Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - J.D. Vance (2016)


Shortly before Christmas last year, I stood in the kids’ section of a Washington, D.C., Walmart, shopping list in hand, gazing at toys and talking myself out of each of them. That year, I had volunteered to “adopt” a needy child, which meant that I was given a list by the local branch of the Salvation Army and told to return with a bag of unwrapped Christmas gifts.

It sounds pretty simple, but I managed to find fault with nearly every suggestion. Pajamas? Poor people don’t wear pajamas. We fall asleep in our underwear or blue jeans. To this day, I find the very notion of pajamas an unnecessary elite indulgence, like caviar or electric ice cube makers. There was a toy guitar that I thought looked both fun and enriching, but I remembered the electronic keyboard my grandparents had given me one year and how one of Mom’s boyfriends meanly ordered me to “shut that fucking thing up.” I passed on learning aids for fear of appearing condescending. Eventually I settled on some clothes, a fake cell phone, and fire trucks.

I grew up in a world where everyone worried about how they’d pay for Christmas. Now I live in one where opportunities abound for the wealthy and privileged to shower their generosity on the community’s poor. Many prestigious law firms sponsor an “angel program,” which assigns a child to a lawyer and provides a wish list of gifts. Usha’s former courthouse encouraged judicial employees to adopt a kid for the holidays—each a child of someone who previously went through the court system. Program coordinators hoped that if someone else purchased presents, the child’s parents might feel less tempted to commit crimes in order to provide. And there’s always Toys for Tots. During the past few Christmas seasons, I’ve found myself in large department stores, buying toys for kids I’ve never met.

As I shop, I’m reminded that wherever I fell on the American socioeconomic ladder as a child, others occupy much lower rungs: children who cannot depend on the generosity of grandparents for Christmas gifts; parents whose financial situations are so dire that they rely on criminal conduct—rather than payday loans—to put today’s hot toys under the tree. This is a very useful exercise. As scarcity has given way to plenty in my own life, these moments of retail reflection force me to consider just how lucky I am.

Still, shopping for low-income kids reminds me of my childhood and of the ways that Christmas gifts can serve as domestic land mines. Every year the parents in my neighborhood would begin an annual ritual very different from the one I’ve become accustomed to in my new material comfort: worrying about how to give their kids a “nice Christmas,” with niceness always defined by the bounty underneath the Christmas tree. If your friends came over the week before Christmas and saw a barren floor beneath the tree, you would offer a justification. “Mom just hasn’t gone shopping yet” or “Dad’s waiting for a big paycheck at the end of the year, and then he’ll get a ton of stuff.” These excuses were meant to mask what everyone knew: All of us were poor, and no amount of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles memorabilia would change that.

No matter our financial position, our family somehow managed to spend just more than we had on holiday shopping. We didn’t qualify for credit cards, but there were many ways to spend money you didn’t have. You could write a future date on a check (a practice called “post-dating”) so the recipient couldn’t cash it until you had money in the bank. You could draw a short-term loan from a payday lender. If all else failed, you could borrow money from the grandparents. Indeed, I recall many winter conversations in which Mom pleaded with Mamaw and Papaw to lend her money to ensure that their grandchildren had a nice Christmas. They’d always protest Mom’s understanding of what made Christmas nice, but they’d still give in. It might be the day before Christmas, but our tree would be piled high with the trendiest gifts even as our family savings dwindled from very little to nothing, then from nothing to something less than that.

When I was a baby, Mom and Lindsay frantically searched for a Teddy Ruxpin doll, a toy so popular that every store in town sold out. It was expensive and, as I was only two, unnecessary. But Lindsay still remembers the day wasted searching for the toy. Mom somehow received a tip about a stranger who was willing to part with one of his Ruxpins at a significant markup. Mom and Lindsay traveled to his house to fetch the trinket that stood between a child who could barely walk and the Christmas of his dreams. The only thing I remember of old Teddy is finding him in a box years later, his sweater tattered and his face covered in crusted snot.

