Well it would probably be a bit over the top to say the book made me cry – I don’t cry that easily usually only when fictional people (or Octopus) die. The “Hillbilly Elegy” didn’t make me cry, but quite sad actually for the generations of kids that get born in f*** up families.
The book keeps being mentioned as the one that helps explain why the white working class in the US voted for Trump and coming from white working class with a hint of white trash background myself that kinda stuff interests me a lot.
Poverty, Chaos, Helplessness, violence, drugs and alcohol that is the vicious cycle for a lot of white American working class families in the US. Detached from their political leadership class and suspended from the rest of society and therefore susceptible for populistic slogans. In the past “Hillbillys” had at least the chance to work their ways up in factories in the Manufacturing belt in the old industries but latest with the end of the 20th century the decline of these industries dragged the Hillbilly families down with them and they have never recovered from it turning the manufacturing belt into the rust belt of the country.
“Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it—not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.”
JD Vance talks about the history of his family and draws a picture of failure and the resignation of a complete society class. Vance manages to make the situation of the people in the huge Appalachian area more tangible and understandable. His Grandparents were typical Hillbillys in a sense that they believed in Guns and Gods and hard work, they were probably the last generation that had at least partially the sense that they can influence their own fate.
“What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.”
“If you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard; if you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all? Similarly, when people do fail, this mind-set allows them to look outward. I once ran into an old acquaintance at a Middletown bar who told me that he had recently quit his job because he was sick of waking up early. I later saw him complaining on Facebook about the “Obama economy” and how it had affected his life. I don’t doubt that the Obama economy has affected many, but this man is assuredly not among them. His status in life is directly attributable to the choices he’s made, and his life will improve only through better decisions. But for him to make better choices, he needs to live in an environment that forces him to ask tough questions about himself. There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.”
JDs most powerful influences were his grandparents that he called Mamaw and Papaw: very fierce, hard-drinking fighters with a strong belief in honor and family solidarity. They might beat their kids but beware if an outsider would ever say one harsh word to them… Both did their own children not much good especially not JD’s mother, a heroin and painkiller addict with a bewildering number of boyfriends and husbands – but by the time JD needed them they had softened a bit and gave him the love and support he needed to succeed.
“For kids like me, the part of the brain that deals with stress and conflict is always activated…We are constantly ready to fight or flee, because there is a constant exposure to the bear, whether that bear is an alcoholic dad or an unhinged mom”
On one hand there are a lot of similarities. My brother and I were also (more or less successfully) rescued by my Grandmother and would it not have been for her, my life would have been completely different and certainly not nearly as good as it is now. I can also relate to the feeling of being a stranger of not belonging after the social upward move, I still have lot’s of awkward moments when being in company that somehow gives me the feeling (to be honest I give this feeling to myself most of the time) of not belonging, of not exactly knowing “how to behave”.
“social mobility isn’t just about money and economics, it’s about a lifestyle change. The wealthy and the powerful aren’t just wealthy and powerful; they follow a different set of norms and mores. When you go from working-class to professional-class, almost everything about your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst.”
“We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. Our kids perform poorly in school. We might get angry with them, but we never give them the tools—like peace and quiet at home—to succeed.”
“interviews showed me that successful people are playing an entirely different game. They don’t flood the job market with résumés, hoping that some employer will grace them with an interview. They network. They email a friend of a friend to make sure their name gets the look it deserves. They have their uncles call old college buddies. They have their school’s career service office set up interviews months in advance on their behalf. They have parents tell them how to dress, what to say, and whom to schmooze.”
The difference is I didn’t feel I belonged to the grim council estate working class reality of my childhood either. I was always drawn to the people that are now often labeled so unfavorably “Elites”. I hated the violence around me, I never saw it as anything to be proud of and was trying to escape as quickly as I could (dragging my Granny along as far as it was possibly). And I had many kind more intellectual people who helped me see a more positive future and who acted as role models and supporters.
So this is probably my personal biggest challenge with the book, that I generally highly recommend and found very insightful: He felt he belonged with the Hillbillys and had to adapt to live in the world of Yale etc. That was not the case for me. I never felt home where I came from but I don’t always feel 100% accepted in the social order that I moved into. Maybe I’m just jealous of him 😉
The most important factor to escape poverty is to have a stable environment around you and at least one person that protects and helps you.
JD Vance is doing a good job in not offering over simplified solutions for huge problems. Interesting how partially pretty similar experiences turn one into quite the religious convervative guy and another one into an atheist liberal.
Where I 100% agree with him: Not just in the US – the same is true here in Germany: It’s dangerous if huge parts of society have the impression they have absolutely no influence on their own fate. If people don’t even try because they are born in a culture of learned helplessness, that turns them into victims and makes them remain victims if they don’t manage to change this perspective.
“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.”
Das Buch erschien auf deutsch unter dem Titel: „Hillbilly Elegy: Die Geschichte meiner Familie und einer Gesellschaft in der Krise“