Hillbilly Elegy sets out to explore the struggles of the rural white working class in 21st-century America through the personal story of its author, JD Vance. Part autobiography, part sociological text, and part political manifesto, the book tells a story of dysfunctional families; substance abuse; the material, spiritual, and moral decline of Appalachia; and the struggles to achieve true economic and social mobility in the United States. Ultimately, JD overcomes the odds and achieves a life of success and respectability outside of the hillbilly culture from which he came—but at a heavy personal cost, and with many struggles along the way.
JD was born in 1987 in Middletown, Ohio, to a family of transplanted Kentucky hillbillies. His mother, Bev, would struggle with substance abuse issues for most of his childhood and adolescence, inflicting severe emotional trauma on him and his older sister, Lindsay. On one occasion, she pulled over the car while she was driving him and threatened to severely beat him—until he escaped to a nearby house and had her arrested. On another occasion, her drug addiction spiraled so far out of control that she forced her teenage son to provide a clean urine sample so she could pass a drug test.
She also cycled through five marriages during this period of JD’s life, sometimes with men she’d only known for a few weeks. The instability was a major source of pain for him as he was growing up—he never had a true father figure and had a conflicted-at-best relationship with his biological dad. Bev would often force him to move in with her new men, taking him to new towns away from his friends and family, only for these people to be suddenly and unceremoniously removed from his life with their relationship with Bev ended.
JD’s maternal grandparents—Mamaw and Papaw, as he called them—saved JD from falling into the same dysfunctional pattern of life as his mother and so many other people in his community. They taught him that he was capable of anything if he worked hard enough and to never buy into the idea that the deck was stacked against him just because of the circumstances into which he’d been born.
JD recalls his Papaw staying up late with him to help him master advanced math concepts. Later in life, when he permanently moved out of his mother’s house as a teenager, his Mamaw (then a widow) provided him the safety, security, stability, and unconditional love that had been so sorely lacking from his biological parents. She made sure he did his homework, kept his room clean, and gave him the structure and the drive for success that would ultimately spur him on to bigger and better things. In one memorable story, his Mamaw saved up and purchased him an expensive, state-of-the-art graphing calculator, just so he could succeed in his advanced placement math class.
This personal investment in his future showed JD that there were people who loved him and would be willing to help him realize his potential. As JD himself puts it, his grandparents were “the best thing that ever happened to him.”
JD enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduating from high school. Enduring the emotional and physical toll of basic training taught him the virtues of self-reliance and showed him that he was capable of achieving far more than he had given himself credit for. He discovered that he had spent his whole life underestimating himself—thanks to his tumultuous upbringing in which he felt unloved and unwanted, and the hillbilly culture, which encouraged a deep pessimism and fatalism about one’s prospects in life.
After being discharged, JD went on to Ohio State and then to Yale Law School, where he discovered just how different his hillbilly upbringing had been from those of the upper-middle-class and wealthy people he was now surrounded with. At Yale, JD discovered the value of social capital—the networks of relationships that enable individuals to function and succeed. Having social capital meant access to people, institutions, and opportunities. JD realized how sorely lacking he’d been in this vital asset for all his life. But through determination, he learned how to hold his own in the elite circles of which he was now a part and built a life outside of the rough-and-tumble Appalachian world from which he’d come.
Beyond just being the story of JD Vance’s life, Hillbilly Elegy is a broader social commentary and a critique of hillbilly culture. Vance argues that hillbilly culture, as lived and practiced in post-industrial towns across Appalachia like where he grew up, has come to celebrate self-destructive and antisocial behavior. He contends that this behavior and a certain set of attitudes are severe hindrances that prevent white working class people from acknowledging the problems in their families and their communities and make it difficult for people to succeed outside of that culture.
Growing up, JD saw that many people in his community viewed work with disdain and struggled to hold down a steady job. His community was plagued by high levels of unemployment, indebtedness, welfare dependency, and poor work habits. JD recalls one young man with whom he worked at a summer job. The man would consistently take hour-long bathroom breaks, call out sick at least once a week, and was chronically late. Eventually, he was fired. Yet when this happened, the man blamed his employer for the situation, claiming he’d been treated unfairly—there was no sense of personal responsibility, no willingness to account for how his own actions had led him to this point.
JD makes the case that hillbilly culture has become resentful and insular, all too willing to blame the rest of the world for its problems instead of taking an introspective look at itself. Rather than taking responsibility, JD saw that many of his drug-addicted and impoverished friends and neighbors chose to blame the government (and often President Barack Obama specifically). One friend quit his job because he refused to wake up late, then took to social media to bemoan the sluggishness of the “Obama economy” for his unemployment.
In examining his own political affiliations later in life, JD saw that movement conservatism— while ideologically and rhetorically rooted in the ethic of personal responsibility—too often just provided its adherents with targets to blame, instead of solutions for self-improvement. Popular religion reinforced the same themes. JD saw how fundamentalist Protestantism, for example, gave people no concrete answers for life’s most pressing issues. It instead gave them a convenient list of bogeymen to fear and oppose—usually LGBT people, liberal college professors, the federal government, abortionists, and feminists. As long as you had disdain for the “right” people, you were a good person.
