repeating the cycle of domestic violence. The generational chains of poverty were broken.
He obtained an education, secured employment, married his soulmate, an Indian-American and his own son was born in 2017. And he wrote a nonfiction bestseller. According to him—this is success and the American dream. I sincerely congratulate J.D. Vance. However, this is not the definition of success for all residents of the working class in Appalachia. But again, Vance is trying to reconcile his traumatic upbringing within a specific culture and a specific class summarized by his Appalachia roots and migration to an industrial town outside of rural Appalachia that became desolate when factories closed their doors. He wants to prevent his painful experience of poverty from happening to others. And that is noble from my viewpoint. He discusses his struggles with upward mobility and leaving Appalachia to work in Silicon American.
The attitudes of Ivy League business men and women, self-serving politicians, and the dramatizing media are touting Hillbilly Elegy as a tool to explain Donald Trump’s trip to the White House. Are political parties blaming Appalachians for voting Trump? Not all Appalachians voted for Trump. And some Appalachians weren’t so much pro-Trump as they were anti-Hillary. Vance verbalizes that he is a conservative. Who did he vote for? Other critics of Vance’s book speculate that he is paving his own road to the White House—after all, Vance is an attorney and he traveled the media circuit, both conservative and liberal, for interviews after Hillbilly Elegy was published.
I highly recommend the book Hillbilly Elegy for Appalachians; those poor, rich, and in the middle.
Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is a child therapist, play therapist, behavioral health consultant, educator, children’s book author, and a self-syndicated newspaper columnist. View Martin’s website at www.melissamartinchildrensauthor.com. Martin resides in Scioto County, Ohio.