I love a good memoir. When I was a kid, our library had a fantastic children’s section. In fact, it occupied a whole floor of the building.
When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I got on this kicker of reading biographies. They were written for kids, mostly about historical people, but I devoured them.
I have loved to read since my mother taught me to do so when I was 4 years old. But I think it was there, in that little library in Oklahoma, that I fell in love with stories. The ones about real people who lived real lives.
And, I think it was also there that my world was forever changed by books.
When a child reads, even if they are stuck in one place for the entirety of their childhood, they understand that the world is so much bigger than whatever piece of earth they occupy.
In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance recalls his life experiences of growing up in the Rust Belt of America: his mother’s battle with drug addiction, the revolving door of men that came in and out of his life, the poverty, the ignorance of both his own culture and those who claim they can fix it with public policy.
There are heartbreaking aspects to this memoir across the majority of its pages. But, ultimately, it’s a story of triumph.
J.D. made it out of Ohio, and out of the cycle of his culture. He served in the Marines, graduated from Yale Law, and is happily married.
But he is an anomaly. His book explores why he was able to rise above his circumstances and others are not so fortunate.
I gleaned from the book 3 or 4 reasons for this.
First, J.D. had grandparents that were a stable, supportive fixture in his life and a sister that stood by him as well. He mentions this albeit shaky stability throughout the narrative, and the book itself is dedicated to his Mamaw and Papaw. Having at least one constant, stable adult in a child’s life can do so much to combat the damage inflicted upon it by others.
Secondly, education was emphasized and encouraged to J.D. by everyone closest to him.
Thirdly, dumb luck, or Divine intervention, whichever you prefer. He even mentions himself that had any single, positive thing he mentions in his story been absent, it might have ended altogether differently.
But, ultimately, it was his own choices that saved him; J.D.’s ability to decide he wanted a better life.
It started with the decision to join the military.
The military gave J.D. the order that had been missing in his life and, more or less, taught him about how to actually be an adult.
J.D. didn’t know the first thing about really being responsible with money, or the everyday things that one needs to do to have a disciplined, ambitious, and successful life.
Every time the drill instructor screamed at me and I stood proudly; every time I thought I’d fall behind during a run and kept up; every time I learned to do something I thought impossible, like climb the rope, I came a little closer to believing in myself. Psychologists call it “learned helplessness” when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life. From Middletown’s world of small expectations to the constant chaos of our home, life had taught me that I had no control. Mamaw and Papaw had saved me from succumbing entirely to that notion, and the Marine Corps broke new ground. If I had learned helplessness at home, the Marines were teaching me learned willfullness.
The willfullness J.D. learned in the Marine Corps seemed to be the launching pad for his future successes and his ability to mentally rise above where he came from in Hillbilly culture.
What’s interesting about J.D.’s story is not only that he rose above his childhood circumstances, but that he didn’t abandon his home in the process. Granted, he did put some distance between him and his family at times, but the majority of it was physical distance only. He maintained a close relationship with many of his relatives while actively breaking the cycle of that learned helplessness that surrounded him during his formative years.
He speaks of having to put more than physical distance between him and his mom at times. Not because of anger, but out of self-preservation. J.D.’s desperation for his mother to finally kick her addictions is all over the pages of his story. From his very early childhood to present day, he has tried, again and again, to help her and love her through it. And he talks about how much he loves her. But he also talks about learning where to draw lines for his own mental health. And that, I’m sure, was a very hard lesson to learn.
I get the feeling that J.D. has many strong opinions about what will and will not help the culture that he grew up in become a better environment. But he doesn’t speak to those opinions very specifically. In fact, many times he says he isn’t sure what the answers are, only what they are not.
Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us.
But what about those kids, those “at-risk” kids that come from the same situations, same cycle of poverty as J.D. who don’t have a stable grandparent? Who don’t learn to value education? Whose choices hinge upon just what they’ve seen and experienced, and not what they are encouraged to believe is possible, and not just possible, but possible for them?
The challenge I got from Hillbilly Elegy is understanding the role that any stable, successful adult can play in shaping the life of someone caught in the perpetual rotation that seems to go along with poverty and some degree of ignorance.
J.D. would tell you, I’m sure, that this is not an easy task.
Working class whites, especially in places like the Rust Belt, and in the south, have a lot of pride. Many individuals in these areas begin to see a divide in the culture of “haves” and “have nots” from an early age, and it is regurgitated from one generation to the next that the world can’t be trusted and is out to get them, deceive them, and warp them.
It can be next to impossible to help someone rise above their circumstances, when (1) they don’t see anything wrong with their circumstances and/or (2) they believe you are being condescending.
If I took any issue with this book, it was that J.D. did, in fact, come across with, what translated to me, as some thinly veiled condescension. I don’t believe it was necessarily intentional. I think it comes from exasperation and years of climbing out of the place that could have very well been his undoing as a human being.
Hillbilly Elegy is a really interesting story. One that provokes a lot of thought, as memoirs will do, about how our own lives are shaped.
I think back to those days in that library of my youth; reading my stack of books, and how, because of that, I’m writing this post now about a book that I just finished that captivated my attention. A story about a real person who overcame real problems.
Some things never change. Hillbilly Elegy proved that to me in many ways.
The questions are, what can change, what should change, and how can we be a society that encourages people to be the best versions of themselves that they can be?