Hillbilly Elegy’s Window into Addiction and Disfunction Rings True

Back in 2017, Bill Gates included Hillbilly Elegy among his summer reading recommendations.

Having come from an advantaged home in Seattle, Gates said he reads memoirs like this to understand another side of America.

“Through deeply personal stories like these, ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ sheds light on our nation’s vast cultural divide — a topic that has become far more relevant than Vance ever dreamed when he was writing this book,” Gates said.

I read Hillbilly Elegy a year later at the recommendation of my husband, who was born in West Virginia and spent his early years in Kentucky. If I wanted to understand him better, he said, this was the book to read.

Rick didn’t experience the violence and parental drug addiction that keeps the reader riveted to J.D. Vance’s memoir, but the pain of cultural displacement, along with family disfunction of other kinds, rang true.

Hillbilly Elegy; A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis touched a place where fierce loyalty to the misunderstood people and places of his childhood still runs deep. He sent the book to his West Virginia-born mother.

Though my mother-in-law had escaped the darkest aspects of Vance’s experience, she, too, felt that someone was telling their story.

Hillbilly Elegy reveals the heart of a child coming of age in a volatile family where abuse and addiction threaten the love and loyalty that also bind the generations to each other. It’s the story of a boy struggling to survive in a family culture where violence and self destruction taint each day. It is a hopeful true tale of a journey from poverty and crisis to Yale law school and a stable marriage.

J.D. Vance’s memoir is laced with sociological theorizing about the region and its people. Though some critics find its characters overly stereotypical, the story was lived by its author, is well researched and rings true to people (many, at least) with hill country roots.

While Hillbilly Elegy explores life in Appalachia and the industrial midwest, the book reminded me very much of the children of poverty I serve in the rural southwest, where the accents and skin tones are more varied but the effects of the opioid crisis are frighteningly similar.

If you want to know more about children and trauma, this book has much to teach.

So when Rick and I learned last fall that Ron Howard had directed a film version of this unforgettable story and that Netflix had picked it up, we couldn’t wait to see it, knowing that with Howard as director, the book would be given an authentic treatment. We were moved especially by Glenn Close’s portrayal of Mamaw, J.D.’s tough, profane grandmother and Amy Adams as J.D.’s unstable, addicted mother (both received Oscar nominations for their work).

Howard explains his interest in the project in a short video, Why I Made Hillbilly Elegy, saying:

In a project like Hillbilly Elegy, it was relatability. I’ve always loved family stories, but I’ve never had a true story that dealt with characters from rural America, and that’s my family’s background.

 “I do feel like [the film’s critics are] looking at political thematics that they may or may not disagree with that, honestly, are not really reflected or are not front and center in this story,” he adds.

In the film’s opening scene the camera pans the lush Kentucky landscape while a radio preacher intones, “It is the year of our Lord, 1997: an age of prosperity. Yet for some of us, the American dream, the singular hope of our people, remains ever more out of reach.”

As the camera then scans the region’s people, their shabby clothing and ramshackle houses, the preacher exhorts his listeners to “hold faith” not only in God, “but in ourselves and our character.” A grandmother on the porch nods as the preacher concludes, “may that faith never die.”

A plump middle schooler in swimming trunks and T shirt rushes out of the house clutching a towel. He hops on his bike, headed for the “swimmin’ hole.”

On the way the young J.D. stops to pick up an injured box turtle from the asphalt. He cradles turtle in his towel until he reaches the water.

There, a shirtless boy in cutoffs examines the turtle’s cracked shell and tells J.D. to pull its shell off or “chuck it.”

“No,” J.D. replies:

It can’t live without its shell. Ribcage is fused to the carapace…They can heal, ok?

They can heal.

The rest of J.D.’s story proves the point.

The screenplay reorders the book’s narrative, splicing J.D.’s boyhood, adolescence and future at Yale with the backstory of Mamaw and Papaw, whose relationship became so violent they could no longer live together (she set him on fire one night when he came home drunk).

We learn early in the film that Mamaw and Papaw had fled Kentucky for Middletown, Ohio as teenagers when she found she was pregnant. It turns out that their violence was witnessed by J.D.’s mom and aunt, puzzle pieces J.D. gradually fits together while he and his older sister Lindsay live their own drama as children who must cope with their mom’s multiple dysfunctional relationships, suicide attempt and addiction.

Ron Howard has said that he hopes the film rings true for those who are from the region. It certainly did for my husband and his mother.

But it rang true for me for another reason.

For the past 20 years, I’ve listened to small town children in a sagebrush-dotted semi-desert in southwest Colorado tell stories painfully similar to those in Hillbilly Elegy.

Details modified, they include the boy who came to love his mother’s boyfriend just before a final alcoholic fight left him once again fatherless. A preschooler who discovered a foil in the bathroom and wondered what it was. And then there’s PlayStation a first grader’s father sold to pay for drugs.

Halfway across the country from Appalachia, the film rang true for me.

J.D. became so desperate living with his mother and nearly succumbing to the self-destructive dissipation of her boyfriend’s sons that he asked to live with Mamaw.

Mamaw was an unsympathetic disciplinarian, scaring off J.D.’s loser buddies and insisting he study and work. He softens when he overhears her dickering with the Meals on Wheels delivery man for extra food now that she was caring for her grandson. He began to take school seriously and after graduation J.D. joined the Marines.

I know similar stories from my poverty-stricken corner of the world.

They can heal.

Some critics dismiss Vance’s story because it fails to offer larger solutions that fit a preferred political framework. Indeed, political solutions have yet to solve the problems in Appalachia, the inner cities or the American southwest and we must be open to innovations that may offer more children a way out. Racism compounds the problem for other children of poverty and this too must be addressed.

Vance’s story has the ring of truth. The presence of one stable adult in a child’s life is one of many protective factors that help build the resilience needed to overcome poverty’s increased risk factors. Schools across the country are rising to create trauma responsive climates that can help these children heal.

“Ribcage is fused to the carapace,” J.D. commented when his buddy urged him to rip the torn shell from the turtle he’d found. Vance may have ended up at Yale, but his Appalachian roots, fused into his being, went along for the ride.

His voice is a valuable contribution to the national conversation around poverty and resilience.

Be sure to watch the closing credits where the rest of the story is captured in photos of J.D.’s family then and now.

And keep your eye out for a turtle, too.

They can heal.

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You might also enjoy Sparrowfare’s Memoir as Medicine: Recommended Recollections for Summer Reading.

Vance’s 2016 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross includes an interesting take on the mixed religious messages of his childhood. Vance became an atheist at about the time he left the Marines and entered Ohio State University. He read the conventional new atheist books, he says, and felt satisfied for a while. But his curious mind continued to be stirred, particularly by Saint Augustine and philosopher René Girard. He was received into the Catholic Church in 2019 and reflects on his conversion here, noting that Augustine’s City of God contained the best critique of contemporary times he’d ever read.

Photos by Photo by Mitchell Kmetz and Roger Starnes Sr on Unsplash.

4 thoughts on “Hillbilly Elegy’s Window into Addiction and Disfunction Rings True

  1. We just watched it and loved it! Oh, the strength and fragility of the human spirit all bound up together.
    Keep loving those kiddos. That little alpine desert is blessed to have you. Love you.

    1. “The strength and fragility of the human spirit all bound up together,” what a perfect way of saying it. Really glad you enjoyed the film together!

  2. Laura and I watched and enjoyed the movie last night! I also like your comments regarding the movie and how it connects with your life. Thanks!

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