Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - J.D. Vance (2016)
I assume I’m not alone in having few memories from before I was six or seven. I know that I was four when I climbed on top of the dining room table in our small apartment, announced that I was the Incredible Hulk, and dove headfirst into the wall to prove that I was stronger than any building. (I was wrong.)
I remember being smuggled into the hospital to see Uncle Teaberry. I remember sitting on Mamaw Blanton’s lap as she read Bible stories aloud before the sun came up, and I remember stroking the whiskers on her chin and wondering whether God gave all old women facial hair. I remember explaining to Ms. Hydorne in the holler that my name was “J.D., like jay-dot-dee-dot.” I remember watching Joe Montana lead a TD-winning drive in the Super Bowl against the hometown Bengals. And I remember the early September day in kindergarten when Mom and Lindsay picked me up from school and told me that I’d never see my dad again. He was giving me up for adoption, they said. It was the saddest I had ever felt.
My father, Don Bowman, was Mom’s second husband. Mom and Dad married in 1983 and split up around the time I started walking. Mom remarried a couple years after the divorce. Dad gave me up for adoption when I was six. After the adoption, he became kind of a phantom for the next six years. I had few memories of life with him. I knew that he loved Kentucky, its beautiful mountains, and its rolling green horse country. He drank RC Cola and had a clear Southern accent. He drank, but he stopped after he converted to Pentecostal Christianity. I always felt loved when I spent time with him, which was why I found it so shocking that he “didn’t want me anymore,” as Mom and Mamaw told me. He had a new wife, with two small children, and I’d been replaced.
Bob Hamel, my stepdad and eventual adoptive father, was a good guy in that he treated Lindsay and me kindly. Mamaw didn’t care much for him. “He’s a toothless fucking retard,” she’d tell Mom, I suspect for reasons of class and culture: Mamaw had done everything in her power to be better than the circumstances of her birth. Though she was hardly rich, she wanted her kids to get an education, obtain white-collar work, and marry well-groomed middle-class folks—people, in other words, who were nothing like Mamaw and Papaw. Bob, however, was a walking hillbilly stereotype. He had little relationship with his own father and had learned the lessons of his own childhood well: He had two kids whom he barely saw, though they lived in Hamilton, a town ten miles south of Middletown. Half of his teeth had rotted out, and the other half were black, brown, and misshapen, the consequence of a lifetime of Mountain Dew consumption and presumably some missed dental checkups. He was a high school dropout who drove a truck for a living.
We’d all eventually learn that there was much to dislike about Bob. But what drove Mamaw’s initial dislike were the parts of him that most resembled her. Mamaw apparently understood what would take me another twenty years to learn: that social class in America isn’t just about money. And her desire that her children do better than she had done extended past their education and employment and into the relationships they formed. When it came to spouses for her kids and parents for her grandkids, Mamaw felt, whether she knew it consciously, that she wasn’t good enough.
When Bob became my legal father, Mom changed my name from James Donald Bowman to James David Hamel. Until then, I’d borne my father’s first name as my middle name, and Mom used the adoption to erase any memory of his existence. She kept the D to preserve what had by then become a universal nickname—J.D. Mom told me that I was now named after Uncle David, Mamaw’s older, pot-smoking brother. This seemed a bit of a stretch even when I was six. Any old D name would have done, so long as it wasn’t Donald.
Our new life with Bob had a superficial, family-sitcom feel to it. Mom and Bob’s marriage seemed happy. They bought a house a few blocks away from Mamaw’s. (We were so close that if the bathrooms were occupied or I felt like a snack, I’d just walk over to Mamaw’s.) Mom had recently acquired her nursing license, and Bob made a great salary, so we had plenty of money. With our gun-toting, cigarette-smoking Mamaw up the street and a new legal father, we were an odd family but a happy one.
My life assumed a predictable cadence: I’d go to school and come home and eat dinner. I visited Mamaw and Papaw nearly every day. Papaw would sit on our porch to smoke, and I’d sit out there with him and listen to him grumble about politics or the steelworkers’ union. When I learned to read, Mom bought me my first chapter book—Space Brat—and heaped praise on me for finishing it quickly. I loved to read, and I loved to work on math problems with Papaw, and I loved the way that Mom seemed to delight in everything I did.
