Vance’s time in Mamaw’s house markedly improved his academic performance—so much so that he was accepted to Ohio State University. Mamaw reassured her grandson that education was “the only damned thing worth spending money on,” but Vance grew increasingly apprehensive, worrying that he wasn’t ready to make such a commitment. He knew that going to college would be an investment in his future, but he didn’t feel ready to make that investment. Instead, he decided to join the Marines. This came as a surprise to his entire family, given that he was chubby and lacked the discipline associated with military training. Nonetheless, he decided to go. This was shortly after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, but his largest fear wasn’t that he would be killed in the Middle East. Rather, it was that he would return from boot camp (which lasted 13 weeks) to find that Mamaw had died.
At first, Vance’s hesitancy to commit to Ohio State University may have looked like he was avoiding taking the necessary steps to attain upward mobility—the same kind of avoidance of hard work that so many of his community members had modeled for him throughout his childhood. Fortunately, though, his decision to delay his college education was actually a sign that he was thinking diligently about whether or not he would be able to get the most out of the program. He put off committing to college not because he didn’t want to work hard, but because he wanted to ensure that his hard work would pay off. In other words, he was meticulously considering the circumstances surrounding his potential transition out of poverty.
Vance explains that boot camp taught him to believe in himself. As his instructors berated him, he stood proud and tried harder. “If I had learned helplessness at home,” he writes, “the Marines were teaching learned willfulness.” He carried this pride into his life, finding that—upon becoming a Marine—he could demand a new kind of respect from people. On his first visit home after graduating boot camp, a barber who happened to be a veteran gave him a free haircut. The barber was a man J.D. had known all his life, but this was the first time he’d ever treated J.D. as an equal.
The difference between “learned helplessness” and “learned willfulness” perfectly captures Vance’s central thesis in Hillbilly Elegy—namely, that the working class has created an unfortunate narrative of victimhood and “helplessness” that young people learn to turn to whenever they are challenged to rise above their unfortunate circumstances. “Learned willfulness,” on the other hand, suggests that anybody can learn to work hard and avoid the pitfalls of complacency that threaten to keep people in a state of constant poverty and despair.
In 2005, Vance learned that his unit would be going to Iraq in the late Spring. Mamaw was noticeably worried, but there was nothing to be done. As he waited to ship out, he tried to visit home as often as possible. Things were going well for everybody, though Armco-Kawasaki steel—who had long paid for Mamaw’s health insurance—increased Mamaw’s insurance premiums to a price she couldn’t afford. To make up the difference, J.D. gave her $300 a month. She had never before accepted money from him, but now she took his assistance, a fact that made him feel empowered and independent. Not long after he started helping her financially, though, he received a call that her lung had collapsed and that she was in a coma.
Vance’s ability to help Mamaw financially—and in such an important way—indicates just how successful he already had been in transitioning out of poverty and climbing the socioeconomic ladder. The fact that he felt empowered by this means that he also felt the benefits of having built up some personal agency—for the first time in his life, he didn’t have to depend on somebody else. This feeling would have been unimaginable to him as child, when he felt trapped by his mother’s bad decisions, which he couldn’t change even though they so negatively affected him.
When it became clear that Mamaw was not going to come out of her coma, the family decided to take her off life support. Like everybody in the family, Vance was distraught, but he put on a strong face because he sensed that the family was “on the verge of collapse.” To complicate matters, Mamaw had divided her will into three parts, one for each of her children—Bev’s share, however, was to be split evenly between J.D. and Lindsay. This perhaps contributed to Bev’s utter dismay and her heartless accusation on the way to Mamaw’s funeral that J.D. and Lindsay were “too sad” and that they loved Mamaw “too much.” According to her, she had “the greater right to grief because, in her words, ‘[Mamaw] was my mom, not yours!’” J.D. was outraged. Just as he was opening his mouth to respond with “pure vitriol,” Lindsay said: “No, Mom. She was our mom, too,” a statement Vance thought perfectly encapsulated everything he could possibly have said.
Bev’s vindictive response to Mamaw’s death recalls her wild behavior after Papaw died. This time, though, J.D. and Lindsay were adults and thus had the power to point out her selfishness. When Lindsay said that Mamaw was her and J.D.’s mother, she implied that Bev never truly supported her children. This statement goes against the hillbilly notion that family members ought to remain totally loyal to one another, but it also reflects the reality of the situation.
Vance explains that the last two years he spent in the Marines was rather uneventful, other than a transformative moment he had when he was in Iraq. This moment occurred when he was providing security to some senior marines. While he waited for them to finish their business, a shy Iraqi boy approached and held out his hand to receive some candy or school supplies. Vance gave him a small eraser, and the boy’s face “briefly lit up with joy.” Vance notes that until that moment, he had “harbored resentment at the world,” but after seeing the boy’s thankfulness for something so simple, he was able to see how lucky he’d been to have grown up in a nation that provided him with opportunity. Above all, he remains thankful for his time in the Marines, which taught him that he had undersold himself—during his time abroad and as a trainee, he learned that he could, if he needed to, push himself beyond his own expectations.
Once again, Vance emphasizes the importance of believing in oneself. That his success story begins with a realization that he had undersold himself aligns with his argument that the worst attitude a working-class hillbilly can adopt is one of helplessness. It’s easy, he suggests, to harbor “resentment at the world,” but this mindset only leads to a cycle of destitution and a lack of personal agency. Hard work and high expectations, on the other hand, can lead to financial stability, upward mobility, and a worldview that isn’t built upon resentment.