Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - J.D. Vance (2016)
By the time I finished eighth grade, Mom had been sober for at least a year, and she’d been dating Matt for two or three years. I was doing well in school, and Mamaw had taken a couple vacations—one trip to California to visit Uncle Jimmy and another to Las Vegas with her friend Kathy. Lindsay had married soon after Papaw’s death. I loved her husband, Kevin, and still do, for a simple reason: He never mistreated her. That’s all I ever wanted in a mate for my sister. Just under a year after their wedding, Lindsay gave birth to her son, Kameron. She was a mom, and a damn good one at that. I was proud of her, and I adored my new nephew. Aunt Wee also had two small children, which gave me three little kids to dote on. I saw all of this as a sign of family renewal. The summer before high school was thus a hopeful one.
That same summer, however, Mom announced that I’d be moving in with Matt in his Dayton home. I liked Matt, and by then Mom had lived in Dayton with him for a little while. But Dayton was a forty-five-minute drive from Mamaw’s, and Mom made it clear that she wanted me to attend school in Dayton. I liked my life in Middletown—I wanted to attend the high school, I loved my friends, and although it was a bit unconventional, I enjoyed splitting time between Mom’s and Mamaw’s houses during the week and hanging out with Dad on the weekends. Importantly, I could always go to Mamaw’s house if I needed to, and that made all the difference. I remembered life when I didn’t have that safety valve, and I didn’t want to go back to those days. Moreover, any move would be without Lindsay and Kameron. So when Mom made her announcement about moving in with Matt, I belted out, “Absolutely not,” and stormed away.
Mom drew from this conversation that I had anger problems and scheduled a time for me to meet with her therapist. I didn’t know she had a therapist or the money to afford one, but I agreed to meet with this lady. Our first meeting took place the following week in a musty old office near Dayton, Ohio, where a nondescript middle-aged woman, Mom, and I tried to understand why I was so angry. I recognized that human beings aren’t very good at judging themselves: I may have been wrong that I was no angrier (in fact, considerably less so) than most of the people in my life. Maybe Mom was right and I did have some anger problems. I tried to keep an open mind. If nothing else, I thought, this woman might give Mom and me an opportunity to get everything in the open.
But that first session felt like an ambush. Immediately, the woman began asking why I would scream at my mother and storm off, why I didn’t recognize that she was my mother and that I had to live with her by law. The therapist chronicled “outbursts” that I’d allegedly had, some going back to a time I couldn’t remember—the time I threw a tantrum in a department store as a five-year-old, my fight with another child in school (the school bully, whom I didn’t want to punch but did so at Mamaw’s encouragement), the times I’d run from home to my grandparents’ house because of Mom’s “discipline.” Clearly this woman had developed an impression of me based solely on what Mom had told her. If I didn’t have an anger problem before, I did now.
“Do you have any idea what you’re talking about?” I asked. At fourteen, I knew at least a little about professional ethics. “Aren’t you supposed to ask me what I think about things and not just criticize me?” I launched into an hour-long summary of my life to that point. I didn’t tell the whole story, since I knew I had to choose my words carefully: During Mom’s domestic violence case a couple of years earlier, Lindsay and I had let slip some unsavory details about Mom’s parenting, and because it counted as a new revelation of abuse, the family counselor was required to report it to child services. So I didn’t miss the irony of lying to a therapist (to protect Mom) lest I ignite another intervention by the county children’s services. I explained the situation well enough: After an hour, she said simply, “Perhaps we should meet alone.”
I saw this woman as an obstacle to overcome—an obstacle placed by Mom—not as someone who might help. I explained only half of my feelings: that I had no interest in putting a forty-five-minute barrier between me and everyone I had ever depended on so I could replant myself with a man I knew would be sent packing. The therapist obviously understood. What I didn’t tell her is that for the first time in my life, I felt trapped. There was no Papaw, and Mamaw—a longtime smoker with the emphysema to prove it—seemed too frail and exhausted to care for a fourteen-year-old boy. My aunt and uncle had two young kids. Lindsay was newly married and had a child of her own. I had nowhere to go. I’d seen chaos and fighting, violence, drugs, and a great deal of instability. But I’d never felt like I had no way out. When the therapist asked me what I’d do, I replied that I would probably go live with my dad. She said that this sounded like a good idea. When I walked out of her office, I thanked her for her time and knew that I’d never see her again.
