Hillbilly Elegy

J.D. Vance begins his memoir by explaining that he is not a politician or an academic. He is simply somebody who grew up in Appalachia’s working class and who found a way to achieve upward mobility against the statistical odds, which indicated that he would—as the grandson of hillbillies and the son of a drug addict—fail to graduate high school and likely succumb to drug addiction and domestic violence. His remarkable ability to avoid this fate, though, is not the reason he wrote Hillbilly Elegy. Rather, he wrote the book so that people could “understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children.”

Hillbillies, Vance explains, descend from Scots-Irish Americans, who migrated to the United States from Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries. For this group of people, “poverty is the family tradition,” and hardly anybody earns college degrees. Like Vance’s relatives, many Scots-Irish Americans live in the hills of Kentucky. Although Vance himself spent most of his childhood in Middletown, Ohio—where many hillbilly families migrated in order to work at Armco Steel, a generous employer of formally uneducated workers—he identifies Jackson, Kentucky as his true home. This is because his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, spent the majority of their lives in Jackson. Family lore revolves around the town, and Vance illustrates the importance of the hillbilly oral storytelling tradition. He writes about his great-uncles—Mamaw’s brothers—who he idolized as a child. They used to sit around and tell him spectacular tales. These stories were hardly appropriate for a child, but Vance reveled in the “hillbilly justice” each narrative advanced. In fact, the oral storytelling tradition often emphasized the hillbilly community’s strong values: loyalty and honor. Vance’s Uncle Pet, for example, once told a story about a man named Big Red who insulted his mother. After warning Big Red to retract his words, Uncle Pet beat him unconscious and ran an electric saw up and down his body. Big Red survived, but he never pressed charges because “he knew what it meant to insult a man’s mother.”

Having outlined the importance of honor and loyalty in hillbilly culture, Vance enumerates the many troubles plaguing Kentucky and the greater region of Appalachia. Even now—or perhaps especially now—drug addiction runs rampant throughout the working class community, along with the dietary trappings of unhealthy lifestyles that depend on fast food and sugary sodas. Seeking a better life, Vance’s grandparents moved from Kentucky to Ohio, where Papaw took a job at Armco Steel. They had married as teenagers in Kentucky in 1947, two members of well-known hillbilly families. The young couple moved to Ohio because Papaw’s only other option was to work in the Kentucky coal mines, a prospect that would bring his family little in the way of satisfaction or stability. Mamaw and Papaw had three children: Vance’s Uncle Jimmy, his Aunt Wee, and his mother, Bev. Unfortunately, Papaw had a serious drinking problem, an issue Mamaw met with intense scorn. She refused to allow her husband to continue his boozy lifestyle, and after many arguments—which included displays of domestic violence on both sides—she warned Papaw that she would murder him if he ever came home drunk again. When he ignored her several nights later, she poured gasoline on him while he slept on the couch and lit him on fire. Luckily, Aunt Wee—who was eleven at the time—sprang to life and put the fire out. Papaw finally quit drinking years later, and although he and Mamaw separated and decided to live in different houses, they continued to spend all of their time with one another.

Vance asserts that children who witness the kind of domestic discord Mamaw and Papaw were involved in are statistically more likely to lead difficult lives themselves. Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Wee, though, managed to make it out of childhood to establish stable lives (though Aunt Wee’s first relationship was abusive). Unfortunately, Bev succumbed to the statistical odds and embarked on a life of drug addiction and unstable romantic partnerships. She gave birth to Vance during her second marriage, which disintegrated not long afterward. Her next husband, Bob Hamel, adopted Vance and was a relatively kind man, and the family achieved something like stability for a small stretch of time, during which J.D. attended school and developed a love for reading. Despite her many flaws, Vance admits that his mother “believed deeply in the promise of education” and worked to instill this belief in her children.

Mamaw and Papaw figured greatly into Vance’s life, since they lived in a nearby house. This relatively calm period came to a close, though, when Bev and Bob decided to move away from Middletown because they felt like Mamaw and Papaw were encroaching upon their autonomy. Vance was devastated to lose easy access to his grandparents—whom he considered his best friends—and, to make matters worse, the move brought with it the first domestic disputes of Bev and Bob’s marriage. Because Bev had inherited Mamaw’s characteristic temper, she never backed down from a fight. Vance notes that his mother’s arguments with his stepfather were his first model of how to go about solving marital disagreements, a process that often involved throwing plates and screaming at one another. As a result of the turmoil he witnessed in his private life, he began to do poorly in school, staying up late and listening with his sister Lindsay to Bob and Bev’s arguments.

One day, Vance returned from school to find that Mamaw had paid an unexpected visit. She’d come because Vance’s mother had attempted to commit suicide after a particularly raucous argument with Bob, who had apparently discovered that she was having an affair and subsequently demanded a divorce. Although Bev drove her car headlong into a telephone pole, she managed to survive. Mamaw doubted her daughter’s intentions, believing that Bev had tried to make it look as if she wanted to die in order to win sympathy and take everybody’s attention off of her affair. In the aftermath of this fiasco, J.D., Lindsay, and their mother moved back to Middletown, where they lived in a home that was even closer to Mamaw and Papaw’s than before. During this period, Bev went into a downward spiral of irresponsible behavior, and started dating men who never stayed around for very long.

