Notes & Quotes: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

The following are my favorite quotes from J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.
  1. Too many young men immune to hard work. Good jobs impossible to fill for any length of time. And a young man with every reason to work—a wife-to-be to support and a baby on the way—carelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance. More troublingly, when it was all over, he thought something had been done to him. There is a lack of agency here—a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself. This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America.
  2. Class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism.
  3. At Mamaw Blanton’s, we’d eat scrambled eggs, ham, fried potatoes, and biscuits for breakfast; fried bologna sandwiches for lunch; and soup beans and cornbread for dinner.
  4. In 1960, of Ohio’s ten million residents, one million were born in Kentucky, West Virginia, or Tennessee.
  5. I couldn’t believe that mild-mannered Papaw, whom I adored as a child, was such a violent drunk. His behavior was due at least partly to Mamaw’s disposition. She was a violent nondrunk. And she channeled her frustrations into the most productive activity imaginable: covert war. When Papaw passed out on the couch, she’d cut his pants with scissors so they’d burst at the seam when he next sat down. Or she’d steal his wallet and hide it in the oven just to piss him off. When he came home from work and demanded fresh dinner, she’d carefully prepare a plate of fresh garbage. If he was in a fighting mood, she’d fight back. In short, she devoted herself to making his drunken life a living hell.
  6. 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.
  7. As jobs disappear in a given area, declining home values trap people in certain neighborhoods. Even if you’d like to move, you can’t, because the bottom has fallen out of the market—you now owe more than any buyer is willing to pay. The costs of moving are so high that many people stay put. Of course, the people trapped are usually those with the least money; those who can afford to leave do so.
  8. Mamaw and Papaw ensured that I knew the basic rules of fighting: You never start a fight; you always end the fight if someone else starts it; and even though you never start a fight, it’s maybe okay to start one if a man insults your family. This last rule was unspoken but clear.
  9. I remember sitting in that busy courtroom, with half a dozen other families all around, and thinking they looked just like us. The moms and dads and grandparents didn’t wear suits like the lawyers and judge. They wore sweatpants and stretchy pants and T-shirts. Their hair was a bit frizzy. And it was the first time I noticed “TV accents”—the neutral accent that so many news anchors had. The social workers and the judge and the lawyer all had TV accents. None of us did. The people who ran the courthouse were different from us. The people subjected to it were not.
  10. I told every person I could that I was headed to California in the summer and, what was more, flying for the first time. The main reaction was disbelief that my uncle had enough money to fly two people—neither of whom were his children—out to California. It is a testament to the class consciousness of my youth that my friends’ thoughts drifted first to the cost of an airplane flight.
  11. All of this talk about Christians who weren’t Christian enough, secularists indoctrinating our youth, art exhibits insulting our faith, and persecution by the elites made the world a scary and foreign place.
  12. I broached this issue with Mamaw, confessing that I was gay and I was worried that I would burn in hell. She said, “Don’t be a fucking idiot, how would you know that you’re gay?” I explained my thought process. Mamaw chuckled and seemed to consider how she might explain to a boy my age. Finally she asked, “J.D., do you want to suck dicks?” I was flabbergasted. Why would someone want to do that? She repeated herself, and I said, “Of course not!” “Then,” she said, “you’re not gay. And even if you did want to suck dicks, that would be okay. God would still love you.”
  13. Most of all I thought about Papaw and me. I thought about the hours we spent practicing increasingly complex math problems. He taught me that lack of knowledge and lack of intelligence were not the same. The former could be remedied with a little patience and a lot of hard work. And the latter? “Well, I guess you’re up shit creek without a paddle.”
  14. “The measure of a man is how he treats the women in his family.”
  15. When Mom came home a few months later, she brought a new vocabulary along with her. She regularly recited the Serenity Prayer, a staple of addiction circles in which the faithful ask God for the “serenity to accept the things [they] cannot change.” Drug addiction was a disease, and just as I wouldn’t judge a cancer patient for a tumor, so I shouldn’t judge a narcotics addict for her behavior. At thirteen, I found this patently absurd, and Mom and I often argued over whether her newfound wisdom was scientific truth or an excuse for people whose decisions destroyed a family. Oddly enough, it’s probably both: Research does reveal a genetic disposition to substance abuse, but those who believe their addiction is a disease show less of an inclination to resist it.
  16. The more harried a customer, the more they purchased precooked or frozen food, the more likely they were to be poor. And I knew they were poor because of the clothes they wore or because they purchased their food with food stamps.
  17. In her more compassionate moments, Mamaw asked if it made any sense that our society could afford aircraft carriers but not drug treatment facilities.
  18. I’d blame large businesses for closing up shop and moving overseas, and then I’d wonder if I might have done the same thing. I’d curse our government for not helping enough, and then I’d wonder if, in its attempts to help, it actually made the problem worse.
