Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - J.D. Vance (2016)
What I remember most is the fucking spiders. Really big ones, like tarantulas or something. I stood at a window of one of those sleazy roadside motels, separated from a woman (who certainly hadn’t majored in hospitality management) by a thick pane of glass. The light from her office illuminated a few spiderwebs suspended between the building and the makeshift sun blocker that seemed primed to collapse on top of me. On each web was at least one giant spider, and I thought that if I looked away from them for too long, one of those ghastly creatures would jump on my face and suck my blood. I’m not even afraid of spiders, but these things were big.
I wasn’t supposed to be here. I’d structured my entire life to avoid just these types of places. When I thought of leaving my hometown, of “getting out,” it was from this sort of place that I wanted to escape. It was past midnight. The streetlight revealed the silhouette of a man sitting halfway in his truck—the door open, his feet dangling to the side—with the unmistakable form of a hypodermic needle sticking from his arm. I should have been shocked, but this was Middletown, after all. Just a few weeks earlier, the police had discovered a woman passed out at the local car wash, a bag of heroin and a spoon in the passenger seat, the needle still protruding from her arm.
The woman running the hotel that night was the most pitiful sight of all. She might have been forty, but everything about her—from the long, gray, greasy hair, the mouth empty of teeth, and the frown that she wore like a millstone—screamed old age. This woman had lived a hard life. Her voice sounded like a small child’s, even a toddler’s. It was meek, barely audible, and very sad.
I gave the woman my credit card, and she was clearly unprepared. “Normally, people pay cash,” she explained. I told her, “Yeah, but like I said on the phone, I’m going to pay with a credit card. I can run to an ATM if you’d prefer.” “Oh, I’m sorry, I guess I forgot. But it’s okay, we’ve got one of those machines around here somewhere.” So she retrieved one of those ancient card-swiping machines—the kind that imprints the card’s information on a yellow slip of paper. When I handed her the card, her eyes seemed to plead with me, as if she were a prisoner in her own life. “Enjoy your stay,” she said, which struck me as an odd instruction. I had told her on the phone not an hour earlier that the room wasn’t for me, it was for my homeless mother. “Okay,” I said. “Thanks.”
I was a recent graduate of Yale Law School, a former editor of the prestigious Yale Law Journal, and a member of the bar in good standing. Just two months earlier, Usha and I were married on a beautiful day in Eastern Kentucky. My entire family showed up for the occasion, and we both changed our name to Vance—giving me, finally, the same name as the family to which I belonged. I had a nice job, a recently purchased home, a loving relationship, and a happy life in a city I loved—Cincinnati. Usha and I had returned there for a year after law school for one-year clerkships and had built a home with our two dogs. I was upwardly mobile. I had made it. I had achieved the American Dream.
Or at least that’s how it looked to an outsider. But upward mobility is never clean-cut, and the world I left always finds a way to reel me back in. I don’t know the precise chain of events that led me to that hotel, but I knew the stuff that mattered. Mom had begun using again. She’d stolen some family heirlooms from her fifth husband to buy drugs (prescription opiates, I think), and he’d kicked her out of the house in response. They were divorcing, and she had nowhere to go.
I’d sworn to myself that I’d never help Mom again, but the person who made that oath to himself had changed. I was exploring, however uneasily, the Christian faith that I’d discarded years earlier. I had learned, for the first time, the extent of Mom’s childhood emotional wounds. And I had realized that those wounds never truly heal, even for me. So when I discovered that Mom was in dire straits, I didn’t mutter insults under my breath and hang up the phone. I offered to help her.
I tried to call a Middletown hotel and give them my credit card information. The cost for a week was a hundred and fifty dollars, and I figured that would give us time to come up with a plan. But they wouldn’t accept my card over the phone, so at eleven P.M. on a Tuesday night, I drove from Cincinnati to Middletown (about an hour’s drive each way) to keep Mom from homelessness.
The plan I developed seemed relatively simple. I’d give Mom enough money to help her get on her feet. She’d find her own place, save money to get her nursing license back, and go from there. In the meantime, I’d monitor her finances to ensure that she stayed clean and on track financially. It reminded me of the “plans” Mamaw and Papaw used to put together, but I convinced myself that this time things would be different.
