Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - J.D. Vance (2016)
Mamaw knew little of how this arrangement affected me, partly by design. During a long Christmas break, just a couple of months after I’d moved in with my new stepfather, I called her to complain. But when she answered, I could hear the voices of family in the background—my aunt, I thought, and cousin Gail, and perhaps some others. The background noise suggested holiday merriment, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her what I had called to say: that I loathed living with these strangers and that everything that had made my life to that point tolerable—the reprieve of her house, the company of my sister—had apparently vanished. I asked her to tell everyone whose voice I heard in the background that I loved them, and then I hung up the phone and marched upstairs to watch TV. I had never felt so alone. Happily, I continued to attend Middletown’s schools, which kept me in touch with my school friends and gave me an excuse to spend a few hours at Mamaw’s. During active school sessions, I saw her a few times a week, and every time I did, she reminded me of the importance of doing well academically. She often remarked that if anyone in our family “made it,” it would be me. I didn’t have the heart to tell her what was really happening. I was supposed to be a lawyer or a doctor or a businessman, not a high school dropout. But I was much closer to dropping out than I was to anything else.
She learned the truth when Mom came to me one morning demanding a jar of clean urine. I had stayed at Mamaw’s the night before and was getting ready for school when Mom walked in, frantic and out of breath. She had to submit to random urinalyses from the nursing board in order to keep her license, and someone had called that morning demanding a sample by the end of the day. Mamaw’s piss was dirtied with a half dozen prescription drugs, so I was the only candidate.
Mom’s demand came with a strong air of entitlement. She had no remorse, no sense that she was asking me to do something wrong. Nor was there any guilt over the fact that she had broken yet another promise to never use drugs.
I refused. Sensing my resistance, Mom transitioned. She became apologetic and desperate. She cried and begged. “I promise I’ll do better. I promise.” I had heard it many times before, and I didn’t believe it even a little. Lindsay once told me that, above all, Mom was a survivor. She survived her childhood, she survived the men who came and went. She survived successive brushes with the law. And now she was doing everything she could to survive an encounter with the nursing board.
I exploded. I told Mom that if she wanted clean piss, she should stop fucking up her life and get it from her own bladder. I told Mamaw that enabling Mom made it worse and that if she had put her foot down thirty years earlier, then maybe Mom wouldn’t be begging her son for clean piss. I told Mom that she was a shitty mother and I told Mamaw that she was a shitty mother, too. The color drained from Mamaw’s face, and she refused to even look me in the eye. What I had said had clearly struck a nerve.
Though I meant these things, I also knew that my urine might not be clean. Mom collapsed onto the couch, crying quietly, but Mamaw wouldn’t give in so easily, even though I’d wounded her with my criticism. I pulled Mamaw into the bathroom and whispered a confession—that I had smoked Ken’s pot twice in the past few weeks. “I can’t give it to her. If Mom takes my pee, we could both be in trouble.”
First, Mamaw assuaged my fears. A couple of hits of pot over three weeks wouldn’t show up on the screen, she told me. “Besides, you probably didn’t know what the hell you were doing. You didn’t inhale, even if you tried.” Then she addressed the morality of it. “I know this isn’t right, honey. But she’s your mother and she’s my daughter. And maybe, if we help her this time, she’ll finally learn her lesson.”
It was the eternal hope, the thing to which I couldn’t say no. That hope drove me to voluntarily attend those many N.A. meetings, consume books on addiction, and participate in Mom’s treatment to the fullest extent that I could. It had driven me to get in the car with her when I was twelve, knowing that her emotional state could lead her to do something she’d regret later. Mamaw never lost that hope, after more heartache and more disappointment than I could possibly fathom. Her life was a clinic in how to lose faith in people, but Mamaw always found a way to believe in the people she loved. So I don’t regret relenting. Giving Mom that piss was wrong, but I’ll never regret following Mamaw’s lead. Her hope allowed her to forgive Papaw after the rough years of their marriage. And it convinced her to take me in when I needed her most.
