Beth’s Books: Hillbilly Elegy
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance
With some notable exceptions, this is a book that I could have written.
My maternal grandparents hailed from Eastern Kentucky (in fact, the author’s grandparents came from a town only 15 or so miles away from the town where my grandparents lived) and migrated north to Ohio, then west to Indiana. The author writes that there were two distinct migration waves from Appalachia: one after WWI and the Depression, the other in the ‘50s, after WWII. My family was part of the first wave.
All of the problems that Vance writes about concerning his family—alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty, hunger, volatile tempers—were present to various degrees in mine. Not all of my aunts and uncles experienced those things, but several of them did. I was fortunate in that my parents were very stable and seemed to break the cycle. I would chalk this up to my mother finding religion, although in some ways, that created its own problems. (That’s a story for another day.) Although if it kept my folks from succumbing to the worst aspects of the “hillbilly culture,” I’ll take it.
I won’t go into all the sordid details over the years. It’s not really my story to tell. I will tell you briefly that there was alcoholism; there was family drama with one cousin accusing her mother and stepfather (my uncle) of abuse and wanting to live with another aunt and uncle; there was the murder of a different cousin, who was shot in the head by a cop over a dispute about a girl they both liked at a local house of ill-repute; I vaguely remember two of my aunts fighting in our front yard—not just a verbal fight, but an all-out hair-pulling catfight; there was an uncle who was shot at the bar he owned. I could go on, but you get the idea.
Some relatives had legendary tempers. The kind where if you make them mad, they kind of go batshit on you. In my younger days, I had a streak of that in me. I have fortunately learned to control it. (But I still recommend that you not make me mad. I know it is still lurking there.) Vance describes it as the ability to “go from zero to murderous in a fucking heartbeat.”
The author writes:
“...for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.”
It’s true. I have been to Eastern Kentucky once and don’t have much desire to go back. I am grateful to my parents for wanting a better life for me and stressing the importance of an education. I don’t mean to make it sound like I had a nightmare family. Quite the opposite. There was a lot of love there and I never felt threatened or abused. But as I read this book and looked back at things I remember from childhood, I realize how much of that culture was part of that side of our family. I feel no sense of connection to that part of the culture (other than enjoying some good bluegrass music once in a while, and I can make a mean cornbread), especially the attitude of distrust of education and the “elite.” I have heard more than once the statement that “Washington would be a lot better if they’d get some of these old farmers in their bibbed overalls up there and kick the rest of them out.” No. I really don’t think so. Common sense matters a lot, but so does education, and I wouldn’t trust some of those “old farmers” to govern in a way that helps everyone.
You see, there is still a concept of “otherness” in the hillbilly culture, which relates to the distrust of education and the “elites.” (I keep putting that in quotation marks because it’s just silly the way they refer to people “from away” that way...but they do.) For some, there is a deep-seated racism. For others, there is a distrust of anyone who isn’t a Protestant. For yet others, there is an attitude that women should keep their place and if they don’t, a good smack upside the head will get ‘em to shut up. Let me state clearly that NOT ALL people from that culture behave that way...but you cannot ignore the fact that such attitudes are more prevalent in that culture than in others. I’ve seen it firsthand. I STILL hear it on occasion. It’s there.
Mr. Vance admits to all that. He saw it in his own family and he definitely had a worse upbringing than I did. The problem I have with him is that he seems to give the white working poor a pass even as he condemns them for their behavior. He admits that they have a tendency to buy into bullshit conspiracy theories, and then lets them off the hook by saying that it’s because they simply don’t believe any media outlet that refutes them. How is that an answer? As far as I’m concerned, there is no excuse for ignorance. You don’t get to decide what is fact and what is fiction. Just because you decide that you don’t buy into what all those elitist eggheads at those elitist universities are peddling doesn’t mean that you are right.
Christ, how many stupid chain emails did I get from a couple of my relatives during the 2008 election about how Obama was a Muslim, Michelle Obama racked up a $30,000 room service bill at some fancy New York hotel, and so many other bullshit stories. I finally had to say, “Look, that is just not true. Please do not send me these anymore.”
And that is the problem that I have with that part of my heritage. I got a degree in science. I want verifiable facts. I reject anecdotal evidence. I simply cannot stand to hear these lies perpetuated by people who think that they know what is real and the rest of us are dupes for not seeing it. (Of course, they’d probably say the same thing about me!)
Even Mr. Vance, while admitting all this, falls prey to the “welfare queen” myth invented and propagated by Reagan. While working at a grocery store, he says that he saw a ton of abuse of welfare benefits. Of course, there are people who abuse the system. There always will be. But the vast majority of those who use such benefits need a little help at the time and do their best to get off of it as soon as possible. The biggest users? The working white poor. So instead of just condemning these folks for the abuse, he denigrates the “welfare state” and says that it encourages abuse, despite the fact that he and his family benefited from various government assistance programs. (G.I. Bill, anyone?) I should have known when he said his political hero was Mitch Daniels! (We don’t miss him a whole lot in Indiana government, believe me.)
It also seems to me that government programs addressing addiction issues would go a long way towards breaking some people out of the cycle of abuse. I understand that there are no easy answers, but I don’t think blaming the “welfare state” is any type of a solution. At the heart of the problems of the culture, there seems to be a toxic combination of lack of aspiration and feelings of inadequacy. “Everyone is better than me so why should I even try?”
My question is how do you change that culture? How do you break people out of that mentality? For me, it is a matter of education, but they distrust even that. “I didn’t get some fancy education and I did okay at the plant. I don’t know why you think YOU need one.” I find that absolutely abhorrent. It is wallowing in ignorance rather than saying, “Hey, I need to learn. I WANT to learn.” Meanwhile, all those great manufacturing jobs with great benefits and wages (thanks to Unions) continue to be replaced with automation. Change is hard, I get that. But if you don’t at least make an effort to keep up, you’re going to get left behind.
This is why I’m not real sure that the Democrats should worry about getting these voters back. That is also a story for another day and this has gotten long enough. But when you vote against your own best interests and choose not to inform yourself, I’m not real sure why we should keep making the effort. We’ll keep working on policies that help you and others like you get ahead...do with it what you will. At some point, you have to say, “I don’t want to live this life. I want to do better.” Or not. That is a choice.
I’m very glad that my parents made the right choice and instilled a love of learning in me and my sisters. I didn’t and don’t agree with all of their politics, but I am certainly grateful for that gift. It is an ongoing process, one that includes this book.
This might be the longest entry I’ve ever made here lately, and if you stuck around for the entire thing, thank you. It is obvious that the book affected me deeply and was quite thought-provoking for me. I found it a disturbing read on some levels. As I said, I have no easy answers. Any such thorny issue has no easy answers. Anyone who claims otherwise is wrong.
That’s a fact.