Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - J.D. Vance (2016)
In the fall after I turned thirteen, Mom began dating Matt, a younger guy who worked as a firefighter. I adored Matt from the start—he was my favorite of all of Mom’s men, and we still keep in touch. One night I was at home watching TV, waiting for Mom to get home from work with a bucket of KFC for dinner. I had two responsibilities that evening: first, track down Lindsay in case she was hungry; and second, run food over to Mamaw as soon as Mom arrived. Shortly before I expected Mom, Mamaw called. “Where is your mother?”
“I don’t know. What’s wrong, Mamaw?”
Her response, more than anything I’ve ever heard, is seared in my memory. She was worried—scared, even. The hillbilly accent that she usually hid dripped from her lips. “No one has seen or heard from Papaw.” I told her I’d call as soon as Mom got home, which I expected would happen soon.
I figured Mamaw was overreacting. But then I considered the utter predictability of Papaw’s schedule. He woke at six in the morning every day, without an alarm clock, then drove to McDonald’s at seven to grab a coffee with his old Armco buddies. After a couple of hours of conversation, he would amble over to Mamaw’s house and spend the morning watching TV or playing cards. If he left at all before dinnertime, he might briefly visit his friend Paul’s hardware store. Without exception, he stayed at Mamaw’s house to greet me when I came home from school. And if I didn’t go to Mamaw’s—if I went to Mom’s, as I did when times were good—he’d usually come over and say goodbye before he went home for the evening. That he had missed all of these events meant that something was very wrong.
Mom walked in the door a few minutes after Mamaw called, and I was already sobbing. “Papaw … Papaw, I think he’s dead.” The rest is a blur: I think I relayed Mamaw’s message; we picked her up down the street and sped over to Papaw’s house, no more than a few minutes’ drive away. I knocked on his door violently. Mom ran to the back door, screamed, and came around front, both to tell Mamaw that he was hunched over in his chair and to grab a rock. She then broke and went in through a window, unlocked and opened the door, and tended to her father. By then he had been dead for nearly a day.
Mom and Mamaw sobbed uncontrollably as we waited for an ambulance. I tried to hug Mamaw, but she was beside herself and unresponsive even to me. When she stopped crying, she clutched me to her chest and told me to go say goodbye before they took his body away. I tried, but the medical technician kneeling beside him gazed at me as if she thought I was creepy for wanting to look at a dead body. I didn’t tell her the real reason I had walked back to my slouching Papaw.
After the ambulance took Papaw’s body away, we drove immediately to Aunt Wee’s house. I guessed Mom had called her, because she descended from her porch with tears in her eyes. We all hugged her before squeezing into the car and heading back to Mamaw’s. The adults gave me the unenviable task of tracking down Lindsay and giving her the news. This was before cell phones, and Lindsay, being a seventeen-year-old, was difficult to reach. She wasn’t answering the house phone, and none of her friends answered my calls. Mamaw’s house sat literally five houses away from Mom’s—313 McKinley to 303—so I listened to the adults make plans and watched out the window for signs of my sister’s return. The adults spoke about funeral arrangements, where Papaw would want to be buried—“In Jackson, goddammit,” Mamaw insisted—and who would call Uncle Jimmy and tell him to come home.
Lindsay returned home shortly before midnight. I trudged down the street and opened our door. She was walking down the stairs but stopped cold when she saw my face, red and blotchy from crying all day. “Papaw,” I blurted out. “He’s dead.” Lindsay collapsed on the stairs, and I ran up and embraced her. We sat there for a few minutes, crying as two children do when they find out that the most important man in their lives has died. Lindsay said something then, and though I don’t remember the exact phrase, I do remember that Papaw had just done some work on her car, and she was muttering something through the tears about taking advantage of him.