Mom and I bonded over other things, especially our favorite sport: football. I read every word I could about Joe Montana, the greatest quarterback of all time, watched every game, and wrote fan mail to the 49ers and later the Chiefs, Montana’s two teams. Mom checked out books on football strategy from the public library, and we built little models of the field with construction paper and loose change—pennies for the defense, nickels and dimes for the offense.
Mom didn’t want me to understand only the rules of football; she wanted me to understand the strategy. We practiced on our construction-paper football field, going over the various contingencies: What happened if a particular lineman (a shiny nickel) missed his block? What could the quarterback (a dime) do if no receiver (another dime) was open? We didn’t have chess, but we did have football.
More than anyone else in my family, Mom wanted us to be exposed to people from all walks of life. Her friend Scott was a kind old gay man who, she later told me, died unexpectedly. She made me watch a movie about Ryan White, a boy not that much older than I was, who contracted HIV through a blood transfusion and had to start a legal fight to return to school. Every time I complained about school, Mom reminded me of Ryan White and spoke about what a blessing it was to get an education. She was so overcome by White’s story that she handwrote a letter to his mother after he died in 1990.
Mom believed deeply in the promise of education. She was the salutatorian of her high school class but never made it to college because Lindsay was born weeks after Mom graduated from high school. But she did return to a local community college and earn an associate’s degree in nursing. I was probably seven or eight when she started working full-time as a nurse, and I liked to think that I had contributed in some small way: I “helped” her study by crawling all over her, and I let her practice drawing blood on my youthful veins.
Sometimes Mom’s devotion to education arguably went a little too far. During my third-grade science fair project, Mom helped at every stage—from planning the project to assisting with lab notes to assembling the presentation. The night before everything was due, the project looked precisely how it deserved to look: like the work of a third-grader who had slacked off a bit. I went to bed expecting to wake up the next morning, give my mediocre presentation, and call it a day. The science fair was a competition, and I even thought that, with a little salesmanship, I could advance to the next round. But in the morning I discovered that Mom had revamped the entire presentation. It looked like a scientist and a professional artist had joined forces to create it. Though the judges were blown away, when they began to ask questions that I couldn’t answer (but that the maker of the collage would have known), they realized something didn’t fit. I didn’t make it to the final round of the competition.
What that incident taught me—besides the fact that I needed to do my own work—was that Mom cared deeply about enterprises of the mind. Nothing brought her greater joy than when I finished a book or asked for another. Mom was, everyone told me, the smartest person they knew. And I believed it. She was definitely the smartest person I knew.
In the southwest Ohio of my youth, we learned to value loyalty, honor, and toughness. I earned my first bloody nose at five and my first black eye at six. Each of these fights began after someone insulted my mother. Mother jokes were never allowed, and grandmother jokes earned the harshest punishment that my little fists could administer. Mamaw and Papaw ensured that I knew the basic rules of fighting: You never start a fight; you always end the fight if someone else starts it; and even though you never start a fight, it’s maybe okay to start one if a man insults your family. This last rule was unspoken but clear. Lindsay had a boyfriend named Derrick, maybe her first boyfriend, who broke up with her after a few days. She was heartbroken as only thirteen-year-olds can be, so I decided to confront Derrick when I saw him walking past our house one day. He had five years and about thirty-five pounds on me, but I came at him twice as he pushed me down easily. The third time I came at him, he’d had enough and proceeded to pound the shit out of me. I ran to Mamaw’s house for some first aid, crying and a little bloody. She just smiled at me. “You did good, honey. You did real good.”
In fighting, as with many things, Mamaw taught me through experience. She never laid a hand on me punitively—she was anti-spanking in a way must have come from her own bad experiences—but when I asked her what it felt like to be punched in the head, she showed me. A swift blow, delivered by the meat of her hand, directly on my cheek. “That didn’t feel so bad, did it?” And the answer was no. Getting hit in the face wasn’t nearly as terrible as I’d imagined. This was one of her most important rules of fighting: Unless someone really knows how to hit, a punch in the face is no big deal. Better to take a blow to the face than to miss an opportunity to deliver your own. Her second tip was to stand sideways, with your left shoulder facing your opponent and your hands raised because “you’re a much smaller target that way.” Her third rule was to punch with your whole body, especially your hips. Very few people, Mamaw told me, appreciate how unimportant your fist is when it comes to hitting someone.