Though I followed Mamaw’s lead, something inside me broke that morning. I went to school red-eyed from crying and regretful that I’d helped. A few weeks earlier, I had sat with Mom at a Chinese buffet as she tried in vain to shovel food in her mouth. It’s a memory that still makes my blood boil: Mom unable to open her eyes or close her mouth, spooning food in as it fell back on the plate. Other people stared at us, Ken was speechless, and Mom was oblivious. It was a prescription pain pill (or many of them) that had done this to her. I hated her for it and promised myself that if she ever did drugs again, I’d leave the house.
The urine episode was the last straw for Mamaw, too. When I came home from school, Mamaw told me that she wanted me to stay with her permanently, with no more moving in between. Mom seemed not to care: She needed a “break,” she said, I supposed from being a mother. She and Ken didn’t last much longer. By the end of sophomore year, she had moved out of his house and I had moved in with Mamaw, never to return to the homes of Mom and her men. At least she passed her piss test.
I didn’t even have to pack, because much of what I owned remained at Mamaw’s as I bounced from place to place. She didn’t approve of me taking too many of my belongings to Ken’s house, convinced that he and his kids might steal my socks and shirts. (Neither Ken nor his children ever stole from me.) Though I loved living with her, my new home tested my patience on many levels. I still harbored the insecurity that I was burdening her. More important, she was a hard woman to live with, quick-witted and sharp-tongued. If I didn’t take out the garbage, she told me to “stop being a lazy piece of shit.” When I forgot to do my homework, she called me “shit for brains” and reminded me that unless I studied, I’d amount to nothing. She demanded that I play card games with her—usually gin rummy—and she never lost. “You are the worst fucking cardplayer I’ve ever met,” she’d gloat. (That one didn’t make me feel bad: She said it to everyone she beat, and she beat everyone at gin rummy.)
Years later, every single one of my relatives—Aunt Wee, Uncle Jimmy, even Lindsay—repeated some version of “Mamaw was really hard on you. Too hard.” There were three rules in her house: Get good grades, get a job, and “get off your ass and help me.” There was no set chore list; I just had to help her with whatever she was doing. And she never told me what to do—she just yelled at me if she did anything and I wasn’t helping.
But we had a lot of fun. Mamaw had a much bigger bark than bite, at least with me. She once ordered me to watch a TV show with her on a Friday night, a creepy murder mystery, the type of show Mamaw loved to watch. At the climax of the show, during a moment designed to make the viewer jump, Mamaw flipped off the lights and screamed in my ear. She’d seen the episode before and knew what was coming. She made me sit there for forty-five minutes just so she could scare me at the appointed time.
The best part about living with Mamaw was that I began to understand what made her tick. Until then, I had resented how rarely we traveled to Kentucky after Mamaw Blanton’s death. The decline in visits wasn’t noticeable at first, but by the time I started middle school, we visited Kentucky only a few times a year for a few days at a time. Living with Mamaw, I learned that she and her sister, Rose—a woman of uncommon kindness—had a falling-out after their mother died. Mamaw had hoped that the old house would become a sort of family time share, while Rose had hoped that the house would go to her son and his family. Rose had a point: None of the siblings who lived in Ohio or Indiana visited often enough, so it made sense to give the house to someone who would use it. But Mamaw feared that without a home base, her children and grandchildren would have no place to stay during their visits to Jackson. She, too, had a point.
I started to understand that Mamaw saw returning to Jackson as a duty to endure rather than a source of enjoyment. To me, Jackson was about my uncles, and chasing turtles, and finding peace from the instability that plagued my Ohio existence. Jackson gave me a shared home with Mamaw, a three-hour road trip to tell and listen to stories, and a place where everyone knew me as the grandson of the famous Jim and Bonnie Vance. Jackson was something much different to her. It was the place where she sometimes went hungry as a child, from which she ran in the wake of a teenage pregnancy scandal, and where so many of her friends had given their lives in the mines. I wanted to escape to Jackson; she had escaped from it.
