“Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it—not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.”
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance is an open and honest look into the world of working class white families in Appalachia. This harrowing tale documents Vance’s journey through childhood in Kentucky and Ohio up to his graduation from Yale Law School. His writing authentically fluctuates between his childhood perspective, tainted with fear and helplessness, and his adult, educated persona who rose above the challenges of his family and community. If the purpose of memoir is to extricate meaning from our experiences, Vance does so masterfully. He seamlessly weaves commentary, criticism and analysis into his life story and gives a voice to an often-neglected portion of American society.
Immediately following the election, I heard a report on NPR encouraging listeners to "bridge the political divide" by reading the other side. It should come as no surprise that I tend to read more liberally-inclined, progressive perspectives. Most of us are guilty of reading “our side.” Social media has not helped this situation through polarizing filter bubbles working from an algorithm that determines what we “want” to read or see. In the interview for NPR, Lisa Lucas, head of the National Book Foundation, offered this challenge: “Don’t just read the thing that you think is for you...read that thing that’s not.” In order to combat my one-sidedness and bias, I wanted to hear the motivation behind a large portion of our country’s voting citizens from this last election. If white, liberal women were faulted for not showing up to vote, I wanted to better understand why white, working class people did show up to vote in droves, and why they saw fit to vote for a man like Donald Trump, who, in my humble opinion, in no way represents the American working class. As Vance himself states, “To Papaw and Mamaw, not all rich people were bad, but all bad people were rich.”
Earlier this summer, Rod Dreher, the intellectually restless American Conservative columnist, wrote that “Hillbilly Elegy” “does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square”...Just as the death of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, persuaded many non-black people to read “Between the World and Me,” so the success of Donald Trump has persuaded many people who have never visited the wrecked towns of the Rust Belt to read “Hillbilly Elegy.”
A quick scroll through my social media feed indicates a unified cry of support for Hillbilly Elegy from both sides of the aisle. Weeks after finishing the book, many of the nuggets of truth that Vance presents are still marinating in my mind. He covers weighty issues including politics, religion, culture, family relationships, class, health and education, just to name a few. He reveals a “culture of pessimism” acting as quick sand swallowing up anyone trying to reach for higher ground. About his own mother, Vance writes, “An important question for hillbillies like me, how much is Mom’s life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?”
Growing up, I traveled to the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia on church mission trips. I remember being astonished at the level of poverty. Most people went on mission trips to help the impoverished populations in third world countries - people that did not look or sound like my American, middle-class, teenage self. But here, among the poverty and devastation of a dying coal industry, I saw hungry, sick and suffering children living in squalor and dirt surrounded by American flags waving in their front yards.
As an adult, my family frequently travels to West Virginia. We drive through poverty stricken and dilapidated towns on our way to a cozy vacation rental. We go to enjoy the natural beauty of the state and seek respite in her beautiful scenery and undisturbed landscape. We travel to this area to leave the world behind and escape touristy mountain resort settings. We do not go to interact with other people or the community. We seek isolation and quiet. Vance writes about a culture living in this isolation, but quiet is the last thing he finds. He writes about his culture, "Our kids perform poorly in school. We might get angry with them, but we never give them the tools—like peace and quiet at home—to succeed." He describes a home life wrought with chaos and upheaval. For most of his childhood, he suffers from a lack of stability and permanence in his home. In addition to living in poverty, drugs, violence and abuse linger around every corner of the “holler” that Vance called home. The setting of my family’s peaceful mountain getaway hides dark suffering and desperation for many families of a culture in crisis.
As I piece together my own personal experience and endeavor to contextualize an understanding of the world Vance is describing, I look inwardly to how I have approached the world he describes. Clearly, I knew about the existence of grave poverty and suffering within white working class families in our country. I have seen and perhaps looked past this reality on numerous occasions. It is also possible that in my passionate attempts to be heard and stand up for what I believe to be right and good for everyone, I have failed to listen and consider every side of the equation. I want to read and understand all sides of the story. I want everyone to be heard. How often have I disregarded entire segments of the population because I believed we had nothing in common, and therefore, did not need to listen or hear their opinion?
In his interview for The American Conservative, “Trump: Tribune of Poor White People,” Robert Dehrer directly asks Vance what he would say to liberals. His response cuts straight to the chase. “Stop pretending that every problem is a structural problem, something imposed on the poor from the outside.” He states that the Left refuses “to deal with the poor as moral agents in their own right.” To be quite honest, if I simply read this interview, I would blow off J.D. Vance as just another hot-headed Republican trashing bleeding heart liberals. But because I read Vance’s story and had a glimpse into his everyday life and struggles, I was willing to hear his thoughts and consider what he had to say to a very conservative media outlet. Might I add, this interview would have never appeared on my radar since social media selectively fills my feed with articles catering to my political preferences. It does not mean that listening to Vance changed my mind, but I created space to hear and consider his perspective. And creating this space and opportunity has to be intentional and deliberate because the default setting for most of us is to retreat to the agreeable comfort of “our side.”
Vance explores the roots of the problems plaguing his culture and family and offers a glimpse behind the curtain to the motivations influencing their desperation for change and need to be heard. Hillbilly Elegy is a call to action, not for any one particular culture, class or race, but to all of us. What if we gave up on trying to be louder and smarter than the other side and decided to really listen to each other? What if we backed away from politically charged online banter and chose to replace hostile rhetoric with an open mind and willingness to hear all sides of the argument? We can strive for a whole that is greater than a part. When we relinquish our human instinct to blame and point an accusatory finger across the aisle, we can attempt to see the people and individual narratives impacted by our decisions and policies. Suddenly, a political side could become a little “hillbilly” boy fighting to save his drug-addicted mother - a wake up call reminding us that none of these issues are quite as black and white as we would like to think. As Vance states, “I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”