Reflections on “Hillbilly Elegy – A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance

An elegy is a “mournfully contemplative remembrance”, and J.D. Vance’s best-selling 2016 memoir definitely fits that dictionary definition.  But it is more than just an elegy, which also implies some idealization of a person, place or time.  This gritty story of parental neglect and Rust Belt poverty has J.D.’s self-described “hillbilly” grandparents as almost the only forces keeping him from destitution and despair. The author writes as a survivor of an extremely dysfunctional white working-class family.  His birth father exits J.D.’s life early on, and his mother’s adulthood is an almost continual descent into alcoholism, drug addiction, emotional instability, failed marriages, and financial poverty.   His rural Kentucky grandparents, transplanted to an industrial town in southern Ohio, protect and encourage him enough so that he’s able to find his way through high school, the Marine Corps, Ohio State University, and Yale Law School.

The truly elegiac parts of the story are J.D.’s remembrances of summers and holiday visits to his grandparents’ old homestead in the Kentucky mountains.  There he feels liberated from the constraints of small town life in Middletown, Ohio, and the ever-present uncertainties of his mother’s behavior.  His grandparents’ large, extended “hillbilly” family take him in with welcome warmth, humor, and a way of life still rooted in a traditional culture.

I found much of the first half of the book difficult to read as many of J.D.’s family members suffer an ongoing string of alcohol-fueled domestic fights, lost jobs, divorces, addictions, rehabs, and endless moves.  His grandparents are always present to take in J.D. and his older sister whenever things fall apart too drastically.  But it’s only in high school that J.D.’s life begins to find some semblance of stability after he finally moves in with his grandmother full-time.  “Mamaw”, as he calls his grandmother, spouts outrageously foul language and aggressive threats at anyone who dares to threaten her beloved family.  She is a strict disciplinarian with him, but J.D. knows he can always count on her for ultimate comfort and protection.  That sense of inner safety and support are what finally allow him to emerge as an enterprising young man with a sense of belonging and purpose.

J.D.’s story of self-emergence through four years in the Marine Corps after high school is downright inspiring.  For the first time in his life, he has to challenge himself to think, act, and perform physical challenges that he had never imagined himself capable of.  He greatly benefits from the Marine Corps’ extension of its influence into what he eats, how he thinks, how he spends his money, even what kind of car he should buy.  Although his service in Iraq was largely behind the lines, he benefits greatly from the camaraderie that often comes with war-time service.

Immediately on leaving the Marines, J.D. embarks with great enthusiasm into college life at Ohio State.  The Marines have taught him how to make an ongoing super-human effort, and he is able to secure his bachelor’s degree in two years, even while working almost full-time to support himself.  He maintains an active relationship with his grandmother and the rest of his family throughout this time, visiting regularly, and attending numerous funerals, weddings, and other family events.

After graduation he has his sights on law school.  With his good grades and high motivation, he is accepted at Yale Law School, where the remnants of his “hillbilly” mindset are ultimately challenged.  J.D. thrives in the free, open educational environment of Yale, yet has ongoing doubts about how, or even whether, he fits in.  He finds the love of his life in one of his classmates, a woman who graduated Yale as an undergraduate, and who takes J.D. under her wing and gently shows him how he can best adapt.  I was reminded of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World, in which she recounts both the social and educational awkwardness of her first year at Yale Law School.  In both cases, a working class “minority” student must learn to traverse the disparities of economic class expectations in order to find their worth and efficacy.

J.D. succeeds beyond his wildest dreams, graduating law school with honors, an editor of the esteemed Yale Law Review, and courted by numerous law firms from around the country.  He and his new bride take professional law positions in Cincinnati, where J.D. can continue to maintain a connection with his family.

The most compelling part of this memoir for me involves the author’s courageous self-revelations about the emotional instabilities he carried into adulthood from his trauma-ridden childhood.  His anger, and subsequent confusion and depression, flare often and deeply whenever he feels out of his element, or emotionally vulnerable.  His fiancée hangs in there with J.D.’s outbursts and emotional distance, accepting him and encouraging him to work through the depth of hurt he has experienced in childhood.  J.D. does a deep self-search and study of what he soon realizes to be a common problem for those like him who have suffered from frequent and acute “adverse childhood events” (ACE’s).  J.D.’s self-therapy enables him to see his easily triggered hurt and anger as a residue of all the emotional pain he experienced as a boy.

