Widespread praise and many nudges from friends brought J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis to my attention and I read it on the flight to and from D.C. for “Meet the Press” this weekend. Extraordinary book. Vance joins me in the third hour today:
HH: I’m joined now by J.D. Vance, who is the author of Hillbilly Elegy. Hillbilly Elegy was the book that I read nonstop on the flight from Los Angeles to D.C. on Saturday, and finished on the flight back from D.C. to L.A. And during the Meet the Press off-camera moments, Joy Reid and I talked about Hillbilly Elegy. It is the surprise bestseller of the summer. It is number 9 on the New York Times bestseller list. J.D. Vance is in San Francisco. He’s up early. Good morning, J.D., thank you for joining me on the show.
JDV: Good morning, Hugh, thank you for having me.
HH: Well, this is a pretty raw book. And coming from Ohio and being a product of the rising working class, my parents were upper middle class, so I actually was one generation ahead of you, a lot of it rings very, very true. But I’ve got to say, did you see this coming, the reaction to this book?
JDV: I definitely did not. It’s been pretty overwhelming, and of course, pretty gratifying, but definitely did not see any of this coming.
HH: My guess is it’s because you explain to a lot of people and the coastal media elites the white working class, and not just in Appalachia. There are analogs in South Dakota and Texas. And while you are dealing with Middleton, Ohio, and Western Kentucky and all of Appalachia, you’re also speaking to people for whom hope is not really a commodity in large supply in their lives.
JDV: Yeah, that’s definitely true. I think the place where I grew up was not a very helpful place, was a very, in some ways, cynical and unhappy place. And you see it from the drug addiction statistics to the family breakdown numbers. And I do think that’s right. I think most people don’t really recognize this sector of the country. They don’t know anybody who lives or works there. And so this book hopefully puts a human face on those folks. And people have obviously reacted to it, which of course, you know, I’m happy about.
HH: Two-thirds of the book is a raw exploration of your childhood and growing up in one of the most unstable settings I’ve ever heard. One-third of the book is an exploration of how social capital works, and how you transition via the Marine Corps from a kid, thanks to your maymaw. Am I pronouncing that correctly, by the way?
JDV: IT’s mamaw, actually.
JDV: But you were close.
HH: And how do you say your grandpa’s name?
HH: Papaw and mamaw, amazing characters. The first person I ever wrote about for Expository Writing 101 at Harvard was my A.T. grandpa, Gramps. And sometimes, grandfathers and grandparents have oversized influences on children’s lives. Your grandparents have the greatest influence on any life I’ve seen written up.
JDV: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So my grandparents, in a lot of ways, I think, rescued me. I was in a very chaotic home. My mom struggled with addiction, and we were bouncing around from home to home. And my grandma and grandpa basically said look, you’re going to come live with us, and we’re going to stop doing this. And I think that’s a big part of, honestly, what the book is about, and the larger message that you can take from it, is that no matter what we try to do to help poor kids, and I think there are a lot of things that we should be trying to do and that we can, whether it’s local or federal involvement, ultimately, you can’t do that much when kids have an extraordinarily unstable home. And so I think in a lot of ways, we should be having a more honest conversation about what the real barriers are in the lives of the poor, because without that recognition, I think we’re always going to kind of bouncing around the problem and not really recognizing what’s really going on.
HH: So to give people the quick summary, and they really have to read it, you were a poor kid. Your grandparents came out of Western Kentucky. They moved to Middleton, Ohio in the post-war boom. They got a job at a steel mill, just like the steel mills of my hometown, Warren, Ohio. Those steel mills eventually closed and went away, but you managed to get on the ladder. How did that happen, J.D? We have a minute to the break, and we’ll come back after the break and spend a longer time talking about this.
JDV: Okay, absolutely. So basically what happened is they took me into their home. They ensured I had a good chance. I started to do better at school. And then I joined the Marine Corps. And I think in a lot of ways, and for a lot of kids, frankly, the military is that ticket out. It shows you a different world. It gives you a set of skills that I simply didn’t have when I joined the Marines. And I think you know, from there, I went to Ohio State, and then I went to Yale Law School. But it really provided a number of opportunities that again, I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t had the Marine Corps.
HH: When we come back, more on J.D. Vance’s mom, who was a nurse and a drug addict and had five husbands. J.D.’s biological father, his legal father, both of whom abandoned him at various points, and three other men in his life, it’s a real raw story. It’s also got Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher in it, which is amazing to me. J.D. Vance is my guest. The book, Hillbilly Elegy, is linked at Hughhewitt.com. Stay tuned.
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HH: He’s now at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm. He’s made the transition from lawyering. Did you ever join Gibson, Dunn, J.D? Did you spend any time with GDC?
JDV: No, I didn’t. I actually, I did spend a little bit of time at Sidley Austin in D.C., though.
