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.