Mamaw was a fierce hillbilly. Once, when J.D. Vance’s mom was a kid, Mamaw told Papaw that if he ever came home drunk again, she’d kill him. When Papaw did come home drunk again and fell asleep on the couch, Mamaw got the gasoline can, poured it over her husband, and lit a match to his chest. Papaw was also a fierce hillbilly: he survived with only a few minor burns. They had moved from “Bloody Breathitt” in the mountains of eastern Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, partly (it seems) because Mamaw was 13 and pregnant, and partly because Papaw was 16 and in search of a decent job. He found it at Armco Steel, where he worked until retirement. They were pursuing the American Dream—and perhaps running from the wrath of Mamaw’s brothers.
In Middletown, Mamaw and Papaw bought a house and made more money than they could ever have made in the mountains. But after Papaw returned home from an honest day’s work at the steel mill, he was often drunk. Their marriage deteriorated into bitter fights: like the time Mamaw threw a flower vase and split his forehead or the time on Christmas Eve that Papaw came home drunk, and hurled the family Christmas tree out the window. J.D. Vance’s mom was a promising student, but quicker than she could get to college, she was 18 and pregnant—and then onto the marriage carousel. In the next few years, she married and divorced and remarried (and she was just getting started).
That’s when J.D. was born. By nine months old, his mom was putting Pepsi in his bottle. By the time he was walking, his parents had separated. In kindergarten, his mom told him that he’d never see his dad again because he was giving him up for adoption to his stepdad. In fourth grade, he learned from his Mamaw that you should give bullies a hard punch to the gut—and be sure to fight with your hips. By fifth grade, his mom and stepdad fought violently, often over money and despite an income of over $100,000. Unable to sleep because of shattering glass or rocking furniture, J.D.’s grades suffered, and he gained weight.
When he was 12 years old, J.D.’s mom threatened to crash the car and kill them both after J.D. said something that made her angry. When she instead stopped the car on the side of the highway to “beat the sh**” out of him, J.D. managed to escape and run for his life through a field and into a house. His mom found him, but the nice lady who lived there called the cops before his mom could completely drag him away.
J.D. was sitting in the back car of the police car, feeling abjectly alone, when Mamaw, Papaw and his older sister came to pick him up, and held him close. That night, Papaw—who had kicked his alcohol habit—touched his grandson’s forehead and just sobbed. J.D. had never seen him cry before.
Mamaw and Papaw had patched up their marriage enough to the point that, although they didn’t live in the same house anymore, they spent most of their waking hours together. And in their watchful presence, J.D. took refuge. Once, after an especially hard day, when he asked Mamaw if God loved them, she hugged him and cried. She was also hard on him but in the good kind of way that he’d only appreciate later: she told him to “stop being a lazy piece of sh**” when he failed to take out the garbage; she exhorted him to work hard so as not to waste his God-given talent.
“Never be like those f****** losers who think the deck is stacked against them,” Mamaw instructed him. “You can do anything you want to.”
Papaw practiced math problems with him at the dinner table, taught him how to shoot a gun, and explained that there’s a difference between lack of intelligence and lack of knowledge. As 13-year-old J.D. put it at Papaw’s funeral, “I never had a dad. But Papaw was always there for me, and he taught me the things that men needed to know.”
By the middle of high school, J.D.’s mom was cycling through men at an alarming rate and struggling to control her drug addiction, so J.D. lived permanently with Mamaw. It probably saved him. He had begun experimenting with drugs and almost failed out of his freshman year of high school. But finally able to enjoy some semblance of stability at Mamaw’s, he had a chance to heal. His grades improved, and in his junior year, he tested into an Advanced Math class taught by a teacher renowned for his rigorous standards.
“I never had a dad," J.D. Vance said. "But Papaw was always there for me, and he taught me the things that men needed to know.”
He was also prodigiously observant. As a cashier at the local grocery store—a job that Mamaw insisted he get—he became an “amateur sociologist.” He noticed that the people who used food stamps bought baby formula, but rich people didn’t. And he did what surely no other 16-year-old kid in Middletown (or in America) has ever done: he digested William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged and Charles Murray’s Losing Ground. Both books focused on poor blacks, but he saw his own white, hillbilly community in their analyses.