In her old age, with limited mobility, Mamaw loved to watch TV. She preferred raunchy humor and epic dramas, so she had a lot of options. But her favorite show by far was the HBO mob story The Sopranos. Looking back, it’s hardly surprising that a show about fiercely loyal, sometimes violent outsiders resonated with Mamaw. Change the names and dates, and the Italian Mafia starts to look a lot like the Hatfield-McCoy dispute back in Appalachia. The show’s main character, Tony Soprano, was a violent killer, an objectively terrible person by almost any standard. But Mamaw respected his loyalty and the fact that he would go to any length to protect the honor of his family. Though he murdered countless enemies and drank excessively, the only criticism she ever levied against him involved his infidelity. “He’s always sleeping around. I don’t like that.”
I also saw for the first time Mamaw’s love of children, not as an object of her affection but as an observer of it. She often babysat for Lindsay’s or Aunt Wee’s young kids. One day she had both of Aunt Wee’s girls for the day and Aunt Wee’s dog in the backyard. When the dog barked, Mamaw screamed, “Shut up, you son of a bitch.” My cousin Bonnie Rose ran to the back door and began screaming over and over, “Son of a bitch! Son of a bitch!” Mamaw hobbled over to Bonnie Rose and scooped her up in her arms. “Shhh! You can’t say that or you’ll get me in trouble.” But she was laughing so hard that she could barely get the words out. A few weeks later, I got home from school and asked Mamaw how her day had gone. She told me that she’d had a great day because she’d been watching Lindsay’s son Kameron. “He asked me if he could say ‘fuck’ like I do. I told him yes, but only at my house.” Then she chuckled quietly to herself. Regardless of how she felt, whether her emphysema made it difficult to breathe or her hip hurt so badly that she could barely walk, she never turned down an opportunity to “spend time with those babies,” as she put it. Mamaw loved them, and I began to understand why she had always dreamed of becoming a lawyer for abused and neglected children.
At some point, Mamaw underwent major back surgery to help with the pain that made walking difficult. She landed in a nursing home for a few months to recover, forcing me to live alone, an experience that happily didn’t last long. Every night she called Lindsay, Aunt Wee, or me and made the same request: “I hate the damned food here. Can you go to Taco Bell and get me a bean burrito?” Indeed, Mamaw hated everything about the nursing home and once asked me to promise that if she ever faced a permanent stay, I’d take her .44 Magnum and put a bullet in her head. “Mamaw, you can’t ask me to do that. I’d go to jail for the rest of my life.” “Well,” she said, pausing for a moment to reflect, “then get your hands on some arsenic. That way no one will know.” Her back surgery, it turned out, was completely unnecessary. She had a broken hip, and as soon as a surgeon repaired it, she was back on her feet, though she used a walker or cane from then on. Now that I’m a lawyer, I marvel that we never considered a medical malpractice suit against the doctor who operated unnecessarily on her back. But Mamaw wouldn’t have allowed it: She didn’t believe in using the legal system until you had to.
Sometimes I’d see Mom every few days, and sometimes I’d go a couple of weeks without hearing from her at all. After one breakup, she spent a few months on Mamaw’s couch, and we both enjoyed her company. Mom tried, in her own way: When she was working, she’d always give me money on paydays, almost certainly more than she could afford. For reasons I never quite understood, Mom equated money with affection. Perhaps she felt that I would never appreciate that she loved me unless she offered a wad of spending money. But I never cared about the money. I just wanted her to be healthy.
Not even my closest friends knew that I lived in my grandma’s house. I recognized that though many of my peers lacked the traditional American family, mine was more nontraditional than most. And we were poor, a status Mamaw wore like a badge of honor but one I’d hardly come to grips with. I didn’t wear clothes from Abercrombie & Fitch or American Eagle unless I’d received them for Christmas. When Mamaw picked me up from school, I’d ask her not to get out of the car lest my friends see her—wearing her uniform of baggy jeans and a men’s T-shirt—with a giant menthol cigarette hanging from her lip. When people asked, I lied and told them that I lived with my mom, that she and I took care of my ailing grandmother. Even today, I still regret that far too many high school friends and acquaintances never knew Mamaw was the best thing that ever happened to me.