HH: Okay, it’s just funny. Your dinner with Gibson Dunn, I had the same dinner in Michigan in 1982 with David Krinsky when I was recruited out of Michigan. I had the same problems you did, because they didn’t teach us that much in Ohio at Catholic school. But let’s go back. Albion’s Seed was the first book to explore the Scots-Irish in America. Then James Webb wrote a book called Born Fighting. But it was at a 20,000 foot level. Hillbilly Elegy is a front porch level. Would you explain to people who the hillbillies are that you’re talking about in this book?
JDV: Yeah, well, I’m talking about the group of people, I think, in the broader swathe of what I’ll call greater Appalachia, so pretty big regionally from Northern Alabama and Georgia all the way through Pennsylvania and even parts of Southern New York. And what you find in this area is that these people are just remarkable culturally cohesive. They’re, you know, generally white, working class, and I think in some ways they’re very much taking on this Scots-Irish culture that their parents and grandparents came from.
HH: And in that culture, there is a lot of violence, there is a lot of instability, there’s a lot of teenage pregnancy and a lot of running away, and a lot of, you know, making someone eat your sister’s underwear because they’ve insulted her. And there isn’t much of a ladder out, because they don’t really get social capital, right?
JDV: Yeah, that’s definitely true. I mean, it’s a very hard place to live and a hard place to grow up, in some ways. You know, the social statistics from crime to divorce to drug use are pretty, pretty terrible. But it is, you know, it is a very loyal place, but it’s also, like you said, a place where it’s tough to get out, and I think it’s tough to get out for a lot of reasons. One of the reason is that people don’t even know what it would mean to get out. They don’t know what they need to do or how they need to build a life. So unsurprisingly, I think you see pretty low rates of social mobility from a lot of these areas, and that’s certainly what I saw growing up.
HH: And I’ve explained Donald Trump’s appeal as he’s a tractor beam for people who are disappointed in this country, who are despairing in this country, and maybe in the President, and maybe in their own life, maybe all of the above. But on Page 226, you introduce me to, first of all, I couldn’t identify more than with the line, “Talking to some stranger about my feelings made me want to vomit.” I’m definitely in that camp. But I had not learned about adverse childhood experiences or ACE’s, and their cumulative traumatic effect on children. Would you explain that to the audience, because you pretty much have the complete scorecard here.
JDV: Yeah, well, adverse childhood experiences are anything from watching a parent get beat up by another parent to just, you know, getting screamed at a lot. It’s basically just a cumulative score of childhood trauma. And the studies that have been done on this suggest that the way that the kids react to trauma, frankly, is they develop an overactive either appreciation or excitement around conflict. And so a lot of the reasons you see family breakdown and disillusion as such an intergenerational problem is because you know, little girl sees mom or dad get beat up or get in fights all the time. She then escapes the home, but finds herself with a husband who’s either doing the same things, or she’s doing the same things to him. And so it’s not surprising, frankly, that family breakdown appears to be, in some ways, the family inheritance of a lot of these areas. And as I write in the book in a lot of detail, that’s certainly what I saw.
HH: Now there, interwoven in this, there’s also a message to social services America. And I work in some of these areas on various boards, that family is not what social workers often see. Your family could not be mapped on a GPS. And its interrelationships could not be scored in any kind of a social family care system. They should have had you out of your mom’s custody, but that would have been just as destructive for your life.
JDV: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that the modern social welfare system is built, in some ways, around the nuclear family, which of course is very, very important. But especially in some of these poor Appalachian families, frankly, and a lot of poor black families, the extended family network is very important, right? So aunts and uncles, uncles and so forth, grandparents, they actually can provide a really critical backstop. And when I went into the child welfare bureaucracy, I was basically given an option. I could keep complaining, in which case I would be removed not just from my mom’s home, but from my grandparent’s home and placed with a stranger in foster care. Or I could stop complaining, and of course, that worked out for me, because my grandma, as readers will know, was this extraordinarily powerful woman who said no, you’re going to come live with me, and I don’t give, you know, I don’t give a crap what those people say. That, I think, doesn’t happen for a lot of kids who find themselves in this bureaucracy, but don’t have such a powerful figure to help them navigate it.
HH: J.D. Vance, your grandma has got a vocabulary that would make every sailor I know blush. Is it really, did she really talk that way?
JDV: (laughing) She absolutely did talk that way, and I’ll tell you, it’s one of the most gratifying parts of the response to the book, especially from my family, is to see how people have responded to Mamaw, despite her extraordinarily colorful mouth.
HH: Well, I love the fact that she and Papaw grabbed their guns when they think you’re missing from a funeral. You’d fallen asleep, and they were checking every car.
HH: They had organized a posse. I mean, this is hill folk people doing what they do. But you also make two key points. And I don’t want time to get away. People have to read Hillbilly Elegy for themselves, and all of elites are reading it, and I think that might make you a little bit uncomfortable, but there are two key points. Number one, the ladder is hard to get on, but it’s also, this is a penetrating observation, very easy for people to fall off of, J.D. Vance. That’s something that had not occurred to me, that the ladder exists in America for social mobility, but you can get on it, and you can fall off of it, and especially if you don’t know much about social capital, it’s really easy to fall off of.
