As readers of my "Boyhood Memories" blog will know, I'm putting together a collection of intense and significant moments recollected from boyhood days, with the intention of publishing them eventually in book form. And here's a book that fell into my hands which is one long "boyhood memory." Hillbilly Elegy by J.D.Vance looks back on a deeply disturbed childhood growing up in the
hillbilly country of the Appalachian mountains. Remarkable is the fact that he survived it, despite the odds against him, ending up at Yale Law School starting out on a successful career as an attorney.
It's not easy to read about such a painfully dysfunctional boyhood. Vance's father was an alcoholic (and later an evangelical Christian) who left the family when he was no more than a tot, and his desperately unstable mother teetered for years from one disastrous relationship to the next. Addicted to the (mostly) prescription drugs she was able to purloin as a nurse, she was unfit for motherhood and unable to provide the kind of home that any child needs. Any halfway healthy parenting the boy received came from his feisty, gun-toting grandmother, Mamaaw, and her not-quite estranged husband, Papaaw, who lived separately nearby.
And yet... the erratic, insecure hillbilly family and the community of the poverty-ridden small town in which he was raised inspired a fierce kind of loyalty in the boy, along with a shared suspicion and resentment of the world beyond its limited horizons. It offered him an identity to which he clung in a kind of stubborn, desperate bid for survival in an alien and unpredictable environment. If you're nicely brought up in the American middle class and even moderately well educated in a functional school system, this book will open your eyes to "how the other half lives"--the working class that was until recently a truly "working" class but has lately been deprived not only of work but also the dignity, the economic security and the hope that go along with decent and reliable employment.
How to escape such a culturally deprived environment? Vance joined the Marines. I myself am no fan of the "military-industrial complex", which wields far too much power in this country; but I have great respect for the men and women who have served in it. I never fail to be impressed with the stand-up quality, whether of leaders like General Colin Powell or those who served less prominently, but equally honorably in their way. I think it has to do, in part, with the whole idea of service--the experience of having to come to terms with something greater than oneself to which to pay allegiance, the understanding that one is no more than one part of a functioning whole. When you know that others depend on you, you learn to respect their needs as much as, perhaps even more than, your own.
It has also to do, surely, with simple discipline--something is that too frequently ignored in both family life and school these days. For Vance, after a life unconstrained by social convention or effective educational requirement, the Marine experience provided an invaluable lesson--one that instilled in him a kind of assurance and self-confidence he had lacked before. It was this, too, that equipped him with the persistence and determination he needed to step out of the life that otherwise awaited him--a life of ignorance and poverty--and into the experience of university and law school, where he learned more than what the books and professors had to teach him; he learned how to expect, and demand for himself, a functional life, a stable relationship, and a professional ladder to success. He grew a spine.
Vance's book offers a valuable insight into the rage and resentments that fuel today's political revolt amongst what used to be the working class. He learned to despise the dependency and seemingly willful ignorance of those unable--and eventually unwilling--to find work, even as he identified with them. He learned what threatened to develop, for him too, into a destructive self-hatred, resentment, and eagerness to cast blame on a system and a historical trope that left his family and community feeling neglected, unheard, and betrayed. For those of us mystified and dismayed by the rise of Donald Trump, this is a needed education.