A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
J .D. VANCEStudy Guide
(2) What obstacles did Vance need to overcome to escape poverty?
(2) Why did he write this book?
(3) What is the 'ethnic component' to his story? What are the good and bad aspects of his heritage?
(4) What is the history of Scotch-Irish in America?
(4) Why are hillbillies more pessimistic about the future than other groups of poor people in Ameirca?
(5-7) Vance does not believe that economic insecurity is the primary problem facing his culture? What does Vance mean when he says "There is a lack of agency here-- a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself. This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America.."
(11-13) Despite the many places where he lived while growing up, why did Vance always consider the holler in Jackson Kentucky to be his real home?
(12) What customs did hill country follow?
(14-15) Describe Vance's Uncle Teaberry, Uncle Pet, and Uncle David.
(15-16) In what circumstances did Mamaw believe it was permissible to kill someone?
(16) How did Breathitt County earn its nickname "Bloody Breahtitt"?
(17) Describe the conception of honor that filled the Blanton men with such pride.
(18-19) How poor were the Blantons while Vance was growing up? How had the situation changed when Vance returned to Jackson as an adult?
(19-20) What was the response of the people of Jackson to the ABC News report about "Mountain Dew mouth" in Appalachia (even though it was true)? How is this response typical of the people there?
(21) What 'Great Migration' of hillbillies took place in the mid-20th century? Vance argues that the social pathologies of hillbillies in Kentucky spread to all the states where they migrated . Do you buy this explanation?
(23-24) Vance credits his grandparents for all the success he has had in his life. What were their life stories?
(24) Who raised Papaw Vance?
(24-25) How did the history of feuding in Vance's family heritage fit into their conception of honor?
(24-25) How old were Vance's grandparents when they married?
(25-26) What job options did Papaw have in Jackson when he first married?
(26-27) What was the real story behind their move to Ohio?
(27-28) Where did Papaw find work?
(Note how aggressively manufacturing firms were recruiting whole families to move to factory towns in the Midwest during the years after WWII.)
(28-29) How many residents of Appalachia migrated to industrial towns on the 'hillbilly highway'? Where did the Blanton clan wind up?
(30-32) How did Mamaw and Papaw get along in their new life? What stigmas did they have to combat both back in Appalachia and in their new home? How did they adjust to the privacy typical of the new suburb?
(How was their experience similar to the reception Southern blacks had when they migrated to the North?)
(33-34) What happened when Uncle Jimmy started playing with a toy fighter jet at the local pharmacy?
(35-36) Hillbillies like Mamaw and Papaw voted Democratic all of their lives, but did they look to the government to save them? What did they expect from life?
(36) How was the generation of Vance's mother different from her parents' generation? what new challenges would this generation face that Mamaw and Papaw never expected?
(39) To what cause does Vance attribute Mamaw's repeated miscarriages?
(40-41) How did life start to fall about for the couple even though Papaw was making good money and their children were going to good public schools? What forces were driving the problems which would prevent their children from achievieng the American Dream? (How does this analysis fit with Vance's thesis about the roots of poverty?)
(41-42) How did Mamaw get back at her husband one night for coming home drunk?
(42-44) What events drove the marriage to its crisis point? (Why didn't the couple reach out to other family members for help?)
(44) Why didn't Papaw want Uncle Jimmy to work at the Armco factory?
(45) Why didn't Aunt Lori go to college?
(46) How did these two eventually turn their lives around?
(46) What about Bev, Vance's mother? To what forces does Vance attribute her decline into a chaotic home life and eventual drug addiction?
(46) What saved Mamaw and Papaw's marriage?
(47-48) Describe Middletown at the height of its economic fortunes from the 1960's to the 80's. Why were the working class whites who lived there culturally conservative even though they voted Democratic?
(48-49) What were race relations like during Middletown's industrial heyday?
(49-50) How did life in the town start to change in the 1980's while Vance was growing up?
(50-51) What is Middletown like today?
(51-52) How did the federal government's programs to encourage home owenership actually contribute to Middletown's decline? How did local government projects also cause harm?
(53) What impact did the merger in 1989 of Armco with Kawasaki Steel have on the decline?
(54-56) What happened to the belief in Papaw's generation that their children and grandchildren would work with their minds and not their hands? Why did so few of Vance's childhood friends go to college? (How does this point fit Vance's thesis?)
(57) What was the collective wisdom among the townsfolk about who would make it to college and then success in the professional world? How did people begin explaining poverty to themselves? What had happened to their work ethic?
(58) How did this attitude reflect the attitudes toward work of people back in Appalachia?
