By William Patten
It is hard to say whether J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” would have become such a national bestseller if Donald Trump had not emerged on the political scene. But even leaving Trump aside, this unassuming memoir is valuable for anyone interested in understanding the fracturing of American society today.
“Hillbilly Elegy” offers a first-hand glimpse into the roots of despair and disenfranchisement spreading beneath our country’s glossy media images or erudite intellectual analyses. It uncovers the kind of underlying rage that no reality TV show can fully duplicate but which also has fueled the rise of our current president. More than anything, it is about the erosion of hope for a better life and a vicious social alienation that makes mockery of President Obama’s most eloquent and inspiring promises.
The Vance family saga starts with hope in post-war America. Like millions of others, J.D.’s dirt-poor grandparents of Scot-Irish descent, Mamaw and Papaw, migrated from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to find work in Ohio. There, in a town called Middletown, his grandfather found better paying work in the Armco steel plant. In 1970, 25 percent of white children lived in a neighborhood with poverty rates above 10 percent. In 2000, that number was 40 percent.
At 16, J.D. is captivated by a book called “The Truly Disadvantaged,” which mirrors his own world. It describes the millions who had migrated north to factory jobs that steadily shut down and “so were left behind trapped” in communities that offered few jobs and little in social support, while the professional classes escaped. Faced with plunging expectations, they became victims in their own heads. “Our neighbors had a kind of desperate sadness in their lives,” he said.
The Vance family had brought their hillbilly culture with them in spades. Guns, violence, fierce family loyalty and dedication to hard work. One day, when Mamaw got tired of her husband’s carousing, she poured gasoline over his supine body and lit him on fire. He was saved only by the intervention of a grandchild. J.D. himself, as a young boy, was kidnapped by his raging mother, who threatened to kill him. He escaped into a the house of a stranger, who eventually called the cops, who threw his mother in jail. Yet J.D. worshipped his mother despite the pain of watching her go through five husbands and her struggles with addiction. “This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior.”
But even with Papaw’s preference for his .44 magnum and Mamaw’s taste for her .38 Special, they were the key mentors who gave J.D. a chance and basically saved his life. They understood the value of education. Papaw tutored his grandson on math problems. J.D. straddled the two generations: the old-fashioned values of self-reliance and hard work of his grandparents and the victim mentality of his mother and her generation. Fueled in part by the family’s strong sense of patriotism, J.D. joined the Marine Corps knowing that those four years “would help me become the person I wanted to be.”
Despite later making it to Yale Law School and securing a good job, J.D. candidly admitted that he could not, even with a loving wife, completely disguise the scars of his upbringing. Referring to his early life enduring a revolving door of father figures, he noted that in France, the percentage of children exposed to three or more maternal partners is .05 percent. In Sweden, it is 2.6 percent. In the U.S., it is a staggering 8.2 percent. A childhood of physically fighting to defend the honor of his mother left him with a residue of anger that can still be ignited, an emotion which I have confronted professionally.
This book resonated with me because in the 1990s, I ran state-certified Batterer Intervention classes in an eroded industrial town in central Massachusetts called Athol, very similar to Middletown. In a last-ditch effort to stay out of prison, the courts allow young men arrested for acts of physical abuse to enroll at their own expense in supervised six-month groups aimed at making them take responsibility for their actions and hopefully learn basic techniques (like verbal communication and listening) to avoid further violence. Almost all of them, like J.D., suffered from childhood trauma and prolonged exposure to domestic violence and substance abuse.
Had I read “Hillbilly Elegy” beforehand, I might have been less surprised by two certain qualities they also shared: a strong commitment to hard work – one guy lugged shingles onto a roof with a broken back. And a deep attachment to their children. These young men learned more in class from the comments of their peers than they did from us. They got it better than we ever could when one Iraq vet shared that fighting around Baghdad was nothing compared to the stress of growing up in Athol, or when another Marine vet described his mother trying to run him over in her car.
J.D. Vance shared some of his mixed feelings about the culture he grew up, but he did not preach.
“Hillbilly Elegy” is marked by a powerful degree of self-honesty. Besides noting his own weaknesses, J.D. is not afraid to remember his work as a clerk in a grocery store and be critical of the self-defeating and short-sighted behavior of his own peer group. It is perhaps this courageous look at both the tragic and noble aspects of his own family which makes his book an exceptional memoir.
William Patten is a resident of Mount Desert.