Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - J.D. Vance (2016)
As I started my second year of law school, I felt like I’d made it. Fresh off a summer job at the U.S. Senate, I returned to New Haven with a wealth of new friends and experiences. I had this beautiful girlfriend, and I had a great job at a nice law firm almost in hand. I knew that kids like me weren’t supposed to get this far, and I congratulated myself for having beaten the odds. I was better than where I came from: better than Mom and her addiction and better than the father figures who’d walked out on me. I regretted only that Mamaw and Papaw weren’t around to see it.
But there were signs that things weren’t going so well, particularly in my relationship with Usha. We’d been dating for only a few months when she stumbled upon an analogy that described me perfectly. I was, she said, a turtle. “Whenever something bad happens—even a hint of disagreement—you withdraw completely. It’s like you have a shell that you hide in.”
It was true. I had no idea how to deal with relationship problems, so I chose not to deal with them at all. I could scream at her when she did something I didn’t like, but that seemed mean. Or I could withdraw and get away. Those were the proverbial arrows in my quiver, and I had nothing else. The thought of fighting with her reduced me to a morass of the qualities I thought I hadn’t inherited from my family: stress, sadness, fear, anxiety. It was all there, and it was intense.
So I tried to get away, but Usha wouldn’t let me. I tried to break everything off multiple times, but she told me that was stupid unless I didn’t care about her. So I’d scream and I’d yell. I’d do all of the hateful things that my mother had done. And then I’d feel guilty and desperately afraid. For so much of my life, I’d made Mom out to be a kind of villain. And now I was acting like her. Nothing compares to the fear that you’re becoming the monster in your closet.
During that second year of law school, Usha and I traveled to D.C. for follow-up interviews with a few law firms. I returned to our hotel room, dejected that I had just performed poorly with one of the firms I really wanted to work for. When Usha tried to comfort me, to tell me that I’d probably done better than I expected, but that even if I hadn’t, there were other fish in the sea, I exploded. “Don’t tell me that I did fine,” I yelled. “You’re just making an excuse for weakness. I didn’t get here by making excuses for failure.”
I stormed out of the room and spent the next couple of hours on the streets of D.C.’s business district. I thought about that time Mom took me and our toy poodle to Middletown’s Comfort Inn after a screaming match with Bob. We stayed there for a couple of days, until Mamaw convinced Mom that she had to return home and face her problems like an adult. And I thought about Mom during her childhood, running out the back door with her mother and sister to avoid another night of terror with her alcoholic father. I was a third-generation escaper.
I was near Ford’s Theatre, the historic location where John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln. About half a block from the theater is a corner store that sells Lincoln memorabilia. In it, a large Lincoln blow-up doll with an extraordinarily large grin gazes at those walking by. I felt like this inflatable Lincoln was mocking me. Why the hell is he smiling? I thought. Lincoln was melancholy to begin with, and if any place invoked a smile, surely it wouldn’t be a stone’s throw away from the place where someone shot him in the head.
I turned the corner, and after a few steps I saw Usha sitting on the steps of Ford’s Theatre. She had run after me, worried about me being alone. I realized then that I had a problem—that I must confront whatever it was that had, for generations, caused those in my family to hurt those whom they loved. I apologized profusely to Usha. I expected her to tell me to go fuck myself, that it would take days to make up for what I’d done, that I was a terrible person. A sincere apology is a surrender, and when someone surrenders, you go in for the kill. But Usha wasn’t interested in that. She calmly told me through her tears that it was never acceptable to run away, that she was worried, and that I had to learn how to talk to her. And then she gave me a hug and told me that she accepted my apology and was glad I was okay. That was the end of it.
Usha hadn’t learned how to fight in the hillbilly school of hard knocks. The first time I visited her family for Thanksgiving, I was amazed at the lack of drama. Usha’s mother didn’t complain about her father behind his back. There were no suggestions that good family friends were liars or backstabbers, no angry exchanges between a man’s wife and the same man’s sister. Usha’s parents seemed to genuinely like her grandmother and spoke of their siblings with love. When I asked her father about a relatively estranged family member, I expected to hear a rant about character flaws. What I heard instead was sympathy and a little sadness but primarily a life lesson: “I still call him regularly and check up on him. You can’t just cast aside family members because they seem uninterested in you. You’ve got to make the effort, because they’re family.”
