A response to Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance from a first-hand witness to the story.
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance brought back many childhood memories. Vance and I shared many aspects of those formative years of life. We were both inextricably tied to eastern Kentucky and Middletown, Ohio. We both grew up in the culture of Appalachian transplants who migrated from one to the other.
I was born in Eastern Kentucky a short drive north of Jackson and like Mr. Vance, the times of my early childhood I loved most were those months at a stretch I could spend living with my maternal grandparents in the holler. My parents moved to Middletown in search of a better life and to work at Armco Steel Corporation. Like Mr. Vance’s beloved grandparents Jim and Bonnie Vance, my Uncle and Aunt lived on the 300 block of McKinley Street. During that same period of time, my paternal grandparents lived around the corner on Miami Avenue. If you have read the book, my Uncle was Jim Vance’s good friend Paul who owned the hardware store. I didn’t know Jim well but I remember the shock and grief Uncle Paul and others in my family shared when Jim died so unexpectedly.
In reading Hillbilly Elegy, I found Mr. Vance’s analysis of the many problems plaguing our Appalachian culture and the two regions where the story unfolds to be enlightened and succinct. Where his book falls seriously short of the mark concerns matters of context and scope.
The first fallacy of the book can be found in the title. The Appalachian culture that spanned Eastern Kentucky and Middletown did not refer to themselves as hillbillies. Pointing this out is far from quibbling about semantics. We refer to ourselves proudly as Briars, short for Briarhoppers. We consider the term hillbilly to be an insulting characterization derived from a derogatory pop-culture view of our kind. Because hillbilly is a well-known stereotype, I can understand why Mr. Vance chose not to title the book Briarhopper Elegy. One purpose of writing a book is to sell it. But the title seems particularly ironic in light of the fact that a sure-fire way to start trouble in the working-class bars of Middletown would be calling a Briarhopper a hillbilly.
The second fallacy of Hillbilly Elegy is illustrated by Mr. Vance’s citation of the book Losing Ground by Charles Murray as he draws a comparison between the poor white working class and the poor black working class. One of Mr. Murray’s main points in that book was that when the government subsidizes dysfunctional behavior, more people choose to behave in a dysfunctional manner. The primary focus of Losing Ground was that welfare programs have resulted in an increase in the number of dysfunctional families among the working poor. But Mr. Murray largely avoids making any wholesale indictment of the entire culture of the working-class. In making this analogy Mr. Vance misses his best opportunity to clarify that Hillbilly Elegy is primarily about dysfunctional families within his culture rather than the entire Briarhopper culture writ large.
The Briarhopper culture that I grew up in suffered from a degree of violence and profanity that may be less than socially acceptable to many, along with our share of alcohol and drug abuse. But it is a gross injustice to label the entire culture by association with such dysfunctional and addiction related problems. The astonishing level of heroin overdose victims among all social and economic classes today demonstrates clearly that dysfunctional lifestyles exist to some degree in all cultures. But of the dozens of people in my extended family and many more friends I know through that group, very few of them have struggled with dysfunctional family issues like the tragic events depicted in Mr. Vance’s book.
For over five years I was a regularly published op-ed columnist in the Middletown Journal. That experience along with involvement in some of the blue collar fraternal organizations in town gave me the opportunity to interact with hundreds of others, many of whom share my Brairhopper culture. By the numbers, Middletown is less violent than many of it’s neighbor cities in Southwestern Ohio. Middletown has more than it’s share of issues with prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse, but of the many cultures that make Middletown their home, the Briarhopper culture is no more afflicted with those problems than any other.
Briarhoppers have some unique issues but they also have unique strengths. One of the major strengths of our culture is the existence of a clear line that one does not cross. The paramount fortifications of that line are and have always been respect and honesty.
Throughout my childhood I knew that if I did something wrong I might get a “whippin” as punishment. These minor lashings, usually administered with a narrow branch that I would have to go cut from a tree in the yard, were geared toward inflicting embarrassment rather than pain. There were few things that would cause serious longer term punishment, like withholding freedoms and things that I dearly loved. But punishment for those few things was swift and strict because those things crossed the line.
One of those things was disrespect for my parents or other elders in authority over me. Another was to get caught telling a lie. Perhaps the one I had the most trouble with were violations of the standard for self-respect. I would truly love to have a dollar for every time I heard a lecture that ended with a phrase like: “Self-respecting people don’t do things like that.” Failing to respect one’s self also was an act of disrespect for one’s family and both were a step over that line that you don’t cross.
In matters of behavior for both children and adults, Briarhoppers are instinctively skilled at separating the transgressions that skirt close to that line from those that cross it. They are equally skilled at deploying the appropriate response in either case. For the most part, this line of respect and honesty is not drawn over a substrate of “do what I say, not what I do.” The main reason those demands to honor that line have been effective within our culture is that the people making them usually walk their talk. That has certainly been my personal experience.
