Hillbilly Elegy Integrative Paper Jennifer Randall Calvin College Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy Integrative Paper
Jennifer Randall
Calvin College

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of A Family and Culture in Crisis gives a personal perspective and analysis of the white working-class of America. Growing up in Middletown, Ohio, author J.D. Vance was constantly surrounded by the brokenness of his “hillbilly” community. Poverty, neglect, domestic violence, substance abuse, and instability often left J.D., his family, and many of the white working-class citizens around him in a cycle of hopelessness. Yet despite the odds, J.D. became a trailblazer and rose above his situation. With little support from home and with his own strong instincts, J.D. enrolled in the Marines, received college degree at Ohio State, and became a lawyer with a law degree from Yale. Through his story, J.D. brings light to the hardships of his hillbilly community.
Throughout J.D.’s life, there were many social systems that influenced the trajectory of his life. One of the most prominent systems was his family. At an early age, it was ingrained in J.D to be undoubtedly loyal to his family. In J.D.’s case, family loyalty came with some challenges. Familial hardships were a huge part of J.D.’s childhood. At age six, J.D experience neglect when his father left him and put him up for adoption. Simultaneously he dealt with a continuous stream of father figures who came in and out of his life, and the physical and verbal abuse of his mother. J.D. remembers upsetting his mom so bad, that she threatened to end his life while they were driving. These and many other events of his childhood conditioned J.D. to not depend on others and created a “fear of imposing” on those in his life like Mamaw and Papaw who were too old (Vance, 2016, p. 123). This fear and guilt influenced J.D’s ability escape his situation: “The constant moving and fighting, the seemingly endless carousel of new people I had to meet, learn to love, and then forget…was the real barrier to opportunity” (Vance, 2016, p. 149). Despite the small support of a few relatives, his grandparents, and sister Lindsey, J.D. was constantly told by the instability and abuse of his childhood that he was helpless. It wasn’t until J.D. decided to enlist in the Marine’s that he finally realized his true worth: “Surrounding me was another message: that I and the people like me weren’t good enough…I couldn’t possibly see how destructive that mentality was until I escaped it” (Vance, 2016, p. 205). The Marine Corps forced excellence from J.D. and pushed him to be his best: “It was the Marine Corps that first gave me an opportunity to truly fail, made me take that opportunity, and then, when I did fail, gave me another chance anyway” (Vance, 2016, p. 205). J.D. was able to learn about basic life skills, respect, discipline, leadership, and teamwork which had been missing from his family and community. Learning these things rid J.D. of his ignorance and pushed him to make a better life for himself.
Not only was J.D. affected by his family and the Marine Corps, he was also affected by the interactions between his hillbilly Middletown community and his peers at school. In the 1980’s, the Middletown community was thriving and surrounded by booming businesses. But as the economy declined, gradually businesses had to shut their doors. Poverty struck, and as the wealthy fleeted, segregation increased between the rich and poor grew. J.D. explained that with little job opportunities, “declining home values” left people stuck in their poor neighborhoods (Vance, 2016, p. 63). Those in the community became dependent on big factories like Armco (better known as Kawasaki), a large steel company, as their only source of stability. This community shift affected J.D and his peers school. Receiving an education seemed like a hopeless pursuit. In the eyes of the Middletown community, not even school could save students from the inevitable poverty, so it was better to follow in the uneducated footsteps of their community. J.D. explains: “The message wasn’t explicit; teachers didn’t tell us that we were too stupid or poor to make it. Nevertheless, it was all around us, like the air we breathed” (Vance, 2016, p. 67).
Luckily for J.D., his grandparents encouraged him educationally, despite the Middletown norm. This was seen In first grade when a student knew multiplication and J.D. didn’t. Based on the Middletown attitude, J.D. felt genetically stupid. But when he got home, Papaw didn’t let him sit in his sorrow. That night, he taught J.D. multiplication and division and for weeks after, Papaw continually worked with him on different math problems. This changed the J.D.’s perception of himself and challenged the message of his small community. J.D. reflected that “despite all of the environmental pressures from my neighborhood and community, I received a different message at home. And that just might have saved me” (Vance, 2016, p. 73).