It was the holiday season that taught me about tax refunds, which I gathered were free bits of money sent to the poor in the new year to save them from the financial indiscretions of the old one. Income tax refunds were the ultimate backstops. “We can definitely afford this; we’ll just pay for it with the refund check” became a Christmas mantra. But the government was fickle. There were few moments more anxious than the one when Mom came home from the tax preparer in early January. Sometimes the refund exceeded expectations. But when Mom learned that Uncle Sam couldn’t cover the Christmas splurge because her “credits” weren’t as high as she had hoped, that could ruin your whole month. Ohio Januaries are depressing enough as it is.

I assumed that rich people celebrated Christmas just like us, perhaps with fewer financial worries and even cooler presents. Yet I noticed after my cousin Bonnie was born that Christmastime at Aunt Wee’s house had a decidedly different flavor. Somehow my aunt and uncle’s children ended up with more pedestrian gifts than I had come to expect as a child. There was no obsession with meeting a two- or three-hundred-dollar threshold for each child, no worry that a kid would suffer in the absence of the newest electronic gadget. Usha often received books for Christmas. My cousin Bonnie, at the age of eleven, asked her parents to donate her Christmas gifts to Middletown’s needy. Shockingly, her parents obliged: They didn’t define their family’s Christmas holiday by the dollar value of gifts their daughter accumulated.

However you want to define these two groups and their approach to giving—rich and poor; educated and uneducated; upper-class and working-class—their members increasingly occupy two separate worlds. As a cultural emigrant from one group to the other, I am acutely aware of their differences. Sometimes I view members of the elite with an almost primal scorn—recently, an acquaintance used the word “confabulate” in a sentence, and I just wanted to scream. But I have to give it to them: Their children are happier and healthier, their divorce rates lower, their church attendance higher, their lives longer. These people are beating us at our own damned game.

I was able to escape the worst of my culture’s inheritance. And uneasy though I am about my new life, I cannot whine about it: The life I lead now was the stuff of fantasy during my childhood. So many people helped create that fantasy. At every level of my life and in every environment, I have found family and mentors and lifelong friends who supported and enabled me.

But I often wonder: Where would I be without them? I think back on my freshman year of high school, a grade I nearly failed, and the morning when Mom walked into Mamaw’s house demanding a cup of clean urine. Or years before that, when I was a lonely kid with two fathers, neither of whom I saw very often, and Papaw decided that he would be the best dad he could be for as long as he lived. Or the months I spent with Lindsay, a teenage girl acting as a mother while our own mother lived in a treatment center. Or the moment I can’t even remember when Papaw installed a secret phone line in the bottom of my toy box so that Lindsay could call Mamaw and Papaw if things got a little too crazy. Thinking about it now, about how close I was to the abyss, gives me chills. I am one lucky son of a bitch.

Not long ago, I had lunch with Brian, a young man who reminded me of fifteen-year-old J.D. Like Mom, his mother caught a taste for narcotics, and like me, he has a complicated relationship with his father. He’s a sweet kid with a big heart and a quiet manner. He has spent nearly his entire life in Appalachian Kentucky; we went to lunch at a local fast-food restaurant, because in that corner of the world there isn’t much else to eat. As we talked, I noticed little quirks that few others would. He didn’t want to share his milk shake, which was a little out of character for a kid who ended every sentence with “please” or “thank you.” He finished his food quickly and then nervously looked from person to person. I could tell that he wanted to ask a question, so I wrapped my arm around his shoulder and asked if he needed anything. “Y—Yeah,” he started, refusing to make eye contact. And then, almost in a whisper: “I wonder if I could get a few more french fries?” He was hungry. In 2014, in the richest country on earth, he wanted a little extra to eat but felt uncomfortable asking. Lord help us.

Just a few months after we saw each other last, Brian’s mom died unexpectedly. He hadn’t lived with her in years, so outsiders might imagine that her death was easier to bear. Those folks are wrong. People like Brian and me don’t lose contact with our parents because we don’t care; we lose contact with them to survive. We never stop loving, and we never lose hope that our loved ones will change. Rather, we are forced, either by wisdom or by the law, to take the path of self-preservation.

