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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Lots of websites and book review sites recommended Hillbilly Elegy during election season. All of them promised insight into the Trump voter, the anguish of working class whites, and the difficulties surrounding the culture of the poor whites in Appalachia. Reviews promising insight and enlightenment usually means that the book would be a boring slog, but the most surprising thing about this memoir of growing up in Kentucky and Ohio is how compellingly readable it is, despite the horrors inflicted upon J.D. Vance during his childhood.

Part of it is that we know that the book has a happy ending for Vance (he ends up graduating from Yale Law School after surviving a stint in the marines), if not for the Appalachian whites (and unfortunately, the country as a whole). But most of it is that the style is eminently readable, transparent, and neither sentimental nor full of self-pity. The childhood was astonishingly violent. He speaks of his grandparents as his social support when he was growing up, but the family history explains why their daughter (his mom) grew up to be a drug addict:
Mamaw told Papaw after a particularly violent night of drinking that if he ever came home drunk again, she’d kill him. A week later, he came home drunk again and fell asleep on the couch. Mamaw, never one to tell a lie, calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest. When Papaw burst into flames, their eleven-year-old daughter jumped into action to put out the fire and save his life. Miraculously, Papaw survived the episode with only mild burns. (Kindle loc 674)
Vance's mother rotated through a series of relationships, having children with different fathers, and then later (after she stopped) a series of boyfriends, none that she could keep for the long term. But the marital strife left their marks on Vance:
 Mom and Bob’s problems were my first introduction to marital conflict resolution. Here were the takeaways: Never speak at a reasonable volume when screaming will do; if the fight gets a little too intense, it’s okay to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t hit first; always express your feelings in a way that’s insulting and hurtful to your partner; if all else fails, take the kids and the dog to a local motel, and don’t tell your spouse where to find you—if he or she knows where the children are, he or she won’t worry as much, and your departure won’t be as effective. (Kinde Loc. 1043)
At one point, Vance's mom threatens to commit double-suicide by crashing the car she was driving. When Vance jumps to the backseat for his own safety, his mom stops the car to drag him out of the back seat to beat him. Escaping the car, he races to a house and begs the house owner to save him by not letting his mom in, but his mom breaks down the door of the house and is about to kill Vance when the police show up to arrest her. Reading accounts of incident like this over and over again would be horrifying, but Vance manages to intersperse these episodes with reminders of how his grandparents always stepped in to rescue him and his sister.  The bitter fighting when they were raising his mom had gone away and made them decent grandparents.

Vance's insights are compelling:
The New York Times recently reported that the most expensive schools are paradoxically cheaper for low-income students. Take, for example, a student whose parents earn thirty thousand per year—not a lot of money but not poverty level, either. That student would pay ten thousand for one of the less selective branch campuses of the University of Wisconsin but would pay six thousand at the school’s flagship Madison campus. At Harvard, the student would pay only about thirteen hundred despite tuition of over forty thousand. Of course, kids like me don’t know this. My buddy Nate, a lifelong friend and one of the smartest people I know, wanted to go to the University of Chicago as an undergraduate, but he didn’t apply because he knew he couldn’t afford it. It likely would have cost him considerably less than Ohio State, just as Yale cost considerably less for me than any other school. (Kindle Loc 2675)
I had similar epiphanies when I showed up at graduate school to discover that many of my cohorts had already had NSF fellowships, something that I didn't apply for because I'd never heard about it, despite having had close relationships with professors as an undergraduate. This type of knowledge is taken for granted by folks who grow up with educated parents (my children would likely never suffer from this type of disadvantage), but when many members of the privileged, when told of my experience would just disparage me as being "stupid" instead of understanding (as Vance writes) that there's a huge difference between lack of knowledge and social capital and lack of talent:
social capital is all around us. Those who tap into it and use it prosper. Those who don’t are running life’s race with a major handicap. This is a serious problem for kids like me. (Kindle Loc. 2965)
What rescues him is his mentoring relationship with Amy Chua (yes, the Tiger Mom), who in this book advises him not to take an aggressive clerkship with a judge known to destroy relationships and for him to prioritize his future wife instead. Clearly, she's a more interesting character in person than the one-note person in her memoir.

It's fashionable among Silicon Valley's "middle class" to note that environment matters less than genetics or raw talent. But that's only for relatively optimal environments: increase financial pressure and many relationships will break down. Throw in drugs, alcohol, and other social problems into the mix, and you end up with un-salvageable childhoods:
Even excessive shouting can damage a kid’s sense of security and contribute to mental health and behavioral issues down the road.... American working-class families experience a level of instability unseen elsewhere in the world. Consider, for instance, Mom’s revolving door of father figures. No other country experiences anything like this. In France, the percentage of children exposed to three or more maternal partners is 0.5 percent—about one in two hundred. The second highest share is 2.6 percent, in Sweden, or about one in forty. In the United States, the figure is a shocking 8.2 percent—about one in twelve—and the figure is even higher in the working class. The most depressing part is that relationship instability, like home chaos, is a vicious cycle. (Kindle loc 3045-3060)
In my early working life in Silicon Valley, I was once taken to a bar by a co-worker I barely knew. There, I met his friends, one of which introduced his girlfriend as being "a scientist." In later conversation, I asked her if she was a post-doc, a graduate student, a staff researcher, or professor. Her response was: "Wait a minute, you know what a post-doc is? Nobody in this crowd knows or even cares that I'm a post-doc at SRI!" Clearly, even in Silicon Valley, the social segregation keeps the different circles separate and unaware of each other.

In any case, this is a compellingly readable book with great insight and important reading for everyone. Highly recommended.

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