The Lies in “Hillbilly Elegy”

By Peter Galuszka

A 2016 memoir by J.D. Vance, a former Ohio resident, drew praise from conservatives for its laud of self-reliance and disciple and criticism from others for its long string of debunked clichés about people from the Central Appalachians.

The book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” was held up as being a great explainer as to why so many in the White lower classes voted for Trump.

Vance exalts the strength of self-discipline, family values and hard work. He complains that when he worked as a store clerk he resented it when people on welfare had cell phones but Vance couldn’t afford one. He ended up going to Yale Law School.

Vance also spends a lot of time complaining about his dysfunctional family including a nasty grandmother, a mother constantly stoned on alcohol and opioids and lots of divorce – in other words the “social rot” of the hillbilly lifestyle he so disdains.

His tie to Appalachia is a bit thin. He grew up in a suburb of Cincinnati but spent summers in Jackson in the mountains of East Kentucky.

Now director and child actor Ron Howard has made a feel-good movie from the book that stars Glenn Close and Amy Adams. It is getting lousy reviews.

One thing it is doing is setting off a storm of chatter on social media from resident and former residents of Appalachia who actually know something about the place. As a former West Virginian and author of a book about coal’s impact in the area, including the notorious and formerly Richmond-based Massey Energy company, I am getting included in the messages.

I read Vance’s book in 2016 and was disappointed in his preachy righteousness that completely ignores how mountain folk have been abused by big corporate interests such as coal firms, timber companies and others. The region has very rich natural riches but they all got hauled away elsewhere, leaving dead miners, black lung, poor education and health care, mountains ruined by strip mining and poisoned waterways. We might as well toss in flood wrought by bad mining practices, such as the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster when dams at mine sludge ponds broke releasing a tidal wave of filthy water killing 125 people.

I started watching the movie on Netflix but I couldn’t get into it. In one scene, young Vance visiting Kentucky from Ohio is told to “watch out for cottonmouths.” There are no cottonmouths in the region as I know from hiking miles after mile of mountains in the area as a boy. Copperheads and rattlesnakes, sure. That’s when I turned the movie off.

In 2011, I started a two-year project writing a book about coal in the area. I spent months traversing the hollows trying to find families of the 29 miners killed in a blast at the Upper Big Branch mined owned by Massey in 2010. I was reintroduced to the profound kindness and courage of the hard-working people I spoke with.

I also helped with a documentary movie titled “Blood on the Mountain” produced by Mari-Lynn Evans who grew up in central West Virginia. She introduced me to a large network of people committed to the region. The film got good reviews and was shown on Netflix for two years.

As a result of those experiences, I am getting lots of Facebook and Twitter messages about what else to read or watch rather than Hillbilly Elegy.

Here’s a quote from vulture.com:

“The Hillbilly Elegy phenomenon is frustrating for many reasons. As a film, it’s irresponsible, even grotesque, and the memoir the movie is based on filters author J.D. Vance’s personal experiences through right-wing tropes about poverty and social collapse. Both the Netflix adaptation and the book are unnecessary; nobody needed to suddenly “understand” the Appalachian region or its problems, because Appalachian studies is a real field of scholarship.”

Alternatives include a book by Beth Macy of Roanoke that explores the opioid crisis. She correctly notes that much of the problem was pushed by pharmaceutical companies that made millions by showering the area with millions of pills of the highly-addictive pain killer.

Another alternative are the novels of Denise Giardina, an author from West Virginia. She was kind enough to write an introduction to the paperback version of my book, “Thunder on the Mountain, Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.”

As for Hillbilly Elegy, watch or read at your own risk.

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47 responses to “The Lies in “Hillbilly Elegy”

  1. I tend to gravitate to anything with Glenn Close, an acquaintance during college (my wife knew her better), but have been warned previously about the book and movie. I do hear that her scenes with Amy Adams have some spark. Just about everybody seeking to tell us all about what is wrong or right with Appalachia is carrying a bag full of stereotypes and hidden agendas. I have a long line of ancestors from the Virginia hills, and only one cousin remains, and she’s in Blacksburg. My soul does soar when I approach those ridges…

    • When I was a young kid, I participated in Appalachia Service Project. The residents of Appalachia are some of the most generous and gracious people alive. My family origins are Western PA & Eastern Kentucky and those individuals certainly do get branded with lots of stereotypes.