My junior year, I tested into the honors Advanced Math class—a hybrid of trigonometry, advanced algebra, and precalculus. The class’s instructor, Ron Selby, enjoyed legendary status among the students for his brilliance and high demands. In twenty years, he had never missed a day of school. According to Middletown High School legend, a student called in a bomb threat during one of Selby’s exams, hiding the explosive device in a bag in his locker. With the entire school evacuated outside, Selby marched into the school, retrieved the contents of the kid’s locker, marched outside, and threw those contents into a trash can. “I’ve had that kid in class; he’s not smart enough to make a functioning bomb,” Selby told the police officers gathered at the school. “Now let my students go back to class to finish their exams.”
Mamaw loved stories like this, and though she never met Selby, she admired him and encouraged me to follow his lead. Selby encouraged (but didn’t require) his students to obtain advanced graphing calculators—the Texas Instruments model 89 was the latest and greatest. We didn’t have cell phones, and we didn’t have nice clothes, but Mamaw made sure that I had one of those graphing calculators. This taught me an important lesson about Mamaw’s values, and it forced me to engage with school in a way I never had before. If Mamaw could drop $180 on a graphing calculator—she insisted that I spend none of my own money—then I had better take schoolwork more seriously. I owed it to her, and she reminded me of it constantly. “Have you finished your work for that Selby teacher?” “No, Mamaw, not yet.” “You damn well better start. I didn’t spend every penny I had on that little computer so you could fuck around all day.”
Those three years with Mamaw—uninterrupted and alone—saved me. I didn’t notice the causality of the change, how living with her turned my life around. I didn’t notice that my grades began to improve immediately after I moved in. And I couldn’t have known that I was making lifelong friends.
During that time, Mamaw and I started to talk about the problems in our community. Mamaw encouraged me to get a job—she told me that it would be good for me and that I needed to learn the value of a dollar. When her encouragement fell on deaf ears, she then demanded that I get a job, and so I did, as a cashier at Dillman’s, a local grocery store.
Working as a cashier turned me into an amateur sociologist. A frenetic stress animated so many of our customers. One of our neighbors would walk in and yell at me for the smallest of transgressions—not smiling at her, or bagging the groceries too heavy one day or too light the next. Some came into the store in a hurry, pacing between aisles, looking frantically for a particular item. But others waded through the aisles deliberately, carefully marking each item off of their list. Some folks purchased a lot of canned and frozen food, while others consistently arrived at the checkout counter with carts piled high with fresh produce. The more harried a customer, the more they purchased precooked or frozen food, the more likely they were to be poor. And I knew they were poor because of the clothes they wore or because they purchased their food with food stamps. After a few months, I came home and asked Mamaw why only poor people bought baby formula. “Don’t rich people have babies, too?” Mamaw had no answers, and it would be many years before I learned that rich folks are considerably more likely to breast-feed their children.
As my job taught me a little more about America’s class divide, it also imbued me with a bit of resentment, directed toward both the wealthy and my own kind. The owners of Dillman’s were old-fashioned, so they allowed people with good credit to run grocery tabs, some of which surpassed a thousand dollars. I knew that if any of my relatives walked in and ran up a bill of over a thousand dollars, they’d be asked to pay immediately. I hated the feeling that my boss counted my people as less trustworthy than those who took their groceries home in a Cadillac. But I got over it: One day, I told myself, I’ll have my own damned tab.
I also learned how people gamed the welfare system. They’d buy two dozen-packs of soda with food stamps and then sell them at a discount for cash. They’d ring up their orders separately, buying food with food stamps, and beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash. They’d regularly go through the checkout line speaking on their cell phones. I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off of government largesse enjoyed trinkets that I only dreamed about.
Mamaw listened intently to my experiences at Dillman’s. We began to view much of our fellow working class with mistrust. Most of us were struggling to get by, but we made do, worked hard, and hoped for a better life. But a large minority was content to live off the dole. Every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else. This was my mind-set when I was seventeen, and though I’m far less angry today than I was then, it was my first indication that the policies of Mamaw’s “party of the working man”—the Democrats—weren’t all they were cracked up to be.