What happens to Brian? He has no Mamaw or Papaw, at least not like mine, and though he’s lucky enough to have supportive family who will keep him out of foster care, his hope of a “normal life” evaporated long ago, if it ever existed. When we met, his mother had already permanently lost custody. In his short life, he has already experienced multiple instances of childhood trauma, and in a few years he will begin making decisions about employment and education that even children of wealth and privilege have trouble navigating.

Any chance he has lies with the people around him—his family, me, my kin, the people like us, and the broad community of hillbillies. And if that chance is to materialize, we hillbillies must wake the hell up. Brian’s mom’s death was another shitty card in an already abysmal hand, but there are many cards left to deal: whether his community empowers him with a sense that he can control his own destiny or encourages him to take refuge in resentment at forces beyond his control; whether he can access a church that teaches him lessons of Christian love, family, and purpose; whether those people who do step up to positively influence Brian find emotional and spiritual support from their neighbors.

I believe we hillbillies are the toughest goddamned people on this earth. We take an electric saw to the hide of those who insult our mother. We make young men consume cotton undergarments to protect a sister’s honor. But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian? Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?

Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us.

Recall how my cousin Mike sold his mother’s house—a property that had been in our family for over a century—because he couldn’t trust his own neighbors not to ransack it. Mamaw refused to purchase bicycles for her grandchildren because they kept disappearing—even when locked up—from her front porch. She feared answering her door toward the end of her life because an able-bodied woman who lived next door would not stop bothering her for cash—money, we later learned, for drugs. These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.

We don’t need to live like the elites of California, New York, or Washington, D.C. We don’t need to work a hundred hours a week at law firms and investment banks. We don’t need to socialize at cocktail parties. We do need to create a space for the J.D.s and Brians of the world to have a chance. 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.

I wanted to ask Brian whether, like me, he had bad dreams. For nearly two decades, I suffered from a terrible recurring nightmare. The first time it came to me, I was seven, fast asleep in my great Mamaw Blanton’s bed. In the dream, I’m trapped in large conference room in a large tree house—as if the Keebler elves had just finished a massive picnic and their tree house were still adorned with dozens of tables and chairs. I’m there alone with Lindsay and Mamaw, when all of a sudden Mom charges through the room, tossing tables and chairs as she goes. She screams, but her voice is robotic and distorted, as if filtered through radio static. Mamaw and Lindsay run for a hole in the floor—presumably the exit ladder from the tree house. I fall behind, and by the time I reach the exit, Mom is just behind me. I wake up, right as she’s about to grab me, when I realize not just that the monster has caught me but that Mamaw and Lindsay have abandoned me.

In different versions, the antagonist changes form. It has been a Marine Corps drill instructor, a barking dog, a movie villain, and a mean teacher. Mamaw and Lindsay always make an appearance, and they always make it to the exit just ahead of me. Without fail, the dream provokes pure terror. The first time I had it, I woke up and ran to Mamaw, who was up late watching TV. I explained the dream and begged her never to leave me. She promised that she wouldn’t and stroked my hair until I fell asleep again.

My subconscious had spared me for years, when, out of nowhere, I had the dream again a few weeks after I graduated from law school. There was a crucial difference: The subject of the monster’s ire wasn’t me but my dog, Casper, with whom I’d lost my temper earlier in the night. There was no Lindsay and no Mamaw. And I was the monster.

I chased my poor dog around the tree house, hoping to catch him and throttle him. But I felt Casper’s terror, and I felt my shame at having lost my temper. I finally caught up to him, but I didn’t wake up. Instead, Casper turned and looked at me with those sad, heart-piercing eyes that only dogs possess. So I didn’t throttle him; I gave him a hug. And the last emotion I felt before waking was relief at having controlled my temper.

I got out of bed for a glass of cold water, and when I returned, Casper was staring at me, wondering what on earth his human was doing awake at such an odd hour. It was two o’clock in the morning—probably about the same time it was when I first woke from the terrifying dream over twenty years earlier. There was no Mamaw to comfort me. But there were my two dogs on the floor, and there was the love of my life lying in bed. Tomorrow I would go to work, take the dogs to the park, buy groceries with Usha, and make a nice dinner. It was everything I ever wanted. So I patted Casper’s head and went back to sleep.