Despite her admonition not to start fights, our unspoken honor code made it easy to convince someone else to start a fight for you. If you really wanted to get into it with someone, all you needed to do was insult his mom. No amount of self-control could withstand a well-played maternal criticism. “Your mom’s so fat that her ass has its own zip code”; “Your mom’s such a hillbilly that her false teeth have cavities”; or a simple “Yo’ mama!” These were fighting words, whether you wanted them to be or not. To shirk from avenging a string of insults was to lose your honor, your dignity, or even your friends. It was to go home and be afraid to tell your family that you had disgraced them.
I don’t know why, but after a few years Mamaw’s views evolved on fighting. I was in third grade, had just lost a race, and felt there was only one way to adequately deal with the taunting victor. Mamaw, lurking nearby, intervened in what was certain to be another schoolyard cage match. She sternly asked whether I had forgotten her lesson that the only just fights are defensive. I didn’t know what to say—she had endorsed the unstated rule of honor fighting only a few years earlier. “One time I got in a fight and you told me that I did good,” I told her. She said, “Well, then, I was wrong. You shouldn’t fight unless you have to.” Now, that made an impression. Mamaw never admitted mistakes.
The next year, I noticed that a class bully had taken a particular interest in a specific victim, an odd kid I rarely spoke to. Thanks to my prior exploits, I was largely immune to bullying, and, like most kids, was usually content to avoid the bully’s attention. One day, though, he said something about his victim that I overheard, and I felt a strong urge to stick up for the poor kid. There was something pathetic about the target, who seemed especially wounded by the bully’s treatment.
When I spoke to Mamaw after school that day, I broke down in tears. I felt incredibly guilty that I hadn’t had the courage to speak up for this poor kid—that I had just sat there and listened to someone else make his life a living hell. She asked whether I had spoken to the teacher about it, and I assured her that I had. “That bitch ought to be put in jail for sitting there and not doing anything.” And then she said something that I will never forget: “Sometimes, honey, you have to fight, even when you’re not defending yourself. Sometimes it’s just the right thing to do. Tomorrow you need to stand up for that boy, and if you have to stand up for yourself, then do that, too.” Then she taught me a move: a swift, hard (make sure to turn your hips) punch right to the gut. “If he starts in on you, make sure to punch him right in the belly button.”
The next day at school, I felt nervous and hoped that the bully would take a day off. But in the predictable chaos as the class lined up for lunch, the bully—his name was Chris—asked my little charge whether he planned on crying that day. “Shut up,” I said. “Just leave him alone.” Chris approached me, pushed me, and asked what I planned to do about it. I walked right up to him, pivoted my right hip, and sucker-punched him right in the stomach. He immediately—and terrifyingly—dropped to his knees, seemingly unable to breathe. By the time I realized that I’d really injured him, he was alternately coughing and trying to catch his breath. He even spit up a small amount of blood.
Chris went to the school nurse, and after I confirmed that I hadn’t killed him and would avoid the police, my thoughts immediately turned to the school justice system—whether I’d be suspended or expelled and for how long. While the other kids played at recess and Chris recovered with the nurse, the teacher brought me into the classroom. I thought she was going to tell me that she’d called my parents and I’d be kicked out of school. Instead, she gave me a lecture about fighting and made me practice my handwriting instead of playing outside. I detected a hint of approval from the teacher, and I sometimes wonder whether there were school politics at work in her inability to appropriately discipline the class bully. At any rate, Mamaw found out about the fight directly from me and praised me for doing something really good. It was the last time I ever got in a fistfight.
While I recognized that things weren’t perfect, I also recognized that our family shared a lot with most of the families I saw around me. Yes, my parents fought intensely, but so did everyone else’s. Yes, my grandparents played as big a role in my life as Mom and Bob did, but that was the norm in hillbilly families. We didn’t live a peaceful life in a small nuclear family. We lived a chaotic life in big groups of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. This was the life I’d been given, and I was a pretty happy kid.
