Humans are an intricate system of bones, nerves, blood and memories. We all have a unique internal map that shaped us. Interior geography is the exploration of our inner world and the hardwired routes from our childhoods that guide our dispositions and chosen paths. Exploring our interior geography honors the wisdom we possess from our journey and provides an opportunity to discover new territories we want to explore, but haven’t quite found a path toward yet.
Hillbilly Elegy is all about J. D. Vance’s interior geography. In this brave memoir about growing up in a poor American Appalachian town, Vance shares the heartbreak of constant childhood disruption and the deep love of the people who were rooting for his success. He tries to write without judgement and this allows him some generosity (and a little distance) to try to understand the people and the landscaped that shaped him. To me this book was an invitation to look back at my childhood and take a look at my interior geography—both the chosen paths I’m proud of and the well worn paths I now need to block access to going forward.
My husband, Jeff and I listened to “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance over Christmas. The author is the reader which lends a certain intimacy to the audible version. Here are a few thoughts that surfaced for me.
1. I think a lot of us can recognize “Hillbilly” qualities in our upbringing regardless of our social class. Even though I was raised relatively affluent in a small, South Dakota farm town I can easily relate to many of the themes J. D. Vance references in this memoir. As we listened to the book, Jeff observed that it could’ve been titled: Reactive or Judgemental Household Elegy—I would guess that most of us grew up with some judgement in our homes. “Hillbilly” in the title might make you think it will be hard to relate to. It’s not. J. D.’s honesty about his childhood—poverty, abuse, clan loyalty, secrets, addiction and his family’s response to all of it are profound.
I was also struck by the way we tend to identify poverty only in financial terms. I believe a poverty of the mind can manifest in ways that deeply affect our lives too. J. D. Vance describes this as well as he does financial poverty. When social, cultural, political or religious views challenge our ability to see the bigger picture of things around us—outside influences are perceived as threatening and we’re left with even less understanding of our differences. I’m optimistic that if we focus more on our similarities we will be more unified.
Like the author, I’m trying to not be judgemental here and look through a more sociological lens. I know I’m guilty at times of not seeking more understanding of the world around me. For heaven’s sake, I’m a liberal and I live in Vermont. I get it. If you’re familiar with the Hunger Games series, I’ve been joking that Vermont is like living in District 12. I’m willing to admit that I’m living in a bubble and Hillbilly Elegy helped burst it a little bit.
By examining our childhoods, we can gain some insight and are given an opportunity for self-correction if necessary. This brings me to the second reason this book was so important to me and well-timed.
2. The shadow side of our personality traits. I’ve always been really proud of my independent spirit. It’s my nature and was well-honed during my childhood. I had a lot of freedom growing up in a small town in South Dakota and it allowed me to exist “under the radar” in a sense. My whole adult life I thought it served me quite well. However, while listening to this book, as my tears flowed, I realized that my fierce independence has not always been an asset to my parenting or my marriage. Any perceived threat (big or small) to my independence or sovereign self can set me off—my own reactivity or judgement. That’s the shadow side of my independence and it ain’t pretty. Here’s the upside; now that I’ve recognized this in myself, well shit, I can’t unsee it now.
Thank you J. D. Vance, oh and Jeff too.
This insight gives me an opportunity to take a moment and see if what’s being asked of me is truly a threat to my independent, sovereign self (probably not) and I can try to respond like a grown-up and not be reactive. I’m writing this for me, for accountability regarding something I’ve learned and cannot unlearn now. J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy gave me a little more courage to write about my life and for that I’m grateful.
FROM GOODREADS “From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.
Vance’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love.” They got married and moved north from Kentucky to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. Their grandchild (the author) graduated from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving upward mobility for their family. But Vance cautions that is only the short version. The slightly longer version is that his grandparents, aunt, uncle, and mother struggled to varying degrees with the demands of their new middle class life and they, and Vance himself, still carry around the demons of their chaotic family history.”