Mr. Vance has also categorized our culture with being overly profane and violent. There was plenty of low level profanity used in our home during my childhood but I never heard the “F” word until I heard it used by other kids in the public school system. Some of the shenanigans that I got into during my teen years involved sneaking into bars with a fake I.D. I was surprised to discover that my Dad was regarded by most people as a bad-ass not to be messed with. I learned this when more than one red faced steel worker stomped out of the place after saying something like — “If I didn’t know your Dad would kill me I would beat the shit out of your loud-mouthed ass.” Yet, never once has my father turned violent upon or threatened physical violence to any member of our family. This is also true for the clear majority of people I knew in my social circle growing up and still know today.
There were stories about members of my family dealing violently with problems, but most of those stories were withheld from my brothers and I until we were older and matured to a degree where they could be understood in context. The difference is that most of the stories I have heard from my family history are about honorable acts of self-defense in response to clear and present danger, not acts of brutal violence in response to some perceived insult to someone’s honor. I’m sure such stories exist about a few of my relatives, but for most Briarhoppers they would not be a source of honor.
Storytelling, like many other choices we make about what we say and do within our family circles is for the primary purpose of setting an example for those we care about. Examples that upholds our values and teach our children about the good, the bad and the crazy things of life and the boundaries they must respect.
Hillbilly Elegy is a story about struggle that matters in more ways than may be obvious. Perhaps one of the most visible indications of a dysfunctional family can be found in the stories they tell each other and themselves. Stories which conclude that the cards are stacked against you because of who you are, stories that justify disregarding self respect and abandoning efforts toward self improvement for no better reason than the meaningless actions and opinions of other people. The stories we tell develop mindset, and a common mindset among dysfunctional individuals and families is that the world owes them something up front in order to justify any effort, rather than teaching the truth that in reality, rewards are the result of sustained effort over time. Fortunately, Hillbilly Elegy is also a story of triumph over those struggles that should serve a useful purpose.
But this cannot be done unless we are completely honest with each other about absolutely everything. No matter how powerful a solution may be, it will fail if we attempt to change people’s beliefs by offering them an ideological concept that they can readily reject. This is where Mr. Vance’s conclusion that mistrust of government and corporations is a major cause of the problems among the poor working-class fails. Sadly, this fallacy is also the reason that the majority of people and institutions who could be instrumental in lifting people out of poverty have failed to do so.
People who have only the textbook perspective of the poor working class rarely have the insight to engage the problem effectively. When people are able to raise themselves out of the poor working-class and into a position of some social and economic independence, they bring with them the first hand knowledge and experience that is of great value in affecting change. But there are barriers that prevent them from doing so in many cases.
On the rare occasion that someone makes the leap from the poor working-class to the elite classes they are perhaps in the best position of all to help their root culture. Unfortunately, many of these people become so in awe of their new culture that they “drink the kool-aide” as the old saying goes and buy into the false narratives of social fairness, public safety and benevolent oversight. This requires them to abandon much of the value of their past experiences in order to advocate or construct solutions that conform to those false narratives. Solutions that by their very nature will always fall on deaf ears among the poor working-class.
Outside the minority of dysfunctional families, the Briarhopper culture has an uncanny ability to see through a false narrative. Many of their people who do not struggle with the issues documented in Hillbilly Elegy have struggled with the broken policies that have been imposed upon them by government and institutions. One indisputable example of this is the failed war on drugs that has imprisoned millions of our young people for what boils down to a crime of political morality, effectively destroying much of their opportunity to succeed in life by branding them as criminals for no good cause. Suggesting that people’s mistrust in government is a cause of their problems seems ludicrous in light of such terrible policies.
The core issue that must be overcome in order to resolve the problems that plague the poor working-class are the same issues afflicting our society in general. We must make a concerted effort within all of our various cultures and factions to evolve beyond our obsession with filtering every possible solution through a sieve of ideological benchmarks and opportunistic agendas. The Briarhopper culture has some valuable insight to offer in that effort. Draw the line at respect and honesty. Hold that line as the benchmark that all the solutions must meet as a priority and the effectiveness of those solutions will be exponentially increased.
Hillbilly Elegy is an excellent study of some of the issues that need to be resolved within the poor white working-class community. Unfortunately it crosses that line of respect and honesty in characterizing an entire culture by certain problems that apply only to a dysfunctional minority within that group. Perhaps the greatest irony about Hillbilly Elegy is that it’s lessons will likely never reach the people whom the author hoped most earnestly to help. Because within the Briarhopper culture, that’s a line you don’t cross.