Too many in JD’s community, particularly males, lived by an outmoded “code of honor” that demanded violent retribution be meted out to anyone who offered the slightest insult or sign of disrespect. Growing up, he heard stories about how close relatives had beaten and shot people in the course of disputes. This was celebrated as a noble cultural characteristic, and JD became an ardent practitioner. When a boy broke up with his sister, he saw it as his duty to violently attack the young man. When someone insulted his grandmother on the schoolyard, his sense of family loyalty and honor compelled him to start a fight. Looking back, JD now sees this behavior as self-destructive: the rest of the world does not resolve mild disputes or disagreements through violence. Growing up in this world stops young people from knowing how to resolve conflicts in a healthy way and renders them unable to function outside of it.
Today, as an Ivy League-educated white collar professional, JD is able to look back soberly at just how much of an exception he is: how little emphasis his community and his culture placed on education. A college education was a distant and remote pipe-dream, certainly not something parents prepared their children for or treated as an expected life experience. No one JD knew had gone to a four-year college; and 20 percent of the town’s high school freshman cohort wouldn’t go on to graduate in four years. With hindsight, JD attributes this poor record of educational attainment to a culture of low expectations. Children saw poverty, high unemployment, and drug addiction all around them growing up, often in their own immediate families. With such poor models of adult behavior, they never came to expect much from themselves.
Throughout his childhood and teenage years, JD saw how his community was infected by a gloomy pessimism and fatalism that encouraged people to abandon any hope that their material condition could ever improve. This attitude only encouraged indifference and apathy, as well as poor work ethic: if things will never get better, there’s no point in working hard to try to improve your lot in life. Indeed, surveys show that working-class whites are the most pessimistic demographic group in America today. This speaks to a deep spiritual and cultural decline in the community.
When he went to Ohio State and then to Yale Law...
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The rural, white working-class in America is one of the most-studied, yet least-understood subsets of the country’s population. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, pundits, economists, and political commentators have struggled to make sense of why the once staunchly Democratic “hillbillies” of Appalachia have turned so sharply toward the Republican Party.
Beyond just partisan politics, Hillbilly Elegy sets out to examine why conditions have become so dire for this segment of the population. Through his narrative, JD Vance takes us through the history of how hillbilly culture and values spread beyond their heartland in Appalachia, why these norms and standards of conduct have become hindrances to upward mobility, and how the culture needs to change if it is to succeed in a rapidly changing nation and economy.
Hillbilly Elegy explores the cultural pathologies of the white working class in America through the personal experiences of its author, JD Vance. Growing up in a dysfunctional family and spending most of his childhood and teenage years in Middletown, Ohio, Vance saw firsthand the destructive attitudes and values of this culture—attitudes and values that he believes are primarily responsible for its perilous state. They include:
An aversion to hard work and thrift, as shown by the high levels of unemployment, indebtedness, drug addiction, and the widespread propensity of individuals in his community to lavishly spend beyond their means.
A resentful, insular culture that blames the rest of the world for its problems (or just denies their existence) instead of taking an introspective look at itself.
A “culture of honor” that demands the resolution of disputes through violence or, at best, harsh verbal abuse. These modes of conflict resolution may work in the hillbilly culture, but they leave these people utterly unprepared for a life outside it.
A destructive tendency to indulge in conspiracy theories that discourage meaningful participation in 21st-century society. These conspiracy theories can be both political and religious in nature. On the political side, for example, the widespread acceptance of “birtherism” (the belief that Barack Obama was born outside the U.S. or that he is a secret Muslim). On the religious side, Vance laments the strong hold that Young Earth creationism and disbelief in the theory of evolution have within this community.
A gloomy pessimism and fatalism that encourages people to abandon any hope that their conditions will ever improve. This attitude only encourages indifference and apathy, as well as poor work ethic: if things will never get better, there’s no point in working hard to try to improve your lot in life.
As both a work of social commentary and an autobiography, Hillbilly Elegy takes us through Vance’s formative years where he witnesses one social dysfunction after another:
Vance shares the story of his struggles growing up within this culture as a means of articulating a broader social and cultural critique of the Appalachian white working class. Through it all, however, Vance is undeniably proud of where he comes from and clearly loves his family very dearly.
He credits his maternal grandmother and grandfather (whom he calls Mamaw and Papaw) with saving him from the dysfunction of his nuclear family and instilling in him the attitudes and work ethic that empowered him to rise above.
Mamaw refused to allow young Vance to succumb to the “woe-is-me” mentality that haunted his community: she encouraged him to work hard, do well in school, and never lower his expectations of himself because of where he came from.
While Mamaw and Papaw were undoubtedly products of the hillbilly culture, they were also self-aware enough to recognize the drawbacks that it could have on a young person’s outlook. They, instead, exemplified the best of hillbilly culture: its pride in America, its patriotism, its grit and toughness, and its fierce sense of loyalty to family and community.
Thanks to their guidance, JD was able to graduate high school with...
Shortform note: As the title of the book would suggest, the term “hillbilly” is used frequently. Broadly speaking, it refers to poorer white people of Scots-Irish origins living in Appalachia, a large region east of the Mississippi River that spans the Appalachian Mountains, running from Georgia and Alabama in the south to New York in the north.
“Hillbilly” is often a slur, particularly when used by people from outside the culture. Vance, however, makes it clear that he considers the label to be a badge of honor that he wears proudly. We’ve followed his lead on this for the purposes of this summary and do not shy away from using the term to describe the culture and the people.
To fully tell his story, JD has to begin by telling his family’s story. Mamaw and Papaw were raised in Jackson, Kentucky, which they left in the 1940s when Papaw found work in the Armco steelworks in Middletown, Ohio.