When I was about nine years old, things began to unravel at home. Tired of Papaw’s constant presence and Mamaw’s “interference,” Mom and Bob decided to move to Preble County, a sparsely populated part of Ohio farm country approximately thirty-five miles from Middletown. Even as a boy, I knew this was the very worst thing that could happen to me. Mamaw and Papaw were my best friends. They helped me with my homework and spoiled me with treats when I behaved correctly or finished a difficult school assignment. They were also the gatekeepers. They were the scariest people I knew—old hillbillies who carried loaded guns in their coat pockets and under their car seats, no matter the occasion. They kept the monsters at bay.
Bob was Mom’s third husband, but the third time was not the charm. By the time we moved to Preble County, Mom and Bob had already begun to fight, and many of those fights would keep me up well past my bedtime. They said things friends and family should never say to each other: “Fuck you!” “Go back to your trailer park,” Mom sometimes told Bob, a reference to his life before they were married. Sometimes Mom would take us to a local motel, where we’d hide out for a few days until Mamaw or Papaw convinced Mom to face her domestic problems.
Mom had a lot of Mamaw’s fire, which meant that she never allowed herself to become a victim during domestic disputes. It also meant that she often escalated normal disagreements beyond where they should go. During one of my second-grade football games, a tall, overweight mother muttered about why I had been given the ball on the previous play. Mom, a bleacher row behind the woman, overheard the comment and told her that I’d been given the ball because, unlike her child, I wasn’t a fat piece of shit who’d been raised by a fat piece-of-shit mother. By the time I observed the commotion on the sidelines, Bob was ripping Mom away with the woman’s hair still clenched in her hands. After the game, I asked Mom what happened, and she replied only, “No one criticizes my boy.” I beamed with pride.
In Preble County, with Mamaw and Papaw over forty-five minutes away, the fights turned into screaming matches. Often the subject was money, though it made little sense for a rural Ohio family with a combined income of over a hundred thousand dollars to struggle with money. But fight they did, because they bought things they didn’t need—new cars, new trucks, a swimming pool. By the time their short marriage fell apart, they were tens of thousands of dollars in debt, with nothing to show for it.
Finances were the least of our problems. Mom and Bob had never been violent with each other, but that slowly started to change. I awoke one night to the sound of breaking glass—Mom had lobbed plates at Bob—and ran downstairs to see what was up. He was holding her against the kitchen counter, and she was flailing and biting at him. When she dropped to the ground, I ran to her lap. When Bob moved closer, I stood up and punched him in the face. He reared back (to return the blow, I figured), and I collapsed on the ground with my arms over my head in anticipation. The blow never came—Bob never was physically abusive—and my intervention somehow ended the fight. He walked over to the couch and sat down silently, staring at the wall; Mom and I meekly walked upstairs to bed.
Mom and Bob’s problems were my first introduction to marital conflict resolution. Here were the takeaways: Never speak at a reasonable volume when screaming will do; if the fight gets a little too intense, it’s okay to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t hit first; always express your feelings in a way that’s insulting and hurtful to your partner; if all else fails, take the kids and the dog to a local motel, and don’t tell your spouse where to find you—if he or she knows where the children are, he or she won’t worry as much, and your departure won’t be as effective.
I began to do poorly in school. Many nights I’d lie in bed, unable to sleep because of the noise—the furniture rocking, heavy stomping, yelling, sometimes glass shattering. The next morning I’d wake up tired and depressed, meandering through the school day, thinking constantly about what awaited at home. I just wanted to retreat to a place where I could sit in silence. I couldn’t tell anyone what was going on, as that was far too embarrassing. And though I hated school, I hated home more. When the teacher announced that we had only a few minutes to clear our desks before the bell rang, my heart sank. I’d stare at the clock as if it were a ticking bomb. Not even Mamaw understood how terrible things had become. My slipping grades were the first indication.
Not every day was like that, of course. But even when the house was ostensibly peaceful, our lives were so charged that I was constantly on guard. Mom and Bob never smiled at each other or said nice things to Lindsay and me anymore. You never knew when the wrong word would turn a quiet dinner into a terrible fight, or when a minor childhood transgression would send a plate or book flying across the room. It was like we were living among land mines—one wrong step, and kaboom.
