Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - J.D. Vance (2016)
Mamaw and Papaw had three kids—Jimmy, Bev (my mom), and Lori. Jimmy was born in 1951, when Mamaw and Papaw were integrating into their new lives. They wanted more children, so they tried and tried, through a heartbreaking period of terrible luck and numerous miscarriages. Mamaw carried the emotional scars of nine lost children for her entire life. In college I learned that extreme stress can cause miscarriages and that this is especially true during the early part of a pregnancy. I can’t help but wonder how many additional aunts and uncles I’d have today were it not for my grandparents’ difficult early transition, no doubt intensified by Papaw’s years of hard drinking. Yet they persisted through a decade of failed pregnancies, and eventually it paid off: Mom was born on January 20, 1961—the day of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration—and my aunt Lori came along less than two years later. For whatever reason, Mamaw and Papaw stopped there.
Uncle Jimmy once told me about the time before his sisters were born: “We were just a happy, normal middle-class family. I remember watching Leave It to Beaver on TV and thinking that looked like us.” When he first told me this, I nodded attentively and left it alone. Looking back, I realize, that to most outsiders, a statement like that must come off as insane. Normal middle-class parents don’t wreck pharmacies because a store clerk is mildly rude to their child. But that’s probably the wrong standard to use. Destroying store merchandise and threatening a sales clerk were normal to Mamaw and Papaw: That’s what Scots-Irish Appalachians do when people mess with your kid. “What I mean is that they were united, they were getting along with each other,” Uncle Jimmy conceded when I later pressed him. “But yeah, like everyone else in our family, they could go from zero to murderous in a fucking heartbeat.”
Whatever unity they possessed early in their marriage began to evaporate after their daughter Lori—whom I call Aunt Wee—was born in 1962. By the mid–1960s, Papaw’s drinking had become habitual; Mamaw began to shut herself off from the outside world. Neighborhood kids warned the mailman to avoid the “evil witch” of McKinley Street. When the mailman ignored their advice, he met a large woman with an extra-long menthol cigarette hanging out of her mouth who told him to stay the fuck off of her property. “Hoarder” hadn’t entered everyday parlance, but Mamaw fit the bill, and her tendencies only worsened as she withdrew from the world. Garbage piled up in the house, with an entire bedroom devoted to trinkets and debris that had no earthly value.
To hear of this period, one gets the sense that Mamaw and Papaw led two lives. There was the outward public life. It included work during the day and preparing the kids for school. This was the life that everyone else saw, and by all measures it was quite successful: My grandfather earned a wage that was almost unfathomable to friends back home; he liked his work and did it well; their children went to modern, well-funded schools; and my grandmother lived in a home that was, by Jackson standards, a mansion—two thousand square feet, four bedrooms, and modern plumbing.
Home life was different. “I didn’t notice it at first as a teenager,” Uncle Jimmy recalled. “At that age, you’re just so wrapped up in your own stuff that you hardly recognize the change. But it was there. Dad stayed out more; Mom stopped keeping the house—dirty dishes and junk piled up everywhere. They fought a lot more. It was all around a rough time.”
Hillbilly culture at the time (and maybe now) blended a robust sense of honor, devotion to family, and bizarre sexism into a sometimes explosive mix. Before Mamaw was married, her brothers had been willing to murder boys who disrespected their sister. Now that she was married to a man whom many of them considered more a brother than an outsider, they tolerated behavior that would have gotten Papaw killed in the holler. “Mom’s brothers would come up and want to go carousing with Dad,” Uncle Jimmy explained. “They’d go drinking and chasing women. Uncle Pet was always the leader. I didn’t want to hear about it, but I always did. It was that culture from back then that expected the men were going to go out and do what they wanted to do.”
