“I was one of those kids with a grim future,” writes J.D. Vance in his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. In his childhood in an impoverished, Appalachian community, Vance reminds us that while there may always be perils associated with social momentum, the greater peril can lie in staying put.
The story is rooted in Middletown, Ohio, a steel town where thousands of Appalachians settled after migrating from the coal towns of Kentucky. The steel industry is in decline, and once-comfortable families are struggling. As Vance describes with remarkable candor, he and his sister are also struggling, but in a more personal hell. Their mother, a relentless addict, drags the kids with her as she moves through a string of desperate, romantic relationships. As she progresses from alcohol, to prescription opiates, then heroin, life becomes increasingly erratic. One moment she’s offering to drive J.D. to town for football cards, and the next, she’s speeding down the road, threatening to crash the car and kill them both.
Why, Vance asks, are hillbillies so susceptible to addiction, so inclined toward family instability, and so prone to violence?
Vance is at his best when portraying the complications that come with moving from one social caste to another. In a poignant scene, he describes a late night in the lobby of a roadside motel. The place is crawling with spiders, and there’s a man passed out in the parking lot, a hypodermic needle stuck in his arm. Vance—newly married, recently graduated from Yale Law School and happily employed—is trying to secure a room for his newly homeless mother. “Upward mobility,” he writes, “is never clean-cut, and the world I moved away from always finds a way to reel me back in.”
Today Vance works for a venture capital firm in San Francisco. He spoke to me from his home there, where he lives with his wife and two dogs.
The Rumpus: What compelled you to write this book?
J.D. Vance: When I was at Yale Law School, I noticed a huge disconnect between what I observed there and my own experiences back at home. People I encountered at Yale were very curious, but in some ways ignorant, about the world I came from.
My professor, Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, suggested I turn my writing project into a book. The more I wrote, the more I realized that the most powerful way to look at the issues was to talk about what I knew, both in terms of family history and personal experience. So, what started as an effort to explain Middletown, Ohio, to the world evolved into a very personal reckoning.
Rumpus: The term “hillbilly” is usually used in a pejorative way. But there’s a positive connotation in your story. What, for you, characterizes a hillbilly?
Vance: Just so you know, people who consider themselves hillbillies are fine about calling their own family and friends hillbillies, but they wouldn’t have an outsider calling them by that name. What I think of as a hillbilly is, first of all, someone with a tie to Appalachia. The Appalachian region—with its complex economy, culture, and beauty—is a fundamental part of my own identity and that of everyone I think of as a hillbilly.
If you’re a hillbilly, you’re someone with extraordinary loyalty, both to the people around you and to your country. There’s a very high rate of military service in Appalachian families. But today, there’s also a sense of crisis in this community, a fear that the future is not going to be very good for yourself or your kids. People in this community are struggling, and not just in an obvious, economic way.
Rumpus: Your book describes how both your childhood towns—Middletown, Ohio and Jackson, Kentucky—have started to unravel. If life in these communities is ever to improve, you write, “we hillbillies need to wake the hell up.” What do you mean by this?
Vance: It’s easy to say the problems for folks back home are caused by economic deprivation, but there’s also something else going on. There’s a very serious sense of anger, fear, and resentment in the hillbilly community. It poisons the way we think about the world, and the way we respond to it.
Family instability and family conflict are real problems. They make us miserable and really affect our kids’ chances of success. And addiction is exploding—more so than in other impoverished communities.
So, yes, there are ways the government could do more to raise people’s material prospects and support families and communities. But at its core, this is a problem of community and culture.
Rumpus: You spent a lot of your childhood and teenage years moving back and forth between your mother’s home and your grandmother’s home.
Vance: Living with Mom was, in one word, chaotic. Mom isn’t a mean person. But she found it hard to hold a job, have a successful relationship, or build a home that was peaceful and stable. There was always some explosive mix of a new relationship, drug use, and job instability that pushed us from one place to another. I sympathize with her now, but at the time I would have done anything to get out of the chaos.
I remember one morning, when I was about fifteen years old and had spent the night at Mamaw’s house. I was getting ready for school when Mom barged in and demanded some urine from me. Mom had used drugs, and had to have her urine checked by the state nursing board. The only person she knew with clean piss was me. So, she was asking me not just to bail her out of trouble, but help her avoid consequences for her drug use—which itself had caused nearly every problem in our lives. It was too much.
I threw a temper tantrum, but eventually I gave her the urine. It was kind of an emotionally backbreaking moment for me. I remember feeling that from then on, I didn’t care what Mom was going to do. I moved in with Mamaw, and stayed there until I went into the Marine Corps.
Rumpus: How were you changed by living with your grandmother?
Vance: My grandmother was just a powerful personality. When she walked into the local grocery store, everyone looked up and greeted her. After she died, we made a CD of her favorite songs to give to people at the funeral, and we called it, “A Force of Nature.” And that’s really how all of us thought of her. She was larger-than-life, and the matriarch of our family.