(59) When does the competition to get ahead in life really begin? How did Vance's grandparents help him get started early?
(61) How old was Vance when his parents split up?
(62) Describe Bob Hamel, the guy that Vance's mother got involved with next and who became Vance's adoptive father.
(62-65) Describe Vance's relationship with his Mom when he was in his first years of grade school.
(66-67) What key values did Vance learn from his family? How old was Vance when he learned how to fight? What were "fighting words" for him? What tips did Mamaw teach him about fighting?
(69) How did Mamaw teach vance to deal with the 3rd grade bully? (Vance adds, without commenting, that this was the last fist fight he was ever in. Why?)
(69-70) How did Vance's life start to unravel when he was nine? (Money was not the problem: his mom and Bob, her third husband, had a combined income of over $100,000.)
(71-72) Describe the kind of fights that his Mom would get into with Bob. What kind of impact did the constant fighting have on Vance?
(73) What does Vance conclude was the real cause of this violent behavior?
(74) How did Vance's Mom nearly kill herself when he was eleven?
(75) After her split with Bob, how did his Mom's behavior deteriorate even more?
(76-77) How did she nearly kill Vance when he was eleven? (Note the detail with which Vance relates this memory. Trauma is burned into your mind forever.)
(78) Why did Vance lie in court to protect his mother? What does Vance begin to realize about his culture during the court hearing and then later during his visit to Uncle Jimmy's family in Napa, California?
(81) Why was Vance always confused growing up when he was asked if he had any brothers or sisters?
(82-83) How did Vance's sister Lindsay really save her brother?
(84) What happened when the family travelled to a model audition for Lindsay?
(85-86) What kind of religious instruction did Vance receive from his grandmother? What parable was she fond of reciting for Vance?
(87) How many different father figures did Vance deal with as he was growing up? What was he learning about adult relationships?
(89-95) What was Vance's experience like at age twelve when he was reunited with his biological father and went to live with his family for the summer?
(93) How religious are the people of Appalachia?
(95) What did Vance think of going to church regularly with born again Christians?
(96-98) What fundamentalist ideas did he begin to imbibe about gay people, science, the government and Easterners in general?
(101-105) Describe the impact of Papaw's death on the family.
(104) What does Vance mean when he says, "To this day, being able to "take advantage" of someone is the measure in my mind of having a parent"?
(106-108) What stories did Vance remember about his grandfather at his funeral?
(112-13) How did things 'veer off course' for Vance's Mom after her father died?
(113-14) How well did Mamaw deal with the loss of her husband?
(113-14) Who took care of thirteen year old Vance during this time?
(116-17) What kind of experience did his mom have in rehab? What does Vance think of the idea that addiction should be treated as a disease?
(119-20) What did fourteen year old Vance think of his mother's plan to move to Dayton with her most recent boyfriend, Matt?
(120-21) How did things go with the anger management counselor she hired to work with Vance?
(121) Why did Vance feel like there was no one in his life with whom he could live? What 'least bad option' did he choose?
(124-25) What worries gnawed at Vance while living with his Dad and his born again family?
(125) How did Vance's Mom get along with her latest boyfriend Matt?
(126) Whom did she marry? How well did Vance and his Mom get along with this family?
(127) What is Vance's position about the source of the real problems with America's public schools? How did he do in school as a sixteen year old?
(188-89) During the summer of 2009 spent in Middleton before
he went to law school, Vance described the cynicism of the people there as
almost spiritual. Why did people there, as patriotic as any in the
US, feel so disconnected from the rest of America?
Hillbilly Elegy 4
the personal sign-off from the dean of your college
(198) How was Vance able to afford the tuition at Yale?
"the most expensive schools are paradoxically cheaper for
low-income students. Take, for example, a student whose parents earn
thirty thousand per year-- not a lot of money but not poverty level,
either. That student would pay ten thousand for one of the less
selective branch campuses of the University of Wisconsin but would pay
six thousand at the school's flagship Madison campus. At Harvard, the
student would pay only about thirteen hundred despite
tuition of over forty thousand."
of those classes, a constitutional law seminar of sixteen students,
became a kind of family for me. We called ourselves the island of
misfit toys, as there was no real unifying force to our team-- a
conservative hillbilly from Appalachia, the supersmart daughter
of Indian immigrants, a black Canadian with decades' worth of street
smarts, a neuroscientist from Phoenix, an aspiring civil rights
attorney born a few minutes from Yale's campus, and an extremely
progressive lesbian with a fantastic sense of humor, among others-- but
we became excellent friends."
(201) How hard was the work? What area of his studies did he need to improve?