Political scientists have spent millions of words trying to explain how Appalachia and the South went from staunchly Democratic to staunchly Republican in less than a generation. Some blame race relations and the Democratic Party’s embrace of the civil rights movement. Others cite religious faith and the hold that social conservatism has on evangelicals in that region. A big part of the explanation lies in the fact that many in the white working class saw precisely what I did, working at Dillman’s. As far back as the 1970s, the white working class began to turn to Richard Nixon because of a perception that, as one man put it, government was “payin’ people who are on welfare today doin’ nothin’! They’re laughin’ at our society! And we’re all hardworkin’ people and we’re gettin’ laughed at for workin’ every day!”20
At around that time, our neighbor—one of Mamaw and Papaw’s oldest friends—registered the house next to ours for Section 8. Section 8 is a government program that offers low-income residents a voucher to rent housing. Mamaw’s friend had little luck renting his property, but when he qualified his house for the Section 8 voucher, he virtually assured that would change. Mamaw saw it as a betrayal, ensuring that “bad” people would move into the neighborhood and drive down property values.
Despite our efforts to draw bright lines between the working and nonworking poor, Mamaw and I recognized that we shared a lot in common with those whom we thought gave our people a bad name. Those Section 8 recipients looked a lot like us. The matriarch of the first family to move in next door was born in Kentucky but moved north at a young age as her parents sought a better life. She’d gotten involved with a couple of men, each of whom had left her with a child but no support. She was nice, and so were her kids. But the drugs and the late-night fighting revealed troubles that too many hillbilly transplants knew too well. Confronted with such a realization of her own family’s struggle, Mamaw grew frustrated and angry.
From that anger sprang Bonnie Vance the social policy expert: “She’s a lazy whore, but she wouldn’t be if she was forced to get a job”; “I hate those fuckers for giving these people the money to move into our neighborhood.” She’d rant against the people we’d see in the grocery store: “I can’t understand why people who’ve worked all their lives scrape by while these deadbeats buy liquor and cell phone coverage with our tax money.”
These were bizarre views for my bleeding-heart grandma. And if she blasted the government for doing too much one day, she’d blast it for doing too little the next. The government, after all, was just helping poor people find a place to live, and my grandma loved the idea of anyone helping the poor. She had no philosophical objection to Section 8 vouchers. So the Democrat in her would resurface. She’d rant about the lack of jobs and wonder aloud whether that was why our neighbor couldn’t find a good man. In her more compassionate moments, Mamaw asked if it made any sense that our society could afford aircraft carriers but not drug treatment facilities—like Mom’s—for everyone. Sometimes she’d criticize the faceless rich, whom she saw as far too unwilling to carry their fair share of the social burden. Mamaw saw every ballot failure of the local school improvement tax (and there were many) as an indictment of our society’s failure to provide a quality education to kids like me.
Mamaw’s sentiments occupied wildly different parts of the political spectrum. Depending on her mood, Mamaw was a radical conservative or a European-style social Democrat. Because of this, I initially assumed that Mamaw was an unreformed simpleton and that as soon as she opened her mouth about policy or politics, I might as well close my ears. Yet I quickly realized that in Mamaw’s contradictions lay great wisdom. I had spent so long just surviving my world, but now that I had a little space to observe it, I began to see the world as Mamaw did. I was scared, confused, angry, and heartbroken. I’d blame large businesses for closing up shop and moving overseas, and then I’d wonder if I might have done the same thing. I’d curse our government for not helping enough, and then I’d wonder if, in its attempts to help, it actually made the problem worse.
Mamaw could spew venom like a Marine Corps drill instructor, but what she saw in our community didn’t just piss her off. It broke her heart. Behind the drugs, and the fighting matches, and the financial struggles, these were people with serious problems, and they were hurting. Our neighbors had a kind of desperate sadness in their lives. You’d see it in how the mother would grin but never really smile, or in the jokes that the teenage girl told about her mother “smacking the shit out of her.” I knew what awkward humor like this was meant to conceal because I’d used it in the past. Grin and bear it, says the adage. If anyone appreciated this, Mamaw did.
