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.