"I became less comfortable with the lies I told about my
own past. "My mom is a nurse," I told them. But of course that wasn't
true anymore. I didn't really know what my legal father-- the one whose
name was on my birth certificate-- did for a living; he was a total
"one consequence of isolation is seeing standard metrics of
success as not just unattainable but as the property of people not like us....
I imagine that the discomfort they feel at leaving behind much of their
identity plays at least a small role in this problem." (206)
"We do know that working-class Americans aren't just less likely to climb the economic ladder, they're also more likely to fall off even after they've reached the top. I imagine that the discomfort they feel at leaving behind much of their identity plays at least a small role in this problem. One way our upper class can promote upward mobility, then, is not only by pushing wise public policies but by opening their hearts and minds to the newcomers who don't quite belong."
"When you go from working-class to professional-class,
almost everything about your old life becomes unfashionable at best or
unhealthy at worst…. Why has no one else from my high school made it to the Ivy
League? Why are people like me so poorly represented in America's elite institutions?
Why is domestic strife so common in families like mine? Why did I think that
places like Yale and Harvard were so unreachable? Why did successful people
feel so different?"
I went to Yale to earn a law degree. But that first year at Yale taught me most of all that I didn't know how the world worked. (210)
We needed to be funny, charming, and engaging, or we'd never be invited to the D.C. or New York offices for final interviews.
At these types of events, you have to strike a balance between shy and overbearing. You don't want to annoy the partners, but you don't want them to leave without shaking your hand. I tried to be myself; I've always considered myself gregarious but not oppressive.
It was at this meal, on the first of five grueling days of interviews, that I began to understand that I was seeing the inner workings of a system that lay hidden to most of my kind ... The interviews were about passing a social test-- a test of belonging, of holding your own in a corporate boardroom, of making connections with potential future clients. (213)
"...everyone who plays by those rules fails... successful people are playing an entirely different game. They don't flood the job market with resumes, 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." (214)
(214) What is 'social capital'? How do you attain it?
"The networks of people and
institutions around us have real economic value. They connect us to the
right people, ensure that we have opportunities, and impart valuable
information. Without them, we're going it alone. (214)
"At Yale, networking power is like the air we breathe-- so pervasive that it's easy to miss." (216)
(218) What is the value of a judicial clerkship? Why is social networking a vital aspect of this process?
"There's no database that spits out this information, no central source that tells you which judges are nice, which judges send people to the Supreme Court, and which type of work-- trial or appellate--you want to do. In fact, it's considered almost unseemly to talk about these things. How do you ask a professor if the judge he's recommending you to is a nice lady? It's trickier than it might seem. So to get this information, you have to tap into your social network-- student groups, friends who have clerked, and the few professors who are willing to give brutally honest advice. By this point in my law school experience, I had learned that the only way to take advantage of networking was to ask." (218-19)
(219) How did Professor Chua set Vance straight about this career path? (How did this conversation change his life?)
"..the value of real social capital:... my professor told me that she wanted to talk to me very seriously. She turned downright somber: "I don't think you're doing this fortheright reasons. I think you're doing this for the credential, which is fine, but the credential doesn't actually serve your career goals. If you don't want to be a high-powered Supreme Court litigator, you shouldn't care that much about this job."
"Social capital isn't manifest only in someone connecting you to a friend or passing a resume on to an old boss. It is also, or perhaps primarily, a measure of how much we learn through our friends, colleagues, and mentors." (220)
(219-20) Where did Vance and Usha wind up landing a job?
Advice from an old aquaintance in Mitch Daniels' office (remember that part time job?)
"So Usha and I decided to go through the clerkship process together. We landed in northern Kentucky, not far from where I grew up. It was the best possible situation." (220)
something bad happens-- even a hint of disagreement-- you withdraw
completely. It's like you have a shell that you hide i.n"
(225-26) How did Vance overcome this psychological obstacle?
the best medicine was talking about it with the people who understood: his family.
Psychologists call the everyday occurrences of my and Lindsay's life "adverse childhood experiences," or ACEs. ACEs are traumatic childhood events, and their consequences reach far into adulthood. The trauma need not be physical. The following events or feelings are some of the most common ACEs:
(226-27) In his research of ACE's what did Vance discover to be a primary difference between working class and middle class families?
four in every ten working-class people had faced multiple instances of childhood trauma. For the non-working class, that number was 29 percent
Harvard pediatricians have studied the effect that childhood trauma has on the mind. In addition to later negative health consequences, the doctors found that constant stress can actually change the chemistry of a child's brain. Stress, after all, is triggered by a physiological reaction. I
(227-28) What is the danger of being 'hard wired' for conflict?