The problems of our community hit close to home. Mom’s struggles weren’t some isolated incident. They were replicated, replayed, and relived by many of the people who, like us, had moved hundreds of miles in search of a better life. There was no end in sight. Mamaw had thought she escaped the poverty of the hills, but the poverty—emotional, if not financial—had followed her. Something had made her later years eerily similar to her earliest ones. What was happening? What were our neighbor’s teenage daughter’s prospects? Certainly the odds were against her, with a home life like that. This raised the question: What would happen to me?
I was unable to answer these questions in a way that didn’t implicate something deep within the place I called home. What I knew is that other people didn’t live like we did. When I visited Uncle Jimmy, I did not wake to the screams of neighbors. In Aunt Wee and Dan’s neighborhood, homes were beautiful and lawns well manicured, and police came around to smile and wave but never to load someone’s mom or dad in the back of their cruiser.
So I wondered what was different about us—not just me and my family but our neighborhood and our town and everyone from Jackson to Middletown and beyond. When Mom was arrested a couple of years earlier, the neighborhood’s porches and front yards filled with spectators; there’s no embarrassment like waving to the neighbors right after the cops have carted your mother off. Mom’s exploits were undoubtedly extreme, but all of us had seen the show before with different neighbors. These sorts of things had their own rhythm. A mild screaming match might invite a few cracked shutters or peeking eyes behind the shades. If things escalated a bit, bedrooms would illuminate as people awoke to investigate the commotion. And if things got out of hand, the police would come and take someone’s drunk dad or unhinged mom down to the city building. That building housed the tax collector, the public utilities, and even a small museum, but all the kids in my neighborhood knew it as the home of Middletown’s short-term jail.
I consumed books about social policy and the working poor. One book in particular, a study by eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson called The Truly Disadvantaged, struck a nerve. I was sixteen the first time I read it, and though I didn’t fully understand it all, I grasped the core thesis. As millions migrated north to factory jobs, the communities that sprouted up around those factories were vibrant but fragile: When the factories shut their doors, the people left behind were trapped in towns and cities that could no longer support such large populations with high-quality work. Those who could—generally the well educated, wealthy, or well connected—left, leaving behind communities of poor people. These remaining folks were the “truly disadvantaged”—unable to find good jobs on their own and surrounded by communities that offered little in the way of connections or social support.
Wilson’s book spoke to me. I wanted to write him a letter and tell him that he had described my home perfectly. That it resonated so personally is odd, however, because he wasn’t writing about the hillbilly transplants from Appalachia—he was writing about black people in the inner cities. The same was true of Charles Murray’s seminal Losing Ground, another book about black folks that could have been written about hillbillies—which addressed the way our government encouraged social decay through the welfare state.
Though insightful, neither of these books fully answered the questions that plagued me: Why didn’t our neighbor leave that abusive man? Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why couldn’t she see that her behavior was destroying her daughter? Why were all of these things happening not just to our neighbor but to my mom? It would be years before I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.
During my junior year of high school, our neighbor Pattie called her landlord to report a leaky roof. The landlord arrived and found Pattie topless, stoned, and unconscious on her living room couch. Upstairs the bathtub was overflowing—hence, the leaking roof. Pattie had apparently drawn herself a bath, taken a few prescription painkillers, and passed out. The top floor of her home and many of her family’s possessions were ruined. This is the reality of our community. It’s about a naked druggie destroying what little of value exists in her life. It’s about children who lose their toys and clothes to a mother’s addiction.
Another neighbor lived alone in a big pink house. She was a recluse, a neighborhood mystery. She came outside only to smoke. She never said hello, and her lights were always off. She and her husband had divorced, and her children had landed in jail. She was extremely obese—as a child, I used to wonder if she hated the outdoors because she was too heavy to move.