  2. “She correctly notes that much of the problem was pushed by pharmaceutical companies that made millions by showering the area with millions of pills of the highly-addictive pain killer.”

    I wasn’t aware that pharmaceutical companies wrote prescriptions. I thought a doctor had to do that.

    Long before painkillers, there was alcohol.

  3. Baconator with extra cheese

    I agree and somewhat disagree.
    I am from Appalachia and most of my family is still there.
    Some of the movie and book portrayals are somewhat a caricature of Appalachia and a bit extreme. But in reality my experinece is not far from those portrayals.
    As Matt says above… the people are warm, welcoming, honest, and amazing in aggregate… but like my own family, those portrayed in the movie do unfortunately exist in relatively large numbers…. but it is a shame that is how the country sees Appalchia. It is so so so much more than that.
    If there were jobs I would not have left.

  4. So why isn’t Herring addressing the impacts described by Peter and others on the Virginia residents of Appalachia?

  5. Idiocracy. Doctors were obviously complicit. But the drug companies push the docs to use their drugs and could have blown the whistle when they saw such enormous orders for OxyContin. The region does not have all that many people. Btw, Tufts Medical School, where my dad and uncle studied, dropped the Sackler Family name since Purdue Pharm was so guilty.

  6. So, Peter, your headline reads, “The Lies in Hillbilly Elegy.”

    Obviously, you put a different spin on the travails of Appalachian people than J.D. Vance and movie director Ron Howard, but please enumerate the “lies.”

    You are correct that there are no “coppermouths” in eastern Kentucky — just copperheads. That’s an error in the script writing (not the original book). What actual lies did you see in the five or ten minutes of the movie that you managed to get through?

  7. Jim. I can’t answer because I couldn’t stand to watch the rest of the movie. Here’ a deal you pay me. I will watch the rest of the movie.

  8. The seething contempt Vance has for poor whites is palpable, and is hilariously typical of Republicans who claim that it’s actually Democrats who hate white Americans across all class distinctions. Also typical is his choice to decamp from the Heartland to the godless, elitist Coastland at the earliest possible opportunity. For a bunch of Marxists, liberals sure know how to attract the wealthy to their cities.

    And West Virginia is just a ridiculously sad story – had the state had any forethought whatsoever about what was being taken out of the ground and who it rightly belonged to it would have captured at least some of that wealth and turned it into a public university system the likes of California or Texas or a check to its citizens like Alaska. Instead it just helped carpetbagging capitalists crush mineworkers underneath their bootheels and send all that generated wealth out of the state.

  9. Peter – you forgot “Deer Hunting with Jesus” by Joe Bageant. You wrote about the book in 2007 …

    https://www.baconsrebellion.com/archive/issues/07/11-26/Galuszka.php

    I bought the book and read it. I even sent Joe Bageant an e-mail and started a conversation with him. I was saddened to hear that he passed away from cancer at age 65.

    Great book, centered in Winchester Virginia.

  10. Ripper. Yes! Too bad he died not long after his book came out.

  11. Bacon. I tried to watch it but stopped at the scene when Vance is at a dinner to suck up to get hired by a white shoe law firm. He does not know what fork to use. He is smart enough to get into Yale. I shut it off. If you want, send me a payment by Venmo. Or, I will wait until cannabis is legal but that’s five years out.

    • The thing I loved most about the movie Fargo years ago was it’s hilarious set of stereotypes about Midwesterners. The accents, etc. After decades of seeing my Virginia ancestors trashed by the Enlightened Ones, it was so nice to see it done to somebody else…(well, New Yorkers and Valley Girls have had their turns.)

      • The accents were strained but not a stereotype. I went to Minneapolis back in the mid-70s for the first time. The two things that struck me was the accents and how pink and pale the white people were. It was early June, and I had peeled my nose off twice by then. I think I was racially indeterminate to them. People kept staring.

  12. One if my favorite movies is my cousin vinny. I lived in Brooklyn for four years and they do know how to take a joke.