Right from the outset, however, his family history was tinged with the loss, despair, and social dysfunction that would come to define so much of his own experience. Mamaw and Papaw left Jackson after Mamaw became pregnant as a teenager and gave birth to an infant who tragically passed away just a few days later. This tragedy, along with the burgeoning economic opportunities in southwest Ohio, compelled the young couple to uproot themselves and make their way out of Kentucky.
Mamaw and Papaw were hardly alone in leaving the largely rural and undeveloped economy of that part of Kentucky during this time. Indeed, they were part of a mass exodus of young Appalachian families seeking opportunities in the fast-growing and rapidly industrializing Midwest.
Companies like Armco, where Papaw found employment, actively recruited workers from the eastern Kentucky coal country where Vance’s family had its roots. These companies often encouraged and paid for men to bring their whole families with them, effectively transplanting entire communities.
The wave of migration was so common that stretches of U.S. Route 23 and Interstate 75 became colloquially known as the “Hillbilly Highway.” The numbers of people on the move were immense: by the 1950s, 13 percent of Kentucky residents had left the state.
As with any wave of migration, the hillbilly migrants brought their own culture and set of traditions to their new homes in the industrialized Midwest. Appalachian transplants established their own communities in these industrial towns and cities, often to the alarm of the more established middle class Ohioans.
The migrants from Kentucky seemed to be people from an entirely different world. For the more bourgeois Midwesterners, the hillbillies were alien and destructive to community values:
They had too many children; they brought their extended families into their homes for visits that lasted too long, upsetting the peace, quiet, and normalcy of the community; and they were coarse, profane, and prone to violence.
In one illustrative example, Vance recounts a story that subsequently became family legend. His grandparents were in a department store in Middletown with their son when the boy started to play with one of the toys on display.
When the clerk asked the boy to put the toy down and leave the store, Papaw and Mamaw went berserk: smashing the merchandise and physically threatening the clerk, saying “If you say another word to my son, I will break your fucking neck.”
This display of violent anger and utter disregard for social norms was shocking to the Ohioans who witnessed the scene, but it was a matter of basic pride for Vance’s family. The parents were merely defending his son against a stranger who had slighted the family’s honor by telling him where he could and couldn’t go. This was just what any self-respecting hillbilly would do when an outsider messed with their child.
Shortform note: This scene of violence and anger in response to a relatively mild slight may have its roots in what historians and sociologists have called the “Southern culture of honor.” It’s characterized by an extreme unwillingness to tolerate personal insults of any kind and a high propensity, particularly on the part of males, to defend one’s reputation with violence.
Honor cultures are common in places where the rule of law and the control of centralized authorities have been historically weak: like the remote parts of the British Isles from which the hillbillies’ Scots-Irish ancestors came. These values were easily transplanted to the remote, rugged world of Appalachia. In turn, the hillbillies brought these values with them when they migrated to other regions of the United States.
For more on culture of honor, see our summary of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.
Interestingly, Vance observes that the Ohioans seemed to view the transplanted hillbilly community as being almost racially different, despite the migrants being just as white as their neighbors.
To the Ohioans, the hillbillies shared many behavioral and cultural characteristics with the black migrants who came up from the South to settle in Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and other industrial Midwestern cities during the great black migrations of the postwar era.
This experience shows that culture is not stationary: your values and upbringing will follow you wherever you go. This was certainly true for the transplanted Kentuckians: they didn’t leave their way of life behind when they left their native communities, they simply brought them to a new location.
Mamaw summed it up pithily by saying, “you can take the boy out of Kentucky, but you can’t take Kentucky out of the boy.”
Despite the clash of cultures, the hostility, and the discrimination the hillbillies faced, their migration story was initially a largely successful one. Within two generations,...
Think about how your background and culture influences your view of the world.
Think about your family’s history. Is there anything in it that you believe has shaped your worldview and values?
JD’s mother had once been a promising student and seemed on track to rise up from the poverty and abuse that had surrounded her as a child. Unfortunately, she fell into the same cycle of dysfunctional that she had learned from her parents. She married her high school boyfriend and quickly found her life beset by the drama, fighting, and violence that had so defined her parents’ marriage.
At nineteen, she gave birth to a child (JD’s older sister Lindsay), filed for divorce, and began life anew as a single mom. After remarrying in 1983, she gave birth to JD in 1984, in Middletown.
JD’s father was a man named Don Bowman, his mother’s second husband. JD remembers little from his early childhood before the age of six, but he does recall one particularly vivid memory from this period.
One day, his mother picked him up from kindergarten and told him, quite matter-of-factly, that he would never see his biological father again. Bev’s explanation was that his father “didn’t want him anymore” and wanted instead to give him up for adoption. This would be the first in a long series of father-figures who would come and go from JD’s life, a product of his mother’s inability to form stable relationships and her extreme willingness to jump into living arrangements with men she barely knew—a pattern of tumult and instability that would become a constant source of pain and anxiety for JD and Lindsay.
JD was legally adopted by his mother’s next romantic partner, a man named Bob Hamel. While he treated the children kindly, Bob embodied so much of the hillbilly culture that Mamaw and Papaw had desperately wanted their children and grandchildren to steer clear of.
Bob had children from a previous marriage (with whom he had a minimal relationship), suffered from poor dental hygiene, lacked even a high school education, and made his living driving a truck. Looking back on Bob, JD describes him as “a walking hillbilly stereotype.”
JD had an early childhood exposure to his mother’s pattern of unstable and unhappy relationships with men. JD was forced to witness frequent screaming matches between his mother and adopted father; physical violence between the couple (with the one stipulation being that Bob couldn’t hit first); and brutal verbal abuse.