Up to that point in my life, I was a perfectly fit and healthy child. I exercised constantly, and though I didn’t exactly watch what I ate, I didn’t have to. But I began to put on weight, and I was positively chubby by the time I started the fifth grade. I often felt sick and would complain of severe stomachaches to the school nurse. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the trauma at home was clearly affecting my health. “Elementary students may show signs of distress through somatic complaints such as stomachaches, headaches, and pains,” reads one resource for school administrators who deal with children who suffer trauma at home. “These students may have a change in behavior, such as increased irritability, aggression, and anger. Their behaviors may be inconsistent. These students may show a change in school performance and have impaired attention and concentration and more school absences.” I just thought I was constipated or that I really hated my new hometown.
Mom and Bob weren’t that abnormal. It would be tough to chronicle all the outbursts and screaming matches I witnessed that had nothing to do with my family. My neighbor friend and I would play in his backyard until we heard screaming from his parents, and then we’d run into the alley and hide. Papaw’s neighbors would yell so loudly that we could hear it from inside his house, and it was so common that he’d always say, “Goddammit, there they go again.” I once saw a young couple’s argument at the local Chinese buffet escalate into a symphony of curse words and insults. Mamaw and I used to open the windows on one side of her house so we could hear the substance of the explosive fights between her neighbor Pattie and Pattie’s boyfriend. Seeing people insult, scream, and sometimes physically fight was just a part of our life. After a while, you didn’t even notice it.
I always thought it was how adults spoke to one another. When Lori married Dan, I learned of at least one exception. Mamaw told me that Dan and Aunt Wee never screamed at each other because Dan was different. “He’s a saint,” she’d say. As we got to know Dan’s entire family, I realized that they were just nicer to each other. They didn’t yell at each other in public. I got the distinct impression that they didn’t yell at each other much in private, either. I thought they were frauds. Aunt Wee saw it differently. “I just assumed they were really weird. I knew they were genuine. I just figured they were genuinely odd.”
The never-ending conflict took its toll. Even thinking about it today makes me nervous. My heart begins to race, and my stomach leaps into my throat. When I was very young, all I wanted to do was get away from it—to hide from the fighting, go to Mamaw’s, or disappear. I couldn’t hide from it, because it was all around me.
Over time, I started to like the drama. Instead of hiding from it, I’d run downstairs or put my ear to the wall to get a better listen. My heart would still race, but in an anticipatory way, like it did when I was about to score in a basketball game. Even the fight that went too far—when I thought Bob was about to hit me—was less about a brave kid who intervened and more about a spectator who got a little too close to the action. This thing that I hated had become a sort of drug.
One day I came home from school to see Mamaw’s car in the driveway. It was an ominous sign, as she never made unannounced visits to our Preble County home. She made an exception on this day because Mom was in the hospital, the result of a failed suicide attempt. For all the things I saw happening in the world around me, my eleven-year-old eyes missed so much. In her work at Middletown Hospital, Mom had met and fallen in love with a local fireman and begun a years-long affair. That morning Bob had confronted her about the affair and demanded a divorce. Mom had sped off in her brand-new minivan and intentionally crashed it into a telephone pole. That’s what she said, at least. Mamaw had her own theory: that Mom had tried to detract attention from her cheating and financial problems. As Mamaw said, “Who tries to kill themselves by crashing a fucking car? If she wanted to kill herself, I’ve got plenty of guns.”
Lindsay and I largely bought Mamaw’s view of things, and we felt relief more than anything—that Mom hadn’t really hurt herself, and that Mom’s attempted suicide would be the end of our Preble County experiment. She spent only a couple days in the hospital. Within a month, we moved back to Middletown, one block closer to Mamaw than we’d been before, with one less man in tow.
