When I was turning the last 10 pages of J.D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy; I thought about the parallels I shared with J.D.’s experience of growing up in a dysfunctional working class family. I know a LOT of us have grown up middle class and in dysfunction of various sorts, but there were some uncanny parallels that resonated with me even though I did not grow up in the rust belt of Ohio or the Kentucky Appalachia. I did however, grow up in the Southern Tier of New York State which borders the Susquehanna River and is a stone’s throw from Pennsylvania (or what we used to refer to as “Pennsyltucky”); and in Tompkins County, both of which I have learned are technically part of Appalachia.
hill·bil·ly; nounNORTH AMERICAN
an unsophisticated country person, associated originally with the remote regions of the Appalachians.
Born to farmers and one of 7 children, moving frequently from farmhouse to farmhouse, my mother recalls wearing hand-me downs and internalizing a feeling of shame for being poor in the post-war boom. After a failed first marriage at the age of 18, she met my dad and had a period of stability, finally landing a job with Big Blue (IBM circa 1980). This career path would catapult my mother into middle class (versus the working poor). Perhaps it was being the first generation to overcome poverty and enter the middle class, like J.D. Vance’s mother, my own had difficulty creating and maintaining stable, healthy personal relationships. She would get married three more times after her divorce from my father. . That’s a lot of change and emotional turbulence to endure, for her and for us kids.
Unlike J.D. Vance’s working class community where the stigma of divorce, addiction, and poverty were ‘normal’ or ‘common’, I was trapped in a small town that was conforming and narrow. Of my second-grade class of 24 students, I was the sole child with divorced parents. Nuclear families were all around me. When I went to a friend’s house to play, they had nice clothes, a quiet loving home, two parents, a dog, and stability. I started to understand that my family was ‘different’. I grew up with a cloud of self-doubt, internalized shame, and a palpitating desire to separate myself from the rural area and small town.
Like J.D., I chased success through education and urban life with job opportunities. I also inherited some of my mother’s behaviors and acted them out in relationships. The line in the book that resonated with me most was J.D.’s description of how he was ‘taught/wired through trauma to view conflict as a way of life and the flight-or-flight response as a ‘constant companion’:
“A sincere apology is a surrender, and when someone surrenders, you go in for the kill.” (p. 225)
To me, this line describes the ultimate tool dysfunctional people use to hurt others (inflict emotional pain) in order to be ‘right’. It’s akin to stabbing with a knife and giving it a good twist when the person pleads for it to stop. Growing up with this type of dysfunctional thinking and behavior is difficult to overcome. Only through hard work, reading, and journaling have I been able to rewire some of the automatic fear responses that were embedded through childhood trauma.
After reading Hillbilly Elegy, I am still struck with the thought that perhaps I would qualify as “hillbilly” and perhaps the shame I associate with my childhood is why I have such an aversion to rural, stereotypical -uneducated lifestyles. On the other hand, maybe the dysfunction of growing up with an addict and experiencing childhood traumas (divorce, neglect, etc…), what Vance refers to as “adverse childhood experiences” or “ACEs”, simply provide an uncanny similarity that all children of trauma and addiction can relate to (Vance, 2016, p. 226).
I wish I had had the hillbilly family connection and supports that Vance himself had. He had a network of relatives who supported and believed in him. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is a lonely endeavor and the shame I have carried with me coming from a home of instability and neglect will always be with me. Knowing I am ‘different’. Fighting the demons in my head that tell me I am not good enough. Never giving myself enough credit. Lack of self-confidence. I have battled this for 40 years. Perhaps I always will. I wonder if Vance ever feels shame? He never mentions it.
According to this map, I lived my childhood in a region of Appalachia. I lived in dysfunction and first generation middle-class, just like J.D. Does this make me a hillbilly?