Mom had a massive blind spot in the way that she perceived the world. That she would ask me to move with her to Dayton, that she seemed genuinely surprised by my resistance, and that she would subject me to such a one-sided introduction to a therapist meant that Mom didn’t understand something about the way that Lindsay and I ticked. Lindsay once told me, “Mom just doesn’t get it.” I initially disagreed with her: “Of course she gets it; it’s just the way she is, something she can’t change.” After the incident with the therapist, I knew that Lindsay was right.
Mamaw was unhappy when I told her that I planned to live with Dad, and so was everyone else. No one really understood it, and I felt unable to say much about it. I knew that if I told the truth, I’d have a few people offering their spare bedrooms, and all of them would submit to Mamaw’s demand that I live permanently with her. I also knew that living with Mamaw came with a lot of guilt, and a lot of questions about why I didn’t live with my mom or dad, and a lot of whispers from a lot of people to Mamaw that she just needed to take a break and enjoy her golden years. That feeling of being a burden to Mamaw wasn’t something I imagined; it came from a number of small cues, from the things she muttered under her breath, and from the weariness she wore like a dark piece of clothing. I didn’t want that, so I chose what seemed like the least bad option.
In some ways, I loved living with Dad. His life was normal in precisely the way I’d always wanted mine to be. My stepmom worked part-time but was usually home. Dad came home from work around the same time each day. One of them (usually my stepmom but sometimes Dad) made dinner every night, which we ate as a family. Before each meal, we’d say grace (something I’d always liked but had never done outside of Kentucky). On weeknights, we’d watch some family sitcom together. And Dad and Cheryl never screamed at each other. Once, I heard them raise their voices during an argument about money, but slightly elevated volumes were far different from screaming.
On my first weekend at Dad’s house—the first weekend I had ever spent with him when I knew that, come Monday, I wouldn’t be going somewhere else—my younger brother invited a friend to sleep over. We fished in Dad’s pond, fed horses, and grilled steaks for dinner. That night, we watched Indiana Jones movies until the early-morning hours. There was no fighting, no adults hurling insults at one another, no glass china shattering angrily against the wall or floor. It was a boring evening. And it epitomized what attracted me to Dad’s home.
What I never lost, though, was the sense of being on guard. When I moved in with my father, I’d known him for two years. I knew that he was a good man, a little quiet, a devout Christian from a very strict religious tradition. When we first reconnected, he made it clear that he didn’t care for my taste in classic rock, especially Led Zeppelin. He wasn’t mean about it—that wasn’t his style—and he didn’t tell me I couldn’t listen to my favorite bands; he just advised that I listen to Christian rock instead. I could never tell my dad that I played a nerdy collectible card game called Magic, because I feared he’d think the cards were satanic—after all, kids at the church youth group often spoke of Magic and its evil influence on young Christians. And as most teenagers do, I had so many questions about my faith—whether it was compatible with modern science, for instance, or whether this or that denomination was correct on particular doctrinal disputes.
I doubt he would have gotten upset if I’d asked those questions, but I never did because I didn’t know how he’d respond. I didn’t know whether he’d tell me I was a spawn of Satan and send me away. I didn’t know how much of our new relationship was built on his sense that I was a good kid. I didn’t know how he’d react if I listened to those Zeppelin CDs in his house with my younger siblings around. That not knowing gnawed at me to the point where I could no longer take it.
I think Mamaw understood what was going on in my head, even though I never told her explicitly. We spoke on the phone frequently, and one night she told me that I had to know she loved me more than anything and she wanted me to return home when I was ready. “This is your home, J.D., and always will be.” The next day, I called Lindsay and asked her to come and get me. She had a job, a house, a husband, and a baby. But she said, “I’ll be there in forty-five minutes.” I apologized to Dad, who was heartbroken by my decision. But he understood: “You can’t stay away from that crazy grandma of yours. I know she’s good to you.” It was a stunning admission from a man to whom Mamaw never said a nice word. And it was the first indication that Dad understood the complex and conflicting feelings I’d developed. That meant a great deal to me. When Lindsay and her family came to get me, I got in the car, sighed, and said to her, “Thanks for taking me home.” I gave my infant nephew a kiss on the forehead and said nothing else until we got to Mamaw’s.
I spent the rest of the summer mostly with Mamaw. A few weeks with Dad had given me no epiphanies: I still felt caught between a desire to stay with her and a fear that my presence was depriving her of the comforts of old age. So before my freshman year started, I told Mom that I’d live with her so long as I could stay in Middletown’s schools and see Mamaw whenever I wanted. She said something about needing to transfer to a Dayton school after my freshman year, but I figured we’d cross that bridge in a year, when we had to.