There was also a reckless financial profligacy and a total lack of regard for saving and thrift, behavior that JD would come to see as a consistent feature of hillbilly culture. This was despite the fact that the household income exceeded $100,000: hardly a small sum in rural Ohio. Bev and Bob racked up thousands of dollars in credit card debt, spending lavishly on items that they didn’t need, like new cars, new trucks and even a swimming pool. The deteriorating financial situation hastened the demise of this fragile marriage. Bob and Bev separated and another father figure in JD’s life (his legal father in this case) was gone.
Needless to say, all of this began to take a toll on JD. His grades at school declined and he began to put on weight, while suffering from severe stomach aches. He also had trouble sleeping, out of fear of being awoken by the stomping, yelling, and smashing of furniture that had defined so much of his young life up to this point.
As an adult, JD doesn’t point to the domestic abuse itself as the most harrowing aspect of living with his mother and Bob. Instead, it was the uncertainty that was the most unnerving. He could never be sure what might trigger a knock-down, drag-out brawl. Even seemingly innocuous events—a wrong word here, a mild childhood transgression there—could provoke a plate being smashed or a door being kicked in.
As JD sadly reminisces, however, his domestic situation was hardly exceptional. These behaviors were quite normal and widespread in his community. After a while, seeing families hurl barbed insults at one another and engage in acts of physical violence ceased to be shocking: it was simply a part of life for JD, his sister, and their friends. He came to believe that this was just the way that adults treated one another.
What Bev’s marriage to Bob embodied, to Mamaw and Papaw’s dismay, was a lack of generational progress. While Mamaw and Papaw themselves lacked formal education and had experienced teen pregnancy, substance abuse, and domestic violence, they always expected that the next generation would do better.
This was core to their belief in the American Dream: that those who worked hard could achieve anything. Mamaw and Papaw, for all their flaws, worked tirelessly to give their children and grandchildren access to opportunities that they themselves never had. Mamaw always encouraged self-reliance: she cautioned JD to never be like the “fucking losers” who thought that their fate was beyond their control.
Bev’s marriage to a hillbilly stereotype like Bob showed Mamaw and Papaw that on some level, they had failed their daughter and grandchildren. What this illustrates is the distinction between economic mobility and social mobility. The Vance clan had certainly achieved the former: they were earning money well above and beyond what they could have in Kentucky. Even Bob made a comfortable living driving a truck.
But this newfound (relative) wealth never translated into true social mobility. Bev carried forward all the destructive social attitudes and dysfunctional modes of conflict resolution that she had learned from her childhood and that her parents had brought with them from their hillbilly culture in Kentucky. They may have been living a life of comparative material comfort, but the family was still saddled with the same harmful social values and norms.
This is illustrated quite vividly by JD’s early education in the concept of “hillbilly justice.” During visits with his grandparents back to Jackson, Kentucky...
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Explore the decline of rural, blue-collar America.
One of Vance’s major contentions is that culture, not economics, is behind much of the suffering in Appalachia and similar parts of the country. In a few sentences, share your opinions on this view.
These larger social, cultural, and economic trends were dramatically illustrated by the increasingly chaotic and disturbing events of JD’s personal life. When JD was eleven, his mother had to be hospitalized following a suicide attempt.
This was one of his first exposures to just how deeply damaged his mother was—and how much her struggles would come to define his formative years. Ultimately, through the love and guidance of his grandparents (especially Mamaw), JD would eventually come out on the other side of these traumatic experiences a better and stronger person. But his history with his mother still haunts him and he realizes that not everyone in those circumstances is as lucky to have two tough-as-nails hillbillies as his grandparents in their corner.
Although her marriage with Bob was loveless and marked by verbal and physical abuse, its deterioration clearly took a powerful emotional toll on her already-fragile and unstable psyche.
Bev began to turn to drugs and alcohol, and started having numerous affairs with strange men who would suddenly appear and then disappear from JD’s life. As a result, JD and his sister grew having no idea of how a man ought to treat his family and without any true father figure at all.
Things came to a head when she tried to kill herself by crashing her car into a telephone pole. When she was released from the hospital, things only deteriorated further. The kids got a full view of the extent of their mother’s dysfunction, as she would stay out all night with new friends that JD and Lindsay had never met before. She would also subject them to extreme emotional outbursts and episodes of physical violence.
Things lingered in this state for a few months, until an event took place between JD and his mother that forever altered their relationship and showed JD just how toxic his mother had become.
After one of his mother’s characteristic outbursts, she decided to make it up to her son by taking him out to buy some football cards. During the ride to the mall, JD said something to her (he doesn’t recall now what exactly it was that he said) that set off his mom’s trigger-hair temper.
She reacted with a level of fury and violence that even JD, for all he’d seen, could hardly fathom. She accelerated the car and threatened to kill the both of them, then pulled the vehicle over and attempted to savagely beat her son.
JD managed to escape the car and run to a nearby house, where the woman at home called the police. Before the police arrived, Bev had managed to kick down the woman’s door and drag JD, who was screaming for help, onto the front lawn. Bev was ultimately arrested, violently resisting as the cops put her in the squad car.
In the aftermath, JD’s mother would retain nominal custody of the children, but with the tacit agreement that JD could live with Mamaw whenever he wished.
As an adult, JD notes his mother’s trial as his first exposure to America’s class differences.
