Hilbilly Elegy Provides Important Lessons

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (2016)

(read 12/18/2016)

“Memoir” according to Merriman:  1)  an official note or report; 2) a narrative composed from personal experience; 3) an account of something noteworthy. 

J.D. Vance provides an apology in the introduction—he has written a memoir although he is only 31 and has not accomplished anything of note, save graduating from Yale Law School.  He does indicate that is an unexpected accomplishment by someone from his communities—Middletown, OH and Jackson, KY, the town from which his grandparents migrated in the early 50’s for a better life and to which he and his family remain strongly connected.  He certainly has an interesting story to tell regarding his challenging path to this accomplishment.  He doesn’t simply give us his own story, however.  Dispersed through the narrative, he provides some reflections on the drivers of those challenges which are both specific to his case and fellow hillbillies migrating to industrial communities, but also help us understand the challenges faced by those participating in the black migration detailed in Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” and those faced by all immigrants trying to make a better life than the one they left behind in a community foreign to their culture.  He provides some lessons he may or may not have intended regarding challenges faced by anyone trying to move onto and up the socioeconomic ladder and who is unfamiliar with the expectations of that new ladder.

Vance calls this an Elegy.  All of the definitions of elegy I found speak to a mournful poem of serious reflection, expressing sorrow of someone dead. 

He does a less crisp job communicating exactly what he is mourning. He appropriately includes the phrase “crisis in culture” in his title.   He does certainly lament the current state of Middletown, OH which is no longer home to Armco, the steel company that recruited so many from his grandparent’s Kentucky community, nor to its high paying jobs.  Unemployment is high, drug use is rampant, and many of those who could move away already have.  He notes, almost sadly, that although there are jobs that remain there, some of which are fairly decent paying ones that also feature health care and other benefits, these jobs go unfilled by local residents for lack of interest.  He laments the current state of his family’s neighborhood in Jackson, Kentucky, which is now sufficiently run-down and unsafe that his cousin doesn’t feel he can keep the grandmother’s house if it will be vacant for any period of time. He laments the assumptions he heard and hears in his community that those who “make it” are just really smart—that raw talent alone, not hard work is the cause.   He laments that his community seems to have lost their will to earn a living and their ability to recognize the inconsistencies they live by, in particular, the importance of taking responsibility but then never actually doing it.   He laments that his community has deep distrust of traditional media while eagerly believes unsubstantiated “news”.  He notes, however, that they retain a huge love for country.

His book qualifies as a serious reflection, not in fully academically scholarly way, but definitely in a way that can engage a broad readership and convey some useful research by others that he describes. Topics of others’ research that he cites, and has clearly digested personally, include challenges faced by participants of the black migration and the biological and psychological impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE).

He notes that Armco (like other “rust-belt” companies) recruited heavily in specific areas, instigating migration of many families from a single county to Middletown in the case of Armco.  While this preserved aspects of the overall culture of the area they left, many young families, like his grandparents, were away from their parents and extended families.  Since his grandparents were only 14 and 17 when they migrated, that isolation from older family members and friends meant they did not get the usual (although sometimes unappreciated) oversight and guidance about becoming an adult and a parent.  His own mother and self-father moved from Middletown at one point to be away from the guidance her parents were giving, although it would have been useful to listen to it.  Like blacks immigrating from the rural south, these immigrants brought aspects of their rural culture (such as raising chickens and having extended families share a single dwelling for extended periods of time) to an area that didn’t appreciate or would tolerate them so separation between immigrant and local cultures became more distinct and the immigrants increasingly isolated from the rest of the community.

Vance learned that subjection to Adverse Childhood Experiences (such as abusive language, being pushed/shoved/having things thrown at you, separated or divorced parents, living with an alcoholic or drug user, etc) has significant impact on children and can influence brain development.  This can lead to a situation where the part of the brain that deals with stress is always activated and the child/person is always in a ready state for self-defense or flight.  Vance notes that both he and his sister have fortunately married people with low ACE indices who are helping Vance and his sister move away from this tenacity and associated behaviors.

Vance discusses a situation not specific to Middletown or the Hillbilly culture but that this country and others have and are facing.  His grandfather and others working at Armco counseled their children and grandchildren to “do better than they did” and to seek white color jobs that used their head vs their body.  It’s natural to want better for your children.  However, these grandparents and parents were ill-equipped or incapable of promoting a home environment that stressed what is needed to be able to successfully pursue this path.  Coupling this issue with general distrust of the outside community, and fueling it, according to Vance, by conservative political heads indicating “this is all the government’s fault” provide at least some drivers for the current employment state of Middletown type communities.

Vance sprinkles learnings about what saved him and could save others throughout the narrative including:  a quiet house promotes studying and learning; a stable home life (same place and adults) for several years enables developing long-lasting friendships; parental/adults in the home having high expectations for success in school matters; working a job helps you learn about the world and clarifies what you want; getting outside your own community to see other ways of being and thinking about life opens your eyes to new possibilities;  networking is critical; mentoring makes a difference—you have to learn about things, how they work, what is expected, etc; you have to learn how to get ahead.   Although his grandparents weren’t great parents when raising their kids, they matured into grandparents that provided a stable home life for Vance during his later high school years, a situation he hadn’t had previously.  This enabled him to concentrate on studying, get placed in an advance math track where he made friends with high achieving students, and learn some fundamental work ethics.  He knew he wasn’t’ ready to go to college immediately upon graduation from high school, so he joined the Marines.  He credits them for teaching him how to be an adult.  He finished a degree at Ohio State University in two years by overloading credit hours and going through the summer and then followed advice/encouragement to apply to Yale University.  There he met his future wife who is a terrific stabilizing influence and he has the good fortune to get excellent mentorship from a professor who also used some social capital to help him get beyond a poor interview.

Vance does not provide a prescription for solving the crisis of his home communities.  He suggests the solution needs to come, in large part, from people switching from an approach of avoiding uncomfortable truths by avoiding them or pretending better truths exist to a more honest one that accepts responsibility for them.  His one request to government is to more willingly utilize family members to care for children that need to be separated from parents rather than sending them into a foster care situation with strangers.

His comments about feeling somewhat sad about having moved out of his “home culture” as he’s made a better life for himself resonated with me.  He only provides a small hint regarding the losses that accompany assimilation and/or economic achievement. That wasn’t his intended topic but it’s an open one for exploration.

Vance provides a useful look at a community and culture little known or understood by others and helps improve that understanding.  The understanding that is possible, however, is not specific to that culture alone but is applicable to the more general situation of a foreign culture moving into a community with the intent of making a better life.

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