Living with Mom and Matt was like having a front-row seat to the end of the world. The fighting was relatively normal by my standards (and Mom’s), but I’m sure poor Matt kept asking himself how and when he’d hopped the express train to crazy town. It was just the three of us in that house, and it was clear to all that it wouldn’t work out. It was only a matter of time. Matt was a nice guy, and as Lindsay and I joked, nice guys never survived their encounters with our family.
Given the state of Mom and Matt’s relationship, I was surprised when I came home from school one day early during my sophomore year and Mom announced that she was getting married. Perhaps, I thought, things weren’t quite as bad as I expected. “I honestly thought you and Matt were going to break up,” I said. “You fight every day.” “Well,” she replied, “I’m not getting married to him.”
It was a story that even I found incredible. Mom had been working as a nurse at a local dialysis center, a job she’d held for a few months. Her boss, about ten years her senior, asked her out to dinner one night. She obliged, and with her relationship in shambles, she agreed to marry him a week later. She told me on a Thursday. On Saturday we moved into Ken’s house. His home was my fourth in two years.
Ken was born in Korea but raised by an American veteran and his wife. During that first week in his house, I decided to inspect his small greenhouse and stumbled upon a relatively mature marijuana plant. I told Mom, who told Ken, and by the end of the day it had been replaced with a tomato plant. When I confronted Ken, he stammered a bit and finally said, “It’s for medicinal purposes, don’t worry about it.”
Ken’s three children—a young girl and two boys about the same age I was—found the new arrangement as strange as I did. The oldest boy fought constantly with Mom, which—thanks to the Appalachian honor code—meant that he fought constantly with me. Shortly before I went to bed one night, I came downstairs just as he called her a bitch. No self-respecting hillbilly could stand idly by, so I made it abundantly clear that I meant to beat my new stepbrother to within an inch of his life. So unquenchable was my appetite for violence that night that Mom and Ken decided that my new stepbrother and I should be separated. I wasn’t even particularly angry. My desire to fight arose more out of a sense of duty. But it was a strong sense of duty, so Mom and I went to Mamaw’s for the night.
I remember watching an episode of The West Wing about education in America, which the majority of people rightfully believe is the key to opportunity. In it, the fictional president debates whether he should push school vouchers (giving public money to schoolchildren so that they escape failing public schools) or instead focus exclusively on fixing those same failing schools. That debate is important, of course—for a long time, much of my failing school district qualified for vouchers—but it was striking that in an entire discussion about why poor kids struggled in school, the emphasis rested entirely on public institutions. As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, “They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.”
I don’t know what happened the day after Mom and I escaped Ken’s to Mamaw’s for the night. Maybe I had a test that I wasn’t able to study for. Maybe I had a homework assignment due that I never had the time to complete. What I do know is that I was a sophomore in high school, and I was miserable. The constant moving and fighting, the seemingly endless carousel of new people I had to meet, learn to love, and then forget—this, and not my subpar public school, was the real barrier to opportunity.
I didn’t know it, but I was close to the precipice. I had nearly failed out of my freshmen year of high school, earning a 2.1 GPA. I didn’t do my homework, I didn’t study, and my attendance was abysmal. Some days I’d fake an illness, and others I’d just refuse to go. When I did go, I did so only to avoid a repeat of the letters the school had sent home a few years earlier—the ones that said if I didn’t go to school, the administration would be forced to refer my case to county social services.
Along with my abysmal school record came drug experimentation—nothing hard, just what alcohol I could get my hands on and a stash of weed that Ken’s son and I found. Final proof, I suppose, that I did know the difference between a tomato plant and marijuana.
For the first time in my life, I felt detached from Lindsay. She’d been married well over a year and had a toddler. There was something heroic about Lindsay’s marriage—that after everything she’d witnessed, she’d ended up with someone who treated her well and had a decent job. Lindsay seemed genuinely happy. She was a good mom who doted on her young son. She had a little house not far from Mamaw’s and seemed to be finding her way.
Though I felt happy for my sister, her new life heightened my sense of separation. For my entire existence, we had lived under the same roof, but now she lived in Middletown, and I lived with Ken about twenty miles away. While Lindsay built a life almost in opposition to the one she left behind—she would be a good mother, she would have a successful marriage (and only one)—I found myself mired in the things that both of us hated. While Lindsay and her new husband took trips to Florida and California, I was stuck in a stranger’s house in Miamisburg, Ohio.