Lindsay was a teenager when Papaw died, at the height of that weird mixture of thinking you know everything and caring too much about how others perceive you. Papaw was many things, but he was never cool. He wore the same old T-shirt every day with a front pocket just big enough to fit a pack of cigarettes. He always smelled of mildew, because he washed his clothes but let them dry “naturally,” meaning packed together in a washing machine. A lifetime of smoking had blessed him with an unlimited supply of phlegm, and he had no problem sharing that phlegm with everyone, no matter the time or occasion. He listened to Johnny Cash on perpetual repeat and drove an old El Camino—a car truck—everywhere he went. In other words, Papaw wasn’t ideal company for a beautiful seventeen-year-old girl with an active social life. Thus, she took advantage of him in the same way that every young girl takes advantage of a father: She loved and admired him, she asked him for things that he sometimes gave her, and she didn’t pay him a lot of attention when she was around her friends.
To this day, being able to “take advantage” of someone is the measure in my mind of having a parent. For me and Lindsay, the fear of imposing stalked our minds, infecting even the food we ate. We recognized instinctively that many of the people we depended on weren’t supposed to play that role in our lives, so much so that it was one of the first things Lindsay thought of when she learned of Papaw’s death. We were conditioned to feel that we couldn’t really depend on people—that, even as children, asking someone for a meal or for help with a broken-down automobile was a luxury that we shouldn’t indulge in too much lest we fully tap the reservoir of goodwill serving as a safety valve in our lives. Mamaw and Papaw did everything they could to fight that instinct. On our rare trips to a nice restaurant, they would interrogate me about what I truly wanted until I’d confess that yes, I did want the steak. And then they’d order it for me over my protests. No matter how imposing, no figure could erase that feeling entirely. Papaw had come the closest, but he clearly hadn’t succeeded all the way, and now he was gone.
Papaw died on a Tuesday, and I know this because when Mom’s boyfriend, Matt, drove me to a local diner the next morning to pick up food for the whole family, the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Tuesday’s Gone” was playing on the radio. “But somehow I’ve got to carry on / Tuesday’s gone with the wind.” That was the moment it really hit me that Papaw was never coming back. The adults did what people do when a loved one dies: They planned a funeral, figured out how to pay for it, and hoped that they did the deceased some justice. We hosted a visitation in Middletown that Thursday so all the locals could pay their respects, then had a second visitation in Jackson on Friday before a Saturday funeral. Even in death, Papaw had one foot in Ohio and another in the holler.
Everyone I cared to see came to the funeral in Jackson—Uncle Jimmy and his kids, our extended family and friends, and all of the Blanton men who were still kicking. It occurred to me as I saw these titans of my family that, for the first eleven or so years of my life, I saw them during happy times—family reunions and holidays or lazy summers and long weekends—and in the two most recent years I’d seen them only at funerals.
At Papaw’s funeral, as at other hillbilly funerals I’ve witnessed, the preacher invited everyone to stand up and say a few words about the deceased. As I sat next to Uncle Jimmy in the pew, I sobbed throughout the hour-long funeral, my eyes so irritated by the end that I could hardly see. Still, I knew this was it, and that if I didn’t stand up and speak my piece, I’d regret it for the rest of my life.
I thought about a moment nearly a decade earlier that I’d heard about but didn’t remember. I was four or five, sitting in a church pew for a great-uncle’s funeral in that same Deaton funeral home in Jackson. We had just arrived after a long drive from Middletown, and when the minister asked us to bow our heads and pray, I bowed my head and passed out. Mamaw’s older brother Uncle Pet lay me on my side with a Bible as a pillow and thought nothing more of it. I was asleep for what happened next, but I’ve heard some version of it a hundred times. Even today, when I see someone who attended that funeral, they tell me about my hillbilly Mamaw and Papaw.
When I failed to appear in the crowd of mourners leaving the church, Mamaw and Papaw grew suspicious. There were perverts even in Jackson, they told me, who wanted to stick sticks up your butt and “blow on your pecker” as much as the perverts in Ohio or Indiana or California. Papaw hatched a plan: There were only two exits to Deaton’s, and no one had driven away yet. Papaw ran to the car and grabbed a .44 Magnum for himself and a .38 Special for Mamaw. They manned the exits to the funeral home and checked every car. When they encountered an old friend, they explained the situation and enlisted help. When they met someone else, they searched the cars like goddamned DEA agents.
Uncle Pet approached, frustrated that Mamaw and Papaw were holding up traffic. When they explained, Pet howled with laughter: “He’s asleep in the church pew, let me show you.” After they found me, they allowed traffic to flow freely once again.
