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

“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.