  13. Great book – terrible movie.

    The book is an autobiography. Per the Washington Post: “Vance is the son of a mother who married five times and took to hard drugs. Whose father left the home by the time his son had started walking and gave him up for adoption when J.D. (for James David) was 6, to be raised by his mother, his maternal grandparents and a parade of stepfathers. (She’s clean now, and he’s back in Vance’s life.)”.

    Getting from there to Yale Law via the 4 years in the Marines and then Ohio State (at Ohio State two years and graduated summa cum laude) is pretty impressive, even in the circles you hang in, Peter. Pretty tough to call the book lies unless you were there with him.

    The book gained praise not only from conservatives. He became a CNN contributor and a regular on the New York Times editorial pages.

    Read the original and thoroughly positive New York Times book review at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/11/books/review-in-hillbilly-elegy-a-compassionate-analysis-of-the-poor-who-love-trump.html

    Read https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/hillbilly-elegy-made-jd-vance-the-voice-of-the-rust-belt-but-does-he-want-that-job/2017/02/06/fa6cd63c-e882-11e6-80c2-30e57e57e05d_story.html

    As for the movie, it was a huge disappointment. Ron Howard made the worst movie of his life.

    First the casting. Margo Martindale was the only actress on earth he should have considered for Mammaw. Glenn Close was slumming and failed to pull it off. Amy Adams, because she is Amy Adams, was given a far bigger role in the movie than Mr. Vance’s mother played in the book. It ripped the book from its foundations.

    Then the maddening and endless flashbacks. Thoroughly disconcerting and distracting.

    Finally the condescension of Mr. Howard to take a terrific book and make a movie instead of the book he wished Mr. Vance had written. Terrible work.

  14. Good points. But Yale and the marines do not make him a spokesman for appalachia.

  15. Baconator with extra cheese

    So is Orangeman-Bad the official spokesman for Appalachia since he won the vote in the region?
    I guess no one can write a memoir unless they pass the Appalachian-enough test?

  16. You got it Baconater

  17. Like all memoirs and autobiographies, it is best shelved in Fiction.

    “Kept close to the truth with just enough details to make it believable.”

  18. I read the book and watched all of the movie, even though there were times, as Peter suggests, when one would cringe at what seems like excessive pandering or exaggeration to make the story fit a mold.

    Still–it is one person’s story. As such, it is a compelling story. The movie did not, so far as I could tell, attempt to tell a story of Appalachia writ large. The charge that it misrepresents Appalachians as a group is off-base because it never claimed to do so.

    Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was about the Joad family of Oklahoma and their travails. It is a story, not a social science academic dissertation. Same for Hillbilly Elegy. And I thought Glenn Close did a fabulous job in her role, not as depicting all Appalachian grandmothers–who could possibly do that–but simply as someone who wants a second chance at raising an offspring.

    The criticism that the author takes a shallow view of social relations, and ignores the larger forces (drug companies, coal companies) that create an environment ripe for social distress, is a valid observation. If only we all understood our family relations within a wider and more inclusive lens.

    • I agree with Jon’s assessment of the movie. There was zero sermonizing about socioeconomic issues. Ron Howard the director focused on the personal story, and that story was compelling. If there was a subliminal message that grit and determination and support from one’s family can help one get ahead in life… is that so friggin’ awful?

      Should we instead embrace the view that we’re all the hapless pawns of the force of history? Where the hell does that get us?

  19. Count me as among the eye-rollers regarding this book/movie. I bounced back and forth between divorced parents in Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania mountains. Nothing in Ohio even comes close to real hillbillies. Lots of people lump the Rust Belt with Coal Country, but they are fairly different other than a shared love of American football, American flags, American beer, and American cars. My dad was a coal miner, then an auto mechanic, then went AWOL and was found dead in an abandoned trailer in the mountains of an opiod overdose about 10 years ago. I can tell you exactly why these folks voted for Trump, if they vote at all. It’s a big middle finger to everyone else. That’s it. Nothing to pontificate about. There is so much resentment and bitterness built up over the decades. These communities feel abused, exploited, and forgotten by industry, the elite, and politics. They just don’t care anymore. That’s why suicide and drug OD rates are so high in these areas. Those of us who “escaped” still carry it within us, but we’re trying to make changes in a more productive manner. At its core, the exploitation of these folks and the breakdown of community and family is at the root of the problems. Increasing social disdain for religion is also part of it (I’m agnostic myself). Anyway, there’s my rant to end a hellish year.

