Amanda Erickson is an assistant editor of Outlook.
In recent months, J.D. Vance has become a spokesman for the white working class, explaining why many of his “hillbilly” friends will vote for Trump but why he won’t. “These people — my people — are really struggling,” he said in a recent American Conservative interview. “And there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time. Donald Trump at least tries.”
In his book “Hillbilly Elegy,” the politically conservative Vance focuses more on the personal than the polemic. Still, he wants people to understand something he learned “only recently — that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of a life we left behind continue to chase us.” For those who never achieved it at all, the demons — the anger, the depression and more — are hard to shake off. Trump, Vance said in the interview, taps into that. “His apocalyptic tone,” he said, “matches their lived experiences on the ground.”
Vance grew up in what his memoir describes as “an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.” His mother struggled with addiction; he was raised by his grandparents, neither of whom graduated from high school.
“The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future — that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose.” Vance himself nearly failed out of high school.
But he escaped that fate. He enlisted in the Marines, served in Iraq and went on to Yale Law School. At 31, he’s a successful, happily married Silicon Valley executive. Vance probes why he managed to lift himself, offering that he grew up surrounded by family and learned to believe in his own ability to make his life better.
Vance movingly recounts the travails of his family — his grandparents, for example, who got together as teenagers and moved from Kentucky to Ohio for jobs at Armco, a steel company. Vance’s “Papaw” had a nasty drinking problem; his “Mamaw” could be just plain nasty. During one particularly vivid fight, Mamaw threatened to kill her husband if he ever came home drunk again. He did, so Mamaw poured lighter fluid on him and struck a match, leaving her children to put out the fire. (Papaw was, somewhat miraculously, fine.)
Vance’s aunt and uncle moved on from this tumult largely unscathed, building stable families and solid economic foundations. His mother, though, bore the scars of her upbringing. Though she was at the top of her class, she got pregnant before she finished high school. She became a nurse but careened from man to man, marrying a half-dozen and uprooting Vance and his sister each time. And she struggled with drugs, bouncing in and out of rehab and eventually losing her nursing license. She could be neglectful (Vance lived alone for much of the ninth grade) and abusive. After one brutal fight, Vance fled to a stranger’s house, scared that his mother might murder him.
It’s enough to make anyone bitter, but Vance’s feelings are more complicated. He’s sympathetic to the psychic holes his mother tried to fill and to the ways the abuse she suffered as a child shaped her adult behavior. It’s a tension he returns to again and again in his nuanced, thoughtful book — what makes some children resilient while others succumb to the temptations that haunted their parents? Is his mother a victim, an abuser or both? Can we ever really escape our past and our class?
Vance left his mother’s home for good in the 10th grade, moving in with a much-mellowed Mamaw. His grandmother insisted that he work hard in school and get a job. “We didn’t have cell phones,” he writes, “and we didn’t have nice clothes, but Mamaw made sure that I had one of those graphing calculators. This taught me an important lesson about Mamaw’s values, and it forced me to engage with school in a way I never had before.” More important, she insisted that Vance held the keys to his future. “Never be like those f---ing losers who think the deck is stacked against them,” Mamaw used to tell her grandson.
By the time Vance graduated, his grades were good enough for admission to Ohio State.
But actually getting to college wasn’t easy. Vance and his grandmother struggled with the financial-aid and loan forms. The potential for debt was so terrifying that Vance enlisted in the Marines. It was the right call — he says the military taught him discipline, time management and confidence in his ability to power through.
In law school, Vance grappled with the legacy of his childhood. “Social mobility isn’t just about money and economics, it’s about a lifestyle change,” he writes. “When you go from working class to professional class, almost everything about your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst.”
Once, he took a Yale friend to Cracker Barrel, his grandma’s favorite restaurant, the place he’d go for special occasions. “In my youth, it was the height of fine dining,” he writes. “With Yale friends, it was a greasy public health crisis.” Another time, at a fancy recruiting dinner, he spat out his mineral water because he’d never tasted it before and thought it had gone bad.
Though he has overcome his demons, Vance is sympathetic to those left behind. As he describes their plight, “From low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction, my home is a hub of misery.” And in contrast to other groups that also experience widespread poverty, “working class whites are the most pessimistic group in America.”
Vance attributes that pessimism to their social isolation — and worse, he writes, “we pass that isolation to our children.”
The wounds are partly self-inflicted. The working class, he argues, has lost its sense of agency and taste for hard work. In one illuminating anecdote, he writes about his summer job at the local tile factory, lugging 60-pound pallets around. It paid $13 an hour with good benefits and opportunities for advancement. A full-time employee could earn a salary well above the poverty line.
That should have made the gig an easy sell. Yet the factory’s owner had trouble filling jobs. During Vance’s summer stint, three people left, including a man he calls Bob, a 19-year-old with a pregnant girlfriend. Bob was chronically late to work, when he showed up at all. He frequently took 45-minute bathroom breaks. Still, when he got fired, he raged against the managers who did it, refusing to acknowledge the impact of his own bad choices.
“He thought something had been done to him,” Vance writes. “There is a lack of agency here — a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.”
Perhaps Vance’s key to success is a simple one: that he just powered through his difficulties instead of giving up or blaming someone else.
“I believe we hillbillies are the toughest god----ed people on this earth,” he concludes. “But are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children? Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. . . . I don’t know what the answer is precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”
By J.D. Vance
Harper. 264 pp. $27.99