Mamaw felt disloyalty acutely. She loathed anything that smacked of a lack of complete devotion to family. In her own home, she’d say things like “I’m sorry I’m so damned mean” and “You know I love you, but I’m just a crazy bitch.” But if she knew of anyone criticizing so much as her socks to an outsider, she’d fly off the handle. “I don’t know those people. You never talk about family to some stranger. Never.” My sister, Lindsay, and I could fight like cats and dogs in her home, and for the most part she’d let us figure things out alone. But if I told a friend that my sister was hateful and Mamaw overheard, she’d remember it and tell me the next time we were alone that I had committed the cardinal sin of disloyalty. “How dare you speak about your sister to some little shit? In five years you won’t even remember his goddamned name. But your sister is the only true friend you’ll ever have.” Yet in her own life, with three children at home, the men who should have been most loyal to her—her brothers and husband—conspired against her.
Papaw seemed to resist the social expectations of a middle-class father, sometimes with hilarious results. He would announce that he was headed to the store and ask his kids if they needed anything; he’d come back with a new car. A new Chevrolet convertible one month. A luxurious Oldsmobile the next. “Where’d you get that?” they’d ask him. “It’s mine, I traded for it,” he’d reply nonchalantly.
But sometimes his failure to conform brought terrible consequences. My young aunt and mother would play a little game when their father came home from work. Some days he would carefully park his car, and the game would go well—their father would come inside, they’d have dinner together like a normal family, and they’d make one another laugh. Many days, however, he wouldn’t park his car normally—he’d back into a spot too quickly, or sloppily leave his car on the road, or even sideswipe a telephone pole as he maneuvered. Those days the game was already lost. Mom and Aunt Wee would run inside and tell Mamaw that Papaw had come home drunk. Sometimes they’d run out the back door and stay the night with Mamaw’s friends. Other times Mamaw would insist on staying, so Mom and Aunt Wee would brace for a long night. One Christmas Eve, Papaw came home drunk and demanded a fresh dinner. When that failed to materialize, he picked up the family Christmas tree and threw it out the back door. The next year he greeted a crowd at his daughter’s birthday party and promptly coughed up a huge wad of phlegm at everyone’s feet. Then he smiled and walked off to grab himself another beer.
I couldn’t believe that mild-mannered Papaw, whom I adored as a child, was such a violent drunk. His behavior was due at least partly to Mamaw’s disposition. She was a violent nondrunk. And she channeled her frustrations into the most productive activity imaginable: covert war. When Papaw passed out on the couch, she’d cut his pants with scissors so they’d burst at the seam when he next sat down. Or she’d steal his wallet and hide it in the oven just to piss him off. When he came home from work and demanded fresh dinner, she’d carefully prepare a plate of fresh garbage. If he was in a fighting mood, she’d fight back. In short, she devoted herself to making his drunken life a living hell.
If Jimmy’s youth shielded him from the signs of their deteriorating marriage for a bit, the problem soon reached an obvious nadir. Uncle Jimmy recalled one fight: “I could hear the furniture bumping and bumping, and they were really getting into it. They were both screaming. I went downstairs to beg them to stop.” But they didn’t stop. Mamaw grabbed a flower vase, hurled it, and—she always had a hell of an arm—hit Papaw right between the eyes. “It split his forehead wide open, and he was bleeding really badly when he got in his car and drove off. That’s what I went to school the next day thinking about.”
Mamaw told Papaw after a particularly violent night of drinking that if he ever came home drunk again, she’d kill him. A week later, he came home drunk again and fell asleep on the couch. Mamaw, never one to tell a lie, calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest. When Papaw burst into flames, their eleven-year-old daughter jumped into action to put out the fire and save his life. Miraculously, Papaw survived the episode with only mild burns.
Because they were hill people, they had to keep their two lives separate. No outsiders could know about the familial strife—with outsiders defined very broadly. When Jimmy turned eighteen, he took a job at Armco and moved out immediately. Not long after he left, Aunt Wee found herself in the middle of one particularly bad fight, and Papaw punched her in the face. The blow, though accidental, left a nasty black eye. When Jimmy—her own brother—returned home for a visit, Aunt Wee was made to hide in the basement. Because Jimmy didn’t live with the family anymore, he was not to know about the inner workings of the house. “That’s just how everyone, especially Mamaw, dealt with things,” Aunt Wee said. “It was just too embarrassing.”
