Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Hillbilly Elegy

 A while back, I watched the movie 'Hillbilly Elegy'. It was okay, and as I watched I thought, 'I know people like this.' I was happy to see the little boy grow into a successful man, overcoming many disadvantages to get there, with the help of his fiercely loving 'Mamaw'. 

The other day, I was looking at used books, and I saw that they had the book, and for $1.29, I bought 'Hillbilly Elegy'. 

I am dumbfounded by it. 

What the movie could never pull together was all the background, the things that explained 'how' and 'why'. Life in Kentucky seeps into life in Ohio, and we accept that without ever really understanding how or why that happened. 

 Yorkshire Pudding touched upon heredity in a recent blog post, and I must say that really, I was perhaps a bit more dismissive than I should have been. You see, I am quite different from my parents, and I've always been that way. I remember being a small child in the middle of a livingroom. I have no idea how old I was, but I was not yet in school, It was just my sister and I, so I was not yet four. My parents were fighting, and my father slugged my mother who sailed across the room and crashed into the television. She leapt to her feet and ran to the bedroom, slamming the door and crying loudly. 

And I remember sitting in the middle of the floor with my toy and thinking distinctly, "This is wrong." Where did that come from at such a young age? I couldn't tell you. I can tell you that it was the first time that I remember it.  It was not the last time. 

So the one thing that I know is that I think quite differently than my parents did. I paid a pretty heavy price for that in my relationship with them. Differences were not tolerated. There was right, and there was wrong. They were always right thinking. I was always wrong headed, That was their opinion anyway. 

I remember once, I was home from on leave from the Army, and I had arrived home in time for supper. My father began to rant about the Equal Rights Amendment. I said, "But Dad, all that is saying is that if a woman does the same job as a man, she should get paid the same. It's just fair." 

My dad looked at me in wide eyed rage. "You sound like a goddamn feminist!" 

And I said, "My God! You're just figuring that out? I'm wearing combat boots!" It struck me as so funny that I burst out laughing. 

My father was so outraged that he left the table. My mother was outraged that I would be so disrespectful of my father in his house. 

That's how it was. You could never disagree without being wrong and so we just were not close. 

So I am reading Hillbilly Elegy, and as I said, when I watched the movie, I thought, "I know people like that." Reading the book, however, is a whole 'nuther experience. I realize that I come from people like that. My husband comes from people like that. I see our siblings. I see him. Most humbling, I also see myself. 

I can change myself, but I will also always be a product of my upbringing as well. There will always be a deep seated stubbornness, a refusal to yield. There will be always be wariness. A strong streak of avoidance. A fierce pride and a knee jerk rejection of assistance These things are not necessarily bad, but they also not are not necessarily good, Sometimes they can be both. 

I am seeing myself in an unflattering way, 

This book packs a powerful punch (no pun intended). As I read on, I begin to understand our nation a bit better as well.

I know that Mrs. Moon read it, and I know that Sue just picked up a copy as well. What about the rest of  you? 


  1. I first heard about the book from a good friend, native Californian, who was quite taken with the story, telling me about it. As a native Ohioan, initially I wasn't too motivated in wanting to read the book because, I remembered there were some none too flattering assumptions some Ohio folks made about KY folks which I eventually learned weren't necessarily true. On the other hand, I told her, I thought I knew some people as portrayed in the book. I did finally read the book, then watched the movie partly 'cause I wanted to see how well they had told the book's story. Also, I had seen considerable positive promotion about Glenn Close in the role she was playing.

    As it turns out there are some Ohioans, as there are in every state I'm convinced, who can well-tell similar stories, as you describe, which does not diminish the impact of this book's story in any way. I think we all see whatever our young lives were like as just the way it is or was, probably true for everybody. At some point in our life we learn what we experienced in our young home life isn't always true for everybody and that can be an eye-opening experience.

  2. Such an interesting and yet quite (to me) distressing post Debby. I was a late child (my sister is 22 years older than me and my brother 11 years) - I never saw any violence in our household - my father was a real gentle man - and my mother rarely raised her voice. As I grew older I disagreed with much of their thinking, but I never said so to them.

  3. Quite a thought provoking post. In spite of domestic violence towards your mother, she still thought you were wrong and supported your father.

