Hillbilly Selfie: JD Vance’s Provocative Storytelling

Note: I started writing this post about 4 years ago when I first read Vance’s memoir. Since then I’ve listened to the author read the book on tape, and I’ve seen Ron Howard’s revisioning of the narrative on Netflix.

Below are 2 photographs of the same woman. She took them both of herself, but hundreds of miles apart and there is a year between them.

One image was to flirt with her husband when she was in West Virginia for weeks and he was at home in Vermont.

The other was an attempt to find herself in a lurking depression in her own kitchen where she spent most of her time alone for 4 years.

Her husband keeps the first one on his phone. She generally keeps the second one private, but looks at it often.

Which of these images can best help us know this woman? Can either tell us anything?

So began my inner monologue about J.D. Vance’s best-selling book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

One of the more fruitless debates going is whether or not someone’s memories and perceptions of his or her experience are “true.”

Did Mamaw fire a .38 Special at a family member, or was it some other type of handgun? Did she even fire it, or did she just point it at someone? Did the author see her with a gun in her hand frequently, or is the fact that he saw it at all so searing on his child’s mind that she might as well have been carrying all the time?

This not a particularly vital question in Hillbilly Elegy, but it represents the kind of detail that seems to plague some readers about this book, and about creative nonfiction in general.

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The primary reason I never finished this post was not wanting to deal with what those of us in the writing world refer to as the “they come for you when” phenomenon. I cherish being part of the Appalachian writers community, and it was immediately apparent that the community at-large was angry about Vance’s book. It was not possible to have an objective thought. The loyalty test was clear: to buy this book, to read it, to defend it in any way was a betrayal of your homeplace and your people.

It’s been years, and I’ve asked many times why this is, and I have yet to understand the depth of the anger, and what the real triggers are.

I know what people say the problems are, but I can’t get it to pencil out.

I don’t think this is “poverty porn.” PP asks nothing of you but to gawk and delight in images of human agony and distress. I think what bothers people more generally is the opposite is at play in Hillbilly Elegy. The narrative demands that you think about it.

Economic frailty is the backbone of this story, there is no doubt about that. And some critics of Elegy point to insufficient examination of the corporate and capitalist dynamics that have left some areas of the country bereft of the elements necessary for people to thrive. There is not a developed and recognized economic development strategy that is about sustainability and opportunity for people who want or need to make a home in the Appalachian region.

In large measure, Appalachia has been a colonial economy for extractive industry. My shorthand is read The Lorax. It’s not that simple in the big picture, but on some level it is that simple.

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One of Vance’s implicit points is that the region is where it is because people won’t stand up for something different. And the push back is that it’s not fair to ask abused people to push back. It’s not their fault.

And this is exactly what Vance is telling. And acknowledging. And as far as I can tell making as plain as day.

It’s not their fault.

But I think what he’s doing that goes unrecognized is that there comes a point at which, even when it’s not your fault, it is your responsibility.

My concern is some folks are unwilling to wrangle this. It absolutely without a shadow of a doubt sucks. And if you’ve read the memoir and seen the movie, you know there are no bones about it. The movie takes artistic liberties with some things — one is the turtle with a bloody cracked shell who just needs placed out of the road to heal. Another is the imagery of Vance’s mother reaching back to him from her position prone on a bed. She wants him to cling to her. She wants him to stay.

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I think there is a place for all of us in Elegy.

I don’t think it’s an all or nothing conversation, or at least it shouldn’t be.

They come for you when you say you’re grateful to J. D. Vance.

Let ’em come.

I’m not ungrateful.

WV Can’t Wait: This Ain’t No Foolin’ Around Redux

May 16, 2011, I wrote this in a blog post:

Life is short.  There are people out there who want to tell the stories of their youth as grand adventures in engaging serious problems with  their whole hearts. These are not the same people who want to tell stories of bar-hopping and overspending and trips to casinos.  These are people who are modern journalists and water quality scientists and child advocates.  They are health care specialists and teachers and professors.  They are small business entrepreneurs and artists and historians and contractors.  They are responsible natural resource leaders and sustainability experts.  

Hold that thought. I’ll get back to it, I promise. There’s a brief backstory.

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I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed a week ago yesterday, and up pops, “Mark Wolfe is live now.” I chuckle to myself thinking that man is nothing if not LIVE, and move along.