It’s not obvious to anyone why Mamaw and Papaw’s marriage fell apart. Perhaps Papaw’s alcoholism got the best of him. Uncle Jimmy suspects that he eventually “ran around” on Mamaw. Or maybe Mamaw just cracked—with three living kids, one dead one, and a host of miscarriages in between, who could have blamed her?
Despite their violent marriage, Mamaw and Papaw always maintained a measured optimism about their children’s futures. They reasoned that if they could go from a one-room schoolhouse in Jackson to a two-story suburban home with the comforts of the middle class, then their children (and grandchildren) should have no problem attending college and acquiring a share of the American Dream. They were unquestionably wealthier than the family members who had stayed in Kentucky. They visited the Atlantic Ocean and Niagara Falls as adults despite never traveling farther than Cincinnati as children. They believed that they had made it and that their children would go even further.
There was something deeply naive about that attitude, though. All three children were profoundly affected by their tumultuous home life. Papaw wanted Jimmy to get an education instead of slogging it out in the steel mill. He warned that if Jimmy got a full-time job out of high school, the money would be like a drug—it would feel good in the short term, but it would keep him from the things he ought to be doing. Papaw even prevented Jimmy from using him as a referral on his Armco application. What Papaw didn’t appreciate was that Armco offered something more than money: the ability to get out of a house where your mother threw vases at your father’s forehead.
Lori struggled in school, mostly because she never attended class. Mamaw used to joke that she’d drive her to school and drop her off, and somehow Lori would beat her home. During her sophomore year of high school, Lori’s boyfriend stole some PCP, and the two of them returned to Mamaw’s to indulge. “He told me that he should do more, since he was bigger. That was the last thing I remembered.” Lori woke up when Mamaw and her friend Kathy placed Lori in a cold bathtub. Her boyfriend, meanwhile, wasn’t responding. Kathy couldn’t tell if the young man was breathing. Mamaw ordered her to drag him to the park across the street. “I don’t want him to die in my fucking house,” she said. Instead she called someone to take him to the hospital, where he spent five days in intensive care.
The next year, at sixteen, Lori dropped out of high school and married. She immediately found herself trapped in an abusive home just like the one she’d tried to escape. Her new husband would lock her in a bedroom to keep her from seeing her family. “It was almost like a prison,” Aunt Wee later told me.
Fortunately, both Jimmy and Lori found their way. Jimmy worked his way through night school and landed a sales job with Johnson & Johnson. He was the first person in my family to have a “career.” By the time she turned thirty, Lori was working in radiology and had such a nice new husband that Mamaw told the entire family, “If they ever get divorced, I’m following him.”
Unfortunately, the statistics caught up with the Vance family, and Bev (my mom) didn’t fare so well. Like her siblings, she left home early. She was a promising student, but when she got pregnant at eighteen, she decided college had to wait. After high school, she married her boyfriend and tried to settle down. But settling down wasn’t quite her thing: She had learned the lessons of her childhood all too well. When her new life developed the same fighting and drama so present in her old one, Mom filed for divorce and began life as a single mother. She was nineteen, with no degree, no husband, and a little girl—my sister, Lindsay.
Mamaw and Papaw eventually got their act together. Papaw quit drinking in 1983, a decision accompanied by no medical intervention and not much fanfare. He simply stopped and said little about it. He and Mamaw separated and then reconciled, and although they continued to live in separate houses, they spent nearly every waking hour together. And they tried to repair the damage they had wrought: They helped Lori break out of her abusive marriage. They lent money to Bev and helped her with child care. They offered her places to stay, supported her through rehab, and paid for her nursing school. Most important, they filled the gap when my mom was unwilling or unable to be the type of parent that they wished they’d been to her. Mamaw and Papaw may have failed Bev in her youth. But they spent the rest of their lives making up for it.