JDV: Yeah, there are really, I think constant distractions and constant obstacles when you go from lower class to the elites. There are all these social rituals, and there frankly are all these ways of getting ahead either at work or at elite schools that frankly, people like me don’t know about. And I as lucky enough to have a lot of informal mentors who kind of took me under their wing. But it’s like you said. It’s not just that it’s, it can be hard to get on the ladder, but it’s very, very easy for people to become downwardly mobile, even when they start to have some success.
HH: And I also thought of Tom Ricks’ classic book, Tom’s a friend of this show, Making The Corps, where what the Marine Corps does with this wildly disparate group of young men and some women is teach them how to live well and purposefully and with direction by mentoring and by disciplining. You never ran a mile in your life, and at the end of boot camp, you were and independent, functioning person. And by the end of four years in the Marine Corps, you were running PR for a base.
JDV: Yeah, absolutely. It definitely, what’s awesome about the Marine Corps is that you build on experiences and successes. So they give you one task, and if you succeed at it, they give you another one. And if you fail, they just yell at you until you figure it out. And I think that’s critically important. But it also provides, you know, this mentorship in the kind of non-cognitive, non-hard skills that are important to life. So I talk in the book about wanting to go and buy a car, getting offered the low, low interest rate by the dealer of 21% APR, and telling my gunnery sergeant, hey, I’m going to buy this car, and they offered me an interest rate of 21%. And he said stop being an idiot. Here, you know, he said to another Marine, take this guy to the credit union and get him a better interest rate. You know, he just saved me from a really stupid decision, but frankly, a decision that I didn’t know was stupid until someone told me it was.
HH: That’s right. They’re information systems. And you make the point again and again there’s a difference between ignorance and stupidity. And ignorance is what can be remedied. Stupidity can’t. You also talk about the debt problem of the lower class, and you illustrate it with a Teddy Ruxpin story. But it’s over and over again. People with good incomes nevertheless buy stuff that they don’t need, because they don’t know how to save. They don’t know how to do basic financial exercises in America’s physically fit exercise system.
JDV: Yeah, absolutely. And I think you know, it’s one of these problems where it’s very hard to just purely solve, but I think one of the things that our education system could do, frankly, is recognize that a lot of the lower income kids who are coming through, they maybe need to learn writing and math. But they also need to learn how to balance a checkbook and you know, kind of project their own finances a little bit, something that we didn’t do, and I think had a lot of disastrous consequences for our family.
HH: Oh, it’s so illustrated. They also need to learn about drug intervention and how you don’t enable. That’s a powerful part of the book. But I wanted to close by talking about what elites don’t know. In Washington, D.C., the new Rome, there are dysfunctional families, but that dysfunction is usually remedied pretty quickly with a divorce and a custody order, and using, you know, the marquis of Queensbury rules for battling over children. They don’t have any idea what goes on in the lower class family of America when addiction hits or when bankruptcy hits, or when people die, do they?
JDV: No, no, and it’s, you know, and in upper class areas, when there is divorce, or there is family breakdown, like you said, I think there are a lot of recognitions of what the legal rights and responsibilities are, and those get handled pretty quickly. But in a lower class family, often times, people aren’t married in the first place. And even if they are, they’re so intertwined in each other’s lives that a clean break isn’t really possible. And so what you have is a lot of kids who aren’t just living, I think, in unmarried of single parent homes, they’re living in these homes that have a constant influx and outflux of marital partners, of dads and stepdads, and it just creates this sense of kind of worrying, constant chaos. And that’s very, very hard, it’s very hard to do well in school. It’s very hard to actually build a life for yourself when you get used to that sort of life and that sort of behavior.
HH: Let me close, J.D. Vance, with urging everyone to go order the book at Hughhewitt.com. I’ve got Hillbilly Elegy linked there. And go to Page 253, something that resonated with me. “Sometimes, I view members of the elite with an almost primal scorn. Recently, an acquaintance used the term confabulate in a sentence, and I just wanted to scream.” I’m not quite there, although we have some similarities in my story. I just , their disdainfulness for ordinary people, the Trump electorate, is sometimes so powerful, because they just don’t know them. Are you tamping, is that tamping down in your San Francisco stay? Or is it growing more exacerbated?
JDV: Well, I think in some ways, it’s just leveled off, because I like to think I can find the people who don’t have that primal scorn for middle America. And so I don’t have the primal scorn right back at them, you know, but it’s certainly the case that I think people who live in these coastal enclaves of wealth and privilege, they have no idea how the rest of the country thinks and feels about issues. And it’s, again, not surprising, it was not surprising to me that Donald Trump happened to the Republican electorate, and it was, to a lot of people, obviously in New York, D.C. and San Francisco, and I think that says a lot about what they don’t know. And I hope that they learn some important lessons from the past couple of years of American politics.
HH: They’re going to learn it from Hillbilly Elegy. And when they track the Trump support in Eastern Ohio down through Pennsylvania into Kentucky, it tracks exactly with the migration you describe in Hillbilly Elegy. J.D. Vance, congratulations, continued success with Hillbilly Elegy. It’s linked at Hughhewitt.com.
End of interview.