Hillbilly Elegy has been much recommended to progressives like me who were caught off guard by the election of Donald Trump, unable to comprehend how the white working class could have been so shamelessly bamboozled.  J.D. addresses this phenomenon with mixed results in my book.  I can accept his view that the Democrats’ perceived elitism and unsubstantial promises for economic programs are partly responsible for the widespread working-class support for Trump.  But I also appreciate Vance’s honest observation on how the values and work habits of a whole generation of low-income white people have deteriorated, not because of Democratic Party policies, but because so many people have lost any sense of their own identity and self-worth.  For me, Vance’s greatest contribution is his owning of the emotional wounds that he suffered from the trauma of his childhood.  Those wounds, left untended, often contribute to resentment, hostility, and unreasoned prejudice and bigotry – the very passions that Donald Trump has sought to inflame for his own political ends.

John Bayerl


Bayerl Family Reunion 2017

On Saturday, August 12, more than 40 members of our Bayerl clan gathered for a day-long reunion.  It was the first such gathering for us, outside of weddings or funerals, in some decades.  Our wing of the Western New York (WNY) Bayerls comprises the ten offspring (five girls, five boys), and their families, of our parents, Joseph Bayerl (1914-1989) and Irene Ciezak Bayerl (1923-2011), both lifelong residents of Buffalo, NY.  The reunion was initiated and hosted by our second youngest sister, Anna (aka “Betsy”), at her lovely home directly fronting Lake Ontario in Kent, NY, about 35 miles west of Rochester.  Anna had purchased this bungalow on the lake with her now deceased partner, Doris Santercole.  Doris was a consummate photographer with a lot of home remodeling skills as well.  She and Anna had made major improvements on their home over the years, with a resulting comfortable, open, flowing, and aesthetically pleasing residence.  Doris was beloved among our family as much for her warmth and smile as for her ability to “herd cats” in getting us all together for some memorable Bayerl family photos.

Early Arrivals

My wife Andrea and I drove up from the DC area (Rockville, MD) on the Friday before.  We arrived at our motel in Brockport, NY around 5pm, and after a short rest, drove the additional fifteen miles to Anna’s for supper.  My sister Kathy and her husband Gene Goundrey from central New Jersey had arrived at Anna’s an hour before us after their own daylong drive.  Kathy was much enjoying her recent retirement from an administrative job at Rutgers University.  Gene was still working as an accountant.  He originated from a dairy farm in Quebec, just outside Montreal, but had been living and working in the States as a full citizen for many decades.  Their beloved son, Byron, had died at age 19 in 2007 from complications of muscular dystrophy.  Byron was an especially gifted child and young man, much celebrated as a Rutgers freshman who got around campus in his electric wheelchair, and also as the writer of thoughtful, often-inspiring newspaper columns for the Rutgers student paper.  He was social and outgoing and often a center of attention at family gatherings.

Our youngest sister Meg (aka “Margie”) arrived with her family about an hour after us.  She and her husband Luis Fanfan, a Bolivian native, had flown from their home in Denver to Pittsburgh the day before.  After an overnight in an airport hotel, they had rented a car and driven to State College, PA to pick up their son Inti.  Inti had taken summer courses at Penn State prior to starting his freshman year there on the following week.  Inti was a fine student-athlete and had been recruited by Penn State’s esteemed fencing program after his many years of success in national youth-fencing competitions.

All our arrivals were met with hugs and laughter, and after settling down, and toasting our reunion, we enjoyed a delicious supper prepared by Anna and our sister Marian, who had taken the day off work in Buffalo to drive down and help with the preparations.  Marian and Anna were especially close, and the two together had visited Andrea and me in Maryland recently.  Marian’s husband, Bob Stein, and their adult children, Ben and Jo, would be arriving on Saturday.

Anna’s windowed dining room overlooking the lake gave us a beautiful view of the sun setting into golden waters.  Anna is a public-school librarian in Rochester and especially enjoys her summers in her year-round lakeside home.  She had enough bedroom space for all but Andrea and me, who had committed to coming only the week before.

