What is JD Vance’s wife Usha Vance like in Hillbilly Elegy? How does her family help Vance deal with his own dysfunctional family?
We’ll cover how JD Vance’s wife helped him move beyond the confines of his childhood culture and how her family taught him to leave no one in his own behind.
The Influence of JD Vance’s Wife
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 Chilukuri (soon to be JD Vance’s wife Usha Vance) 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 (eventually JD Vance’s wife) to that experience.
On one occasion, Usha Chilukuri 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 his future wife 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, JD Vance’s future wife 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. The family of JD Vance’s wife taught him what a functional family looked like.
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. This was a key realization that the family of JD Vance’s wife Usha Vance taught him.
Adverse Childhood Experiences
Prompted by his experiences with Usha Chilukuri’s family, 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 Vance’s wife would help him learn to stop the cycle of dysfunction.
Never Turn Your Back
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 Vance’s father, he was practicing empathy rather than turning his back. The family of JD Vance’s wife continued to be an influence on him.
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. This was the lesson of the family of JD Vance’s wife.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Hillbilly Elegy summary:
- The hallmarks of hillbilly culture and why they hold people back
- How JD Vance broke out of his hillbilly childhood and graduated from Yale
- Why the author thinks hillbillies might be beyond saving