Hillbilly Elegy uses personal experience to promote the same old bootstrap nonsense

Jessa Crispin
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Lacey Terrell/AP</span>
Photograph: Lacey Terrell/AP

Hillbilly Elegy the book came out at a weird time. Released just a few months before Donald Trump would be elected president of the United States, it was already on the shelves and gaining a respectable audience when those surprised by the results scrambled to find something that would explain these “dangerous” white people they just remembered existed. It became a phenomenon.

Hillbilly Elegy the movie is also coming out at a weird time. Released on Netflix this week on the heels of the – slim – defeat of Trump at the polls, politicians and thinktanks and cultural elites that disguise themselves as just simple working folk in tune with “the people” are trying to figure out what to do about his voters in regions like the midwest, the south, and the setting of the film, Appalachia. Mostly it’s a scramble among Democrats and Republicans to see who can get their votes and dollars without providing them any sort of significant material support.

That the book and film generated controversy on the left and political support on the right may seem confusing to some, given that it’s a personal story. It tells both the story of JD Vance’s difficult childhood with a mother addicted to opioids, a missing father, and a fiercely protective grandmother – told against a backdrop of widespread poverty, domestic violence and small-town despair – and the story of Vance’s triumphant rise out of that troubled region via honest hard work, military service and an Ivy League education.

And here comes the parade of folksy elites showing up not only to capitalize on the story of a family’s pain and the multi-generational inheritance of violence and addiction but also to make it politically useful. Here is millionaire, liberal Hollywood royalty and director of Hillbilly Elegy Ron Howard, pretending to be midwestern in a promotional interview for Netflix. (He was born in Oklahoma to two film professionals.) Here’s Californian Harvard grad Ben Shapiro shilling the film as an accurate depiction of maligned rural Trump voters as if he would know. It is as obvious and morally decrepit as the Missouri senator Josh Hawley railing against the spiritual emptiness of “coastal elites” and praising the good-natured simple flyover folk he represents, all while giving up all in-state residence to live a life among the elites in the DC area he pretends to be different from.

Watching Hillbilly Elegy, you would think at first it was a political advertisement for a socialist candidate. It shows, again and again, how the lack of health insurance, the broken healthcare system, the absence of social welfare programs, the inability of state programs to intervene in domestic violence, leaves this family vulnerable. Surely this is a call for healthcare for all, a robust addiction treatment system – instead of the expensive and ineffective one we have now – and community intervention programs to interrupt patterns of abuse. The scene where Mamaw has to divide one chicken breast provided by the Meals on Wheels charity between herself and her grandson is heartbreaking and also familiar. So is the scene where the son has to fight and waste time trying to find medical care for his relapsing mother.

But no, the American Enterprise Institute, where Vance is now employed, supports the current marketplace of health insurance and medical care and opposes universal health insurance. It is also against creating an effective social welfare safety net, declaring “work the best policy for poverty”. (Work where? At the same now-shut factories that caused the injuries that laid the foundation for an overwhelming addiction to painkillers?) The only institutions it wants to shore up are the ones that have failed us consistently, from the nuclear family to the Christian church.

The implication, then, and this is stated more explicitly in the book than in the film, is that the conditions are fine. If you are not flourishing, and that includes his own family members, it is because you are lazy or deficient in some other way. This is an obviously political useful story to tell, both for the Republicans who don’t want to provide better social welfare programs and for the Democrats who also don’t want to provide better social welfare programs but who also want to demonize a certain population as irredeemable gun-toting racists.

Vance attempts to make his personal experience collective. He uses “we” throughout the memoir to refer to Appalachians and the working class, and in the film “my people” is repeated throughout. At the same time, he tries valiantly to distance himself, to make it clear he is not like these others. Everyone around him is violent, prone to addiction, and lazy. He, by contrast, is a hard worker and sensitive. His ascent into Yale is all but given (which is why his entry into the military and college is skipped over in the story). All it takes is a little gumption, a little elbow grease, the usual bootstrap nonsense. He wants to associate himself where it is profitable – to establish authenticity and volunteer himself as a spokesperson – and contrast himself where politically useful.

Actually, this is the most understandable and sympathetic thing about Hillbilly Elegy and Vance’s story. For a large part of this nation, from the depopulating rural towns and decaying main streets to the old factory towns and mining communities, the best hope you have as someone coming of age is to “get out”. And in order to survive that experience of leaving your family and your home behind, with all of its traditions and eccentricities, it is made easier through the production of contempt.

But those of us who are forced to flee our origin point to survive intellectually, emotionally, physically or economically, don’t always have to do so because the people around us are “toxic” or racist or deficient. It is because there are large parts of our nation that have been abandoned by politicians, employers, religious and educational institutions and left vulnerable to the predacious capitalists and elites who talk for but not to us. Vance, then, is just filling a familiar role in our culture. Selling out your origins in a kind of white trash cosplay because you were lucky enough to get out.