SOME PERSONAL REFLECTION ON "HILLBILLY ELEGY" BY J.D. VANCE

February 19, 2017

HILLBILLY ELEGY:  A MEMOIR OF A FAMILY IN CULTURE AND CRISIS BY J.D. VANCE

I just finished reading this book.  I found it spellbinding for many reasons but above all, because of the ringing affirmation of how lucky I’ve been in my life because of the experiences and individuals who have helped me “overcome” (and that is the word) the challenges of my own youth.

Before turning to the poignant personal reflections this book brought me, first a comment on the challenge Vance described in transitioning from the environment he had experienced as a “hillbilly” (per his description) in Middletown, OH and moving to the environment of Ohio State University and Yale Law School. 

What he described, I believe, reflects the challenge that many African-Americans and other minorities face as they enter corporate America and other environments like it.  It is the challenge of being comfortable socially, of being secure and comfortable in one's own view of who he or she is. 

Vance writes, “We do know the working class Americans aren’t just less likely to climb the economic ladder, they are also more likely to fall off even after they have reached the top.  I imagine that the discomfort they feel leaving behind much of their identity plays at least a small role in this problem.  One way our upper class can promote upward mobility, is not only by pushing wise public policies but by opening (our) hearts and minds to the newcomers who don’t quite belong.”

“Though we sing the praises of social mobility, it has it downsides.  The term necessarily implies a sort of movement—to a theoretically better life, yes, but also away from something.  And you can’t always control the parts of your own life from which you drift.”

Vance describes himself as a “cultural alien.”  He points to this even if implicitly as a reason why so few people from his high school in Middletown made it to the Ivy League and why so few people like him are represented in America’s leading institutions. 

We need to help everyone feel respected and accepted for who they are--to feel "in the house".

It is on the more personal side, as it relates to my own life, that the story this book tells becomes truly trenchant.  Like J.D. Vance, when I look back, I am humbled, grateful and, indeed, dumbfounded at how many contingent events and individual people had to fall in place for me to have the life that I have had. 

In every chapter of my life, and in virtually every environment I’ve been in, I have found family and mentors and friends who supported, believed in and enabled me.

The love and ever-present confident expectations of my mother.  The nuns who instilled the discipline of learning and ultimately the love of a good deal of it, too.  The commitment of my family to the Catholic Church, with the burdens it brought but, far more important, the belief in God and Jesus, the conviction that there was a “right thing” to do.  My parents’ decision to send me to Portsmouth Priory, having the experience there of the intellect and faith of men like Father Dom Andrew Jenks and his high expectations of me.  

Passing the eye test in Boston which gave me the Naval scholarship I needed to go to Yale.  My meeting my first history teacher, Howard Roberts Lamar.  My time in the Navy.  The decision to apply to Procter & Gamble because of of the glint in the eye as the Yale recruiter who had explained what a job in Brand Management was all about five years earlier.  The people who believed in me—Jack Clagett, Ed Artzt, John Smale and so many others at Procter & Gamble; my assistants who took care of me; friends like Chuck Hain, Tom Shoop, Dick Adams, and John Simpkinson and his wife Janet, who cared for me, who helped me believe in myself, often more than I did.  The chance meeting on May 2, 1964 with Francie who changed and made my life what it became.   

Years ago, I took no more than two hours to write down on a piece of paper the people who changed my life, without whom I wouldn’t have been there writing that paper.  I titled it, “If It Weren’t For Them.”  I won’t go through the list; I don’t think I have to.  The title says it all.  The difference we make to one another by how we act, by how we make them feel, by the confidence and trust we express in them, and the affection we show for them as well.  That’s what life at its best is all about.  It’s the greatest gift we can give to another, starting with those closest to us, our family.

*****

There is one other very poignant comment Vance makes which I am compelled to recognize.  Vance acknowledges that he didn’t lose contact with his parents because he didn’t care; he lost contact with them in order to survive.  “We never stop loving, and we never lose hope that our loved ones will change.  Rather, we were forced, either by wisdom or by the law, to take the path of self-preservation.”  

I wouldn’t say it exactly that way.  The “law” had nothing to do with my pursuit of "self-preservation". And I never lost contact with my family.  But the commitment to "survive"did limit the amount of contact I had with my parents.  Not only my “personal survival", but the "survival" of my family.

Of course, and this is a tribute to them, I knew my parents would have it no other way.  There was no greater expression of their love for me, no act so unselfish, than their desire for whatever was best for my and my family’s life.


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