Last-Minute Prep

After a hearty breakfast near our motel, Andrea and I began our drive back to the lake on Saturday morning.  The menacing looking skies opened a torrential rain as we slowly wended our way through the small college town of Brockport.  The hard rain continued for about half an hour until the sun peaked through the clouds again.  As we got closer to Anna’s, the pavement was dry and there was full sun.

The rain was a concern in that most of the day’s festivities were planned for outdoors.  Anna had rented a large white tent for the day, which relieved some of our weather concern.  In addition, her absent next-door neighbor had agreed to let us use some of her lakefront area for the day, including her covered gazebo.

There was a relaxed yet anticipatory vibe in Anna’s home when we arrived around 11am.  Food was being prepared and arranged for the scheduled 2pm luncheon.  Family members had also been invited to bring specific kinds of food for a potluck component.  Inti and his Dad, Luis, were carefully making “Bayerl Family Picnic” and “Parking” signs to place on the mailbox along the road.

Anna had conceived the idea for the reunion a year earlier at a family vacation.  Some of us sibs had been vacationing together one week each summer for some years.  In fact, Anna, Kathy, Marian and I (and spouses) had spent a week together a month earlier on Lake Vanare, near Lake George, NY in the Adirondack region.  But Anna wanted to host a gathering of the whole family, and the rest of us concurred.  Her lakefront home was the perfect location, less than an hour’s drive for the locals on both the Rochester and Buffalo ends of WNY.

The Party Begins

By 1 pm additional family members began to arrive.  Among the first was Marian’s spouse, Bob, who drove from Buffalo with their adult daughter Jo and her partner Pam Dreslinski.  Jo and Pam had joined the family at our summer Lake Vanare vacations for the past two years.  They had also attended a big family wedding with us last December, and had just bought a home together in a Buffalo suburb.  Pam was becoming as much a part of the family as Doris had been.

After he unloaded their food and camping gear, Bob and I took a little walk along the stressed lakefront.  Lake Ontario’s waters had risen some three feet in recent years and the evidence of this was easy to see in the many cracked and failing cement retaining walls.  This past spring, Anna had recruited friends and family for a weekend of laying sandbags to bolster the cement walls.  Bob recalled carrying the 50-pound sandbags and placing them at strategic points along the wall.  For now, Anna’s home was high and dry. But long-term concerns remained as all the Great Lakes continued to rise with the climactic turn to higher yearly precipitation.

We spread some lawn chairs on the edge of the lakefront as Bob also scouted out potential camping spaces for the sleep-tent he would put up that evening.  His and Marian’s adult son Ben arrived from Cleveland, OH a short while later.  Ben’s spouse, Julie Burrell, had another family event to attend that day. Ben would also be camping out along the lake that night.  Ben had just started a high school teaching job in Cleveland and was a little nervous at re-entering this field.  He had an MFA in creative writing and was an experienced writer and educator.  Julie was a popular professor in Black Studies at Cleveland State University. They’d purchased a home together in Cleveland and were starting to feel settled there.

Next to arrive was our brother Larry with his adult daughter Val and younger daughter Bridgette and her boyfriend Ryan.  Val had been injured in a gymnastics accident in her youth and had never fully recovered, but kept making some progress.  Bridgette was preparing to return to the University of Pittsburgh for her sophomore year.  Larry is a retired Buffalo police officer, a lawyer and former Deputy Police Commissioner in Buffalo.  I’ve gotten to know Larry better over the past year owing to our participation in a family book group. (Anna, Marian and Meg also participate with us in a monthly conference-call discussion of an agreed upon work of mostly recent novels).  Larry is an astute judge of human character and a consummate reader of serious fiction and nonfiction. He has brought most of the liquid refreshments for the occasion, including a variety of beers, soft drinks, juices, and bottled water.

Our brother Tom and his spouse Karen arrive next.  They have three adult, married children, each with two young children of their own.  Tom and Karen are active grandparents for their growing brood and are models of parental generativity.  They hosted the last family reunion in the mid-1980’s at their home in a suburb of Buffalo.  Two of their kids, Michael (the oldest) and Kristen (the youngest) live with their families in the Rochester area.  The middle son, Greg, and his family live fairly close to Tom and Karen in Buffalo’s outer suburbs.

