'Hillbilly Elegy' Hits Close to Home
J. D. Vance's new book, Hillbilly Elegy, has hit a national nerve for people on both sides of the political aisle. Rod Dreher’s recent interview with Vance was so popular that the site crashed. “It has become by far the most-read piece ever on TAC (The American Conservative),” according to Dreher. In the interview, Vance talks openly about growing up in rural Appalachia, recognizing moral agency among the poor, and, in Dreher’s words, the need for “more honest dialogue about poverty and dysfunction in America.” Vance also explores a question that many of us are asking: Why are so many people voting for Donald Trump?
My own story has something to do with it.
I grew up in a 3,000-square foot home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. When I was young, my mother subscribed to colonial home decorating magazines and our county was almost always highlighted in them. We were not allowed to watch sitcoms, but when I caught a glimpse, I couldn't see the charm—that was my life every day. We were a normal, white, upper-middle-class, large, conservative family. When I was 18, though, my family uprooted suddenly from our (as I see it now) crumbling mirage of normal and moved to a 120-acre working farm in the North Country, New York. We seven kids and our parents moved into an outdated bed and breakfast on the property and set about making it our own. We rolled up our sleeves, tilled the land, made friends with farmers, canned fruit, stockpiled wheat berries, homeschooled our younger siblings, and milked cows.
We had moved to the largest county east of the Mississippi and one of the poorest—St. Lawrence County. I was an upper-middle-class kid brought to a poverty-stricken area, surrounded by families on welfare and farming communities struggling to compete with factory farms. I was not born into this life, nor would I have chosen what followed the year we moved.
We arrived in March 1999, just in time to prepare for what my father predicted would be the worst crash in the history of the world, Y2K. My siblings and I didn't buy his conspiracy theories, but they were thrust upon us the moment we were born: None of us had social security numbers. My father believed they were the mark of the beast, or would lead to it. Some people have asked, "You were 18, why didn't you just leave?" Well, gentle friend, we couldn't. None of us had driver's licenses or legal jobs, nor could we as long as we were under his roof. We were miles from any town with jobs, we didn't know anyone who could help us, and like anyone who has lived through trauma will tell you, we didn't know any different. My seemingly idyllic childhood from eastern PA was quickly turning sour.
I tried to leave that winter, after there was nary a flicker nor outage when the year 2000 slipped quietly in. I nearly succeeded but one of my parents threatened to cut me off relationally. I was the oldest and only sister to my five younger brothers, two of whom were under the age of five. I adored those boys. My life was wrapped up in their existence, and every memory I had was in some way related to them—the protection of them, the fear of losing them. So I stayed and gave my parents the silent treatment instead. Until the morning of April 19, 2000.
A new normal had settled in for our family—with a lot of fighting, slammed doors, fists through walls, and screaming—but this particular morning was ordinary. I argued with my 14-year-old brother about whose day it was to do laundry and then he and our 17-year-old brother jumped on one of our newly acquired tractors to visit a neighboring farm.
I was standing in the upstairs bathroom when I heard shouts and slammed doors of a different kind. Someone yelled, "It's the boys!” I ran to the end of our driveway as a maroon Buick was passing. "Are those your brothers back there?" the driver asked. I nodded yes, and she told me to jump in. The car smelled like vomit and cigarettes. She turned the car around, drove a mile down the road, and then a succession of events played out that I recall with staccato clarity: purple sweatshirt, blood, black T-shirt, my brother doing CPR, an upside-down tractor, my mother screaming, lights and sirens, and my brother lying misshapen on the middle of the highway. At the hospital, I called my father at work to say, "There was an accident.” A friend waiting with us finished the words for me—one father telling another father that his son was dead.
There are a series of moments in my life that might be called the catalyst, the first domino for what followed, but this one will always be the beginning of the end for me. This will be the flick that sets the rest in motion.
For married couples that experience the loss of a child, the statistics are not good. Over the next year, my parents fought more, shut down more, lashed out more, and left more. We took gambles on whose side to be on for whatever fight was currently happening. The younger ones were caught in custody battles, and I was subpoenaed several times to testify against my family or their new significant others.
In the midst of all this, memories of abuse began to surface in my mind in much the same way I remember Andrew's accident—in fragments, snapshots, questions: Did it happen this way? That much? With him? I didn’t know if these new memories were real or just stories I was making up. I also knew that if I were to bring them up in the midst of court decisions, there would be life-changing consequences for at least one member of my family, so I kept silent until years later.
There is much more to tell, but I do not have the courage of J. D. Vance, nor do I have permission to disclose others’ stories. Nonetheless, a cursory look at my family yields a long list of sins and indiscretions: tax fraud, refusal to pay debts, child pornography, homosexuality, adultery, abandonment, disobedience of court orders, abuse, and worse crimes—selfishness, pride, religiousness, refusal to believe the gospel, and more.
I have come to peace with my upbringing, my idyllic childhood in Bucks County and then the train wreck of my late teens and 20s in St. Lawrence County. I feel pity for the people my parents were when they married, for how little they knew and how helpless they felt. I feel pity because they birthed eight little sinners and I was the worst of them all. I feel pity because I know now the gospel brings life to even the darkest corners of our hearts, and there are dark parts of my family's history that have never had the light of the gospel shined on them fully. I feel pity because I left that home when I was 20 and I never returned.
Hillbilly Elegy is an elegy to my father and the rest of my family. I wept and laughed and sighed through the book, not because I come from the Appalachia Scots-Irish (Vance’s roots), but because I am from the Philadelphia ones—the hot-tempered, hard drinkers with strong ideals and a litany of failures behind them (and a few successes too). I was raised in a conservative home with deep mistrust of the government and strong sense of patriotism, a home where to outsiders, family was first, but inside, it was every man for himself.
Much of my family, not surprisingly, is voting for Trump in this election. I could be embarrassed by their political loyalties, but after reading Hillbilly Elegy, I understand them. According to Vance, “a big chunk of the white working class has deep roots in Appalachia.” Why are so many voters from this demographic casting their lot with Trump? “The simple answer,” Vance told Dreher, “is that these people—my people—are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time. Donald Trump at least tries … His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground.”
In the same way that Donald Trump names the lived experience of his voters, Vance's book has named my lived experience. He made me feel normal when he talked about childhood trauma, fights, his love for his older sister, and putting himself through college in two years while working three jobs. These are all the narratives of my life. His book birthed in me a strange empathy not only for my own upbringing but for my brothers, my parents, my neighbors, and so many more. And the empathy I feel for my family now extends to the rural, white voters in Trump’s camp.
As someone who hasn’t lived in this context in over a decade and a half, my current sense of “normal” is different than my family’s normal, just as Americans living all across the country have “normals” that are different. There are deeply rooted reasons for these differences—some of them sociological, economic, spiritual, and moral—and it’s important to try and understand why. Perhaps this election season, then, is less about whom we vote for and more about whom we listen to on the way to the voting booth.
As I watch the election unfold this fall, I’ll remember my family. I’ll remember my story. I’ll remember the life I lived in that rural farmhouse and the chaos that erupted in it. When I think of true north in my life and heart, I still think of the North Country. I am not made of her stock, but she got in my blood in every way and has yet to leave. This is what God’s grace looks like in his children—we each bring to the table something different than every brother and sister on earth, each of us with a story knit together by our Maker for his purposes, our good, and his glory.
The beginning of my life made sense to me but the middle did not, and as I look toward a natural end ahead of me, I wonder what themes God will weave into my story—each thread an opportunity to empathize, see, listen, and love all of creation with greater insight and deeper understanding.