Despite the return to a familiar home, Mom’s behavior grew increasingly erratic. She was more roommate than parent, and of the three of us—Mom, Lindsay, and me—Mom was the roommate most prone to hard living. I’d go to bed only to wake up around midnight, when Lindsay got home from doing whatever teenagers do. I’d wake up again at two or three in the morning, when Mom got home. She had new friends, most of them younger and without kids. And she cycled through boyfriends, switching partners every few months. It was so bad that my best friend at the time commented on her “flavors of the month.” I’d grown accustomed to a certain amount of instability, but it was of a familiar type: There would be fighting or running away from fights; when things got rocky, Mom would explode on us or even slap or pinch us. I didn’t like it—who would?—but this new behavior was just strange. Though Mom had been many things, she hadn’t been a partier. When we moved back to Middletown, that changed.
With partying came alcohol, and with alcohol came alcohol abuse and even more bizarre behavior. One day when I was about twelve, Mom said something that I don’t remember now, but I recall running out the door without my shoes and going to Mamaw’s house. For two days, I refused to speak to or see my mother. Papaw, worried about the disintegrating relationship between his daughter and her son, begged me to see her.
So I listened to the apology that I’d heard a million times before. Mom was always good at apologies. Maybe she had to be—if she didn’t say “sorry,” then Lindsay and I never would have spoken to her. But I think she really meant it. Deep down, she always felt guilty about the things that happened, and she probably even believed that—as promised—they’d “never happen again.” They always did, though.
This time was no different. Mom was extra-apologetic because her sin was extra-bad. So her penance was extra-good: She promised to take me to the mall and buy me football cards. Football cards were my kryptonite, so I agreed to join her. It was probably the biggest mistake of my life.
We got on the highway, and I said something that ignited her temper. So she sped up to what seemed like a hundred miles per hour and told me that she was going to crash the car and kill us both. I jumped into the backseat, thinking that if I could use two seat belts at once, I’d be more likely to survive the impact. This infuriated her more, so she pulled over to beat the shit out of me. When she did, I leaped out of the car and ran for my life. We were in a rural part of the state, and I ran through a large field of grass, the tall blades slapping my ankles as I sped away. I happened upon a small house with an aboveground pool. The owner—an overweight woman about the same age as Mom—was floating on her back, enjoying the nice June weather.
“You have to call my mamaw!” I screamed. “Please help me. My mom is trying to kill me.” The woman clambered out of the pool as I looked around fearfully, terrified of any sign of my mother. We went inside, and I called Mamaw and repeated the woman’s address. “Please hurry up,” I told her. “Mom is going to find me.”
Mom did find me. She must have seen where I ran from the highway. She banged on the door and demanded that I come out. I begged the owner not to open the door, so she locked the doors and promised Mom that her two dogs—each no bigger than a medium-sized house cat—would attack her if she tried to enter. Eventually Mom broke down the woman’s door and dragged me out as I screamed and clutched for anything—the screen door, the guardrails on the steps, the grass on the ground. The woman stood there and watched, and I hated her for doing nothing. But she had in fact done something: In the minutes between my call to Mamaw and Mom’s arrival, the woman had apparently dialed 911. So as Mom dragged me to her car, two police cruisers pulled up, and the cops who got out put Mom in handcuffs. She did not go quietly; they wrestled her into the back of a cruiser. Then she was gone.
The second cop put me in the back of his cruiser as we waited for Mamaw to arrive. I have never felt so lonely, watching that cop interview the homeowner—still in her soaking-wet bathing suit, flanked by two pint-sized guard dogs—unable to open the cruiser door from the inside, and unsure when I could expect Mamaw’s arrival. I had begun to daydream when the car door swung open, and Lindsay crawled into the cruiser with me and clutched me to her chest so tightly that I couldn’t breathe. We didn’t cry; we said nothing. I just sat there being squeezed to death and feeling like all was right with the world.
When we got out of the car, Mamaw and Papaw hugged me and asked if I was okay. Mamaw spun me around to inspect me. Papaw spoke with the police officer about where to find his incarcerated daughter. Lindsay never let me out of her sight. It had been the scariest day of my life. But the hard part was over.