For kids like me, the part of the brain that deals with stress and conflict is always activated-- the switch flipped indefinitely....And that wiring remains, even when there's no more conflict to be had. (228)
For many kids, the first impulse is escape, but people who lurch toward the exit rarely choose the right door.... Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Chaos begets chaos. Instability begets instability. Welcome to family life for the American hillbily. (229)
"I realized that I mistrusted
apologies, as they were often used to convince you to lower your guard.
It was an 'I'm sorry" that convinced me to take that fateful car ride
with Mom more than a decade earlier. And I began to understand why I
used words as weapons: That's what everyone around me did; I did it to
survive. Disagreements were war, and you played to win the game." (230)
"In my worst moments, I
convince myself that there is no exit, and no matter how much I fight
old demons, they are as much an inheritance as my blue eyes and
brown hair. The sad fact is that I couldn't do it without
Usha. Even at my best, I'm a delayed explosion-- I can be defused, but
only with skill and precision." (230)
I do know is that Mom is no villain. She loves Lindsay and me.
She tried desperately to be a good mother. Sometimes she succeeded;
sometimes she didn't. She tried to find happiness in love and work, but
she listened too much to the wrong voice in her head. But Mom deserves
much of the blame. No person's childhood gives him or her a perpetual
moral get-out-of-jail-free card-- not Lindsay, not Aunt Wee, not me, and
not Mom." (232)
The emotion Mom inspired then was not hatred, or love, or rage, but fear. Fear for her safety. Fear for Lindsay having to deal yet again with Mom's problems while I lived hundreds of miles away.
Mom enough money to help her get on her feet. She'd find her own place,
save money to get her nursing license back, and go from there. In the
meantime, I'd monitor her finances to ensure that she stayed clean and
on track financially." (237)
"A good friend, who worked for a time in the White House and
cares deeply about the plight of the working class, once told me, "The
best way to look at this might be to recognize that you probably can't
fix these things. They'll always be around. But maybe you can put your
thumb on the scale a little for the people at the margins." (238)
"So here's Gail: teenage single mom, no family, little support. A lot of people would wilt in those circumstances, but the hillbilly took over. "Dad wasn't really around," Gail remembered, "and hadn't been in years, and I obviously wasn't speaking to Mom. But I remember the one lesson I took from them, and that was that we could do anything we wanted. I wanted that baby, and I wanted to make it work. So I did it."" (241)
(241-46) Vance says that 'we can build policies based on a better understanding of what stands in the way of kids like me.' What kind of policy suggestions does he make regarding the foster care system and Section 8 housing? Vance also cites the attitude that boys develop towards school work:
Education of Boys:
"As a child, I associated accomplishments in school with femininity. Manliness meant strength, courage, a willingness to fight, and, later, success with girls. Boys who got good grades were "sissies" or "faggots." I don't know where I got this feeling. Certainly not from Mamaw, who demanded good grades, nor from Papaw. But it was there, and studies now show that working-class boys like me do much worse in school because they view schoolwork as a feminine endeavor. Can you change this with a new law or program? Probably not. Some scales aren't that amenable to the proverbial thumb." (246)
"Part of the problem is how state laws define the family. For families like mine-- and for many black and Hispanic families-grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles play an outsize role. Child services often cut them out of the picture, as they did in my case. Some states require occupational licensing for foster parents-- just like nurses and doctors-- even when the would-be foster parent is a grandmother or another close family member. In other words, our country's social services weren't made for hillbilly families, and they often make a bad problem worse." (243)
Section 8 Housing:
(241-43) What did Raj Chetty's study of the geographic locations
of childhood upbringing and their relation to poverty confirm for Vance?
"the real problem for so many of these kids is what happens (or doesn't happen) at home. For example, we'd recognize that Section 8 vouchers ought to be administered in a way that doesn't segregate the poor into little enclaves (245)
What is the limit of the government's ability to help?
"The most important lesson of my life is not that society
failed to provide me with opportunities. My elementary and middle
schools were entirely adequate, staffed with teachers who
did everything they could to reach me. Our high school ranked near the
bottom of Ohio's schools, but that had little to do with
the staff and much to do with the students. I had Pell Grants and
government subsidized low-interest student loans that made
college affordable, and need-based scholarships for law
school. I never went hungry, thanks at least in part to the old-age
benefits that Mamaw generously shared with me. These programs are far
from perfect, but to the degree that I nearly succumbed to my worst
decisions (and I came quite close), the fault lies almost
entirely with factors outside the government's