I’d like to say that helping Mom came easily. That I had made some peace with my past and was able to fix a problem that had plagued me since elementary school. That, armed with sympathy and an understanding of Mom’s childhood, I was able to patiently help Mom deal with her addiction. But dealing with that sleazy motel was hard. And actively managing her finances, as I planned to do, required more patience and time than I had.
By the grace of God, I no longer hide from Mom. But I can’t fix everything, either. There is room now for both anger at Mom for the life she chooses and sympathy for the childhood she didn’t. There is room to help when I can, when finances and emotional reserves allow me to care in the way Mom needs. But there is also recognition of my own limitations and my willingness to separate myself from Mom when engagement means too little money to pay my own bills or too little patience left over for the people who matter most. That’s the uneasy truce I’ve struck with myself, and it works for now.
People sometimes ask whether I think there’s anything we can do to “solve” the problems of my community. I know what they’re looking for: a magical public policy solution or an innovative government program. But these problems of family, faith, and culture aren’t like a Rubik’s Cube, and I don’t think that solutions (as most understand the term) really exist. A good friend, who worked for a time in the White House and cares deeply about the plight of the working class, once told me, “The best way to look at this might be to recognize that you probably can’t fix these things. They’ll always be around. But maybe you can put your thumb on the scale a little for the people at the margins.”
There were many thumbs put on my scale. When I look back at my life, what jumps out is how many variables had to fall in place in order to give me a chance. There was my grandparents’ constant presence, even when my mother and stepfather moved far away in an effort to shut them out. Despite the revolving door of would-be father figures, I was often surrounded by caring and kind men. Even with her faults, Mom instilled in me a lifelong love of education and learning. My sister always protected me, even after I’d physically outgrown her. Dan and Aunt Wee opened their home when I was too afraid to ask. Long before that, they were my first real exemplars of a happy and loving marriage. There were teachers, distant relatives, and friends.
Remove any of these people from the equation, and I’m probably screwed. Other people who have overcome the odds cite the same sorts of interventions. Jane Rex runs the transfer students’ office at Appalachian State University. Like me, she grew up in a working-class family and was its first member to attend college. She’s also been married for nearly forty years and has raised three successful kids of her own. Ask what made a difference in her life, and she’ll tell you about the stable family that empowered her and gave her a sense of control over her future. And she’ll tell you about the power of seeing enough of the world to dream big: “I think you have to have good role models around you. One of my very good friends, her father was the president of the bank, so I got to see different things. I knew there was another life out there, and that exposure gives you something to dream for.”
My cousin Gail is one of my all-time favorite people: She’s one of the first of my mom’s generation, the Blanton grandchildren. Gail’s life is the American Dream personified: a beautiful house, three great kids, a happy marriage, and a saintly demeanor. Outside of Mamaw Blanton, a virtual deity in the eyes of us grandkids and great-grandkids, I’ve never heard anyone else called “the nicest person in the world.” For Gail, it’s an entirely deserved title.
I assumed that Gail had inherited her storybook life from her parents. No one’s that nice, I thought, especially not someone who’s suffered any real adversity. But Gail was a Blanton, and, at heart a hillbilly, and I should have known that no hillbilly makes it to adulthood without a few major screwups along the way. Gail’s home life provided its own emotional baggage. She was seven when her dad walked out and seventeen when she graduated from high school, planning for college at Miami University. But there was a catch: “Mom told me I couldn’t go to college unless I broke up with my boyfriend. So I moved out the day after graduation, and by August, I was pregnant.”
Almost immediately, her life began to disintegrate. Racial prejudice bubbled to the surface when she announced that a black baby was joining the family. Announcements led to arguments, and then one day Gail found herself without a family. “I didn’t hear from any of our relatives,” Gail told me. “My mom said she never wanted to hear my name again.”
Given her age and the lack of family support, it’s hardly surprising that her marriage soon ended. But Gail’s life had grown considerably more complex: She hadn’t just lost her family, she’d gained a young daughter who depended entirely on her. “It completely changed my life—being a mom was my identity. I might have been a hippie, but now I had rules—no drugs, no alcohol, nothing that was going to lead to social services taking my baby away.”
So here’s Gail: teenage single mom, no family, little support. A lot of people would wilt in those circumstances, but the hillbilly took over. “Dad wasn’t really around,” Gail remembered, “and hadn’t been in years, and I obviously wasn’t speaking to Mom. But I remember the one lesson I took from them, and that was that we could do anything we wanted. I wanted that baby, and I wanted to make it work. So I did it.” She got a job with a local telephone company, worked her way up the ladder, and even returned to college. By the time she remarried, she had hit one hell of a stride. The storybook marriage to her second husband, Allan, is just icing on the cake.
