Thursday, February 9, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: a very short review

During last spring and fall's election campaign, J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis received a lot of attention.

So, in typical Bryan fashion, I finally got around to reading Vance's book.

Most of Hillbilly Elegy, perhaps three-quarters of it, is indeed as advertised: it is Vance's memoir of his life growing up in a broken household in the hill country of Eastern Kentucky and, later, in Southwestern Ohio.

Is 35 years of age too young to write your own memoir? Possibly.

But Vance is a skilled writer, and he tells an engaging story, and the memoir portion of the book is certainly entertaining, if in that oh-my-I'm-not-sure-I-wanted-to-know-that sort of way.

But, honestly, I rather flew through the memoir portion of the book, because frankly I wasn't all that interested in Vance's crummy relatives or in the awful things they did to each other and to those around them.

If you haven't heard of the horrors of OxyContin abuse, perhaps reading Vance's memoir will inspire you to learn more of this awful situation. But if you're already pretty-well-informed on this issue, you may find this just more of the same.

But the other 25% or so of Vance's book is rather different.

Sprinkled throughout Hillbilly Elegy are sections where Vance pauses, reflects, and genuinely tries to understand why it is that he succeeded in a situation where so many others failed.

The central question, for Vance, is this:

People sometimes ask whether I think there's anything we can do to "solve" the problems of my community. I know what they're looking for: a magical public policy solution or an innovative government program.

This question fascinates Vance (as it does many of use), so he explores many different theories about how to address this problem, and gives them legitimate consideration, and reacts to them honestly and forthrightly.

For instance, he considers the theory "about education in America, which the majority of people rightfully believe is the key to opportunity". As Vance immediately concedes, this theory is "rightfully" to be believed. Yet, in his particular case, it was not the relevant element:

it was striking that in an entire discusssion about why poor kids struggled in school, the emphasis rested entirely on public institutions. As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, "They want us to be shepherd to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves."


What I do know is that I was a sophomore in high school, and I was miserable. The constant moving and fighting, the seemingly endless carousel of new people I had to meet, learn to love, and then forget -- this, and not my subpar public school, was the real barrier to opportunity.

Don't (simply) blame the schools, says Vance.

Of course, Vance ends up attending Yale Law School, so clearly education, in the end, was crucial to his success. (And in his afterword, the first person he thanks is his Yale Law professor, for helping him out time and again.) But he persuasively argues that this was well after-the-fact: by the time he got to Yale Law School, he had dealt with the crippling problems of his youth already.

Vance is equally quick to dismiss the notion that the disparity in results has something to do with race:

Recall that not a single one of my high school classmates attended an Ivy League school. Barack Obama attended two of them and excelled at both.


Of course, Obama overcame adversity in his own right -- adversity familiar to many of use -- but that was long before any of us knew him.

So certainly don't try to explain the outcome as a racial issue, says Vance.

But what about talent, then? Perhaps some are just better than others?

Surrounding me was another message: that I and the people like me weren't good enough; that the reason Middletown produced zero Ivy League graduates was some genetic or character defect. I couldn't possibly see how destructive that mentality was until I escaped it. The Marine Corps replaced it with something else, something that loathes excuses.


In the Marines, giving it your all was a way of life.

I'm not saying ability doesn't matter. It certainly helps. But there's something powerful about realizing that you've undersold yourself -- that somehow your mind confused lack of effort for inability.

From Vance's perspective, what mattered about his military experiences was not the "armed forces" aspect of it, but rather the "improvement via hard work" aspect of it:

Every time the drill instructor screamed at me and I stood proudly; every time I thought I'd fall behind during a run and kept up; every time I learned to do something I thought impossible, like climb the rope, I came a little closer to believing in myself. Psychologists call it "learned helplessness" when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life. From Middletown's world of small expectations to the constantchaos of our home, life had taught me that I had no control.

So, what is it, then?

After looking here, and looking there, and talking to experts, and reading books, and, most crucially, reflecting long and hard and in great detail about his own life, Vance comes back, again and again, to one simple, yet confoundingly complex, explanation.