I tried to go to a counselor, but it was just too weird. Talking to some stranger about my feelings made me want to vomit. I did go to the library, and I learned that behavior I considered commonplace was the subject of pretty intense academic study. Psychologists call the everyday occurrences of my and Lindsay’s life “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs. ACEs are traumatic childhood events, and their consequences reach far into adulthood. The trauma need not be physical. The following events or feelings are some of the most common ACEs:
•being sworn at, insulted, or humiliated by parents
•being pushed, grabbed, or having something thrown at you
•feeling that your family didn’t support each other
•having parents who were separated or divorced
•living with an alcoholic or a drug user
•living with someone who was depressed or attempted suicide
•watching a loved one be physically abused.
ACEs happen everywhere, in every community. But studies have shown that ACEs are far more common in my corner of the demographic world. A report by the Wisconsin Children’s Trust Fund showed that among those with a college degree or more (the non–working class), fewer than half had experienced an ACE. Among the working class, well over half had at least one ACE, while about 40 percent had multiple ACEs. This is really striking—four in every ten working-class people had faced multiple instances of childhood trauma. For the non–working class, that number was 29 percent.
I gave a quiz to Aunt Wee, Uncle Dan, Lindsay, and Usha that psychologists use to measure the number of ACEs a person has faced. Aunt Wee scored a seven—higher even than Lindsay and me, who each scored a six. Dan and Usha—the two people whose families seemed nice to the point of oddity—each scored a zero. The weird people were the ones who hadn’t faced any childhood trauma.
Children with multiple ACEs are more likely to struggle with anxiety and depression, to suffer from heart disease and obesity, and to contract certain types of cancers. They’re also more likely to underperform in school and suffer from relationship instability as adults. Even excessive shouting can damage a kid’s sense of security and contribute to mental health and behavioral issues down the road.
Harvard pediatricians have studied the effect that childhood trauma has on the mind. In addition to later negative health consequences, the doctors found that constant stress can actually change the chemistry of a child’s brain. Stress, after all, is triggered by a physiological reaction. It’s the consequence of adrenaline and other hormones flooding our system, usually in response to some kind of stimulus. This is the classic fight-or-flight response that we learn about in grade school. It sometimes produces incredible feats of strength and bravery from ordinary people. It’s how mothers can lift heavy objects when their children are trapped underneath, and how an unarmed elderly woman can fight off a mountain lion with her bare hands to save her husband.
Unfortunately, the fight-or-flight response is a destructive constant companion. As Dr. Nadine Burke Harris put it, the response is great “if you’re in a forest and there’s a bear. The problem is when that bear comes home from the bar every night.” When that happens, the Harvard researchers found, the sector of the brain that deals with highly stressful situations takes over. “Significant stress in early childhood,” they write, “. . . result[s] in a hyperresponsive or chronically activated physiologic stress response, along with increased potential for fear and anxiety.” For kids like me, the part of the brain that deals with stress and conflict is always activated—the switch flipped indefinitely. We are constantly ready to fight or flee, because there is constant exposure to the bear, whether that bear is an alcoholic dad or an unhinged mom. We become hardwired for conflict. And that wiring remains, even when there’s no more conflict to be had.
It’s not just fighting. By almost any measure, American working-class families experience a level of instability unseen elsewhere in the world. Consider, for instance, Mom’s revolving door of father figures. No other country experiences anything like this. In France, the percentage of children exposed to three or more maternal partners is 0.5 percent—about one in two hundred. The second highest share is 2.6 percent, in Sweden, or about one in forty. In the United States, the figure is a shocking 8.2 percent—about one in twelve—and the figure is even higher in the working class. The most depressing part is that relationship instability, like home chaos, is a vicious cycle. As sociologists Paula Fornby and Andrew Cherlin found, a “growing body of literature suggests that children who experience multiple transitions in family structure may fare worse developmentally than children raised in stable two-parent families and perhaps even than children raised in stable, single-parent families.”