Some version of Gail’s story often rears its head where I grew up. You watch as teenagers find themselves in dire straits, sometimes of their own making and sometimes not. The statistics are stacked high against them, and many succumb: to crime or an early death at worst, domestic strife and welfare dependency at best. But others make it. There’s Jane Rex. There’s Lindsay, who blossomed in the midst of Mamaw’s death; Aunt Wee, who put her life on track after ditching an abusive husband. Each benefited from the same types of experiences in one way or another. They had a family member they could count on. And they saw—from a family friend, an uncle, or a work mentor—what was available and what was possible.
Not long after I began thinking about what might help the American working class get ahead, a team of economists, including Raj Chetty, published a groundbreaking study on opportunity in America. Unsurprisingly, they found that a poor kid’s chances of rising through the ranks of America’s meritocracy were lower than most of us wanted. By their metrics, a lot of European countries seemed better than America at the American Dream. More important, they discovered that opportunity was not spread evenly over the whole country. In places like Utah, Oklahoma, and Massachusetts, the American Dream was doing just fine—as good or better than any other place in the world. It was in the South, the Rust Belt, and Appalachia where poor kids really struggled. Their findings surprised a lot of people, but not me. And not anyone who’d spent any time in these areas.
In a paper analyzing the data, Chetty and his coauthors noted two important factors that explained the uneven geographic distribution of opportunity: the prevalence of single parents and income segregation. Growing up around a lot of single moms and dads and living in a place where most of your neighbors are poor really narrows the realm of possibilities. It means that unless you have a Mamaw and Papaw to make sure you stay the course, you might never make it out. It means that you don’t have people to show you by example what happens when you work hard and get an education. It means, essentially, that everything that made it possible for me, Lindsay, Gail, Jane Rex, and Aunt Wee to find some measure of happiness is missing. So I wasn’t surprised that Mormon Utah—with its strong church, integrated communities, and intact families—wiped the floor with Rust Belt Ohio.
There are, I think, policy lessons to draw from my life—ways we might put our thumb on that all-important scale. We can adjust how our social services systems treat families like mine. Remember that when I was twelve I watched Mom get hauled away in a police cruiser. I’d seen her get arrested before, but I knew that this time was different. We were in the system now, with social worker visits and mandated family counseling. And a court date hanging over my head like a guillotine blade.
Ostensibly, the caseworkers were there to protect me, but it became very obvious, very early in the process, that they were obstacles to overcome. When I explained that I spent most of my time with my grandparents and that I’d like to continue with that arrangement, they replied that the courts would not necessarily sanction such an arrangement. In the eyes of the law, my grandmother was an untrained caretaker without a foster license. If things went poorly for my mother in the courts, I was as likely to find myself with a foster family as I was with Mamaw. The notion of being separated from everyone and everything I loved was terrifying. So I shut my mouth, told the social workers everything was fine, and hoped that I wouldn’t lose my family when the court hearing came.
That hope panned out—Mom didn’t go to jail, and I got to stay with Mamaw. The arrangement was informal: I could stay with Mom if I wanted, but if not, Mamaw’s door was always open. The enforcement mechanism was equally informal: Mamaw would kill anyone who tried to keep me from her. This worked for us because Mamaw was a lunatic and our entire family feared her.
Not everyone can rely on the saving graces of a crazy hillbilly. Child services are, for many kids, the last pieces of the safety net; if they fall through, precious little remains to catch them.
Part of the problem is how state laws define the family. For families like mine—and for many black and Hispanic families—grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles play an outsize role. Child services often cut them out of the picture, as they did in my case. Some states require occupational licensing for foster parents—just like nurses and doctors—even when the would-be foster parent is a grandmother or another close family member. In other words, our country’s social services weren’t made for hillbilly families, and they often make a bad problem worse.
I wish I could say this was a small problem, but it’s not. In a given year, 640,000 children, most of them poor, will spend at least some time in foster care. Add that to the unknown number of kids who face abuse or neglect but somehow avoid the foster care system, and you have an epidemic—one that current policies exacerbate.