I thought about Papaw buying me a BB gun with a mounted scope. He placed the gun on his workbench with a vise to hold it in place and fired repeatedly at a target. After each shot, we adjusted the scope, aligning the crosshairs with where the BB impacted the target. And then he taught me how to shoot—how to focus on the sights and not the target, how to exhale before pulling the trigger. Years later, our marine boot camp marksmanship instructors would tell us that the kids who already “knew” how to shoot performed the worst, because they’d learned improper fundamentals. That was true with one exception: me. From Papaw, I had learned excellent fundamentals, and I qualified with an M16 rifle as an expert, the highest category, with one of the highest scores in my entire platoon.
Papaw was gruff to the point of absurdity. To every suggestion or behavior he didn’t like, Papaw had one reply: “Bullshit.” That was everyone’s cue to shut the hell up. His hobby was cars: He loved buying, trading, and fixing them. One day not long after Papaw quit drinking, Uncle Jimmy came home to find him fixing an old automobile on the street. “He was cussing up a storm. ‘These goddamned Japanese cars, cheap pieces of shit. What a stupid motherfucker who made this part.’ I just listened to him, not knowing a single person was around, and he just kept carrying on and complaining. I thought he sounded miserable.” Uncle Jimmy had recently started working and was eager to spend his money to help his dad out. So he offered to take the car to a shop and get it fixed. The suggestion caught Papaw completely off guard. “What? Why?” he asked innocently. “I love fixing cars.”
Papaw had a beer belly and a chubby face but skinny arms and legs. He never apologized with words. While helping Aunt Wee move across the country, she admonished him for his earlier alcoholism and asked why they rarely had the chance to talk. “Well, talk now. We’ve got all fucking day in the car together.” But he did apologize with deeds: The rare times when he lost his temper with me were always followed with a new toy or a trip to the ice cream parlor.
Papaw was a terrifying hillbilly made for a different time and place. During that cross-country drive with Aunt Wee, they stopped at a highway rest stop in the early morning. Aunt Wee decided to comb her hair and brush her teeth and thus spent more time in the ladies’ room than Papaw thought reasonable. He kicked open the door holding a loaded revolver, like a character in a Liam Neeson movie. He was sure, he explained, that she was being raped by some pervert. Years later, after Aunt Wee’s dog growled at her infant baby, Papaw told her husband, Dan, that unless he got rid of the dog, Papaw would feed it a steak marinated in antifreeze. He wasn’t joking: Three decades earlier, he had made the same promise to a neighbor after a dog nearly bit my mom. A week later that dog was dead. In that funeral home I thought about these things, too.
Most of all I thought about Papaw and me. I thought about the hours we spent practicing increasingly complex math problems. He taught me that lack of knowledge and lack of intelligence were not the same. The former could be remedied with a little patience and a lot of hard work. And the latter? “Well, I guess you’re up shit creek without a paddle.”
I thought about how Papaw would get on the ground with me and Aunt Wee’s baby girls and play with us like a child. Despite his “bullshits” and his grouchiness, he never met a hug or a kiss that he didn’t welcome. He bought Lindsay a crappy car and fixed it up, and after she wrecked it, he bought her another one and fixed that one up, too, just so she didn’t feel like she “came from nothing.” I thought about losing my temper with Mom or Lindsay or Mamaw, and how those were among the few times Papaw ever showed a mean streak, because, as he once told me, “the measure of a man is how he treats the women in his family.” His wisdom came from experience, from his own earlier failures with treating the women in his family well.
I stood up in that funeral home, resolved to tell everyone just how important he was. “I never had a dad,” I explained. “But Papaw was always there for me, and he taught me the things that men needed to know.” Then I spoke the sum of his influence on my life: “He was the best dad that anyone could ever ask for.”
After the funeral, a number of people told me that they appreciated my bravery and courage. Mom was not among them, which struck me as odd. When I located her in the crowd, she seemed trapped in some sort of trance: saying little, even to those who approached her; her movements slow and her body slouched.
