Wednesday, September 21, 2016
J.D. Vance, HILLBILLY ELEGY: A MEMOIR OF A FAMILY AND CULTURE IN CRISIS
This book straddles the two genres of memoir and social commentary; and it's insightful in both directions. In a voice that is forthright, authentic, and true to his roots (i.e. at times downright profane), Vance surveys his life thus far, from early childhood to his graduation from Yale Law. His childhood was divided between his hillbilly grandparents' home and his mother's increasingly dysfunctional series of homes, complete with addiction, violence, and a rotating door for men. This is an unflinching look at what it feels like to be a child with undependable people around, people who scream and throw things, who lose their temper and fight fiercely for "honor"; but it also points to the ways that high schools and government agencies (such as Child Protective Services) fail poor children in Appalachia because they don't understand the nature of the extended family systems and people's deep-seated distrust and failure of faith that any effort or hard work will improve their situation. It's about how hopelessness is sewn into the fabric of a culture. But it's also a memoir about Vance finding his way out: he graduated high school; joined the Marines for four years during which he developed his own sense of adult agency; went to Ohio State U; and then graduated Yale Law. One of my favorite chapters comes at the end where he shares how he has had to learn a new way of handling conflict, with the help of his fabulous wife Usha (also a grad of Yale Law). He explains that his sister Linsday told him that "When I fought with Kevin [her husband] I'd insult him and tell him to do what I knew he wanted to do anyway--leave. He'd always ask me, 'What's wrong with you? Why do you fight with me like I'm your enemy?'" Like his sister, Vance has to learn better ways of working through conflict, and he admits humbly that he still struggles with it. He also asks the messy questions about sympathy and accountability: "How much is Mom's life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin? ... At some point, Lindsay says, you have to stop making excuses and take responsibility. ... No person's childhood gives him or her a perpetual moral get-out-of-jail-free card. ... but can people like us ever really change?" It's a message of hope that he provides at the end, that people can grow and change and see that "the very traits that enabled my survival during childhood inhibit my success as an adult. I see conflict and I run away or prepare for battle. This makes little sense in my current relationships, but without that iattitude, my childhood homes would have consumed me." He's clear about the difference between the two worlds he knows; and without being preachy or judgmental, he shares what he's learned from both.