Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Summary

J.D. Vance grew up in poverty and beat the odds. His story is strikingly similar to my own, and it accurately captures the challenges of upward mobility. This book is about more than Vance’s story – it’s about the decline of white working-class Americans.

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Key Takeaways

The American Dream

“And I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.”

“I had achieved the American Dream. Or at least that’s how it looked to an outsider. But upward mobility is never clean-cut, and the world I left always finds a way to reel me back in.”

As someone who has also gone through the process of upward mobility in America, I echo Vance’s thoughts on this process. While I’m immensely grateful for the luck I’ve had in improving my life, I am simultaneously burdened by the many painful parts of my childhood that continue to be a part of my life in different ways.

A movement toward blame

“There is a lack of agency here—a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself. This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America.”

“…avoidance and wishful-thinking forms of coping “significantly predicted resiliency” among Appalachian teens. Their paper suggests that hillbillies learn from an early age to deal with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them, or by pretending better truths exist. This tendency might make for psychological resilience, but it also makes it hard for Appalachians to look at themselves honestly.”

“There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.”

Vance ties the decline of middle America to more than a deteriorating economic landscape. He admits to the role of social and psychological barriers, including the feeling of having no control over your life and the tendency to blame others for your circumstances.

On grandparents

“My grandparents—Mamaw and Papaw—were, without question or qualification, the best things that ever happened to me. They spent the last two decades of their lives showing me the value of love and stability and teaching me the life lessons that most people learn from their parents. Both did their part to ensure that I had the self-confidence and the right opportunities to get a fair shot at the American Dream.”

“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.”

Like Vance, my grandparents played an indispensable role in my upbringing. Not only did they provide a safe pillow to land on when circumstances were volatile in my home, but they even provided me a home when one didn’t exist for me. It’s scary to think about where my life might be without my grandparents.

Teachers can’t solve it all

“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.’”

Society puts pressure on school teachers to find ways to motivate, inspire, and turn around poor performers. This narrative fails to recognize the ways in which the circumstances these underperformers face at home directly result in their poor performance. Living in a home where education isn’t valued or where your parents are getting drunk and arguing all night – these are things that a teacher cannot solve.

The cycle of poverty spending

“This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend that we’re upper-class. And when the dust clears—when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity—there’s nothing left over. Nothing for the kids’ college tuition, no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund if someone loses her job. We know we shouldn’t spend like this. Sometimes we beat ourselves up over it, but we do it anyway.”

I saw similar cycles in my own family and the people around us.

Generational changes

“My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.”

Vance’s grandparents and mother were both poor, but their values differed in important ways. While his grandparents valued hard work and self-reliance, his mother fell into anger and distrust. If you want any chance of making it, the first set of values is where you want to be.

Pride in America

“Mamaw and Papaw taught me that we live in the best and greatest country on earth. This fact gave meaning to my childhood. Whenever times were tough—when I felt overwhelmed by the drama and the tumult of my youth—I knew that better days were ahead because I lived in a country that allowed me to make the good choices that others hadn’t. When I think today about my life and how genuinely incredible it is—a gorgeous, kind, brilliant life partner; the financial security that I dreamed about as a child; great friends and exciting new experiences—I feel overwhelming appreciation for these United States. I know it’s corny, but it’s the way I feel.”

Despite the hardship and tumultuous circumstances, Vance found meaning in being from the United States.

The cycle of poverty spending

“I lived among newly christened members of what folks back home pejoratively call the “elites,” and by every outward appearance, I was one of them: I am a tall, white, straight male. I have never felt out of place in my entire life. But I did at Yale.”

“Very few people at Yale Law School are like me. They may look like me, but for all of the Ivy League’s obsession with diversity, virtually everyone—black, white, Jewish, Muslim, whatever—comes from intact families who never worry about money.”

As a white male who grew up in poverty and attended Princeton, I understand and feel exactly what Vance is saying. It’s rare to find diversity of social class at these institutions.

The nagging questions

“I began to think seriously about questions that had nagged at me since I was a teenager: Why has no one else from my high school made it to the Ivy League? Why are people like me so poorly represented in America’s elite institutions? Why is domestic strife so common in families like mine? Why did I think that places like Yale and Harvard were so unreachable? Why did successful people feel so different?”

These questions have nagged me as well, and sadly, there are no perfect answers.

Self-preservation

“People like Brian and me don’t lose contact with our parents because we don’t care; we lose contact with them to survive. We never stop loving, and we never lose hope that our loved ones will change. Rather, we are forced, either by wisdom or by the law, to take the path of self-preservation.”

When you have parents or relatives that continue to fall into the addiction cycle, you are there for them as much as you can be. But over time, you might need to distance yourself. You distance yourself not because you don’t care, but because you need to do so to have any chance at surviving and avoiding the same fate.

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