There were the neighbors down the street, a younger woman with a toddler and her middle-aged boyfriend. The boyfriend worked, and the woman spent her days watching The Young and the Restless. Her young son was adorable, and he loved Mamaw. At all times of the day—one time, past midnight—he would wander to her doorstep and ask for a snack. His mother had all the time in the world, but she couldn’t keep a close enough watch on her child to prevent him from straying into the homes of strangers. Sometimes his diaper would need changing. Mamaw once called social services on the woman, hoping they’d somehow rescue the young boy. They did nothing. So Mamaw used my nephew’s diapers and kept a watchful eye on the neighborhood, always looking for signs of her “little buddy.”
My sister’s friend lived in a small duplex with her mother (a welfare queen if one ever existed). She had seven siblings, most of them from the same father—which was, unfortunately, a rarity. Her mother had never held a job and seemed interested “only in breeding,” as Mamaw put it. Her kids never had a chance. One ended up in an abusive relationship that produced a child before the mom was old enough to purchase cigarettes. The oldest overdosed on drugs and was arrested not long after he graduated from high school.
This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend that we’re upper-class. And when the dust clears—when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity—there’s nothing left over. Nothing for the kids’ college tuition, no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund if someone loses her job. We know we shouldn’t spend like this. Sometimes we beat ourselves up over it, but we do it anyway.
Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like we’re spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs—sometimes the father, sometimes the mother, sometimes both. At especially stressful times, we’ll hit and punch each other, all in front of the rest of the family, including young children; much of the time, the neighbors hear what’s happening. A bad day is when the neighbors call the police to stop the drama. Our kids go to foster care but never stay for long. We apologize to our kids. The kids believe we’re really sorry, and we are. But then we act just as mean a few days later.
We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. 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. Even the best and brightest will likely go to college close to home, if they survive the war zone in their own home. “I don’t care if you got into Notre Dame,” we say. “You can get a fine, cheap education at the community college.” The irony is that for poor people like us, an education at Notre Dame is both cheaper and finer.
We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job, but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise and selling it on eBay, or for having a customer complain about the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minute restroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance—the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.
We talk to our children about responsibility, but we never walk the walk. It’s like this: For years I’d dreamed of owning a German shepherd puppy. Somehow Mom found me one. But he was our fourth dog, and I had no clue how to train him. Within a few years, all of them had vanished—given to the police department or to a family friend. After saying goodbye to the fourth dog, our hearts harden. We learn not to grow too attached.
Our eating and exercise habits seem designed to send us to an early grave, and it’s working: In certain parts of Kentucky, local life expectancy is sixty-seven, a full decade and a half below what it is in nearby Virginia. A recent study found that unique among all ethnic groups in the United States, the life expectancy of working-class white folks is going down. We eat Pillsbury cinnamon rolls for breakfast, Taco Bell for lunch, and McDonald’s for dinner. We rarely cook, even though it’s cheaper and better for the body and soul. Exercise is confined to the games we play as children. We see people jog on the streets only if we leave our homes for the military or for college in some distant place.
Not all of the white working class struggles. I knew even as a child that there were two separate sets of mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.
There were (and remain) many who lived by my grandparents’ code. Sometimes you saw it in the subtlest of ways: the old neighbor who diligently tended her garden even as her neighbors let their homes rot from the inside out; the young woman who grew up with my mom, who returned to the neighborhood every day to help her mother navigate old age. I say this not to romanticize my grandparents’ way of life—which, as I’ve observed, was rife with problems—but to note that many in our community may have struggled but did so successfully. There are many intact families, many dinners shared in peaceful homes, many children studying hard and believing they’ll claim their own American Dream. Many of my friends have built successful lives and happy families in Middletown or nearby. They are not the problem, and if you believe the statistics, the children of these intact homes have plenty of reason for optimism.
I always straddled those two worlds. Thanks to Mamaw, I never saw only the worst of what our community offered, and I believe that saved me. There was always a safe place and a loving embrace if ever I needed it. Our neighbors’ kids couldn’t say the same.