He looked with disgust at the folks who bought two-dozen packs of soda with food stamps only to turn around and sell them, and he saw two kinds of people in his community. On the one hand, there were people like his grandparents: “old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking.” And then there were people like his mother and many others, it seemed, in his neighborhood: “consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.”
He wanted to be like his grandparents.
When college applications overwhelmed J.D. and Mamaw, his cousin, a Marine Corps veteran, suggested he try out the Marines. “They’ll whip your ass into shape,” she told him—and that’s exactly what they did. They pushed him to the limits, and J.D. responded by doing things he never thought he could do. He looked into the eyes of a war-torn but joyful Iraqi child whom he had gifted with a two-cent eraser, and came back with “overwhelming appreciation for these United States.” For all America’s problems, J.D. realized that here a poor kid like him could still set his mind to something and do it. All his life, he had been seething with anger. Now, he would be grateful.
The discovery that his choices mattered was exhilarating. He sprinted through a bachelor’s degree at Ohio State University in less than two years, studied at Yale Law School where he became an editor of the prestigious Yale Law Journal, received job offers from top law firms, and married a girl who loved him and ran after him whenever he stormed out of an argument.
And in his early 30’s, J.D. Vance penned Hillbilly Elegy, a new memoir that should be read far and wide. For starters, Vance may have almost flunked high-school English, but he’s a heck of a writer and tells an engrossing story. Along the way, he treats big questions with the nuance and compassion they deserve. “How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children?” he wonders. And, he asks, “What might help the working class get ahead?”
Vance’s biography also offers astute lessons. In what he takes to be a revealing anecdote, he notes that he wanted to apply to the top three law schools in the country. That included Stanford, but he never applied. Why? Their application required him to secure a signature from the dean of his college attesting to his abilities. That frightened him, not only because he didn’t know his dean, but “most of all, didn’t trust her. Whatever virtues she possessed as a person, she was, in the abstract, an outsider. The professors I’d selected to write my letters had gained my trust.”
To me, it’s a parable that shows how not just any person off the street could walk up to a kid like J.D. Vance and tell him to get his life together. He would probably tell you to mind your own expletive business. But Mamaw could demand that he stop associating with kids who smoked marijuana because he already felt in his bones that she loved him. And because of her constant and safe presence, she was a bridge to other institutions and people that shaped him: the local grocery store, the high-school math teacher, the Marines. After that, he was off to the races. But if we want to help kids like J.D. Vance, we’ve got to win their trust—and that means putting some skin in the game.
Because of her constant and safe presence, J.D. Vance's Mamaw was a bridge to other institutions and people that shaped him: the local grocery store, the high-school math teacher, the Marines.
There are flashes of anger in Vance’s memoir, although it is not directed at any one person. He’s angry at the learned helplessness that he sees swallowing a people he loves; that even the young people he worked with at a floor-tile distribution business for around $13 an hour still couldn’t manage to keep their jobs; and that many kids like him don’t have the benefit of a Mamaw and Papaw-like person to stand in the gap for them (and deliver a tongue-lashing when necessary).
I’d want to temper some of his hard-edged insistences about how the problems “were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else” with a frank look at, for instance, the role of pharmaceutical companies that persuaded skeptical doctors to routinely prescribe Oxycontin and other pain pills to patients. Or how the living wages and decent work-related benefits that are harder to find today surely helped to sustain his Mamaw and Papaw’s fragile marriage. We should emphasize both institutional and individual responsibility.
But mostly, I was struck by how Vance combines a hillbilly, no-bull description of his working-class community with empathetic warmth—and how his story climaxes with surprising grace. Mamaw may have told him to fight from the hips, but Vance wrote this book with love. This is the kind of book I’ll give to my friends who share Vance’s biography of suffering and hope for a better life, but feel stubbornly stuck. It’s also a book that I hope people like me—who grew up with the benefit of loving and stable families—will read.
After I closed the book, I hugged my sons a little longer than usual. And I thought of the kids who don’t always have someone around to hug them. I realized I don’t want them to suffer like Vance did, and I felt more motivated than ever to do something about that.