Even as a child, he observed that the social workers, judges, and lawyers all spoke in what he dubbed a “TV accent.” This was the neutral, flat, non-regional accent in which national news anchors speak. It was a jarring contrast from the Appalachian twang that so many of JD’s family and friends spoke with.
Looking back, he sees this as an inflection point: the beginning of his understanding that there was a big difference between the people who wrote and enforced the laws, and those who were subjected to them—and he and his community were firmly in the latter camp.
Another shock to the system happened when JD visited his Uncle Jimmy in California. This wasn’t his first time travelling away from home. JD had visited relatives in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas, but all of those trips bore something in common: they were all journeys to places that were firmly entrenched in hillbilly culture. The family he saw there lived the same way people did in Middletown: eating the same foods, practicing the same religion, and sharing the same outlook on life—with all the good and bad that that outlook entailed.
But California was different, filled with people who came from different backgrounds and didn’t carry the same baggage of hillbilly culture. JD visited wineries, met LGBT people in San Francisco’s Castro district, and had other experiences that he couldn’t have had in a place like Middletown. It showed him that there was a wider world outside of the culture from which he’d come.
California was a brief interlude at this time in JD’s life, and perhaps a glimpse of what might be in his future. But for now, he was back the hillbilly world, where he reconnected with an unlikely figure—Don Bowman, his biological father.
In the time since Don had separated from Bev, he had remarried and become a born-again Christian. JD was struck by the relative serenity of Don’s house during the summer he spent there. There was no violence, no verbal abuse, and certainly no drugs or alcohol. Even the corporal punishment that Don doled out to the children from his second marriage was businesslike and perfunctory—a far cry from the rage-inflected beatings that were so familiar to JD.
Don credited his newfound peace with his embrace of faith. The social science appears to bear this out: studies show churchgoing people generally are more content than secular people. They also tend to commit fewer crimes, have higher incomes, and better educational outcomes.
With the contrast between his father’s home life and his mother’s as his only source of evidence, JD was quick to credit the difference to active religious commitment.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the stereotypes about the region, JD’s upbringing had little in the way of organized religion. While his hillbilly family was certainly of conservative Protestant stock, they weren’t...
Explore how trauma and instability affect one’s outlook.
How do you think JD’s mother’s pattern of unstable relationships primarily affected him? Specifically, what lessons would it have taught him about family and domestic partnership?
When JD was 13, his grandfather passed away at his home. This was obviously a major event for everyone in his family.
Papaw was a man from another time and place who sometimes embodied the very worst aspects of hillbilly culture: he could be patriarchal, willing to resort to violence to resolve disputes, and clearly had a drinking problem that inflicted real trauma on his wife and children.
But he also managed to rise above the circumstances into which he’d been born and had provided a level of material comfort for his family that would have been unthinkable if he’d stayed in the hillbilly heartland where’d come from.
Most importantly, Papaw believed in the value and efficacy of hard work and tried his hardest to instill these ideals in his children and grandchildren. Papaw wouldn’t have denied that the family was poor or disadvantaged, but he would never rely on that as an excuse. To him, work mattered more than luck.
One of JD’s most powerful memories was of his Papaw staying up late to help him with math homework, so that JD was eventually able to master increasingly complex math problems. In doing this, Papaw taught JD that there was a difference between lack of intelligence and lack of knowledge. He showed JD that he could improve his knowledge through effort and a desire to learn. His effect on JD’s life was profound: at the funeral, JD tearfully described his grandfather as the closest thing to a true father he had.
For JD’s mom, the loss of her father inflicted a terrible blow on her already-fragile mental state. She quickly spiraled into a deep depression.
Her notorious temper also began to flare up again. Mild “provocations” like unwashed dishes would prompt outbursts in which she would scream at her teenage children, “I’ve lost him and you’re not making this any easier!” She was simply unable to accept anyone else’s grief over the loss of Papaw.
Soon, Bev’s behavior began to take a turn for the worse. She was arrested during a domestic squabble with Mamaw that (once again) spiraled out of control. She also started abusing prescription drugs—to which she had easy access as a nurse—around this time, stealing from her patients to feed her addiction. Ultimately, she was fired for rollerblading through the emergency room. Evidently, her substance abuse had altered her mental state to the point where this seemed like a normal and appropriate thing to do.
She was transformed into a person completely unable and unwilling to conform to the basic norms and standards of adult behavior. Eventually, she had to go to rehab in Cincinnati, where JD and his sister Lindsay would visit her on weekends. These visits showed JD the true horrors of American addiction, but they also gave him key insights into why his mom was the way she was. For example, she revealed to him that she had turned to drugs to escape her financial stress and to cope with the loss of her father.
The family therapy sessions at the treatment center also brought to light resentments and wounds that had been long-simmering between Bev and her children. One weekend, Lindsay confronted her mother about how much she hated watching her little brother (JD) get attached to one of Bev’s boyfriends, only for the boyfriend to suddenly disappear from JD’s life.
JD also became acquainted with the idea of addiction as a disease during this time. According to this theory, being an addict was a disease that simply afflicted certain unfortunate people. Just as you couldn’t judge a cancer patient for having cancer, you couldn’t judge a drug addict for their behavior: they were sick.
At the time, JD found this concept absurd and was opposed to its broader implication—that his mom wasn’t responsible for her actions and that it would be wrong to hold her accountable. As an adult, JD now does acknowledge that there is a biological and genetic basis for addiction. But the disease concept of dependency still strikes him as not quite right: to him, the idea only reinforces the worst tendencies of hillbilly culture and provides an excuse, and even justification, for antisocial behavior.
