Hillbilly Elegy!

Hillbilly Elegy!

ePhoto credit: Tony Powell

Hillbilly Elegy, now streaming online, is the autobiography of J.D. Vance who reflects on his family history and his own future.  A few years prior to its release, Hollywood on the Potomac attended a CPB event in his honor.  Below is the article that resulted from that interaction.

“Our goal is to serve the American people in ways that lead to a positive and achievable outcome – a strong civil society, healthy communities, civil discourse, freedom of the press and a commitment to lifelong learning beginning with our youngest citizens. The power of public media is that it is owned by the American people … all of them,” CEO of Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) Pat Harrison told an enthusiastic audience at a dinner honoring best-selling author J.D. Vance at The Marriott Marquis Hotel in downtown Washington. “We tell and listen to the stories of their lives and in sharing these diverse stories, we hope to build at least a thread of mutual respect and understanding – key elements of a strong civil society. So whether you call it content that counts or content that matters, it is what defines public from all other media, provided free of charge and commercial free.”

Pat Harrison and J.D. Vance

“Today our mission is more vital than ever. Although technology has the ability to connect us across oceans and borders, we seem to be more disconnected from one another, with the gap between race and education, economic class, agenda and geography getting wider,” Harrison added. “So how does public media, America’s storyteller address that gap? What stories are we choosing to tell? And as that story keeps changing, shaped by new voices, raising new challenges and societal problems, how do we respond? Our keynote speaker, J.D. Vance, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, will talk to us about our country today, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, upper class and working class, and how we might just be able to tip the scales in favor of those young people with little hope, living on the margins, if we work together.”

Vance’s book is currently in production with Ron Howard‘s company Image Entertainment that he shares with Brian Grazer.

Ron Howard Photo credit: Creative Commons

About J.D. Vance: In 2016 Vance wrote a compelling autobiography, a story about people in Appalachia who helped build this country – self-sufficient, hard working, patriotic. But it’s a demographic from our country that has been slowly disintegrating over 40 years, and along with their hope of ever attaining the American Dream. This book has now touched so many lives, and continues to inspire discussions and strong response, and it has certainly touched the national nerve. J.D. grew up in the Rust Belt, served four years in the Marines, including service in Iraq. He graduated from Ohio State and Yale Law School, followed by a successful business career. Hillbilly Elegy is more than a book; and once you read it, you can’t forget it. It is haunting and directly connected to public media’s education mission. J.D. has now moved back to Ohio and created a non-profit organization called Our Ohio Renewal to find real solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

Pat and J.D. sat down for a conversation that was compelling. “I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on cable news and on broadcast channels talking about politics and talking about the election and talking about many of the undercurrents that are going on in American society that touch upon my book,” said Vance. “And one of the things I’ve recognized is that it is incredibly hard to go on cable news and talk about real issues. It’s very hard to go on Fox News or CNN and talk about the opioid crisis or what might be done to solve it. But that’s not true when I go on public broadcast stations, whether they’re national or whether they’re local. There’s an appetite and a willingness to talk about difficult issues and to give them the time that they require on your stations and on your channels. That’s true across TV and radio. And so that, to me, is important”

Vance wrote the book as a learning curve for others that may end up in his situation which was basically complicated and confusing. “I think rather arrogantly that I had made it, that I had achieved some measure of the American Dream and of opportunity simply because I had found myself at this place that was frankly a gateway to many of the higher educational and work opportunities that exist in our society. But pretty soon after I landed in New Haven [at Yale], I recognized that the story that I was telling myself was a little bit more complicated like going to the first truly nice restaurant that I had ever been to. It was a restaurant called The Union Lee Café and it was for a law firm recruitment dinner……..the sort of place where you need to get in front of the partners and make sure that they think that you’re funny and humorous and a likable person. But for me as an outsider to this environment, I was so confused and in some ways put off by what was going on around me that I couldn’t really be myself except for the fact that being myself meant staring at the fineries of the restaurant or wondering where they came from and how much they cost. I remember before we sat down for dinner, a waitress came around and asked me whether we’d like some wine and finally mustered the courage to say, ‘Sure, I’ll take some wine. I’ll take some white wine.’ And then she said, ‘Would you like Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay?’ And I thought to myself at the time that she’s actually screwing with me and she was playing some joke on me. But I used my powers of deduction to recognize that she was talking about too separate types of white wine. And so I ordered the Chardonnay because that was the word I found easiest to pronounce.”