    • Baconator with extra cheese

      Hemcomm is right about the area and Trump… drive from Hershey through the middle of the state to Pittsburgh…. you will marvel at the amount of Confederate flags… again they are symbolic of that middle finger.

    • So very, very true. I grew up in Northwestern PA, in a once vibrant town that is now just rot. They no longer care what politicians say, when the local factories closed down and it wasn’t election season they weren’t there anymore.

  20. Hemcom,
    Thanks for your comment. I am sorry about your father. Peter

  21. “But Yale and the marines do not make him a spokesman for appalachia.”

    . . . yes, but it does make you more likely to get published and read.

  22. Not sure I buy that. I know people from Yale who had trouble getting published.

  23. Warren Howell Books. Who are you anyway? Do you own an Indie Bookstore? Where? Have ever dealt with book publishing?

    • “Warren Howell Books. Who are you anyway? Do you own an Indie Bookstore? Where? Have ever dealt with book publishing?”

      I did not know I had to leave a resume in order to make a comment . . .

      Your proposition then is that someone working at, say, a Dollar General in a holler in Eastern Kentucky is on the same playing field as someone whose cv is Marines/Ohio State magna cum laude/ Yale Law /venture capital, vis a vis getting their foot in the door at a publisher??

  24. Bacon. Ron Howard is taking a marginal personal story to make a huge right wing statement. Up from the bootstraps! Forget your background and the forces that made it that way. You really get into this without having lived there. Roanoke doesn’t count

  25. Nice work if you can get it.

    But you’d be better off reading Fischer’s “Albion’s Seed” (Oxford, 1991) followed up with Jim Goad’s “The Redneck Manifesto” (Simon and Shuster, 1997). Maybe even Webb’s “Born Fighting” (Broadway Books, 2004).

  26. The best book about the area I ever read was “Nught Comes to the Cumberlands” by Harry Caudill.

    • Not the Foxfire series? Ya want to get to know a people, eat their food.

      Is that “naught” or “night”? Either works.

    • As someone who lived in Eastern Kentucky and worked there for 6+ years (including in Jackson when little JD was spending summers with Mamaw), I will thoroughly second Peter’s endorsement of Harry Caudill’s great book.

  27. Someone is just chuffed that a movie got made that doesn’t follow the paradigm . . .
    “You’re poor? The evil big corporation did it to you.
    You’re addicted? The evil big corporation did to you.
    You have no agency.
    You are just a pawn of something bigger, say ‘Big Coal’ and ‘Big Pharma’ “

  28. Vance’s book is an autobiographical tale, not a researched biography.

    As such, one would not expect to find much about “how mountain folk have been abused by big corporate interests such as coal firms, timber companies and others.” Historical and/or sociological context is generally fodder for biographers who wish to paint a bigger picture.

    Would the book have been better if it had more historical information about the region(s) in which Vance came of age? Yes. But it also would have been less focused and packed less of an emotional punch — the latter of which I believe was the author’s intent.

    ***

    All of which leads me to my next point.

    I find it sadly telling that critics of this book are ignoring that the author was the victim of child abuse. This is reflective of our how our culture invalidates the stories of abused kids — especially poor ones and especially boys. People are uncomfortable confronting this issue and so they find other things to talk about: “OMG! He didn’t mention the great flood! Never mind that his mother was chasing him and threatening to kill him!”

    Unless we confront the ugliness of humans, we don’t be able to change the uglier facets of human nature. That’s what *most* of the focus of the book was about. It wasn’t so much about “Why did the corporations screw me?” as it was about “Mom, why didn’t you love me?”

    Failure to see this is willful blindness and reflects more on the reviewers than the author.

    • “Unless we confront the ugliness of humans, we don’t be able to change the uglier facets of human nature. That’s what *most* of the focus of the book was about. It wasn’t so much about “Why did the corporations screw me?” as it was about “Mom, why didn’t you love me?”

      This is a profound statement. The fall of humankind. It’s the great truth of the human story. It’s our default position, as our history so painfully and chronically proves over and over again. Until we regain this wisdom we are blind to our own reality, and arrogant, full of hubris, as gods.

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