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.
“THIS IS JUST MY FACE:” THE SURPRISING HUMOR OF GABOUREY SIDIBE
An article I penned for The Douglas Review in May: Gabourey Sidibe’s Memoir Released
Gabourey Sidibe was probably sent to earth to show the rest of us how to live a truly authentic life. Her physical appearance is, to most people, the thing most remarkable about her. It is antithetical to everything our culture has trained us to value. Obese and dark skinned, she has nevertheless carved out a stellar career in an industry that celebrates thinness and fairness – especially for women.
Yet here came Gabourey. She stumbled into the title role in the 2009 film Precious, a devastating tale of an abused teen who struggles against all odds to claw her way up from society’s depths. The performance won Gabourey an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, launching her career right out of the gate. If you are tempted to confuse the actress, Gabourey, with the character, Precious, be warned: do not. She has a bedrock of self-confidence often remarked upon, given her race, her gender, her looks. Defying all predictions, she has been cast in a plethora of subsequent roles, and won a ton more awards. She is currently cast in the hit series Empire.
This month her memoir, This is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare, has hit the shelves. The reviews indicate another home run for Gabourey. Those who have not followed her meteoric career will be introduced to a poignantly funny, lighthearted young woman who has faced very ordinary American-girl challenges: her weight (since age six), on-and-off depression, and the sort of self-doubt that haunts most young lives. She dishes about casual slights suffered in Hollywood and, these days, being alternately ignored and mistreated at high-end retail shops, if she is not at first recognized. The child of educated, accomplished parents, she is massively well read, as revealed in this interview in The New York Times. Followers on social media know her to be spontaneously witty and authentically hilarious. The book reveals a sophistication that belies her 33 years.
But, as the title of the book makes clear, she is defiantly herself. Humor has clearly played a role in keeping her grounded and able to keep her own circumstances – not an easy life by any measure – in perspective. The book is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Find Gabourey’s upcoming book tour dates here.
GOOD GIRLS REVOLT
Holy smokes! I am only just beginning to watch this series, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. I love it because, well… Me and my friends, we lived through it.
In this series we see the news desk at a fake Newsweek, circa the late 1960s. The men on the desk were “reporters,” with bylines. The “girls” were “researchers,” and they never got credit for their work.
It was just the way things worked; support staff did not get their names in the magazine. Yet many of those “girls” were doing the heavy lifting FOR the guys on the desk, and everybody knew it. This is the moment where, right around the time of the extremely newsworthy 1968 Democratic National Convention, trouble began to brew.
It was a big moment for news. What made the Convention news was the Vietnam War, and the nationwide protests that magnified the nation’s anxiety that summer. That anxiety exploded at the Convention.
It is also fun to see the now-legendary “Norah Ephron” and “Eleanor Holmes Norton,” on the screen. The former married Carl Bernstein, one of the two Watergate reporters whose reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s administration and forever changed journalists’ sense of themselves. She’s been a high powered journalist and author in her own right. The latter still holds the District of Columbia’s one seat in Congress, capping off a lifetime of activism.
To watch this show is to be reminded what it has really taken for women in the United States to get where we are today in the journalism profession. The series reveals how young the trailblazers were at the time: and shows the slow simmering of their ambitions.
The resentments that boiled over into the lawsuits did not develop overnight. Those resentments might even have started with our mothers – that whole generation of post-World War II talent we saw thwarted with our own eyes. We did not want to inherit that disappointment.
At the same time, these girls – and they were still girls – were bridging the generations. Their prime directive, programmed into them since birth, was to get married and have children. And they still really, really wanted that! But they also wanted to write. They wanted to be participants in world affairs. They wanted to make a difference.
The acting is superb. I’m not personally familiar with the young cast, but they’ve nailed some of the true-life characters (Nora Ephron is priceless).
I recommend this series highly. These women are journalism icons today, and we know their stories well. This series brings those stories to life. The revolution was taking place all over American society, not just in journalism, as women came off the sidelines, and all Baby Boomers took sides on the war.
Even people who don’t know or care about that history may find Good Girls Revolt highly entertaining.
For the young folks, THESE WERE YOUR PARENTS! And yes, they were just like the young people in this show. Don’t let them tell you different!