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

I read this book a few weeks ago, so to refresh my memory I went through my notes, but I also went on Goodreads, to take a look at some of the comments and reviews. I must admit I did not expect such a heated discussion. Being from Europe and only having been to the US a few times and always visiting big cities, I definitely am not aware of the social composition and variety of the US. Yes, I’ve read things, but one cannot claim to know until seeing with your own eyes. This is also why this review will be flawed, I do not have the personal involvement and a side to take as many of the Americans do.

This book has been described as one explaining why Trump won, I don’t think it does that really. I also don’t think it should be read as a social study of even generalized in any way, even though Vance himself makes a lot of generalizations. It reads a lot better if you focus on the one example he describes – his own. Any generalization must by default be flawed, as his evidence is anecdotal, he did not conduct any research, so his perspective is by default subjective, no matter how hard he may try at objectivity.

J.D. Vance comes from the Rust Belt, his grandparents having moved from Kentucky to Ohio in search of a better life. As much as you can move, you do take your problems with you and the same happened in this case. The family gradually climbed the ladder to become middle-class, but the demons of their poor past still haunted them. The childhood Vance describes is full of violence, fear and anguish. He does sometimes describes it lightly even in a way that may make you laugh (for me the incident where Mawmaw set the Pawpaw on fire for coming home drunk did it, it’s not funny, I know, but yet somehow it is), but once you start piecing the whole picture together it is a grim one.

Vance tells us what an ACE is (Adverse Childhood Events) and how they were almost normal in the environment he grew up in. That does not mean they have less destructive power, because they occur frequently. If they are normalized they become even more powerful because there is no defence mechanism to fall back on, everyone deals with it and so you have to as well. He also acknowledges that despite all the traumatic events he did have people around him who loved him, and it does seem to be the thing that made all the difference. As much as army formed him as an adult, putting for the first time in his life a structure that he could follow, but also one that he could lean on safely, without the support of his grandmother the college, the army (even though she was deeply opposed to that idea) and the university just simply would not happen.

Vance makes some broad statements about the lack of agenda, lack of drive and willingness to work in the environment he comes from. They are harsh and they are partially true, just like all broad statements they will apply to some, not to all. He tries to get to the bottom of the problem, describing how the communities fell apart, how people are now isolated in their own problems. He blames and excuses interchangeably. Also, he does not really offer solutions, because if there was an easy one we would not have this problem. He writes about the importance and near impossibility of social mobility, and how it kills all hope.

I think the reactions of people were very strong because Vance does judge and does it based on his limited experience. On the other hand, the attitudes he is describing are not really limited to the US Rust Belt. He writes about it because that is what he’s seen, but I think the problem he is touching upon is more widespread, it is the perpetuated pathology, inherited unemployment, normalized violence and lack of hope that happens in so many societies. It is not only an American problem, but it is also a problem with the redistribution of wealth, with people being stuck in certain neighbourhoods, unable to see a way out, with certain behaviours being passed from generation to generation because no alternative seems realistic. It is a global problem.

I found Vance’s account very engaging on the personal level. His story is moving, because he writes from his experience, his memory. The general statements he makes sometimes sound like simplifications and I think that’s why they cause such heated reactions with people feeling personally offended by his statements. But if we take a step back his book really is just one example among many across the world, of people who made it coming from a difficult background and are now trying to understand what was it that allowed them to overcome the problems, when so many other people fail. It is personal because it cannot be any other way.

What I found interesting is how towards the end of the book he writes about the past haunting him. How in Yale he felt he did not fit in and he would be discovered any moment, as a fraud, one who does not belong. How in his adult life he struggles to deal with conflict in a civilized way because the only way he knows is fight or flight. How those behaviours can be learned, it takes work, but we can change ourselves. We may not forget, but we can learn to deal with things.

Definitely an engaging and interesting read. I do think the heated reactions also support that if it was not engaging it would not rile so many people up. The question now is the level of the debate, and it does seem to be very, very loud one.

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska @vkphotospace.com 

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2 thoughts on “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis – J. D. Vance

  1. Pingback: First quarter round-up – bookskeptic.com

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