Tom and Karen’s growing family represents a major element of the Bayerl family’s extension into the 21st century.  Michael is a committed high school Social Studies teacher and his spouse, Sara, has an administrative job at the Rochester Institute of Technology. They were both solid student-athletes and are inculcating their son Jack (10) and daughter Cate (5) with lots of care, fun, and loving discipline.  Michael and Cate arrive first, Cate energetic and outgoing despite her recently broken arm set in a pink cast.  Sara arrives with Jack after he’s completed a winning baseball game for the travel team that Sara helps to coach.  My own childhood nickname was “Jack” and I’ve had a fondness for my namesake over the years, albeit at a distance.  It does my heart good to see Jack playing with his Dad at the party, sporting a large printed “BAYERL” across the back of his baseball shirt.

Greg soon arrives with his spouse Heather and their two very young girls, Hannah and Harper.  Greg is a consummate salesman of industrial technology and one of the most outgoing of our clan.  Heather is a former nursery school teacher with an obvious love and attentiveness to her two girls.  Like their father, the two girls are energetic and outgoing.

Kristen and Nate live in nearby Spencerport, NY.  They are both practicing pharmacists and active parents to Lily(2) and Josh (8 months).  Nate is a Rochester area native withlove of travel and adventure that Kristen shares.  Their kids are obviously well loved, and the couple plans to continue traveling with the young ones in tow.

Our brother Bob and his spouse Susan arrive next.  They both retired in March and took off together on a 10,000 mile, 6-week road trip around the country.  They have lots of interesting stories from their travels, though both confess to being happy to sleep in their own bed and prepare their own food again.  Susan worked in nursing and was a VP for a large home-health company for many years before she retired.  Bob is a master builder and jack-of-all-trades who worked at an industrial supply company for most of his career.  Their two adult kids, Sarah (28) and Jon (27), are both married.  Sarah and her spouse Adam Larkin have a 10-month-old girl, Penelope.  Jon and his spouse, Michelle, married last December at the beautiful, old St. Louis church near downtown Buffalo.  Andrea and I drove up for the wedding and ensuing reception at the renovated Hotel Lafayette downtown.  (Sarah was unable to make our reunion but I did get to see her and Penelope a few days later at her parents’ comfortable country home in Wyoming county.  I also had an opportunity to get to know Jon and Michelle more deeply after Jon invited me to join them for chicken wings at a restaurant in Buffalo’s Allentown neighborhood a few days later.)

Our oldest brother Marty, and his wife, Katy, were among the last to arrive.  Marty is a retired Buffalo police detective and Katy a homemaker who also worked many creative jobs inside and outside of the home.  Marty had a health setback last year but has made a big recovery.  Everyone was very happy to see him so nimble and chipper.

Marty and Katy adopted three girls: Amy, Megan and Holly.  Amy and Holly were born in South Korea and both have adapted well to their lives in America.  Megan was American-born in difficult circumstances.  She became estranged from her adoptive family and had died a few months previously, leaving behind a husband and three grown children.  Amy had arrived earlier with her partner Jeff.  Each of them had two girls from previous unions and both were still active parents.  Holly also had two girls but was unable to attend the reunion.

Our sister Joan had recently moved to Florida and was unable to make the reunion.  She had a long career with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and was still working as a Product Safety coordinator. Her son Steve, a recent college graduate now working in Buffalo, did come and shared some about his work and an upcoming trip to China.

Andrea and I had adopted two older children from Brazil in 1998, Denise (now 31) and her brother Lucas (27).  They both lived in the DC area and had children of their own.  Denise’s three-and-a-half-year-old son, Caleb, had been a regular visitor at our home.  Lucas’ two boys, Arjun (5) and Naveen (3), had recently re-entered our lives and Andrea and I were both grateful for it. Neither of our adult kids attended the reunion, but they were asked after by some of their cousins, who remembered them from our joint summer vacations at Lake Vanare.