Another social system that affected J.D. was religion. Although it isn’t mentioned consistently throughout the book, the idea of religion, specifically Christianity, surrounded J.D.’s childhood identity. Growing up with pain and heartbreak, J.D. struggled to understand his situation. This was seen specifically after Lindsay was denied the chance to achieve her dream of becoming a model because it was too expensive. Seeing the devastation of his sister, J.D. ask Mamaw if God cared for them. Throughout his life, J.D. had seen brokenness and sin in his family. The abuse of his mother, the neglect of his father, the poverty and hopelessness of his environment influenced J.D’s development and how he saw the world. Yet it was this brokenessness in J.D.’s own life that he also found in the “fallen world” of the Christian tradition (Vance, 2016, p. 105). Religion offered a way out; it offered hope in a place of despair. Mamaw instilled the value of religion in the family and it became a motivation for J.D. to be better, work harder, take care of those around him, and most importantly, to forgive. It also gave hope that there was “some deeper justice, some cadence or rhythm that lurked beneath the heartache and chaos” (Vance, 2016, p.105) J.D. needed some type of hope beyond the brokenness of his family, and religion was the answer.
In addition to religion, media also played a formative role in J.D. and his community. In chapter eleven, J.D. talks about the effect of media on those in the white working class community. J.D. uses the example of Barack Obama. In the media Obama was portrayed as seemingly perfect. He is kind, smart, educated, a good father and husband, well-spoken, and confident. Many Americans could relate to these characteristics and expected them in the leaders of society. But for those in Middletown, Obama was a complete outsider. He struck a nerve in the community because Obama was the complete opposite of any Middletonian. The unreachability of Obama’s character created distrust in the working class. This can be seen in the strong belief held by Middletonians that Obama was a Muslim, despite the media contradicting their beliefs. J.D. explains that in Middletown “we can’t trust the evening news. We can’t trust our politicians. Our universities, the gateway to a better life, are rigged against us…You can’t believe these things and participate meaningfully in society” (Vance, 2016, p. 225). Nothing about Middletown’s condition reflected what the media presented, so it created division. Yet despite the negative response his community had to the media, J.D. didn’t let it bring him done. With the prospects of his education, J.D., like Obama, was an outsider in his community.
With corrupted social systems around him, J.D. and his family had little resources for intervention on the social issues they faced. One social issue seen continually throughout the book was J.D’s mom’s substance abuse. The recurring issue of substance abuse lead to many rehab visits and long periods of separation from family which was traumatic for J.D. and his sister. A micro level intervention for substance abuse that could be applied to J.D.’s mom is the formation of a community support group. This idea comes from the dissertation of Judith Jordan from Smith College School of Social Work. Jordan researched the effect of participating in a Alcoholics Anonymous program for a 90 days. Jordan concluded that those “who had tried to get clean and sober multiple times…were able to stay abstinent as well as improve the quality of their lives while and after being involved in AA for 90 days” (Jordan, 2016). This model of creating a support group would be a good fit for J.D.’s mom and for the Middletown community. Because of the poverty in the area, many Middletown citizens turn to substances to cope like J.D’s mom. With people coping similarly to J.D’s mom, it would be impactful for neighbors to meet together, band over the issues their community is facing, and empower each other to get better.
To figure out the outcomes of the community support group, a weekly survey could be created for the participants to fill out and rate on a scale from one to ten, how the clients week has gone. Questions like: How often did you have the urge to do drugs? What were some triggers that made you want drugs? could be listed for participants to rate. By filling out a survey for each week, clients would be able to monitor their substance abuse tendencies and see their progress.
Another intervention for substance abuse is implementing a prevention program created by the Middletown schools that children and parents could participate in. This idea was tested in a study conducted by Cornell University Medical College that took approximately one thousand seventh graders and from New York and implemented a twenty session prevention strategy program within the school. It’s goals were to “reduce intrapersonal pressure to smoke, drink excessively, or use marijuana by fostering the development of general life skills as well as teaching students tactics for resisting direct interpersonal pressure to use these substances” (Botvin et al, 1984 p. 137). At the conclusion of the study, they found that not only was the prevention program helpful for education and reducing substance abuse pressures, it was also more effective when taught by peer leaders (Botvin et al, 1984). This program could be extremely effective in Middletown’s poor education system. Not only could the program foster informative and positive interactions between siblings and their parents, it would help prevent J.D. and his younger peers from falling to Middletown’s pressure to do drugs by providing helpful life skills to break the cycle. The program also offers a collaborative way for J.D. and his family to work together to stop substance abuse. Working with people you trust, like the peers in the study, or in J.D.’s mom’s case her family, could allow for more effective treatment.
To evaluate the outcomes of this program, the school send a follow up survey, one for the students and one for the parents. The questions can be about the students own experiences with substance abuse and what the experience has been like for their parents since taking the program. A similar survey can be sent to the parents. This allows for multiple perspectives of data and can give an idea of how families are doing since taking the prevention class.