Once Bev was discharged, her pattern of erratic and unstable relationships quickly resurfaced. She took up with a constant parade of new men, and JD was forced to change homes frequently. What was most painful was the instability and tumult: he was always surrounded by strangers, always in a new place, and cut off from everyone he knew and loved.
Thankfully, he was able to remain in school in Middletown and was able to visit Mamaw and his sister and her husband whenever he wanted. This provided him some measure of stability. But his mother’s romantic life was increasingly chaotic, even by her standards. JD and Bev ended up moving in with a man she’d gone on a date with just a week before!
The instability of this latest situation exerted a heavy toll on JD. He nearly flunked out during his freshman year of high school and was struggling to even maintain a 2.0 GPA. He was also starting to experiment with marijuana and alcohol, taking the first steps down the same path that his mother had.
During this time, Bev’s substance abuse got worse, and her emotional toll on the rest of the family was about to come to a head. One day, she demanded that JD give her a jar of his clean urine so she could pass a drug test. This floored JD. He saw how completely entitled she was, expecting that he would just help her cheat on a drug test, like it was some basic responsibility he owed her. She was also utterly remorseless at having broken her promise to remain sober.
JD even told Mamaw to her face that she was responsible for Bev’s amoral behavior, arguing that if she’d put her foot down decades ago, Bev wouldn’t be at the low point of asking for her son’s urine. Ultimately, Mamaw convinced JD to relent and give his mother what she needed to pass...
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Evaluate how public policy can help (or hurt) places like Middletown.
Vance argues that government has little role to play in addressing the concerns of people in communities like the one where he grew up. Do you agree or disagree? Explain why in a few sentences. Try to back up your argument with real-world information.
The final three years JD lived with Mamaw were transformative. He lost interest in drug experimentation, became a good student, aced his SATs, and discovered a love of learning and exploration.
He was happy, living in a stable environment, and felt for the first time that he had options in life. The next test was what to do with these options.
For most kids, including most of his friends, the next logical step would have been to go to college, but JD was unsure if this was the right move for him. For starters, so few people in his family had gone to college. It was an experience and a world that he felt little prepared for.
With his grades and test scores, he certainly had the option. But when the financial aid forms for Ohio State arrived in the mail, he was discouraged. He didn’t think that the cost (and the debt he’d incur) were worth it.
He also feared the intellectually rigorous and unstructured environment of college. He didn’t want to be completely on his own. He wanted to be somewhere that would help him capitalize on his potential, but still give him the guardrails and structure that would keep him on the right path.
One of JD’s cousins recommended that he join the U.S. Marine Corps. As she put it to him, “They’ll whip your ass into shape.”
Of course, the rigors of basic training, the verbal abuse of drill sergeants, and the possibilities of being sent into a war zone were frightening. But when JD spoke to a military recruiter, he became convinced that the Marines would give him the discipline and leadership skills he needed to succeed in life—wherever he went.
JD experienced the first extended separation from his family when he reported for training at the boot camp on Parris Island, South Carolina. Mamaw’s encouragement was a great source of strength for him during the physical and emotional trials of Marine Corps basic training. He also learned, through the voluminous letters his Mamaw sent him, just how much she loved him.
With his tumultuous home life growing up and the instability that came from his mother’s lifestyle, this sense of being loved and valued meant everything.
JD was grouped together with people who came from outside the hillbilly culture he’d known all his life. There were black and Hispanic kids, rich people from the Northeast, Catholics, Jews, and even atheists. These fellow Marines brought with them a set of values and experiences that JD had never known growing up in Middletown.
The Marines didn’t just physically whip JD into shape (although they certainly did that). They helped him adjust his attitude and broader expectations about life. They showed him the true potential that he had.
Every time he managed to keep pace on a grueling march; every time he endured the drill sergeant’s screaming; every time he completed a daunting physical obstacle, he was learning to believe in himself and discover just how deeply he’d underestimated his own capabilities.
He was overcoming the learned helplessness of his youth. All his life, he had been taught (and seen from the examples of most of the adults in his life) that his choices didn’t matter. That he was resigned to his fate, no matter what he did. It didn’t matter if you tried or not, so why bother trying? This attitude was utterly inimical to the Marine Corps ideology, where the emphasis was fully on individual responsibility.
Eventually, JD was deployed to Iraq. Part of a civilian affairs unit that was doing outreach to the community, he was assigned to work with a local school.
One day while on patrol, he gave a young Iraqi boy a small gift of an eraser. When the child lit up with joy at receiving this humble gift, JD experienced what he calls an epiphany. He realized how misplaced so much of his bitterness and resentment had been. If this young boy in a war-torn nation, living in material circumstances far worse than JD had experienced could still be capable of that kind of happiness, then JD had little to complain about.
Living in a wealthy, industrialized country like the United States brought great opportunities for social and economic mobility, even for a hillbilly kid from Middletown—the American Dream wasn’t dead, and he had the power to do anything he wanted.
JD learned how to be a leader in the Marines. This was where he first gave adults orders to perform tasks—and expected them to be done.
He discovered that leadership wasn’t about screaming and yelling or issuing threats—the primary model of leadership he had seen growing up. He saw instead that being a leader meant earning the respect of those you were supposed to lead.
