Hillbilly Elegy is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in awhile. It gives a cultural context to this group of Americans. It is written by one of their own.
It’s about the Scotch-Irish people who came to the Americas and dominated Appalachia’s gritty coal mines until coal fell out of favor; the risks of coal dust finally proven not just for miners, but for everyone else as well.
The decline of mining drove the ambitious among them to the industrial cities of the north: Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, etc., where they populated the automobile and other factories then fueling the world economy.
J.D. Vance describes his people as “feuding” folk – citing his own ancestral connection to the legendary Hatfield-McCoy feud that apparently went on for generations. He asserts that this fighting nature is so ingrained in the culture that the only ones who escape it are those who marry outside it.
He describes his abiding love for the men in his mother’s family, set against his dawning understanding of how appallingly violent they were. The violence was pervasive, within families and in the community at large. He describes its destructiveness. The damage it did to people. Yet, these men and this culture still live at the heart of his identity. This I understand.
He, who grew up with an unstable mother, describes a fearful childhood. With his mother he bounced from house to house, and from stepfather to stepfather; his grandma the only constant in his life. This would be the grandmother who saved him, though she suffered through a great deal herself. She managed to give him a foundation that eventually led him to Yale Law rather than becoming a reflection of all he saw around him.
In the very last chapter he brings in science – or sociology (Amazon categorizes this as a sociology book) – referencing a Kaiser Permanente joint study with the Centers for Disease Control that started in the 1990s. It measures how adverse childhood experiences – ACEs – influence health outcomes throughout a person’s entire life.
The study asserts that the more ACEs a person has been subjected to, the greater the risk they’ll have big, intractable problems as adults: be obese, have heart disease or high blood pressure, be an alcoholic or addict, etc. The ACEs in the study are:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Mother treated violently
- Household substance abuse
- Household mental illness
- Parental separation or divorce
- Incarcerated household member
Welfare, substance abuse, domestic violence – all the things that poverty generates – Vance unflinchingly lays bare in this book. There is no discernable self-pity; just an accounting of what was.
Vance recalls that academic excellence was not discouraged, but neither was it encouraged. If you made the cut, your people were happy for you. If you didn’t, well… There was no imperative to excel. As a friend of mine likes to say, the people had “made peace with mediocrity.”
A trajectory here: one thing I have long wondered is why in the world of stand-up comedy it is still acceptable to make fun of “rednecks.” We’ve slowly moved away from derogatory jokes about Blacks, Jews, Poles – really every other ethnic or religious group. Un-PC (politically correct), we now agree. But then there’s this one group that it’s still ok to ridicule. Why? I still don’t get it. (That may be another blog post.)
Reading Hillbilly Elegy opened my eyes to a world I will never be invited into, but that I now have a way to understand. Thank you, J.D. Vance.