For many kids, the first impulse is escape, but people who lurch toward the exit rarely choose the right door. This is how my aunt found herself married at sixteen to an abusive husband. It’s how my mom, the salutatorian of her high school class, had both a baby and a divorce, but not a single college credit under her belt before her teenage years were over. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Chaos begets chaos. Instability begets instability. Welcome to family life for the American hillbilly.
For me, understanding my past and knowing that I wasn’t doomed gave me the hope and fortitude to deal with the demons of my youth. And though it’s cliché, the best medicine was talking about it with the people who understood. I asked Aunt Wee if she had similar relationship experiences, and she answered almost reflexively: “Of course. I was always ready for battle with Dan,” she told me. “Sometimes I’d even brace myself for a big argument—like physically put myself in a fighting position—before he stopped speaking.” I was shocked. Aunt Wee and Dan have the most successful marriage I’ve seen. Even after twenty years, they interact like they started dating last year. Her marriage got even better, she said, only after she realized that she didn’t have to be on guard all the time.
Lindsay told me the same. “When I fought with Kevin, I’d insult him and tell him to do what I knew he wanted to do anyway—leave. He’d always ask me, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why do you fight with me like I’m your enemy?’” The answer is that, in our home, it was often difficult to tell friend from foe. Sixteen years later, though, and Lindsay is still married.
I thought a lot about myself, about the emotional triggers I’d learned over eighteen years of living at home. I realized that I mistrusted apologies, as they were often used to convince you to lower your guard. It was an “I’m sorry” that convinced me to take that fateful car ride with Mom more than a decade earlier. And I began to understand why I used words as weapons: That’s what everyone around me did; I did it to survive. Disagreements were war, and you played to win the game.
I didn’t unlearn these lessons overnight. I continue to struggle with conflict, to fight the statistical odds that sometimes seem to bear down on me. Sometimes it’s easier knowing that the statistics suggest I should be in jail or fathering my fourth illegitimate child. And sometimes it’s harder—conflict and family breakdown seem like the destiny I can’t possibly escape. In my worst moments, I convince myself that there is no exit, and no matter how much I fight old demons, they are as much an inheritance as my blue eyes and brown hair. The sad fact is that I couldn’t do it without Usha. Even at my best, I’m a delayed explosion—I can be defused, but only with skill and precision. It’s not just that I’ve learned to control myself but that Usha has learned how to manage me. Put two of me in the same home and you have a positively radioactive situation. It’s no surprise that every single person in my family who has built a successful home—Aunt Wee, Lindsay, my cousin Gail—married someone from outside our little culture.
This realization shattered the narrative I told about my life. In my own head, I was better than my past. I was strong. I left town as soon as I could, served my country in the Marines, excelled at Ohio State, and made it to the country’s top law school. I had no demons, no character flaws, no problems. But that just wasn’t true. The things I wanted most in the entire world—a happy partner and a happy home—required constant mental focus. My self-image was bitterness masquerading as arrogance. A few weeks into my second year of law school, I hadn’t spoken to Mom in many months, longer than at any point in my life. I realized that of all the emotions I felt toward my mother—love, pity, forgiveness, anger, hatred, and dozens of others—I had never tried sympathy. I had never tried to understand my mom. At my most empathetic, I figured she suffered from some terrible genetic defect, and I hoped I hadn’t inherited it. As I increasingly saw Mom’s behavior in myself, I tried to understand her.
Uncle Jimmy told me that, long ago, he’d walked in on a discussion between Mamaw and Papaw. Mom had gotten herself in some trouble and they needed to bail her out. These bailouts were common, and they always came with theoretical strings attached. She had to budget, they’d tell her, and they’d put her on some arbitrary plan they’d designed themselves. The plan was the cost of their help. As they sat and discussed things, Papaw buried his head in his hands and did something Uncle Jimmy had never seen him do: He wept. “I’ve failed her,” he cried. He kept on repeating, “I’ve failed her; I’ve failed her; I’ve failed my baby girl.”