    I didn't realise until we last visited our island state Tasmania last year, just as COVID arrived, but the state has its own form of hillbillies and they are scary and ill educated interbred folk. Rape and incest were common.

    We can't change our upbringing and how it formed us, but we can change from what we might have been. NB, in spite of that, I am always right and I tolerate no dissent from my views. (I fear that won't be seen as irony)

  4. We may not have had hillbillies here but I come from a very working class background. Very little money but thankfully no domestic violence in our family, although my mother was a selfish narcissist who used her temper to subdue us verbally. I think that may have made me the timid adult I grew into. Like my Dad, I put up with anything for a quiet life!

  5. My opinions are strong too. I've always known that, Andrew, but I'd like to think that I tolerate other points of view. What happens though, is when someone says something counter to my opinion, I start asking questions and explaining why I think differently. What I usually find is that upsets people. They don't want to discuss their opinions. People probably think I'm rude, although I honestly don't mean to be. I'm just curious why. I'm always wondering how they came to that opinion.

    My dad ruled the roost. That's just how it was, and he had very strong views on a woman's place. He's been gone 20 years now. I didn't hate him or anything, but I had strong views too. I stayed clear for the most part. I remember thinking that my mom would be lost for a while, but I also thought that it would be nice for her to have some autonomy, a freedom to do what she wanted.

    A few months after my father died, we were sitting at her table. My brother burst into the door, threw the checkbook on the table and was bellowing about before she ever asked him for a favor again, she'd better be sure she was sending him off with checks in the check book. Except that it was a rage and it was vulgar, and the anger was not at all proportional to the situation.

    My mom sat there crying and apologizing, I sat there wondering, "Why is HIS name even on her checks now?" and I realized in that moment, that living with rage had become familiar to her. She actively sought out a replacement.

    I can also tell you that if my brother reads this, he will tell you that I'm a liar and deny that this ever happened. He will also tell you that my father was not abusive and that I had it coming.

  6. I put the book on hold in the library and will read it.

    Families are messed up, I've found, most families, not all. There are some kind families but I've seen few of them.

    My father never hit my mother but he was verbally and emotionally abusive. I never really stood up to him because he would take his anger out on mum. Of course when he died, I discovered mum was not as perfect as I had assumed, she just used manipulation to get what was wanted. It worked for them apparently.

    I don't miss my dad but I wish I could talk to him now, as an adult. After he died mum said I was favorite which shocked me because it sure didn't feel like that.

    I digress. Poverty destroys people and families, again, not always but often. Now I'm just rambling. Hope you have a good day.

  7. I’ve read the book but have not seen the movie. Like you, I was fascinated by the story. The author is now running for a U.S. Senate seat in Ohio and seems to have become a Trumper, even though he was previously critical of him. I am trying to not stand in judgment and say he’s selling out, but I find it curious. But again, his story is enthralling.

    I like to think God has had His hand on you, Debby, and allowed you to shake off the shackles of your upbringing. I appreciate that you listen to people. Believe it or not, there are folks with whom you might not see eye to eye who are willing to listen also. That, and kindness, are all I ask of anyone.

  8. When I was young in teaching there was a guy who did a "You are what you were when" presentation. The idea was that people from one generation tended to have certain mindsets. It's not the only way of looking at it, of course, but your post reminds me of that for some reason.

  9. Sounds like a great read. I will look for it.

  10. I'm wondering how such a book came to be on a table at a church Fete in a Small Suffolk UK village!

    I will get round to reading it even though it's not what I thought it was.

  11. Bob, I want to be clear...i was understanding why other people might think me rude or pushy. There are lots of people who are willing to talk and listen.

    1. Oh I understood completely. Unfortunately I find more people not willing to listen than to listen these days. It’s frustrating.

  12. I read it not long after Trump's election, because it was marketed as an insight into the experiences of Trump voters, and I was trying to figure out WHAT THE HELL just happened. I enjoyed the book, thought it was well-written, and I feel like I did gain some understanding of the desperation of some people in that part of the world. I think JD Vance has since been criticized for his "pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps" Republican mentality, and as Bob mentioned he's running for Congress now and I believe he's trying to ingratiate himself to pro-Trump voters.

