Wrapping up my thoughts on the audiobook Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance tonight, seeing as how I meant to get to this last week when I completed listening to it. Did enjoy its content throughout and would recommend the book to others.
I experienced what might be considered a sense of kinship while reading his story. Like that of a distant cousin. My family migrated to the South, and his headed to Appalachia and then Ohio. They sound like similar types of people, having originated from Scotland, Ireland, and elsewhere in northern England, so the culture he described is fairly relatable. Was glad to hear of his acceptance into Yale Law School, though admittedly much of what he described there sounded pretty foreign to me too. I also hadn’t realized that some of the most expensive and prestigious schools could be the most cost-effective for low-income students due to grants and whatnot.
There was a part in the latter portion of the book where he was talking about his mother and recognized that her ability to act like a monster was in him too. That resonated with me deeply. It’s amazing how many similarities we can share with those we think are crazy, especially when we were raised by them. And the culture reinforcing such behaviors certainly doesn’t help. He spoke of learning to keep his indignation in check and not being so reactive to perceived disrespects from others. Yep, that’s a tough lesson that undoubtedly requires ongoing grappling with.
But I felt proud for the author after listening to his book. Almost like how I’d feel toward a cousin who’s moving up in the world (as my own cousin actually is, graduating with a Master’s degree in spring of 2018—a first in our lineage—and we’re very proud of him too). It’s a humbling story to sit with and consider and one I’d like others to spend time with as well. Vance is right about a lot of things he mentioned there, particularly in regards to personal responsibility and accountability (which he learned about while serving as a marine). My own family has very mixed feelings about the military too. But I suppose it’s good at least in terms of instilling self-discipline.
I’ll admit, listening to this book made me realize, once again, just how class-conscious I am and apparently can’t help but be. Struggle with it as I might, it still remains ingrained. And maybe that’s largely due to socialization and culture, but I also don’t doubt a good bit of it comes via interactions. Difficult to shake that sense of “us and them” once it’s deeply taken hold. Almost like a defense mechanism where you can’t help but maintain this sense of tribal pride out of loyalty and as well as to stand up for your own people in the face of a society that likes to make fun of them and speak as if they’re unwanted and disposable, ignorant and backwards. I don’t think any amount of climbing the socioeconomic ladder can fully erase that either — your roots are what they are. Money doesn’t nullify that fact.
One point that I’m stuck on and have been waiting to address on here is the forgiveness he chose to show his mother. While I can understand the desire to do so and wish him well with that, I can’t personally endorse the idea in all cases. Sure, it’s the Christian thing to do (so we’ve been taught), but then there are concerns about enabling bad behaviors. Some people won’t change until the costs of not doing so become so great that they must, and others won’t change regardless. Maybe one important difference here is that Vance spoke of how much anger he had earlier in life toward his mother, whereas later on he came to feel sympathy for her. My own experience was just the opposite, having grown up with a great deal of sympathy toward mine the first 20 years of life, then figuring out that tough love was in order if I was ever to escape her bullshit. Then I got really angry. Nowadays I oscillate between irritated sympathy, frustration, and acceptance (in the last step in the grieving process-sort-of-way). It’s not a matter simply of what’s easiest, it’s about sanity preservation. Some people are toxic, for whatever reasons, and they either don’t see it in themselves or won’t. Either way, they’re unlikely to change if they can’t come to terms with the harm they’ve done and continue to do to those close to them. Sad but true. Not that I would encourage others one way or the other on these matters — that’s for each individual to decide for him or herself. But when he mentioned his mother getting onto heroin around the time he graduated…ugh…my heart sank for him. Some folks are inclined to chase pain, to recreate it and keep it rolling onward. And it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve a healthy relationship with someone hellbent in that sort of fashion. Much as it may be tough to accept, considering these are family members. But we each figure that out however we do, or perhaps the situation might change for the better over time. One can pray, and I do hope that’s the case for Vance’s family.
This man’s story did strike me as sad in places, though I’m glad he too had the love of grandparents to help pull him through. His Memaw sounded like quite a character. The people he described therein reminded me of various persons I’ve known over time as well, to whatever degrees. I appreciate that he was willing to be so brutally honest, sharing both the positive and negatives sides to their personalities. Because we’re all a complex blend of right and wrong, well-intending and misguided, ignorant and insightful. I feel he really brought his family members to life in the pages, which isn’t an easy feat. Kudos on a book well written!
Anyway, I’ve said enough on all this. Tripped down my own memory lane quite enough also. I’ll leave off in saying again that this is a book very much worth reading or listening to.