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.

Writing My Way Home: Silas, Swago, and The Farm Dogs

1950s, Swago Farm, Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Standing, Dennie and Hunter McClintic. Seated far right, Betty McClintic.

1950s, Swago Farm, Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Standing, Dennie and Hunter McClintic. Seated far right, Betty McClintic.

I have very specific memories of the first time I ever saw certain people. It’s an odd phenomenon in that I don’t know any reason when I first lay eyes on these folks why the memory instantly becomes fixed. In each case, however, such people become important to my life. My husband is one of these “fixed memory” people. I can still see him, opening a glass door and striding across a lobby with a scowl on his face.

Silas House is a fixed memory person for me, too, but it a different way. It was not Mr. House in the flesh, but his written words that fascinated me, became fixed. His environmental column in the New York Times, “My Polluted Kentucky Home,” reads like a creative nonfiction essay to me, more so than a national column of an environmental activist. And yet I can’t fully defend that perception. It is clearly an activist’s narrative. But it’s edgy, tight with a barely contained rage. When I read it, I can feel Mr. House holding it together as it tries to bolt out his control. The emotions and the realities behind “My Polluted Kentucky Home” are so muscled and dangerous, only a master of the written word could begin to manage it.

Silas House is such a master.

I referenced the column in 2011 as an inspiration for essayists writing about place. Going back to the column, I am reminded that every section is a gut-punch. Still, the paragraph that knocked me out 3 years ago remains the one that gets me now:

As a child I once stood on a cedar-pocked ridge with my father, looking down on a strip mine near the place that had been our family cemetery. My great-aunt’s grave had been “accidentally” buried under about 50 feet of unwanted topsoil and low-grade coal; “overburden,” the industry calls it. My father took a long, deep breath. I feel that I’ve been holding it ever since.

 

This physical experience of prolonged generational grief with no end in sight resonated in my heart. It took up residence there and made sense out of something, or at least started to make sense of something, that haunts me. I am a native West Virginian. My family has lived in Appalachia for generations, and I have struggled to find words for the experience of a rupture with the land that feels like a problem in my body. And it is exactly as Mr. House says it is. It’s a kind of inheritance. It was passed to me. And as in his narrative, it was not passed with intention so much as without choice. Some people call this Appalachian fatalism. I am still trying to understand what I will call it.

When someone puts words to your problem, he often shines a light on the way out. At the very least he allows you to see your problem in a new way. I wanted to know more about Silas House, and discovered his online literary publication, Still: The Journal. In this space, I found more expression of the more complex elements of Appalachia. I found images and words and ideas that reflected some of the layers that I know from growing up there. Much material on Appalachia traffics in stereotypes and simplicities. Still explicitly is not interested in stereotypes or cliches. It has a mission to illuminate what is real, and truly human, and intricate about this mysterious and hard place some of us call our native home. So I recommend Still to you without reservation, both for seeing something you may never have seen about this part of the world, and for some lovely art.

My essay, “Farm Dogs, recently received a Judge’s Choice honor in the Still 2014 Contest for Creative Nonfiction. A narrative with early drafts about literal farm dogs, this essay became something more human and more reflective of my own life’s unanswered questions. I remember sharing a draft in my MFA workshop, and someone saying, “This is great and all, but I still don’t understand why you went to this farm. Why did your family go there? What is this all really about?”

I was amazed to realize I had no answer. Back to the drawing board.

After interviewing my parents who are in their late seventies and mid-eighties, I discovered a huge hole in this story, one I’d never truly known about or understood. The interviews filled that hole, in part. Perhaps there are always spaces left open in our life stories.

And perhaps that is as it should be.

Thank you to my professors Eric Waggoner, Richard Schmitt, Carter Sickels, and Jessie van Eerden for your constructive feedback on Farm Dogs. Thank you to my MFA workshop colleagues Lara Lillibridge, Christine Roth, and Benjamin Bolger for reading and critiquing early wonky drafts of the essay. Thanks to Jeremy Jones for teaching a wonderful seminar on how to interview relatives about family history. Thanks to Karen McElmurrary for falling in love with “Farm Dogs” at first sight, even when it was just a wonky draft and full of holes. And thank you, mom and dad, for being brave enough to fill in the empty spaces in this narrative about a part of our lives. I love you.