Not long after Vance turned thirteen and Bev started dating a firefighter named Matt—with whom Vance still keeps in touch—Papaw died. The family found him slumped in a chair after not having heard from him for several days. Everyone was distraught, especially Lindsay, who fell to the ground and said that she had taken advantage of him. Vance highlights this as highly illustrative of his and his sister’s views regarding parental figures, saying that “being able to take advantage of someone is the measure […] of having a parent.” Because Papaw had just been working on Lindsay’s car, she felt that she had unfairly taken advantage of him—unfairly because, as her grandfather, it was not his responsibility to help her.
Lindsay’s belief that she took advantage of Papaw demonstrates the guilt she and Vance felt at having to ask their elders for help. This is, of course, a tragic kind of guilt, since children and teenagers shouldn’t have to apologize for their neediness. The fact that J.D. and his sister felt this way illustrates the extent to which they felt abandoned by their mother, who should have been caring for them. This sentiment promoted a certain kind of independence that they had to adopt, though this independence is perhaps different from the kind of personal agency that Vance maintains is necessarily for attaining upward mobility.
The family had two visitations to honor Papaw’s death. One was in Middletown, the other in Jackson. The audience was free to speak during the service, and Vance stood up and said a few words about Papaw. After, many people came and thanked him for what he’d said, but Bev kept her distance. Later, Vance found Mamaw in the corner, staring silently at the floor. In this moment, he saw that she was hurting, and he was surprised to learn that she was not “invincible.” Afterward, she didn’t allow him to stay the night with his mother, who eventually made clear that she was “bothered that anyone but her was grieving,” since she believed her relationship to Papaw was special and that nobody had the right to be as sad as she was.
Hillbilly loyalty takes a strange form in this scene. By arguing that she deserved to grieve Papaw’s death more than anyone, Bev demonstrated a skewed sense of loyalty to her father, who surely wouldn’t have wanted her to interfere with her family members’ mourning processes. Furthermore, Vance’s disconcerting revelation that Mamaw was not “invincible” ultimately worked to further destabilize the small amount of constancy he had in his life, since Mamaw was the only adult left who worked to actively support him and help him succeed.
Soon after returning from Jackson, Vance walked onto Mamaw’s porch to see Bev standing in a towel in her front yard and berating Matt, calling him a “fucking loser nobody” before turning to Lindsay and saying, “You’re a selfish bitch, he was my dad, not yours, so stop acting like you just lost your father.” Papaw’s death revealed to J.D. what he hadn’t seen before: his mother had already begun a drastic downward spiral. In the wake of Papaw’s death, it emerged that Bev had developed an addiction to prescription pills.
Bev argued with her family members as a way of addressing the emotional pain she felt about her father’s death. Once again, the hillbilly tendency to start fights in difficult times emerges as disruptive to family life, even if it is a coping mechanism.
When Bev went into drug rehab, Vance was hesitant to turn to Mamaw because he didn’t want to burden her now that Papaw was gone. As such, he relied on himself and on Lindsay. They even enjoyed their independence, since it was the first time they didn’t feel like they were encroaching upon somebody else’s life. Still, they struggled, and J.D.’s school attendance plummeted. Once, Lindsay had to forge Bev’s signature to appease the middle school that his attendance would improve. In this way, she became the adult of the house, if she hadn’t been so already. When Bev returned, she brought with her “a new vocabulary,” often citing a prayer that Vance argued merely gave “an excuse for people whose decisions destroyed a family.” He writes now that “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.”
Vance’s thoughts about addiction are in keeping with his opinions regarding personal agency and the destructive narratives that run throughout his community. In the same way that blaming the government enables Vance’s fellow hillbillies to ignore their own complacency, he argues that the idea of addiction as a disease gives drug abusers the idea that it is out of their control to “resist” harmful substances. Although he recognizes that the working class faces many challenges—and that drug abusers certainly must overcome certain biological predispositions—he stresses the importance of hard work, trying desperately to show that sometimes even valid excuses can keep a person from improving his or her life.