Papaw’s rare breakdown strikes at the heart of an important question for hillbillies like me: How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children? How much is Mom’s life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?
All of us have opinions. Uncle Jimmy reacts viscerally to the idea that any of the blame for Mom’s choices can be laid at Papaw’s feet. “He didn’t fail her. Whatever happened to her, it’s her own damned fault.” Aunt Wee sees things in much the same way, and who can blame her? Just nineteen months younger than Mom, she saw the worst of Mamaw and Papaw and made her own share of mistakes before coming out on the other side. If she can do it, then so should Mom. Lindsay has a bit more sympathy and thinks that just as our lives left us with demons, Mom’s life must have done the same to her. But at some point, Lindsay says, you have to stop making excuses and take responsibility.
My own view is mixed. Whatever might be said about my mom’s parents’ roles in my life, their constant fighting and alcoholism must have taken its toll on her. Even when they were children, the fighting seemed to affect my aunt and mother differently. While Aunt Wee would plead with her parents to calm down, or provoke her father in order to take the heat off her mother, Mom would hide, or run away, or collapse on the floor with her hands over her ears. She didn’t handle it as well as her brother and sister. In some ways, Mom is the Vance child who lost the game of statistics. If anything, my family is probably lucky that only one of them lost that game.
What I do know is that Mom is no villain. She loves Lindsay and me. She tried desperately to be a good mother. Sometimes she succeeded; sometimes she didn’t. She tried to find happiness in love and work, but she listened too much to the wrong voice in her head. But Mom deserves much of the blame. No person’s childhood gives him or her a perpetual moral get-out-of-jail-free card—not Lindsay, not Aunt Wee, not me, and not Mom.
Throughout my life, no one could inspire such intense emotions as my mom, not even Mamaw. When I was a kid, I loved her so much that when a kindergarten classmate made fun of her umbrella, I punched him in the face. When I watched her succumb again and again to addiction, I hated her and wished sometimes that she would take enough narcotics to rid me and Lindsay of her for good. When she lay sobbing in bed after another failed relationship, I felt a rage that could have driven me to kill.
Toward the end of law school, Lindsay called to tell me that Mom had taken to a new drug—heroin—and had decided to give rehab another try. I didn’t know how many times Mom had been to rehab, how many nights she’d spent in the hospital barely conscious because of some drug. So I shouldn’t have been surprised or all that bothered, but “heroin” just has a certain ring to it; it’s like the Kentucky Derby of drugs. When I learned of Mom’s newest substance of choice, I felt a cloud hanging over me for weeks. Maybe I had finally lost all hope for her.
The emotion Mom inspired then was not hatred, or love, or rage, but fear. Fear for her safety. Fear for Lindsay having to deal yet again with Mom’s problems while I lived hundreds of miles away. Fear most of all that I hadn’t escaped a goddamned thing. Months away from graduating from Yale Law, I should have felt on top of the world. Instead, I found myself wondering the same thing I’d wondered for much of the past year: whether people like us can ever truly change.
When Usha and I graduated, the crew that watched me walk across the stage numbered eighteen, including my cousins Denise and Gail, the daughters, respectively, of Mamaw’s brothers David and Pet. Usha’s parents and uncle—fantastic people, though considerably less rowdy than our crew—made the trip, too. It was the first time that her family met mine, and we behaved. (Though Denise had some choice words for the modern “art” at the museum we visited!)
Mom’s bout with addiction ended as they always did—in an uneasy truce. She didn’t make the trip to see me graduate, but she wasn’t using drugs at that moment, and that was all right with me. Justice Sonya Sotomayor spoke at our commencement and advised that it was okay to be unsure about what we wanted to do with ourselves. I think she was talking about our careers, but for me it had a much broader meaning. I had learned much about law at Yale. But I’d also learned that this new world would always seem a bit foreign to me, and that being a hillbilly meant sometimes not knowing the difference between love and war. When we graduated, that’s what I was most unsure about.