Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis came to my attention as the book that would explain Donald Trump’s appeal. The author certainly sheds light on that topic, although the book isn’t really about politics and it doesn’t mention Trump at all. This is J.D Vance’s memoir, and by telling his family story, he broadened my understanding of a part of my own family.

My first clue that this book would hit close to home came when Vance introduced us to Mamaw and Papaw. As Vance puts it, these synonyms for grandma and grandpa are unique to hillbilly culture. But I knew these terms. My nephews use Mamaw and Papaw to describe their grandparents; my wife, who grew up in what Vance affectionally calls Hillbilly culture, was quick to translate for me. As Vance told his story, I began to see significant parallels with what I knew about my wife.

  • Both are Scotch-Irish.
  • Both come from working class backgrounds.
  • Both come from families where the concept of kin counts for everything, and friendship doesn’t count for much.
  • Both struggled to escape the gravitational pull of multigenerational poverty.
  • Both achieved academic and career success that they could not have fathomed as kids, largely because they lacked access to social networks where accomplishments like a four-year degree and a six-figure income are viewed as normal, or at the very least, attainable.
  • Both endured difficult, and at times, traumatic relationships with their mothers.
  • Both have been told that their stories are a testament to their exceptionalism, and yet both would tell you that their abilities aren’t all that extraordinary.
  • Both benefited in incalculable ways from the steady hands of loving grandparents, and while they were never perfect, they made all the difference in the world.
  • Both look at social programs like food stamps and unemployment insurance with a mix of compassion and skepticism, thanks in part, to firsthand experience that tells them that some people will always take advantage of government aid, and that the cultural and social forces that normalize and reward that kind of behavior run much deeper than policymakers realize.
  • Both married outside of their hillbilly culture.

Of course, these are biographical details without the benefit of narrative. Vance uses data and inserts academic studies to ground his story in a larger social, cultural, and at times, political context. But the real takeaway, for me anyway, is empathy. Above all, Vance writes about the people in his life with love and compassion, even when it’s hard to see why some of those people deserve any  kindness at all. Too often, I realized in reading this book, I have cast my wife’s story in black & white. I’ve seen villains where my wife saw family doing the best they could. I’ve looked for social science to explain the stubborn challenges that some of my in-laws just can’t seem to overcome. I’ve chalked up irrational anger and incomprehensible political positions to the propaganda of Fox News.

Not that I take pleasure in reducing my in-laws to stereotypes. I don’t. My wife loves her family, and I want to show them the same love. But as you read Vance’s book, one key aspect of hillbilly culture continues to surface in his life story – a deep distrust of outsiders. I am family, but I am not exactly an insider, at least not yet, not after only five years of marriage. Christina and I live in Los Angeles, which might as well be the moon for people like her Papaw, who grew up in Alabama and told me the family moved to Clearwater, Florida “after the boondoggle ended.” That’s the sum total of what I know about the family’s decision to move away from its extended kin network and seek out opportunity in a Florida. Our conversations, usually at a Perkins restaurant near his home, illicit few additional details on the family or the relationships, good and bad, that dominant life for my in-laws. For me, the hillbilly part of Christina’s family has always been impenetrable. But after reading Hillbilly Elegy, I’ve come to see many of the dynamics that shape the lives of my in-laws with fresh eyes. I don’t pretend to understand their world completely, but I hope I understand them just a little better. Hopefully, I am a better husband and family member for having read this book.

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