I recently read JD Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy for an online book club hosted by my alma mater, Ursinus College, a co-ed liberal arts college in eastern Pennsylvania. Here are my comments as a physician, philosopher, and fellow author. Maybe there’s more to it than meets the general “eye.”
Vance is an unflinching and original writer in his mid-thirties, and his book was read widely. He explains in great detail how his mother was a “loser,” and his parade of stepfathers was awful. The instability and level of violence and screaming and yelling demonstrated in his upbringing were off the chart, as well as drug addiction and poverty. He thanked his lucky stars for his grandparents, “Papaw” and especially “Mamaw.” Incidentally, these were nick names used for one aunt and uncle (one of my father’s nine siblings, with whom I spent summers in my early teens) in the Ohio Valley, only a step removed from hillbillydom by their education, leading to farm ownership, teaching, and nursing. In fact, my genetics, mostly European, include early settlers in the Ohio Valley and eastern states, a hotbed of hillbilly activity!
Vance turned out to be brilliant, and was able to get by on long periods on no more than three to four hours of sleep, during intense studying at Ohio State, finishing with cum laude honors. This would be characteristic of a genetic manic-depressive disorder, somewhere on the bell curve, which can be quite severe and sometimes not so severe. These people can go at a rate and intensity impossible for a “normal” person, similar to people like Mozart, Da Vinci, Van Gogh, etc. However, it can also be a crippling disability for the sufferer and his family.
Going through four years of the Marines was a great buffer for Vance’s future. Despite his handicap, Vance could not control all the devils in his personality, even after marriage. Fortunately, his wife and her family were able to accommodate and allow him to persevere. The amazing thing is that Vance could describe the devils that bothered him and others, including the narcotics addictions in a completely honest, open, and unguarded fashion.
There is much about Vance’s story that stirs and stokes a reader’s empathetic emotions. Fear and pathos are two of the strongest rhetorical strategies for a writer to move readers, and I’m sure this was a big attraction in his selling millions of books and getting the great support from various reviewers all over the country and world. We saw this everywhere, in one place or another: self fear in the author and his characters, fear of the home environment (us) and fear of the unknown or outside (them).
Speaking of genetics, the population Vance describes would have a tendency to stick together in one area. This for cultural reason if for no other. However, also for family-culture-genetic reasons, there may have been inbreeding selection of certain personality traits that add a significant “yuck factor” to the entire culture of Vance’s group, described as “hillbillies.” There was a tremendous trapped-in culture and poverty effect that was no easy to escape. Vance was one of the few who made it out, and he made it in style.
I notice in Vance’s picture that his face has a somewhat bloated aspect, not just related to some extra subcutaneous tissue. His account of his diet and minimal access to good food has probably had longterm effects on his health over his lifetime. Vance is conservative politically, not wanting or feeling that any group is helped by most of the decisions made by the Left’s government-hanging improper thinking. He noted the pitfalls of the government making all the rules for the governed. He does mention, however, that society did give Left-centered help with some health issues and the access to food, a safety net which should probably be available to all, Right or Left. Overall, Vance saw no way to quickly get these people out of the disadvantaged ‘hillbillity’ category.
One little thing that I didn’t understand. With a personality he describes as intermittently violent, how did Vance remain so unreactive as a just-returned Marine, to an Ohio State sophomore classmate who stood before the class and offered an opinion of how US soldiers in Iraq happily berated and did terrible injury to Iraqi civilians, when Vance was involved in programs there that benefitted these civilians, who were treated with curtesy and kindness. Where this “weirdy-beardy” classmate got his misinformation is uncertain. It seems Vance should have publicly objected.
It was interesting that Vance mentioned religion being an overall helper to many hillbillies (although this did not include attending church regularly) regarding poverty level and self confidence. He started out with the hillbilly religiosity and then tumbled away from religion even before he tumbled away from the “us” mentality.
Overall, this book would be a real eye-opener for most people, and Vance’s honesty, no-matter-what, was a joy to behold.