As an example, he was assigned to become a media relations officer after his tour of duty in Iraq ended. He learned how to build relationships with the press, stay on message, and budget his time wisely. Most importantly, he learned that he could handle complex assignments that he thought he might be unqualified for. He could work long hours and hold his own with high-ranking military brass and members of the press, all while speaking clearly and confidently.
JD’s salary in the Marines wasn’t much, but it was enough to give him some degree of financial independence. He also learned basic financial competence through mandatory classes on how to balance a checkbook, save, and invest.
One of JD’s superiors stopped him from from financing an auto purchase with a usurious 21-percent loan. This was the kind of financial guidance he’d never had and he now sees that it helped prevent him from making the kinds of monetary missteps that so many family and friends made back in Middletown.
It also gave him the means to pay Mamaw back in some small measure for all that she had done to care for him during his childhood. When her health insurance...
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Have you ever under-estimated your ability to do something, only to prove yourself wrong later? Describe the situation in a few sentences.
JD finally enrolled at Ohio State in 2007, following his discharge from the Marines. Whereas the idea of going to college had seemed daunting when he was graduating high school, now he was fear-free.
After discovering what he was truly capable of in the Marines, JD felt empowered to take on any challenge. He was ready. As the university was in Columbus, Ohio, this was also JD’s first time in an urban setting, and he was taken with the city’s array of cultural opportunities.
College was a happy time for JD. Where he had nearly flunked out of high school, he was now earning straight As in every class at Ohio State. He also realized that he wanted to go to law school after completing his undergraduate studies. His thinking about this still reflected his upbringing. He wasn’t drawn to it by any passion for the law: it was simply that the rich kids’ parents in Middletown had either been doctors or lawyers, and he knew he didn’t want to work with blood.
During his undergraduate years, JD worked for a state legislator at the Ohio state capitol. The senator and JD shared the same brand of conservative politics and JD loved seeing how the political process worked from the inside.
JD recalls their shared opposition to a bill to curb payday lending practices. His boss was one of the few legislators to oppose the measure.
Shortform note: Payday loans are high-interest loans that target people with low credit ratings. You’re advanced a sum of money at a high interest rate, which you’re meant to pay off with your next paycheck, hence the name. The research shows that most people who use payday loans are unable to settle up with the lender during their next pay cycle, so they end up needing to take out subsequent loans in order to stay afloat. For this reason, the practice is widely considered to be a form of predatory lending.
JD, however, had occasionally relied on payday loans to cover basic expenses, as had many people in his community. JD believed that without them, such people would have overdrawn their bank accounts and faced potentially worse financial consequences than the interest from the loans.
For him, the problem was that well-meaning politicians were pushing measures that would actually harm the very people they were intended to help. In examining his political evolution, JD sees this as another experience that cemented his commitment to free-market conservatism and his rejection of welfare state liberalism.
In stark contrast to his own success and upward mobility, JD also started to examine some of the problematic political views of the folks back home in Middletown during this time.
The community was a bastion of traditional patriotism—Middletown sent lots of its kids to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, as they had in Vietnam, Korea, and both world wars. But for all their outward love of country, people at home were imbued with a deep pessimism about the United States and their future role within it. Indeed, working-class whites have the lowest expectations of future economic success, lower than blacks and Latinos—who are still objectively far worse-off than working-class whites.
Vance argues that the community felt increasingly alienated from mainstream American culture and had a pervading sense that the world had passed it by. Hillbillies had no cultural or political figures that they could look to as examples. He saw that lots of people in Middletown and similar communities started to retreat into lurid conspiracy theories to explain away their culture’s decline. These theories blamed nefarious outside forces for the struggles of the white working class—and, to JD’s dismay, gave people an excuse to avoid taking personal responsibility for their own lives.
Lots of the wild conspiracy theories focused around mistrust and fear of Barack Obama, the first African-American President of the United States.
“Birtherism” is quite popular among white conservatives like those among whom JD grew up. One poll shows that a majority of white conservatives either believed Obama was foreign-born or weren’t sure. JD recalls lots of conversations with relatives where they alleged that Obama had ties to radical Islamic terrorist groups.
He sees the proliferation of anti-government or anti-media conspiracy theories as deeply injurious to the community. Though hardly a liberal Democrat, JD believes that blaming the government or Obama for all of life’s problems is wrong. It leads to an incorrect view of the world, discourages meaningful engagement with it, and inhibits any attempts to alleviate the dire material circumstances of the white working class. It’s just a new version of the old hillbilly fatalism: outside forces have stacked the deck against you, so why bother?
In a telling example, JD recalls a friend who quit his job because he didn’t like waking up early. The next day, the man was on Facebook ranting about how he couldn’t find work because of the “Obama economy.” This is a clear demonstration of the problems of blame-shifting and evasion of personal responsibility.
In 2009, JD achieved what would have once been unthinkable. He graduated from Ohio State with a double major, summa cum laude. He knew that his next step was to go on to law school, and he decided that Yale was the best place for him to pursue his legal studies.
JD had reservations about attending an Ivy League law school. No one where he came from had ever set foot in that world, and he knew he’d be surrounded by wealthier people who had gone to elite private colleges. Nonetheless, he applied and was accepted into the Yale Law School class of 2013, receiving nearly a full scholarship to attend.
Ohio State had been a cultural shock for JD, but it was nothing compared to Yale. Within his first week, he had the opportunity to see Tony Blair and George Pataki speak. Even more...
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JD had made it. He was a successful Yale lawyer. He had beaten the odds and achieved his slice of the American Dream. But his girlfriend Usha (soon to be his wife) helped JD realize that he still carried the baggage of his tumultuous upbringing. She pointed out that he still had no healthy mechanism of conflict resolution.