  19. During my junior year of high school, our neighbor Pattie called her landlord to report a leaky roof. The landlord arrived and found Pattie topless, stoned, and unconscious on her living room couch. Upstairs the bathtub was overflowing—hence, the leaking roof. Pattie had apparently drawn herself a bath, taken a few prescription painkillers, and passed out. The top floor of her home and many of her family’s possessions were ruined. This is the reality of our community. It’s about a naked druggie destroying what little of value exists in her life. It’s about children who lose their toys and clothes to a mother’s addiction.
  20. This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend that we’re upper-class. And when the dust clears—when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity—there’s nothing left over. Nothing for the kids’ college tuition, no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund if someone loses her job. We know we shouldn’t spend like this. Sometimes we beat ourselves up over it, but we do it anyway.
  21. Every time the drill instructor screamed at me and I stood proudly; every time I thought I’d fall behind during a run and kept up; every time I learned to do something I thought impossible, like climb the rope, I came a little closer to believing in myself. Psychologists call it “learned helplessness” when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life. From Middletown’s world of small expectations to the constant chaos of our home, life had taught me that I had no control. Mamaw and Papaw had saved me from succumbing entirely to that notion, and the Marine Corps broke new ground. If I had learned helplessness at home, the Marines were teaching learned willfulness.
  22. To laugh and joke with the people I loved most as they scarfed down the meal that I’d provided gave me a feeling of joy and accomplishment that words can’t possibly describe.
  23. I’ve seen far too many people awash in a genuine desire to change only to lose their mettle when they realized just how difficult change actually is.
  24. In the Marines, giving it your all was a way of life.
  25. There’s something powerful about realizing that you’ve undersold yourself—that somehow your mind confused lack of effort for inability.
  26. His status in life is directly attributable to the choices he’s made, and his life will improve only through better decisions. But for him to make better choices, he needs to live in an environment that forces him to ask tough questions about himself. There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.
  27. Social mobility isn’t just about money and economics, it’s about a lifestyle change. The wealthy and the powerful aren’t just wealthy and powerful; they follow a different set of norms and mores. When you go from working-class to professional-class, almost everything about your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst. At no time was this more obvious than the first (and last) time I took a Yale friend to Cracker Barrel. In my youth, it was the height of fine dining—my grandma’s and my favorite restaurant. With Yale friends, it was a greasy public health crisis.
  28. Nothing compares to the fear that you’re becoming the monster in your closet.
  29. 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.
  30. Ostensibly, the caseworkers were there to protect me, but it became very obvious, very early in the process, that they were obstacles to overcome. When I explained that I spent most of my time with my grandparents and that I’d like to continue with that arrangement, they replied that the courts would not necessarily sanction such an arrangement. In the eyes of the law, my grandmother was an untrained caretaker without a foster license. If things went poorly for my mother in the courts, I was as likely to find myself with a foster family as I was with Mamaw. The notion of being separated from everyone and everything I loved was terrifying. So I shut my mouth, told the social workers everything was fine, and hoped that I wouldn’t lose my family when the court hearing came.
  31. As Brian Campbell, another Middletown teacher, told me, “When you have a large base of Section 8 parents and kids supported by fewer middle-class taxpayers, it’s an upside-down triangle. There’re fewer emotional and financial resources when the only people in a neighborhood are low-income. You just can’t lump them together, because then you have a bigger pool of hopelessness.” On the other hand, he said, “put the lower-income kids with those who have a different lifestyle model, and the lower-income kids start to rise up.” Yet when Middletown recently tried to limit the number of Section 8 vouchers offered within certain neighborhoods, the federal government balked. Better, I suppose, to keep those kids cut off from the middle class.
  32. Wherever I fell on the American socioeconomic ladder as a child, others occupy much lower rungs: children who cannot depend on the generosity of grandparents for Christmas gifts; parents whose financial situations are so dire that they rely on criminal conduct—rather than payday loans—to put today’s hot toys under the tree.
  33. I assumed that rich people celebrated Christmas just like us, perhaps with fewer financial worries and even cooler presents. Yet I noticed after my cousin Bonnie was born that Christmastime at Aunt Wee’s house had a decidedly different flavor. Somehow my aunt and uncle’s children ended up with more pedestrian gifts than I had come to expect as a child. There was no obsession with meeting a two- or three-hundred-dollar threshold for each child, no worry that a kid would suffer in the absence of the newest electronic gadget. Usha often received books for Christmas. My cousin Bonnie, at the age of eleven, asked her parents to donate her Christmas gifts to Middletown’s needy. Shockingly, her parents obliged: They didn’t define their family’s Christmas holiday by the dollar value of gifts their daughter accumulated.
  34. Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us.
  35. I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.
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