Vance learned when he was in kindergarten that his father, Don Bowman, was giving him up for adoption. Don was Bev’s second husband, but they split up shortly after Vance was born. Not long afterward, Bev married Bob Hamel, who was kind to her children and legally adopted J.D. Nevertheless, Mamaw strongly disapproved of Bob because she thought he wasn’t good enough for Bev. “What drove Mamaw’s initial dislike were the parts of him that most resembled her,” Vance writes. Despite Mamaw’s feelings, Vance’s home life was stable for a short stretch of time when Bob and Bev first got together. During this time, he developed a passion for reading that his mother encouraged by buying him books and praising him when he finished them. For all her flaws, Vance writes, his mother was incredibly intelligent and knew the value of a solid education. Everybody agreed she was the smartest person they knew.
Given the fact that she hated “class betrayal,” it is interesting that Mamaw disliked Bob because he had the same background as her. This speaks to the extent to which hillbilly parents wanted their children to surpass them on the socioeconomic ladder. Otherwise fiercely loyal to her roots and the people that made up her community, Mamaw desperately wanted Bev to rise to a higher station in life, which would have meant avoiding people like Bob. This attitude seemingly filtered down into the next generation as well, considering that Bev tried to instill in J.D. the importance of education despite the fact that she herself didn’t go to college.
As Vance progressed through school, he learned that the hillbilly preoccupation with loyalty and honor often led to schoolyard fights, a pastime that even Mamaw subtly condoned by telling him that it was acceptable to fight as long as it was defensive and preserved his family’s honor. As such, he found himself entangled in many scraps until Mamaw corrected herself, telling him to only fight when it was absolutely necessary. Her tune changed again, though, when Vance told her about a bully who was picking on a helpless boy at school. She advised him to stand up for the poor victim, which he did, punching the bully so hard in the stomach that he worried he’d killed him. When Mamaw heard about this, she praised him for doing the right thing. Vance writes that this was his last fight.
Yet again, Vance shows that the hillbilly identity promotes the importance of honor and loyalty even if that means becoming violent. With this kind of attitude, it’s unsurprising that Mamaw’s first instinct when it came to domestic disputes and conflict resolution was to scream and fight.
When Vance was nine, his home life deteriorated because his mother and Bob decided to move away from Middletown, thereby cutting him off from Mamaw and Papaw, the most dependable adult figures in his life. Not long after, Bev and Bob started fighting, and because Bev had inherited Mamaw’s characteristic fury, she never backed down from a conflict, a trait that always seemed to escalate any dispute. As they argued about their reckless monetary spending, the rows turned violent. One night, Vance woke up to their screams, went downstairs, and punched Bob in the face to protect his mother, effectively ending the fight. In the midst of such turbulent domestic disputes, he started doing badly at school. In addition, he put on weight and developed psychosomatic symptoms that reflected his difficult home life. At the same time, he came to crave the drama created by the conflicts he feared so much.
Vance demonstrates the very linear nature of how people inherit the culture of violence. Having watched Mamaw and Papaw fight at home, Bev fought in the same manner with Bob. In turn, J.D. witnessed this, meaning that his model for adult arguments centered around screaming and physical fighting. Once again, Vance shows that such habits are difficult to break out of, a fact that is important to remember when considering why people have such a hard time surpassing their elders on the socioeconomic ladder. In short, humans tend to pattern their own lives based on the examples they’ve grown up with.
One day, Vance came home and saw Mamaw’s car in the driveway. He learned that she had come because Bev had attempted to commit suicide after Bob discovered she was having an affair and demanded a divorce. In response, Bev drove her van into a telephone pole, though Mamaw suspected she was only trying to take attention away from her own wrongdoing. Not long thereafter, the family moved (without Bob) into a house extremely close to Mamaw and Papaw in Middletown. Unfortunately, this didn’t calm Bev, whose behavior grew more and more unpredictable. She started staying out late and partying with strangers, often not coming home until after Lindsay, who was a teenager involved in her own nighttime activities. On top of this lifestyle, she had a new boyfriend every month, bringing even more instability into J.D.’s young life.
Whether or not Bev’s attempt at suicide was carried out in earnest, there’s no doubt that it profoundly affected J.D., who was already feeling the effects of an unstable domestic life. When Bev’s behavior grew increasingly erratic in the aftermath of the car crash, Vance was thrown deeper into a life in which he had very little that he could count on. There is no question that this sort of uncertainty would make it even harder to conceive of the possibility of upward mobility, ultimately trapping young J.D. in an existence void of valuable resources and opportunities.
When Vance was particularly angry with his mother one day (he doesn’t remember why), Bev apologized profusely and offered to buy him something at the mall. On the way, though, he said something that upset her, and she sped the car up to top speed, saying she was going to crash and kill them both. Vance jumped into the backseat to protect himself, at which point Bev pulled over so that she could hit him. When she stopped he dashed away, running through a large field and eventually emerging in a woman’s backyard. As the woman floated in an aboveground swimming pool, he told her that his mother was chasing him and asked her to call Mamaw. The woman rushed him inside and gave him the phone. Bev arrived and started pounding on the door and making threats before breaking it down and dragging her son away. Unbeknownst to Vance, though, the woman had called the police, who arrived and arrested Bev.
In this moment, Bev’s behavior toward Vance became pointedly malicious for the first time. In turn, readers begin to sense the intensity of what Vance was up against as a child. Not only were the circumstances he grew up in generally unstable, but his mother sometimes revealed herself to be outwardly antagonistic toward him. Furthermore, the fact that she had no problem breaking down a stranger’s door recalls Vance’s earlier assertion that hillbillies paid little heed to notions of privacy—a trait that was poorly received by the middle-class residents of Ohio, who adhered to a set of societal norms that respected the notion of privacy.
Bev was released on bond, and Vance was asked to speak at her hearing. Understanding that her fate—and his ability to see her—depended upon what he said, he lied to the court, stating that she had never threatened him. In return, he made a deal with his mother that he could live with Mamaw and Papaw whenever he wanted, a deal Mamaw reinforced my promising that if Bev had a problem with this arrangement, she “could talk to the barrel of Mamaw’s gun.” “This was hillbilly justice,” Vance writes, “and it didn’t fail me.”
The importance of loyalty to hillbillies becomes even more evident when Vance writes about lying to the court in order to protect his mother, who had tried to kill him. Indeed, it seems he would have rather continued to suffer his mother’s wrath than betray a family member, a fact that illustrates just how committed to—and entangled in—the hillbilly identity he was even from an early age.