Mamaw, too, seemed out of sorts. Kentucky was usually the one place where she was completely in her element. In Middletown, she could never truly be herself. At Perkins, our favorite breakfast spot, Mamaw’s mouth would sometimes earn a request from the manager that she keep her voice down or watch her language. “That fucker,” she’d mutter under her breath, chastened and uncomfortable. But at Bill’s Family Diner, the only restaurant in Jackson worth sitting down at for a meal, she’d scream at the kitchen staff to “hurry the hell up” and they’d laugh and say, “Okay, Bonnie.” Then she’d look at me and tell me, “You know I’m just fucking with them, right? They know I’m not a mean old bitch.”
In Jackson, among old friends and real hillbillies, she needed no filter. At her brother’s funeral a few years earlier, Mamaw and her niece Denise convinced themselves that one of the pallbearers was a pervert, so they broke into his funeral home office and searched through his belongings. They found an extensive magazine collection, including a few issues of Beaver Hunt (a periodical that I can assure you has nothing to do with aquatic mammals). Mamaw found it hilarious. “Fucking Beaver Hunt!” she’d roar. “Who comes up with this shit?” She and Denise hatched a plot to take the magazines home and mail them to the pallbearer’s wife. After a short deliberation, she changed her mind. “With my luck,” she told me, “we’ll get in a crash on the way back to Ohio and the police will find these damned things in my trunk. I’ll be damned if I’m going to go out with everyone thinking I was a lesbian—and a perverted one at that!” So they threw the magazines away to “teach that pervert a lesson” and never spoke of it again. This side of Mamaw rarely showed itself outside of Jackson.
Deaton’s funeral home in Jackson—where she’d stolen those Beaver Hunts—was organized like a church. In the center of the building was a main sanctuary flanked by larger rooms with couches and tables. On the other two sides were hallways with exits to a few smaller rooms—offices for staff, a tiny kitchen, and bathrooms. I’ve spent much of my life in that tiny funeral home, saying goodbye to aunts and uncles and cousins and great-grandparents. And whether she went to Deaton’s to bury an old friend, a brother, or her beloved mother, Mamaw greeted every guest, laughed loudly, and cursed proudly.
So it was a surprise to me when, during Papaw’s visitation, I went searching for comfort and found Mamaw alone in a corner of the funeral home, recharging batteries that I never knew could go empty. She stared blankly at the floor, her fire replaced with something unfamiliar. I knelt before her and laid my head in her lap and said nothing. At that moment, I realized that Mamaw was not invincible.
In hindsight, it’s clear that there was more than grief to both Mamaw’s and Mom’s behavior. Lindsay, Matt, and Mamaw did their best to hide it from me. Mamaw forbade me to stay at Mom’s, under the ruse that Mamaw needed me with her as she grieved. Perhaps they hoped to give me a little space to mourn Papaw. I don’t know.
I didn’t see at first that something had veered off course. Papaw was dead, and everyone processed it differently. Lindsay spent a lot of time with her friends and was always on the move. I stayed as close to Mamaw as possible and read the Bible a lot. Mom slept more than usual, and I figured this was her way of coping. At home, she lacked even a modicum of temper control. Lindsay failed to do the dishes properly, or forgot to take out the dog, and Mom’s anger poured out: “My dad was the only one who really understood me!” she’d scream. “I’ve lost him, and you’re not making this any easier!” Mom had always had a temper, though, so I dismissed even this.
Mom seemed bothered that anyone but her was grieving. Aunt Wee’s grief was unjustified, because Mom and Papaw had a special bond. So, too, was Mamaw’s, for she didn’t even like Papaw and chose not to live under the same roof. Lindsay and I needed to get over ourselves, for it was Mom’s father, not ours, who had just died. The first indication that our lives were about to change came one morning when I woke and strolled over to Mom’s house, where I knew Lindsay and Mom were sleeping. I went first to Lindsay’s room, but she was asleep in my room instead. I knelt beside her, woke her up, and she hugged me tightly. After a little while, she said earnestly, “We’ll get through this, J.”—that was her nickname for me—“I promise.” I still have no idea why she slept in my room that night, but I would soon learn what she promised we’d get through.
