One Appalachian's Opinion
Of “all the feels” – pride, pain, guilt, anger, sorrow, anxiety, hope, gratitude and a strong sense of longing (for what, I don’t know), I did not feel condescension from Hillbilly Elegy. I suppose it might have crossed my mind to wonder if Vance’s opinion was condescending if I hadn’t believed his story word for word. It never occurred to me to question his accounts of the characters in his life. I resonated so deeply with his story that I never challenged his perspective. From the moment I started reading, I was in it with him. I felt the love he has for the characters in his story, and I saw the honesty in his raw depictions of their flaws. The only thing I questioned was how he was able to get such a broad and brilliant perspective of his own experience, especially at such a young age.
If anything, my response to Hillbilly Elegy echoed a strong sense I had after reading “Glass Castle” a decade ago, that our secrete was out. I had such a creepy, crawly feeling after reading that book, like someone had violated our cultural code of silence about the way things really are.
But let me back up. I feel like it’s important to say a little about my background, because I cannot speak for all Appalachians, or all West Virginians. I know the kind of poverty Vance speaks of, not because I lived it, but because I lived among it. I saw it every day on the school bus. Many of my friends were deeply impoverished. I was allowed to visit some of them, but I was never admitted inside the homes of some of my closest friends. I’ve spent the past decade of my life working tirelessly to heal from my childhood trauma. I’ve worked through my own alcoholism and drug abuse. I’ve watched my only sibling, who scored high enough on entrance exams to be one of the first ten women admitted into our Navy’s nuclear engineering program, struggle to find sobriety, plagued with morbid obesity and collecting mental health disability. And I lost my first marriage to the opioid epidemic (complete with being robbed, assaulted and hiding from heroine dealers with handguns in my home). So, in many ways, Hillbilly Elegy resonates with me very deeply.
But my background was dramatically different from Vance’s. My paternal grandparents only had access to education up to grade eight. (My grandmother repeated 8th grade in order to get as much out of the school system as possible.) However, my father spent over ten years pursuing higher education, including a master’s in divinity from Yale University. And my mother was a public-school teacher. We were among the ‘haves’ in my community. We were the ones – I wouldn’t learn until adulthood – whose parents anonymously donated to neighborhood children in need, the ‘have-nots’.
So, you might find other Appalachians who feel a sense of condescension in the book. Perhaps others who had a more intimate relationship with poverty. But I haven’t come across that opinion so far. I live back in West Virginia now, and as peers saw me reading Hillbilly Elegy, their comments were “So sad.” and “Great book!” No-one gave me a sense there was something inaccurate or condescending about his account. As my friend Ivy commented, “It’s complicated”
It’s too soon to tell what my takeaways are, I finished the book less than 24 hours ago and I’m ruminating. One thing the book highlights for me is my long-standing democratic stance on the value of the welfare system and public assistance, and how that seemingly conflicts with what I’ve learned firsthand about the destructive nature of enabling behaviors, which perpetuate a myriad of dysfunctional patterns.
Perhaps what I’m reeling most about is my own relationships with work and financial gain. When we came back from the Peace Corps, most of my fellow volunteers were happy to rejoin the work force and get on with their version of the American dream. But I’ve never earned enough on my own to make it much above the poverty line. Though I live very comfortably now because of my spouse’s job, I spent the 16 previous years barely making ends meet. I’m not at all afraid of hard work. But I’ve never been a great employee. I’m very fulfilled practicing the therapy I pursued for my own healing. But I haven’t yet turned that into a profitable business. For the past seven years I’ve lived in an amazing home and I don’t want for anything. And still, I have a constant discomfort sharing our home with others, like somehow, I’m an imposter, living on the wrong side of the ‘haves’/’have-nots’ divide. And that’s not something I got directly from my parents. It’s as if my parents’ efforts pulled their generation ahead, but poverty stayed in our genes.