One day, when Vance was upset at Bev for her erratic behavior, she apologized to him and promised to drive him to the mall to buy him football cards. On the way, she grew angry with him and started speeding on the highway, promising that she would crash the car and kill them both. J.D. jumped into the backseat, prompting her to pull over so that she could “beat the shit out of” him. When the car stopped, though, he ran through a large field until he came upon a woman floating in a backyard swimming pool. “My mom is trying to kill me,” he said, pleading with the woman to call Mamaw. Getting out of the pool, she took him inside and to the phone. Meanwhile, Bev arrived and hammered away at the door, eventually breaking it down and snatching J.D. Fortunately, though, the woman had called the police, who quickly appeared to take Bev away. When she was later tried for a domestic violence misdemeanor, J.D. was called upon to testify against her. Instead, he lied, saying that she had never threatened him. He did this to protect his mother, but also because he had made a deal with her that if he refrained from casting her as abusive, he could live with Mamaw and Papaw whenever he wanted.

Papaw died shortly after Bev started dating a new man named Matt, and his death affected the entire family. Mamaw, who was normally so inexhaustible and strong, revealed emotional vulnerabilities. More importantly, Bev descended into a prescription drug habit that had been slowly gaining momentum. More than anybody else, she was devastated by Papaw’s death, a fact she took pains to emphasize, telling even her children that they didn’t have the right to be as sad as her because Papaw was her father. After attacking Matt one day, Bev was arrested and admitted to a drug rehabilitation center, a period in which J.D. relied on Lindsay—who had just graduated high school—for support. Finally, when J.D. finished eighth grade, his mother was almost one year sober and Lindsay had married a man named Kevin.

Before J.D. started high school, Bev insisted that he move with her and Matt to Dayton, Ohio, effectively isolating him once again from his structures of support (school and Mamaw). J.D. refused to do so, instead opting to live with his biological father, Don, with whom he’d recently reconnected. Don was also from Kentucky, and although by all accounts he had been a terrible husband and father—sometimes even physically abusing Bev—he had made drastic changes to his life, turning to Christian evangelism and starting a new family that strictly followed the rules of the church. This appealed to J.D., who yearned for a dependable community. As such, he happily went to live with Don. Despite the peace and stability of Don’s home, though, J.D. felt constantly on-guard in his new life, a feeling that eventually encouraged him to move in with Mamaw, with whom he stayed for the remainder of the summer before finally consenting to live with Bev and Matt for fear of overstraining his grandmother.

As J.D. advanced through high school, his mother’s drug addiction continued, along with her tumultuous and ever-changing romantic life. After years of attending Narcotics Anonymous to support his mother just to watch her continue to use drugs, Vance finally decided to live full-time with Mamaw, a decision he believes saved his life. Immediately, his grades in school improved and he lost all interest in hanging out with other kids who smoked marijuana or drank alcohol. He was even accepted to college at Ohio State University, though when the time came to commit, he felt unprepared. He knew that going to college would be an investment in his future, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that “not all investments are good investments.” Mamaw framed education as “the only damned thing worth spending money on,” but he decided to postpone higher education, opting instead to join the Marines—a challenge that seemed insurmountable, considering that he was out of shape and severely lacked discipline.

Although she was apprehensive, Mamaw supported J.D. by sending him letters while he was in boot camp. The experience of constant exercise and psychological challenge transformed him, giving him confidence and agency he could never have fathomed before entering the Marines. Not long before Vance shipped out to Iraq in 2005, Mamaw died, leaving him truly on his own for the first time in his life, though now he had gained a sense of self-sufficiency. Thankfully, he served in the Iraq War without sustaining any injuries, and when he returned, he finally attended Ohio State University. This was an intense period, as he worked multiple jobs while taking classes, but J.D. had come to appreciate the value of pushing himself toward his goals. As a result, he graduated in only one year and eleven months. He then set about applying to law schools. On his second round of applications, he was accepted to Yale Law School, where he ended up receiving his degree.

During his time at Yale, Vance was forced time and again to confront the gaping class divide between his hillbilly upbringing and the wealthy, elite environment in which he now found himself. Luckily, he became close with a classmate named Usha, who often helped him navigate social situations (one time, for example, he called her from the bathroom of a fancy restaurant, where he was meeting a prestigious prospective employer, to ask which piece of silverware he should use first). He and Usha ended up dating, eventually marrying after they graduated from law school.

Vance notes that even after successfully attaining upward mobility, he still often finds himself drawn back to the uglier sides of his original community. One night not long after his graduation from Yale, for example, he drove to Middletown to pay for his mother to stay in a rundown motel because her fifth husband had kicked her out after she started using heroin. “Upward mobility is never clean-cut, and the world I left always finds a way to reel me back in,” he writes. This is not something he is ashamed of, though—rather, he embraces his responsibility as a successful, stable representative of the hillbilly class, doing what he can to support young people who struggle with the same demons he himself had to face as a teenager.

Hillbilly Elegy is first and foremost a memoir, but it also examines the Appalachian working class at large, often incorporating sociological studies to supplement Vance’s life story and proposing possible new ways of thinking about poverty. Although these efforts are too numerous to include here, it’s worth noting that Vance holds up religion and education as two means by which young people can attain upward mobility. And although he outlines various governmental and economic ideas that contribute to the current situation in Appalachia, he maintains that the best way to address rural poverty is not with policy changes, but with social changes. Too many hillbillies, he says, blame the government and various external figures for their own misfortune, and this allows them to shy away from responsibility and hard work. As such, a pervasive attitude adjustment is called for, one that takes into account the working class’s “problems of family, faith, and culture.”