A few days after the funeral, I walked onto Mamaw’s front porch, looked down the street, and saw an incredible commotion. Mom was standing in a bath towel in her front yard, screaming at the only people who truly loved her: to Matt, “You’re a fucking loser nobody”; to Lindsay, “You’re a selfish bitch, he was my dad, not yours, so stop acting like you just lost your father”; to Tammy, her unbelievably kind friend who was secretly gay, “The only reason you act like my friend is because you want to fuck me.” I ran over and begged Mom to calm down, but by then a police cruiser was already on the scene. I arrived on the front porch as a police officer grabbed Mom’s shoulders and she collapsed on the ground, struggling and kicking. Then the officer grabbed Mom and carried her to the cruiser, and she fought the whole way. There was blood on the porch, and someone said that she had tried to cut her wrists. I don’t think the officer arrested her, though I don’t know what happened. Mamaw arrived on the scene and took Lindsay and me with her. I remember thinking that if Papaw were here, he would know what to do.
Papaw’s death cast light upon something that had previously lurked in the shadows. Only a kid could have missed the writing on the wall, I suppose. A year earlier, Mom had lost her job at Middletown Hospital after Rollerblading through the emergency room. At the time I saw Mom’s bizarre behavior as the consequence of her divorce from Bob. Similarly, Mamaw’s occasional references to Mom “getting loaded” seemed like random comments of a woman known for her willingness to say anything, not a diagnosis of a deteriorating reality. Not long after Mom lost her job, during my trip to California, I heard from her just once. I had no idea that, behind the scenes, the adults—meaning Mamaw on the one hand and Uncle Jimmy and his wife, Aunt Donna, on the other—were debating whether I should move permanently to California.
Mom flailing and screaming in the street was the culmination of the things I hadn’t seen. She’d begun taking prescription narcotics not long after we moved to Preble County. I believe the problem started with a legitimate prescription, but soon enough, Mom was stealing from her patients and getting so high that turning an emergency room into a skating rink seemed like a good idea. Papaw’s death turned a semi-functioning addict into a woman unable to follow the basic norms of adult behavior.
In this way, Papaw’s death permanently altered the trajectory of our family. Before his death, I had settled into the chaotic but happy routine of splitting time between Mom’s and Mamaw’s. Boyfriends came and went, Mom had good days and bad, but I always had an escape route. With Papaw gone and Mom in rehab at the Cincinnati Center for Addiction Treatment—or “the CAT house,” as we called it—I began to feel myself a burden. Though she never said anything to make me feel unwanted, Mamaw’s life had been a constant struggle: From the poverty of the holler to Papaw’s abuse, from Aunt Wee’s teenage marriage to Mom’s rap sheet, Mamaw had spent the better part of her seven decades managing crises. And now, when most people her age were enjoying the fruits of retirement, she was raising two teenage grandchildren. Without Papaw to help her, that burden seemed twice as heavy. In the months after Papaw’s death, I remembered the woman I found in an isolated corner of Deaton’s funeral home and couldn’t shake the feeling that, no matter what aura of strength Mamaw projected, that other woman lived somewhere inside her.
So instead of retreating to Mamaw’s house, or calling her every time problems arose with Mom, I relied on Lindsay and on myself. Lindsay was a recent high school graduate, and I had just started seventh grade, but we made it work. Sometimes Matt or Tammy brought us food, but we largely fended for ourselves: Hamburger Helper, TV dinners, Pop-Tarts, and breakfast cereal. I’m not sure who paid the bills (probably Mamaw). We didn’t have a lot of structure—Lindsay once came home from work to find me hanging out with a couple of her friends, all of us drunk—but in some ways we didn’t need it. When Lindsay learned that I got the beer from a friend of hers, she didn’t lose her cool or laugh at the indulgence; she kicked everyone out and then lectured me on substance abuse.
We saw Mamaw often, and she asked about us constantly. But we both enjoyed the independence, and I think we enjoyed the feeling that we burdened no one except perhaps each other. Lindsay and I had grown so good at managing crises, so emotionally stoic even as the very planet seemed to lose its cool, that taking care of ourselves seemed easy. No matter how much we loved Mom, our lives were easier with one less person to care for.