A Beautiful Summer Day and Evening

Most of our reunion consisted of hanging out, talking, eating and drinking, on the beautiful lakefront lawn behind Anna’s home. It was a marvelous environment for relaxing and catching up with one another.  As Anna observed to me: “there’s nothing like real-time, face-to-face contact in this age of email and smartphones.”  Many of the conversations and sharings were priceless.

The sun shone bright and clear for most of the afternoon except for one brief shower, when the tent and gazebo gave shelter to us all quite nicely.  The young cousins played and frolicked with one another and with some of their more nimble aunts and uncles.  The late luncheon was delicious and satisfying, complemented by all the many side-dishes that people had brought.  There were some organized games late in the afternoon, and as the evening came on, a number of the overnight campers began setting up their tents.  Our brother-in-law Luis had laid wood for a campfire and lit it as the sun set in the western end of the lake and the temperature began to drop.  Andrea and I drove back to Brockport for the night, planning to return to Anna’s for another full day visit on Sunday.  Those who camped overnight at Anna’s (Meg, Luis, Inti, Marian, Bob Stein, Jo and Pam) all reported a windy but memorable night as the annual Persead meteor shower was in full display in the dark skies over Lake Ontario, a fitting display of natural fireworks after the long-anticipated Bayerl family reunion.

Finding Good Amidst Evil


Ursula Werner’s brilliant debut novel, The Good at Heart, is an inspiring story in an inauspicious setting.  Like the popular 2015 novel The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah, Werner’s book focuses mainly on the lives of women desperately trying to maintain a semblance of order and domesticity in a small European town during the ravages of World War II.   While Hannah’s story provides immediate empathy for a French family’s struggle to survive the misery inflicted by the invading Nazi army, Werner’s builds more slowly as she describes three dramatic days in July 1944 among the Eberhardt family living in the small German town of Blumental on the Swiss border.  The paterfamilias, Oskar Eberhardt, heads the finance ministry within the Nazi government in Berlin, and the dark cloud of Hitler’s Nazis colors the mostly mundane life of Oskar’s wife Edith, daughter Mariana, and granddaughters: Lara (13), Sofia (9), and Rosie (5).

Ms. Werner reported many peremptory rejections from potential publishers of a novel that purported a sympathetic treatment of Germans during the Hitler era.  My own strong doubt that there were “good at heart” Germans in that era had been shaped by the classic 1961 film, “Judgment at Nuremburg”.  In that riveting film, Spencer Tracy plays the chief judge at one of the post-war trials in which civilian German administrators and judges who collaborated with the Nazis stand accused.  The film is ruthless in uncovering the fundamental Nazi complicity of even “good upstanding Germans” of that era.  Werner’s novel starts with a quote from the doomed Anne Frank desperately insisting in her journal that “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Ms. Werner tells a dramatic and at times spellbinding story.  She is an accomplished writer and storyteller and, once engaged, I found it hard to put the book down.  Her principal character, Mariana, is a complex, passionate mother, daughter, adulterous lover, and committed partisan in the small anti-Nazi resistance movement in Blumental.  Her personal drama provides much of the novel’s lifeblood.  Mariana’s mother, Edith Eberhardt, is believably portrayed as a devoted wife who nevertheless harbors disillusioning doubts about her husband’s status within the Fuhrer’s inner circle.  Mariana’s three daughters are all expertly depicted as children determined to continue their lives as children despite the adult-created anxiety and destruction all around them.

This historical novel is based on stories that Ms. Werner collected from her own German family.  She reports that she was long troubled by veiled reports of her great-grandfather’s involvement in Hitler’s government.  Her aging relatives in Germany finally acceded to her requests for stories and documents and to her surprise, she found that her great-grandfather had been exonerated by his Ally-appointed judges after it was determined that he had assisted Jews in leaving the country.  It’s clear that Ms. Werner maintains strong ties with both her family and her native country and her novel is filled with accurate historical background, realistic geographical setting, and an uncanny sense of what it meant to be an anti-Nazi German living in the police state of that era.  This is a book that both warmed my heart and challenged my mind, opening both to the possibility that some Germans had in fact retained their full humanity and ultimate goodness despite the thick moral darkness of the times in which they lived.

John Bayerl