When we got home, none of us could talk. Mamaw wore a silent, terrifying anger. I hoped that she would calm down before Mom got out of jail. I was exhausted and wanted only to lie on the couch and watch TV. Lindsay went upstairs and took a nap. Papaw collected a food order for Wendy’s. On his way to the front door, he stopped and stood over me on the couch. Mamaw had left the room temporarily. Papaw placed his hand on my forehead and began to sob. I was so afraid that I didn’t even look up at his face. I had never heard of him crying, never seen him cry, and assumed he was so tough that he hadn’t even cried as a baby. He held that pose for a little while, until we both heard Mamaw approaching the living room. At that point he collected himself, wiped his eyes, and left. Neither of us ever spoke of that moment.
Mom was released from jail on bond and prosecuted for a domestic violence misdemeanor. The case depended entirely on me. Yet during the hearing, when asked if Mom had ever threatened me, I said no. The reason was simple: My grandparents were paying a lot of money for the town’s highest-powered lawyer. They were furious with my mother, but they didn’t want their daughter in jail, either. The lawyer never explicitly encouraged dishonesty, but he did make it clear that what I said would either increase or decrease the odds that Mom spent additional time in prison. “You don’t want your mom to go to jail, do you?” he asked. So I lied, with the express understanding that even though Mom would have her liberty, I could live with my grandparents whenever I wished. Mom would officially retain custody, but from that day forward I lived in her house only when I chose to—and Mamaw told me that if Mom had a problem with the arrangement, she could talk to the barrel of Mamaw’s gun. This was hillbilly justice, and it didn’t fail me.
I remember sitting in that busy courtroom, with half a dozen other families all around, and thinking they looked just like us. The moms and dads and grandparents didn’t wear suits like the lawyers and judge. They wore sweatpants and stretchy pants and T-shirts. Their hair was a bit frizzy. And it was the first time I noticed “TV accents”—the neutral accent that so many news anchors had. The social workers and the judge and the lawyer all had TV accents. None of us did. The people who ran the courthouse were different from us. The people subjected to it were not.
Identity is an odd thing, and I didn’t understand at the time why I felt such kinship with these strangers. A few months later, during my first trip to California, I began to understand. Uncle Jimmy flew Lindsay and me to his home in Napa, California. Knowing that I’d be visiting him, I told every person I could that I was headed to California in the summer and, what was more, flying for the first time. The main reaction was disbelief that my uncle had enough money to fly two people—neither of whom were his children—out to California. It is a testament to the class consciousness of my youth that my friends’ thoughts drifted first to the cost of an airplane flight.
For my part, I was overjoyed to travel west and visit Uncle Jimmy, a man I idolized on par with my great-uncles, the Blanton men. Despite the early departure, I didn’t sleep a wink on the six-hour flight from Cincinnati to San Francisco. Everything was just too exciting: the way the earth shrank during takeoff, the look of clouds from close up, the scope and size of the sky, and the way the mountains looked from the stratosphere. The flight attendant took notice, and by the time we hit Colorado, I was making regular visits to the cockpit (this was before 9/11), where the pilot gave me brief lessons in flying an airplane and updated me on our progress.
The adventure had just begun. I had traveled out of state before: I had joined my grandparents on road trips to South Carolina and Texas, and I visited Kentucky regularly. On those trips, I rarely spoke to anyone except family, and I never noticed anything all that different. Napa was like a different country. In California, every day included a new adventure with my teenage cousins and their friends. During one trip we went to the Castro District of San Francisco so that, in the words of my older cousin Rachael, I could learn that gay people weren’t out to molest me. Another day, we visited a winery. On yet another day, we helped at my cousin Nate’s high school football practice. It was all very exciting. Everyone I met thought I sounded like I was from Kentucky. Of course, I kind of was from Kentucky. And I loved that people thought I had a funny accent. That said, it became clear to me that California really was something else. I’d visited Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus, and Lexington. I’d spent a considerable amount of time in South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and even Arkansas. So why was California so different?
The answer, I’d learn, was the same hillbilly highway that brought Mamaw and Papaw from eastern Kentucky to southwest Ohio. Despite the topographical differences and the different regional economies of the South and the industrial Midwest, my travels had been confined largely to places where the people looked and acted like my family. We ate the same foods, watched the same sports, and practiced the same religion. That’s why I felt so much kinship with those people at the courthouse: They were hillbilly transplants in one way or another, just like me.