  13. BTW, I loved your story about your discussion with your dad about the ERA. It's mystifying to me why anyone thought the ERA was a bad idea -- and it's fascinating that even your parents, having raised daughters, couldn't see the value in it.

  14. Hey Sis-in-arms!
    I've been reading your blog for some time now. I too was in the Army. I wonder if our paths ever crossed? We're probably about the same age.

    Although my dad was of the mindset "women belong in the kitchen" he was surprisingly proud of his combat-boots daughter. Yet years later, he still expected me to wait on him like a servant girl. That mentality runs deep.

    Love your blog..keep up the good work.
    Another Deborah

  15. I watched the film after your recommendation.

  16. I read the book by J.D. Vance long before I knew there was a movie and watched it. We always say that books are better than the movie and this is one that is a clear cut case. There is no comparison that the book is much better. I think I have most if not all of the books by J.D. Vance and I've tremendously enjoyed reading them all. What a fine writer he is. If you get a chance, check out the others.

  17. Deborah: Seoul. Ft drum NY. Tripler, ft belvoir. Basic at ft Leonard Wood ait at ft Sam Houston.

  18. It is the kind if book that I am sure I would relish but my pile of "books to read" is currently as tall as me. I think I would prefer to read it before watching the film version.

    Heredity has nothing to do with appreciating one's upbringing nor has it got anything to do with hating it or feeling somehow short-changed. Those who claim to have severed family links or built alternative lives are fooling themselves.

  19. I've not read the book nor seen the film, but I might see if the former is available through my library app. I'd wager most every US state has its version of a "hillbilly". I also believe most families have their dysfunctional moments. Probably just some more than others. We tried to raise our children to think for themselves and they've done just that. One is about as conservative as you can get, another is very, very liberal, and the third is somewhere in the middle. It can make for interesting conversations with lots of "button pushing" going on! ;)

  20. I have not read it or seen the movie but I think my better half would probably enjoy it. I will have to let Mrs. Shife know. I imagine there's a lot of people that I would recognize in the book as my mom's family is from Missouri. I didn't realize until I was a teenager that Missouri is pretty bad when it comes to being open minded and thinking differently especially in the rural areas. Have a good rest of your week.

  21. I've read it several times, before I saw the movie, and commented on it on my blog. I don't see myself in it, but I do see southern Ohio and Appalachia.

  22. I read the book when it first came out, and understood where it was coming from. I had a happy childhood, but my husband grew up watching his father beat his mother; he said what made him the maddest was when she would say, "Go ahead and hit me again, you S.O.B." She was promiscuous, and saw all that going on too. I don't know if she figured she was going to get beat anyhow, so she may as well do whatever she felt like. Or maybe that had nothing to do with it.

    One time when they were very small, he and his brother together were going to hit their dad with a broom and kill him. That did not turn out well for them or their mother.

  23. I remember once, my dad had gotten angry at the dinner table and he pulled my chair back and was yelling at me. Every time that I tried to speak he would slap my face. I've got a temper of my own, and I was not one for backing down. At some point, I had stood up to leave and he was blocking my way and yelling, and I was trying to talk, and he was slapping my face and this rage just filled me. I lashed out and I punched him in the stomach with all the force I had in me. He was shocked spitless. Everything stopped. He said to my mother, "She HIT me. Did you see that? She hit me!" I looked at him with all that rage and fury, and he looked back at me amazed. I

    I got the stuffing knocked out of me at that point, but it was a very satisfying feeling to hold my own, even for a moment, in a world that turned on one man's mood.

    After Tim and I married, we were driving along listening to an oldies song. Tom Petty was singing, "You can stand me up at the gates of hell and I won't back down."

    Tim laughed and said, "That's YOUR song there!"

  24. Smartest thing my father ever did was to marry a strong woman like my mother.

    But then, that was what he was modelled - marry a strong woman and respect the hell out of her.

    I saw many examples of what other families looked like, and am eternally grateful that, while he and I disagree on many things, he doesn't try to beat home his point and occasionally listen.

    There are pockets everywhere - just because you grown up in a certain state - or country - or region (even smack bang in a city).

    Sounds like a great read - will keep my eyes peeled. It isn't in our library.

  25. That is exactly what I am taking from the book. We tend to try to define 'hillbillies' as a population of people from a specific area. They are not.


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