Mamaw saw the world in terms of people she had to protect, and people she had to protect them from. Whether it was a third cousin who was estranged from her family, or a neighborhood girl who had just been beaten up by her dad, Mamaw really loved people who were vulnerable. She also had an extraordinary fierce temper, and could be really mean to people she felt had wronged her family. But that just contributed to her legend.
Living with Mamaw gave me an unbelievably stable situation. And until you’ve moved nearly every year for your entire life, you don’t realize how wonderful it is that all of your mail comes to one address. If someone sends you a letter or card on your birthday, it’s actually going to get to you. More importantly, there was never any fighting or screaming in Mamaw’s house. So what if she could be mean and a little scary? I was really happy living with her.
When I moved in with her, I had almost failed out of freshman year, and sophomore year wasn’t going much better. Mamaw demanded that I do well at school. And because it was important to her—and because, as I said, we saw her as larger-than-life—school became important to me and I started getting much better grades. She also encouraged me to think about how I would take care of myself and my family down the road. At the end of the day, I had something for almost three years that I had wanted my entire life, and that was a home. I knew I wouldn’t have to leave, that there would be no cataclysmic event that would come along and destroy my life.
Rumpus: You talk about “thumbs that were put on the scales” to tip them a little in your favor. Your grandmother was certainly one. What else, or who else, helped tip the scales for you?
Vance: My sister and my aunt—we called her Aunt Wee—were incredibly important to me. I also had some great teachers along the way who really encouraged me. The Marine Corps came along at a very important time in my life. You hear people today talk about grit and the development of non-cognitive skills. Well, I didn’t have those skills until I went through the Marine Corps. I think my exposure to the Christian faith was important. And as far as government programs, I received Pell grants and used the GI Bill.
Rumpus: You’ve experienced tremendous upward mobility in your thirty-two years. What might surprise people about what this feels like?
Vance: Yesterday I took a friend to my office, which is in the Presidio. We were looking out the window at the Golden Gate Bridge, and he said to me, “Holy shit, you’ve come really far.” And he didn’t mean it in the material sense. I think about my wife, my two dogs, the life I lead—things I never thought I’d have. I think of all the people who made it a possibility, and I can’t believe how lucky I am.
But at some level, the place you move from is always attached to you psychologically. What people probably assume is that if you achieve the American dream, you know how to live a new life. But you don’t.
I didn’t learn to be a good husband where I grew up. What I saw was that people had sparring partners, not relationship partners. When you fight with somebody you’re close to, you fight to win and you fight to hurt. You want to score emotional points, and you want the other person to be crying. In some ways, it doesn’t even matter that you hurt people, because they’re not going to be there for you in the long run anyway.
Between my mom’s five marriages and the dozen or so boyfriends she had—not to mention all the divorce I saw among my high school friends and my family—I learned that marriage and love weren’t permanent. Marriage was just a necessary evil.
So at the end of the day, if I wanted to be a good husband, I had to teach myself.
Rumpus: You’ve struggled with class identity. You write of feeling loyal to family and community, and disdainful of the so-called elites—people who drink sparkling water and speak pretentiously. Yet now you live among these people. How do you straddle two very different worlds?
Vance: There are times that I feel like a fish out of water here. The mannerisms and ways of conversing are more proper, more genteel. I went to the cafeteria at work the other day and they were serving fried chicken. I got audibly excited, like, “Yes!” And everyone around me was, like, “Really?”
More importantly, I notice that the worries people have back home are a little more essential than what people here think about. Back home, I’d hear, “Oh God, is the EBT—the food stamp card—going to be loaded in time? Am I going to be able to pay the rent?” Here, people worry about not being able to get a direct flight somewhere, and having to wait through a layover.
Sometimes I also feel like a fish out of water back home. When people there ask whether my wife and I are going to take a trip, typically what they mean is a road trip, maybe to the Gulf of Mexico or Gatlinburg. For our next trip, we’re going to Cambridge, in England. In other words, the life I’m living seems a little outrageous to people back home.
A few months ago my niece and nephew came out here for a visit, and we went to a restaurant that by San Francisco standards is pretty moderately priced. My niece was worried that she might order something that’s too expensive. I used to have that same feeling. I remember, as a kid, going to restaurants, and whoever was paying would look at the bill like it was a death sentence. My niece referred to me as wealthy, which is really kind of absurd. Wealthy, when you live in San Francisco, means owning a $5 million house. Wealthy, when you live in Middletown, means not having to worry about buying an $80 dinner for four people. Sometimes I feel caught between those two worlds.
It sounds a little trite, but this is how I reckon with it: I never stop thinking about ways to help make life better for the people where I grew up. And I never forget where I came from.