While he might not have taken to screaming, cursing, and vicious insulting like his mother, he would withdraw completely from her at the slightest disagreement. He feared becoming like Bev and desperately wished to avoid subjecting Usha to that experience.
On one occasion, Usha attempted to comfort JD after he’d performed badly in an interview with a Washington, D.C. law firm. He exploded at her in classic Bev-style, yelling, “Don’t make excuses for weakness. I didn’t get here by making excuses for failure.”
He eventually apologized, expecting her to pounce on this act of “surrender” and go for the jugular with him—because that’s exactly what his family back in Middletown would have done. But instead, she forgave him and explained to him that he needed to learn how to talk to her.
JD further saw how much healing he needed to do when he went to Thanksgiving dinner at Usha’s family’s home. The family was happy and free of conflict and drama—they actually seemed to enjoy each other’s company. There were no accusations or angry exchanges between family members.
In fact, when JD learned that there was an estranged family member, he was surprised by her father’s explanation. He told JD that he still called and checked up on him, telling him that you can’t just turn your back on family.
Prompted by these experiences, JD wanted to learn more about how the kind of traumas he’d experienced as a child affected people in their adulthood. He researched the phenomenon called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
Common ACEs included being sworn at or insulted; being pushed or grabbed; witnessing a lack of support among family members; living with substance abusers; and exposure to people who were clinically depressed or suicidal. Looking back, JD realized that he had experienced all of these situations during the course of his childhood.
He saw that he wasn’t alone. Over half of children growing up in working-class households had experienced at least one ACE. The contrast with non-working-class people, among whom only one in ten experienced an ACE, was stark.
Children with ACEs are likelier to suffer from anxiety and depression, performly poorly in their studies, and experience unstable relationships—tragically, the pattern of dysfunction in these children’s lives perpetuates itself generation after generation.
As adults, people replicate the instability they themselves witnessed as children. Thus, JD’s mother descended from being a salutatorian of her high school to the multiple marriages and drug addiction of her adulthood. Even people like his sister Lindsay, his cousin Gail, and his Aunt Wee, all of whom managed to achieve stability, struggled through periods of dysfunctional relationships.
JD knew he had to change his thinking, to stop seeing disagreements as struggles to the death, stop using words as weapons, and stop thinking of apologizing as a form of weakness and surrender. To do this, he needed to finally make peace and come to terms with the person who had caused him more grief and anguish than anyone: his mother.
JD had been out of regular contact with his mother for a long time by this point. He had run the gamut of emotions toward her, but mostly, he was angry. He was angry that her addictions had robbed him of so much of his childhood; and he was angry that she had failed to model good adult behavior for him, forcing him to do it all on his own.
But he now realized that he had never tried to empathize with her, to understand what it was like to be her. Years ago, he had rejected Bev’s 12-step platitudes about her substance abuse being a disease. He had seen it as a shameful cop-out, an abdication of any responsibility for the situation she had put herself—and her children—in.
But JD’s thinking had evolved. Was Bev an out-of-control narcissist, or was she really just a product of her culture? What self-destructive values had she learned from her own childhood?
In the end, JD saw that it was a mix of both. Given what he now knew about ACEs, it was obvious to him that Bev had clearly suffered from severe emotional trauma during her childhood. Her experiences of seeing her father’s alcoholism and her parents’ volatile marriage had to have had some impact on the course her life took as an adult. But he also placed personal responsibility front-and-center. Bev was hardly a villain, but she deserved much of the blame for what she inflicted on her children.
JD’s new attitude toward his mother would once again be put to the test when she turned to a new drug: heroin. This time, however, JD worked to help his mother get on her feet. Following the advice of Usha’s father, he was practicing empathy rather than turning his back.
He checked her into a Middletown motel to help her avoid homelessness and monitored her finances to make sure she stayed on track. He was acting more like a parent to her, as if she were his child. And he accepted his limits: he couldn’t solve all of his mom’s problems, she had to fight some of her battles on her own. But he also saw that he couldn’t turn his back on family, no matter how much they disappointed or hurt him.
JD now believed that more than anything else, stable family structure and good values were what mattered for fostering success. He saw that the “elites” abhorred by hillbilly culture were beating the hillbillies at their own game: they were happier, wealthier, had lower divorce rates, were better educated, and lived...
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So what's to take away from JD’s story? Clearly, his example shows that bright, motivated people can still achieve upward mobility in America, even if they come from circumstances of material and cultural poverty.
Growing up, JD witnessed painful traumas:
But he also had the love and support of his maternal grandparents, who shielded him from as much of the chaos as they could, and exemplified the best of hillbilly culture. They were fiercely loyal and committed to family and refused to let JD sink into apathy or defeatism. They always told him that hard work mattered more than the circumstances of his birth.
In the end, the good outweighed the bad—through Mamaw and Papaw’s guidance, JD made something of himself.
With the benefit of hindsight, JD now sees that he came from a culture where hard work, personal responsibility, and thrift were devalued—no matter how much lip service might have been paid to these ideals. He argues that his hillbilly past has been replicated millions of times over by other children of the white working class.
Hillbillies must wake up, reform the parts of their culture that lead to self-destructive behavior and make them unable to succeed in broader society, and start taking responsibility for the state of their communities and their families.
In JD’s interpretation, public policy may help around the margins, but fundamentally, this is not a crisis the government can solve. There is no tax incentive that...
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