Did we struggle? Certainly. We received one letter from the school district informing us that I had collected so many unexcused absences that my parents might be summoned before the school or even prosecuted by the city. We found this letter hilarious: One of my parents had already faced a prosecution of sorts and hardly possessed any walking-around liberty, while the other was sufficiently off the grid that “summoning” him would require some serious detective work. We also found it frightening: Without a legal guardian around to sign the letter, we didn’t know what the hell to do. But as we had with other challenges, we improvised. Lindsay forged Mom’s signature, and the school district stopped sending letters home.
On designated weekdays and weekends, we visited our mother at the CAT house. Between the hills of Kentucky, Mamaw and her guns, and Mom’s outbursts, I thought that I had seen it all. But Mom’s newest problem exposed me to the underworld of American addiction. Wednesdays were always dedicated to a group activity—some type of training for the family. All of the addicts and their families sat in a large room with each family assigned to an individual table, engaged in some discussion meant to teach us about addiction and its triggers. In one session, Mom explained that she used drugs to escape the stress of paying bills and to dull the pain of Papaw’s death. In another, Lindsay and I learned that standard sibling conflict made it more difficult for Mom to resist temptation.
These sessions provoked little more than arguments and raw emotion, which I suppose was their purpose. On the nights when we sat in that giant hall with other families—all of whom were either black or Southern-accented whites like us—we heard screaming and fighting, children telling their parents that they hated them, sobbing parents begging forgiveness in one breath and then blaming their families in the next. It was there that I first heard Lindsay tell Mom how she resented having to play the caretaker in the wake of Papaw’s death instead of grieving for him, how she hated watching me grow attached to some boyfriend of Mom’s only to see him walk out on us. Perhaps it was the setting, or perhaps it was the fact that Lindsay was almost eighteen, but as my sister confronted my mother, I began to see my sister as the real adult. And our routine at home only enhanced her stature.
Mom’s rehab proceeded apace, and her condition apparently improved with time. Sundays were designated as unstructured family time: We couldn’t take Mom off-site, but we were able to eat and watch TV and talk as normal. Sundays were usually happy, though Mom did angrily chide us during one visit because our relationship with Mamaw had grown too close. “I’m your mother, not her,” she told us. I realized that Mom had begun to regret the seeds she’d sown with Lindsay and me.
When Mom came home a few months later, she brought a new vocabulary along with her. She regularly recited the Serenity Prayer, a staple of addiction circles in which the faithful ask God for the “serenity to accept the things [they] cannot change.” Drug addiction was a disease, and just as I wouldn’t judge a cancer patient for a tumor, so I shouldn’t judge a narcotics addict for her behavior. At thirteen, I found this patently absurd, and Mom and I often argued over whether her newfound wisdom was scientific truth or an excuse for people whose decisions destroyed a family. Oddly enough, it’s probably both: Research does reveal a genetic disposition to substance abuse, but those who believe their addiction is a disease show less of an inclination to resist it. Mom was telling herself the truth, but the truth was not setting her free.
I didn’t believe in any of the slogans or sentiments, but I did believe she was trying. Addiction treatment seemed to give Mom a sense of purpose, and it gave us something to bond over. I read what I could on her “disease” and even made a habit of attending some of her Narcotics Anonymous meetings, which proceeded precisely as you’d expect: a depressing conference room, a dozen or so chairs, and a bunch of strangers sitting in a circle, introducing themselves as “Bob, and I’m an addict.” I thought that if I participated, she might actually get better.
At one meeting a man walked in a few minutes late, smelling like a garbage can. His matted hair and dirty clothes evidenced a life on the streets, a truth he confirmed as soon as he opened his mouth. “My kids won’t speak to me; no one will,” he told us. “I scrounge together what money I can and spend it on smack. Tonight I couldn’t find any money or any smack, so I came in here because it looked warm.” The organizer asked if he’d be willing to try giving up the drugs for more than one night, and the man answered with admirable candor: “I could say yes, but honestly, probably not. I’ll probably be back at it tomorrow night.”
I never saw that man again. Before he left, someone did ask him where he was from. “Well, I’ve lived here in Hamilton for most of my life. But I was born down in eastern Kentucky, Owsley County.” At the time, I didn’t know enough about Kentucky geography to tell the man that he had been born no more than twenty miles from my grandparents’ childhood home.