“These kind of events constantly repeated and replayed themselves. “It occurred to me as a person whose family had never been in a place like this, that if I felt so out of place. And indeed, when I dug into the research and tried to understand why is it that kids that grow up in circumstances like mine, why is it that they might feel so out of place at a higher educational institution? What I found was pretty troubling.”

“The first thing, and in some ways the most important statistical thing that I found, is that the American Dream as we often understand this idea that no matter where you come from, no matter who your parents were, no matter where you were born, you can climb that socioeconomic ladder and achieve some measure of economic opportunity for yourself. That story is a little bit more complicated than we often tell ourselves,” Vance explained. “That we know for example in the 1940s, a child born had over a 90 percent chance across demographic and geographic lines, over a 90 percent chance of earning more than their parents did. And in the 1980s, the generation born when I was born that number had dropped to about 50 percent. So in the course of a generation, we had this incidence, this drop in the number of children who were achieving upward mobility that was pretty striking. We went over the course of a generation from a country where almost every parent could look to the future and say with some optimism, ‘My children are going to be doing better than I did,’ to a country where only about half of parents could look to the future and say with optimism, ‘My children are going better than I did.’ And I think that fact, that recognition that the future is not necessarily a hopeful place because maybe it’s a pessimistic and a worrisome place explains so much about our politics and the frustrations of today.”

A lot of people are buying the book in order to to understand “that mystical Trump voter, that creature as exotic and foreign as a zoo animal.” “I talk about the fact that kids who come from circumstances like mine, even when they’re blessed with opportunity, they very often feel like class-traitors,” Vance explained. “They like they’re not meant to achieve because they don’t necessarily belong in a given environment. And often times they hear from their family back home that they’ve grown too big for their britches or they’re not part of the community that they came from simply because they’re doing a little bit better for themselves. That’s an important piece of this work. And of course it’s not just the people that they came from, the people who made them who they are that feel a little bit worried that they’re losing their families and they’re losing their children, it’s also the environments that they come in contact with that look down on them, that look down on the people that they came from, that see their friends and their families as rednecks, or whatever the case may be. That makes it a little bit harder for these kids to achieve.”

“I wondered and worried why it was that even though I found some measure of economic opportunity at a place like Yale, I still couldn’t quite … beat the demons of my youth. Part of the answer is that I had grown up in an environment where childhood trauma was relatively common. And so, when I read the research that I suggested if you had experienced four or more instances of adverse childhood experiences, you were much, much likelier to enter unstable or chaotic family relationships. Then I started to recognize a little bit, that may it wasn’t all my fault,” J.D. concluded. “Maybe the way that I had grown up, the ways of my family, the habits and attitudes developed in the community that I came from were influencing me in positive ways, yes, but also in negative ways. Negative ways that I had to deal with and that I had to over come. In other words, all these things are happening simultaneously. To really have the conversations necessary to figure out what’s going on in these communities and then to figure out how to help them, we need people like you to do the work that you’re doing. It’s incredibly valuable to have a forum where people can talk about the real issues that are affecting people, where they can go into the detail necessary to understand and diagnose and, additionally, fix serious problems. The last point is a little bit deeper and in some ways a little bit more important to me. I’m often asked by people, ‘How do we bridge this cultural divide? How do we get people who voted for Hillary Clinton to understand those who voted for Donald Trump and vice versa? How do we bridge the rural and urban divide that animates so much of our policy and political discourse?’ And I’m always a little bit disappointed in myself for the answer I give, even though I think that answer is right: There is no way to shortcut our way to a better cultural and policy conversation. It just isn’t easy.”

The above is just a fragment of J.D’s chat, but we don’t want to give it all away so buy the book here.