Hillbilly Elegy – Stabilizing Influences Matter

I recently completed the best selling non-fiction book by J.D. Vance called “Hillbilly Elegy.” Briefly, Vance tells the story of his roots in the Kentucky hills and how his grandparents traversed with others into Ohio to work in various manufacturing jobs. While that migration helped a great deal, many were not successful or plateaued because of lack of opportunity, lack of money for a college education and lack of consistent support.

Vance eventually became an attorney graduating from Yale law school, but he was very much the exception. Why? He attests it is primarily due to three stabilizing influences in his life, the first and most important of which, was his grandmother. HIs mother was very unstable with continual drug problems and multiple husbands and boyfriends. When Vance and his sister tried to live with his mother, far more often than not, it was a chaotic and verbally abusive setting which caused his grades, attendance, and attitude to plummet.

He lived with his grandmother (and grandfather while he was alive) off and on and frequently visited when he did not. Vance says when he chose to live with his grandmother full-time when entering the 10th grade, he finally had the stabilizing influence and support he needed. He notes his grades and attitude improved, along with his desire and a safe place to study. Mind you, his grandmother was not perfect and cursed like a sailor, but she made sure he had good friends, encouraged him to get a part-time job and said he was capable of going to college.

The second influence he discovered when he decided he was not mentally ready to go to college after being accepted. He joined the Marines. Vance said clearly the Marines taught him how to be responsible and accountable. They also taught him how to be an adult by helping him set up a checking account, mentoring him to stay away from predatory loans and how to budget and save. His grandmother hated that he joined the Marines, but even she saw the difference it made in him. So, by the time he went to Ohio State University and later Yale Law school, he was more mature and ready to learn and do what it takes to study.

The third stabilizing influence was his wife, whom he met at law school. A key example is the influence she had on how he reacted to negative news or arguments. Throughout the book, he notes that hillbilly pride in family would cause him to defend his honor at the smallest sleight. His wife shared that he need not react to someone, even her, so severely to jerk her head off if there was a personal affront. She convinced him, even when she disagreed with him, she was still on his side. This supportive love and calming demeanor had an impact and made him a better person. He noted that family meals at his wife’s home were civil and interesting.

We all need stabilizing influences in our life, no matter where we are born. Yet, far too many Americans and citizens of other countries, do not have any or very few stabilizing influences. In America, where and to whom you are born matters more than it used to, in getting ahead. America has plummeted in global rankings in getting ahead. In my volunteer work with homeless working families, many of the children only have a mother to rely on. And, without a roof over their heads, the stability of a safe place to live, much less study, is compromised. By breaking the cycle of homelessness, a child has a better chance of avoiding homelessness as an adult.

Vance clearly states if he did not have the support and stability of his grandmother, he would not have ever gone to college and may have been a high school drop out. Two present and interested parents is far more the ideal, but with such a high divorce rate, with so many out-of-wedlock births, and with the temptations to drink or do drugs as an outlet when life gets tougher than you are prepared to deal with, that ideal may not be attainable for many. So, he argues that a childcare support system designed to serve kids in troubled situations needs to be flexible enough to confirm where those stabilizing influences are for that child. He had to fight to live with his grandmother rather than his mother and living with his father was not fruitful.

I encourage you to read this book which offers through example, what real and imperfect people are going through. It may challenge preconceived notions, which is always a good thing, in my view. It did mine.