One Sunday, Mamaw agreed to watch Aunt Wee’s kids for several hours. Aunt Wee dropped them off at ten. I had to work the dreaded eleven A.M. to eight P.M. shift at the grocery store. I hung out with the kids for about forty-five minutes, then left at ten-forty-five for work. I was unusually upset—devastated, even—to leave them. I wanted nothing more than to spend the day with Mamaw and the babies. I told Mamaw that, and instead of telling me to “quit your damn whining” like I expected, she told me she wished that I could stay home, too. It was a rare moment of empathy. “But if you want the sort of work where you can spend the weekends with your family, you’ve got to go to college and make something of yourself.” That was the essence of Mamaw’s genius. She didn’t just preach and cuss and demand. She showed me what was possible—a peaceful Sunday afternoon with the people I loved—and made sure I knew how to get there.
Reams of social science attest to the positive effect of a loving and stable home. I could cite a dozen studies suggesting that Mamaw’s home offered me not just a short-term haven but also hope for a better life. Entire volumes are devoted to the phenomenon of “resilient children”—kids who prosper despite an unstable home because they have the social support of a loving adult.
I know Mamaw was good for me not because some Harvard psychologist says so but because I felt it. Consider my life before I moved in with Mamaw. In the middle of third grade, we left Middletown and my grandparents to live in Preble County with Bob; at the end of fourth grade, we left Preble County to live in a Middletown duplex on the 200 block of McKinley Street; at the end of fifth grade, we left the 200 block of McKinley Street to move to the 300 block of McKinley Street, and by that time Chip was a regular in our home, though he never lived with us; at the end of sixth grade, we remained on the 300 block of McKinley Street, but Chip had been replaced by Steve (and there were many discussions about moving in with Steve); at the end of seventh grade, Matt had taken Steve’s place, Mom was preparing to move in with Matt, and Mom hoped that I would join her in Dayton; at the end of eighth grade, she demanded that I move to Dayton, and after a brief detour at my dad’s house, I acquiesced; at the end of ninth grade, I moved in with Ken—a complete stranger—and his three kids. On top of all that were the drugs, the domestic violence case, children’s services prying into our lives, and Papaw dying.
Today, even remembering that period long enough to write it down invokes an intense, indescribable anxiety in me. Not long ago, I noticed that a Facebook friend (an acquaintance from high school with similarly deep hillbilly roots) was constantly changing boyfriends—going in and out of relationships, posting pictures of one guy one week and another three weeks later, fighting on social media with her new fling until the relationship publicly imploded. She is my age with four children, and when she posted that she had finally found a man who would treat her well (a refrain I’d seen many times before), her thirteen-year-old daughter commented: “Just stop. I just want you and this to stop.” I wish I could hug that little girl, because I know how she feels. For seven long years, I just wanted it to stop. I didn’t care so much about the fighting, the screaming, or even the drugs. I just wanted a home, and I wanted to stay there, and I wanted these goddamned strangers to stay the fuck out.
Now consider the sum of my life after I moved in with Mamaw permanently. At the end of tenth grade, I lived with Mamaw, in her house, with no one else. At the end of eleventh grade, I lived with Mamaw, in her house, with no one else. At the end of twelfth grade, I lived with Mamaw, in her house, with no one else. I could say that the peace of Mamaw’s home gave me a safe space to do my homework. I could say that the absence of fighting and instability let me focus on school and my job. I could say that spending all of my time in the same house with the same person made it easier for me to form lasting friendships with people at school. I could say that having a job and learning a bit about the world helped clarify precisely what I wanted out of my own life. In hindsight, those explanations make sense, and I am certain that a bit of truth lies in each.
I’m sure that a sociologist and a psychologist, sitting in a room together, could explain why I lost interest in drugs, why my grades improved, why I aced the SAT, and why I found a couple of teachers who inspired me to love learning. But what I remember most of all is that I was happy—I no longer feared the school bell at the end of the day, I knew where I’d be living the next month, and no one’s romantic decisions affected my life. And out of that happiness came so many of the opportunities I’ve had for the past twelve years.