Or, more specifically in his case, his grandmother, "Mamaw", who took him in at a critical period and gave him the structure he needed.

Family, says Vance, is all-too-often the fundamental source of the problem:

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 -- sometimes the father, sometimes the mother, sometimes both. At especially stressful times, we'll hit and punch each other, all in front of the rest of the family, including young children.

And what does this mean?

We don't study as children, and we don't make our kids study when we're parents. Our kids perform poorly in school. We might get angry with them, but we never give them the tools -- like peace and quiet at home -- to succeed.

Why is this family presence so crucial, in Vance's opinion?

Ask what made a difference in her life, and she'll tell you about the stable family that empowered her and gave her a sense of control over her future.


many succumb: to crime or an early death at worst, domestic strife and welfare dependency at best. But other make it.


Each benefited from the same types of experiences in one way or another. They had a family member they could count on. And they saw -- from a family friend, an uncle, or a work mentor -- what was available and what was possible.

Role models.

And, most importantly, role models that a child can believe in, and can trust, because they are family members who have overcome obstacles of their own.

One particularly interesting part of Hillbilly Elegy, I thought, was Vance's observation that modern American society struggles to comprehend the crucial importance of the extended family. Talking about a crucial episode in which Vance was nearly prevented from benefiting from the stabilizing and structuring experience of living with his grandmother, Vance observes:

Part of the problem is how state laws define the family. For families like mine -- and for many black and Hispanic families -- grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles play an outsize role. Child services often cut them out of the picture, as they did in my case. Some states require occupational licensing for foster parents -- just like nurses and doctors -- even when the would-be foster parent is a grandmother or other close family member. In other words, our country's social services weren't made for hillbilly families, and they often make a bad problem worse.

So, what are we to take from Hillbilly Elegy?

My father put it rather simply, and rather precisely, I think:

I thought the conclusions the author drew are applicable to a broader class, and I thought the extreme behavior of his Kentucky family did not generalize.

I completely agree: Vance's book, though troubling, disturbing, and often infuriating, is tremendously valuable. He has a lot to say, and it's not just about Kentucky Hillbillies. These are not easy problems, and no magic wand can wave them away, but they are widespread, they are important, and they are solvable.

Sometimes, you get to the end of a book, and you aren't quite sure what to make of it, but you hope other people read it, and you hope it matters, and you hope it makes a difference.

I guess that's where I ended up with Hillbilly Elegy.

1 comment:

  1. I read this book a few months ago during the election, which seemed to be appropriate considering all the talk about the forgotten people in the Rust Belt. I think most people who grew up with a less than desirable family structure can find truth in Vance's book. Once we see the value in ourselves, each of us can achieve pretty much anything we put our minds to. It's very sad that so many of those left behind in this constant din of so-called "family values" truly do not have any concept of what that means. The interesting part to me is that it can come from many disparate sources, not necessarily those sharing any recent genetic connection to us, as Vance points out. A drill Sgt., a teacher, a friend, a boss, a spouse, ...etc can all have profound impacts on the way we see our potential. Sometimes it's just so very hard to dance to music you've never heard before.
    It's one major reason why I truly despise the current political din. Instead of talking about ways to help those left behind, it's all shiny objects and nonsense that most people end up getting manipulated into supporting. As a result, they end up getting left further and further behind... sad. I'm hopeful things like the living wage proposals start to get traction. Once someone is not "food insecure", they can begin to concentrate on learning a new skill, which can include taking care of the children they've brought into the world.
    One aspect of Vance's book that most people will never experience is the absence of hope that exists in some parts of this country. When you couple it with drugs and alcohol, you have a generational morass that is very tough to break the cycle of and show alternatives really do exist. It's one thing the military does for many people, show them that a different world exists outside their own. I'm still hopeful some concept of mandatory national service is restored. You don't have to join the military, but you do have to give some period of time over to something greater than yourself, like the National Parks, Teach for America, ...etc. The rewards to many will be obvious within a very short period of time.