But every now and then I realize it’s still there. Mark Wolfe is still live now. I get suspicious. What’s this creative genius doing, anyway? (Yes, he designed my blog header and the masthead for Essays on Childhood, made art for the WV Land Trust and a revamped logo for the WV Alliance for Sustainable Families…..along with hundreds of other things. It’s good to know what Mark is doing at any given moment.)

I’m not 100% sure what is happening in this video, but then I see John Barrett. John is someone who has always impressed me with his sincere and affable demeanor, his quick mind, and his commitment to West Virginia. He was on the board of directors for the WV Land Trust when I worked for them. Just rock-solid, good governance, can-do, let’s-do-the-right-thing stuff flows from John.

Now I really have to know what’s going on, because whatever it is, my gut is telling me I want to be part of it.

And then there it was. It was the last thing I expected to hear.

I was being introduced through cyberspace to the next Governor of West Virginia.

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Stephen Smith (left), 38, who ran the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, announced he is running for governor as a Democrat in the 2020 elections. Photo accompanying Jake Zuckerman’s 11/28/2018 article the Charleston Gazette-Mail, “Community organizer launches 2020 gubernatorial bid as Democrat”

This can’t be real. But it is real.

And he’s not a coal baron. Or a lawyer. Or the 9th copy of the same family politician over generations.

He’s a dad. And a nonprofit executive. And a WV native. And a WV native who came back — to help.

He’s 38 years old. His relative youth is one of his greatest assets, and potentially also such for the state. When you’re 38 and running for elected office for the first time, you do not accept all the things the jaded Gollum-like creatures crawling out of their offices try to sell you. Extractive industry is not yet the precious.

I email with Stephen, we talk on the phone, and he’s real. He is a different brand — more informed by ideas of equality and partnership than most. He talked about his family, and his interest in building a movement that has legs to carry it apart from his candidacy.

He really listened to me, and he asked me questions about myself and clarifying questions about my ideas and observations.

He is not kidding when he talks about a movement that shifts power and resources from corporate outside interests and back into the hands of regular West Virginians. It will be very difficult, and as the effort progresses I am sure it will get a little bit scary. I’ve seen how established power brokers react to challenge. (Pro Tip: They are not nice about it.)

I’m excited about this, which has my attention because it’s been years upon years since I was excited about the potential to move the needle in West Virginia. I feel so strongly about this that I joined the campaign as a part of a leadership team making contacts with “ex-patriates” and trying to help make connections with friends in other states who might do the same where they are.

No matter how this goes, I believe supporting a candidate like this — the kind of candidate who rarely comes along — is a needle-moving opportunity in itself.

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I know what it’s like to believe and be disappointed, but this feels different. Maybe it’s different because I am different.  Two ideas about that:

  • It may feel different because, truly, West Virginia Can’t Wait. A lot of disillusioned people in my generation and beyond tried to build a life in WV and faced challenges we couldn’t overcome. And that is in fact on me; I decided the cost-benefit analysis didn’t work. That was my choice. But gosh darn it, it didn’t have to be that way. Life is challenging no matter where you are. I needed vocal people in leadership positions to care a lot more about the future for me and my family, and they were too few or too hard to find. It’s only gotten less friendly since I departed. I am astonished by the friends who have left, who are still in the process of leaving. It’s not a few. It was a core constituency of Create West Virginia at one time. The organization never wanted to go political, and I thought then and still think that was a mistake. I understand the concerns, but we are at a chance-against-a-certainty-stage now. We all have to take a risk. It’s true that a ragtag gang of believers in the knowledge economy were going to lose a street fight with extractive industry, but you don’t always fight to win the battle. Say it with me: You fight to win the war.
  • I’m over 15 years older than I was when I decided to move back to West Virginia. I was a few years younger than Stephen Smith is now. I had nothing but optimism and hope in my soul for helping my home state; at some point, I lost that hope. I was severely discouraged, and scared, and I left. The power structure in state government seemed stacked against my concerns. In hindsight I think I may have retreated to recover; for the first time in a long time, I am thinking about how to get back into this fight.

Right now, that looks like serving on a leadership team to communicate with WV “ex-pats”  living in Virginia about how we can help leverage the movement for change.

If I can pass this spark to you, well, I would be delighted. Give the movement a look-see. Then consider emailing the campaign about how you can help.

There’s a place for you in this.

No foolin’ around.