A final intervention strategy for substance abuse could be government implemented program that sends recovery coaches to low income. The Illinois Title IVE Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Waiver Demonstration Project highlighted the “efficacy of recovery coaches in improving the outcomes of families with substance abuse” (Choi & Ryan, 2006; Ryan, Choi, Hong, Hernandez, & Larrison, 2008; Smith, 2009). The goal of a recovery coach is to “provide ongoing outreach…assist in removing any barriers to treatment, provide ongoing assessments, coordinate alcohol and other drug use service planning efforts, participate in family meetings, and provide standardized reporting.” The results of the study found that parents “were more likely to engage in treatment” and had “fewer new allegations of abuse.” (Choi & Ryan, 2006; Ryan, Choi, Hong, Hernandez, & Larrison, 2008; Smith, 2009). A recovery coach would be a great resource for the Vance family. Because they don’t have many resources and access to support on their own, it would be ideal to have someone come to them. A government implemented recovery coach program could make sure J.D’s mom was getting treatment and serve as a accountable partner. A recovery coach could also be a support system for J.D. and Lindsey. Evaluating the outcomes of the governmental program relies heavily on the recovery coaches analysis each week. J.D’s mom participation in her treatment and her work towards the goals provided by the recovery coach could be monitored each week.
Diversity, discrimination and oppression played a big role in J.D.’s development. In his adulthood, J.D. often turned to harmful tactics of his past to cope. These abusive forms of communication from his family and community conditioned J.D. to “see conflict” and “run away or prepare for battle” (Vance, 2016, p. 285). This coping strategy was not realistic of the world, but coming from a community of socioeconomic segregation, discrimination, and oppression, it was a way of survival. Yet despite these negative factors, J.D. was able to become more empathetic. By stepping outside of his oppressive and discriminated community, J.D. was able to find resources to support him and in turn support his family as well. Instead of anger, J.D. became “armed with sympathy and an understanding” of his mom’s past allowing him “to patiently help” her instead of neglect her (Vance, 2016, p. 275). Not only did J.D. become an advocate for his mom, he was also able to become an advocate for his community by writing a book about the struggles and hardships of white working-class.
The community of Middletown also was affected by diversity, discrimination and oppression. As mentioned earlier, the attitude of the town became completely hopeless after the 1980’s economic decline. With the oppression of poverty that forced families to stay in a town with no jobs, families often felt discriminated against and had little opportunities for work because they were unqualified. But despite the lack of diversity, discrimination, and oppression, the people of Middletown remained were resilient. This was seen specifically in Mamaw. Despite having an alcoholic husband and a neglective and substance abusing daughter, Mamaw always persevered. She defended her family to the end, and trusted that the Lord would provide. J.D. reflected how Mamaw’s had “spent the better part of her seven decades managing crises” (Vance, 2016, p.133). This resilience can only come from the trials of the community and the deep roots of toughness the hillbilly tradition.
This book isn’t only a story about a hillbilly’s traumatic past, it is a story of strength through hardships. J.D states “there are no villains” in his story “just a ragtag band of hillbillies struggling to find their way” (Vance, 2016, p. 15). Despite his upbringing, J.D. saw his trauma and abuse as sources of opportunity. He was able to forgive his past and use it as a source of strength as an adult and as a lawyer. Within the brokenness of his childhood, there were things like Mamaw’s resilience, Papaw’s educational help, the Marine Corps, Lindsey’s support that gave J.D. sparks of opportunity to grow. He also had the Marine Corps who taught him valuable life skills that prepared him for college. And his girlfriend, Usha, who challenged his hillbilly tactics and continually stuck by his side. Without all the factors, J.D.’s life could have turned out to be very similar to his mother’s. J.D. recalls “At every level of my life and in every environment, I have found family and mentors and lifelong friends who supported and enabled me.” (Vance, 2106, p. 291). Despite the brokenness of the community and his family, people in J.D.’s life strove to create a context where care could happen. Mamaw especially always made sure to support J.D. and to remove him from situations of abuse whenever she could. Lindsey stepped in when her mom couldn’t and loved J.D. unconditionally. Creating a space of care in all of the brokeness gave J.D. the ability to find resources and to make a better life for himself.
J.D. experienced extreme hardships in his oppressive hillbilly community of Middletown, Ohio. At home, J.D. was constantly in a cycle of chaos. Luckily, with the small support he received from some of his family and friends, J.D. was able to leave and enroll in the Marines, get an education, and become a lawyer. His story shows the brokenness of American society and the struggle to break out of poverty and abuse that makes up many of the working class American families.

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Vance, J. D. (2016). Hillbilly elegy: A memoir of a family and culture in crisis. New York, NY: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.