Some books find you at a perfect time—they become like a friend or even a mentor. Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, spoke to us, as both.
We were initially inclined to read Hillbilly Elegy, because we desired and needed to develop an understanding of the discussed area of our country, a region often belonging to a very different political ideology and way of life. We wanted to comprehend the reason behind people's’ decisions. To do that, you need to uncover how they arrived at that conclusion by looking at what has influenced them. This means hearing their stories. Hillbilly Elegy offers a look into a world different from ours, yet one that shares the same leader.
Jospehine’s Note: While I have familial ties in some of these states, my roots are primarily based in touristic mountain towns whose populations are staunchly liberal, avid environment advocates. Growing up amongst the western mountain ranges of the United States, the destinations for many vacations, is my greatest privilege. I grew up amongst my some of country’s most breathtaking backdrops that allowed me to develop a healthy lifestyle and environmental consciousness and appreciation. I include this because there exists a stark contrast between my childhood and the author, J.D. Vance, who also grew up amongst mountains.
J.D. Vance grew up in the Appalachian region between Kentucky and Ohio, also known as the Rust Belt. In many ways the Appalachian hills were his life-long safe haven, so much so that he recently went and purchased his grandparents’ land. This is where he grew up and where he escaped as well as faced his struggles, common to the average hill person. This part of the world is built on a lost generation of families who once moved here for economic prosperity—they moved to work in the coal and steel industries, with the hope to build a life for their families. For a while, this worked, but as factories and the industry moved out of the country, these people were left in the dust.
The epidemic that is now present across the Midwest, starts at the core—the family. As Vance notes and experiences, being raised by a nuclear family is not the norm, rather grandparents step in as parents for their grandchildren. This is the common byproduct due to high rates of alcoholism and opioid use, and an educational system with little to no community support. It is a system that unfortunately perpetuates itself. Vance describes Jacksonville as a place where you make it, but only if you have someone looking out for and encouraging you, like his grandparents did for him. Otherwise there is little hope for another way out. Vance didn’t even realize this until much later in his life - that he could escape the cycle of drugs, abuse, and poverty that plagues the Rust Belt. Vance explains that a person’s lack or perception of a lack of possibilities lies within each individual and where they point their blame. For some, the government is solely to blame. This is a contradictory statement by those who misuse their food stamps to buy cheap products at a grocery store, then resell the items on the street at a higher price, so as to spend the majority of the money on alcohol. Others point their blame on an America at large that no longer depends on them, and no longer sees them as a crucial aspect of modern America. The white underclass may have thought they were forgotten, but in 2016’s presidential election, they were heard.
Today, Vance’s resume screams privilege —he is a white male, who graduated from Yale Law, and married the woman of his dreams. He resides in Cincinnati where he practices as a malpractice lawyer, but his current life deeply contrasts his roots. He is the American Dream. Hard work got Vance to high places; however, without his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, his older sister, and aunts and uncles who stepped up throughout his life, he could have easily been another kid with barely a G.E.D. and an hourly job. Vance acknowledges that he was up against the odds, and he managed through his unique support system, to come out on top. His Mamaw believed deeply as education being the ticket out and she was correct. She sacrificed so much, to ensure he had the best shot at an education. From raising Vance and giving him as stable of a home as possible to redirecting money for her own prescription meds to buy Vance a calculator, Mamaw was Vance’s backbone. These moments defined and served as a catalyst to a better life.
Throughout his memoir, Vance explores the root causes of the hillbilly states. He candidly relives his childhood on paper, but moreover, he questions it. He dives into the cultural nuances that impact the white lower class more than economic opportunities present. He believes that way-of-life choices have been passed down and while they offer comfort and familiarity, they aren’t necessarily beneficial. The hillbillies are making their own fate—and it is not a hopeful one. This poses the question: who should fix it? Is the epidemic across the hillbilly states one that is structural, and can be mended through governmental reform? Or, is it one that can only change through intrinsic nature where people hold themselves accountable?
Vance describes the epidemic in the following way: imagine a kid coming to school every day and telling his teacher “I can’t,” when in fact the kid truly can, and has done so many times before. However, at home the parents do the work for the student instead of investing time into watching the child succeed. Much is the same in the dried up steel towns spotted across the center of the United States—the people have “learned helplessness,” and decide that the situation they are in far outweighs their capacities to improve their own lives.
The fact is if you are raised in this region of the world, born to parents that are ill-equipped to parent, your likelihood of making it out of this corner of the country is slim to none. Children raised here score very high on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), a series of ten questions outlining traumas most upper-class families never endure. Children who experience abuse, have a single parent, and are exposed to drugs and alcohol during early childhood are more likely to have depression and anxiety, to develop chronic heart disease, to live shorter lives, and also to continue the cycle. Kids who have experiences ACEs “are more likely to underperform in schools and suffer from relationship instability as adults.” Harvard has found that constant stress during development actually changes the chemistry makeup of the brain. Although the conditions are hard, and Vance contributes much of his success to having his grandparents and other family members support him, he states, “no person’s childhood gives him or her a perpetual moral get-out-of-jail-free card…”Ideally, individuals change, they raise better families, and in turn future generations are made successful.
Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of a lost generation that is need of a better future. That future will come from strong families, and individuals committing to better their own lives. Change starts from the inside, but it can extend out, culturally reshaping communities at large.
Josephine's Takeaway: After reading Vance’s take on adversity and experience of ACEs, I have never felt more sure of that our actions pave our own future. In the end, situations or rather our reactions to such, are opportunities for change. Despite the trials that children suffer, it has been my experience that people are extended olive branches throughout their lives by way of coaches, teachers, a wonderful grandparent, etc. If such branches are received with grace, people truly do have the ability to make it out on the other side in order to forge forward and create a life that they desire, not that they were born into.
Jessica's Reflections: This memoir opened my eyes and my heart. As a New Yorker, I am surrounded primarily by those who think and act the same way as I do. To be able to learn about another American’s drastically different way of life, is truly a gift and a lesson I strongly recommend that others divulge in, especially given this highly polarized political context. Familiarizing oneself with the values and challenges that others are up against is key to fostering understanding and empathy. I thank J.D. Vance for sharing his story and I encourage others, across the political and geopolitical map, to do the same.
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