There are other things we can do. We can build policies based on a better understanding of what stands in the way of kids like me. The most important lesson of my life is not that society failed to provide me with opportunities. My elementary and middle schools were entirely adequate, staffed with teachers who did everything they could to reach me. Our high school ranked near the bottom of Ohio’s schools, but that had little to do with the staff and much to do with the students. I had Pell Grants and government-subsidized low-interest student loans that made college affordable, and need-based scholarships for law school. I never went hungry, thanks at least in part to the old-age benefits that Mamaw generously shared with me. These programs are far from perfect, but to the degree that I nearly succumbed to my worst decisions (and I came quite close), the fault lies almost entirely with factors outside the government’s control.
Recently, I sat down with a group of teachers from my alma mater, Middletown High. All of them expressed the worry, in one form or another, that society devoted too many resources too late in the game. “It’s like our politicians think college is the only way,” one teacher told me. “For many, it’s great. But a lot of our kids have no realistic shot of getting a college degree.” Another said: “The violence and the fighting, it’s all they’ve seen from a very young age. One of my students lost her baby like she’d lost her car keys—had no idea where it went. Two weeks later, her child turned up in New York City with the father, a drug dealer, and some of his family.” Short of a miracle, we all know what kind of life awaits that poor baby. Yet there’s precious little to support her now, when an intervention might help.
So I think that any successful policy program would recognize what my old high school’s teachers see every day: that the real problem for so many of these kids is what happens (or doesn’t happen) at home. For example, we’d recognize that Section 8 vouchers ought to be administered in a way that doesn’t segregate the poor into little enclaves. As Brian Campbell, another Middletown teacher, told me, “When you have a large base of Section 8 parents and kids supported by fewer middle-class taxpayers, it’s an upside-down triangle. There’re fewer emotional and financial resources when the only people in a neighborhood are low-income. You just can’t lump them together, because then you have a bigger pool of hopelessness.” On the other hand, he said, “put the lower-income kids with those who have a different lifestyle model, and the lower-income kids start to rise up.” Yet when Middletown recently tried to limit the number of Section 8 vouchers offered within certain neighborhoods, the federal government balked. Better, I suppose, to keep those kids cut off from the middle class.
Government policy may be powerless to resolve other problems in our community. As a child, I associated accomplishments in school with femininity. Manliness meant strength, courage, a willingness to fight, and, later, success with girls. Boys who got good grades were “sissies” or “faggots.” I don’t know where I got this feeling. Certainly not from Mamaw, who demanded good grades, nor from Papaw. But it was there, and studies now show that working-class boys like me do much worse in school because they view schoolwork as a feminine endeavor. Can you change this with a new law or program? Probably not. Some scales aren’t that amenable to the proverbial thumb.
I’ve learned that the very traits that enabled my survival during childhood inhibit my success as an adult. I see conflict and I run away or prepare for battle. This makes little sense in my current relationships, but without that attitude, my childhood homes would have consumed me. I learned early to spread my money out lest Mom or someone else find it and “borrow” it—some under the mattress, some in the underwear drawer, some at Mamaw’s house. When, later in life, Usha and I consolidated finances, she was shocked to learn that I had multiple bank accounts and small past-due balances on credit cards. Usha still sometimes reminds me that not every perceived slight—from a passing motorist or a neighbor critical of my dogs—is cause for a blood feud. And I always concede, despite my raw emotions, that she’s probably right.
A couple of years ago, I was driving in Cincinnati with Usha, when somebody cut me off. I honked, the guy flipped me off, and when we stopped at a red light (with this guy in front of me), I unbuckled my seat belt and opened the car door. I planned to demand an apology (and fight the guy if necessary), but my common sense prevailed and I shut the door before I got out of the car. Usha was delighted that I’d changed my mind before she yelled at me to stop acting like a lunatic (which has happened in the past), and she told me that she was proud of me for resisting my natural instinct. The other driver’s sin was to insult my honor, and it was on that honor that nearly every element of my happiness depended as a child—it kept the school bully from messing with me, connected me to my mother when some man or his children insulted her (even if I agreed with the substance of the insult), and gave me something, however small, over which I exercised complete control. For the first eighteen or so years of my life, standing down would have earned me a verbal lashing as a “pussy” or a “wimp” or a “girl.” The objectively correct course of action was something that the majority of my life had taught me was repulsive to an upstanding young man. For a few hours after I did the right thing, I silently criticized myself. But that’s progress, right? Better that than sitting in a jail cell for teaching that asshole a lesson about defensive driving.